Monday, August 1, 2016

"We Must Adjust the Truth"


"Only hate keeps me alive"; opera singer/actor Peter Pratt brings a resonant voice to the black-shrouded, decomposing Master in THE DEADLY ASSASSIN.

GOTHIC as entertainment is usually traced back to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), a novel which kick-started a darker supernatural genre that lived amongst decaying settlements and subterranean crypts. Oscillating between romantic sub-plots and conventional reality, Gothic fiction places heavy emphasis on atmosphere and loss of humanity/identity; women are often cast in distress but typically portrayed as the heroine of the piece, while men struggle with a Jekyll and Hyde-type duality. When Philip Hinchcliffe (producer) and Robert Holmes (script editor) took over DOCTOR WHO in the mid-70's, there was a seismic shift away from what Holmes described as "straightforward, dull, children's stories." In the seasons that followed, the Time Lord would experience more oppressive environments and explorations not just of hauntings and possessions, but also early trappings which would latterly be known as body horror. These tales also effected the Doctor himself, changing from the adventurous dandy of Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, an actor who embraced the outsider at odds with himself and the galaxy.

Holmes' scripts for THE DEADLY ASSASSIN take on board Richard Condon's bleak brainwashing political novel The Manchurian Candidate. The Doctor (Baker) is accused of the assassination of the Time Lord President, but it is in fact a plot by a dying Master (Peter Pratt). Having used all twelve of his regenerations, the Master aims to control the hierarchy so he can obtain the Sash and Rod of Rassilon, which act as keys to the Eye of Harmony, the source of all the Time Lord's power. When the Doctor links his mind into the virtual reality of Matrix (pretty novel for 1976) - which has accumulated the wisdom of his race - he wins a struggle with a hooded opponent revealed to be Chancellor Goth (Bernard Horsfall), who has been used as a pawn. The Master has now gained access to the Eye of Harmony and aims to give new life to his decaying, putrid husk of a body; but in a climactic fight with the Doctor, the Master falls into a crumbling Citadel chasm...

ROBOTS OF DEATH was fittingly chosen to represent the era of the Fourth Doctor at the BFI's 50th anniversary celebration of the show.

THE DEADLY ASSASSIN provides a number of firsts for Who lore: a regeneration number set at twelve; the absence of a companion for the Doctor; the portrayal of a layered society of ranks and chapters (very different from the glimpses seen in THE WAR GAMES and THE THREE DOCTORS); and trivia such as the TARDIS listed as a Type 40 capsule. But for many this spoilt the mystery of the Time Lord back-story, revealing Gallifrey as a planet akin to the doddering House of Lords, or a crusty Oxbridge society (one Time Lord even complains about hearing and hip problems). But within the Matrix the adventure is an irresistible, surreal experience, giving the show its most notorious and sadistically violent moment: the drowning of the Doctor at the hands of Goth as a cliff-hanger to episode three. Providing such a lingering, powerful image for children to mull over for a week was too much for the National Viewers and Listeners Association linchpin Mary Whitehouse, and the scene was shortened for repeats.

Written by Chris Boucher, THE ROBOTS OF DEATH is another tale of duality and deception ("nothing is inexplicable, only unexplained"). Mixing Dune and Ten Little Indians as well as inverting Asimov's First Law of Robots, the TARDIS materialises on a sandminer combing an alien world for minerals. The massive vehicle is run by a small human crew aided by three classes of robots (Dums, Vocs and a Super Voc), and the Doctor (Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) come under suspicion when the crew are killed by an unseen assailant. With the aid of undercover agents Poul (David Collings) and robot associate D84 (Gregory de Polnay), the real culprit is revealed as Dask (David Bailie), a scientist raised by robots who has been reprogramming the automatons to murder and to consequently form a superior order ("I see; you're one of those boring maniacs who's going to gloat, hmm? You going to tell me your plan for running the Universe?").

Social activist Mary Whitehouse CBE frequently singled out mid-70's DOCTOR WHO as particularly damaging to young minds. Yet the celebrated "fear factor" and "hiding behind the sofa" mainstays of the programme acted as a liberating and engaging emotion for viewers, who always had the reassurance of the Doctor to guide them through.

Developed under the titles PLANET OF THE ROBOTS and THE STORM-MINE MURDERS, the programme raises above its "people killed off in an enclosed environment" foundation by adopting a highly distinctive art deco production design, a tight script, earnest performances, and effective, lethal robots. Of all the influences listed for Ridley Scott's ALIEN over the years - from the B-movie theatrics of IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE to the otherworldliness of Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES - don't forget that Boucher's serial has a claustrophobic mining setting and an undercover robot.

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