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Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts three and four)

“The Deadly Assassin” aims for a really big ending, but it’s always felt hollow to me. I get what they were trying to do. The idea is that after hundreds of thousands of years, maybe millions, the actual scientific basis for the Time Lords’ power, and their ability to regenerate, has been lost to time and passed into legend, and the present day Time Lords are so lackadaisical and incurious that nobody really cares about anything other than the legend. The only person who knows the actual technical stuff would either be the Time Lords’ president (and that’s a maybe), and various renegades like the Doctor and the Master, who figure it out. So far so good.

The problem is that the execution is rushed and ridiculous, even for Doctor Who. The Doctor hears this legend once, related by a computer recording, and instantly figures everything out, and then we see that the mythical Eye of Harmony is a real thing – the nucleus of a black hole – located directly underneath the Time Lords’ capital building, accessible by a twelve-foot tall obsidian monolith that serves as some kind of dampening rod for the power of a collapsed star. And nobody knows about this.

(Even more ridiculous, the Doctor and the characters played by George Pravda and Erik Chitty are trapped in a vault a hundred feet underneath the level where the Master pulls up the great big control rod. You’re telling me there’s not a blueprint of this building? Nobody ever looked at it and asked what’s between the main level and the vault? Only a black hole, it’s not important…)

Actually, what annoys me more is that this story makes some very specific statements about the Time Lords that just about every subsequent story gets completely wrong. It’s not just the “special occasions only” bit of their iconic costumes, this story is really clear all the way through it that Time Lords are certain people on Gallifrey, a specific ruling class, and not the entire population. Later on, we’d start hearing that TARDISes not only get their power from the Eye of Harmony, there are Eyes of Harmony actually onboard every vehicle. It’s almost like subsequent writers and producers just read a recap of this story and never understood the implications and the specifics.

But before it all falls apart, it’s very entertaining. I loved episode three’s very long chase and fight in the hallucinatory world of the Matrix, which was shot entirely on film. We’ve never seen the Doctor so desperate, dirty, and bloody before. He and Bernard Horsfall have a really excellent brawl. It was Horsfall’s last appearance in Who, and he went down fighting.

Our son, who was more frightened by the desperation and the urgency of the story than usual, grumbled that this wasn’t exciting because there were not enough explosions in Horsfall and Tom Baker’s fight. I think that sometimes when he gets frightened, he pretends that he’s not having a good time. Earlier today, out of the blue, he started asking me about the Autons. It’s neat that the show leaves such an impact and keeps him wondering and thinking about it, even when actually watching it often leaves him feigning dissatisfaction.

About which, it’s established in part four of this story for the very first time that Time Lords get twelve regenerations, and after that, nothing can cheat death. They’ll change that in time, too. We talked about how this means that, at this stage anyway, there can be thirteen Doctors. As I was writing this, our son proved that he is still wondering and thinking about the show. He came downstairs to suggest that there should be fourteen Doctors, because the second-into-third regeneration in his mind didn’t count. He didn’t think that was a real regeneration because “the Time Lords just used a machine to change his face.” I said that no, that was the second actual regeneration.

Although maybe somebody should have told Steven Moffat this idea in 2013. I’m sure that while he was messing up the numbering between the two Tennants and John Hurt, he could have found room for my son’s idea. It’ll only make Whittaker number 16 instead of 15 when her actual number is 13… no biggie!

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Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts one and two)

For many people who participate in fandom, the past is always preferable to the present. It’s not unique to Doctor Who, you see it in many long-running franchise fandoms, especially Star Wars. 1977’s “The Deadly Assassin,” written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney (who, again, cast Bernard Horsfall in a key supporting role), is a funny case study. The fandom that existed in 1977 was of the typewriter-and-mimeograph school. Zines and newsletters from that year show that fans hated this story.

