Doctor Who Project: The Deadly Assassin

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Cash and carry, Constantinople.

From their first mention in “The War Games,” the Time Lords represent a vague, ominous, near-omniscient force in Doctor Who, operating behind the scenes, pulling cosmic strings while feigning a non-interventionist approach to time and space. Writer and script editor Robert Holmes burnishes away that infallible patina with his definitive Time Lord story, “The Deadly Assassin” (Story Production Code 4P), making wholesale changes to our understanding of these powerful beings—and, for better and for worse, to the future of the series as a whole.

Graceful Gallifreyan script

When Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor encounters the Time Lords, they sit in judgement of him for his interference in the affairs of the universe; solemnly robed, they effect a sombre, passive demeanor, one the Second Doctor rails against. They seem timeless, devoid as they are of ornamentation or emotion. Jon Pertwee’s involvement with the Time Lords takes on a more whimsical tone, with a nattily dressed member of the Tribunal that exiled him appearing out of nowhere with warnings of the Master in “Terror of the Autons.” By the time the two of them, plus William Hartnell’s First Doctor, meet the Time Lords again in “The Three Doctors,” cracks begin to show in the Gallifreyan facade, with the terrible secret of Omega’s eternal banishment revealed.

Resplendent in Prydonian orange

Robert Holmes effectively reboots the Time Lords in “The Deadly Assassin,” keeping but the barest outlines of established Time Lord history. The ornate trappings of the Time Lords start here, with chapters such as the Prydonians and Arcalians gaining their colors and high collared robes. Too, Holmes posits the Time Lords as an elite ruling class on Gallifrey, above ordinary citizens who, presumably, lack regenerative powers, given the number of Gallifreyans who wind up quite dead in this story. Far from standing as exemplars of rectitude, the Time Lord hierarchy engages in petty political power plays, concerned more with appearance than substance, to the extent that they have forgotten the truth of their own origins.

The plot of “The Deadly Assassin” centers around a significant change Holmes wreaks, that of a limit on regenerations: twelve. The Master (played in decomposed form by Peter Pratt) has reached his limit and is slowly dying in his final regeneration. Only the Sash of Rassilon and the Great Key, traditional trappings of the Time Lord Presidency, hold the solution to gaining additional regenerations, leading to the Master’s convoluted plan to obtain these items. As a plot contrivance, it’s a fine MacGuffin, conceptual in nature and neatly playing off of the series’ most unique conceit, that of regeneration. And in providing a means to escape the otherwise hard limit of regenerations, by allowing the Master to gain another one (or dozen?) at the end, Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe seek to have their narrative cake whilst eating it. That cake, alas, could have used a bit more time in the plot oven…
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Doctor Who Project: The Hand of Fear

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Yes, just like Andy Pandy!

The Doctor has certainly been wrong before, but seldom does a story actively use the Doctor’s curiosity and comity against him—and against the audience—like Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Hand of Fear” (Story Production Code 4N). Right from the start, the viewer sees Eldrad, owner of the eponymous appendage, sentenced to obliteration by a people desperate to see him gone, but subsequent events in the story go to great lengths to convince the Doctor, and us, that Eldrad just might be misunderstood.

Maybe evil, maybe not!

That it doesn’t quite work that way, at least for the viewer, has much to do with the general tenor of the Fourth Doctor’s stories to date; only once, in “Planet of Evil,” has the trope of “humans are the real monsters” been tried with Tom Baker at the helm, and there the nominal monster was a force of nature rather than an individual. Here, Eldrad’s ability to control the minds of humans who interact with his ring signals to the viewer that he is an evil force, responsible for two deaths by the story’s halfway point. One could see the Third Doctor being moved by Eldrad’s later protestations that he was overthrown and betrayed, but for the action-prone Fourth Doctor to so readily accept this possibility comes across oddly, a discordance that feels more plot driven than organic to the story. The viewer often knows more than the Doctor on Doctor Who, but rarely does the viewer know better.

A helping hand (of fear!)

The story itself spends an inordinate amount of time in the first of four episodes setting the stage, with the Doctor and Sarah Jane inadvertently arriving in a British quarry—which is finally just a quarry—right as a huge explosion takes place, burying Sarah Jane and unearthing a disembodied stone hand in the process. The Doctor and another scientist, Carter (Rex Robinson), discover the hand to be based on a silicon life-form matrix that regenerates in the presence of radiation. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane wakes up in hospital with a ring clutched in her hand that causes her to think, over and over, “Eldrad must live.” A few quick blue blasts from the ring later, Sarah Jane has knocked out Carter, stolen the hand, and overpowered the woeful security at a top secret nuclear research facility located conveniently nearby.

