Tag Archives: season 14

Jocks, nerds and The Face of Evil (1977)


There’s a nice moment at the beginning of 1977’s prog rock banger The Face of Evil where the Doctor (Tom Baker), travelling alone for once, is forced to talk to himself. He pulls from his pocket a handkerchief with a knot in it and wonders what he was trying to remind himself of. I like to think that it was to remind him to wipe his personality print from the Mordee expedition’s computer, a procedural blunder that leads to the computer becoming Xoanon, the crazed version of itself which is the focus of this smart and thought provoking story.

There are loads of interesting implications to the Doctor’s cack-handed attempt at tech support. For instance, the idea of leaving a personality print on a computer sounds like the typical 1970s proclivity for making machines human and therefore a bit far fetched. But perhaps the Doctor had to create a digital avatar to undertake the repairs, communing with the computer and effectively infiltrating it, as contemporaneous viewers had just seen him do in The Deadly Assassin. What if he forgot to wipe his boots as he left the Matrix and he gave that all-powerful computer multiple personalities? There you go, Big Finish, have that one on me.

As artificial intelligence begins to make its presence felt in our world, it’s not so hard to imagine the need for it to be accompanied by artificial personalities to make its operations more palatable to humans. In fact, my friends Siri and Alexa will tell you it’s already happening. So it seems more feasible now than ever before that the interaction of human and digital personalities might cause a computer to malfunction.

Xoanon – super advanced though it is – can’t seem to self-diagnose the problem and delete the Doctor’s personality itself, which seems a bit of a design fault. And exactly why its two personalities couldn’t live together on the same motherboard isn’t fully explained; is it the overwhelming strength of the Doctor’s personality which causes the malfunction, or is it that his morals are oppositional to the computer’s? Or could it be that the computer senses the Doctor’s own multiple personalities – his past incarnations – and seeks to mimic those many states of mind?

Here’s another possibility: that the Doctor’s own personality is so full of contractions and complexities that the simple act of trying to comprehend it sends Xoanon gaga. The fourth Doctor is easily the most changeable and in this story, it’s particularly difficult to judge whether he’s going to greet any given event with a toothy grin or a glowering stare. For every whimsical moment (such as when he threatens to kill one of the Sevateem with a “deadly” jelly baby), there’s another of ruthlessness to balance it out (most shockingly when he flicks a piranha-like Horda onto a man’s arm). Then factor in, as the Doctor suggests himself, the character’s own egotism, and perhaps it’s not all that surprising that we end up with a being that will brainwash people into carving its own image onto the side of a mountain.

And in that stony edifice, there’s another of the little details which make The Face of Evil so beguiling. That image of the Doctor doesn’t look strong and proud like a dictator or a president. It looks confused. It’s worried.


“It’s an experiment in eugenics,” the Doctor says, when he realises the results of Xoanon’s social engineering, by keeping the Sevateem and the Tesh apart. One look at the cast list will tell you that it can’t be a very successful one though; new companion Leela (Louise Jameson) is the only woman on this bifurcated world. Perhaps, like the hapless Yoss in last random’s The Tsuranga Conundrum, the men give birth on this planet.

More likely the planet’s lack of gender diversity is another example of a familiar blind spot in Doctor Who generally and in the Hinchcliffe era specifically. But the fact that Leela is the only woman present makes The Face of Evil an interesting examination of masculinity. This planet’s population is divided between the jocks and the nerds. Like if the football team and the chess club had been allowed to develop separate civilisations.

(The Sevateem are a peculiar band of warriors, though. It says something about changing body images for men that they are all played by actors of slender build. Had this been made today, surely they would have all been muscle bound goliaths (though they would have kept their neatly trimmed hipster beards). And they speak with a sophistication which belies their paleo lifestyle. The Tesh meanwhile are the pallid little swots you’d expect them to be, although somewhere within their spaceship there must be a flamboyant Tesh tailor. I imagine him spending hours in some tiny room within the ship, surrounded by piles of apple green and candy pink material, carefully piecing together the natty page boy numbers the Tesh all wear. Come to think of it, does he have an equivalent on the Sevateem’s side, constantly apologising for the fact that a shortage of leather offcuts have led to occasionally revealing gaps in their huntings duds? But I digress).

The one thing that guides the men of this planet, be they physically or intellectually inclined, is religion. Both groups are devoted to Xoanon, particularly the Tesh whose proximity to the damaged machine has turned them into acolytes and zealots. This paints the men of this planet as inveterate doers, too busy pursuing the rituals of their respective tribes to question their purpose. Those few that do – devious Calib (Lesley Schofield) and mousy Tomas (Brendan Price) – are too self-serving or weak to voice their doubts. They’ll continue to work within the system.

