Saturday, 1 August 2009

Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin

Part One

“Oh, I say! Weren’t you expelled or something? Some scandal?”

How strange- a full year before Star Wars, and we get a voiceover by Tom alongside a rolling caption thingy. In context this is very odd- not only does it instantly make this story stand out from the stories surrounding it and seem “epic” and “big”, it also blurs the boundaries between form and content in a way Doctor Who arguably has not done since the likes of The Gunfighters and The Feast of Steven. Instantly we sense the rules are different, and indeed it turns out that they are- as a traveller the Doctor is used to the leeway he is given as an outsider to behave eccentrically, but here on his home planet, where he’s a “convicted criminal” of no particular notoriety, this doesn’t get him anywhere. Everything is different.

Much about this first episode has a dislocating effect; the Doctor is travelling alone, and the plot springs from a prophetic dream experienced by the Doctor, not the sort of device the series traditionally employs. And it’s just unbelievable how every throwaway line, every costume, every prop, every piece of design, seems to establish some little thing which will help to establish how Gallifrey will be portrayed from this point on. There are so many firsts in the first few minutes alone- the Presidency; Time Lord robes; the Capitol; the Chancery Guards and their distinctive red uniforms; the Doctor’s TARDIS being referred to as a “Type Forty”- and there’ll be a lot more along in a minute. And in a way that’s a shame, as it tends to obscure The Deadly Assassin as a story in itself, with its political subtext and design aesthetic which deserve to be appreciated on their own terms rather than be thought of just in terms of continuity.

As a blatantly hypocritical aside, though, we get some interesting continuity stuff- it’s meaningless without a context to put it in, really, but we’re still told that The War Games took place in the Time Lord year 309,906. And is it the first time we’re told that earth is in “Mutter’s Spiral”, presumably the Time Lords’ name for the Milky Way Galaxy?

There’s some stuff that’s fun aside from all this mythological malarkey too- there are many things I was expecting to see in this episode but a hookah wasn’t one of them! And there are plenty of political asides- the CIA, of course, but also “His Supremacy” the President has a “resignation honours list”, confiding to his underling that there are “some names here that will surprise them.” I wonder if there’s a Time Lady called Marcia Williams?

More revelations come thick and fast. Chancellor Goth is played by Bernard Horsfall- they can’t seriously expect us not to assume he’s that bloke from the tribunal. We are also introduced to Gallifreyan script and another pile of firsts- the Castellan (this one’s likeable from the start, very much the put-upon decent copper), cardinals, the Panopticon, and the various aristocratic Time Lord orders- the Prydonians, the Arcalians, the Patrexes “and so on”, each of which has its own design of “seldom-worn” robe. 

Fascinatingly, the Doctor is revealed to be a Prydonian- very posh, apparently- and is obliged to wear a robe. Again we see how he can’t act as he normally does on his home planet, anchored to his place in society by the chapter he belongs to and even being obliged to conform to rigid Time Lord ways of dressing by wearing his robe. And it’s very noticeable that for almost all of this story his trademark hat and scarf are absent.

Besides all this rich mythological stuff and mischievous political commentary shoved under the radar as only science fiction can make possible, there are some nicely drawn characters too. The Castellan, of course, is a character type immediately recognisable from many a whodunit, the determined, clear-minded police inspector under constant harassment from his superiors. Then there’s Cardinal Borusa- haughty, supercilious, but clearly a highly adept politician. He’s our obligatory red herring. And even the two members of the House of Lords- er, Time Lords- we overhear discussing the glory days of “Pandak III” are nicely drawn caricatures.

Oh, and there’s the Master. It’s good to see him again- it’s been ages- but it’s a shock seeing him so emaciated and literally skeletal as this, seemingly alive only through sheer will. His appearance is yet another example of great design.

Part Two

“Vaporisation without representation is against the constitution!”

So, Goth is insisting the Doctor be tried and executed quickly within 48 hours just to spare the newly elected president (ie Goth) the dilemma of whether to pardon him. How very revealing this is as regards Robert Holmes’ views on power! It’s also traditionally said to be the start of a new, more cynical, treatment of the Time Lords, but I’m not sure this is true- if we look at Holmes’ treatment of the Time Lords in Genesis of the Daleks and even the Doctor’s comments at the start of The Brain of Morbius it seems very much in keeping with all of this. And I’m not sure they were ever exactly portrayed as benevolent godlike figures right from the moment they first appeared in part ten of The War Games.

