Monday, August 03, 2009

Virtual Master Piece

Doctor Who fans are funny creatures. Apparently The Deadly Assassin was poorly received at the time of broadcast, and yet for me at the tender age of seven it was an instant hit and pretty much the standard by which all other Gallifrey stories came to be measured. It's a common enough effect and by and large boils down to a question of age: i.e. which 'era' of the show played a significant part in your formative years. We'll call it the regeneration gap.

A fan interviewed for the documentary in the extras bemoans the fact that a Time Lord complaining about his dodgy hip, for instance, conflicts with previous on-screen evidence (such as it was) of the Doctor's people. Which is fair enough, except to me it seems to overlook the example of the First Doctor, whose doddery old frame was increasingly on the point of failing its MOT before he finally regenerated. Added to which, prior portrayals of the illustrious Time Lords skimped on detail and I rather suspect that the fan's chief complaint pertains to the lifting of that shroud of mystery that still, at that point, lay draped over the Gallifreyans like a dust sheet.

Here, Robert Holmes dares to whip off that sheet, shake off some of the dust and reveals a lot of old relics. But they're interesting relics, I find - the sort that would keep you watching Antiques Roadshow. What he does is invest the Time Lords - the people and their society - with character. And yes, it humanises them to a great extent and in a sense reduces them to our level, but at the same time, for me, it enriches them.

Holmes is famous for his deft flourishes, like the casual reference to the Filipino army and Reykjavik in the later Talons Of Weng Chiang, which manages to fire the imagination with a vision of an unusual and intriguing future. And there's a similar effect at work here, with references to Rassilon, Gallifreyan mythology and the Doctor's own past, all of which to my mind help refuel the mystery. And there's colour, figurative and literal - the green of the Arcalians, scarlet and gold of the Prydonians, the heliotrope of the Patrexes - that immediately set this young imagination running, thinking about the bigger picture of Gallifrey and its inhabitants and so many other story strands that (at the risk of stating it too colourfully) coursed like veins through my child's eye view of the Who universe.

Hence, rewatching it now it's difficult to set aside that perspective and a great deal of what I admired about it then still pushes the creative buttons. I guess there's a very thin line between the writer in me and the child in me.

It has its flaws - of course it does, it's Doctor Who. And it wears them on its big capacious Time Lord robe sleeves. There's the big rubber spider, for instance, dangling on a length of fishing wire that we can only assume is the result of a bug - ha - in the otherwise super-sophisticated virtual world of the APC Net. And I can see where some would have a problem that, ultimately, it all concludes with nothing more than a wrestling match between the Doctor and the Master above a gaping hole.

But as well as a sci-fi rendition of The Manchurian Candidate, this is surely paying homage to The Final Problem, with the Doctor facing his own Moriarty over the Gallifreyan version of the Reichenbach Falls. There are definite echoes of the way (Sherlock) Holmes speaks of his archenemy in the way the Doctor describes the Master to his Time Lord 'allies'. And we have Goth as the Colonel Moran figure, armed with a rifle and stalking the Doctor through an electronic Switzerland. And even if the local setting is considerably less scenic, by naming it the Eye Of Harmony, the story manages to elevate it above a mere hole in the ground.

Likewise, the production design and direction do a lot to invest the studiobound sections with a sense of majesty and scale. The high vaults of the Panopticon are perhaps not as high to adult eyes as they were to a young lad's, but the effort and the intention still make their mark. The design of the decaying Master is well realised and strikes the perfect note of horror in the shadowed surroundings - those skull-like features one of those truly enduring images from my childhood viewing, it must be said, and, combined with Peter Pratt's coldly venomous portrayal, still managing to evoke a chill.

Of the other Time Lords, Co-Ordinator Engin (who is far from Fearsum) and Castellan Spandrell are the comedy double act, but manage to be more than just that and we're glad to see them - like Jago and Litefoot in Weng Chiang - survive to the end. And then, of course, there is Bernard Horsfall, who has all the power and presence we'd expect from someone who calls themselves a Time Lord. He's also ultimately a sympathetic character, a victim of the Master and his own political ambition, and we're kind of glad to know his role in the crisis will be painted in a different light when his fellow Time Lords attempt to rewrite history with their own friendlier version of events. (And between him and Spandrell, we have all the evidence we need that Time Lords can have a wide range of Terran accents - or, as New Who might put it, every planet has a Yorkshire and a Rhine Valley.) He's a formidable foe too, as the Hunter, within the otherworld of the Matrix, his face a sinister shadow behind that mosquito netting - even when you know his true identity.

