Friday, 31 March 2017

Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

Chapter The 47th, from when a Moffat scripted story was a rarer and more wonderful thing.

A little girl in her normal suburban living room starts having visions that her imaginative fantasy - a planet-sized library containing every book ever written - is real, and has been invaded. The Doctor and Donna are two of these invaders, having come to the library following a call for help on the psychic paper, with a mysterious kiss at the bottom. A team of space archaeologists arrive hot on their heels, led by a Professor River Song, who sent the message; she's met the Doctor loads of times, but he's not met her yet because time travel. They're investigating as 100 years previously something happened in the library, something to do with the shadows. All the people were locked in, but there’s no one inside to be seen, and no bodies. It’s all down to the Vashta Nerada, a carnivorous swarm, which has somehow infested the place. Trying to save the crew, who are getting picked off one by one, and bickering with River who appears to be his wife from the future, the Doctor at least manages to send Donna back to the TARDIS to save her. And it does save her, but not perhaps in the manner he was expecting. To be honest, to say anymore would spoil it, sweetie. If you haven’t seen it before, go and find it and watch it now… Go on, I’ll be waiting here for when you’re done… I mean it, go and watch it – it’s on Netflix for a start off, or Blu-Ray or DVD. Go!

Watched on DVD, with a week separating the viewing of each episode, not because it was planned to recreate the original experience, it just turned out that way. As well as myself and the Better Half, only the middle child (boy, aged 7) watched the whole thing, but his older brother (aged 10) joined us for episode 1. They liked it, but were not as effusive as their Mum and Dad.

First-time round:
I remember being very interested in this one before it was broadcast: there was some puzzle you could do, if I’m remembering correctly, on the official BBC Doctor Who website, which earned one a viewing of a clip. I went ahead and did it, I was that excited to get a glimpse of the new Moffat story. I don’t remember the last time I even visited the official website, let alone stayed long enough to do a puzzle. These days, of course, I’d see the clip online because the first person to do the puzzle would have uploaded it somewhere, and it would appear on one social media feed or other before the official website had even got its boots on.

Puzzles on official websites have almost the same dusty whiff of history about them as VHS tapes or novelisations now, and yet in other ways this story feels recent. Perhaps David Tennant was so popular that he cast a long shadow, as it still seems like he only left a short while ago, but it was eight years, and his last full series, of which the Library story is part, nine years ago. I have to remind myself that when this was first shown, only one out of three of my children existed. Our eldest would have been under two, so I’d imagine there was some time-shifting involved, but we’d have watched each episode later on the same evening of its initial BBC1 broadcast.

