5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE DEADLY ASSASSIN
"No answer to a straight question. Typical politician."
Buy this Dr Who DVD: US
As opposed, of course, to the harmless assassins. Silly title aside, this is a remarkable story. From the startling Star Warsy scrolling-up introduction, we know we're in for something completely different.
Most obviously, there's the gigantic infodump Deadly Assassin contains about the Time Lords. From this distance, when we know all about the Panopticon, the Prydonians, yadda yadda yadda, it's easy to overlook the tremendous impact this stuff had on the Who mythos at the time.
Before this, we know virtually nothing about the Time Lords except that they regenerate, live on Gallifrey and aren't too keen on the Doctor interfering. And from now on, not only do we know a hell of a lot more about Time Lord society, but we also know what a pack of corrupt, craven, tradition-obsessed stick-in-the-muds they are. No wonder there are so many renegade Time Lords.
We also find out that while powerful, they've totally forgotten the source of their power and are now operating more on superstition than on science. This, coupled with their extreme conservatism, means that far from being all-powerful technologically as we might have thought, relatively speaking they're pretty backward. Who knew, eh?
So that's all pretty earth-shattering. But even more interesting, to us at least, than the Time Lord stuff is the new perspective this story gives us on the Doctor. For the first time, we see him alone, and a good thing too - this story would so not have worked with a companion. Instead of seeing him as we usually do in contrast with someone that's only human, here he's amongst his peers - resourceful and talented, sure, but no longer a superbeing. They use a brilliantly simple device to underline this: we've said before that the higher your status, the greater amount of clothing you wear, and this is why we rarely see the Doctor without his coat. Here, though, they take away his coat, hat and (apart from a brief period in the matrix) scarf, which really pounds home the message that on Gallifrey, he's just another guy. (And as an extra bonus, Tom looks really cute in the puffy shirt.) After more than eighty doses of Superior and Slightly Condescending Lifeforms 'R' Us, it's riveting seeing the Doctor in this new context.
There's other excellent stuff, too. Although the matrix scenes degenerate into a pretty straightforward runaround, the surreal bits at the beginning are absolutely gobsmacking. We literally had chills down our spines at the sight of that hideously eerie masked man and horse. Brrrrrr. It's also brilliant the way the masked gunman Goth's face covering gets more and more transparent as the Doctor gets closer to the truth, which is echoed in the way the Time Lords' heavy ceremonial garments obscure the truth of who they are. (God, we're starting to feel like sociology lecturers.) This is really powerful stuff: we've never seen anything so unlike a kids' show.
The acting here is superb. It seems barely worth the trouble of mentioning that Tom turns in a sterling performance, but nobody else puts a foot wrong either, Spandrell and Engin being particularly impressive. As for the Master, well. It's a nice reimagining of him, shorn of the Delgado oily charm, but shame about the latex. A little more facial mobility, especially around the eyes, would have added a lot more drama. (And as for the Androzani Theory about the Master's passion for the Doctor, after seeing his agent come at the Doctor with an enormous syringe, we rest our case.)
As you'd expect from Robert Holmes, Deadly Assassin's script's a cracker, with yummy lines like "I live with the dirt of the past... and I can tell you the old crimes besmirch the fingers". There's also a sharp political satire to enjoy: the way the Time Lords set about covering up the truth is a lot more terrifying than the Doctor's fight with Goth. Underneath it all, the plot's nothing more than the bog-standard Doctor being mistaken for a murderer that we've seen a squillion times before. But as the saying goes, it's what you do with it that counts.
There's the odd misstep, of course. The Doctor says he's going into the matrix to find out about the prediction, but this seems to be forgotten about. That biplane bit is an outrageous ripoff of North by Northwest. And how come the train can't hurt him when the later stuff can? But these are minor quibbles. This definitely belongs with the classics.
MORAL: Careful where you put your rod.
AS I WAS SAYING
While the lack of companion works brilliantly, it's a bit awkward in the first scenes where the Doctor's forced to talk to himself.
CLEARLY IMPUDENT ACRONYM
The CIA? Ouch! The pain!
AS IT WAS WRITTEN
Love that cool-looking Gallifreyan language.
CHALK IT UP TO EXPERIENCE
That chalk line round the dead President's body, complete with outline of ceremonial collar thing, is hilarious. Someone was definitely taking the piss.
NOW YOUR TURN
After the Doctor uses the blowdart, why doesn't he duck down rather than hanging around to be shot?
YOU JUST HAD TO SAY IT
Resistance is futile? Argh!
IF IT'S THE LAST THING WE EVER DO
We've got to get out of this place? Groan. Another sly pisstake, we suspect.
It seems a bit unlikely to us that the Master would stun the Doctor rather than killing him, even if he did expect him to die just afterwards. Hasn't he learnt by now?
A FOND SQUAREWELL
Is it just us, or does the Doctor call Spandrell "Squandrell" when he's saying goodbye to him?
Buy this Dr Who DVD: US