THOUGHTS ON TARA
I think it is safe to state that Tara King and Linda Thorson were doomed from the beginning. Emma Peel is generally regarded as the best of Steed's partners and Diana Rigg as Patrick Macnee's finest leading lady. Mrs. Peel evolved as this ultimate female that women could admire. And, as played by Dame Diana, she was a sophisticated fantasy figure who was both appealing and non-threatening to men. Then and still today her character had an enormous impact on pop culture. It is understandable, then, how the viewers, particularly those in the United States, would react so negatively to Tara.
However, it can be argued the character of Tara and the actress playing her had great potential. The problem was one of development. It wasn't simply that Tara seemed as times more helpless and unintelligent; rather, the part was written in an inconsistent and, at times, contradictory manner for most of her tenure. If one were to study the episodes in order of production, it is clear that the people behind the camera (the writers, directors, producers, etc.) did not have a firm grasp on her nature.
Thorson, in retrospect, is the least to blame. It is generally agreed what she lacked was experience. She failed to achieve a comparable degree of chemistry and interaction with Patrick Macnee, as Diana Rigg had, but Macnee himself, in Starlog magazine (Dec. 1981), attributed this to her lack of seasoning. He asserted he and Rigg often wrote their own dialogue. He went to on to say that Thorson's skills, at that time in her career, were not developed enough to create the same level of witty interplay for which Steed and Mrs. Peel were renown. Brian Clemens apparently felt this as well, and stated that it was one of the motivations for the creation of Mother.
Still, in time she was better able to tackle the role with conviction. Even comparing "Invasion of the Earthmen" to "Look - (stop me if you've heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers..." we see a major leap in performance quality in a short span of time. It is also evident that Thorson's growth in the role is partly reflected in the writing of Tara's persona. By the end of the series, Thorson's confidence had grown enough that the apprentice ingénue first introduced had been abandoned for a stronger and fiercer character. Compare Steed's reference to her in "All Done with Mirrors" and "Who Was That Man I Saw You With?" In the former he regards her as a reckless young woman who treats their business like a game. In the latter he speaks of her as a proficient partner.
The character of Tara King unfortunately comes across as much weaker and less capable than Emma Peel or Cathy Gale. Yet whatever deficiencies one feels she had, the basic format for Tara made a great deal of sense. No matter how intelligent, learned, talented and formidable Mrs. Gale and Mrs. Peel were, they were not official agents. Whether intentional or not, there is an inherent degree of sexism in the notion that Steed must go outside of his agency amongst amateurs to find a worthy enough female partner. It was logical that he finally has a partner who is officially part of the business.
Changing Tara's status early on from another recruit to a professional spy allowed for a very different type of character who, if better handled, could have added an enlightened dimension to the show. As noted above, the show, under the Clemens and Fennell regime, created Mrs. Peel as an ultimate woman and an extreme extension of her predecessor. Having her replacement cast in the same mold would run the risk of having the new woman labeled as a weak carbon copy. Tara being a trained agent adds an important element in terms of gender roles. As a professional spy, she would not be expected or needed to be an expert in anthropology, physics, medicine, chemistry etc. Espionage would be her main specialty. After all, is Steed or any of his other colleagues masters of these areas?
Had her character been better written and actualized, the show could have made a very strong statement that a woman doesn't need to be, to paraphrase Georgie Price-Jones, "Madame Curie and half a dozen other women rolled into one" to excel in this job. Not until the New Avengers would this subtext (that a woman need not be an uber female in order to compete in this field) be better realized. Clearly, Tara was the forerunner for Purdey; she had much more in common with Tara than Emma or Cathy. Both were professionally trained agents possessed of a very feminine allure. Both were more emotional and open with their partners. Both their respective wardrobes were of a "frillier" nature. And while Purdey was an intelligent, capable and superlative agent, she could hardly be alleged to have had similar intellectual specialties as those of Mrs. Peel or Mrs. Gale.
This is not to say that Tara didn't have her strengths. While not a scientist, there were times where she was very resourceful and intelligent—the best example being the final block of "Wish You Were Here," where she turned the tables on her opponents solely through cunning. In addition, episodes such as "You'll Catch Your Death," "The Rotters" and "Take Me To Your Leader" showed her cleverly using her wits to escape dangerous situations. Despite the impression that she often needed to be rescued, Tara was in fact a formidable combatant, often battling two or more assailants at a time. Shows like "All Done with Mirrors," "My Wildest Dream" and even "The Morning After" argue against the idea she was an inferior fighter. And while Linda Thorson may not have moved with quite the same grace or elegance as Diana Rigg, was much more physical and athletic in her style. This suited and enhanced the more brutal and brawling nature of Tara's fights. Furthermore, there were even some moments where she displayed wit. In "Look - (stop me..." there was good interplay and humor with Steed during the final scene where they unmasked the villain.