By the early eighties, it was considered a modern classic. Some of my first fan purchases were things like Peter Haining’s 1983 book Doctor Who: A Celebration and some 1982-84 issues of Doctor Who Magazine and they all praised the show. But in ’77, the fan press was howling for blood. They got Gallifrey wrong, apparently. It’s a funny complaint. We’d seen three Time Lords in 1969 being all old and boring and putting the second Doctor on trial, and we’d seen three other Time Lords in 1973, also old, arguing in a garish control room. What’s new in 1977 is they have different clothes – the script specifies that they’re “seldom-worn,” for special occasions, and every costume designer since has reused them as casualwear – and, instead of being a unified mass of TV aliens who groupthink as one, these Time Lords have individual characters, and they squabble, plot, and stab each other in the back. The fans of ’77 were so silly.

Another complaint was that they brought back the Master after Roger Delgado’s death, but why shouldn’t they? Although I should point out that somebody suggested that in a parallel universe, they cast Peter Wyngarde as the Master opposite Tom Baker, and I want a dimension-hopping travel machine RIGHT NOW to see those episodes. Wow! Just imagine that for a minute. The Master in our less amazing universe is played by Peter Pratt in this story, wearing a grotesque, skeletal costume. When I first saw this at age 12 in 1984, he also reminded me of the Incredible Melting Man.

(Sidenote: Around the same time that my three best pals in seventh grade were refusing to watch Doctor Who, we were all devoted fans of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, which I think was shown Saturday or Sunday afternoon in Atlanta on WATL-36. The first episode that I caught was The Incredible Melting Man, which fueled my tweenage love and obsession with skeletal people. Other favorites, which we recounted and replayed in class as loudly as possible, were Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the based-on-a-true-story (suuuuuure) Monstroid, and the Gamera: Super Monster compilation movie. Wikipedia tells me these all aired during our seventh grade year. Because the four of us were spectacular troublemakers, we were separated into different “pods” in the eighth grade. Whenever we’d manage to pass each other in the halls the next year, we’d shout “So Sad About Gloria!” at each other. As Manos is to MST3K, So Sad About Gloria was to Elvira.)

Now, a year ahead of me in the eighth grade was another best pal, Blake, who wanted to watch the show, but couldn’t. “The Deadly Assassin” seems to have first aired in Atlanta on April 7, 1984, by which time, in the UK, Colin Baker’s first story had just finished airing. I spent the rest of that spring raving about the skeletal Master and how cool he was, and hoped that I would see his earlier appearances one day. I drew him all the time.

So I wasn’t all that pleased when, in the first week of July – I’ll explain how I can date that so precisely later – Blake phoned me, having found a copy of Starlog‘s American release of the Radio Times Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Special, as related in this post, and proceeded to rubbish two claims I’d made. First, as related earlier, he called hogwash on my claim that the anti-matter monster looked cool because the magazine printed a production photo of it, proving it looked pretty dopey before they finished the visual effects trickery. Second, as Blake put it, “the Master’s not a skeleton man, he’s some normal guy with a beard!”

I didn’t just run down to Blake’s house to see this magazine, I stormed down there.

I got some relief from a single sentence on page 25: “Peter Pratt played the Master in emaciated form in The Deadly Assassin.” But while grown-up me appreciates the great work by all the actors who have played the Master, particularly Roger Delgado, twelve year-old me could only snarl and complain “Well, he looked a lot cooler when he was 'emaciated'!”

Tonight, though, our son thought the new-look Master was astonishingly creepy, although he’d forgotten the Master’s old calling card of shrinking people to death and wasn’t entirely clear on how there’s a “to death” part of the equation. It took me quite a few minutes to realize that he didn’t understand that the Master’s “matter condenser” isn’t a “shrink ray” in the traditional sci-fi sense – and which we’ll see in a story next month – it’s a death-ray that leaves your corpse shrunken. He gets it now, but I’m afraid he probably wishes he hadn’t asked. Nasty way to die.

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (parts five and six)

Something was in the air in the early seventies: David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things,” The Tomorrow People, the renewed Uncanny X-Men in 1974, and this. Evolution was coming, and the next phase would include thought transference, long hair, crazy colors, and glam rock. Much of “The Mutants” could have come at any point during the original 26 year run of Doctor Who, but its climax is remarkably 1972. Gotta make way for the homo superior.