It’s Leela who’s the only one brave enough to speak the truth and challenge the established structures on this planet. If there’s a feminist reading of The Face of Evil (and that’s difficult to imagine, considering it has a sole female character dressed in a leather swimsuit for its duration), it’s that the stupid, self-sustaining power structures set up by men need to be interrogated and disrupted, and women like Leela – smart, capable and inquiring – are the ones to do it.

Given this, it’s a pity Leela doesn’t get to play a stronger part in Xoanon’s eventual healing. It would be fitting if it was her who pressed the final button or something, helping deliver the final blow while the Doctor is strapped by the scalp to the computer again. She was the first one to articulate that there was something wrong with Xoanon, so it would be perfect if she was the one put this planet to rights.

Still, it’s entirely right that she wants to travel with the Doctor and escape this planet of bores and bullies. And in that terrific scene where she starts her journeys around the universe, there’s another of The Face of Evil’s pleasing little details.

When the Doctor refuses to take her with him, she doesn’t take no for an answer. She simply runs inside and takes off. She wasn’t worried when that big old face was carved on a mountain, she’s not going to be pushed around now, just because it happens to be on top of a person, wrapped in a ridiculous scarf. Good for her.

LINK TO The Tsuranga Conundrum:  both feature machine intelligences.

NEXT TIME: New Year’s Day. Turning over a new leaf. We’re bang up to date with Resolution.

Sisterhood, sexiness and The Hand of Fear (1976)


It’s no original observation to point out the irony that the last few minutes of The Hand of Fear are its best.  In this afterthought to a story of ancient revenge by an exiled stone alien, we say goodbye to longstanding companion Sarah Jane Smith. Played as ever with smarts and spunk by Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah is farewelled in touching but unsentimental form when Tom Baker’s Doctor drops her off to go off on a solo adventure. It’s a devastating end to one of the show’s most effective partnerships.

It’s also complete nonsense.

To get why, we need to reflect on the sort of character Sarah is. She was designed to be a part-time companion. She’s the companion who has a life outside the TARDIS. She has a job. She stays on Earth between trips. This mode of travel does two things. It makes her seem more independent of the Doctor. And although it might give the impression that she’s not that interested in travelling with him full-time, instead it does the opposite: it constantly reaffirms how much she loves travelling with him because she makes the choice to be with him over and over again.

After her first, inadvertent TARDIS trip, she finds herself back in London and is ready to go home to check that it hasn’t been stepped on by a brontosaurus when the Doctor coaxes her into another journey – this time to an improbable sounding holiday planet. This becomes a recurring trait; when given the chance to go home, time and again she chooses to jump in that big blue box and run away a bit longer.

It happens in Robot, when she accepts by snatching a jelly baby from the Doctor’s stash. It happens in Terror of the Zygons, when she’s convinced to jump on board while everyone else around her says no. It happens in The Android Invasion, where she barely puts up a protest. And in The Seeds of Doom, she’s not even travelling with the Doctor, but agrees to run off with him twice, once to Antarctica and then to another improbable sounding holiday planet.

So in The Hand of Fear, when the Doctor says he needs to go to Gallifrey by himself, the immediate reaction is… so what? Sarah will go back to her real life for a while. He can just come back and get her at story’s end. He has done that many times before. But for some reason, this time’s the last. No adequate explanation given. It’s a bit like The Husbands of River Song. The Doctor makes the decision to end their time together. Sarah gets no say in it.

It’s beautifully written and heartbreakingly performed. (My favourite beat: when the TARDIS lands and Sarah says, “that’s my home.” Sladen manages to wring about 17 different meanings out of just three syllables.) But it goes against everything that Sarah is and does. She’s the Doctor’s best friend. She’s her own woman. Give her her own space and she’ll say yes every time. There’s absolutely no reason why she wouldn’t keep doing so.

And least in the fictional world. Behind the scenes, it was time to raunch things up a bit.


The other great irony about The Hand of Fear is that it improves no end when the hand is finally attached to a body. The body in question is the lithe feminine form of Eldrad, as played by Judith Paris. Squeezed into a blue bodysuit carefully adorned with fake stones, she’s a scene stealer. A formidable enemy and, despite being covered in blue paint and plastic tiles, an instantly sexy one.

She’s a complete contrast to Sarah, who, dressed in her red and white striped overalls is a far more platonic figure. And as the Doctor is more and more taken with Eldrad, Sarah is noticeably jealous.

Of the two of our heroes, Sarah is far more suspicious of Eldrad’s motives than the Doctor, who is much more open to helping Eldrad return to her home planet. But Sarah thinks she’s up to no good, and apart from that, she’s the first woman she’s ever had to compete with for the Doctor’s attention (women being few and far between in Hinchliffean Who).