He's brutal and sadistic. And the Doctor stoops to what might be seen as some fairly questionable methods himself - traps rigged with hand grenades, poisoned darts. It's easy to see why even the production team wondered if they might have gone too far. But speaking as one of the innocent children who was corrupted by such horrific images, it did me no harm. That dark edge is what helped etch this story so indelibly on my imagination and nowadays of course I can properly appreciate the contrast between the depiction of an advanced technological society (albeit in decline) and the desperate, bare-knuckle battle-of-wits struggle for survival that all takes place inside, of all things, a super computer.

Plot-wise, in some respects, that virtual battle does put the real-world action on hold for an entire episode and you could even dismiss it as padding, but that amplified panotropic realm is such a fantastic creation and characterises the story as much as all the shadowy vaults and catacombs of the Gallifreyan Citadel itself. Not that I would have been conscious of its significance at the time, but what we're treated to here is an early dose of virtual reality - long before Keanu Reeves agonised over whether to take the red pill or the blue one. And although the budget is undoubtedly limited, the location work - along with the aforementioned set design - is a sign of a Who adventure that is pushing the financial boat out. And it pays off because for the most part, it impresses. Although that is in part down to the startling mix of imagery - Samurai warrior, clown, biplane, operating table and gas masked soldier and horse (can't go wrong with gas masks, folks), to name a selection - assembled to create this very Doctor Who-ish brand of surreality.

Shades of brilliance, I think, best sums up my overall impressions of this story and I think it stands up well. So the Time Lords are not quite the all-powerful beings we were once led to believe and are in fact a bunch of crusty old fogies with foibles and frailties like the rest of us. I can see where that might amount to a disappointing revelation for some, but I think above all it lends them character which they had, up to that point, been lacking. Sure, they could have - and possibly should have - been more alien, but much of the story relies on the very human politics to make it work.

And now that it has passed into official Who mythology, with the added factor of hindsight, its effectiveness can also be measured in terms of what followed and what subsequent writers made of it. If memory serves (and I've yet to rewatch that one), The Invasion Of Time does a good job of taking one of Assassin's casual throwaway references - to Shobogans - and turning it into an exploration of another facet of Gallifreyan society. But (again, if memory serves) falls down in other areas. (But I'll get to watch that one soon and be standing by to amend my impressions as and when.)

In some respects, The Deadly Assassin is like Genesis Of The Daleks. Yes, it lifts several lids on a mysterious past perhaps wished had been left unlifted and yes, perhaps in some ways it lessens the Time Lords - in the way that some felt Genesis lessened the Daleks. And as with the Daleks, later Gallifrey stories, in my humble, do a good job of illustrating the law of diminishing returns. But it's all, as I said at the outset, a matter of perspective.

Probably, if I'd been seven or eight when Arc Of Infinity came along, I'd be condemning The Deadly Assassin as the affront to all things Gallifreyan that (apparently) some fans considered it at the time. As it is, it remains in my mind - and I say this fully aware that some fans object to the term - a classic.


IZP said...

Wish I could argue, but it remains one of my absolute favourites for many of the reasons you highlight. How dull. What is impressive (and I never noticed as a kid), is how it stretches the form.

Voice over, no companion, the Doctor's past, the possibility he's the baddy, the horror(The Pratt Master terrified and fascinated me), the filmic fantasy sequences which include some of the show's most surreal and brutal moments.
To me it's great 'normal' Doctor Who, this is era is I guess my 'control' Who, but to older viewers it must have been bewildering.

SAF said...

Yep. Alas, I have very little I can add to that! Agreement lacks drama, but it is what it is. :-)

Stuart Douglas said...

What if I said it was ghastly rubbish? Would that make things more interesting?

Except it's not - it's great...

SAF said...

I can see I'm going to have to come up with something more contentious :-)

Stuart Douglas said...

Post some praise for 'Gridlock'? :)

SAF said...

Lol. I'm not sure I could manage that. I'll see what I can do. :-)