Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Deadly Assassin written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney

This story in a nutshell: ‘I warn you now, if there’s some private feud between the two of you do not try and settle it on Gallifrey…’

Teeth and Curls: Maybe, just maybe Tom Baker had a point when he cited that he did not need a companion. He works beautifully well on his own here, more confident and rebellious than ever and slightly off the rails away from Elisabeth Sladen's calming influence. Finally we get to see the Doctor return home and the series answers some pretty important questions about the Time Lords. I really loved how the his people call the Doctor’s trial a Malfeasants Tribunal - rather than revering him for his choice to be different, he is the arrant wild child of the family that everybody would rather forget about. He uses the old dummy smoking a pipe routine that might seems like an obvious ploy to you and I but we have the imagination to see through such an obvious trick whereas he runs rings around the Chancellery Guard who have only had to escort dusty Senators to their lectures for the past few millennia. His nerve knows no bounds – he infiltrates the Panopticon in Gold Usher, the highest honour and then wanders around looking resplendent in his huge orange collar. It should be a ridiculous fashion accessory but Tom Baker is at his zenith of confidence and somehow he manages to pull it off as though it is the height of contemporary gear. Wasn’t he expelled for leading a rackety life? Has he had a face-lift? Rumours circulate about him but seems to know much about his hushed up trial thanks to the tidy handiwork of the CIA. The Doctor is considered an embarrassment by the Time Lords, a nomad. He cuts such a romantic figure in his huge collared, winged shirt, Tom Baker never looking more dashing throughout his entire run. Rather than face the indignity of hearing the judgement of his people during his mockery of a trial, the Doctor puts himself up as a candidate for the Presidency, an act so barking that nobody bothers to question why this criminal get out clause has slipped through the net in the first place. The Doctor realises the Master is involved once he discovers his greetings card of a shrunken guard. Only the Geoffrey Beevers Master wouldn't announce his presence in such a way until the new series. I love how he so casually mocks the Gallifreyan technology to prove a point (‘there are worlds out there where this sort of technology is considered prehistoric junk!’) and pokes at his people’s lethargic attitude to anything except decrepit politics. Watching the Doctor bleed in the Matrix is a novelty, to see him so weakened is a rare event. The Doctor is never more dangerous than when the odds are against him, as he has proven countless times over his many lives. He is ingenious, using Goth’s own poison against him cobbling together bamboo and thorns to create a weapon of his own making. His cold, hard reaction to Goth’s death goes unnoticed by fans (‘No answer to a straight question, typical politician’) whereas the sixth Doctor is criticised regularly for that sort of James Bond quip. I know that is an observation that I make quite frequency but the point stands that people go looking for caustic behaviour, homicidal and violent tendencies and unpleasantness when watching old Sixie when all of his predecessors are just as capable of behaving in that fashion when the situation calls for it. The Master wanted the Doctor to die in ignominy and disgrace, that's how much he hates him. Borusa admits that the Time Lords owe him a debt of gratitude and literally shoves him out the door. The Doctor hopes that the Master didn’t survive and there’s no one else in the universe he would say that about.Tom Baker is truly magnificent in The Deadly Assassin, it stands as a testament to his performance of the Doctor and Robert Holmes masterful understanding of the character.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We must adjust the truth!’
‘A violent reaction is having an equally violent reaction.’
‘Chancellor, all President’s are faced with difficult decisions. It is by their that they are judged.’
‘If heroes don’t exist it is necessary to invent them. Good for public morale.’
‘As I believe I told you long ago Doctor, you will never amount to anything in the galaxy while you retain your propensity for vulgar facetiousness.’
‘Doctor…nine out of ten.’
Basically everything that Borusa says…

