One of the hallmarks of Season 6 is the occasional use of color schemes and interior set designs that have the feel of a dreamscape or even hallucination. Although The Avengers overall deservedly has the reputation of being a “quirky” series that frequently bends reality to its own purposes, this move to a more stylized approach to color, set design, and set dressing is taken to its furthest point in the Tara King era. This use of what I am calling “dreamscape sets” usually focuses on public or commercial spaces that Steed and/or Tara must visit in the course of their work. Another locus for dreamscape sets are Mother’s hideouts, which can be literally anywhere from atop a double-decker bus to an underwater tank to a cow pasture, and which often are furnished and decorated in truly bizarre ways. I also see Tara’s flat as a kind of dreamscape set all its own.
A fellow tumblr (celluloidbroomcloset) has written some good analyses of the Season 4 episode “Hour That Never Was” (part I here; part II here), postulating that the loss of Mrs Peel early in the episode effectively unmoors Steed from the flow of time. These analyses describe Mrs Peel in part as Steed’s anchor: she keeps him grounded in reality.
My fevered brain smashed these two things together and decided that it would be a good idea to explore the use of dreamscape sets in Season 6 as a metaphor for Steed’s continuing uprootedness after the departure of Mrs Peel.
But first, a disclaimer: I am not saying that the use of dreamscape sets in Season 6 was done purposely by the producers in order to represent Steed’s unmooring. In fact, I don’t think there’s a connection intended between those two things at all. I suspect the redesign was an effort to update the show’s look, and to emphasize certain of its attributes, especially the quirkiness, in order to appeal to new audiences. What I am exploring here is an effect and result of their decisions, certainly, but not necessarily something that they intended.
And then an aside: I have many related thoughts about “Game,” Tara King’s first solo episode after Emma leaves, and also intend to explore how the use of dreamscape sets shifts across the whole of Season 6. But in order to keep things manageable, I’m posting those as separate blogs. The one about “Game” is here. I’ll also link the other one when it’s ready.
Over the River and Through the Woods and Onto the Bus and Under the Water and Into the Cow Pasture to Mother’s House We Go
One of the big changes made in Season 6 was the introduction of the character of Mother. Mother (played by Patrick Newell) is Steed’s boss at the Ministry, and Steed is required to meet with him from time to time. Mother is in a wheelchair, but this doesn’t stop him from moving his headquarters every episode. Nor does it stop him from putting his headquarters into strange places whose accessibility to a person in a wheelchair is somewhat suspect.
Like the top of a double-decker bus. Whose upper deck seems to be only accessible via a narrow, winding staircase. (“False Witness”)
Or an underwater bunker. That you have to access by swimming. Which Mother probably could actually do, but still…. (“They Keep Killing Steed”)
Or this … whatever the hell this is. Which again appears to have access by — you guessed it — stairs. (“You’ll Catch Your Death”)
But Just Wait Til You See the Inside!
Mother isn’t content with having his office in various Undisclosed Locations. Oh, no. He also has to bring in the decorating crew to do ever weirder things with the interior design. Or exterior, as the picture with the ladders attests, above.
Ladders, lavender, and lorries: Today’s hideout is brought to you by the letter “L”. Mother really does have a thing about ladders, doesn’t he. (“Super Secret Cypher Snatch”)
Want to look into the face of evil? Come on down! We have larger-than-life cutouts that will creep you out. And a balance thing for Mother to swing in. Which looks like a pretty cool gadget, actually. I could probably do with one. (“Wish You Were Here”)
And then there’s the Great Plastic Palace. Brought to you courtesy of 1960s-era inflatable furniture. Of which I had a set just like it when I was a child. Except mine was pink. (“The Rotters”)
But when Mother needs to be mobile, he goes about in this thing. Which won’t attract attention from anyone, ever. Not even diabolical master minds. (“Fog”)
Mother Always Knows Best. Except When He Doesn’t. Which Is Frequently.
Three seasons of the Avengers introduce us to Steed’s superiors. In Seasons 2 and 3, we meet One-Ten, One-Six, and One-Twelve, and also Charles. All four are crusty old men out of the crusty old boys’ network. All four disapprove of Steed on some level. They suspect him of everything from incompetence to treason, and frequently find him insubordinate. All four are usually wrong about whatever situation it is they have in hand, and probably only keep their jobs because Steed is smarter and more capable than all of them rolled into one. He saves their hash from week to week because he actually knows what he is doing and is willing to buck the system.
