Apr. 10th, 2018

purplecat: The Fourth Doctor (Who:Four)
The Deadly Assassin is notable for many reasons: its poor reception at the time; its rapid rehabilitation; Mary Whitehouse's disapproval; and the long and deleterious shadow it cast over the Gallifrey set stories of the 1980s. It is part detective story/court room drama, part a tale of court intrigue and, of course, in episode 3 it is attempting to be an action movie. It is possibly this mixture of elements that make it work so well (and I'm definitely in the camp that thinks this is one of the best Doctor Who stories). Doctor Who doesn't really have the patience for a proper detective story, the understanding for a proper tale of political intrugue nor the budget for an action movie. The trick here is in giving each element little more than an episode before moving on to something else.

In fact episode one is very much its own thing, that doesn't adhere closely to any well-known trope as the Doctor rushes to prevent the assassination he has foreseen before being trapped, apparently, in his own prophecy - its cliffhanger, where it seems as if the Doctor has performed the assassination himself, must have been confusing to viewers who didn't know what was coming next. I suppose the episode is closest in form to an extended chase sequence as the Doctor dodges the capitol guards. Episode four is a much more standard race against time to stop the villain destroying the world and probably the weakest bit of the story - the interesting plot has run out as, it would seem, had the budget.

I'd argue, in fact, that the least prominent aspect of the story is the politcal intruigue so its a shame that that seems to have been the aspect picked up by later stories set on Gallifrey, which give us endless largely similar variations on Time-Lord-gone-bad. Where the story truly succeeds is in the characters of the Time Lords themselves: Borusa, the Castellan and, to a lesser extent, Engin are all, as Tame Laymen put it "grumpy, competent, old men"* and the story shines in their interactions with the Doctor. It's a huge shame that instead of continuing to show us a planet of grumpy, competent, old men the show decided instead that we wanted to see a planet full of bland, incompetent, old men plus one woman (Thalia, Flavia and, arguably, the Inquisitor) who, while grumpier and more competent than the men around her, is still mostly bland and incompetent.

Episode 3 is fine. I can see why the production team were excited about it at the time but it is a sudden departure from the the two episodes that preceded it and, all things considered, does not advance the story a great deal. It is hard, as a fan, to approach the moment where the Doctor is held underwater and almost drowned with a clear viewpoint since Mary Whitehouse's complaints about the scene have been, well mostly derided within fandom. I was interested that Tame Layman commented on it in passing, without knowing the wider context, obviously feeling it was an unusually vicious moment.

In my opinion, The Deadly Assassin, is rightfully considered a classic. It is well structured, with great dialogue and characters, and generally good pacing. It is such as shame that the show seemed to learn all the wrong lessons from its success.

*OK, not that old mostly, but you get the point.

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