May 22nd, 2012
Through the millennia, the Time Lords of Gallifrey led a life of peace and ordered calm, protected against all threats from lesser civilisations by their great power. But this was to change. Suddenly, and terribly, the Time Lords faced the most dangerous crisis in their long history…
You can often tell the quality of a piece of art by the people it outrages. It’s not a perfect rule — it’s hard to imagine someone being scandalised by Bach’s Musical Offering , for example — but there are many people whose views are so reliably wrong that when something upsets them deeply, you know you must be doing something right.
The Deadly Assassin managed to offend two groups so deeply that the repercussions eventually arguably led to the death of the TV series. Those two groups were the National Viewers And Listeners Association and Doctor Who fandom.
The National Viewers And Listeners Association was the smaller of the two groups, but the more damaging. A political pressure group, led by the odious Mary Whitehouse, this was an organisation that existed (alongside the allied group The Nationwide Festival Of Light) to pressure for nothing less than a theocratic government on evangelical Christian lines, starting with TV censorship. (If it seems I’m being too harsh on Whitehouse, this is someone who initiated a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the editor of Gay News magazine and managed to get him sentenced to a suspended prison sentence for the ‘crime’ of publishing a poem. I think there is a dividing line between good and evil, and those who stick people in prison for poetry are on the wrong side of that line.).
Whitehouse had, for years, been campaigning in a low-key way against Doctor Who, describing it as “teatime brutality for tots”, but this story in particular got her more exercised than any other. She argued that the cliffhanger at the end of episode three — with the Doctor’s head being held under water — meant that children would be scared, thinking that the Doctor was being held under the water for the entire week between episodes. (She also thought it would encourage those same children to drown their siblings, but then consistency was never Whitehouse’s strong point.)
Whitehouse kicked up such a storm about this story that the show had to be toned down, with repercussions we will discuss over the next few essays, but fandom also kicked up a fuss.
The status of The Deadly Assassin within fandom has changed over the years. It’s now rated so highly that writer Lawrence Miles (of whom much more later), in the excellent guidebook About Time vol 4, chose this as a way to demonstrate, Ironic Review style, his contrarianism and contempt for fandom. “Ah, you thought I was going to say this was good like you think, didn’t you? Well I’m not. I’m going to say it’s rubbish. I am clever.” (I paraphrase very slightly). It’s generally considered a classic, one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made.
And this is a reasonable assessment. It’s written by Robert Holmes (the best writer the TV series has ever had), directed by David Maloney (the best director it’s ever had) and stars Tom Baker in peak form. It’s funny, clever, scary, well-designed, well-lit and well-acted.
None of which mattered to Doctor Who fandom in the late 1970s, whose main criticism of this story was that it contradicted previously-established ‘canon’ about the Time Lords.
Of course, all the contradictions they found were incredibly minor (the Time Lords having only twelve regenerations, having names rather than titles, that sort of thing), and didn’t matter in the slightest. In fact some of them appear to have been put in simply to mess with the fans’ heads — in an earlier story this year, The Brain Of Morbius, Robert Holmes established that there were Doctors before William Hartnell, and that Tom Baker was the twelfth Doctor (this has been ignored by everything since), so this line was meant to suggest to fans that the next regeneration would be the last. But the fans rose to the bait, resulting in things like Jan-Vincent Rudzki’s magnificently wrong-headed denunciation of the story.
Now, it might look like Mary Whitehouse and Doctor Who fandom have little in common — Whitehouse, after all, campaigned to get the show taken off the air — but it’s telling that they both chose this story to complain so vociferously about.
Because this story is one of the most thematically unified that Doctor Who has ever had. The core of it is the episode-long ‘dream’ sequence, when the Doctor is plunged into the virtual reality of the APC Net Matrix (yes, it is a bit like that one in the film that was ripped off from those Grant Morrison comics, why do you ask?), which was apparently the reason for the story’s existence in the first place — an excuse for David Maloney to go all-out on frightening the kids, with runaway trains, spooky clowns, people in gasmasks (a regular feature of Maloney’s stories) and general nightmarish nastiness, climaxing with the Doctor yelling “I deny this reality. The reality is a computation matrix!”
But this sequence (which may well have been inspired by an episode of The Prisoner in which number 6′s dreams are controlled and viewed) is just part of a larger narrative which is, on every level, about the border between fiction and reality (as both Maloney and Holmes’ work often was). The story starts with scrolling text and voiceover giving the backstory, a full year before Star Wars revived this old technique, giving the story a narrator (if only for the first scene) rather than an omniscient viewpoint. Much of the story, too, is seen on TV screens, by characters who are watching over the action (and soliloquising about it) rather than taking part in it, or is seen in dream sequences or premonitions.
And this is coupled to a story about conspiracy theories, which are all about how surface appearances are a fiction covering up a more complex truth. Except that while this story was supposedly inspired by the Kennedy assassination (though with the Time Lords having more in common with Britain’s Parliament than the American government, it might be thought that the proximate inspiration was the Thorpe affair, when the then Liberal leader was accused — and found not guilty, later — of conspiracy to murder a male prostitute who’d alleged an affair with him), it’s far closer to the story of The Manchurian Candidate, which came out a full year before the Kennedy assassination. In other words, it’s about a fictional conspiracy which people later used to describe real events.
In fact, it becomes almost impossible to look at The Deadly Assassin as even attempting to portray anything remotely like a real world. Huge chunks of the script don’t really make sense as a depiction of a functioning society, but work perfectly as nods and winks to the audience about what kind of story this is. The Doctor, suspected of assassinating the President, is assumed to be an agent for the CIA – the Celestial Intervention Agency. When sentenced to death the Doctor says “Vapourisation without representation is against the constitution!” These lines only make sense if Gallifrey is not truly an alien world, but a reflection of our own.
And this is, I think, why the criticisms of this story were so much worse than those of other, objectively worse, stories. It’s because it relies on a relatively sophisticated understanding of how TV works and what fiction is. Not sophisticated as in requiring much in the way of knowledge or experience — this is still a children’s programme — but in the way that getting a joke, or watching a cartoon like Duck Amuck, rely on one’s ability to understand things working on multiple levels. Most children can do this, but some adults can’t.
Both the Whitehouses of this world and the fans who hate inconsistencies in their fictional narratives because they want it to be ‘realistic’, are making the same kind of mistake in comprehension as someone who, when told a joke, say “But surely someone must have mentioned the duck on his head before? Or he must have passed a mirror? Oh this is just ridiculous!”
They’re missing the boundary between fiction and reality, and unless it’s rigidly and obviously defined at all times, they get upset. Something which plays with that boundary as much as this story does will infuriate them, in much the same way as a room full of people laughing will infuriate the humourless.
The Deadly Assassin is in many ways a badly-flawed story. The first episode, in particular, has a lot of faults in its basic storytelling, thanks to the decision to tell parts of it in voiceover, parts in flash-forward, and parts in real time, in order to get round the lack of a companion in this story. But it’s a story that’s trying to be clever, and exciting, and funny, and it succeeds in those aims more often than it fails. And if I have a choice between the clever, exciting and funny, and the repressive, joyless and humourless, then I know which side I’m on.