Monday, February 11, 2013

The Deadly Assassin

Dear Gary—
“Through the millennia, the Time Lords of Gallifrey led a life of peace and ordered calm, protected against all threats from lesser civilizations by their great power. But this was to change. Suddenly and terribly, the Time Lords faced the most dangerous crisis in their long history . . .”
Scrolling across the screen ala Star Wars (several months before Star Wars was released), the above prologue, voice-over narration by Tom Baker, sets up The Deadly Assassin as something unique in Doctor Who history.
As a unique chapter in Doctor Who, The Deadly Assassin is quite good, but I am glad it is one of a kind.
At the end of The Hand of Fear the Doctor received ‘the call from Gallifrey’ and therefore left Sarah behind. The Doctor arrives on his home planet alone, his only companion being the trusty TARDIS, identified in The Deadly Assassin as a Type 40 and obsolete. (“Twaddle. Take no notice my dear old thing,” the Doctor affectionately reassures his faithful friend.) Castellan Spandrell is the closest to a companion role in the story, but for the most part the Doctor is uncharacteristically on his own.
He is on his own and he is home. Home. Gallifrey. But we never get to see the burnt orange sky or silver leaved trees we have heard about. The Deadly Assassin never leaves the Citadel, a rather cold and barren place. The Time Lords, it seems, are not much for art, although they do go in for lots of pomp and circumstance.
The Deadly Assassin is all about the Time Lords, filling in details of their long and storied past. And the details would be disappointing if I didn’t already have a dismal view of these ‘galactic ticket inspectors’ from the few glimpses we have had of them during the course of the show. The Doctor is clearly the cream of the crop and there is a reason why he ran away from their society all those hundreds of years ago.
“Through the millennia, the Time Lords of Gallifrey led a life of peace and ordered calm . . .”
“They live for centuries and have about as much sense of adventure as door mice.”
The Deadly Assassin plays this well. The myth of the Time Lords. The lore of the Time Lords. The mystique of the Time Lords. It is all there, hints of a glorious past. But the reality stands before us in the person of Runcible, “Runcible the fatuous;” in the person of Goth, the power-mad, gullible stooge; in the person of Borusa, the truth-bender. Dry and feeble; petty and doddering; cynical and sadistic; stunted and stilted.
The Doctor, we learn, is of the Prydonian chapter of these Time Lords, color coded scarlet and orange. The Arcalians are green whereas the Patrexes are heliotrope. Much pomp. Much circumstance. These Time Lords stand on ceremony.
“. . . protected against all threats from lesser civilizations by their great power.”
Previously we met Omega, now we learn of Rassilon, the long ago heroes of the Time Lords, the architects of Time Lord time travel technology. We learn of the Eye of Harmony, the Sash of Rassilon, and the Great Key. All of the ancient symbols and relics of the Time Lord’s mythic past and sources of power. Such power. Time travel; endless life. Power on a massive scale. “And of course,” Engin explains, “it was long before we turned aside from the barren road of technology.” (Apparently in favor of the barren road of politics.)
Time Lords have great power, but they are not above the baser instincts of humanity. Just look at some of the Time Lords gone wrong the Doctor has encountered in the past—Omega, the Master, Morbius, the Meddling Monk. Such power in the hands of a Time Lord run amok is good enough reason for the Time Lords to have devolved, to have invested the powerful relics with nothing more than ceremonial symbolism, to have cut themselves off from any involvement in the universal struggles, to have become mere ‘intergalactic ticket inspectors.’
“But this was to change.”
The Doctor escaped from this wasteland of a society; so too the Master. Now the Master, at the end of his twelfth and final regeneration, has come home to wrest control of all that latent power, and he has brought his old enemy the Doctor (“so despicably good; so insufferably compassionate”) home as well, bent on ultimate revenge (“Only hate keeps me alive.”).
Interesting that the Time Lords have so far removed themselves that they no longer recall the Doctor or the Master. The Doctor’s trial back in The War Games is forgotten. The Time Lord’s directives to the Doctor to deal both with the Master and with the Daleks in stories past have been forgotten. At least by these far-removed, pomp and circumstance, by-the-book Time Lords. For the first time we hear of the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency), and perhaps it is this enigmatic agency that has covertly worked with the Doctor in the past. Intriguing detail that does not get completely filled in. And if the CIA has been involved in the Doctor’s life in the past and interested in the Master’s activities, why are they not present in this our story, The Deadly Assassin? Or perhaps they were the ones to make that initial call to the Doctor back at the end of The Hand of Fear. Perhaps they have yet again steered the Doctor on a course of intervention and are now standing back to let the Doctor take charge.
