Tuesday, February 21, 2006


The Deadly Assassin

Nothing to do with the Lib Dem Leadership, OK? This is Doctor Who’s nearest stab at film noir, a political thriller that keeps you guessing not about who the villain’s going to turn out to be (he’s pretty obvious), but about where it’s going to go next. The Doctor returns to his home planet after many years away, only to become a hunted fugitive when fellow exile the Master frames him for the President’s death. The disturbing themes are that everything’s corrupt and nothing is real, and I can’t think of another Who story with so many surprises, brilliantly employing visual style to illustrate the twisted narrative.

This one’s my favourite story, broadcast in 1976 as Tom Baker’s Doctor was getting into his stride, though you might be surprised at how seriously he takes it; like Bride of Frankenstein, much of it’s a black comedy about death, but the lead is unusually sober. I suspect it’s stayed special for me because of its variety, from political thriller to action adventure, with mythology, satire, murder mystery, surrealism, horror, and the image that most upset Mary Whitehouse. The Doctor’s home is a mixture of the Vatican, Westminster and Oxbridge – appropriately enough for where we watched it this time – but with a feeling of the American big city, too, adding more than an touch of noir with its cynical police, innocent man framed and driven to the edge, sleazy city underbelly, literally nightmare images and a corrupt authority figure to blame (though if you want Doctor Who’s spin on the femme fatale, you’ll have to pick up the stunning and equally noirish novel The Also People). There’s homage to The Manchurian Candidate, before it suddenly flips over into The Most Dangerous Game as the Doctor goes from rejoining the aristocracy to being hunted like an animal; but if it sounds like just a melting pot of sources, it also seems to invent cyberpunk years before Neuromancer, eerily predicts (or is borrowed by) The Matrix and even news channels before CNN, and perhaps dozens of other Doctor Who stories have reused ideas created here.

The Doctor’s people had previously been introduced as ‘Time Lords’, terribly po-faced guardians of established history who never interfere except, er, covertly, and are accountable to no-one, which from an early age filled me with mistrust. This story gets a lot of stick for ‘changing’ them, but as I once wrote an article quoting Locke and classical Liberalism against them with the fair and balanced title ‘The Time Lords Are Gits, and Always Have Been’, you won’t be surprised that I don’t share that view. The Time Lords see themselves as gods who can live forever, and this story brings them down to earth – something many fans never forgave it for. It exposes their Olympian image as simply media manipulation, and the concept of death is reintroduced to them not just by the inevitable murders but by the once-suave Master returning as a rotting corpse held together by sheer willpower. In a period where the series used much darkly religious imagery, The Deadly Assassin is steeped in the myths of a people so old they’ve made legends of their own technology, and much of the story takes place in the dream world of ‘The Matrix’ where the Time Lords go when they die; the Master wants to sacrifice it all for his own life, blasphemously renouncing electronic heaven for physical immortality.

The story’s even more radical in its storytelling than in its approach to the Doctor’s people. It starts with much sleight of hand and things rarely being what they seem, echoed in plotting that turns things upside-down; initially a satirical horror story in dark, opulent studio sets and driven by non-stop dialogue, there are already terrible hallucinations prefiguring the series’ most strikingly ‘What’s going on?’ cliffhanger. When such a confined, conspiratorial story opens into being first trippy and then violently physical, suddenly in the open air with just two actors and almost no dialogue, the viewer is thrown daringly off-balance. With the Time Lords so studio-bound and witty, the shock and dislocation the audience feels at this gritty surrealism is a metaphor for the shock and dislocation the Time Lords feel at murder. The best fiction is where nobody knows what’s coming next but it fits perfectly when it does, and as the Master’s collaborator turns out to be the Chancellor, who – impossible to believe of a Chancellor, I know – got tired of waiting for his leader to hand over power and assassinated him, the point of the grubby violence is not just to show the Doctor when he can’t use technology or wise-cracks to get out of a situation, but also to show the scheming politician literally get his hands dirty. At the climax, another brutal fight takes place, this time between the Doctor and the Master… Not in the Matrix, but bringing that nightmare of mortality into the ‘reality’ of the Time Lords’ effete world.

The Time Lord who takes charge at the end prefigures Francis Urquhart as a political antihero; grandly camp, cynical and hugely entertaining, he wants to set up the dead Chancellor as a hero and banish the Doctor, the better for public morale:
“Now that’s much better. I can believe that.”
Perhaps I just don’t like journalists, but he also has the most magisterial put-down I’ve ever seen to a reporter (it might help if you think of Kenneth Williams at his most superior snubbing Charles Hawtrey at his most querulous). Images and media illustrate the fluidity of truth; the guardians of history turn out to change history by any means necessary, from intervention to propaganda and cover-ups, and there are unsubtle references to the CIA or, amongst many lines that I enjoyed as a boy and enjoy quite differently today, that
“Vaporisation without representation is against the constitution!”
Much of it still looks great, from the fast-moving nightmare images to gloomy, cavernous buildings of faded grandeur and stunning ceremonial costumes from a future Oscar winner, with none of the clichéd sci-fi silver lamé that aims for pomp but end up preposterous. I can even excuse the unfortunate use of an Action Man doll – well, nothing’s perfect, and though there are three absolutely superb cliffhanger endings to the episodes, there’s a definite tendency towards instant gratification on its dramatic threats when each of those is resolved just seconds into ‘next week’. And no, it’s not the best title in the world, either.

Many people think this period of Doctor Who is its high point, and for once I’m with the crowd in praising producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer Robert Holmes, the creative forces behind it. There’s a story called The Talons of Weng-Chiang set in the Victoriana of fog and music hall that delights in the most enjoyable stereotypes of British fiction, rolling rich language round the tongue of every guest artiste. For me it’s one of the most thoroughly entertaining pieces of television ever made, and it’s often said to be the culmination of Hinchcliffe and Holmes’ work. I’d say that’s half-right; Talons is the embodiment of what you’d expect from them, but here is the culmination of their creativity. It’s not a typical or always comfortable story to watch. It wakes you up and makes you pay attention and ask questions (no wonder some people don’t like it). For me, it’s the greatest Who story of them all, not least because it tells so many stories and fires off so many ideas… Some of them are even original. It tells us all to grow up, as we see behind the propaganda of the Doctor’s god-like people. It has huge energy, and even huger self-belief. When you’re younger, gods and grown-ups look all-fair and all-powerful, but now the Doctor comes home and finds they’re no better than the rest of us. When he leaves this time, he leaves on his own terms.

For more on how The Deadly Assassin is the centrepiece of the brilliant Season 14

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