Like most six-part Who stories, it’s one part too long. Part five has some exciting action that turns out to be filler when the Doctor just gets captured anyway after four minutes of avoiding guards, and Rick James’ terrible reputation for his allegedly poor acting really only gets justified with his hear-it-to-believe-it line delivery at the end of that episode. Part six gets an eye-rolling extension because the Earth investigator is such a poor judge of the situation that he’d later get a job with the state court of California and change his name to Lance Ito. But overall, this is a very, very good adventure, far better than fandom judges it. Gives me a lot of promise for the next story, which I already claim to like more than most people.

Our son came around a little in the end. He ranks Paul Whitsun-Jones a 7 on the just-concocted Enemies List. (The Master and the Yeti are 9s, and the Daleks, of course, are the only 10.) I really don’t think he enjoyed this much, but he did like seeing the Marshal get his nifty special effects comeuppance.

One last thing to note about “The Mutants” before moving on is the cliffhanger to part four. It’s nice to finally see this as it had been originally shown. We got this in the eighties as the two-and-a-half-hour TV movie compilation, and whoever assembled it sneezed or something and totally botched the edit between episodes. It’s not the most realistic special effect in the first place, with the actors huddling from a hull breach on the outer wall of Skybase, represented by yellow chromakey screen with a brilliant golden glow. But the American movie version has a gap of at least three seconds in this very fast-paced scene, so I honestly thought for ages that the hull breach was caused by malfunctioning rockets, not a blast from a handgun. No wonder Stubbs got killed with one shot; those bad boys pack a punch!

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (part four)

An odd little acting coincidence: last night we saw Julian Glover in The Avengers, and tonight we see John Hollis in Doctor Who. Both actors had small roles in The Empire Strikes Back, which impressed our son. It impressed him more than this story, which is too confusing for him to embrace.

We had a little recap after it. The whole concept of evolution in a two thousand year cycle was over his head, but I think it’s pitched just right for slightly older kids. It’s outre enough to make the boring side of Dr. Science tut-tut, but just exciting enough to get science-minded kids thrilled. And it’s a great script, with the mystery slowly revealed. This is all much better than its reputation says.

I particularly enjoyed the weird scenes inside the gold mine, as the Doctor and John Hollis’s character fight against a storm of colors and psychedelic patterns to retrieve a crystal from the corpse of a strange figure in a radiation cave. It’s unreal and weird, but it’s not unreal and laughable like the similarly colorful interior of Axos from the writers’ previous story.

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (part three)

“No, I don’t like this,” our son tells us. “They were in trouble in the first two parts, and they’re still in trouble in this part!” I was tempted to ask when is that ever not the case in Doctor Who!

The monsters of this story are revealed in this episode. They’re odd and clumsy, and didn’t frighten our son nearly as much as so many other aliens and creatures in this series. I like how neatly this story is structured, with new information and clues being given very deliberately. So far, this is a much, much better story than I remembered it, or than it’s considered by fans.

Among other treats, there’s a real sense of space here. The old mine system where the heroes have gone to hide genuinely feels like a gigantic maze of tunnels. Compare this to the cramped corridors of Peladon that felt so small and underwhelming and you’ll see what I mean. That’s not entirely fair, since a director shooting on film on location has far more options than somebody working with videotape in the studio, but fairness be darned, Solos feels like a real place.

Still, we’ll respect our son’s unhappiness and give him a couple of days’ break from this serial. Check back Thursday for more.

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (parts one and two)

“The Mutants” is a six-part Who serial from 1972. It’s the second story for the series to be written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and it’s directed by old hand Christopher Barry. It’s nobody’s favorite story, and it has a pretty terrible reputation in fandom as among the worst. Apart from clips, I probably haven’t seen it in about twenty-five years, and was pleased to find that the first two episodes were much, much better than I expected.

