Friday, November 6, 2009

4P4 - The Deadly Assassin 4

I often look at the history of Doctor Who as a visual flow chart. It looks like two rugby footballs side by side - almost an infinity symbol, but not sharing its meaning. Have a look at the expertly drawn diagram below:

The point in the middle (Serial A) where everything appears to meet is the start of the programme, 1963's An Unearthly Child. The line then curves up and to the right, eventually reaching point ZZ, The War Games. Between those two points, The Doctor's origins and motivations are a mystery until we are finally introduced to his home race in the final episode of The War Games. The line then curves back towards the starting point again, 4P, which is The Deadly Assassin. In between those two points, hints, notions, and names are gradually dropped in as the words "Time Lord", "regeneration", and "Gallifrey" become familiar parts of the Who lexicon.

And then we hit The Deadly Assassin, which really can be viewed as a turning point in the series, both onscreen and off. In dealing with so much of Gallifrey's history, The Deadly Assassin both expands the history of the Time Lords to almost infinite depths, and answers questions that probably should have remained unanswered. Don't get me wrong - The Deadly Assassin is stunning television. Even the smallest of lines spoken by its characters carry such weight (who would have thought that Engin's throwaway line about Time Lords having only 12 regenerations would still resonate so dominantly 30 years later?) and the story is required viewing for anyone who wants to learn all that there is to know about the Time Lords and Gallifrey (even though it blatantly contradicts much of the little Gallifreyan history we knew of before).

But the problem with The Deadly Assassin lies not what happened during the story, but what happened after it. The Doctor's home planet and race are never far from the mind of the viewer after this point. Once a wanderer in time and space, The Doctor now has a home: a home that he is estranged from, but a home nonetheless. Gallifrey is now a place that he can always return to (and frequently does). It's a place of instant comfort and conflict, and with each successive visit and mention, Gallifrey's mystical qualities would diminish that much more.

In terms of production, The Deadly Assassin would prove to be a turning point there, as well. Fitting, in a way, that this story falls at almost the exact halfway point in the run of the classic series. The Philip Hinchcliffe era came along at a time when creative boundaries were lax, as well as financial ones. A story as lavish as The Deadly Assassin would usually have to be offset by making a cheaper production elsewhere during the season. For every The Chase, there is a The Space Museum.

Not so with Season 14, the epitome of Hinchcliffe's flagrant desire to spend as much as he could to get the best possible product on television. The subsequent story, The Face of Evil, is probably the cheapest of the season, but it by no means looks it. All of the stories of Season 14 have a big budget feel to them (or bigger budget, given it is Doctor Who, after all). Hinchcliffe got out when the going was good, though, as crippling inflation rates would hamper the production of the programme for the next few years (about which more later).

The Deadly Assassin approaches epic heights in scale, size, drama, and story - heights that would rarely be seen again. It is one of the true jewels in Doctor Who's crown, and deserves every ounce of praise that it receives.


Robert Konigsberg said...

Really? I thought this story was a mess. Ambitious, yes. Impactful, yes. Worthy of a quasi-infinity symbol? Sure. But a good story? Wow.

Oh, so many complaints. Perhaps it's my modern-day eye. But I thought it wasn't worth watching during my first through through the show and it turns out I feel the same way now.

Though it's nice to hear the origin of the description of the Eye of Harmony, which is used in, I believe, Neverland from Big Finish.

I know this is negative. There are just many other stories to like. I guess if I wanted to watch this, I'd watch about half of episode 3 and half of episode 4.

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