Friday, March 05, 2021

Doctor Who 14.3 (1976)

A race of wizards who have forgotten their magic and embraced technology.

A race so advanced that they regard technology as an obsolete, barren path.

The most powerful race in the universe, reduced to arguing among themselves about heraldry and presidential honours.

A race of immortals coming to the end of their lives. Doddery, forgetful, deaf, arthritic, corrupt, unable to shoot straight, worried about petty vandalism in their halls of power.

A race who look like Roman Catholic cardinals but talk like characters from an American cop show.

Deities who talk about a shadowy, secretive organisation which wields great power but takes no part in the narrative.

Goodies who have accepted their inevitable death; a baddie who will risk anything to prolong his life.

Goodies who cheat death by uploading their minds into a computer; a baddie who cheats death by extending the life of his body.

A universe ruled by Oxford academics.

A universe ruled by High Anglican priests.

A universe ruled by a Gilbert and Sullivan version of the English House of Lords.

A universe ruled by English prep school masters.

A story which hints at all these stories, but never quite gets round to telling any of them.

A story so defined by its own hyperbole that it is continually on the point of collapsing into self parody.

A shaggy dog story which everyone has missed the point of for forty years.

What can I possibly say about Deadly Assassin which has not already been said.


Noah and Nelly before the News. Schwaddywaddy on Multicoloured Swap Shop. Basil Brush and Mr Roy making excruciatingly bad puns. Bruce making people do silly things in return for cuddly toys. School is still a place where I go, if not exactly willingly, then at any rate without any actual sense of terror. Psychedelia is everywhere: not only on Top of the Pops but on Blue Peter and on Granny’s wallpaper. We are still in the post-war era. Vera Lynne and Arthur Askey are brought out on ceremonial occasions. Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin are still alive. It is exactly 25 years since we crowned the Queen, and it is still just about possible to love your country unambiguously. 

It is 1976. There are no Doctor Who fans. 

It is 1976. Everybody is a Doctor Who fan. 

Everyone watches Doctor Who. No-one pays very much attention to it, but everyone watches it. It isn’t very long or very important, but it is all there is. 

Before Deadly Assassin, there was no Doctor Who mythology. After Deadly Assassin, there was canon. There was lore 

Deadly Assassin is the first Doctor Who story. Deadly Assassin is the last Doctor Who story. 

Look at The Timeless Children, the franchise maiming climax to Season 12 of New Who. The Cybermen steal the bodies of dead Time Lords in order to make themselves immortal. The Cyber-Time-Lords acquire Cyber Collars and Cyber Lace Robes and Cyber Skullcaps. 

Before Deadly Assassin, the Time Lords didn’t look like that. After Deadly Assassin that is what the Time Lords had always looked like. It is part of their flesh; part of who they are: as if a Cyber Judge had a chrome metal wig and a chrome metal gavel. 

In the final seconds of the almost equally absurd 2009 Christmas special, Timothy Dalton’s narrator was revealed to be RASSILON!! But before Deadly Assassin no such character as RASSILON!! existed. The Time Lords had a founder: but he was called Omega. 

We can continue to unwind. The 1996 Paul McGann movie is practically a sequel to Deadly Assassin. Eric Roberts over-wrought Master appeared wearing a Time Lord hat with a Time Lord collar. The TARDIS is powered by something called the Eye-of-Harmony. Time Lords have thirteen lives and the Master has used up all of his. 

All Doctor Who stories are practically sequels to Deadly Assassin.

The Third Doctor rarely mentioned the Time Lords. The first two never did. But Tom’s Doctor talks about them all the time. “But I’m a Time Lord...” is almost as much of a catchphrase as “Would you like a Jelly Baby...” The Doctor has renounced the society of the Time Lords and is now just a wanderer. The Doctor must always obey the Panopticon Summons. It is the Doctor’s duty to uphold the laws of Time. No-one has decided if the Time Lords are Jedi Knights, or the Guardians of Oa, or the Watchers, or the Q Continuum. 

Once Superman knew that he came from the planet Krypton, it was inevitable that he would go back there. Time Machines, bottled cities, colonies, exiles, Phantom Zone villains: the Silver Age Krypton practically took over the comic. 

Robert E Howard had the good sense never to show us Cimmeria; Conan was much more interesting if we didn’t know what he was running from.

The more Gallifrey was talked about, the more tempting a story in which the Doctor goes home becomes. We have a wandering hero who is separated from, but still feels a kind of loyalty to, his far-away homeland. Of course he will go back there eventually. 

If Robert Holmes hadn’t scoffed the plot biscuit, someone else would have done. The status quo was not an option.

Ten minutes into Deadly Assassin, the Chancery Guard march into the TARDIS. The Doctor evades them, not using super-science, but by the old trick of using some clothes to make it look as if he is sitting in his chair and then sneaking out through the back door. The Chancery Guard point guns at the place where they think the Doctor is and try to arrest him. 

But isn’t the TARDIS in a state of Temporal Grace? Occupants neither exist nor do not exist; so no-one inside the TARDIS can harm or be harmed. 

This is a small and minor point of continuity. But it is a small and minor point of continuity which was introduced into the series a fortnight ago (in episode 3 of Hand of Fear). Robert Holmes might be forgiven for not remembering what was said about the origins of the Daleks in 1964. But you would expect him to remember what had been said about the TARDIS the week before last. 

He could have written any number of face-saving lines for the Doctor. “Oh, silly me, I switched the State of Temporal Grace generator off”; “I could tell them that we are in a State of Temporal Grace, but Time Lords would never be taken in for such an obvious fib the way Eldrad was”. He bothers to make Tom Baker say “Constantinople Cash and Carry” under his breath, although most viewers were probably not particularly wondering where the Doctor bought his hookah. 

Failing to paper over the cracks is an aesthetic choice. The cracks are part of the patina which makes us value the antique? 

This isn’t an isolated example. He made up the idea that Tom Baker is the twelfth Doctor (as opposed to the fourth) and then tells us that Time Lords have a maximum of thirteen lives. He makes up the idea that only the Doctor can operate the TARDIS, and then shows us other people operating it. 

