Season 14 - November 1976
‘We must adjust the truth’
Indeed, Borusa, I think you’ve got a point there.
On original transmission, 'The Deadly Assassin' upset an awful lot of people. The BBC tut-tutted about Hinchcliffe’s free-wheeling attitude towards the show and its production, Mary Whitehouse slagged off David Maloney for his editorial choice of freeze-framing the Doctor’s apparent drowning and the ‘fan’ opinion was split down the middle. The Holmes/Hinchcliffe supposed debunking of the Time Lords didn’t go down well at all. The story is a huge turning point for the series both in terms of the central character and his background as well as for the way the series will be perceived from hereon in. Over time the story has been revisited and opinion has been revised to regard ‘Assassin’ as something of a classic, I understand.
Well, I’m here to tell you it isn’t anything of the sort in my opinion. I think the naysayers of the time did have a point and one could argue that the new series attitude towards the Time Lords has been influenced by what ‘Assassin’ did to the original format and its subsequent effect on the series. More of that in a moment, friends.
OK. The Doctor gets the call from Gallifrey, has a vision of the President’s assassination and ends up back on his home planet embroiled in a plot by the Master to (tick boxes now) humiliate the Doctor, destroy Gallifrey, the Time Lords and a hundred other odd planets AND get his regeneration mojo back. That’s a tall order for four episodes and much as it tries, it really overreaches and falls flat.
Holmes’ script has often been seen as the series version of 'The Manchurian Candidate' – which it is to an extent – but it’s also interesting to note that it also re-enacts the Kennedy assassination and takes a number of pot-shots at the departing Harold Wilson and his own infamous honours list. The retiring President even holds aloft his resignation honours list and quips ‘They won’t like some of the names in here’. Right on, Harold. Ostensibly, as a version of the Kennedy assassination, the Doctor is the patsy in the story – the Lee Harvey Oswald to the Master’s Jack Ruby. There is also a strange visual and narrative nod to 'The Wizard Of Oz' here too – but a sort of anti-Oz where the Emerald City is a decaying mess, not a beacon of hope, run by dusty old men who are interested only in keeping a version of history alive that suits them and the extent of their vision of the world. No room for parlour games, sleight of hand or the merest hint of change and no Dorothy to muck things up. It’s the donnish, cloistered world of old universities versus the exploding world of the mid-70s where Punk challenged the fixed bastions of post war Englishness – in the monarchy (the Queen and the Jubilee), the media and the government.
Did Punk and its own inspiration, the Situationist movement, ever influence Doctor Who? With ‘Assassin’ I think Holmes was trying to open the door slightly on what he perceived as going on in 1976. The story could stand as a complete encapsulation for the way the programme was challenging viewers’ assumptions, annoying society’s self-appointed moral protectors and the massive cultural shift beyond the BBC’s borders in which it was made. Is the Panopticon the White City headquarters of the BBC? Are the Doctor and the Master ‘punk’ revolutionaries storming the barricades of Gallifrey – one standing for humanistic evolution and the other for anarchistic chaos, both aware of the Time Lords/BBC’s ritualistic, self-deception about themselves in the same way that the Punks of ‘76 were aware that British society was pretty much in the same state? The trouble is that despite the Doctor’s heroic triumph and the Master’s destructive interference, nothing on Gallifrey actually changes. It remains in stasis, with these incidents brushed under the carpet where the truth has been adjusted. It all happens in a bubble. And Punk itself was made acceptable and swallowed by the capitalist machine. The BBC capitulated to Whitehouse, shifted Hinchcliffe sideways, and emasculated the series from that moment on.
