The Doctor Who Movie & The Deadly Assassin

Above: a promotional image for Doctor Who: The Movie.

This past week I watched two Doctor Who stories I haven't seen in years - The Deadly Assassin (1976) and the Doctor Who movie (1996). These two stories, released twenty years apart, have the same theme - the Doctor's archnemesis, the Master, has used all his regenerations, and is seeking to steal the Doctor's remaining lives. They both feature actors making one-off appearances as the Master - in The Deadly Assassin the Master is played by Peter Pratt, and in the Doctor Who movie the character is played by Eric Roberts (probably the most famous actor to have been in the role).

The Deadly Assassin was apparently written (after the departure from the series of Sarah Jane Smith in the previous serial The Hand of Fear) to demonstrate to Tom Baker that the Doctor's companion is a vital part of the show (this story is, rather unprecedently, companionless, unless one counts the Time Lords Castellan Spandrell & Co-Ordinator Engin as such). The only "humans" in this serial are mere hallucinations. Certainly, the lack of a human companion does give The Deadly Assassin a unique, alien feel. For the second time (the first since 1969's The War Games) we see the Doctor return to his home planet Gallifrey, and this is the first time the place is explored in depth. This is an unprecedented deep exploration of Time Lord civilisation, and, in a controversial reversal from all prior depictions of the Doctor's kin (as them being omnipotent), The Deadly Assassin instead represents the society of Time Lords as ancient, worn-out and corrupt, with all the worthless pride and pomp of the last days of the Roman Republic. This representation is aided greatly by the pompous, organ-based score of Dudley Simpson, and the fabulous sets (the columns of which again evoke feelings of Rome). As a testimony to the concept's power, this depiction of the Time Lords has stuck around in Doctor Who ever since, in everything from The Trial of a Time Lord to "Hell Bent".

It has also been theorised that The Deadly Assassin was an inspiration for the 1999 film The Matrix, much of the serial taking place in a virtual reality called, you guessed it, the Matrix (*cough*rip-off*cough*). These scenes are thrilling, and in their surrealness, nightmarish - the gas mask zombies (which perhaps inspired those of the later story "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances") being especially creepy. For someone who loves the creepy, dreamlike and surreal, these scenes are a real treat.

While I was really captivated by this story, in this short analysis I will not neglect to mention a nitpick or two. For a plot which is based around the concept of regeneration, why is it that none of the many dying Time Lords in this serial regenerate themselves? They simply die, just like that. Obviously, it could be explained that regeneration must be ineffective against the Time Lord weapons employed in The Deadly Assassin (we must expect that such an advanced civilisation as Gallifrey could have invented such instruments, regeneration being a natural part of the Time Lord lifespan). It just would have been nice if this had been mentioned in dialogue. But even this doesn't explain why (spoiler alert) Runcible, the Gallifreyan equivalent of Laura Kuenssberg, could be slain by a mere primitive spear, or how Chancellor Goth was killed by the Matrix. Why does no one regenerate? I don't know, perhaps the spear used to kill Runcible was a special anti-regenerative Time Lord spear.

I would also say that, similarly to my experience of Genesis of the Daleks, The Deadly Assassin, for me anyway, lacked emotional depth. But overall, I would place this serial among the highest of the classic series stories I have seen so far.

Now, regarding the 1996 American Doctor Who movie; I get the impression that the Americans (or British-born Americans, at least) never truly understood what made Doctor Who great. In their early drafts (which reimagined the show as the Doctor and his half-brother the Master searching for their long-lost Time Lord father Ulysses) as well as in the finished TV movie, the creators seemed to be more interested in the "Gallifreyan" side of Doctor Who. The TV movie doesn't see the Doctor and his companions go anywhere or anywhen amazing or exotic - for a film with so many references to time travel, very little of it is actually depicted. The vast majority of the film takes place on New Year's Day 1999, which, granted, was the future when the Doctor Who film was made, but only the very near future, and the Doctor's human companions aren't taken on any adventures outside of their own time or space. They remain in San Francisco, 1999. This is a film about two shapeshifting aliens coming to Earth and battling it out. That's all well and good, but it's not the sort of thing which makes Doctor Who great. The show isn't really about the Time Lords, or Time Lord affairs (despite rare outliers like The Deadly Assassin). The Doctor's species wasn't named until 1969 (six years' after the programme's genesis), and his (yes, I'll still be using male pronouns until series 11 starts and Jodie Whittaker solidifies herself into the role) home planet Gallifrey wasn't named till 1973 (a whole decade since the programme's genesis). They're far from necessary to the show, and indeed in both the classic and revived series they are barely visited or explored (when the show was revived in 2005 the head writer Russell T Davies even had Gallifrey destroyed and the Time Lords wiped out in a Time War which wasn't even depicted on screen). In fact, I would argue focussing on the Doctor's origins takes away much of his mystery, and I'm extremely glad that the plans to introduce the Doctor's father were abandoned.

