And so we bid farewell to Mrs Peel. There’s always a danger that everyone will hate the episode in which a well-loved character is written out, so I want to be clear that this is not the reason I dislike this episode. Not even one of the reasons (I have several).
But it should be noted that this is the first time this has been done in The Avengers. Dr Keel, Dr King and Venus Smith got not farewell. Cathy Gale got a farewell scene of sorts, but it wasn’t especially explicit. More to the point, only Dr Keel had an introductory episode – and although this episode plays on Emma’s departure, it’s only really in the tag scene where her leaving is central to the narrative – whereas this is the story of how Steed meets Tara King, the newest (and last original) Avenger. The reason for this is possibly connected to the increasing complexity of production, for though this is episode 1 of series 6 for us Brits, this is mid-season for the US audience, who got the last block of 8 episodes of our series 5 together with the the first batch of our series 6. So to have one Avenger abruptly replaced by another, as happened at the start of series 2 & 4, might be seen as unacceptable.
My first reason for disliking this one is that story itself is centred around another of these improbable high-concept sci-fi conceits – instant amnesia darts. In narrative terms, the effect is the rather repetitive and boring experience of each major character doing the “who am I?” thing in turn (and unlike with being miniaturised or body-swapped, because we’re mid-changeover it has to happen thrice). That’s not to say amnesia can’t be used as an interesting ploy to explore identiy (eg. the Bourne films) but it’s certainly not that here. Instead it’s woven into a rather half-hearted ‘traitor in the organisation’ plot that looks feeble compared to The Nutshell or even The Sell Out. My second reason is also story based – Steed’s new boss is Mother: “Yes mother.” It’s like Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth. “Mother’s orders. Mother knows best.” It’s a weak joke, but though it is no more egregious than, say, the flower network, it unfortunately played rather well in the US leading to the character’s reintroduction as a regular in episodes that were produced later (though for the UK auduience, not necessarily aired later in the UK) in this series.
My third reason for disliking this one is… well, there’s no getting round this, Tara King. This isn’t down to Linda Thorsen, who does a fine job. It’s primarily Tara’s status (and consequently the way she is characterised) and the fact that at this point the show junked its original premiss, originally established in Hot Snow, that it is about a seasoned professional and a talented amateur. Tara is a professional, and her status is as a junior to Steed (she’s fresh out of training, and a bit wet behind the ears). She’s studied Steed, she’s awestruck by him. “You’ve rather a reputation. You’re the star pupil. The head boy.” Inevitably, she has fallen in love with him before she’s even met him. This is no longer a partnership of equals. Worse, in a phone call after Emma leaves, Steed contacts Mother: “I’ll be needing a replacement. As soon as possible. You know my taste. I’ll trust your judgement.”. Eugh. It not only devalues Tara, but Mrs Peel and even Cathy and Venus too.
In normal circumstances, that would be the worst thing about the episode, but this is a special story and there’s more to come. Mrs Peel leaves because her husband, a pilot, has been found alive. Of course Emma will be reunited with him. Oddly, he picks her up from Steed’s flat, and as Steed watches her depart from his window, he does a lot of gurning that I struggled to understand the first time I saw this. Turns out, it’s because Peter Peel dresses exactly like Steed.
This episode is fondly regarded by so many because of the farewell, the kiss, and the ‘beware of diabolical masterminds’ speech; and yes, that is beautiful. But let’s just get clear what else that tag scene is telling us about Mrs Peel. Firstly: since her husband is alive, she can no fight crime with her best friend? Unlike, say, John Watson, who carried on working with Holmes after his marriage (less frequently, it’s true, but a continuation all the same) Mrs Peel has to – what – stay at home with Peter? Play the full time wife? And we’re also being told that the reason that Mrs Peel was friends with Steed was not because of any genuine affection between them, but because he dressed in a way that reminded her of her husband?
Okay, having vented at some length, let me turn to some of the things I did actually like.
Firstly, most notably, the visuals have taken a sudden a dramatic leap upward in quality (although the swinging light fittings are distinctly OTT in the opening sequence). The photography is suddenly much more imaginative, Peter Hammond-ish. The design is intriguing. Mother’s office is surreally decorated, with step ladders acting as drinks cabinets, but and handles to grab on the ceiling, but it’s functional too, allowing the wheel-chair bound Mother to move around upright.
I also like Tara’s apartment – except her curtains, which are terrible.
There’s a new set of credits. We don’t see and hear it at the beginning, where the titles feature Diana Rigg and are much the same as the series 5 titles (except the Clemens/Fennel credit comes where the Wintle credit used to be – also there’ are ‘Teleplay by’ and ‘Directed by’ credits at the start, after the title is displayed). But at the end, it’s Macnee and Thorsen with a cross-hairs themed (and rather orange) version of the closing titles. We also get an updated version of The Shake with a slightly more insistent (and heavy-handed) rhythm section, new syncopations, and Tara’s theme – and absolutely thrilling, trilling, trumpet line that plays as the first phrase repeats. I love the original, but I love this too. The Tara theme is used for her every scene here – Johnson’s amnesia theme is tiresome, but the Tara theme is wonderful.
Steed’s address: We see Steed’s front door (he’s at no 3, and later, after forgetting, he’s told “You live a 3 stable mews”). Mrs Peel is an anthropologist: “What’s that ology you’re interested in?” “Anthro?” But it was Cathy Gale who was the anthropologist – I don’t think Mrs Peel’s interest in anthropology (unlike electronic engineering, chemistry, automation, sculpture, etc. etc.) has been mentioned… Also Steed has a steel hat again (as in The Town of No Return).
Oh, and I think, out of the 51 episodes in which she appears, this is the first time Steed calls her Emma. And one thing we can all agree on is his sentiment: “Emma. Thanks.”