The problem was these traits were not presented consistently during the season. For every moment of cunning resourcefulness, there was one of doe-eyed denseness or sheer stupidity, particularly in the early shows. Although there were many examples of Tara being every bit as dangerous in a fight as Mrs. Peel, there were many that demonstrated the opposite. It is particularly frustrating when these contradictions happen in the same episode or, worse, within the same scene. "All Done with Mirrors" exemplifies this perfectly: in the beginning of her fight with the henchman, Gozzo, she panics and is running for her life in fear—then suddenly she turns into a ferocious wildcat, and the audience gets one of the most intense fights of the series. And in both "The Rotters" and "You'll Catch Your Death," she brilliantly escapes only to be recaptured minutes later.
Why the inconsistency? One reason certainly seems to be that the general edict of writing Tara as the novice prevailed for some time. Then there was her relationship with Steed, which was far more blatant and, at a certain point, annoyingly fawning. Even after these aspects were downplayed, there seemed to remain a policy that she had to be regularly captured, put in danger and rescued by Steed. It seemed, at times, Tara had to be portrayed as dense or slow not only to fulfill this criteria, but because it was necessary if the story was to work or fill the allotted time. A prime example is "Pandora." During most of the episode Tara was in a drugged stupor. Barring a couple of brief moments, she was essentially passive and even gullible throughout the story. Drugging her was necessary to the villains' plan, but keeping her passive was required to fill the timeslot. Any sustained proactive or dynamic action on her part would have ended the show almost immediately. And so we got a heroine who was in a daze and foolishly allowed herself to be drugged again and again.
Who was ultimately responsible for this? How much of this was due to the Americans and how much to the British? After more than 30 years, a lot of ambiguity remains. It is difficult to assign blame to any individual source, and likely several were accountable. It is natural to assume that the US backers had some influence with the direction of the character, but the extent has really never been fully defined. Part of it would depend on their investment. How much money was actually provided by the US? Was it an empirically large for the time or significantly larger than for any other major program? The only fault that can be accounted to them for certain was scheduling the show against Laugh-In.
It has also been discussed that there was a desire to bring the show back to a more realistic level and to strengthen Steed's character. Certainly having a more vulnerable and fallible heroine would accomplish this, and balance out Steed's role. However, Tara started out relatively weak and progressively got stronger throughout the production of this series. So this raises the question of how much input the US actually had in defining her role.
Which brings us back to the subject of Laugh-In. This show was the hit of the time and any rival network that aired a series against such a successful program did so for one of two possible reasons: 1) They had a show they felt had a strong enough fan base to compete or to steal away viewers; 2) The show had niche potential but may have been considered expendable compared to other programs in the lineup.
The success of The Avengers in the US prior to the 1968-69 season could provide an answer. Despite Emmy nominations and its impact on American culture, demographics would always be more critical. What were the ratings in the US for the show and in their previous timeslot(s), and how well did they do with target audiences? The amount of investment and the ratings would hint which way the network viewed the show, and this in turn could provide insight to how much actual input they gave.
Then there is the influence of the producers. John Bryce's brief time on the filmed series brings up more questions. It was established that Bryce was brought in to give the show a more realistic direction. Having worked on the Gale series, he seemed like a logical choice. Why Bryce exactly couldn't handle the position is still somewhat vague. It could be inferred it may have been at least partly due to the difference in mediums; the videotaped Gale series was akin to doing a live play with one performance, whereas the Peel and King shows were similar to producing several short films. The demands were very different and he may not have had sufficient skills to meet them.
This again brings up the involvement of the US. Bryce was brought in to make the show more realistic based most likely on his previous association with the show. But just how much were they aware of the difference it the way the show was produced then, and of Bryce's qualifications to produce a film series? And what exactly was his vision of Tara King? It is clear Tara was intended to be another amateur who was softer and more fallible than her predecessors. However, if you look at the early footage, Bryce apparently tried to carry over elements from the previous years. Steed addresses Tara as Miss King, there are scenes where they discuss the case together, and there are some attempts (albeit not always successful) at witty interaction. There seemed to be a desire to maintain a similar kind of a relationship that Steed had with the previous women.
It was after the return of Clemens and Fennell that the more radical changes occurred. Note that Steed began to refer to his partner as Tara, which allowed a more casual and open relationship. What attempts at wit during the early episodes was quite rare. And notice that the emotions Steed and Tara exhibit—which has annoyed many fans—was only occasional, but hit a cloying apex during the middle episodes like "Game," "Noon Doomsday" and "Legacy of Death" Just how much of this was due to the US influence and how much to the British?
Whether or not such changes were the edicts of the US does not clarify their position or take on the character of Tara. While it is well known that the producers, particularly Clemens, begrudgingly worked with Thorson, it could be argued they were not entirely opposed to the concept of Tara. They did not add any unusual expertise to her character like Emma and Cathy, but rather chose to make her a professional spy. The observation that Tara and Purdey have many similar aspects also supports this notion. Another factor that questions the division of responsibility is Mother. While it is true the US requested regular inclusion of the character, Clemens was not opposed to it. In an interview in The Avengers Fan Network periodical (1981 USA), he stated that he brought in the character to recreate interactions of Steed and Emma that showcased humor and facilitated technical explanations of the plot. He created the role for that purpose rather than try to make it work with Linda Thorson.
It is difficult to quantify and qualify accountability of this controversial point of the show. It is unlikely that a complete and reliable explanation will be garnered after so long a period. It can only be inferred that responsibility for the weakness and failings of the Tara King character fall to many.
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