Doctor Who has terrible science and always has done. But I don’t think that saying “constellation” when you mean “solar system” and “universe” when you mean “galaxy” can be written off as errors. Or at any rate, I don’t think that the series would be improved if those errors were fixed. Doctor Who talks the language of Victorian science and astrology rather than the language of O Level physics. “The Daleks come from the next universe but one” has a weird kind of poetry to it. 

Doctor Who has terrible continuity, and always has done. But that terrible continuity—the complete lack of any world building—is part of what makes Doctor Who what it is. Doctor Who is the sort of TV show that reboots at the end of each story. The sort of TV show that exists in a state of narrative amnesia. More like a cartoon than a soap opera; more like a series of tales than a chronicle. 

Doctor Who began in 1963. (Feel free to add the Larkin quote of your choice.) Doctor Who began, specifically on the 23rd November 1963. The day, as it happens, when a president was shot. By a deadly assassin. 

Is this just a story in which the floppy hat and scarf guy makes and obligatory trip back to his home world?  
Or is it the culmination of a promise made in 1963, in which the Doctor —the same Doctor who taught the human race how to make fire; the same Doctor who swapped quotes with Gulliver in the land of fiction; the same Doctor who stole the blue crystal from the spiders—the Doctor who left his home before the beginning and was already an exile before we saw the light of morning—finally goes back to the point of origin. 

Doctor Who is going back to before the beginning. And no one understands the gravity of the moment.

The story begins with a rolling caption, spoken by Tom Baker. It makes us immediately think of Star Wars. Except, of course: this is still before Star Wars. (Before too long, a man in a black cloak will kneel before a decrepit, corpse like figure and call him “my master”.)

The Star Wars crawl was a piece of retro-branding: but it was also an object lesson in how to establish a backstory. It told us everything we needed to know and nothing we did not need to know. The Deadly Assassin scroll tells us nothing. We already know who the Time Lords are. If we don’t, the crawl doesn’t leave us any better informed. They are powerful; they are ancient; they come from Gallifrey; and they are facing a crisis.

It is a warning. Even an apology. It pre-empts the objection that Doctor Who fans were always going to raise. The “Time Lords” in this story have nothing in common with the “Time Lords” you may remember from previous Doctor Who stories. Don’t complain that Deadly Assassin is not consistent with established “lore”. It isn’t supposed to be.

The aloof, god-like Time Lords depicted in the War Games and the super-scientists from the Three Doctors have been reduced to doddery, ritual-bound old men. Did the Doctor run away because the Time Lords had become lethargic and moribund? Or have the Time Lords become moribund and lethargic as a result of the Doctor’s departure? 

Robert Holmes's script does not answer these questions. He doesn’t seem to be interested in them. We are told that the Time Lords changed, suddenly and terribly, as a result of the worst crisis in their history. But we are shown the Time Lords as they always were, and always have been. Nothing surprises the Doctor. He recognises the Chancery Guard; he understands the legal system and the constitution; he isn’t surprised by the presence of TV newscasters. He takes these new Time Lords for granted. 

Once history has been changed, it has always been changed. Deadly Assassin does not show what the Time Lord’s are: it shows what, from now on, they have always been. The War Games and the Three Doctors and Genesis of the Daleks no longer exist. Holmes is retrospectively rewriting the history of Doctor Who: and he is telling a story about how history can be changed retrospectively. A decade later, he would repeat the meta-textual joke, putting Doctor Who the character on trial for his life at a time when Doctor Who the programme was threatened with cancellation.

“But all this was to change”. In fact, all this has changed. The opening crawl changes the Time Lords. Everything else is filler. 

We see the Time Lords, for the first time, through the Doctor’s eyes, in his premonition. A glimpse of a very elaborate ceremony, figures in cloth-of-gold robes with skullcaps and raised collars. 

And one set of viewers, the old timers, say “These are not the Time Lords, the Time Lords of the War Games and the Three Doctors. Robert Holmes has made a grievous error.” 

And another set of viewers, us younger fans, say “Ah, these must be the Time Lords. I suppose this is what they looked like in the War Games and the Three Doctors, stories which I never saw but have read about in my copy of the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special.” 

But a third set, the fourteen million casual viewers, the people for whom the show is made and who alone guarantee its continued existence say: “Well, well, well. Important looking people in shiny costumes. Is this meant to be where the Doctor originally came from? Isn’t he an alien of some kind? Who can understand this crazy sci fi stuff! Pass the crumpets.” 

It is no longer 1976 and never will be again. We have all seen Invasion of Time and Arc of Infinity and the Five Doctors and Trial of a Time Lord and the TV movie and End of Time and Hell Bent and The Timeless Children. We look at Deadly Assassin and we simply see Time Lords. It is the Three Doctors and the War Games which shock us. 

The Time Lords are the Time Lords are the Time Lords. 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstien looks like Karloff. Tolkien’s middle-aged Hobbit looks like Elijah Wood. 

Time has been rewritten. 

“The Panopticon!” exclaims the Doctor. 

And ten-year-old Andrew is thinking: What am I missing? What have I missed? I suppose this was explained when the world was black and white, in one of the stories I am not allowed to see because I was born too late. If I had seen Doctor Who from the very beginning, I would know what a Panopticon was. When tonight's episode is over, I will look it up in one of my DWAS information booklets. I wish I was Jeremy Bentham. 

Jeremy Bentham was the Reference Historian of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, a Doctor Who geek before there were such things as Doctor Who geeks. He knew everything about Doctor Who and was very nice about sending hand written letters to frothing primary school fans who sent him unanswerable questions about the history of the Daleks and the technical specs of the TARDIS. (Thank you Jeremy, if you are still alive and still read Doctor Who blogs.) The president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society was Jan Vincent-Rudzki: we will learn more of his wisdom later. 

