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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: Frontier in Space (part six)

The last part of “Frontier in Space” is one of the very few occasions in Doctor Who where major villains team up. The Master and the Daleks only get a few minutes together, and the neatness is overshadowed by knowing this was Roger Delgado’s final appearance in the series.

Delgado had told Who‘s producer that he was ready to move on. He and his agent had heard that the reason he wasn’t getting as many offers in 1971-72 as he might was that all the casting people assumed that he was a regular in Doctor Who and wouldn’t be available. So Barry Letts was beginning to put together ideas for a big finale for the character, which is why he doesn’t get anything like a sendoff this time. He just vanishes in the confusion of the Ogrons running around.

“Frontier” was made in September of 1972. Not too long after, Delgado flew to the south of France to shoot an episode of ITC’s fun little Mission: Impossible clone, The Zoo Gang, which would be shown in 1974. It would be his last English language performance. In June 1973, he flew to Turkey to appear in a small part in a French TV miniseries, La Cloche Tibetaine. On the 18th, while being driven to a location shoot, he was killed in a car crash along with two other men.

Our favorite six year-old critic hadn’t been enjoying this serial very much, but he perked up so much when the Daleks arrived that I genuinely felt bad telling him why this was Delgado’s final appearance as the Master. He listened to my story, a little glum, before saying “He was a great actor, because he played real bad at making the Master SO BAD!” That’s possibly not the most eloquent way to put it, but I agree with the sentiment. He certainly was a terrific, wonderful actor. It’s always a pleasure to watch an adventure show or ITC series from the late sixties or early seventies and find him in the cast. He never had all the major roles that he deserved, but every one of his appearances is worth tracking down.

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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (parts four and five)

Resuming this serial with a double-bill tonight, our son still says that he isn’t enjoying it, but he does at least enjoy the gunfights. That is, I think he likes the idea of the shootouts, because what happens on screen is not all that thrilling. Honestly, I’m not taken with Paul Bernard’s prowess as a director of action sequences. This isn’t the only time in Doctor Who that the design of a set got in the way of a director who needs to stage a shootout – “The Claws of Axos” comes to mind – but it’s every bit as frustrating to watch. The scene where the Ogrons capture Jo is so sloppy. It doesn’t look like Bernard gave any thought at all to where his cameras should be.

For many reasons, I’m not as familiar with this story as I am most of the Pertwee years. Around 2002, when I was watching the series with my older son, circumstances forced me out of the room to deal with unpleasantness for the first five episodes, five nights straight of real life awfulness, and that hangs over this story for me. So it’s locked in my memory as going from prison cell to prison cell and me unable to enjoy even that. I had forgotten many of the details of my original copy, which I taped off air in the eighties and watched several times afterward.

WGTV had shown this during a pledge drive and interrupted the compilation movie at the approximate points of the original cliffhangers. This led to an interesting surprise tonight. At the end of part five, the Master turns on his fear box and the very last shot is Jo looking in horror at something that we can’t see yet. The next part will open by showing her a few of the most recent monsters in the show: a Drashig, a Mutant “mutt,” and a Sea Devil, and that’s the point where WGTV had faded to black, so I thought we’d be seeing them tonight.

Since I’m not as familiar with this as I could be, I had forgotten just how darn good Katy Manning is, especially in this climax. She and Pertwee and Roger Delgado carry almost all of part four with limited interruption from other characters, which is incredibly entertaining, and they dominate the critical scene in the throne room of the Draconian Emperor, played by John Woodnutt.

But at the end, the Master tries to hypnotize Jo again, and she is not having any of that. She is amazing! Delgado goes right into his party trick of “You. Will. Obey. Me!” and Manning stares him down with cold fury, reciting nursery rhymes in his face. He hypnotized her with ease on their first meeting, on her very first UNIT assignment, but she is not the same scatterbrained kid from “Terror of the Autons.” That’s a fantastic scene.

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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (part three)

Thank heaven Roger Delgado turns up this week, because otherwise this episode is like watching paint dry. It’s more and more and more of prison cells and Earthmen not believing the Doctor and Jo. It’s agonizingly repetitive. For those of you who missed the previous two parts, don’t worry, because the other characters are going to force Jon Pertwee to explain the plot twice this week. So when the Master arrives toward the end in the guise of the police commissioner of the dominion planet Sirius IV, it’s the best thing by miles.

Once again, though, the story doesn’t pause to consider an avenue that’s a million times more interesting than what it does give us: 26th Century Earth is an authoritarian hellhole. Michael Hawkins’ general tells the weak president that she is in danger of being replaced by a military dictatorship, but she already presides over a planet where political prisoners are immediately sentenced to life imprisonment on the moon. At this time in its life, Doctor Who was not afraid to depict nasty futures and, in the manner of some good science fiction, warn against taking the wrong avenue. But later on, the producers and writers of the 1980s and 2000s would do more with totalitarian governments and pit a more active Doctor against them.

It’s difficult to square the way this Doctor treats future Earth as just another setting for adventures, albeit an ugly one, with the way the Doctor of “The Happiness Patrol” overthrows the government of a corrupt Earth colony, or the way the Doctor of “The Christmas Invasion” decides that Harriet Jones shouldn’t actually be the UK’s prime minister after all. Looking back at nineties fandom, I recall the way that older, Pertwee-loving fans of the show would praise Malcolm Hulke’s political edge while dismissing the show becoming “silly” in the late eighties. But Hulke’s stories, while sometimes brilliantly constructed and full of nuance and question around the issues of corruption, might have been even wilder if he had been allowed to position the character of the Doctor against the horrible corporations and government of the Earth he showed in “Colony in Space” and in this story. In a couple of weeks, we’ll watch “The Green Death,” where the Doctor is pitted against a corporation set on present-day Earth. It’s a shame that he never got the chance to similarly bring down the IMC, or this horrible president.

