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And my all time preferred Doctor Who adventure of all time is…

September 29, 2015

For many years, indeed decades, my immediate answer to this question was –

The Deadly Assassin (1976).

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I had come to a pretty settled determination about this and would give this answer on any and all occasion on which it was demanded.

But a few years ago I decided that I would rewatch every single (complete) Doctor Who adventure I could.  The order in which I would watch these adventures was, perhaps unusual.  I would watch one adventure from the First, then one from the Second and so forth.  When I “ran out” of a Doctor then the circle would tighten.  By this means, the eventual last Doctor Who episode to be (re) watched was, of course, Logopolis.

Along the way, I met up with some classic episodes that still seemed classic, a few that no longer seemed quite so classic and quite a few that either I’d never seen, or I’d forgotten, or I’d forgotten how good they were.  The eerie landscapes of Keys of Marinus, the surreal nightmare of The Mind Robber, the sheer zaniness of Sea Devils and the dystopian misery of Frontios are all worth recalling, as is the sheer cynicism of Vengeance on Varos and the Beckettsian vacancy of Survival.

And now, having actually watched every single complete Doctor Who adventure, relatively recently, I can state with some assurance that in actual fact my all time preferred Doctor Who adventure of all time is….

The Deadly Assassin (1976)

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Because despite the renewed claims of all sorts of wonderful stories – it is still The Deadly Assassin that gets to me.  Now clearly it must have arrived at a very formative point in my childhood, and clearly just watching it again revives some aspect of that childhood experience – but I’ve been sharpening my more clinical critical facilities, and The Deadly Assassin continues to score.  It remains top.

The Deadly Assassin offers the confluence of six wonderful talents.  Tom Baker, Philip HInchcliffe, David Maloney, Robert Holmes, Dudley Simpson and Roger Murray Leach – the most witty and stylish designer in the show’s history.  The story is supremely well plotted around its three main cliff hangers.  The script crackles with menace, wit and invention.  The score is one of Simpson’s finest, a deliciously liturgical effort that evokes all the menace of a corrupt clerical order.

The chief objection to this adventure was at the time (and has been since) that it demystified the Time Lords too much – turned them into tedious and incompetent bureaucrats, too set in their ways to react to a real crisis.  Personally, I’m happy with this demystification.  Robert Holmes was responsible for the name Gallifrey (Time Warrior), and for our first real sense of the place.  It emerges as a smug, complacent society, a society that the Doctor seems fully justified in leaving.

The Master himself (Peter Pratt) is a thing out of nightmares.  The corpse in a cowl was just about the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen as a child.  The flirtatious homosocial chivalry of the Pertwee-Delgado era is replaced by focused malevolence of an altogether more concentrated nature.  And then there’s The Matrix.  Long before Keanu Reeves, the BBC created the idea of a computer generated virtual reality fed by evil dreams and the entirety of Episode Three takes place in this filmed nightmare. Everyone talks about Mary Whitehouse and the threatened drowning, but the train driver in the gas mask hurtling towards the Doctor with his foot stuck in the track is as scary a moment as you’ll ever hope to get a giddy little thrill out of.

George Pravda is wonderful.  You can see him Enemy of the World and The Mutants, but he’s at his best here as Castellan Spandrell.

Bernard Horsfall is marvellous.  You can see him in The Mind Robber, War Games, and Planet of the Daleks but he’s at his best here as the tragically ambitious and treacherous Chancellor Goth.

Angus MacKay is superb.  Borussa has been variously interpreted and he comes to no good end, but I remember Borussa like this, the inscrutable adjuster of the truth, who offers the Doctor nine out of ten.

There are no companions in this adventure.  The Fourth Doctor (and for that matter Tom Baker) was relatively uncompanionable.  He would give his life for his companions but he didn’t, in a sense, need them.  Or didn’t think he needed them.  He would not, generally speaking,  invite them in and didn’t spend long saying goodbye to them.  This lack of a companion in The Deadly Assassin ensured that just when he ought to have felt at home, he was lonelier than ever.

(Actually there are no women in this adventure.  None at all.  Perhaps the patriarchial old boys club atmosphere offers another explanation of why the Doctor left.)

Gallifrey is powerful and stupid, pompous and scary, impressive and foolish.   The Doctor saves it, but leaves again immediately.  It’s a great great story.  In some ways, we learn a great deal about the Doctor but in other ways he’s as mysterious as ever.

Yeah, I’ve travelled all across the Whoniverse just to have my original instincts proved right.

Now to get started on Big Finish.

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