Likewise, the concept of regeneration, which the plot of the Doctor Who movie is based around (much like The Deadly Assassin), is not what makes Doctor Who great. Regeneration, introduced (as "renewal") in 1966, is merely a practical plot device used to replace the actor (or actress) playing the Doctor every three or so years. Don't get me wrong; it's fun to explore regeneration every now and again. In fact it's important to do so - it solidifies regeneration as an in-universe concept, thus easing the suspension of disbelief for what potentially could be seen as quite a cynical plot device. However, like the Time Lords, it's not the most important thing. Neither is the TARDIS itself what makes Doctor Who great. Yes, the "bigger on the inside" thing is a cool sci-fi concept. But rather, it is the TARDIS' function - of being able to take its crew anywhere, anywhen - which makes the show exceptional. It allows the show to be anything, whether that be an adventure with Romans, an exploration of the morality of advanced medical technology, a drama in an Escher painting, or an adventure with characters of Arthurian legend.

So, I think the creators of the Doctor Who movie got the wrong end of the stick when they decided to create a Doctor Who story about Time Lords, regeneration, and the TARDIS (but not the TARDIS' function). As Andrew Cartmel pointed out, the TARDIS isn't a real place. It's a plot device. And yet so much of the film (including its climax) takes place in it.

The movie is fun, but I understand why the new American Doctor Who series (or "season") it was intended to introduce never came about. It didn't capture what made Doctor Who great! Anyone who was already a Whovian would have enjoyed it (as I did) - someone who was already accustomed to Time Lords and regeneration and the TARDIS, and already invested in the story of the Doctor. But as a way of reintroducing Doctor Who to the masses, especially the American masses (even more unaccustomed to the show), it was a failure. The replacement of the actor playing the Doctor in the first ten minutes or so would have been disorientating for non-fans (which is why I think "Rose", the episode which introduced New Who, and a much better introduction to the programme generally, was wise to avoid an Eighth-to-Ninth Doctor regeneration), and why should have non-fans cared about a battle between these "Time Lords" on Earth? They're not interesting to look at - they mostly look like us - and apart from gooey mouths and hypnotism (boring!) don't have any superpowers (the Doctor Who movie can really be called a less interesting version of Superman 2). And what's so special about this "TARDIS" thingy, anyway? In short, the Doctor Who movie failed to reintroduce the programme because it didn't show a new audience what made the show brilliant in the first place.*

But yes, if you're already a Whovian and are interested in seeing what Doctor Who would look like if it were a conventional American movie, or generally want to see what this weird, one-off transition between classic Who and New Who looks like, then I would recommend this film to you. Its story was incredibly conventional for traditionally such an eccentric show- very Hollywood-ish - but this is what makes this "episode" unique. And it did leave me wanting to see more of Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor (but only because I was already a Whovian, you see), but for that I will have to watch 2013's "The Night of the Doctor" again. Alas, Paul, it was not to be.

*I realise "Rose" didn't involve any time travel either - it was set in the modern day in ordinary conditions. But it did reintroduce another factor which has made the show great - extraordinary monsters made from ordinary things. In "Rose"'s case, it reintroduced the Autons. Eric Roberts' Master doesn't really compare. And in any case, unlike the Doctor Who movie (which was an American pilot), due to the nature of British television "Rose" already had consecutive sequel episodes, which did explore the rest of what's great about Doctor Who. The next two episodes, for example, took place in the future ("The End of the World") and the past ("The Unquiet Dead"); along with "Rose", these first three episodes took place in past, present, and future and successfully reintroduced everything which is exceptional about the show.