Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros set their sights on Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin
In the world of science-fiction fantasy, such is the devotion within certain dark quarters of fandom that if the word ‘classic’ was a form of currency, it would now have been devalued in a manner not seen since the Deutschmark at the end of the First World War, as there are some that would consider almost every episode of certain sci-fi shows as masterpieces.
During our years of reviewing, we’ve taken some flack for legitimately criticising certain Doctor Who stories (we reviewed Planet of Evil and were thrown to the wolves for our troubles)—we were also harangued for missing out the Ark in Space when listing early Tom Baker ‘classics’, but out of the hundreds of stories featuring everyone’s favourite Time Lord, there are one or two that stand out as bona-fide classics, and season fourteen’s The Deadly Assassin is one of that elite group.
At the end of the previous story, The Hand of Fear, the Doctor receives is summoned to his home planet. The Doctor leaves Sarah-Jane Smith on Earth and makes his way to his home planet of Gallifrey. En route, he has a premonition of the death of the President of the Time Lords and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Things do not go smoothly and when his premonition comes true, the Doctor is hunted as the assassin and his swift execution is sought before the late President’s successor is announced. It becomes apparent that there is a conspiracy at hand and that one of the main conspirators is one of the Doctor’s greatest foes, determined to disgrace and destroy him…
The viewers know that they are in for something special and a bit different when the opening breaks from Doctor Who convention by having scrolling text appearing on-screen, with Tom Baker narrating; this provides a little background information on the Time Lords, as it was quite likely that a large number of viewers were too young to remember the last time that they appeared.
Writer Robert Holmes was arguably the greatest writer in Doctor Who history; he was able to take a fairly routine premise and stuff them with interesting characters, exciting story-twists and wonderfully witty dialogue. It was this story that effectively fleshed out the premise of the Time Lords and Gallifrey—prior to this, only little dribs and drabs about the Doctor’s own people and home planet had been leaked. The Time Lords first appeared at the end of Patrick Troughton’s tenure and only popped up briefly now and again, but were really only sketchy, aloof characters that seemed to exist purely to bicker and procrastinate amongst themselves.
In The Deadly Assassin, Robert Holmes introduced a whole culture, with a social hierarchy and structure, even mentioning the Gallifreyan education system (Holmes was obviously a public schoolboy). The Deadly Assassin introduced other elements that would become firmly entrenched in Who lore, including Rassillon, the Matrix and the Eye of Harmony (which would notoriously reappear in the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie), but it arguably be best known for reintroducing the Master into Doctor Who (actor Roger Delgado was tragically killed in a car-crash in 1973), and the character is portrayed here by actor Peter Pratt in a state that could best be described as ‘near death’.
There have been accusations that The Deadly Assassin is little more than a rehash of Richard Condon’s celebrated 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate; although some of these criticisms are justified, Holmes takes the basic premise and puts his own slant on things—the result is a tense, exciting romp that broadens the back-story of Doctor Who and presents the viewer with some wonderful performances that really stick in the mind.
Episode three of this story largely takes place in the Matrix (the ultimate repository of all recorded time and events for the Time Lords) and is basically a cat-and-mouse game, as the mysterious assassin hunts his quarry, the Doctor. This particular episode is a change-of-pace to the two that preceded it and is a tense, exciting watch as we see the Doctor using all of his wits and resourcefulness to stay one step of his pursuer. The hunter's identity is obscured by a black mask, which—apart from a couple of careless shots where the identity of the pursuer is revealed—works wonderfully well and almost looks like something from the pages of a comic-book.
It was also the cliff-hanger of this episode that seriously pissed off Mary Whitehouse, who strongly objected to the final image of the Doctor's being forcibly held underwater in an effort to drown him. It's a great cliff-hanger, but from a more mature perspective, you can vaguely see what she objected to—her objection was that the image of the Doctor being drowned would stay in the mind's-eye of a child for a whole week and could have inflicted serious psychological damage upon him (or her). Doctor Who was in a time where the levels of violence and horror was beginning to cause noises to be made by people like Whitehouse and her mob of religious zealots and there are some who would argue that the cliff-hanger of episode three of The Deadly Assassin was the final straw for Whitehouse and she was determined to lobby the BBC to tone down such elements.