But by an astonishing coincidence, Jeremy Bentham was also a nineteenth century political philosopher. He believed in utilitarianism and invented the word International. He thought that prisons would be more humane if they were based on surveillance, rather than physical restraint. He proposed a cunning design for a jail in which the wardens could observe all the prisoners all the time. The idea was central to Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, which was published one year before Deadly Assassin and was one the main cause of post-structuralism. (The equalities minister, Liz Truss, recently admitted she was a big fan.) 

Bentham’s humane prison was called The Panopticon. And there is quite a close analogy between Bentham’s prison and the old idea of the Time Lords: an elite which wields power through observation, rather than physical might. The wardens of the universe, who pride themselves that they seldom interfere in the affairs of others; seeing everything but doing nothing. 

But perhaps Holmes is not thinking of Bentham’s prison. Perhaps he is using the word Panopticon in its etymological sense. The See-Everything is a good name for the Time Lord citadel, even though they can’t see what is going on right in front of their venerable noses. 

Old Doctor Who fans hated Deadly Assassin. But nine months after its release, they held the world’s first Doctor Who convention, and they named it “Panopticon”. Jeremy Bentham was master of ceremonies. 

Jeremy Bentham himself is something of an archetype for dusty, eccentric, academia. His body was pickled, and his mummified remains still attend council meetings at University College, London. 

And at the centre of Deadly Assassin is a decaying corpse which refuses to admit that it is dead. 

It was a fine morning in 1975. Robert Holmes was sitting at his writing desk, trying to come up with an idea for a Doctor Who story.

“What do we know about the Time Lords?” he asked himself.

“Well, we know that they are immortal, and we know that they know everything” he replied.

“So what follows from that?”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? A story in which one of them is murdered and no-one knows who dunnit.”

Deadly Assassin is an excellent Doctor Who story—once you admit that it is a massive piss-take. 

Deadly Assassin is an excellent Doctor Who story—once you realise it is an enormous joke at the expense of Doctor Who fans and Doctor Who history and the whole idea of Doctor Who. 

Robert Holmes is not stupid. He certainly isn’t ignorant of the history of Doctor Who. He cares about what he is writing. He must be doing it deliberately. He knows he is writing the Time Lord story to end all Time Lord stories. A parody of a genre which doesn’t exist. 

After all his wanderings the Doctor returns to his mysterious home planet. And what is the first thing which happens? A bog-standard science fiction Red Alert siren goes off. A very earthly voice starts speaking over a very earthly tannoy. And Stormtroopers, with silly red robes and shiny helmets rush down the corridor, wielding ray-guns. 

The Castellan—the authority figure in charge of the stormtroopers—is wearing a shabby brown version of the robes we saw the President and the Cardinals wearing in the Doctor’s vision; along with a shabby brown yarmulke. The Castellen guard have impractical red cloaks; their shiny plastic helmets are also modelled on the cardinal’s zucchetto. Every single character on Gallifrey—librarian, news reporter, cameraman—wears a variation on this regalia. This iconography has become so firmly embedded in Who mythos that we look right through it: but it is quite clearly a visual gag. It’s as if the policemen guarding the Old Bailey wore helmets shaped like judge’s wigs; as if the S.A.S went into battle wearing kevlar bearskins. 

Terrence Dicks used to remark that if our hero was “The Doctor” and his nemesis was “The Master” then somewhere in the universe there ought to be a Time Lord called “The Bachelor”. So naturally, Gallifrey is a bit like an Oxford college. The first other Time Lord we ever met, long before there was such a thing as Time Lords, was known as The Monk. Tom Baker served a noviciate in a monastery as a young man. So, oddly enough, did Sylvester McCoy. So naturally, Gallifrey is a bit like a monastery. But what Gallifrey is most like is an English boys’ school. Steeped in tradition and learning, smugly confident that its old boys are better than anyone else’s old boys: “Floreat Galifrea”. (This was before Hogwarts.) You might suppose that the Time Lord academy, from which the Doctor and the Master both graduated, would be a super-advanced institution for the greatest minds in the universe. But Borusa is every inch the patronising English school teacher. When the Doctor saves the universe he awards him only nine out of ten. The Time Lord garb is not that far away from the mortar board and gown which cartoonists always depicted teachers wearing. People sometimes ask why there are no Time Ladies: it would be more sensible to ask how anyone could have ever imagined Romana being part of this sleepy old boy’s club. 

Naturally, the Castellan refers to the TARDIS as “a capsule” and says that it is obsolete and decrepit. That is how these kinds of stories work: what is wondrous and amazing to us is perfectly normal to the Doctor’s own people. The planet Krypton (in its original conception) was populated entirely by supermen. Everyone on Vulcan is as boring and logical as Mr Spock. 

But Holmes goes to some lengths to make the Time Lords seem normal and boring to us viewers. This, above all, is what so offended the first generation of Doctor Who fans. These are Time Lords who push shiny red buttons on consoles and talk to each other with Thunderbirds style wrist communicators. They fire ray-guns called STASERS, open TARDISes with very ordinary looking keys. The lose fugitives in fifty storey buildings and travel in elevators with very ordinary “up” and “down” buttons. 

Either Robert Holmes has a very limited imagination in which “1950s sci-fi tropes” and “the most advanced technology imaginable” come to the same thing. Or else he is quite deliberately having a joke at our, and the Time Lords’ expense. 

The Castellan—Spandrel—meets with another Time Lord, an historian named Engin. Using Engin’s records, they establish that the Doctor is a criminal, that he was once exiled to Earth and that his sentence was remitted “at the request of the C.I.A”.


“Celestial Intervention Agency.” 

The Time Lords know everything but do nothing: interfering with the affairs of other races is a capital crime. Yet (by definition) whenever we see them, they are taking action: they warned the Doctor that the Master was coming to earth; they sent him on a genocidal mission to Skaro and diverted him to Pelladon. In the two stories which precede Deadly Assassin the Time Lords are portrayed as a kind of space-police force: upholding the law of time and insisting on justice for all species. 

So: the idea of a separate, secretive group of Time Lords who do intervene—and of whom the other Time Lords don’t entirely approve—is a very fan-friendly attempt to reconstruct the Who Text. If the Time Lord in Genesis of the Daleks is reframed as a dissident Time Lord, then we have “saved the appearances”. Time Lords never interfere; apart, of course, from the ones who do. 