“Suddenly and terribly, the Time Lords faced the most dangerous crisis in their long history . . .”
I’m not entirely sure about that—the Omega threat back in The Three Doctors was a fairly dangerous crisis in their long history as well. However this threat is occurring right on their own doorstep, within the walls of their own Panopticon. And of course the Master is always an ultimate threat, even though he is so easily outwitted in every meeting.
Roger Delgado was so masterful as the Master, but he tragically died during the Pertwee years and his character has not been seen since—until now, until The Deadly Assassin. Emaciated and dying, the Master has co-opted Chancellor Goth to do his bidding with the promise of the Time Lord Presidency as his reward. Why he wants to be President of this do-nothing society is beyond me, but perhaps that would have made an interesting alternative time line for Doctor Who—the Presidency of Goth as he returns Gallifrey to galactic glory. But alas, it is not to be, and it is just as well because I have serious doubts that Goth could do much of anything, President or not. (Just an aside, Gary, but every time I see this actor—Bernard Horsfall—in Doctor Who I can’t help but see him as Gulliver from The Mind Robber.)
No, this is not so much a crisis for the Time Lords as it is another crisis in the long history of the Doctor. Another Doctor/Master confrontation, this time with Goth as the surrogate for the incapacitated Master, but with the Master calling the shots nonetheless.
And what a confrontation it is, this most dangerous crisis—The Most Dangerous Game. (And I’m so very sorry, Gary; I hate to ruin the suspense and tension of this most thrilling story, but I can’t think of this scenario without thinking of the Gilligan’s Island take on it, just as I can never think of Hamlet in the same way due to the Gilligan’s Island musical version—“I askto be or not to be . . . .”)
But it is a dangerous game the Master and the Doctor are playing, all taking place within the virtual reality of the Matrix, the Time Lord electronic neural network. The hunter and the hunted. Stark, surreal, nightmarish. From samurai to crocodiles, from hypodermic needles to gas masks, from train tracks to battle fields. “I deny this reality. The reality is a computation matrix.” But it is a computation matrix with a sting. It is the Master’s (Goth) reality, and the Master’s (Goth) reality takes precedence. The hunter and the hunted. But when the hunted is the Doctor, no amount of bullets and drowning and poison can stop him. “The Doctor is never more dangerous than when the odds are against him.”
If the Master had been at full strength, if the Master did not have to rely upon the intermediary Goth, how different the outcome might have been. I’m sure the Doctor would still have won, but at what cost? As it is, the cost is Goth’s life. And seemingly the Master’s, who concedes defeat. But we know him better than that. Even on the last breath of his last regeneration, we know him better than that. Even after his last and final confrontation with the Doctor, we know him better than that. And so too does the Doctor: “Are you suggesting he survived?” “No, no, I hope not, Spandrell. And there’s no one in all the galaxies I’d say that about. The quintessence of evil.”
This most dangerous crisis is over.
“Somehow, Cardinal, I don’t want to stay.” The Doctor, seeming victor, wants to leave this do-nothing society behind him once and for all. He has fought yet another battle for them, a hard-fought battle. In return the Time Lords place their revisionist spin upon events: “We must adjust the truth.” Goth is proclaimed a hero: “If heroes don’t exist, it is necessary to invent them. Good for public morale.”
But this was to change? Little, it seems, has changed.
“Somehow, Cardinal, I don’t want to stay.”
I wouldn’t either. Now if the Doctor had materialized out on that mountain where his guru sat, under the burnt orange evening sky with the bright silver leaves around him, perhaps he would have stayed. Perhaps he would have found peace and ordered calm.
No, with the scarlet and orange mantel of the Prydonian chapter about his shoulders, with the inane echoes of old schoolmates in his ears, with the admonitions of past teachers reiterated (“You will never amount to anything in the galaxy while you retain your propensity for vulgar facetiousness”), the Doctor can only proclaim, “Vaporization without representation is against the constitution!” and invoke Article 17 in his defense as he wends his way through this most stratified and stringent of societies on his way back to the TARDIS and out of this world, back to his wayward wanderings.
Yes, The Deadly Assassin is unique. No companion and steeped in Time Lord tradition it is unique. But I can’t help but be glad that the Doctor has left it all behind, and I look forward to the more traditional fare of Doctor Who.
And so I send this out on its wayward way, Gary, and hope . . .

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