Speaking of cliff-hangers—the end of episode two sees the Doctor enter the surreal realm of the Matrix, where he gets his foot caught in the points of what appears to be a miniature railway—as he struggles to free himself, we see shots from several different angles of the train and it's approach toward the Doctor, but it is handled so poorly that there is little-or-no threat and/or excitement and just seems to come off as somewhat camp. The documentary ‘Now, Get Out of That’, which featured in the wonderful Trial of a Time Lord box-set last year, has people confirming our view on this particular episode ending. Even though the end of episode two is a little questionable in its execution, the cliff-hanger of the third part was to create a deep impression on the public in terms of its effectiveness—more on this later...
The Deadly Assassin has always been lightly ribbed for its almost oxymoronic (or at the very least nonsensical) title; an assassin that wasn't deadly either wasn't very effective in his chosen vocation or he wasn't actually an assassin at all. The 1999 Comic Relief spoof, The Curse of Fatal Death obviously took inspiration from its title from The Deadly Assassin. It should be worth noting that the working title for this story was The Dangerous Assassin, which really wasn't much of an improvement.
Tom Baker is suitably restrained here—perhaps this was the result of not having a female companion to play off. This was the first time in the history of the series that the Doctor was truly alone (although one could argue that he was all by himself for a couple of minutes near the end of the final episode of The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve, but we digress…). Baker adds the necessary amount of gravitas to the situation, but includes a degree of humour that does not undermine the seriousness of the story (though he would go on to do just this quite often in later stories)—all in all, it's a great performance, particularly toward the end of the final instalment, where he finally gains the respect of his former teacher.
Frequent guest star Bernard Horsefall is as solid and dependable as ever—keeping the character of Chancellor Goth suitably ambiguous until his true nature is revealed. Horsefall had previously portrayed a Time Lord in The War Games, exiling the Second Doctor on Earth—there has been constant speculation amongst fans that Horsefall is playing the same character in both stories, but this is more than likely mere coincidence.
As well as Horsefall, The Deadly Assassin benefits greatly from other notable guest artists, including George Pravda as Castellan Spandrell who gives a depth to a character that could have just been played as a faceless bureaucrat, but Pravda's wonderful European voice and gravitas really make this a character to believe in; Erik Chitty as Engin plays nicely off Pravda and the two of them make for an interesting double-act. Peter Pratt makes for a suitably hissable Master, but the make-up at times makes it difficult for him to be properly understood.
As per usual, the Restoration Team have done their usual bang-up job in trying to bring the story back to how it looked when it was originally broadcast. The majority of episode three was shot on film and as was usually the case, the original elements were junked when the film was transferred to videotape. The film footage here has been restored, de-blobbed and what-not and the results are most impressive, with the colours being particularly striking. The studio-bound videotape material looks fabulous, as usual.
A special note should be made that The Deadly Assassin has been restored in terms of censorship, too. As mentioned earlier, this story came in for some flak from a certain head of a religiously-motivation organisation; Whitehouse thought that the cliff-hanger of episode three was too scary for children and complained—the upshot was that the BBC cut the scene back for future screenings and the missing footage from the master-tape disappeared. Two copies of the uncensored episode three ending were made (one by the Beeb on U-Matic and the other by uber-fan Ian Levine on a Phillips 1500) and both of these surviving copies were used to restore the cliff-hanger. The results aren’t perfect, even after the Restoration Team weaved their magic upon it, but it's still great to see the un-tampered ending.
Predictable as ever, Doctor Who Restoration Team… given the materials, Mark Ayres as worked his magic and it all sounds great. He was also involved with the restoration of the cliff-hanger of episode three and the resulting audio is seamless.
