26 January 2014

TV: The Deadly Assassin

The Deadly Assassin has to have one of the strongest reputations in the history of Doctor Who. And deservedly so. It marks the joyous collision of the talents of Robert Holmes, David Maloney, Roger Murray-Leach, Tom Baker and Philip Hinchcliffe, all titans in their respective fields. Throughout this story, everyone seems to have turned things up a notch, giving this a sense of importance and superiority beyond simply the story.

The signs that this is going to be something a bit special are there as soon as Bernard Lodge's title sequence dematerialises from view. I'm not sure whose idea the rolling text was, but while they're a nice touch, they do nothing for me. Tom Baker's accompanying narration is excellent, and the footage below the text is suitably moody. For me personally, this might have come across far more effectively had it been just the visuals and the voice-over. A minor point, but these have never worked for me. I don't know how that squares with general 'fan' consensus.

However, right from the get-go David Maloney ensures that this tale of Gallifrey politics intertwined with a final battle between the Doctor and the Master is shot beautifully. By dividing the picture into three, he triples the number of Time Lords in the Panopticon. I'm sure you can tell if you look carefully enough but I didn't actually know this until I watched the accompanying DVD extras, an the fact that it did look so natural is just as significant as if it were noticeable. There's lots of other clever pieces of camera work in action too, with motion and interesting framing in nearly every shot. Of particular note are the scenes in the Matrix, which all look gorgeous. 

While I'm on the subject of brilliant backdrops, I must mention the contributions of Roger Murray-Leach. Although all five of the people I cited for the success of this story in the first paragraph had collaborated on Planet of Evil the year before (for which Murray-Leach created the infamously realistic jungle), this I feel is where they really come into their own. The sets for the various sections of the Capitol are brilliant, with reflective surfaces adding an uncanny realism to the world. When the actors are moving across it, especially Baker, you just feel like they've got a new energy now they've got such a big and exciting place to play in. Although all of the little rooms and things are simply redressed versions of the Panopticon, they work well by maintaining a sense of continuity and being just different enough to pass. The Master's hideout, for instance, is a highlight.

There's not time here to go into all the brilliant ideas Robert Holmes introduces here, so I'll quickly rattle through a few. The premonitions are a great way to get us into the story; the plotting of the assassination to make it look like the Doctor actually does do it (had me fooled twice); the Matrix; the chatting Time Lords as the Doctor steals the clothes; the references to past Presidents; the corruption of the society; how everyone important kind-of knows each other; and the glorious pairing that are Engin and Spandrell. These two are surely only bested in the Holmes Double-Act Top Forty (that's a thing) by Jago and Litefoot. Every second the co-ordinator and the castellan spend together on screen is magical. 

There are some parts of Holmes' writing I'm less enamoured with, though, principally the Master's plan (if such a thing exists). First, the renegade seems to want to make Goth President so that he can give him more - or perhaps unlimited - regenerative cycles through an election. Prior to the Doctor taking advantage of Article 17 of The Constitution, Goth is the only candidate. Not much of an election, is it? Did no-one else dare put themselves forward?! "So who did you vote for?" / "Goth, you?" / "Yeah, well, hard to pick between him this time, but Goth too.". Holmes is more imaginative than that normally (as he demonstrates elsewhere in this story) so it's a shame that that one key aspect that the story hinges on doesn't quite ring true. But back to the Master. After this plan fails when the Doctor isn't framed for the murder of the President, he resorts to some sort of back up plan - probably codenamed ZZ-Double Omega - where he actually does something himself and tries to release the full power of the Eye of Harmony upon Gallifrey. Forgive me for being blunt, but if it was that easy, and he was that desperate, why didn't he just do this in the first place?

I love how he's introduced to the story too. Although he's called by his name throughout Part One by Goth (who seems to have some sort of breathing problem when he's under the city, that or he can recover from a severely sore throat very quickly), it's not until he's referred to as THE Master in Part Two as the Doctor realises the identity of his opponent that I did either (the first time). Well played, Holmes.

The direction and music really help to sell this bleak, political world to us too. Maloney keeps the story moving at a very fast pace and uses innovative tricks such as freeze frame cliffhangers (as in Genesis of the Daleks). He only employs this at the moments of the story where the tension is highest though - as the Doctor apparently shoots the President and as Goth drowns him in the Matrix. Dudley Simpson's score keeps up with the action, and I feel it was a masterstroke of his to not use any music for the majority of Part Three. That might sound contradictory, but rest assured I do love a good blare from Simpson. By allowing the gentle hum of the jungle to envelop the viewer, a real sense of tension is built up. The silence really racks up the atmosphere, and allows you to transport yourself there, to be with the Doctor, not knowing when the next attack's coming. I feel that nowadays, sadly, we might be treated to a blasting fanfare to 'build tension'. This is so much more effective.