Sarah always had a sisterly relationship with Tom Baker’s Doctor, but standing in Eldrad’s stony blue shadow, she looks positively chaste. And in a number of other ways, Sarah’s childlike innocence (emphasized by that outfit and her stuffed toy) is deliberately positioned as “not sexy” next to Eldrad. In a few episodes time, Sarah’s replacement will be revealed (ahem) as Leela, a leggy amazon in a leather swimsuit. After her it’ll be Romana, an evening gown wearing ice maiden. Questionable in terms of gender politics, but undeniable attempts to sex up the show.

Still, Sarah gets her own back. Although the Doctor might get all doe-eyed about sexy blue Eldrad, she eventually turns into the bulkier, shoutier, more magnificently mustached form of Eldrad the Bloke (Stephen Thorne). That soon puts an end to the ol’ Tooth and Curls’ campaign of flirting and offering rides home.

Then it’s revealed that when Eldrad was being resurrected, he based his female form on Sarah’s bodyprint. See, she really is sexy! I bet under those overalls there’s a red and white striped bedazzled bodysuit ready to rock and roll.


If Sarah’s last story spends a lot of time pointing out what she’s not, and then gives her a farewell which ignores who she is, it’s partly Elisabeth Sladen’s fault. It was she who asked the production crew to avoid making her final story about Sarah. “Just make it an ordinary Doctor Who story and have me leave at the end,” she advised. True to her request, they made a very ordinary Doctor Who story and had her leave at the end.

But this typically modest request by Sladen grossly underestimated her own importance to the show and her impact on it. Frankly, they were wrong to agree to her request. A story which focused on and celebrated everything about Sarah was the very least Sladen deserved.

LINK TO Hell Bent: Gender changing.

NEXT TIME… One small step for a thing. We’re off to Kill the Moon.

Injury, insult and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

talons2It’s never mentioned very loudly, but Philip Hinchcliffe is the only producer to have been quietly moved on from Doctor Who. Not sacked, mind – you don’t get sacked for delivering the kind of ratings the first three Tom Baker seasons garnered. But if your work causes the sort of public outcry which creates headaches for BBC hierarchy, then you might be gently moved sideways.

This is what happened to Hinchcliffe after the broadcast of The Deadly Assassin, with its graphic end to Part Three where the Doctor was strangled underwater. Never has a cliffhanger had such an impact; the subsequent complaints from Mary Whitehouse and her band of moral crusaders sealed the producer’s fate. But to me, the tea-time terror Hinchcliffe presided over is nowhere near as objectionable as the casual racism which peppers his last story The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Yet it’s the violence which cost Hinchcliffe his job. Seems you can offend as many Chinese people as you like, but you get those white Christians angry at your peril.

Despite its racism, Talons is a towering classic of Doctor Who. It’s a paradox which speaks to how much this story is loved; we know it’s racist, but look – written by Robert Holmes! Victorian London! A murderous ventriloquist’s doll! But because of this paradox, it’s increasingly difficult to watch with any degree of comfort. I note that it has slipped down a few notches in DWM’s 50th Anniversary poll (oh yes, you know I love that thing!) and I predict that slide’s going to continue. It will always be somewhere near the top because it’s full of engaging characters, witty dialogue, suspenseful direction and the sort of flagrant budgetary extravagance you engage in when you’ve just been told to move on from your job. It’s a great story in many ways, but enjoying it involves either consciously excusing some offensive production choices or enduring a Whoish form of white man’s guilt.

(Incidentally, Talons is so ethnically dodgy that Canadian broadcaster CBC refused to screen it. In his book From A-Z, Gary Gillatt notes that the story was never repeated by the BBC. No such qualms in Australia. We screened it over and over again and were the first country to give it a VHS release. Meanwhile, in echoes of the Whitehouse effect, The Deadly Assassin wasn’t screened until 1987 because it was too violent. Violence again trumps racism as the more serious offence.)

As is well documented elsewhere on the interwebs, Talons is racially insensitive in many ways, but it is at least the last Doctor Who story to engage in yellowface, the practice of using make up to make a Caucasian actor appear Asian. Here second tier villain Li H’sen Chang is played by the very white John Bennett (you can see just how white he is in Invasion of the Dinosaurswhere he plays a very British general), He sports heavy make up and a general Asian accent. (Even the DVD’s subtitles pick this up, talking about the conjurer’s ‘tlicks’.) Bennett, a skilled actor, does well, but it’s hard to believe there was no genuinely Asian actor who could have taken this role.