And that in itself is the problem with ‘Assassin’. It exposes the Time Lords as a bunch of daft old men clinging onto their power with their dressing up and their anachronistic rituals (bit like the State Opening of Parliament) and it leaves them there at the end of the story just as they were. However, the format rule book has been re-written, whether that was the intention or not, and our vision of Gallifrey and the Time Lords will ultimately be tainted by further return visits that chip away at the essential ‘magic’ of the format. You reduce the mystery of the character’s origins and you also reduce the mystery of the character himself. I doubt Holmes ever foresaw the soap antics of ‘Gallifrey Street’ that peppered 'The Invasion Of Time', 'The Five Doctors' and 'Arc Of Infinity'. He took the idea as far as it could go at the time and I assume it was always intended as a one off. Little did he realise that he’d basically given ‘fans’ a self-perpetuating, continuity riddled back story of Gallifrey with diminishing returns. Tick the boxes as you go – Rassilon gets his first mention, the Panopticon, the Matrix, Chancellors, Castellans…blah…blah…blah. From this point on, the mill of the Doctor’s origins and continuity will get heavier and heavier as the series progresses. And any attempt at risk taking with the series starts to evaporate too. No wonder Russell T. Davies got rid. Could you image trying to reintroduce a back story as dead-weight and cumbersome as this back into the new series? Don’t go there Russell.
It’s actually not that well directed/made either. The story progresses on some bizarre turns of logic, lurches from coincidence to coincidence and Maloney tries to keep it all on an even keel but it feels like a jigsaw puzzle where someone has desperately tried to bang the wrong pieces into the wrong holes on occasion just because they sort of fit. Compare this to how Maloney handles ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’ and you’ll notice the difference. There is a lot of Time Lord technobabble that is simply made up on the spot to handily get the Doctor out of trouble. And the climax, with the fight between the Doctor and the Master should feel completely mythic but doesn’t, either through the ill thought out way of showing the Eye of Harmony opening (compare with the TV movie. They didn’t quite get it right either but it at least felt powerful) with its wobbly cameras and polystyrene wreckage. It feels like the drama is draining away before our eyes and after a bit of wrestling, the Master falls down a crevice in the floor and that’s your lot. It never really gets going in order to conclude the epic struggle the story is trying to tell. A shame as the script is witty and literate.
Visually, I like the sense of a mouldy, crumbling Panopticon with Roger Murray Leach’s glittering green walls and the dark, dank catacombs of the Master’s lair. And if we’re talking visual tour de force then episodes two and three and the battle in the Matrix really do stand out. I’m still not sure what those episodes actually mean. They are chock full of symbols. Obviously, we’re talking about perceived realities and fictions here and it seems to be an attempt to put the companion-less Doctor through a thoroughly violent and disturbing catharsis to determine his moral fibre and exorcise a number of demons. The Matrix sequence is also perhaps Holmes’ very perverse way of summing up the Doctor’s role in the format per se. It’s an hallucinatory series of escapes and cliffhangers (some virtually are) that reiterate the show’s perception of the heroic with knobs on. It’s littered with images of conflict (men in gas masks again), a nod to Hitchcock’s 'North By Northwest' bi-plane attack, owes a huge debt to John Boorman’s 'Hell In The Pacific' for the jungle combat scenes and plugs into 1976’s re-evaluation of the war and its symbolic meaning (Punk’s useage of the swastika is part of that). It’s the Doctor as sole audience identification figure - could you image a companion in the middle of any of this? – and in that measure it begins the slow slide into the parodic ‘Tom addresses the camera’ type performance too. Baker is very good and even when he’s being flung into this hyper-heroic context his performance suggests a hero who has an internal struggle to be THIS heroic. It’s as much about what the Doctor is and isn’t as a hero. He visibly bleeds, gets injured, tired and wet. Our normal perception of him is the opposite – an intellectual moral compass who doesn’t use violence for its own sake.
I like the story because it does attempt to be mythic and grand, it has some very wonderful lines and the performances are generally pretty good. However, Peter Pratt as the Master was basically fighting a losing battle. He has none of the charm of Delgado and I think this just makes him ‘villain of the week’ rather than the true symbol of evil that the story screams out for and Maloney should be delivering. Overall, it fails because it makes the mythic and epic seem terribly perfunctory and matter of fact and its narrative effects dissipate and vanish at the end of four episodes. A satirical political Gothic folly of a story that’s nice to watch but it doesn’t do the show any favours as such.
Changing and stretching the format for four episodes is one thing, but didn’t they realise that the nature of the series itself was also changed and the Doctor’s inherent mystery reduced? No, they were too busy signing Louise Jameson and making ‘The Face Of Evil’ to understand the real consequences. It all comes back to haunt us and them later.
THE DEADLY ASSASSIN BBC Video VHS (BBCV 4645 Cert PG - deleted)
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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