This presents the tricky situation for the blog of trying to be measured and calm when I FLIPPIN’ LOVE THIS ONE!!!! It’s definitely a top 5 favourite, and that’s of all Doctor Who, not just of the new series episodes. I will try not to gush too embarrassingly, but it really is very good indeed. I have many reservations about Moffat’s work following this story; but as a writer for hire from 2005 to 2008, he was unsurpassed, melding his take on his showrunner’s emotional approach with intricate and deft plotting. Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead is a little bit messier than, say, Blink or The Girl in the Fireplace, but that’s a good thing: those earlier stories can seem too pat. The Library story is about life - particularly married life, but family life too - and that’s never straightforward.
In the course of two 45 minute episodes, the script manages to marry off its two main characters, the Doctor and Donna, and then effectively kill off their spouses. Then, it has its cake and eats it too, as both those spouses – River Song and Lee McAvoy – don’t really die. A criticism sometimes levelled at Moffat is that none of his Who characters ever really die.  But – and I won’t spoil it – though he survives, what happens to Lee McAvoy in his final brief scene is devastating, to the point where you want to (okay, I did) shout ‘No!’ very loudly at the screen, the first time you see it. This manages to counterbalance the literal fairy tale ending for River Song.
Putting out of one’s mind the future recurring role of Alex Kingston as River, and just concentrating on the character as one-shot concept, it’s very strong. Two romantically involved time travellers who don’t meet in the right order, though not necessarily 100% original – it’s The Time Traveller’s Wife squared – is something Doctor Who had never done before. Making the first meeting for him, the last ever meeting for her, is a wonderfully dark twist. River has to sacrifice herself to save the Doctor, because if it’s the other way round, they will never have a life together. Being in a relationship with someone where you want to be together, but you know one of you has to die first to make it even close to possible: it’s a perfect metaphor for marriage in my book. [But, then, I have a happy marriage; I explained this theory to a fan friend once, and he told he certainly didn’t feel that way… about his first wife; I had to concede the point.]
If you do consider all the future adventures of River Song, it’s remarkably consistent; nothing in the plotting contradicts anything we see in later stories, and there’s a remarkable amount of foreshadowing. I very much doubt Moffat had it all mapped out in 2008, but it’s testament to his attention to detail. It’s also testament to a storming performance by a wonderful actor: Alex Kingston arrives with the character fully formed, and owns it. She manages to have an equal level of chemistry with three very different Doctor actors over the years; that’s not luck, that’s skill.  In fact, there’s many parallels with John Barrowman’s Captain Jack, another recurring character turning up first in a Moffat two-parter, with a well-rounded story life away from the Doctor. It’s a shame the two characters never appeared in the same story.  If it wasn’t for Moffat seeming to have completed River’s arc in his two latest Capaldi Christmas specials, I’d be hoping he has this team-up saved for December 25th this year. Never mind – Big Finish will probably do it (if they haven’t already).
If I had to pick holes, there’s probably too many ideas. Apart from River Song, there’s the Vashta Nerada who provide enough material for a story just on their own - swarms that look like shadows and strip flesh from bone in a nanosecond, shadows that lock on to a victim, counting the shadows as a defence mechanism, people turned into spacesuited skeletons. Then there’s a child plugged into a dreamscape in a massive computer, who becomes a de facto viewer of Doctor Who’s adventures on her TV; the data ghost concept, allowing the catchphrase-tastic repeating of everyone’s dying words over and over; and Doctor Moon, and the nodes with donated faces, and the ‘saving’ of people, including the corruption of Miss Evangelista which gives her a bigger IQ.
This makes episode 1 a bit of bombardment, with idea after idea hitting the viewer. But episode 2 pulls everything together to a breakneck, apocalyptic but emotionally complete conclusion, and contains scene after scene of the most effective dramatic moments ever in Doctor Who.  Far too many to list, but two that I must call out as they showcase what a wonderful actor Catherine Tate is: the gut wrenching, horrific scene where her two ‘children’ disappear, and she claws at their bedding in desperation, and the last scene between Donna and Lee as they slip further and further away from each other, disappearing into the white void: “Am I real?” “Of course you’re real…I know you’re real… oh God, I hope you’re real.” All accompanied by the best single music cue Murray Gold ever wrote.

You can't get much better a connection than a story in a museum followed by a story in a library, and I didn't cheat either, completely random.

Deeper Thoughts:
Play Some Old! I said above that I was very excited in advance of this story’s original broadcast. Steven Moffat at the time was reserved one slot of the year, and annually delivered a cracker: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink; each one built on the last in terms of crowd-pleasing scripting, and the productions were getting more sophisticated too. A lot of people at the time, at least online, thought the Library episodes were a slight disappointment, but only because a very high standard had been set. Then, before anyone had too much time to dwell on that, Moffat was taking over as showrunner, and would be delivering much more than one script a year; how could it fail to be utterly brilliant? Hmm.

