Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Deadly Assassin - "Just the kind of hooliganism we're always running the Shabogans in for."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Deadly Assassin - Details

Season 14, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #88) | Previous - Next | Index

Crime scene. The floor of the Panopticon.
"The Deadly Assassin" is an unusual story in many ways, while at the same time being easily identifiable as a Robert Holmes-penned Doctor Who story. Holmes-isms include: a double act (Spandrell and Engin this time around); it's got the violence and disturbing imagery; his contempt for authority and bureaucracy is evidenced throughout; he's brought back the Master -- who debuted in his "Terror of the Autons"; the dialogue is distinctively his, as is the dry wit. Unusual in that the Doctor is without a companion, this story also does a soft reboot of the Time Lords and Gallifreyan society. Unusual stylistically in that it starts with a scroll and voiceover narration by Tom Baker setting the context, something I don't recall seeing DW do before, or since. [citation needed] Familiar and strange, we're wrong-footed into a story that proceeds to reassure us this is still the show we know and love, while challenging us to expand our idea of what the show can be.

It wobbles to an over-long end, but for a little more three episodes, this is about as good as Doctor Who gets. Before I give all the credit to Holmes, Baker, the strong supporting cast (especially Bernard Horsfall as Goth and George Pravda as Castellan Spandrell), and ace director David Maloney -- whose other credits include "The Mind Robber" (which also featured Horsfall as Gulliver), "The War Games" (also featuring Horsfall, as a rando Time Lord who could've been Goth? Nothing forbids the possibility, though there's certainly no reason to think anybody put any thought into it), "Genesis of the Daleks," and "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" -- we've got to acknowledge the gorgeous-on-a-few-quid design work of Roger Murray-Leach. Murray-Leach's vision (and recycling: the Gallifreyan symbol is, famously, from "Revenge of the Cybermen") make this look better than it has any right to. Those giant cowls we identify so strongly with Time Lord society, they debuted here. As did the Sash, Key, Rod, and probably a few other Objects I'm Forgetting of Rassilon. (Not to mention the name Rassilon itself, which raises all sorts of questions about where was all this when we learning about Omega back in "The Three Doctors"?)

This story exudes confidence. You can say the same about virtually all of the Hinchcliffe era, but this story in particular grabs the series by its lapels, gives vigorous shakes, and says, "Look, we do what we want, see?" (That's my Cagney voice -- Jimmy, not & Lacey.) No companion, riffing on The Manchurian Candidate and North By Northwest (with a model airplane, no less, and getting away with it), throwing scribbled notes in Gallifreyan script on the screen where one of the glyphs is clearly a mouse for no good reason, flipping off Mary Whitehouse: these are the decisions a show-runner determined to do things his own way makes. If they don't work, the damage could be irreversible and tank the enterprise. But, Hinchcliffe and Holmes make it work.

That chalk outline on the floor of the Panopticon where the outgoing President fell, that's brilliant. A small detail, unremarked upon by any character in the story that brings a smile to my face, and I suspect yours as well, upon every re-watch. Likewise, the Doctor sketching caricatures while on trial. They may not have been able to afford the materials to fill out the sets and make them as grand as they would have wanted, but they manage to fill the screen with chalk and pencil scribbles that add a layer of visual humor that it would have never dawned on a less creative team to include.


So many things to talk about with this story, could fill several more posts, but going to resort to listing off the things I'd spend more time on if I hadn't also watched "Robots of Death," "The Masque of Mandragora," and "The Invisible Enemy" today.