But the Celestial Intervention Agency plays no further part in this story. It is never mentioned again, outside this single episode. Over the next fifteen or so years, there will be many more stories in which the Doctor’s people help him; or ask him for help; or put him on trial. Not Time Lord dissidents; not the Celestial Intervention Agency—just the Time Lords. At best the C.I.A is a mythical organisation which some Time Lords use to explain stuff which doesn’t make sense to them. At worst, it is a one-off give-away line, irrelevant to the story, on which huge fan edifices have been constructed. 

And also: it’s a very silly name. 

We know from the title that the story is about an assassination. We know from the prelude that it is going to be about the assassination of a President; and it becomes clear as the first episode proceeds that there is a complicated conspiracy to blame an innocent person—the Doctor—for the crime. 

We have gone all the way back to the origins of Doctor Who—in order to tell the same kind of political conspiracy story we could have told about 1970s America. Some people on earth think that the C.I.A were behind the assassination of President of America. Some people on Gallifrey think a different C.I.A were behind the assassination of the President of the Time Lords. The Doctor’s vision of the President’s Assassination in the midst of pomp and circumstance is undoubtedly awe-inspiring: but when we come to the event itself, it is largely mediated through a Time Lord newscaster—a David Dimbleby sound-a-like called Runcible. This is earth politics in Time Lord dress. 

The reference to “the C.I.A” hangs a huge lampshade on the fact that the Deadly Assassin is a riff. It’s doing the same work as the wrist communicators and the red alert sound effect. “How unsubtle do I have to be?” says Holmes—“How can I make it clear that I don’t want you to take this story seriously.” 

The 1976 Doctor Who fans’ rage against the Deadly Assassin is much like the 2001 Star Wars fans’ rage against the Phantom Menace. We had built the Time Lords and the Jedi Knights in our minds based on very small hints in the canonical texts. Actually seeing them was always going to be a tremendous let-down. Robert Holmes’ Time Lords, who were henceforth the only possible Time Lords, could not possibly live up to the Time Lords of our imaginations. It would have been better to have left them there. 

The review which the inaugural Doctor Who Appreciation Society president, Jan Vincent-Rudzki, wrote in the society fanzine, TARDIS, is legendarily proscriptive. He sees Robert Holmes making errors, as opposed to taking creative decisions. 

“The Time Lords were supposed to be very powerful” he writes. 

“Time Lord technology should be able to deal with minor intrusions” 

“The Time Lords would have their own history completely documented”. 

“The Time Lords should have used a Time Scanner” - a plot device mentioned in passing in a nine-year-old Patrick Troughton story—to find out the truth behind the Presidential assassination. 

“...This story shattered our illusions of the Time Lords” he writes “and lowered them to ordinary people....Once, Time Lords were all-powerful, awe-inspiring beings....Now, they are petty, squabbling, feeble-minded, doddering old fools...WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” 

I don’t know whether or not the omniscience of the Time Lords was ever intrinsic to the Magic of Doctor Who. I am not convinced that the Meddling Monk was all that awe-inspiring. But Rudzki is largely correct. The Deadly Assassin is driven by bathos. Each time we expect the Time Lords to be cosmic or amazing they turn out to be just like folks. 

And that must be the point. 

Doctor Who episodes very frequently end with the Doctor in mortal danger, from which he escapes the following week. And quite often, the escape is less interesting than the trap: recall that the Doctor escapes from the executioner in Masque of Mandragora by telling him to look the other way and jumping on a convenient horse. 

This is in marked contrast to the old movie cliff-hanger serials like Flash Gordon. Did we leave our hero trapped in a cave that was filling up with volcanic lava? Then next week we will splice in an extra scene in which the hero ran into a different cave just before the eruption. Did Chapter One show our hero’s car going off a cliff in a ball of fire? Then Chapter Two will add a scene in which he leaps out of the car onto a mossy bank a second before the crash. The solution to the hero’s impossible predicament is to reveal that he was never in that predicament to begin with. 

Doctor Who writers generally play more fair with viewers. The Doctor’s escape may be far-fetched; but he does escape. Deadly Assassin Episode 2 is one of the rare cases when Doctor Who cheats. 

Deadly Assassin began with a vision of the President of the Time Lords being assassinated. Episode 1 ends with the vision coming true. The Doctor realises that there is a vantage point in the Panopticon from which a gunman could indeed assassinate the president. He rushes up there: he finds a gun in position. We see the President through the sights of the gun. We see a shot being fired. We see the President die. The premonition has come true: the Doctor has murdered the President. 

At the beginning of Episode 2, the scene is replayed. But this time, it is slightly different. We see a hand, close to the President, drawing a pistol. It is this pistol shot which kills the President. The Doctor was aiming the rifle at the assassin: but the rifle’s sights have been tampered with. He couldn’t possibly have killed the assassin; but it looks as if he killed the President. The Doctor has been expertly framed. 

We see the apparent shooting of the President from the Time Lords’ point of view. From that perspective, it sure looks as if the Doctor is guilty. We spend a whole week wondering “Why did the Doctor kill the president? What was his motivation?” But at the beginning of Episode 2 we are given a new piece of information—something the Doctor knows but the Time Lords do not. There was a second assassin, on a metaphorical grassy knoll. 

The Doctor knows something we don’t know. But we know something the Doctor doesn’t know. A monstrous zombie and a man in a black hood are plotting against him and against the Time Lords. 

We’re all in the See-Everything. But our field of vision is distinctly limited. 

The omniscient Time Lords have drawn a chalk outline around the place where the President’s body fell: an outline which includes the shape of his silly hat and his silly raised collar. The story is all about surface; about shapes and regalia. It would be as if someone drew the shape of a kilt and a zig-zag paper crown around the body of Duncan in Macbeth; as if King Henry’s knights added a halo to the chalk outline of Thomas Beckett. 