The Good Stuff: The scrolling portent of doom that opens the story and re-introduces Gallifrey suggests this is going to be something a bit out of the ordinary. The Doctor sweaty and terrified, assassinating the President is a superb teaser for the show and entices the viewer to want to find out more about this act of terrorism. As soon as we realise it is a Presidential Resignation Day the tension ups – what could possibly happen to cause the Doctor to gun down the President? George Pravda is such an odd choice to play the Castellan; whilst he is both officious and likable, his delivery is unusual and he occasionally looks like he hasn't got a clue what he is talking about. Considering the generally baffling affair for the Castellan to unravel that is not an unrealistic reaction. Bernard Horsfall is even better, giving the political drama some real gravitas. David Maloney needed somebody who could stand up to Tom Baker in his prime and there aren't many actors with the stature and bravery to get away with that but Horsfall is more than up to the challenge. The scale and splendour of the Panopticon set is very impressive – some real effort has gone into making Gallifrey look as rich and all encompassing as possible on a Doctor Who budget. Borusa is hilarious and deserves his own spin off show; I love how he cuts down Runcible with such acidic barbs (‘You had plenty of time to ask questions during your misspent youth and it is too late now’). During the first episode you have no idea that the villain is the Master and those horrible fried egg eyes and glistening burnt flesh is enough to make your flesh creep. For once I would say that the make up designers might have gone a little too far, had I seen this story as a child I probably would have been scarred for life. As you would expect from the pen of Robert Holmes, the plotting is brutally efficient and all the traps are laid out very clearly for the Doctor to fall into to lead him to one of the most impressive cliffhangers in the series' run - his apparent assassination of the President.Episode two is practically a pilot for CSI Gallifrey and you can see why they commissioned an audio series on the strength of the Doctor’s scenes investigating the assassin's handiwork at the Panopticon. Whoever thought to put the outline around the President's entire costume is a genius, it makes me laugh every time I see it. The lighting is wonderfully moody, almost moonlit, in these scenes and enhancing the atmosphere of the piece tangibly. How deep is that knife plunged into Runcible’s back? Holmes loves doing cruel things to comic relief characters, doesn't he? Runicible's death is practically a dry run for Botcherby's murder in The Two Doctors. Hinchcliffe, Holmes and Maloney are a masterful combination and putting their heads together and deciding on an all location third episode was a moment of genius and aside from The Sontaran Experiment, unprecedented in the series. It is extremely rare for Doctor Who to genuinely frighten me but The Deadly Assassin features one of the few scenes that forces me into a cold sweat, the Samurai wielding his sword and cutting the Doctor away from the cliff (it's the mad staring eyes in the mask and the hysterical scream that do it...brrr). They were trying to piss Mary Whitehouse off, right? The giant hypodermic needle, the spider, the clown in the mirror cackling to himself, the nightmarish WWII soldier strolling forward in a gas mask... How did they ever think they would get away with this kind of material when Auton policemen and troll caused little kids to piss themselves at night? I can see Holmes puffing on his pipe in the shadows and getting off on sadistically screwing with kids minds but Hinchcliffe should probably have known better. Don't get me wrong I love this material but if you were asking me if I thought it was entirely suitable for children I might have to pause to give that some thought. The mist swathed forest location looks very exotic, like nowhere in England I have ever visited. I really like the image of Goth silhouetted in the distance, holding up his rifle on the cliff top. This is a story packed full of startling imagery like that. The two moments I feel where they genuinely push the horror too far for the kiddie-winks is when Goth bursts into flames screaming madly and the Doctor is held under the water with no chance of catching a breath – even Tom Baker said he thought that it was unpleasant when he re-watched this sequence during The Tom Baker Years. When the Doctor lifts up the Master’s hood you can see the full extent of the excellent monster mask, it is truly frightening creation, the hair burnt right off his glistening dome. I love how macabre Hildred creeping into the mortuary to staser the Master is. It is one of those horror panto moments when you want to scream at the TV that something dreadful is going to happen to a character. Peter Pratt’s Master is something totally unique, consumed by hate and completely psychotic, willing to bring the Time Lords down at any cost. If all Doctor Who villains were this intense it would be a very different show indeed but as a fascinating one it is a gripping journey into self loathing and hatred. Thinking about it, all the most frightening Doctor Who villains came from this period - Davros, Sutekh, Morbius, Chase, Greel...