Doctor Who has a track record here. The Daleks’ Master Plan‘s bad guy was Mavic Chen, a yellowfaced Kevin Stoney. Sans accent, but with inappropriate Asian make up. And as noted before, there’s another Chang in The Wheel in Space who sounds highly suspect. Then there’s a whole cast of people in the lost Marco Polo, a story we all long to be recovered, but I wonder how we’d feel about it if we could see it. And although these are stories from the distant past, this problem still lingers. US director Cameron Crowe was recently criticized for casting Emma Stone as a half Hawaiian in his feature film Aloha. No, I haven’t seen it either.

Li H’sen Chang as played by Bennett may be an unfortunately cliched character, unfortunately cast, but he has a line in self referential commentary which might suggest a critical subtext. Although he speaks in cod Chinese English (“Budding lotus of the dawn, despicable Chang has other ideas”), he has a few barbed retorts which could also convince a viewer that Holmes is making some social commentary. When the Doctor (Tom Baker, at the height of his powers) thinks he recognises Chang, the magician says “I understand we all look the same”. Later when the Doctor playfully absconds from the magician’s cabinet, he tells a knowing audience “one of us is yellow”. Could it be that Holmes is seeking to give his character some satirical bite?

Well, if Chang’s too self knowing a character to offend, there are couple of other ways this story might oblige. What about its treatment of women? True, in companion Leela (Louise Jameson) we have a brave, smart and proactive female character. Just her though. The story’s other women are helpless victims and one old ghoul. And here Leela is a stand in for Pygmalion‘s Eliza Doolittle, an uncultured waif being ‘educated’ by her male seniors; hardly the most empowering of archetypes. And even though Leela is a strong, resourceful character she still ends up in her underwear, being attacked by a bug eyed monster. That’s never happened to the Doctor.

Then there’s the unfortunate habit Holmes has of equating physical deformity with evil. His villain here, foe from the future Magnus Greel (Michael Spice), hides behind a mask. In Who, no-one wears a mask unless their face is terribly mangled (well, almost no-one), and so it is with Greel, whose facial contortions get their own cliffhanger. It’s the same with other Holmes creation Sharaz Jek in The Caves of Androzani, and not that different from Holmes’ hideously disfigured Master, seen just three stories before this one. So you see, Talons offers insult to all sorts of people.

And even just as TV drama, it’s not without its faults. Two episodes end with attacks by the giant rat. Two others end with attacks on Leela in Litefoot’s home. Part Five features a long sequence of padding where Jago and Litefoot escape and get recaptured. Chang’s dying clue to Greel’s whereabouts is left unexplained. And the plot hangs off the villain finding a cupboard, which just happens to be in Litefoot’s house, only to forget the key and thus have to kick start the plot.

I think this is going to be Talons‘ curse. Once you start falling out of love with it, you just can’t seem to stop.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Bit of a nightmare, actually. ‘Smoking pipe of poppy’ becomes ‘slugging type of toddy’. ‘Lombard St’ becomes ‘Lumber St’. ‘Time agent’ becomes ‘Time ancient’.

LINK TO The Rescue. Masked villains terrorising young girls.

NEXT TIME. It’s Destiny of the Daleks. So spack off!

People, unappealing traits and The Robots of Death (1977)

robots death1

I wonder what normal people would make of The Robots of Death. You k’now normal people, not fans. We love it, natch. Loved it for years. Not gonna change.

But I suspect that for a certain set of viewers, this story is the epitome of what’s rubbish about Doctor Who. It’s got people with silly names and even sillier costumes. The special effects are hokey. The Doctor’s assistant is barely dressed. The monsters have cardboard shoes. They use bike reflectors as props. Even the title is generic sci-fi tosh.

And there’s one other thing which might put the not-we off;  it’s about a thoroughly hateful group of people.

We’re introduced to the crew of the Sand Miner in an ensemble scene early in Part One. So difficult to get right, but writer Chris Boucher nails it, telling us all we need to know about life on a Sand Miner without resorting to plodding exposition. One by one he introduces us to the cast of characters, all of whom have names like Romanian villages. Pompous, spoilt, smug, entitled types. These lot are argumentative whiners: they don’t want to take orders, they stop work to take breaks arbitrarily, they needle at each other.

In that first scene, government observer Chub (Rob Edwards) taunts mover Borg (Brian Croucher). Borg is getting a massage from a robot, its cold steel fingers on his unprotected flesh, and Chub chooses this particular moment to tell a story about how a robot masseur once went berserk and ripped someone’s arm off. (“I heard it was a leg”‘ says fellow crewmember Zilda (Tania Rogers), offhandedly.) It’s a nice foreshadowing of what’s to come, as Chub is the first chump to be killed.