Although Steed makes occasional visits to Ministry offices or contacts other Ministry officials in Seasons 4 and 5, his supervisors not only remain off screen, they aren’t even mentioned. He does receive formal assignments from the Ministry, but we never see or hear him interact with the person or persons who send him those jobs, and he never mentions a particular person as being the one to whom he must make his reports. Evidently they simply tell Steed, “Hey, there’s this happening, go check it out,” and then turn him loose to do his thing. Once Steed has been pointed in the right direction, all the Ministry bosses have to do is wait for him to truss up the bad guys and bring them to book. Which, with the capable help of Mrs Peel, Steed does with clockwork regularity and not a little flair.
Once Mrs Peel is out of the picture, though, the Ministry evidently thinks that Steed needs looking after. I suppose that part of this has to do with Steed having been saddled with a trainee in the person of Tara King, but I think there’s more to it than that. Mother isn’t just a boss, and he isn’t simply opposed to Steed in the way his Seasons 2 and 3 superiors were: Mother is a ridiculous figure, of clownish proportions. His incompetence isn’t limited to pooh-poohing Steed’s instincts and then being shown wrong, or disliking Steed’s methods and then having to grudgingly accept that they actually work. Mother is a windbag who blusters at Steed and Tara; an eccentric who demands that they traipse hither and yon in order to meet with him, sometimes to find that Mother only wanted someone to whine at, no case to work, so sorry, you can go home now; and who often has difficulty putting two and two together, including in situations where even Tara has things completely figured out. Steed’s Season 2 and 3 bosses look like models of competence and efficiency by contrast. They’re certainly more professional, or at least more conventionally so.
I find it exceedingly interesting that the two seasons in which Steed is operating without discernible adult supervision, as it were, are the ones where he is being partnered by Emma Peel, and that once she is removed from the scene not only is Steed required to report to a supervisor once more, but to one who is both manifestly incompetent and a caricature who inhabits a parade of interior and exterior spaces that are composed with varying degrees of surreality. Steed, of course, takes all this in stride, consummate professional that he is, although in more than one episode there seems to be an edge of impatience or frustration in his interactions with Mother. But Emma is gone now, and the world—or at least Steed’s professional world, which had been so intimately intertwined with his relationship with Emma—has gone through the Looking-Glass and become all topsy-turvy. The Ministry once again insists on actively monitoring and directing what Steed does, and while it is true that Steed feels disconnected from life, the universe, and everything because of the loss of Emma, the Ministry’s attempt to reel him in can only be experienced as something of a joke, and not a particularly amusing joke at that.
Little Shop of Horrors (Or at the Very Least, of Weird Stuff)
Interiors in The Avengers, starting with Season 4, are sometimes a wee bit … odd. Many are intended more as simulacra of shops or businesses or schools than as faithful recreations of something that might exist in the real world, and that element of surreality in set design picks up steam until we get to Season 6. Then the wheels come off, and any attempt at verisimilitude for many of the public interiors that Steed and Tara must visit is simply abandoned.
Below are just a few examples of the kind of thing I’m describing:
In “Game,” Tara visits the lair of the Jigsaw Master. Ostensibly this is a shop where one can buy jigsaw puzzles, but the emphasis isn’t on the stock, and there isn’t even a till. The premises are dominated by windowless walls made of giant pink puzzle pieces. That this might be a shop at all is only hinted at by the niches made by missing “pieces,” that have shelves carrying puzzles, presumably for sale.
In “My Wildest Dream,” Steed, and later Steed together with Tara, visit the psychiatric observation ward where Slater (played by Philip Madoc) is being held after he undergoes some kind of psychotic break and commits murder. There’s only one bed, surrounded by moveable privacy curtains which, being transparent, provide no privacy whatsoever. Then the camera pulls back, and we see that the bed is actually at the center of a vast, otherwise empty space, with the word “OBSERVATION” painted on the back wall in large red and white lettering.
Another warehouse-like space is the home of the glass-cleaning company that is the front for the bad guys in “Super Secret Cypher Snatch.” Solid-color walls in various shades of grey and blue surround a group of glass panes of various sizes in brass frames, some of which are being cleaned by men in white uniforms. Apparently these are apprentice cleaners, since their boss (played by Nicholas Smith) comments on their window-polishing technique from time to time. Empty ladders flank the window display area, and gilt bas-reliefs decorate the back wall. The only concession to the business end of things is the desk at one side of the room. (Seriously: what is it with Season 6 and ladders, already?)
The entry hallway leading to the Casanova Ink company’s offices in “Love All” is painted in sections meant to represent the spines of the books they publish, titled with perseverative consistency as “Love in [insert whatever thing].”
There are good dramatic reasons for these kinds of set designs. The businesses or schools run by the villains are fronts, cardboard cutouts meant to give the illusion of a legitimate concern, and the deceptive nature of these premises is reflected in the peculiarity of the interiors. The strangeness of the shops run by bona fide businessmen, on the other hand, emphasizes the owner’s single-minded obsession with whatever it is they’re selling. And the observation ward in “My Wildest Dream” is clearly intended to both symbolize and resonate with Slater’s psychological distress and his status as a subject to be gazed upon by agents of the state.