  • With events in Charleston, SC this past week, we've had it made painfully clear, yet again, that white supremacist ideology is a stain on civilization that is set deep, and we've barely begun trying to get it out. I mean, of course the Time Lords are all old, white men, who else would we find in the halls of power? I'm afraid it was all but inconceivable that a race as wise, ancient, and powerful as Gallifrey's could be anything but all-white to the creators of the show at that moment in time. That Holmes despises these musty, old buffoons is clear, but the breath of life, the source of energy that their society is missing is embodied in the Doctor -- another white guy. I don't think anybody was making a statement deliberately. I'm not accusing Holmes and Hinchcliffe of being especially racist, only observing that in the years ahead, it's only going to become more and more obvious how much everybody defaulted to casting white actors as much as possible. Seinfeld, recently, has been glibly denying he needed to do anything about addressing institutional racism and sexism in his show, and he looks much the worse for his casual indifference. Seinfeld is one of the great TV comedies, no doubt about it. But apart from the marathon runner and Kramer's attorney, where were the black men and women of New York City? They weren't on Friends.
  • I loathed Nolan's The Dark Night Returns because of the tacit approval of the "protect the people from the truth, because they can't handle the truth" scheme cooked up at the end to save Dent's reputation. Ruined the movie. That Wayne/Batman thought so little of his city that he agreed to take the fall for Dent, and that this was supposed to make him heroic to us, the privileged, elite viewer was so demeaning, it ruined the movie, and the franchise for me. So, you might have expected me to unload on Holmes for giving Goth cover on the same grounds in this story. The thing is, after that first bullet point, I feel like I've already brought the hammer down on him for doing what, basically, virtually everybody else was doing as a matter of course for decades before and after, so I'm inclined to go easy on this front. Also, we were supposed to see our current society, in a fractured reflection, hyper-realized in a comic book universe, but basically we were supposed to recognize the citizenry of Gotham as being regular folks. Holmes is painting Time Lord society as a stagnant, degenerate society, so not giving them credit for having the fortitude and integrity to handle Goth's villainy is probably about right.
  • Talked already about how The Manchurian Candidate and Hitchcock were plundered here but there's loads more. The matrix was riddled with allusions to old movies and the tropes of villainy. The Doctor being framed for assassinating a President screams Lee Harvey Oswald to the paranoid imagination. Heck, going up to the catwalks above the Panopticon with the Master lurking up there in his black robes felt pretty Phantom of the Opera.
  • Everybody mentions this, but it bears repeating, the computational matrix loaded with the minds of dead Time Lords uploaded just before they expired that looks a like real world to the consciousness inside it, but can also be represented on screen as code and circuitry, and where your avatar's death inside it will kill you in the real world, is called the Matrix twenty plus years before the Wachowskis blew our minds. (Hinchcliffe explaining to Baker what they were doing on the audio commentary is hilarious.)
  • Speaking of the audio commentary on the DVD ... Baker's telling of the story of the women who told him on the train to (or from) Charing Cross that she loved him all her life is priceless. There's a reason he was so well-loved and tremendously popular: he was amazing as the Doctor. Amazing in this story, amazing in most of them. For seven odd years. Much as I love Capaldi, Pertwee, Tennant, Eccleston, Troughton, Smith, Hartnell, Davison, McCoy, Colin Baker, McGann, and Hurt (roughly in that order, though it may change depending on what I've watched any given week) -- Tom Baker is the standard against which all the others are measured. He's unrivaled, in my estimation. 
  • This is something I should remember with certainty, but I was very young, and any thing even vaguely scary on telly would give nightmares which messed with memories -- it took me ten years to work up the nerve to watch the first TV adaptation of Salem's Lot for a second time, which, yeah, as goofy and not-scary as you probably think it is now -- and what I'm dancing around here is that around the same time a dippy TV vampire was keeping me up nights, that's when I first saw Doctor Who for the first time, and what I remember seeing first was "The Deadly Assassin". The laughing clown face, the Doctor on gurney about to be injected with a giant hypodermic needle. That shit messed with my sleep, too. I was eight-years-old, or thereabouts, and prone to nightmares anyways. Cut me some slack.
  • Continuity and canonicity. At some point I'm going to finally get around to organizing my thoughts on What Canon Means And Should Mean, but for now just want to point out how breezy Hinchcliffe is on the audio commentary about how much was done on the fly, without being particularly concerned about tossing off lines referring to the twelve regeneration limit, and what all was just made up on the fly. We fans tend to take this stuff very seriously. Often more seriously than the creators. And when obsessive fans grow up and get put in charge of things, sometimes that is problematic, too. 
  • I love the wood-paneled alternate control room. As design, it's lovely. In terms of the show, if we see it, we know straightaway that we're watching a good one. Every story this control room was used in is great. Save one. *gives side eye to "The Invisible Enemy"* Your mileage may vary on "The Hand of Fear," but I love it and, no, not only because I verklempt at the end ... 

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