It’s classily done. Chub stuck in a storage room, calling for a robot to help him get a package from a storage rack (spoilt, y’see. And lazy). When it comes, its eyes glow red with blood lust (a trick Russell T Davies would later borrow for the Ood). We see a distorted POV shot with Chub slowly being backed into a strangle hold. Suspenseful direction from Michael E Briant.

Next up, it’s Cass’s (Tariq Yunus) turn to die (Well, apart from Kerrill, who’s dead before we can work out how annoying he was). Cass isn’t around for long, but while alive he’s ready to argue with anyone at the drop of an outlandish hat. His murder, like Kerrill’s, happens off screen. But we might feel a bit sorry for Cass because resident boofhead Borg thought it might be funny to stick a corpse marker (our murderer’s calling card and favourite bike shop spare) on his hand as a joke. Sick puppy.

Next to get necked, it’s rich kid Zilda, sulky and bitchy, probably because her costume resembles that of a Fish Person from The Underwater Menace. Zilda sneaks into commander Uvanov’s (Russell Hunter) office and uncovers incriminating details about him and broadcasts them to the ship. It’s at exactly this moment that she’s murdered, a convenient plot convergence of two (as it turns out) unconnected events. It’s meant (in plot terms) to shed suspicion on Uvanov, but it’s still a contrivance.

Uvanov could have escaped from Horrible Bosses. Smarmy and bullying, he’s a typical middle management type. When he finds out about Chub’s murder, he has to be forcefully persuaded to abort the mining of a lucrative storm. Then once he’s seen the body, he sets out breaking the news gently to his traumatised crew. ‘Now you all know Chub is dead. One of you killed him’  he announces.

He’s winning no people management awards theree. Later he leans into Zilda’s personal space, face almost touching face, and demands to know ‘why do you hate me?’ Well, she suspects him of killing her brother, but it could just be because he’s a knob.

As the end of Part Two beckons, the Sand Miner is sabotaged. Exactly why remains a mystery. Except perhaps for this; in the midst of the chaos, Borg, he of the hilarious gallows humour, is killed (again off screen) so perhaps letting the mine sink into the ground is a simple case of distraction.

We don’t get to see Borg’s body, which leaves open the possibility that he might have faked his death and be the murderer. Uvanov’s another suspect, but he’s been locked up (he later escapes, off screen of course). As for the saboteur though, the Doctor (Tom Baker, in a filthy mood throughout) is not fooled. ‘I’m sure Dask knows exactly where to look for the damage,’ he says subtly as Part Three opens.

Dask (David Bailie) as it turns out, is our resident murderer. He grew up with robots, a kind of mechanical Romulus or Remus, and thinks he’s one of them. His plan, apparently, is to start a robot revolution, but why the first step towards this is to murder everyone onboard a mobile mine miles from civilisation is a unclear. In the final two episodes, for a want of characters left alive, it becomes clear he’s our man.

But oddly enough, once we get to the final two episodes, the robots don’t succeed in killing anyone else. Instead of robots of death they become robots of close shaves. Leela (Louise Jameson, an element of jungle savagery in this corporate, futuristic world) can fend for herself, but helpless Toos (Pamela Salem) in her clamshell bed is as vulnerable as Botticelli’s Venus. (There’s an unnerving sexual tone to a robot’s attack on her, with that porn star bed, the lurid pink lighting and the shot of the robot lunging back and forth as it attempts to throttle her.)

But any thought Toos might be the one human to sympathise with disappears when she’s nursing a sore arm, first aid tended by Leela. She sulks an order to a waiting robot. ‘And find that girl Leela’, she says, as if summoning the hired help. ‘My arm hurts,‘ she moans. Oh that’s a shame. Why not ask Zilda or Borg how their arms feel?

That leaves undercover detectives Poul (David Collings) and robot sidekick D84 (Gregory De Polnay). Poul’s the closest thing to someone to like, but he’s also the resident smart arse. He loses his mind at the sight of a blood stained robot, so he may not have been the ideal choice of investigator for this mission. He nastily tries to betray Leela to the robots while cowering under a desk (‘Help! She’s in here!’), but we’ll forgive him because, as Leela says, his mind is broken.

D84, on the other hand, is sweetness itself. He stutters and makes dry jokes and tries to please. He’s got an adult’s voice and a child’s innocence. He’s too nice to make it all the way to the end, and so he gets his head blown off. And he was the nicest of the lot.

The Doctor doesn’t hang around to bid the survivors farewell. Who can blame him? A couple of seasons later, the Doctor meets some more robot killers in The Androids of Tara. One of the humanoids says to him that he never feels entirely comfortable around androids. ‘Funny thing’, says the Doctor. ‘Some androids feel that way about humans’. Surely he’s thinking of the Sand Mine Suckers as he says it.