Neither Elgin nor Spandrell understand that to “frame” someone means to falsely implicate them in a crime: but Spandrell understands the Doctor when he accuses him of using “hot and cold” interrogation techniques. The Mysterious Evil Zombie has read Don Quixote. Goth describes the role of President as the “highest office in the land”—not “on the planet” or “in the universe” but “in the land”. A Time Lord day is the same as an earth day—at any rate elections must take place within 48 hours of the death of the incumbent. Spandrell uses the British-Irish word “hooligan”—the word used for young men who start fights at football matches—to describe people who fire ray-guns at walls for no reason. 

It is a little like the cast of the Mikado, asserting over and over again that they are Japanese, while singing English love songs and English sea shanties in posh English accents. It is a little like the Flinstones, surrounded by caves and dinosaurs yet in all respects indistinguishable from a 1950s sit com family. It is a little like the “ladies” in Little Britain. “We are Time Lords—we are Time Lords—We are Time Lords” they say even though the police, the media, the judiciary and the constitution are quite clearly those of contemporary earth. 

Granted, the Time Lords are not “really” speaking English, but some language of their own. But Spandrell’s Czech accent and Borusa’s posh, public school intonation must be “standing in” for some aspect of Time Lordian speech. If you stage Oedipus Rex at the Old Vic, the King doesn’t speak classical Greek—but the translator has to decide whether he sounds like King Lear or Prince Charles or Bradley Walsh. Daleks presumably speak to one another in Dalekian or Skarovian, but the fact that we hear them measuring distance in Rels rather than feet and inches is surely part of the unique atmosphere of 1960s Doctor Who stories? (Presumably, Terry Nation decided to transliterate the Skarovian for “kill” as the English “exterminate” to represent the length and cadence of the original Dalek word.) Holmes as chosen to “translate” Deadly Assassin so that the Time Lords sounds as human, contemporary and unimpressive as possible. 

Holmes could have shown the Time Lords looking into the Doctor’s mind, telepathically, to establish his guilt or innocence—as Terrence Dicks did in the trial scene in the War Games. He could have shown them using judicial a computer to weigh the Doctor’s guilt—as Terry Nation did when Roj Blake was tried by the Federation. He could, forsooth, have made the Doctor prove his innocence in a Mind-Wrestling contest, an idea he made up six months previously. But when the Doctor is accused of fatally assassinating the President, he choses to show us a slightly corrupt version of an English magistrates court. 

We left Sarah-Jane behind in South Croydon, promising to send the Doctor’s regards to Harry and the Brigadier. It seemed as if, finally, finally, finally, we were leaving the Pertwee era behind. 

So, naturally, seven days later, the black sheep of the UNIT family, returns to the fold. 

It isn’t really the Master. It can’t be. Roger Delgado died in a traffic accident three years ago, and the series has been understandably reticent about recasting him. Deciding that the Master is only mostly dead, and bringing him back into the series as a rotting corpse is an acknowledgement of the problem. It’s a witty, audacious idea, and an absolutely appalling lapse of taste. 

Nowadays we accept that the Master, like the Doctor, regenerates. Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts, Derek Jacobi, John Simm, Michelle Gomez, Sacha Dhawan: I assume Big Finish has already done The Six Masters. But this was 1976 and Delgado was the Master and the Master was Delgado and a different Master was almost unthinkable.

Even if Roger Delgado had been available, it is hard to imagine that Master in the Tom Baker era. The Pertwee era was two thirds Quatermass and one third the Avengers. (The Third Doctor once felt the need to remind Jo that he was not Batman.) A comic-strip hero required a comic-strip villain: and Delgado’s suave, polite Moriarty figure fitted the era to a tee. His ludicrously convoluted schemes to conquer the world would have been altogether too silly for the gothic, science fiction universe that was coalescing around Tom Baker. 

The Master isn’t a character you can recast: he is not even really a Time Lord who can regenerate. He’s more a narrative construct; a place-holder. The Doctor’s sworn arch-enemy. The anti-Doctor. 

Put like that, it sounds a little bit childish. Splitting the world into “best friends” and “sworn enemies” is the stuff of the infant school playground. The first time the Master appeared, a Time Lord warned the Doctor that an old enemy was on the way; but now, the Doctor has to explain to Spandrell and Engin who he is. They regard the Doctor and the Master’s relationship as a private feud which has spread to the home world. The feud is supposed to have started at the Time Lord Academy, but Borusa has never heard of the Master either. 

No particular trouble is taken to make the villain’s identity a surprise. The Black Hooded Man calls the Rotting Corpse “Master” in the first episode; and Peter Pratt is credited as the Master in the end credits. (John Nathan-Turner would have tried to make us believe that a new villain called Mearthset was being played by someone called Papa Tetrrat.) The Big Reveal is not that Corpse Man is the Master, but that Black Hood is Goth. 

The Doctor realises that the Master is behind the plot to fatally kill the President when he sees the newscaster’s technician shrunk down to the size of an Action Man. (The special effects team achieved this effect by using, er, an actual Action Man. Once you notice the realistic gripping hands it is impossible to un-notice them.) The Master shrunk someone in 1971 and has never shrunk anyone since; but everyone takes it for granted that shrinking people is the Master’s unique modus opperendi. Rewriting history is surprisingly easy. 

Robert Holmes looked up from his writing desk. “Oh dear. I’ve only got two and a half episodes worth of material. I suppose I had better pan it out with a thirty minute chase scene?” 

Robert Holmes looked up from his writing desk. “Oh dear. This Men in Robes story lacks action: I need a pretext to get away from the dusty corridors of Gallifrey for an episode?” 

Robert Holmes looked down at a blank sheet of paper. “This long, violent, fight scene in a surreal Alice-In-Wonderland world is terrific. But where is it happening? Maybe inside a supercomputer? But who might have a supercomputer? Maybe the Time Lords…hey… that gives me a brilliant idea for a story…” 

“Then there wasn’t Episode 3” wrote Vincent-Rudzki in the aforementioned screed “which must have been the biggest waste of time in the history of Doctor Who”. 

