Should this feel like a guilty pleasure? There are several reasons to regard the episode, as I did on first viewing, as a dud. Primarily there’s the fact that Tara is clearly killed at the end of the second act (explaining that away feels most unsatisfactory). Then there’s the central plot point, sound travelling along light, which while it is excellent and prescient in conceiving of a form of listening device, ludicrously over-eggs the idea by suggesting transmission of audio could be possible. Not only is Mother in this one, but in the most contrived setting so far (floating on a swimming pool), we get another irritating incompetent agent (a plague whose origins lie in Room Without A View) and worst of all Steed is inexcusably, overtly, condescendingly sexist towards Tara. When Mother proposes putting her in to replace him on an assignment he objects “but she’s…female” and, as if recognising the need to justify this, he keeps digging. “She’s vulnerable.” Is this really the same Steed who worked with (used, even) Cathy Gale and Emma Peel? “It’s just a game for her… You know what I say is logical.” Oh Steed, Steed. What the hell happened?
So what is there to actually like in the episode?
Well, for one thing, there’s the photography. The listening device requires reflective surfaces, which provides the perfect justification from shooting through every reflective surface available. And for another thing, there’s the locations – they’re stunning. True, they don’t match up (the plot requires the base, the woods, and chalk cliffs to be in sight of the lighthouse, which is perched on Lower Devonian schist – not the first lighthouse-related geological goof of ’68, the Prisoner got there first…) but there is such a powerful sense of place and Star Point just looks stunning. Since it’s got a nice season 4 style feel to the plot, it makes me wonder if this is what an episode such as A Surfeit of H20 might have looked something like had it been in colour. The score is excellent too.
But mostly what this makes this episode so wonderful is Tara and Linda Thorsen. This is the first Tara King solo story. I’ve gone on record as not only not being a Tara King fan, but lamenting what the position she has been given does to the dynamic of the show, and how it diminishes both her role and Steed’s. To repair that, Tara is allowed to step out of that relationship and operate on her own terms. Early on she’s given an absolutely excellent fight scene – the best she’s ever had – which sets the tone for her unstoppable one-woman crime-fighting tour de force through the rest of the episode.
In response to being written so much better, Linda Thorsen appears to undergo a complete physical transformation. Suddenly she moves with a confident agility. Perhaps it’s because she’s finally been given a decent costume? Or because this was the first episode produced where she was allowed to wear her own hair? Who knows – whatever it is, in stepping out of Steed’s shadow, Tara has become a different woman and Thorsen rises to it magnificently.
And in response to Steed’s appalling sexism, Tara solves the case and disposes of the baddies entirely without his help. And then to cap it, she teases him as he speeds to her ‘rescue’ transmitting her voice to his windscreen. “Table for one – and an etherial voice.” And their supper, in a meadow of buttercups, is a beautiful, beautiful tag scene.
A couple of notes: This is Edwin Richfield’s last Avengers (after Girl on the Trapeze, The Removal Men, The White Elephant, Too Many Christmas Trees, Dead Man’s Treasure) The director, Ray Austin, was previously a stunt arranger on the show.