LINK to Delta and the Bannermen. Hmm, two very different stories! But how about this; both are about one race of beings trying to eliminate the other, based on the fact they’re different.

NEXT TIME… I don’t like your face. Nor your hair! What’s that in the sky? It’s The Tenth Planet.

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Mincing, bitching and The Masque of Mandragora (1976)


There’s a word I’ve been searching for to describe The Masque of Mandragora, and here it is: fruity. Fruity as in overly theatrical. Deep voiced, round vowelled. Boldly proclaimed. It’s a RADA-trained, received pronounced, tighted, codpieced, heavily spiced fruitcake of a story. It’s as if the Doctor Who production team have seized their chance to take a month off from Gothic pastiche and obscene vegetable matter and go all Zeffirelli on us.

Atmospheric, sure. Stylish and Hinchcliffe slick, sure. But fruity. I mean after all, this is a story whose opening gambit – the TARDIS’s run in with intangible energy creature the Mandragora Helix – ends with a hearty villainous chuckle. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising considering that this is a story which centres on (and is named after) a costume party. This is a story with theatricality at its heart.

The cast have certainly noticed. Take Norman Jones, playing astrologer and old slyboots Hieronymous. He’s got a rich, deep voice and he plays each line with maximum portent. His eyes bulge with fanaticism and his beard sprouts in two unlikely prongs jutting towards camera. He doesn’t exactly chew Barry Newbery’s exotic scenery, but he certainly takes a nibble here and there, which in fact, suits the whole piece very well. Interestingly, he recalls Tom Baker’s performance as that other mad monk Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra. Goodness knows what the big curly haired fella thought about that.

But there’s an even bigger performance by Jon Laurimore as the power hungry Count Federico. He sneers and snarls his way with aplomb through three episodes. He anchors plenty of scenes without the Doctor or Sarah or their alien foe, and in these you can momentarily believe you’re watching a 70s BBC classic serial, albeit a particularly florid one. He knows just how to deliver lines like ‘fail me and you will breakfast on burning coals’ and ‘say I’ve been stricken by an ague’ and pull them off. And not even a Prince Valiant wig can impede his acid wit. ‘You can no more tell the stars than you can tell my chamber pot’, he snipes at Hieronymous. Hmm, there’s a vivid image.

It’s no surprise that the most entertaining scenes in this story are those between Federico and Hieronymous. And it’s not all murder and plotting; a lot of it is just plain old fashioned bitching like a couple of teenage girls. I particularly like this exchange about entering a room without knocking.

HIERONYMOUS: (mad brooding) The entire Earth, mine! (The Count enters) I did not say enter!

FEDERICO: In this palace I come and go as I please!

HIERONYMOUS: This is my private room!

FEDERICO: Whatever room you have here it is because I allow you to have it! Do not get above yourself. I’ve warned you before, Hieronymous.

HIERONYMOUS: I have studying to do. Is there something urgent you want?

FEDERICO: Yes, there is something urgent! I cannot wait till Mars or Saturn or whatever other nonsense it was you said.

HIERONYMOUS: It is not nonsense!

Seriously, change a few words here and there and it’s Neighbours. Next they’ll be fighting over who gets to take Sarah to the masque and debating what Giuliano actually means when he introduces that strapping redhead as ‘my companion, Marco’.

Giuliano is played with wide eyed enthusiasm by Gareth Armstrong. And while he’s very effective, but he has his scenes consistently stolen by Tim Piggott-Smith as Marco. Both strut confidently around in doublet and hose like any aspiring British actor should be able to, but Marco gets to hang around in the background, spoiling for a fight at every opportunity, glowering at any mention of the bad guys.

At some point, he gets kidnapped and tortured in a dungeon, giving him a great moment when he defiantly spits in Federico’s face. Such drama! But there’s a less flashy but more telling moment which shows this actor knows how to capture attention. It’s a moment where he has nothing to do but pour wine into some goblets. Piggott-Smith chooses a pose as perfectly composed as a Renaissance statue, but with face still to camera and decants at just the right angle. Here’s a guy who knows how to be part of a RSC tableau.

But we still haven’t got to my favourite performances in Masque. They come from two actors playing bit parts and only have four lines between them. They are two of Federico’s guards and they deliver their lines in thick, unadulterated Cockney.

SOLDIER 1: I swear ‘e came in ‘ere, and there’s no way out. ‘Ere, are we chasin’ a fantom?

SOLDIER 2: Or a worshippa of Demnos! Those devils know a ‘undred secret ways under the city.

SOLDIER 1: A passage? Quick, ven, let’s find the trick!

SOLDIER: No, I ain’t going in there, Geo Vahny! Not for all the gold in Rome!