He was not wrong. Episode 3 of the Deadly Assassin feels like an absence: a void at the heart of a story; thirty or thirty five minutes in which the narrative is put on hold and replaced by a violent game of human cat-and-mouse. (This was long, long before the Hunger Games.)

There is a huge stylistic clash. Deadly Assassin is unusually silly; but Episode 3 is unusually dark. Deadly Assassin is very dense, with new characters and plot twists in almost every scene: but in episode 3, hardly anything happens at all. Deadly Assassin is full of snappy Robert Holmes dialogue; long passage of episode 3 are wordless. And Deadly Assassin is studio bound where episode three takes place on location. 

Deadly Assassin is almost entirely unlike a Doctor Who story. It’s a political thriller; a satire; a whodunnit; a pastiche of the Manchurian Candidate in sparkly frocks. But in the exact middle it turns into a parody of an old school episode. The end of Episode 2, all of Episode 3 and the beginning of Episode 4 consists of a chase round a quarry; a sequence of jeopardy and escapes with no narrative context whatsoever.

Episode 2 ends with the Doctor being menaced by crocodiles, clinging to the edge of a cliff, being executed by lethal injection and trapped on a railway line in the path of an oncoming train: four classic, and one literal, cliff-hanger situations. Nothing leads up to them and nothing follows from them. The Doctor doesn’t really escape from any of the dangers—they just go away. The danger is not real. But then, the danger is never real. It’s just a TV show. We are all free to deny its reality any time we want. Mary Whitehouse never quite understood that. Neither, in fairness, did Jan Vincent-Rudzki. 

If the Master is a dark parody of the Doctor, then Episode 3 is a dark parody of Doctor Who. Suppress the violence and the peril, and what you are left with is a consciously arch science fiction show. But Freud taught us that when you repress something, you give it power. Episode 3 is Doctor Who’s unconscious; all the cruelty and violence and executions given free play. There is no point in trying to repress negative feelings. The Doctor beats the Master’s reality, not by denying it, but by embracing it. 

The word “matrix” means “the soil from which something is dug up” or “the cultural circumstances under which an idea arises”. (It also means “mother”.) In mathematics, a matrix is a way of presenting information; a grid of numbers. Matrices are used to store data in computer programming. For many of us, “Matrix” is place-holder technobabble for “Computery MacComputerface”. 

The Matrix represents the minds of all the dead Time Lords, downloaded into a kind of computer. (Did I mention that Time Lords are immortal?) It is a composite mind which is able to predict the future. (Did I mention that Time Lords could travel through time?) But it is also an alien dimension: cyberspace or a virtual reality. 

This was before Keanu Reeves. This was before William Gibson. It was before Tim Berners-Lee and indeed, for all practical purposes, before the Internet. 

Having escaped from the oncoming train, the Doctor steps in a giant egg full of custard. He is threatened by vultures; sees the Master’s face in a rock and a clown face in a mirror in the sand. He is strafed by a World War One bomber and briefly menaced by a giant spider. He is shot at with a precision rifle; and tries to trap his enemy by rigging a booby trap with a grenade. His enemy tries to poison the water supply; the Doctor uses the remains of the poison, and a reed, and a thorn to make a poisoned blowpipe. He fights a final battle with his enemy in a flaming lake. 

And so we come to the final cliffhanger. The cliffhanger which overshadows everything else in this story. The cliffhanger which you have probably never seen. Deadly Assassin, a story about how history can be changed and censored has itself been changed and censored. And that isn’t even the most ironic thing about it.

You know the story. The Doctor gets knocked down, but he gets up again. The Master’s agent says “You are finished, Doctor, you are finished” and holds his head underwater, and there is a freeze-frame. Mary Whitehouse suffered a severe mental breakdown; and the BBC conceded that it was probably a bit strong for Saturday tea-time. They censored the scene. We don’t see the Doctor being drowned. On the repeat, the end-theme plays over the Doctor’s enemy telling him he is finished. This is how the story was shown on the re-run; this is the version which appears on BritBox. We do see the Doctor’s head underwater in the Episode 4 recap, but it’s only on screen for a second—a good deal less disturbing than the freeze-frame must have been. 

I don’t know whether TV violence harms children; I don’t know at what age children can distinguish between TV fantasy and the real world; I don’t know who should decide what kids watch and what they don’t watch. The political Right currently believes that anyone should be allowed to say anything they like without repercussions or opprobrium. It is the “woke” “left” who cry out to “cancel” anything they regard as “politically incorrect”. But in the 1970s it was the Right who howled to censor anything which moved; and the Left who fetishised freedom of speech. The name of Mrs Mary Whitehouse became indelibly associated with a monastic, anti-sex version of “cancel culture”. 

She was a big fan of Jimmy Savile; but then so was everyone else. 

I remember she appeared on an ITV kids show called You Must Be Joking; a weird mix of the Beano and the Little Red Schoolbook, overseen by the director of the Tomorrow People and presented by a boy-band She came across as ever-so, ever-so reasonable. Where the idea that she wanted to slap an X certificate on Doctor Who came from she could not imagine! She had simply said that it was a little scary for younger children and maybe ought to go out at half past seven rather than half past six! 

Doctor Who could be dark and violent. There really was a streak of sadism running through it. The Doctor’s head on a chopping block; Sarah’s breast on a sacrificial alter; a man screaming in agony from a cell; an alien sentenced to judicial obliteration. The Doctor runs for President in order to avoid the death penalty; the highly sophisticated Time Lords try to make him confess to murder with a torture device which has seven levels of severity. 

But it’s a fantasy. We know the Doctor will not really have his head chopped off; and we know that Sarah will not really be mashed up into fertiliser. It is also highly stylised: there is no blood, no dirt, and no-one seems really frightened. We may choose to suspend disbelief: we affirm this reality! But we know it isn’t real. 

But the Matrix sequence pushes us into a new register. It’s a fantasy within a fantasy: the Doctor knows it is not real. But the violence is violent; the pain is painful; there is real blood. There is a great difference between a rapier wielding hero saying “You can’t count, Count” and a man in army fatigues trying to cut open an infected wound with a knife. Perhaps we really do think that the Doctor has drowned. For a whole week. 