However, these sets also jar with the visual palette of the rest of the episodes in which they occur. They pull us out of something that looks like “reality” and into a dreamscape created by the twisted minds of villains or by the compulsive preoccupations of hobbyists and enthusiasts. Although this did happen to a certain extent in Seasons 4 and 5, it is magnified in Season 6.
Emma helped keep Steed’s feet on the ground. She was his touchstone, the one secure bit of reality he could count on in day after day of entering the lairs of diabolical master minds, of encountering and then trying to disrupt their unwholesome visions of what they wanted the world to be. But in Season 6, Emma is no longer there, and Tara cannot possibly fill that void for Steed. The unreality of the things Steed must face is amplified, untempered and unfiltered by association with a partner who is his equal and whose clearsightedness and strength help him navigate the outlandishness of each case he handles and the bureaucratic labyrinth of the Ministry.
Home Sweet What Was the Architect Smoking?
Elsewhere I fulminated on the architectural impossibility created by the relationship of the interior layout of Tara’s flat to the exterior architecture and siting of her building. Here, I want to discuss the design and dressing of the interiors.
The main room of Tara’s flat is two stories high. The entrance brings one onto a landing attached to a staircase, but if one is feeling exuberant or is in a hurry, there’s a fireman’s pole to slide down. The main room does double duty as a sitting and dining area. The bedroom, also on the main floor, is to stage right. Presumably there are also a kitchen and bathroom on the premises.
The walls are painted in bold, solid colors, and decorated variously with large bas-relief letters of the alphabet, nineteenth-century bicycles and bicycle parts, African masks, and other curious objects. The mantelpiece sports a row of painted papier-maché busts, while the wall near the fireplace is home to an array of bladed weaponry.
It’s all rather youthfully exuberant, which fits Tara’s character well. But it’s also a bit scattered. Which also fits Tara’s character. The thing is, though, that the structure of Tara’s apartment, and especially the gratuitous whimsy of an upper story landing/staircase/fireman’s pole entryway that provides access to a living area one story below gives a cast of unreality to her living space. Who would want to have to go up three flights of stairs (four?) in order to have to go back down another flight to get to the living area? What architect in their right mind would design such a building, or construct it to house such a space?
Although I expect the bladed weaponry is included as a nod to Tara’s work as an agent and her fighting skills (such as they are), they actually seem out of place. That kind of thing would have been right at home on Mrs Gale’s wall, or on Mrs Peel’s, but Tara is a much more conventionally feminine woman, and a much less capable fighter. Even the fact that the decor of her flat is intended to be eclectic doesn’t help make the weaponry look like it actually belongs there. Indeed, in “Curious Case of the Countless Clues,” when Tara is being attacked in her flat by two assailants, she seems to forget that she has a wall full of weapons available for slicing and dicing the bad guys. (She also forgets that locking one’s doors is an accepted way of keeping bad guys out in the first place, but still.)
Unlike any of Steed’s other partners, Tara is not one he chooses for himself: she is assigned to him by the Ministry. She’s young, she’s naive, she’s incredibly green, and she’s not nearly as bright or self-sufficient as Mrs Peel or Mrs Gale. She’s also infatuated with Steed. Tara swings between trying to protect Steed and needing to be rescued by him; between wanting to be in an adult romantic relationship with him and needing him to be a mentor or even father figure; between being self-reliant and expecting Steed to solve problems for her. She badly wants to be for him what Mrs Peel was: a partner, an equal, a lover, a sounding board, a touchstone. But she can’t. There’s no way she can fulfill that role for Steed, and her awkward attempts serve only to remind him of what he has lost. Tara is but a pale imitation of Mrs Peel. She’s not fully formed as a person yet herself—she’s much too inexperienced and much too immature—and as such is somewhat less “real” than Mrs Peel was. Try as she might, she can’t be “real” for Steed, and she can’t act as his anchor because she isn’t yet grounded in reality herself, either in her role as an agent or in her own personhood, and this is reflected in part in the architecture and interior design of her flat.
In Season 6, then, the dreamscape set has multiple functions. It works as a reflection of and commentary on the people that inhabit those spaces, but the heightened surreality of these kinds of sets relative to those in previous seasons also can be seen as a metaphor for Steed’s unmooring after the loss of Mrs Peel. Steed is working manfully to keep it together, to do his job well and thoroughly, to take care of Tara as best he can, to try to make the world a safer place. But without Emma at his side, the world feels hollow and unreal, and thus the dreamscape sets become an outward manifestation of Steed’s inner disengagement.