04/11/2019

The Deadly Assassin@43


One of the most iconic, divisive stories in the Doctor Who canon, `The Deadly Assassin` comes loaded with baggage. With no companion and set entirely on Gallifrey it broke the narrative mould, especially the surreal episode 3, while certain scenes caused such strong controversy that the future direction of the series was affected. Fans at the time pilloried it for supposedly ruining the Time Lord mystique if not the wider mystery of the central character. Yet this is not the whole picture. The story most resembles one of the BBC’s classic period dramas housing a gaggle of verbose eccentrics dressed in colourful finery, steeped in procedure and tradition. They shuffle through the rituals as they always have and the Panopticon even has a church organ plus a wonderfully applied echo to emphasise its cathedral like status. If Spandrell had to catch a coach and horses to go see Engin it wouldn’t look out of place! Doctor Who of this era was always theatrical and populated by larger than life characters but `The Deadly Assassin` is the chance to do this on the Doctor’s home world. It may present a futuristic exterior but this is Victorian political melodrama of the most enjoyable kind. 



In the Seventies there were a lot of police and detective shows that would inevitably have their lead implicated in a crime. We know they couldn’t have done it but it makes for a different spin on the programme’s traditional formula and `The Deadly Assassin` is very much in that mould. So we know the Doctor isn’t an assassin, deadly or otherwise, and on an initial watch half the fun is finding out how he came to be framed. I suppose they get away with the tease because its something the Doctor (and the viewer) sees before the event happens but even so part 1 does a good job of setting it all up.
It is strange to credit that when the story was first shown the fledgling Doctor Who Appreciation Society was divided by it with the society’s founder and President Jan Vincent - Rudzki penning a scathing review for their fanzine Tardis (see the whole thing below). Of course his perspective was as someone who’d watched Doctor Who from the start and after 13 years was horrified by such a change in direction. That comes over in the review; he’s not angry with the series, he’s disappointed. On the dvd released in 2009 they talk to Jan Vincent Rudzki and he maintains his main objection to the story is that the Time Lords behave “like humans” rather than an extra -terrestrial powerful race. The story works because of that though and as mentioned it is the way all alien races are tackled nowadays to provide viewer identification. 

Generally amongst fans (though by no means all) the story is now seen as one of the very best. It is packed to its ornate rafters with a number of the series most admired talents from in front and behind the camera, it takes risks with the format- not having a companion, opening up the hitherto mysterious Gallifrey and then showing us how it’s a rickety arcane society with a lot of problems. How much more interesting is that than just repeating the distant enigmatic Time Lords we’d previously glimpsed? It does what modern Doctor Who has brought more to the fore in presenting even the most alien races in a human context so viewers can better identify with them.
Then there’s part 3. This episode is remembered as the one which caused the BBC executives to alter the show’s direction, After years of complaining about some of the horror content in the series, Mary Whitehouse’s outburst regarding the last scene- not to mention what leads up to it - finally gave her National Viewers & Listeners Association some useable ammunition.  Up till then Doctor Who had neatly sidestepped such accusations but this seemed to be a case where the programme really had gone too far for its timeslot and target audience.  The decision to end with a freeze frame of the Doctor underwater backfired even though it was done to shorten the drowning sequence and in the end Philip Hinchcliffe was moved- not completely out of choice- to another programme Target leaving his successor Graham Williams with a remit to dial down the grittiness.

The scene was also raised months later by the Daily Express’ Jean Rook who took Holmes to task in an interview. His response was probably not the one she wanted to hear; that it was up to parents to decide what their children watched. Now you can see that scene as a rare example where the critics were probably right. There had always been lots of fantasy violence in the programme- ray guns, laser beams, Daleks etc- but this was full on physical violence that couldn’t hide behind the usual defence. There is certainly an argument that we don’t need to actually see the Doctor’s face underwater- and indeed the scene would surely have been easier to film if they hadn’t – without losing the impact. The scene was edited from subsequent rebroadcasts so it looked that way and it doesn’t detract from what is happening and is more in the tradition of the programme’s cliffhangers. Robert Holmes though rather seemed to enjoy the controversy the story caused amongst fans telling DWB fanzine years later that the story created “ a lot of anger among the traditionalists, but that’s alright.” 