The Doctor’s being a suspect threatens to inflict on us the dullness of interminable cell scenes and interrogations, but Holmes admirably manages to sidestep this be having the Doctor escape execution, for the moment, on a technicality, which earns bonus points by itself being amusing. And as the Castellan, a competent detective, tends to believe the Doctor, the story can now focus on their investigation. That’s very good plotting. That said, there’s only one suspect, but I’m sure there’s supposed to be!

There are far fewer embellishments to the mythology this episode- although we get “Shabogans”, whoever they may be, and “Artron Energy”. But the big one is the Matrix, or the APC net as it’s called here- a depository for the recorded brain patterns of every single Time Lord, taken just before the point of death. The Doctor enters the Matrix to find, aside from a quick burst of the opening titles, a dreamscape, controlled by his mysterious opponent, full of surreal threats such as a surgeon with a syringe- surely this must have scared the kids more than any monster. As Philip Hinchcliffe says on one of the DVD documentaries, as an idea this would have been right out there in 1976!

Of course, the best thing about it is that we’re able to end on the ultimate Perils of Pauline style cliffhanger!

Part Three

“It’ll be over soon. One way or another…”

It’s quite jaw-droppingly brave to set this whole episode in an imaginary dreamscape and expect a mainstream audience in 1976 to watch it. But somehow it works. I can’t help that the cultural references are all ours, rather than Gallifreyan, which is odd considering this is Goth’s reality, but I think it’d be churlish to press that point as the whole thing not only works but manages to advance the plot by revealing the villain as… the bloke we knew it was all along. All the same, much as I hate to say this for something so genuinely experimental, it does go on a bit towards the end. It’s very noticeable how visual this all is- there’s very little dialogue, and uniquely for a Robert Holmes episode I was stumped for an opening quote!

Here’s the Doctor again using weapons, contrary to myth, this time a grenade and a blowpipe. It’s all very violent, especially the cliffhanger. I’m not sure whether we’re watching a restoration of the full scene on the DVD, so I should probably watch the relevant extra and find out.

Part Four

“You wistful, you craven-hearted, spineless poltroon!”

The Matrix stuff seems to end very suddenly, and then it seems the Master is dead and the story is over. But this episode is the rarest of phenomena; a second ending that actually works.

Before things conclude, though, we learn an awful lot of things, Apparently Goth met the Master at somewhere called “Terserus”, dying, at the “end of his regeneration cycle.” And of course this is later confirmed: “After the twelfth regeneration,” says Elgin, “nothing can postpone death.” This is quite a bombshell! For something which exists essentially to provide the Master with motivation and a backstory, this one line has had a massive effect of the programme.

There’s another gleefully cynical piece of social commentary too, of course, with Borusa’s insistence on adjusting the truth as it “will not do” to “maintain public confidence in the Time Lords and their leadership.” The way this is phrased seems to suggest that not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords.

And then there are all the scraps we’re thrown from “The Old Time”. There is the first mention of Rassilon, now thought of as founder of Time Lord civilisation, but thought of by his contemporaries more as an engineer and architect- so not a politician, presumably. His relics are the Sash of Rassilon, worn by the President, and the Great Key, both of which relate to the Eye of Harmony, the domesticated black hole from which Gallifrey draws its power. Apparently Rassilon, not Omega, is responsible for harnessing the black hole- how does this square with what we learn of Omega in The Three Doctors, then?

Enough of such matters. The Master, of course, is not dead, and we get our final(ish) battle between the Doctor and the Master, with the fate of Gallifrey and a large chunk of the surrounding area of space at stake. And, even better, the hatch from Tomb of the Cybermen seems to make a reappearance. The Master survives, of course, and is seen leaving in his TARDIS, shaped like a grandfather clock. The Doctor leaves too, having been awarded “nine out of ten” by Borusa. But wait! Weren’t he and Goth the only two candidates for the presidency? Surely that means-

4/5, missing out on the top mark because the script simply had so many jobs to do. But this was genuinely groundbreaking in so many ways. Doctor Who is on fire at the moment.

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