We are now fast approaching the time when there will be no more Moffat Doctor Who scripts. I don’t think he’ll be tempted back to do any more once he’s delivered Capaldi’s Xmas swansong. Russell T Davies set a precedent of not writing for the show again once he’d vacated the boss role, which Moffat will probably emulate; plus, Steven will have delivered a lot more than Russell by the time he types his last INT. TARDIS. DAY. He’s done his duty. It’s doubtful that his work on the show as a whole will be thought of as well as those first four stories written for someone else’s production. As showrunner, he’s come in for a lot of flak, at least online, just as RTD did before him. Doctor Who is an extensive canon, and baked into its format is variety. No one likes it all, not even its biggest fans; often, the bits that were broadcast a while ago are said to better than the stuff being broadcast right now. This didn’t start with the World Wide Web. John Nathan Turner, producer in the 1980s, faced horrible levels of “it ain’t what it used to be” hostility. This didn’t even start with mass organised fandom; as was mentioned in my post about The Deadly Assassin, even at their start, the fan organisations were already used to the sharpening of knives.

This is common in all walks: every band who ever made more than one record is plagued by the cliché that the new material isn’t as good as ‘the early stuff’. But it sometimes seems that Doctor Who attracts more than its fair share of ire. Amusingly, someone recently tweeted a newspaper review complaining that the quality of Doctor Who had dipped. It was published during the broadcast of An Unearthly Child, the very first story in 1963. They didn’t even wait for the first whole story to be finished before they got stuck in to Verity Lambert’s work. So, Steven Moffat is in august company.

Not that it matters much anyway, but all this matters even less for Moffat, I think. If, heaven forfend, his obituary came to be written next year, I suspect it would describe him as “Sherlock and Doctor Who writer” in that order. Sherlock is the flashier show, with a fervent international fanbase, and two movie star leads; plus, Doctor Who, though his admirers and detractors alike will admit he’s made it his own during his tenure, does not belong to Moffat alone. Good luck to him in his future endeavours, but it’s hard to see how he will knock Sherlock from the top of his list. And that despite the later episodes being definitely not as good as the early ones – don’t get me started, blah, blah, blah …

In Summary:
DONNA: Is "all right" special Time Lord code for... "really really good, near peerless, best the show has ever managed, utterly utterly marvellous"?


DONNA: Cos Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead is all right.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Space Museum

Chapter The 46th, where the author can't resist suggesting that Doctor Who has been grabbed by the Moroks. And it's painful.

Something goes wrong with the TARDIS causing it to  'jump a time track'. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki sort-of arrive (and sort of don't) in a space museum on the planet Xeros. They don't leave any footprints, no one can hear or see them, and they can pass through solid objects. Turning a corner, they are faced with an exhibit of their own embalmed selves, lined up in a display case, staring back at them. Time catches up, the cases vanish, and they can suddenly be seen and heard again. After that, they all spend an interminable time discussing what they should do to avoid this seemingly predestined fate. It turns out that they just need to do the usual: wander some corridors, get split up, and free the oppressed natives from some invading overlords, the Moroks. The twist is that the bad guys are so rubbish they're quite endearing; and the good guys are even worse. At the end, the Doctor explains that what happened to crack the space time continuum like an egg and scare the bejesus out of everyone was that a component of the TARDIS  incorrectly acted like a dimmer switch. Really, he does; that's the explanation. Go and look, if you don't believe me.

This one was surprisingly popular with the two youngest members of the family (boy of 7, girl of 4) who watched the DVD with me and the Better Half over four consecutive evenings. They got bored by The Deadly Assassin, one of the well-thought-of 'classics', but this - supposedly one of the all time duffers, at least for three quarters of its running time - they adored. They are hard to predict.

First-time round:
Sometimes it seems like the BBC lost all the great stories, and kept all the rubbish ones. Not true, of course, and more to do with familiarity breeding contempt: the ones we can't see seem better than the ones that we can, in all their trying-their best-but-can-only-really-have-one-take-per-scene, line fluffing, dodgy camerawork glory. If the visuals for The Space Museum didn't exist it may well have been better appreciated. Even now, a lot of people think that the first episode is one of the all time best (I'm not so sure, but more on that anon). The popular reading being that episode 1 is an original, weird and atmospheric creep-out, followed by three humdrum episodes of cheap bare sets where some actors with funny stick-on eyebrows fight one another.