Audio Commentary: Actors Tom Baker (the Doctor), Bernard Horsefall (Chancellor Goth) and producer Phillip Hinchcliffe are on-hand to talk the viewer through all four episodes of this story. This is a pretty informal commentary track—we observed in our review of The Image of the Fendahl that the actor-only commentary was a little wearying, and it was certainly the case, but having Hinchcliffe in this one helps considerably, as he mentions aspects of the production that the two actors had either forgotten or simply weren't aware of. Horsefall is surprisingly lively at times and Baker is suitably barking, makes the most amusing remark in the commentary when he suddenly announces a thought he has about the Pope…
The Matrix Revisited: This featurette runs for twenty minutes and looks at the making of The Deadly Assassin. There are contributions from actors Tom Baker and Bernard Horsefall and producer Phillip Hinchcliffe. Late director David Maloney is well represented by two interviews he gave prior to his death. There is also extensive interview footage of Mary Whitehouse (which we assume was filmed specially for thirty Years in the TARDIS), during which she expresses her disapproval at the drowning cliff-hanger and describes the people behind the show as ‘dumb’—silly cow; we cracked open a bottle of champagne when she popped her clogs. Long-term fan (and founder of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society) Jan Vincent-Rudzki is also interviewed, trying to explain the reason behind his dislike of the episode; one can see his point of view in that writer Holmes was essentially satirising the House of Lords and the British public school system, but his views are in the minority, as Holmes did a lot to ground the Time Lords in a sense of reality, rather than just the aloof beings that had been seen in The War Games and The Three Doctors. One sour note has Hinchcliffe bad-mouthing Roger Delgado’s Master, vaguely remembering him as a ‘pantomime villain’—if that’s what he thought of Delgado’s portrayal, then Christ knows what he made of Anthony Ainley’s…
The Gallifreyan Candidate: This ten minute documentary explores and examines the similarities between The Deadly Assassin and Richard Condon's 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, using copious amounts of footage from the 1962 movie starring Frank Sinatra—bet that must have cost 2Entertain a pretty penny to use the footage. There are observations from a couple of academics on the subject, who are both informative without coming across as dry. All-in-all, this is damn good stuff from new production company Dene Films—we can only hope that there are more featurettes like these to come.
The Frighten Factor: This sixteen minute featurette examines what exactly makes Doctor Who frightening, with contributions from a diverse bunch of individuals, including a church minister, a comely educational psychologist, writer Terence Dicks and a very ill-looking former producer Barry Letts. This is quite fun, but apart from the aforementioned psychologist, there is not much in the way of real insight, but some of the observations are fun and it is a great excuse (should any excuse really be needed!) to play excerpts from numerous Doctor Who stories, old and new.
Production subtitles: As always, the viewer is presented with a veritable blizzard of facts and information about the production; for a real rush, try listening to the audio commentary and read the production subtitles—it will probably have the same effect of being exposed to a blip-vert...
Photo gallery: Exactly what you have come to expect—an extensive series of photographs, including publicity stills, behind-the-scenes and reference presented set to music from the story. It is interesting to note that there are no images from the extensive location work that took up much of episode three—couldn't the Beeb afford to send a photographer on the shoot?
Coming soon: Delta and the Bannermen. Run in terror, all you good people and for God’s sake, DON’T LOOK BACK! We jest, of course…
Radio Times Listing: In PDF format, the RT listing for all four episodes are here, which make for pleasant, nostalgic viewing. Episode two is summed up by saying that ‘The Doctor is on trial for his life’—and there's no sign of Colin Baker...
There is also a little Easter-egg that falls squarely into the ‘trails and continuity’ area…
The Deadly Assassin is one of the crown jewels of Doctor Who, with a witty and exciting script, great performances from all concerned and tense direction by David Maloney (who was arguably one of the best directors in the history of the show). These elements combine to produce something that has been able to stand the test of time and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 11th May 2009
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Aspect: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Featurettes, Audio Commentary, Photo Gallery, Coming Soon Trailer, Production Subtitles
Easter Egg: No
Director: David Maloney
Cast: Tom Baker, Bernard Horsefall, George Pravda, Peter Pratt
Length: 95 minutes
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