Have ring, will travel

Once she has broken in, Sarah Jane takes the plastic container with the hand to the nuclear power core, locks herself in, and then waits in her red-and-white striped overalls for something to happen. She’s not the only one waiting; in place of the traditional monster revelation at the end of the first episode, we have part of a monster instead, as the hand (of fear!) comes to life—in Tupperware…
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Doctor Who Project: The Masque of Mandragora

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The stars will not be mocked!

Typically, the Doctor arrives in media res, the disaster at hand already set into motion. Louis Marks’ “The Masque of Mandragora” (Story Production Code 4M) instead posits the Doctor as the proximate, though unwitting, cause of all the story’s problems. The series to date has rarely employed this technique, and seldom with such drastic consequences; one must go back to the First Doctor and “The Ark” for an analogous example of the Doctor being so directly responsible for so much death and destruction.

The pull of Mandragora

While the Doctor gives Sarah Jane a belated tour of the TARDIS, complete with stop in a Victorian-inspired secondary control room, a mysterious force pulls the wayward police box into the Mandragora Helix, a vortex of conscious, malevolent energy. When the TARDIS finally thuds to a stop against a pitch black backdrop, the Doctor and Sarah step out to explore, allowing a mote of Mandragora to sneak aboard unseen. That bit of Helix energy then directs the TARDIS to the pseudo-historical city-state of San Martino on the Italian peninsula in the fifteenth century.

Trapped in the Mandragora Helix

The Doctor dismisses the detour as an interesting side effect of their stop in the Helix, occupied as he is by the fact that robed cultists kidnap Sarah and knock him unconscious scant minutes after landing. It’s not until the Doctor sees a peasant roasted by a glowing red orb that he realizes that he has brought sentient Mandragora energy to Earth. He’s rather aghast at the prospect.

Pitchforks against the Helix

If the kidnappy cultists and the scarlet orb of doom weren’t enough, the Doctor must also contend with courtly intrigue. Giuliano, the young heir apparent, struggles against his uncle, Count Frederico, for control of San Martino in the wake of the Giuliano’s father’s death, which had been foretold (and caused) by the court astrologer, Hieronymus. The first of four episodes, having established all these forces, ends with a double cliffhanger, Sarah about to be sacrificed by the cultists and the Doctor captured and facing beheading on orders of Frederico. No pacing problems in this story, as season fourteen starts with drive (and doublets).
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Doctor Who Project: The Seeds of Doom

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I’ve heard of flower power, but that is ridiculous.

It took until 1976, but Doctor Who finally turned the Doctor into a secret agent, replete with a loquacious super-villain who commands an army of uniformed henchmen for a foe, in Robert Banks Stewart’s “The Seeds of Doom” (Story Production Code 4L). Aside from the alien plant creature bent on consuming the planet, this story could have featured Roger Moore or Patrick Macnee with little alteration. The Fourth Doctor’s scientific knowledge advances the plot but does not inform the resolution in the least; he’s an action hero, through and through, jumping through windows, donning disguises, brandishing pistols, and wrestling with bad guys mere inches from whirring blades of death.

The Doctor with an unlikely accessory

“The Seeds of Doom” could not have been made during Hartnell or Troughton’s runs. Indeed, the analogous Second Doctor story, “The Seeds of Death,” which also features deadly alien seed pods finding their way to Earth, centers around the dangers of technocracy, the Doctor having to match wits with bureaucrats and Ice Warriors, the former being perhaps the more difficult foe. In Stewart’s tale, the Fourth Doctor confronts a chlorophyl-thirsty megalomaniac who composes orchestral overtures for his beloved plants and commands a giant garden estate patrolled by flunkies with matching jumpers and submachine-guns. No subtle disquisition on humanity’s increasing tendency towards centralized thought, this.

Harrison Chase, friend to all plants

It wouldn’t be a Robert Banks Stewart story without world agencies, and here the World Ecological Bureau’s Antarctic expedition finds a giant seed pod buried twenty thousand years deep in the permafrost. The Doctor is dispatched by UNIT to assist the investigation, but before he can arrive, the pod releases a tendril that infects a researcher. The hapless man turns into a Krinoid, a “galactic weed,” in the Doctor’s parlance, that has the nasty side effect of consuming all non-plant life on any world where it germinates. They always travel in pairs, and the Doctor helpfully digs up the second pod to prove his point.

Meet a Krinoid

Harrison Chase, the wealthy hortiphile, learns of the pod through a corrupt contact at the WEB and sends two henchmen to retrieve it (and dispose of any pesky witnesses). Given that the story starts in Antarctica, at a weather-isolated base, one feels at the beginning that the action will take place in this small space, with a dwindling number of survivors fighting against the plant-creature and Chase’s thugs. Stewart has other ideas, though, and by the end of the second of six episodes, the initial Krinoid is destroyed in a blast triggered by the bad guys, killing the last of the researchers as well. Only the Doctor and Sarah survive, because of course they do.
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Doctor Who Project: The Brain of Morbius

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Chop Suey, the Galactic Emperor!