The story proceeding it, The Crusade, for a long time had only one surviving episode in the archives, and has always been loved more. In the late 1990s another episode turned up, and they rushed out both these two quarters of The Crusade on VHS in July 1999. With half the story missing, including the ending, BBC Worldwide obviously worried they'd need to throw in a sweetener or two. So, as part of the package they gave us punters a keyring, and all four episodes of The Space Museum: possibly, some of the buyers appreciated the keyring most out of these two extras.

Deep breath, and I'll say my first heresy: episode 1 isn't that great. Second deep breath, and second heresy: episodes 2-4 aren't that bad. The introduction is original and weird, particularly towards the end of the episode where there is an unsettling montage of which Eisenstein would be proud. It struggles to be atmospheric, though. The regulars wander round the same cheap bare sets used in the rest of the story (incidentally, why don't the Moroks put any directions or exit signs in their museum, the crazy fools?). These sets echo and clunk in the silence necessitated by the story decision that there'll be no background noise, which sucks the energy out of everything. There's not much drama either: it's hard to depict a struggle with an abstract idea like predestination. Whereas, as inept as the Moroks are, when they 'arrive' it suddenly opens up the story possibilities of interpersonal dialogue and conflict, and they consequently lift proceedings. The Doctor's sparring with Lobos in particular is a joy, and there are other wonderful moments scattered throughout.

The Doctor and Lobos aren't in the same scene until a good chunk of episode two is over, admittedly, and before that there is some terrible material where Lobos vomits exposition over everything. Ostensibly talking to a minion, he's really filling in the audience on everything from the political background to his personal ennui to the length of a Xeron day in Morok time. It's so bad, it seems deliberate: at least one commentator has previously posited that The Space Museum is intended as a comedy pastiche of science fiction, but if that's the case the director didn't realise. It's not unintentional that the Moroks are rubbish, that is clearly stated in the script: this is a once mighty warrior race that now has given up even dwelling nostalgically on its past victories (including a defeat of the Daleks, if we can believe one of their exhibits). There's also a prominent reference to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As such, the rebels rising up against oppressors plot is given just as original a twist as the flashier sci-fi gubbins, if only it had been treated a little bit more sympathetically by the makers.

As good as both of the two plots could be, they don't gel. At the end, in a forerunner of the approach taken in Christopher Eccleston's season, our heroes save the day not because of their direct action, but by their influence on the guest cast, the Xerons. Just when it all looks bleak, the future they've witnessed is averted because they've inspired the Xerons to rise up. But exactly what has the Morok / Xeron plot got to do thematically with avoiding predestination in a museum? Maybe the parallel is that the Xerons have taken action and avoided their terrible fate too, but if so it's easy to miss - this might have been the point the script should have got more heavy-handed to hammer it home. The other issue is that the Xerons are so wet that Vicki basically has to take control of them to get them to do anything productive; she's far more dictatorial to them than any Morok.

Honourable menshes go to the Doctor's Dalek impression, and his glee at outwitting his captors only to be immediately captured by someone else; Peter Diamond's dim guard; Barbara and Ian's comedy bitching about his proposal to unravel her good cardigan; Barbara and Ian generally (the characters are so doing it by this point); and, unless I'm mistaken, the first ever scene in Doctor Who where a character reprograms a troublesome computer, written by someone who doesn't really understand computers or programming (it would not be the last one of those). 

Both The Space Museum and The Deadly Assassin contain a glimpse of the future in episode 1 which the protagonist(s) then try to avert; there's a big fight in episode 3 of both stories (Ian getting handy, the Doctor in the Matrix), and both lamentably contain zero female guest cast members. Finally (and get this, Jan Vincent-Rudzki), The Space Musuem sets a perfect precedent for the doddery old Time Lords seen in the The Deadly Assassin, with Gallifrey's own Doctor Who complaining about his rheumatism.