Notwithstanding those controversial final seconds, the episode is a fantastic diversion that unlike a lot of material from the 70s does not seem to have dated at all. Thanks to director David Maloney’s filmic style and the suitable location it fizzes with dynamic energy quite unlike anything else in the original series’ canon. Even today I doubt whether a showrunner would be willing to devote almost all of an episode to nearly wordless survivalist action. It helps too that Tom Baker is willing to hurl himself – literally at times- into the melee with gusto. It is hard to imagine any other Doctor doing this because while there’s plenty of jeopardy the Doctor becomes part of the game realising what he has to do to survive. During the course of the episode he tries to blow up his pursuer with a grenade trap, then uses a poison tipped dart he fashions from reeds and shoots from a blow pipe, then sets water alight. And all Mary Whitehouse saw fit to complain about is the drowning bit! Her contention was always the fact that the Doctor’s head underwater is the image children are left with for a week. She accuses the programme makers of thinking solely about the drama and not the effect it will have though I imagine they did consider that and believed it was a hook to get people watching the following week. Whitehouse describes the producers as ` clever` but I’m not sure her argument makes sense. Surely it is the cumulative violence displayed throughout this episode that would have more of an affect than a single indistinct image at the end?
Its worth saying too that adults have always watched Doctor Who in a different way to children and, as Philip Hinchliffe has pointed out, traditional so called fairy tales are steeped in horror, scares and nastiness. We’re worlds away from the choreographed neatness of the third Doctor’s action sequences here though; in fact it almost seems like we’re cutting to another programme when the narrative occasionally flips back to the citadel. Some have questioned if this episode is simply treading water and whether a short sequence- similar to the Doctor’s combat in say `Curse of Peladon`- would have been a sufficient representation of the dangers of the Matrix. Well it might, but it certainly wouldn’t have been as thrilling and earthy. That’s what its all about really. `The Deadly Assassin` is Doctor Who unchained at the zenith of its creative and commercial life. I’d argue that it’s not isolated either. In fact the previous season had ended with `Seeds of Doom` a story that is even more violent and takes place in the present day rather than some far off planet. Perhaps if Philip Hinchcliffe had stayed for another season the programme really would have gone –gloriously- over the edge?

Sometimes the plot can be as opaque as Gallifreyan politics. For one thing it is difficult to see how getting the Doctor to assassinate the President is a more reliable option than simply hypnotising a guard and getting them to do it. Indeed does The Master really need to kill the President at all as the latter is resigning. Also, the Doctor enters the Matrix in order to track down The Master but this is soon forgotten as he comes under sustained attack and it’s not clear where he would look. From the moment he arrives in there he seems to have no purpose other than to evade his pursuer. Besides I’m not sure how entering the Matrix would actually enable him to find The Master who is surely outside it. Thirdly I have always found Goth’s motivation lacking and surely he doesn’t need to be the one who enters the Matrix? We see how much influence Goth already has as Chancellor earlier in the story and other scenes suggest the Presidential role is more ceremonial and surely open to far more public scrutiny than the Chancellors. If it is for personal gain Goth would be better sticking where he is, the kingmaker and influencer rather than the figurehead.

The idea of exploring Gallifrey in more detail was Philip Hinchcliffe’s and both he and Robert Holmes agreed to take an unexpected tack including not having a companion though several characters become default temporary companions if only because the Doctor has to talk to someone. Imagine though, if at the end, Engin had ended up joining him aboard the Tardis! In later interviews Robert Holmes spoke about his chosen take on the Time Lords saying that he based them on scholastic rather than religious grounds. “….you have your colleges of learning with Deans and all that. I decided that from what we knew of the Time Lords, they were august and remote people who were only concerned with keeping the structure of time in place.” When he sought out their previous appearances the hook that grabbed him was the way, in his view, the Time Lords “‘framed’ the Troughton Doctor and got him to do various things for them, and then hauled him up in front of them on trial – like the Americans persecuting McCarthy – so I decided there were two sides to them.”

Another unusual aspect is the story’s complete absence of female characters which even for the period is unique. While there was never equality most stories of the time had at least one female role but it seems on Gallifrey the team imagined that the woman are all at home and don’t venture into the Citadel. It wasn’t till Graham Williams that some move towards equality was established. Certainly, despite the fact we wouldn’t have the fun of the teaming of Erik Chitty and George Pravda one of either Spandrell or Engin could have been a woman.
Whatever external crisis the story created (and which you’d imagine the BBC would rather forget) this story’s influence over the subsequent decades looms large. It has been this template that all subsequent Time Lord stories continue to draw from. Even if the modern series has made them a little less arcane, the idea of corruption and deceit deep in the heart of Gallifrey’s higher echelons remains. And those wonderful James Acheson designed collars have stayed ever since too.
Though Robert Holmes took inspiration from The Manchurian Candidate, as well as scholastic institutions there is a lot of politics in the story and the Time Lords we see could be the Lords from Westminster’s upper chamber. Considering they have dominion over all of time, Gallifrey seems very resistant to change and to anything that might upset the ritual of the place. At the end we learn that Goth’s behaviour will soon be smoothed over by a very `fake` official story of his demise that paints him a sympathetic light. Today this could be straight out of the headlines as news management and fake news abound making it easier to hide things from the population. Holmes shows how the political intrigue is not limited to the incident we’re watching when he has the outgoing President comment with some delight that there’ll be some surprises in his resignation honours – this single line suggests all kinds of wranglings are a regular occurrence in the Citadel. 