To address the obvious: Robin Bland’s “The Brain of Morbius” (Story Production Code 4K) essentially recreates Shelley’s Frankenstein by way of Hollywood and Hammer Films, down to the dramatic lightning strikes, a stumbling Igor, a stitched-together monstrosity, and a torch-waving mob ushering in the monster’s end. But Bland—a pseudonym for long-time Doctor Who writer and script editor Terrance Dicks—spices up the otherwise tired tale with an impressive amount of ephemera regarding the Time Lords, adding interest to the surprisingly effective horror trappings on display.

It was a dark and stormy night

The TARDIS materializes on the foggy planet Karn, guided there, according to the Doctor, by the Time Lords. He’s certain they’ve summoned him yet again to carry out their “dirty work,” and he refuses to help them, declaring, “I’m just going to sit here and do nothing.” Sarah attempts to get the Doctor interested in the plot at hand, remarking on all the crashed space ships nearby. Even the discovery of a headless alien, killed after escaping one of the wrecks, piques the Doctor’s interest only mildly. So Dicks whips up a sudden rainstorm to drive the time travellers to take shelter in a nearby structure, helpfully silhouetted on the horizon by blue lightning.

Uninvited house guests

Inside, Solon and his hook-armed assistant Condo argue about the usefulness of the alien head Condo has recently procured using said hook; when the Doctor and Sarah arrive, seeking respite from the elements, Solon cannot help but remark upon the perfection of the Doctor’s head, a creepy comment that the Doctor takes in stride. The storm has knocked out the power in Solon’s abode, allowing these scenes to be shot with low lighting to amplify the ominous feeling. The audience already knows that Solon occupies the “mad scientist” role, leading to an odd sense of gullibility about the Doctor, who senses no danger when he and Sarah succumb to a drugged glass of wine.

Just the right size

Solon needs the Doctor’s “magnificent” cranium as a receptacle for the brain of Morbius, who formerly led the High Council of the Time Lords before being disintegrated for attempting to take over the galaxy, as often happens. But the Doctor is spirited off the operating table just before the head-removal procedure by the Sisterhood of Karn, who possess telekinetic powers. The red-robed novitiates aren’t trying to save the Doctor, though—they just want to be the ones to kill him…

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Doctor Who Project: The Android Invasion

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Let’s try the pub!

Terry Nation writing a Doctor Who story about robots wanting to invade Earth isn’t entirely noteworthy, unless, as in “The Android Invasion,” (Story Production Code 4J), those robots are not Daleks. Here, an alien species known as the Krall seeks to take over the Earth as a replacement for their radiation-suffused homeworld. The Krall’s master plan (sorry) involves building a small number of android doppelgängers who will surreptitiously replace key personnel in a British space research center—and, for some reason, in a nearby pub.

Stepford Souses?

Indeed, a good chunk of the four episode story focuses not on the execution (and subsequent foiling) of the planned conquest but rather on the androids learning to pour ginger beer, hop out of lorries, and count out shillings’ change in a replica of the research center and nearby town. For unexplained reasons, the TARDIS materializes near this Potemkin village on the Krall planet instead of on Earth, and while the Doctor is puzzled by anomalous energy readings, he and Sarah have no idea that they are countless light years from their intended destination. Wonky TARDIS circuits are a screenwriter’s best friend, it would seem. Almost immediately, they are set upon by white-clothed helmeted figures with finger guns, and as they rush to escape from these surprising foes, they see a UNIT soldier jump off a cliff to his death for no apparent reason.

Not quite the welcome wagon.

Upon examining the body, the Doctor notices that the soldier’s billfold contains brand new money, all the coins scratch-free and minted in the same year. An odd coincidence, repeated once more when the Doctor and Sarah enter the deserted village and find similar fresh currency in the empty pub’s till. More ominously, the pub’s tables hold half-full mugs of beer. Peering through blinds, they see the missing drinkers return, hauled in a truck driven by the same mysterious helmeted figures. The people clamber out of the truck without emotion or sound, then resume their places in the pub. On cue, they all begin talking and drinking once more.

Next stop, Android Junction!

The Doctor and Sarah see the “dead” UNIT solider among them, increasing their bafflement. Our time travellers postulate various theories as to how these people are being controlled and/or re-animated, believing themselves to be on Earth in an actual British town, but they never once consider them to be androids. The viewer, however, has already been tipped off by the story’s title, as well as by establishing shots of the UNIT soldier walking alone in a jerking, halting, mechanical manner. These are robots, android copies of human beings, programmed, for some reason, to drink pints.
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