Meanwhile, I should point out that our son is just barely hanging on to this story, and the whole lot of nothing that doesn’t happen this week didn’t thrill him one bit. He certainly loved “The Three Doctors” and says that it is tied with “The Power of the Daleks” as his favorite adventure, but after the confusion and horrors of the last story and the frustrations of this one, he really, really needs something big to turn things around. But we’ll see that something big in a few days, after taking a little mid-story break.

One other thing to note this week is that Ray Lonnen’s character has left the narrative after two weeks. Episodes one and two were the only Doctor Who credits for this fine actor. Richard Shaw is in this part, and the next, as a trustee in the moon prison. Shaw had appeared in the 1965 serial “The Space Museum” and would appear in Who again five years after this, but we “remember” him best as Ryan, one of the recurring criminals in series five and six of Freewheelers. I use air quotes around remember because our son has watched series six of Freewheelers twice and remembers the character but, of course, doesn’t recognize the actor!

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Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part six)

Well, there certainly was a lot that could have been done better in this last half hour, but I enjoyed that a lot. Spending the middle two episodes on what might best be called whimsy means that this story has a heck of a lot to tie up in a hurry. It’s rushed and, when Kronos unconvincingly destroys Atlantis, it really looks and feels like the director just said “that’s good enough,” because they had quite a lot more to tape.

But that scene in the dungeon! Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning are just magical together. It’s a beautiful little scene where the Doctor tells a story about an old hermit who lived on the mountain behind his boyhood home, and it’s just perfect. I love the Doctor becoming a storyteller instead of just dropping goofy anecdotes about Venusians. I love the way he seems to slip and refer to the story as “the first time I heard it,” as though it might not really have happened to him, it’s just an old, old story that’s taken on special meaning as he got older. We’ll never know, and that’s just fine.

Meanwhile, in short attention span theater, we asked our son what his favorite and least favorite parts of the whole adventure were, and they were apparently both in the final part. He loved the Doctor dueling with the minotaur – that’s future Darth Vader Dave Prowse under the mask – and hated the Master briefly becoming king of Atlantis. Overall, he said this story was “kind of a yes,” and I don’t agree. To my considerable surprise, the flaws don’t dampen the hugely entertaining adventure. It’s my favorite story of season nine, and it’s absolutely a yes.

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Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part five)

All right, so finally we get to Atlantis, and some juicy material with meat on it. It’s still very flawed – they gave George Cormack all the best lines and then let him deliver them like an old stage ham playing to the cheap seats, for starters – but still huge fun.

In one of the most interesting casting choices of the era, Queen Galleia is played by Ingrid Pitt. In the two years prior to making “The Time Monster,” she had starred in a pair of phenomenally entertaining Hammer films, The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula. Jon Pertwee apparently suggested her for the part. In between seasons seven and eight, he and Pitt appeared together in one of the segments of an anthology horror film from Amicus, The House That Dripped Blood, which I really do need to get a copy of one of these days. Galleia’s handmaiden Lakis is played by a young Susan Penhaligon, who had a long and very successful acting career ahead of her.

And speaking of what’s ahead for the actors, about five months after they made this story, Ingrid Pitt and Donald Eccles, who plays the High Priest, would work together in another phenomenally entertaining horror movie, The Wicker Man.

Anyway, Pertwee and Pitt don’t share any screen time in this episode, but Galleia’s alliance with the Master takes center stage. He’s criminally smooth, taking advantage of her lust for sex and power, and Delgado and Pitt are very, very fun to watch together. That said, there’s enough onscreen evidence both in previous and future stories for us to know that this cannot possibly end well for Galleia even if the Master’s suggestion of ruling Atlantis together was honest. I don’t mind; it’s so fun to watch Pitt and Delgado work together.

Meanwhile, our son didn’t have quite as much to giggle about in this episode, but he certainly caught the reference to the minotaur. It led to a surprisingly effective cliffhanger when it appears that Jo is in danger and the bull-headed beast will attack her. He watched with attention, needing a little clarity about which unfamiliar Greek name goes to which character, before getting wide-eyed with worry at the end. A very satisfying half-hour!

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Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part four)

Okay, so on the one hand, this can be accused very fairly of being padding padding padding. If you’re wanting your Doctor Who to be lean and mean and tightly plotted, I can see why this story maddens you. There’s literally not one minute of story here that’s essential to the plot of the Master going to Atlantis to get control of Kronos. If that’s the only reason that “The Time Monster” exists, then it could have been a three-parter. I understand that the low-budgeted series, throughout the Pertwee years, mainly adopted its format of two four-parters and three six-parters to make the best out of the resources available, but they honestly could have used three parts from this and one apiece from “The Mutants” and “The Sea Devils” and made an additional five-part adventure this year.

But I’m in the other camp. This is fun. The Doctor is being the stodgy old killjoy and the Master is having a ball. Benton gets turned into a baby, the TARDISes are materialized inside each other, and the Master uses his machine’s telepathic circuits to fiddle with the Doctor’s speech and have the words come out of his mouth backwards. If you’re bothered by the Brigadier turning into the Doctor’s straight man, only there to feed the star lines, he gets to stand in place for about the whole episode, frozen in time, so even he can’t annoy you. How could anybody not like this? It’s so fun.

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