Doctor Who: ‘The Deadly Assassin’ Part 3 vs. Play for Today: ‘Gangsters’
‘Scene v. Scene’ is a series of articles aiming to shed new light on key scenes from television dramas by comparing them with scenes from other programmes or films. This isn’t just about pointing out ‘influences’ or comparing styles or tagging intertextuality (although those things might happen sometimes), and also is a more bloggy, less academic approach than usual on this site – however, the case studies will be chosen to also raise wider issues about television drama. This is true of the case studies in this first article, two-aquatic punch-ups: the Doctor’s fight with Goth in part 3 of Doctor Who’s ‘The Deadly Assassin’ (BBC1, 13 November 1976) and Kline’s showdown with Rawlinson in the Play for Today (in effect series pilot) Gangsters (BBC1, 9 January 1975). They have a lot in common, both on- and off-screen.
Before we start, we should place the scenes in context: Kline is fighting a crime boss in the river Tame in Birmingham, near the end of a hard-hitting single play about multiculturalism, drugs, illegal immigration and, well, hard-hitting. The Doctor’s fight takes place in a wilderness contained within the virtual reality of ‘The Matrix’, a dreamscape accessed by linking brains to computers (yes, it would be too easy to compare it with The Matrix (1999)!) on Gallifrey. Both scenes are shot on film: Gangsters was all-film, Assassin typically for 1970s Doctor Who mixes studio video (here depicting Gallifrey) with filmed exteriors (here restricted to the scenes set in the Matrix), though part 3 has an unusually high number of filmed scenes. We’re not here to compare the styles of mid-1970s TV dramas, though that can be a rewarding and surprising process, especially given that directors and film cameramen (directors of photography) on contracts could be asked to move between very different types of drama. There are all sorts of reasons for similarities in the approaches of these two dramas, including the fact that the writers of both pieces – Robert Holmes (Assassin) and Philip Martin (Gangsters) – often riffed on Westerns and other genres: therefore, Doctor Who assimilated The Manchurian Candidate (1962) into teatime SF-horror while Gangsters took The French Connection (1971) into Birmingham clubland. We could compare these punch-ups with equivalents in various Westerns for instance – but the amount that these two scenes have in common says a lot about Doctor Who in 1976 and some of the pressures facing BBC drama.
Writer: David Whitaker; Director: Douglas Camfield; Producer: Verity Lambert
A literary costume drama set around the courts of Richard I and Saladin, The Crusade (1965) is an example of how important non-science-fiction historical stories were in the early years of Doctor Who. This essay looks at how The Crusade approaches history, in particular the characterisation of Richard I (“the Lionheart”). There will be attention paid to the programme’s attempts at historical accuracy, although that shouldn’t be our only focus because the historical study of popular culture too often ignores the specific qualities of popular culture (and also history) by depending on the accuracy question. Depictions of Richard I change for various reasons including historians’ debates, school curricula, changes in media institutions, shifting dramatic styles and reactions to previous dramas. These explain why Richard the Lionheart (ITV, 1961-65) uses Richard differently from Richard Lester’s film Robin and Marian (1976), which is in turn different from the series Robin of Sherwood (ITV, 1984-86) and Robin Hood (BBC, 2006-2009). This essay will therefore take Doctor Who’s version of Richard I as a starting point to think about how history and screen fictions build narratives around figures like Richard I. I’m drawing from unused sections of the research I conducted for a forthcoming academic publication on neo-medievalism,1 but any references to academic theory will be rooted in discussion of the choices made by writer David Whitaker and director Douglas Camfield.
My chapter on neomedievalism in Who, for the collection Neo-medievalism in the Media: Essays on Film, Television, and Electronic Games, appeared in 2012. That chapter focuses on Doctor Who’s pseudo-historical stories – defined elsewhere in this website essay – and avoids pure historicals such as The Crusade. This website essay salvages notes and analysis which I prepared while researching that chapter in 2006: I have updated and rewritten these notes to remove academic jargon and theoretical perspectives. ↩
The BBC’s appointment of Sydney Newman as their head of drama in 1962 was the opening act of what some perceive as a “golden age” of British television drama. However, this is not how it appeared to everybody at the time, and the alienating effect of Newman’s “new broom” should be remembered. Perhaps the most outspoken casualty of Newman’s arrival was Don Taylor, a highly successful producer/director who found himself stifled and, he alleged, blacklisted by Newman.
For me, Doctor Who literally is a fairy tale. It’s not really science fiction. It’s not set in space, it’s set under your bed. – Steven Moffat1
If you look at the stories I’ve written so far I suppose I might be slightly more at the fairy-tale and Tim Burton end of Doctor Who, whereas Russell is probably more at the blockbuster and Superman end of the show. – Steven Moffat2
Here are a few thoughts on the ideas at work in The Eleventh Hour, the first episode of the 2010 season of Doctor Who. It’s not a straight ‘review’, because there are enough of those on the internet already. But it’s also not the type of researched essay you expect from this site, because I’m interested in the episode’s ambiguities and the thoughts circulating in my head after seeing it, and don’t want to re-watch the episode to death or wait until the end of the season when some of those ideas will have been resolved. This piece will discuss the ideas relating to the ‘storybook quality’ that new lead writer Steven Moffat has talked about3, think about how style and imagery support characterisation and theme, and work out why my mind has made associations with the classic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death (1946). This piece contains spoilers, and, unlike other essays on this site, you will need to have seen the episode to know what I’m talking about.