There’s a famous bit in this story where Sarah asks the Doctor how she can understand everyone speaking when she can’t speak Italian. The fact that she’s asked now, and never before, means the Doctor twigs that she’s under the ‘fluence of Hieronymous. (It’s something of a insult to Sarah really; it’s as if he’s saying ‘you’d never have been able to come to that conclusion yourself without assistance. But well done!  Later on I might get you to do some simple sums for me’.) But our two Cockney Italians remind us that there’s never been an explanation for that other mysterious language convention – that even on alien planets or on Earth’s part or future, the ruling class are posh and the workers aren’t.

Naturally these two grunts don’t get invited to the main event, the Masque itself. It’s for bigwigs like the Duke of Milan, the Doge of Venice and Leonardo da Vinci, although they don’t actually turn up. As helpful plot-expounding Marco points out, the headline acts can sense something is up. They send various extras and dancers instead. They are no doubt thankful for their precognition when the powered up Brethren arrive and start zapping people. There’s a sense of the revenge tragedy with a shot of all those dead party goers littering the floor.

It doesn’t rain on Sarah’s parade though. Once the Doctor has saved the day, she and he head swiftly back to the TARDIS. Giuliano’s there to wave them off. When saying goodbye to him, Sarah adds ‘Hey, thanks for inviting me to the ball. Smashing!’. Come again, Sarah Jane? That ball where several people were ruthlessly murdered? That TARDIS translation protocol is good on Italian, but it obviously can’t help with tact.

THE DRINKING GAME OF MANDRAGORA: Have a shot when ever someone is insulted. Make it a double when the insult involves an animal. You inept clod.  You fox faced old blowhard. You dung head! (Our scatologically minded Count, again, if you couldn’t guess.)

LINK to Revelation of the Daleks. Catacombs! And baddies shooting electricity from their hands.

NEXT TIME… According to Bartholomew’s Planetary Gazetteer, it’s The Ribos Operation. You cringing cur!

Legend, revisioning and The Deadly Assassin (1976)


Part One: Australia

Occasionally, I’m going to write about the peculiarities of watching Doctor Who in Australia. I grew up watching Doctor Who in the late seventies and throughout the eighties. This meant tuning in to ABC TV – then the only station available nationwide – of a weeknight (sometimes Monday-Thursday, sometimes Monday-Friday) for The Goodies at 6pm and Doctor Who at 6:30pm. This is a shared cultural experience for Australians of my vintage, this regular post-school, pre-dinner treat. It’s our version of the “Saturdayness” experienced by UK fans. It’s historical potency is such that when ABC repeated the entire run of available episodes from 2003-5, it was back in that vicinity, at 6pm weekdays.

What this meant was repeats and loads of them. UK viewers were starved of Doctor Who re-runs, and so engaged in a black market of off air recordings from down under. It’s a funny inversion, which meant that pre the VHS releases, Australian Whoheads were more familiar with the series’ past than UK fans. We got Pertwees and even a few Troughtons. But mostly we got Tom Baker, and specifically 4A to 4Z, Robot to The Invasion of Time. Over and over again.

Well, not quite. Because two stories were routinely omitted: The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin. These stories had been rated as ‘adult’ and so couldn’t be screened in the early evening timeslot. Had you not known, you wouldn’t have missed The Brain of Morbius, but skipping The Deadly Assassin gave the series an odd dislocation. The previous story, The Hand of Fear, ended with the Doctor dropping Sarah back home, saying it was impossible to take her to Gallifrey with him. Suddenly in the next episode, he’s alone on a jungle planet making friends with Leela. Well, who wouldn’t? But what was so urgent that he needed to dump Sarah so unceremoniously?

Anyway, we did eventually get to see Morbius and The Deadly Assassin in 1987 (thanks again broadwcast.org), by which time it couldn’t possibly have lived up to its reputation as one of classics. Personally, I could see the rubber crocodile and the plastic spider, but not what all the fuss was about. But it was my last ‘new’ Tom Baker story, so it sticks in my memory for that reason at least.

Part Two: Gallifrey

But it sticks in fandom’s collective memory to a far greater extent. This is a mythic story, full of firsts. For instance, it’s our first view of the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey, a world of emerald green vaulted chambers seemingly carved out of rock. Like America, it has a President, a CIA and a televised assassination. Like the Catholic church, it has cardinals and men in flowing robes. Like mediaeval Britain, it has castellans and a Lord Chancellor. It is a place of immense technology but also of state sanctioned torture. And it feels oddly parochial, with its insipid TV presenters, doddery old men and incompetent policemen. In fact, it feels like home.