Deeper Thoughts:
Revolution, Doctor Number 1. Whether intended as a parody or just a tired retread, The Space Museum's script for episodes 2 to 4 assumes the archetypal plot of a Doctor Who story is one where our heroes help some rebels to overthrow their cruel invading masters; but it's only the 15th Doctor Who story there ever was, and that type of plot's only been done once or twice before by this point. In 1965, every week was a new experiment. There was no need to get generic quite so quickly, but clearly habits were already forming that would harden into formulae in time. Maybe it's not just Doctor Who, but all science fiction adventure that's felt to conform to this template. The rebels all wear black like beatnik student existentialists - it's nothing if not a crude depiction. But is it possible to ever do a revolutionary plotline with any  kind of sophistication?

As we know from history, and as we know from the daily news, revolutions are messy: they very rarely fall into two acts, the only span likely to be afforded by a Doctor Who story. In act 1, the Doctor arrives into a world where a cruel regime has taken over; either this is an internal faction that's become morally bankrupt and oppressive (The Daleks and The Savages would be examples of this type) or more often, it's an invading force from without (The Dalek Invasion of Earth and dozens of other stories thereafter). In Act 2, the Doctor catalyses rebellion, the oppressors are overthrown; and the Doctor then leaves. Just when it's getting interesting. For we know from that history and that news, that Act 3 is the real killer: the overthrown can come back harder, and those doing the overthrowing can become oppressive themselves. Plus, the antagonists in these stories have to be cartoonishly simplistic bad guys to avoid the Doctor and his friend's actions seeming like, well, terrorism. In The Space Museum, Vicki sabotages public property, leads a raid on an ammunition store, and organises an armed attack. If that ain't terrorism, it's getting very close to it.

Doctor Who has only ever occasionally and lightly touched on the more complex aspects of insurrection. In Bad Wolf, in the still experimental Christopher Eccleston series, for example, the Doctor gets to visit the scene of a previous liberation 100 years on, only to find he's made things much worse. Perhaps the most interesting case was never a story at all, just an anecdote an actor often told: Peter Purves, who played Steven later in the still experimental William Hartnell era (in fact, debuting in the story immediately following The Space Museum), came to leave in the aforementioned The Savages, becoming the ruler and calming influence of a planet previously wracked by internecine strife. Purves often claimed he'd have like to have seen a story where the Doctor returns a few years later to find that Steven had become the most awful and ruthless dictator. Even though this was only a joke, or an attempt to secure himself a juicy future guest role, don't you wish they'd done it? 

In Summary:
It's still approximately one part excellent to three parts duff, but all mixed together throughout.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Deadly Assassin

Chapter The 45th, where the reader finds out what has happened to the magic of Doctor Who.

Just before arriving home after being recalled to Gallifrey, the Doctor has a premonition of the Time Lord President being assassinated. Due to an unsanctioned landing, he's taken for a criminal, and is pursued around the Capitol by slightly rubbish guards. Presumably because he hasn't ever had time to watch The Manchurian Candidate or The Parallax View, the Doctor falls for the old 'tempt the patsy into trying to avert the assassination, thereby putting themselves in the frame' ploy, and he is arrested and hastily tried. He avoids being vaporized only by cunningly putting himself forward as a candidate for the now open presidency. This gives him 48 hours to investigate, and - with help from cuddly old Time Lord double-act Castellan Spandrell and Coordinator Engin - he soon discovers his old foe the Master is behind all this.