The redacted cliffhanger was restored for the DVD release. The BBC hadn’t retained the censored footage: it literally ended up on the cutting room floor. But an off-air recording existed. In 1976 the richer Doctor Who fans were just beginning to own video recorders. The BBC were able to restore part 3 to it’s pre Whitehouse state by borrowing a VHS recording. 

From, er, Jan Vincent-Rudzki. 

The man in black, the Master’s henchmen, and the figure in the Matrix who tries to drown the Doctor, and the eponymous deadly assassin turn out to be Chancellor Goth. The entire sojourn in the Matrix serves to reveal this single piece of information. 

From this fact, the Master’s entire plan can be extrapolated. He is a master villain and his master plans are, by their nature, labyrinthine and complicated, but this one is more tortuous than most. In Episode 1 he wants to see the Doctor die in shame and dishonour: nothing else matters. In Episode 2 he wants to destroy the Time Lords. Only those two things matter. By Episode 4 it has turned out that among the things which matter are diverse elements including killing the Doctor, destroying the Time Lords and securing his own survival. He staged the assassination so that his man, Goth, could become President. He wanted Goth as President because the President has access to the Key of RASSILON! and the Sash of RASSILON! The sash of RASSILON! Isn’t merely a sash: it is a mighty plot device which allows the wearer to get near the Eye of Harmony without getting sucked into a parallel universe. The Eye of Harmony is a mighty plot device which he believes he can use to source additional regenerations. But in order to make Goth president he shot the last president while he was still wearing the sash, so the sash has been damaged and his evil plans fail at the last moment. 

As resolutions go, this is not a bad one. Villains always make one foolish mistake. 

The Robert Holmes of Earth - 1 looked up from his desk.”There was another story about the origins of the Time Lords” he said “I am pretty sure there was. It involved a mad Time Lord, and a supernova, and a Black Hole. Definitely a Black Hole. I can’t remember the details. I’ll just wave my hands a bit and say that someone legendary brought the nucleus of a Black Hole back to Gallifrey. I shall give him a silly name—Ravolox? Rastafah? Ravioli?” 

The Robert Holmes of Earth - 2 looked up from his desk.”It was fun to see Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee in the same story all those years ago” he thought “But I think it is time to reboot Time Lord lore. I don’t much like the idea of a solar engineer deliberately setting off a supernova. I’m going to replace the Supernova with the Nucleus of a Black Hole. And I’m going to give it a mystical sounding name; and so it sounds more like ancient magic than super-science. Nose of Balance? Mouth of Equilibrium? And I am going to give the founder a name that sounds more like a wizard and less like a letter of the alphabet.” 

The Robert Holmes of Earth - 3 took the big sealed folder down from the shelf. “The Secret of Doctor Who” it said “By Sydney Newman. Not to be opened until 1977.” He broke the seal and read the words. “Three Galifreyans worked together to discover the secret of Time Travel. In 1973, you may reveal that the first was named Omega. Four years later, you may reveal that the second was named RASSILON!!. Only when Doctor Who is coming to the end may you reveal that the Third, "the Other" was the Doctor himself.” He resealed the envelope, and wrote “For the attention of Andrew Cartmell” above the broken seal. He put it alongside the other, still sealed, envelope; the one that read “Origin of Regeneration—Not to be opened for 57 years.” 

Nearly all the Time Lords are elderly: there are jokes about deafness and arthritis. When the President is shot he dies: there is no suggestion that he will regenerate. Runcible, the news reporter, and the only young character we see, is surprised that the Doctor has had a facelift: not a regeneration: a face lift. And then, out of the blue, comes the information that Time Lords are not immortal after all, but can only regenerate twelve times. The Master is a corpse because he has tried to stay alive beyond that thirteen-life limit. 

So: are we to take it that all the other Time Lords have used up, and know that they have used up, their lives, and are passively waiting for the end, comforted by empty rituals? And that the Master is the only one who is refusing to accept the inevitable? This would explain why they had started uploading dead Time Lords minds to the matrix. It would explain why Holmes trailed the idea that the Doctor was in his penultimate regeneration in Brain of Morbius. The conflict between Time Lords who are accepting of death and a renegade trying to extend his life could have been narratively interesting. 

Engin says that since the time of RASSILON!, the Time Lords have turned away from the barren road of technology. One could see how that could have been developed as an idea. A super-advanced technological civilisation that had come to rely on mysticism and mind powers. This would fit in with the idea that the Time Lords computers are very advanced and also very ancient. The Time Lord in Genesis of the Daleks seems to be able to appear and disappear without using a time machine, and gives the Doctor a mystical artefact, a time ring, to bring him home. And he says that they stopped using teleportation some six billion years ago. This idea could also have been pushed forward. Someone could have said “What is a TARDIS?” “Oh, it’s what we used to use to travel through time and space before we realized we could do it with the power of our minds alone.” But neither idea is ever mentioned again.

William Hartnell told us, frequently, that you cannot rewrite history, not one line. David Tennant told us, equally often, that time can be rewritten. 

But “history” means two very different things. It means “what really happened”. But it also means “what we remember of what happened” and “the stories we tell ourselves about what happened”.

The Meddling Monk wanted to change the outcome of the Battle of Hastings. Barbara wanted to preserve Aztec civilisation but wean them off human sacrifice. The Mandragora helix wanted to prevent the human race developing a space empire by cancelling the Renaissance. Eldrad wants the Doctor to take him back through time to change the events which led up to his obliteration. They want to change history, in the first sense: to look at events they don’t like and say “make that didn’t happen”. Changing history, in this sense, is apparently something which you can do, but really, really shouldn’t.

But Borusa, at the end of this story, plans to adjust the truth and come up with a different story, one which he can believe in. He is going alter the historical record. He can’t change what happened, but he can change what everyone thinks happened. Changing history, in this sense, means simply “telling lies about it”. Which is what many people think that the C.I.A do, all the time. We believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy because that is what the C.I.A want us to believe. They have replaced an uncomfortable truth with a palatable lie. 