The Matrix is a topic to discuss in itself. As the story went on, I began to wonder if we were supposed to take events in the Matrix as literal or metaphorical. For example - does the Doctor remember actually fighting Goth, or it is at all a visual representation of the the mental struggle between the two brains. I think that's quite an interesting concept and I like that it's not clarified. This probably mainly due to the fact that Holmes wrote it as literal, but Maloney's direction blurs the lines somewhat. Either way, this yields us some great sequences, the like of which haven't been seen since (and I don't just mean the strangling). Adding strength to my theory though is that Spandrell comments it's been four minutes part way through Part Three, when what we've seen the Doctor experience seems to have occurred over several hours. And, just another brief note on the passage of time: doesn't the guard sent by the Master reach Engin and Spandrell very quickly?

I can't finish this review without saying how goooorggggeooousss the TARDIS interior looks throughout this season. It really suits the Series 13 and 14 costumes for the Doctor. I only wish we'd got to see more of it. The exterior camera seems to change its angle with every shot. Of course, this is actually because they were mounted at different times blah blah blah, but it is a bit strange. A rare slip from Maloney. Another quick point is that the President's entrance at the end of Part One is a little flat. While it would have been too extravagant (possibly to the story) and no doubt costly to have his glide in on wires, that's the kind of introduction I expected. As it is, he just kind of plod-plod-plods down the steps, with no gasping from the crowd or anything. This is supposed to be the President of the most advanced race in the Universe. While beneath the surface, there's a broken political system and society, it would still be nice to see them maintaining their powerful, controlled exterior.

I didn't mention the Master's makeup. I know it gets a lot of stick, but I think it's really effective!

Overall then, The Deadly Assassin is a wonderfully dark piece exploring the nature of the Doctor. It's plotted expertly from start to finish by Robert Holmes, with some great lines and witty dialogue mixed in along the way. Although Part Three could technically be categorised as filler, the story wouldn't feel complete without it. The masked assassin(s) are very creepy. Those eyes scared me silly as a kid. The inclusion of all the World War I / II elements was nice too, but I found myself asking why. Would some sort of spacecraft not be more effective at killing the Doctor? Speaking of which, there have to be a million different ways you could successfully achieve this. Use the gun that killed the President - for instance?! It's nice to see that the Master hasn't lost his touch for rubbish, convoluted plans and indeed seems to be passing it on to his subordinates (a hidden message from Holmes?), including the variable amount of control the Master and Goth seem to have over the Matrix - assuming it is to be taken literally of course.

One thing this story is famed for is it's introduction to Time Lord mythology, chiefly the regeneration 'limit'. It's first mentioned in Part Four, and it seems to be expressed as more of a law than a physical impossibility. Spandrell seems to react to the Master trying to live beyond his thirteenth life how he might react to not adhering to the Constitution rather than being surprised that it can happen. We must remember as well that this is in the same episode as Borusa - now President of the Time Lords - altering facts to suit their image. Could Steven Moffat not have found something in these two points to extend the Doctor's life rather than dropping a tonne of pixie dust on him? Perhaps it's that that caused Peter Capaldi to be sneezed into life later that episode.

Anyway, back to 1976. In terms of performers, Tom Baker's the strongest on show here, but he's given some stiff competition by Bernard Horsfall, Erik Chitty and George Pravda. All four of these key players are really credible and force the audience to invest in the narrative. The lack of companion in this story really helps give it depth. The Doctor's loneliness is effective because he has to prove his innocence to both us and the Time Lords. He soon befriends Spandrell, though, and that's a brilliant partnership. I could watch them all day. Characters like this couldn't believably be encountered week after week though, so I'm glad we got Leela in the next story.
Come Part Four, the Doctor can't wait to leave Gallifrey. Perhaps he's desperate to try and pick Sarah up? Perhaps he's had enough of the place already, reminding him of the reason why he left in the first place? Who knows, but the Master also escapes. The coda to the story with both TARDISes departing is quite odd. Wouldn't Spandrell or Engin want to warn the Doctor - or at least Borusa - that the Master was still out there? It's also built up like they're to meet again soon. It's a shame they didn't. The Master's pure hatred for the Doctor in Deadly Assassin. The last time we saw him (given life by the late, great Roger Delgado) he had a mild affection for the Doctor. Any trace of that's gone now, leading me to think that we must have missed some intervening adventures. The Doctor also seems a little perplexed though. There's a gap to plug there (and I may have done so - watch this space...).

In a Nutshell then, the story made to prove Baker needed a companion was a roaring success, and rather supported the reverse argument. The Deadly Assassin is utterly, utterly enjoyable through every scene thanks to the dedication and effort of the entire cast and crew. Astounding.

You can buy The Deadly Assassin from Amazon here, or read the Doc Oho Review here.

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