Part of the Master's devious plan involves connecting a living Time Lord's brain to the Gallifreyan supercomputer cum morgue, the Matrix, in order to create the Doctor's premonition in the first place. The Doctor connects himself likewise and a vicious game of cat and mouse ensues between the Doctor and the Master's accomplice within the dreamscape. This is all a distraction, though, as the Master's real plan is to access the Eye of Harmony, a power source on Gallifrey, to help him extend his life as he's used up all of his regenerations. In order to do this, he needs the sash that the president normally wears, but he couldn't just nick the sash. He had to do the convoluted plan with the assassination and the Matrix and framing of the Doctor because he couldn't just nick the sash. He really couldn't just have nicked the sash. Really he couldn't.

Watched the whole story on one Sunday on DVD. The whole of the family were around for episode 1, but drifted off during or after it. Only my eldest (boy, aged 10) wanted to watch all four episodes. I asked him why he was much more enthusiastic than normal, and he said the answer was "Tom Baker".There have been a few of Tom Baker's he's not been so fussed about, though, so I think it's more that this story is aimed at the slightly older child. There's lots of political subtext and satire to enjoy as an adult too.

First-time round:
This story was on the same pirated tape as The Curse of Peladon, which I mentioned in a blog post earlier this year, loaned to me by my long-term fan friend David. Just like that older story, with it's beginning in a slightly stretched aspect ratio making everything look like a Hammer movie, the first few minutes of The Deadly Assassin also made me wonder what I was watching. Voice-over? A scrolling text intro accompanied by doom-laded music? No companion? Trippy camera movements and acting, with the Doctor having a weird vision? This was the early 1990s, so I'd have seen the wooden TARDIS console already in The Robots of Death, so at least that didn't take me by surprise. But it did feel like a very different show. It also presents something of a personal mystery. I am as sure as I can be that this was my first glimpse of The Deadly Assassin, but the sell-through VHS came out in October 1991 when I'd only just started university at Durham, and only just met David; the earliest I'd have been borrowing stories would have been at the first long vac in December, two months after that. Is it possible I managed to hold off from buying the official BBC product for more than two months? I was a penniless fresher, so I guess so.

The Deadly Assassin is a game of four quarters. It's structured even more tightly than normal for this period into four roughly 25 minute chunks, each focusing on a new movement of the story: the build up to the assassination in episode 1, the trial and the investigation in episode 2, the hunt in the Matrix for all of episode 3, and the confrontation between the Doctor and the Master in the final episode. This has its pros and cons: the first episode is flawless; very like the first episode of The Daemons, which coincidentally also uses a fictional live media recording to add texture to proceedings, the whole 25 minutes is focused on stopping one event - the shooting of the president, the opening of the barrow - meaning an acceleration and build of tension through to the end, where in both instances the Doctor just fails to avoid the inevitable. Roll credits. Lovely.

Episode 3 just about manages to persuade us that we're watching the same show as the previous weeks, with a few cutaways to Gallifrey. But the false ending very early on in episode 4 doesn't convince. We know from the running time that it's not all over, so there's a bit of water treading there, albeit water treading with marvellous dialogue. Generally, though, the show flows well enough to not seem like four different things stuck together. The other structural experiment of having the Doctor without a companion is less successful. Inevitably, he ends up talking to himself. It occurred to me with a smile on this viewing that he could be addressing all the initial scenes of episode 1 to the TARDIS herself (he explicitly speaks to her at least once); but in the Matrix jungle there's no excuse. It was an experiment worth trying, though, and this type of conspiracy theory plot would not have worked so well if the Doctor had been accompanied by an ally.

It's rare for Doctor Who of this period to take such contemporary and muscular movies for inspiration as it does here. Throughout the previous year, 1930s Universal horror movies were used as imaginative jumping off points, with maybe a dash of Hammer too. But the kind of U.S. political conspiracy theory flicks that influenced The Deadly Assassin were something new. Maybe this is the reason why things get a bit more violent, with all sorts of nasties - fisticuffs, blood, poisoned wounds, attempted drowning  - appearing in the matrix scenes. It dances towards and maybe occasionally over the line, but my eldest didn't bat an eyelid, and the hoo-hah at the time (with Mary Whitehouse managing to get a few seconds of episode 3 censored for all repeat viewings) was somewhat overblown.

