In theory we have the ingredients here for what should be a solid episode. The plot concerns what looks, to modern eyes, very much like an anthrax scare. Okay, so the idea of a very concentrated cold virus, even combined with some slow-mo death sneezing, may underwhelm in the plausibility stakes but the idea of biological weapons being deployed through the post looks frighteningly prescient. In addition, the photography and music is excellent.
It’s not just Mother’s presence which drags this one down (though what the **** were they thinking with the design here – reviving the stepladders from the clever The Forget-Me-Knot set but divesting them of any purpose or function). It’s Tara’s passivity – not just in being captured (and recaptured, and re-recaptured) but even before that she only seems to act when prompted. And this is a problem, too, for the character that is so central to the show: Steed.
The problem for Steed reflects both these issues. Firstly, there’s the hierarchy above him (Mother and, in this episode, Grandmonther) and in particular the deference and respect Steed shows to Mother. Yes, he always used to have bosses, but he didn’t necessarily like them! He was more of a maverick, and independent operator, given licence because he was good at what he did, but not a figure of the establishment that he has become – respected and revered within the espionage community like some elder. In short, he used to be dangerous. Yes, he said he was a ‘sort of civil servant’ but when we first met him he lived in the shadows where the government couldn’t protect him if it wanted to, and Steed lived of his wits and cunning, not an extensive and reverential bureaucracy.
Secondly, there’s the fact that he has become a manager and a ward. Tara is clearly his junior in this episode. She waits for instruction, fails to take the initiative. Then, when she is taken, he becomes consumed with worry for her. He would not have worried about Mrs Peel or Mrs Gale in the same situation, he would have trusted them to get out of it themselves. In the event he ever does become concerned (eg. in Murdersville) it’s because he’s had a clear indication that he’s needed, and then he acts immediately and instinctively. More generally it diminishes Steed that his partner is so useless he has to look after her. Emma and Cathy had their own particular areas of skill and expertise that complemented Steed – in short, a genuine partnership. Moreover, Steed’s ‘traditional’ demeanour was in contrast to their obvious modernity (reflected in their apartments and vehicles) whereas with Tara in a more traditionally subservient role, it has morphed into stuffiness.
In short, they’ve made Steed boring.
A couple of other notes: there’s an audio cue in here from the early Mrs P. episodes, around the time of The Grave-Diggers. And we get Steed’s address (3 Stable Mews) reconfirmed when we see an envelope he is to be sent. And also, Steed uses his steel crowned hat (as seen in Town of No Return) in this one.