This earthly familiarity was famously criticised at the time of its UK broadcast, in a ranty review by Jan Vincent-Rudski, the closing line of which asked in strident capitals WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO? (That always makes me smile). As befits a mythic story, the review itself has become part of The Deadly Assassin’s legacy. It’s often seen as an example of how fans’ tastes change, as this once derided story is now widely praised. But it also shows how fans’ tastes mature over time, as they eventually put aside inconsequential concerns about continuity and focus on more lasting qualities such as writing, direction and production.

But back to that parochialism; that accusation that the Time Lords of The Deadly Assassin are not the god-like super beings of previous stories, but familiar human archetypes complete with earthly shortcomings such as pomposity, foolishness and vanity. That accusation is spot on, and thank goodness for it. What would a story set on a planet of superbeings be like? Pretty dull, I expect. Time Lords are, in fact, elevated versions of ourselves, just as the Doctor is a kind of much enhanced version of us. When I stop to think about the affinity between the Doctor and Earth, and when we see it reflected in the Time Lords, I see an obvious plot point that I’m sure the series will get around to one day; that the Time Lords are somehow descended from the human race. You read it here first! (Moffat, call me, we’ll talk).

Part Three: Part Three

Here’s another thing about The Deadly Assassin; it has a superfluous episode. That’s Part Three, famous for being mostly set in the dream world of the Matrix and consisting mainly of the Doctor being hunted down by the Assassin. I know it’s superfluous because on this viewing I skipped it and went straight from Two to Four, and it did the story no harm at all. (Don’t worry, I didn’t cheat. I watched Part Three at the end.)

In Old Who, this sort of episode – the “let’s take a break from the main story” episode – was usually an excuse to try something new. The Daleks’ Master Plan, for instance, had a comedy Christmas day episode. Planet of the Spiders has an episode which is an extended chase scene. Deadly Assassin 3 is no different; producer Philip Hinchcliffe wanted to experiment with an episode made entirely on film (it didn’t end up like that, but it is mainly all shot on location).

But where this ep is different is that it’s usually praised as an inventive experiment, rather than discounted as a lazy indulgence as those other examples sometimes are. And that’s down to two things. First, it’s stylishly directed and tightly edited by David Maloney. Secondly, it’s so unlike anything else in Doctor Who; a physical and mental battle to the death between two men. It’s visceral stuff and ends with a watery strangulation, complete with freeze frame. That’s enough to get you banned in Australia.

Part Four: The Master

And amongst everything else, the Master returns. Having only recently randomed Terror of the Autons, I was reminded that The Deadly Assassin is effectively Robert Holmes’ second go at introducing the Master. He’s a character which could have easily been given a standard Time Lord regeneration (incidentally, why doesn’t Goth regenerate? Or any of the Time Lord guards who get shot? Shh! Look over there!) but Holmes makes him withered and decrepit. A smart choice which pushes the character in a new and lasting direction; from here on in the Master’s ability to cheat death and his quest to hang onto life become his enduring characteristics.

Holmes pulls a few old tricks though. As in Terror of the Autons, the Master kills an innocent as a kind of greetings card. And he allies himself with someone to do the dirty work for him. But unlike the Delgado version, there’s none of that sly Master charm. This is just a snarling goggle-eyed fiend. Instead of the stylish Nehru suit, there’s only rags. There’s very little of the old Master left.

Which is what I think Holmes wanted. He takes one of the icons of the Pertwee era and completely reinvents it. As Who Lore goes, Holmes was never happy bringing back old monsters and early in his tenure as script editor he struggled with Daleks and Cybermen. Here he allows an old enemy to return, but on his terms. And it’s difficult to read his venom spitting, subterranean dwelling troll of a Master as anything but a repudiation of the Letts/Dicks era’s version. You got it wrong, Holmes seems to say. The Doctor’s dark mirror image isn’t a smooth talking, dark suited man-about-cosmos. He’s a vile, repellent ghoul, consumed with hate.

It’s better this way, says Holmes. Just like Gallifrey is better off as a corrupt, overblown oligarchy than a home on the clouds for superbeings. And by the way – you don’t even need a companion. That’s what The Deadly Assassin is about; tearing down the icons of the series and rebuilding them.

But the show can’t always be like this. Next week it’s back to Doctor-Girl-Planet-Monster-Problem to solve. And it doesn’t feel like a step backwards; in fact it’s a relief. In that sense, The Deadly Assassin does its job a little too well.

LINKS to The Armageddon Factor. Both feature black clad villains lurking in gloomy hideouts. And both reference the Doctor’s time at the academy.

NEXT TIME: You know, I sometimes wonder if your friend is quite right in the head. It’s off to the thirteenth moon of Jupiter for Revenge of the Cybermen.