It's probably a coincidence that the makers of the 1999 film called their exactly-the-same network of minds connected to a dreamscape 'The Matrix', but if the Wachowskis were channelling some half-remembered PBS show from their childhood, they couldn't have chosen a better inspiration: this story is slick and exciting, and has some great humour throughout (I love the outline of the dead president at the scene of crime that includes his mad Time Lord collar / headdress), but without a companion it suffers a bit from a lack of heart. It's a little cold in the Capitol. 

In both stories the Doctor is chained up, and a soldier with a horse features (Strax and his edible colleague in The Crimson Horror, a scary matrix hallucination in the Deadly Assassin). The two stories are polar opposites in one regard, however; the Matt Smith penny dreadful managed to feature many great female roles, but there is not one woman on screen anywhere in The Deadly Assassin, and the only female cast member is a voice artist playing a computer read-out. For shame.

Deeper Thoughts:
All assassins are not necessarily deadly. What about rubbish ones? The real controversy of The Deadly Assassin concerns all the continuity bombs that the writer Robert Holmes deployed, smashing up and then restructuring the key concepts that the show had put in place over its recent history. What began as the peripatetic adventures of a mystery chap, could only sustain for so long; after six years, at the end of Pat Troughton's reign, some explanations were finally given about The Doctor and his people, the Time Lords, and the foundations were put in place. In the years after that, occasional stories built on it, and by 1976 something of an established mythology was there. In four episodes, Holmes tore it all down, and the fans of the time went mad. Founder of the recently formed Doctor Who Appreciation Society, Jan Vincent-Rudzki, published a rant of a review criticising everything from its title onwards, culminating in the all caps rhetoric "WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?"

The mythology of the Time Lords wasn't all that strong an edifice beforehand, though, and bits were already mildly contradictory. I doubt Robert Holmes was meaning to bait anyone either (except Mary Whitehouse perhaps). Everything he changes, he changes for a reason: he makes the Master a charred mess to enable recasting without drawing too many comparisons to Roger Delgado, the only actor to play the role up to that point. He creates a limit for the number of regenerations to give the Master a motivation for his schemes (thought Holmes should know he doesn't really need one, he's just bonkers) or just possibly to gloss over the President's getting shot and not regenerating. He introduces the Matrix to give him his episode 3 'dog-leg' as he called it, taking the story off in a new direction. The Time Lords are reduced from being the all-powerful super beings they were before, because otherwise there's no possibility for drama. With just a few seconds thought, anyone can see that there is just no story you can tell about a group of all-powerful super beings. They wouldn't need to elect presidents, they wouldn't need to change presidents, they wouldn't need to have a president, or even a society.

Holmes is still being true to the spirit of the established nature of the Time Lords. They are meant to be crushing bores that the Doctor couldn't wait to get away from, and they're exactly that in The Deadly Assassin. It's just that Holmes can get a lot more mileage out of depicting their society as fusty and bureaucratic rather than Olympian and detached, while leaving the essential truth of their relationship to the Doctor unchanged. Why I take against all this, though, is almost the direct opposite reason to why the fans of the time did. Holmes builds his edifice too well, and after The Deadly Assassin, the template of Doctor Who's mythology becomes set. A foolish consistency took hold, and the paraphernalia grew out of Assassin - with its Castellans and Eyes of Harmony and silly collar / headdresses - which slowly choked the fun out of the programme for years to come. This wasn't Holmes' fault, mind. After him, no one dared again to repeat his feat of creative destruction. And why would they, given the reception it got from the so-called fans of the programme? The tragedy of Jan Vincent-Rudzki's complaints, and of the growing influence of organised fan groups like his through the rest of the 70s and 80s was that -  because it became impossible to be so cavalier with continuity again - the Time Lords were thereafter fixed as the version he hated.

In Summary:
A non-companion piece.