On the other hand, we had to pause this a couple of times to help explain some context to our son, and he didn’t like this one at all. Not a bit. The story is set in the 30th Century, during the dying days of the Earth Empire, and concerns a planet called Solos getting its independence. As a six year-old, he knows a little – more the mythology than the history – about the thirteen colonies declaring independence from Britain, but this was written for older kids in an age where the ranks of Britain’s civil service were swelled by former colonial administrators from countries like India or Nigeria. We met one in the previous story; Colonel Trenchard in “The Sea Devils” was a former governor of some island nation or other. So certainly the audience in 1972 understood the political implications a lot better than he can.

This story follows the previous season’s “Colony in Space” as depicting a lousy and corrupt future Earth. Because he’s naturally in tune with more a good guys vs. bad guys scenario, he wasn’t pleased to learn that the Marshal, played by guest-starred-in-everything-ITC-made Paul Whitsun-Jones, is the villain, and forces one of his soldiers to lie to the Doctor about Jo being safely in a hospital on Solos. This might have been more his speed had it been a story where the earth soldiers are trying to save the Solonians from a bizarre and frightening mutation, but the story is instead strongly hinting that the mutations are caused by the humans…

But I thought this was much more interesting than he did. I was pleased to see a couple of good actors who’d done Who before and would be back again in the future. Geoffrey Palmer is in part one, and then his character seems to gets assassinated just so the budget could extend to another guest star, George Pravda. The real surprise, though, and it’s a very pleasant one, is that Rick James, seen in the picture above as a guard named Cotton, is nowhere near as bad as his reputation holds. I’m not saying the man’s an Olivier or anything, but he used to show up on those lists that Who fans used to obsess in making when the show was off the air, about the worst performances in the show. Since there honestly weren’t very many actors of color hired for British television during the early seventies – a topic addressed in a very good feature included on this DVD – it was always unfortunate that James got singled out for brickbats when just about every guest actor in “The Claws of Axos” was a hundred times more annoying.

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Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (part three)

We think that our son is enjoying this a little more, especially now that this episode ends with Salamander learning that there’s somebody out there who looks like him. That raises the threat level a little bit more and hopefully he’s able to connect with the greater urgency in the plot. Although this episode is far, far from urgent.

In almost every six-parter, one of the middle episodes can’t help but mark time a tiny bit, with very little movement in the plot. That gives the story a chance to breathe and develop the characters, and this one has a great one in the form of Reg Lye’s moaning, grouchy chef. He’s really funny.

For many years, episode three was all that we had of this story, and it led to some very unfair opinions about the serial. Back in the days when Doctor Who fandom seemed to be built around appreciations (and lists) of recurring monsters, the mostly-lost season five was really treasured. Bookended by the Dalek adventure that ended the previous season and an unprecedented repeat of it at the end, the season went Cybermen, Yeti, Ice Warriors, this one, Yeti, seaweed creature, Cybermen. It was “the monster season” with this oddball political story in the middle, and all that anybody could see of it was this slow bit in the center where the Doctor gets just one scene and the narrative is dominated by a comedy chef.

Now that it’s available in full, everybody can see that this is one of the highlights of the Troughton years, a great adventure with a super cast. I think that if any one of the other parts of the story had survived, “The Enemy of the World” would have never been overlooked by fandom at all, though. Especially if the next episode had been available…

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Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (part two)

Our son is still pretty confused by the goings-on in this story, which adds Milton Johns and George Pravda to its cast as its scope expands to cover goings-on in Central Europe as well as Australia. Both actors would show up in Who again in more substantial roles in the mid-seventies.

Our boy is quite honest that he doesn’t like this story very much so far, but at least he’s optimistic that things will improve. To be fair, this isn’t – despite an explosion and some volcanoes erupting (via stock footage) in Hungary – a really exciting episode. It’s all political intrigue, with Salamander blackmailing one world leader and having a second arrested. It’s really good and I’m enjoying it a lot, but it’s not one for the five year-olds who want to see Daleks and Ice Warriors.

Since this story is set in 2018, I do hope that the next series of Doctor Who will mention Salamander in a news report or something. They could have the new companion watching that UN speech that we saw in episode one “live” on television while waiting for the Doctor to arrive and take her on a trip to that week’s destination. I know it probably won’t happen, but it’s fun to imagine.

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