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.

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