One of the attributes I have always been grateful to 70s Doctor Who for is the rich language used in many stories’ dialogue. How else for example would I ever have heard the word `serendipity`? `The Deadly Assassin`is especially rich in that respect with the conversations between Goth and Borusa in particular abounding with what modern commentators would call `posh` dialogue. Yet these scenes enriched the language of children at the time and now represent an aspirational linguistic clarity. I don’t see why anyone would ever expect Time Lords to speak any other way. Interestingly, for all the talk of banishing patrician style dialogue, even Russell T Davies gave the Time Lords a similar pomp when he finally brought them back. Not quite Borusa perhaps but none of them spoke like they came from a council estate either! We recognise this sort of language today as that of politicians and Holmes finds them a particularly satisfying target during the story. Goth, Borusa and even the Doctor interpret law to their own ends at different points while attempts to gloss over what happened concluding with the Doctor’s mocking suggestion they cover up the damage done by saying it as a plague of mice causing subsidence! The Time Lords priorities are best essayed when Spandrell requests guards to be taken from the Presidential resignation ceremony to search for the errant Doctor and Goth bemoans “a great loss of pomp and circumstance”.
The story is also a great example of how Doctor Who made sparse resources go far from the re-usable environs of Gallifrey to some early split screen work to multiply the number of extras, `endless` sets created by subtle lighting tricks and the rich organ music that adds the pomp which the sets cannot manage themselves. They have a plastic quality that luckily you tend not to notice too much in the busy atmosphere.
`The Deadly Assassin` is something of a maverick in Doctor Who history because it is rare for the series to portray an alien planet without the human perspective of the companion figure. It may well be the case that the characters display human like foibles (and even ailments) yet their surroundings are rarified and unlikely to be familiar to most viewers unless they frequent the Houses of Parliament. Remarkably the viewing figures for the story were very strong peaking at 13 million watching Tom being thrown around that quarry. Somehow though the rigour of the production and the script means that however far from reality it may seem there is enough to hook the wider audience at every turn and the story remains influential, infamous and terrifically enjoyable to this day.


The DA Mob

An interesting fact about each of the main guest cast
Bernard Horsfall
was keenly interested in environmental matters and in later life he and his wife moved to the Isle of Skye where he became a crofter producing fruit and vegetables.
Angus Mackay
kept a copious and often personal diary at all stages in his career which seems like a blog before such things existed. The stuff about his wife’s pain from sciatica is heartrending. He mentions what I assume is `The Deadly Assasin` though only as "my latest TV" and describes it as “alright, dull, good, because I couldn’t bear anything else” , mentions a chat with Llewellyn Rees but its all in passing. It puts into perspective how for some actors, however much we recall their Who apperances, they were a tiny moment of a long career.  You can read these fascinating  diaries via this link  https://angusmackayrip.myfreesites.net/diaries
Erik Chitty
sings! He is on the original London cast recording of Little Mary Sunshine doing a duet with Gita Denise called `Do You Ever Dream of Vienna` and on his own with `Say Uncle`. This unlikely album also features Bernard Cribbins and Patricia Routledge and you can get it on Amazon!
Peter Pratt
did rather more singing as a member of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company which he joined in 1945 and would often play comic roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
George Pravda
was born in Czechoslovakia and was fluent in six languages. At the end of the second world war he escaped from Soviet rule using false papers fleeing first to France and then Australia where he established the Tana theatre company.


The Lexicon We Love

Robert Holmes had a way with words alright as the nomenclature of this story makes clear but he didn’t just make them up…. so where did they come from?
Panopticon
–  is an institutional building and a system of control designed by the English social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century.  It enables guards to observe prisoners without them knowing whether or not they are being watched. Its circular shape is hinted at in the set in the story.
Castellan
- a medieval term for the governor of a castle so spot on in the context of the story.
Runcible
- a made up word created by Edward Lear, it has no real meaning which might be appropriate given the Doctor’s opinion expressed in part 1 about the commentator!
Engin
is a Turkish male name which means “endless, limitless” and our Engin is in charge of the equally vast Panotropic Net!
Goth
- Nowadays we associate the word with a musical tribe but it originates from a Germanic tribe who invaded the Roman Empire so they were obviously ambitious just like our Chancellor.
Spandrel –
spelt with one L is a term for a triangular shape between one side of the outer curve of an arch, a wall, and the ceiling or framework.
Matrix
– Long before people in long coats rotated in mid -air the term matrix was defined as “a rectangular array of numbers or other mathematical objects for which operations such as addition and multiplication are defined.” So that clears that one up then.
Into The Matrix
Revisting the notorious Jan Vincent -Rudzki 1976 review plus a more considered one by Steven Evans from the DWAS Yearbook.






















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