The Bad Stuff: Goth is so obviously the villain from the word go I am surprised that they bothered to hide it. Once we reach the Matrix the only character with the height of the masked figure could possibly be Goth so having him masked is a pointless act. For once, Barry Letts' overuse of CSO comes up trumps when you compare the shrinking of Gooch in the lunch box in Terror of the Autons to the dolly in the camera in The Deadly Assassin. The much-celebrated cliffhanger to episode two is actually pretty rather lame if you move past how dynamically it is shot and consider that the Doctor is being menaced by the Bluebell Railway. Very often in the Hinchcliffe era I find that the final installment fails to live up to what has come before and the climax of The Deadly Assassin is no exception. The final confrontation between the Doctor and the Master features polystyrene rubble bouncing about and the cameraman wobbling his apparatus like mad to sell the cataclysm of the event. This is the emergence of the Eye of Harmony for goodness sakes. It needed a million times the budget to try and realise such a splendid concept. Instead out pops a giant plastic crystal from the ground. The Master looks like a past-it drag queen fighting in his very bling Sash of Rassilon. That might be a cruel observation to make of somebody so disabled but thems the breaks. 

Result: Politics, world building, wit and frights combine to make The Deadly Assassin not just another Doctor Who story but a genuine event. It has one of the best first episodes in Doctor Who history; a mini drama in its own right leading up to a foreshadowed but unforgettable cliffhanger. It is like a reverse of the situation with the Star Trek movies, the odd numbered episodes are stunning leaving the even numbered ones struggling to catch up. Episode two plays out very much like CSI Gallifrey with the Doctor working an investigation that will ultimately save his life and bring down his arch enemy. It is great fun and excellently scripted but after the breathtaking opening it does feel like a step down in how much it captured my attention. The third episode is justly famous for its arrangement of phobias that would leave any adult a gibbering wreck, let alone the children who are watching. Stylishly directed on film, featuring one unforgettable set piece after another and standing out as something that has never been done before or since - this is another standout episode that exists on its own. It’s a uniquely horrific experience. What a shame then that the budget cannot do justice to the epic conclusion, the only point where this story feels cheap and tatty. Robert Holmes subversive script and David Maloney’s slick direction combine to make this another Hinchcliffe jewel. They really knew what they were doing during this period of the show didn't they?: 9/10


Ben Herman said...

At the time that I first watched The Deadly Assassin on my local PBS station in the mid-1980s, I was pretty much a newcomer to Doctor Who. I really had no idea just how much of a deconstruction and retcon of the Time Lords this was from their god-like introduction in The War Games. The only times I'd seen the Doctor's people before this was in the Peter Davison episodes, which had airing the year before. Having seen what a bunch of creeps the Time Lords could be in both Arc of Infinity and The Five Doctors, I wasn't at all surprised that in this earlier story they weren't written in too sympathetic a light, either. It would be several more years before I'd get to see The War Games, and started to understand what exactly the older fans were complaining about so loudly. But, honestly, given how many of them went bad over the years (The Meddling Monk, The War Chief, The Master, The Rani, even Borusa) it makes sense that underneath the surface they were far from perfect. I think Robert Holmes' interpretation of them eventually led to much more interesting stories. Even Terrance Dicks agreed Holmes' revisionist take on them was better.

Oh, yes, here is one of my favorite bits of dialogue from the serial...

The Doctor: The Master's consumed with hatred. It's his one great weakness.
The Master: Hah! Weakness, Doctor? Hate is strength.
The Master: Not in your case. You'd delay an execution to pull the wings off a fly.

Joe Ford said...

A fascinating analysis, Ben, thanks for sharing.