But this is a really odd way to present a race who are able to travel through time. Two seasons ago, the Time Lords were sending the Doctor to Skaro to change history. Not to change the historical record or the universe’s perception of history: to actually alter the events. And yet here is the President of the Time Lords talking about adjusting the historical record like any slightly corrupt human politician. 

Holmes has forgotten—or thinks that it isn’t quite polite to mention—the idea that Time Lords are immortal. He has forgotten—or chosen to ignore—what has been previously written about Omega and Time Lord origins. And he has even forgotten—or eliminated from the story—the fact that these are not merely Lords, but Lords who travel in Time.  

The name “Gallifrey” is generally pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable: Gall-i-FREY. But Goth puts the emphasis in the middle of the word: Ga-LI-frey. He claims to have found the Master on a planet called Terserus, which he pronounces Ter-SE-rus. 

The planet Terserus is pure lore-babble. Goth found the Master somewhere at some point in the past. But thirteen years later, someone called Steven Moffat worked the name into a silly scatological sketch, in which the Master becomes progressively more decrepit as a result of having been trapped for several million years in a disgusting sewer. And the disgusting sewer just happens to have been on a planet called…Terserus. 

We can’t now watch Deadly Assassin without thinking that the Master is a corpse because he has spent several million years submerged in shit. We can’t hear the title, Deadly Assassin, without thinking of the equally tautological title Curse of Fatal Death. 

Curse of Fatal Death fixes Goth’s pronunciation. If Goth called Gal-li-FREY “Gall-I-frey” then the real name of Ter-SE-rus must be Terser-RUS. 

Readings and re-readings can go a long way. History is rewritten all the time. 

And in the end, nothing happened. 

The existence of a post-Delgado Master has been established; but we won’t see him again until the very, very end of Baker’s incumbency. The word “RASSILON!” now exists, and can be prefixed to whatsoever plot devices the writers can think of until the end of time. The key of RASSILON!, the game of RASSILON!, the harp of RASSILON!, the frying pan of RASSILON! 

And the basic premise of the show has been restated: the Doctor has left Gallifrey again.

We have seen the Time Lords, and they are just like us. 

We haven’t learned anything about the Doctor’s origins or his original quarrel with his people, although we have met his old housemaster and one of his schoolmates. This new version of the Time Lords could have been a fertile source of narrative; each rival faction trying to control, or abstain from controlling, history towards a different end point. Prydonians versus Arcalians, Patrexes versus Huffflepuffs; the Doctor an unwitting secret agent; the grand schemes of the Celestial Intervention Agency gradually unravelling. 

But none of this pays off. Two seasons later, when Douglas Adams wanted to send the Doctor off on a cosmic quest, he introduces the Guardians Of Time—aloof, mysterious and omniscient: the Old Time Lords under a new name. 

One thing we can say. 

Masque of Mandragora is fun, but stodgy. Hand of Fear is very nearly unwatchable. Deadly Assassin is fast moving and witty. Whatever it did or did not to to the Doctor Who mythos it was an engaging and compelling piece of television. And that is very probably all it was ever supposed to be. 

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Appendix: You wouldn't like me when I'm angry

Peter David wrote a spirited defence of Stan Lee (before the current wave of biographies, and while Lee was still alive) in which he says that it had become "stylish to trash Stan Lee". 

He makes the following interesting comment: 

I’ll never forget when Jack Kirby stated in Comics Journal that he had gotten the idea for the Hulk by watching a news report about a frantic mother who, because she was so upset, had enough strength to lift a car that was pinning her struggling child to the ground. And Jack thought, “What if we did a hero who, when he got really angry, changed into a super strong monster!” Great idea…except in the Hulk’s origin the transition was brought about by the rise of the moon, like a werewolf. Anger had nothing to do with it and wasn’t established until years later. I’m not saying Kirby knowingly lied. I’m just saying memories can be problematic and claiming that all credit should be taken away after the fact based on differing memories is a slippery slope. 


In the original comic book (May 1962) Banner's transformation into the Hulk was triggered by the fall of night; by a machine which gives him a dose of radiation; and by body-swapping with Rick Jones. The idea that the transformation is triggered by stress only comes in when the character is rebooted in October 1964.  (This is twenty seven months after the comic's original launch, which arguably qualifies as "years".) At that point stress would turn Banner to Hulk, but stress would also turn Hulk back to Banner. The reboot was drawn and therefore plotted by Steve Ditko without Kirby's direct involvement. When Lee talks about how he made up the Hulk out of his head without any help from anyone else, he says that he wanted to create a follow up to the Thing, and that he wanted to create a sympathetic monster in the mould of Karloff's Frankenstein. I am not sure when "the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets" first became a slogan: but "don't make me angry" became the unique selling point in the Bill Bixby TV series -- a reworking of the Fugitive which had very little in common with any of the comic book versions of the character. 

So: Kirby is guilty of the same thing which Stan Lee is often accused of: looking at what the character eventually evolved into, and claiming that that was how it was always inevitably going to turn out. 

Except, if we turn up Kirby's infamous Comics Journal interview, we find that what he actually said was as follows: 

The Hulk I created when I saw a woman lift a car. Her baby was caught under the running board of this car. The little child was playing in the gutter and he was crawling from the gutter onto the sidewalk under the running board of this car — he was playing in the gutter. His mother was horrified. She looked from the rear window of the car, and this woman in desperation lifted the rear end of the car. It suddenly came to me that in desperation we can all do that — we can knock down walls, we can go berserk, which we do. You know what happens when we’re in a rage — you can tear a house down. I created a character who did all that and called him the Hulk. I inserted him in a lot of the stories I was doing. Whatever the Hulk was at the beginning I got from that incident. A character to me can’t be contrived. I don’t like to contrive characters. They have to have an element of truth. This woman proved to me that the ordinary person in desperate circumstances can transcend himself and do things that he wouldn’t ordinarily do. I’ve done it myself. I’ve bent steel....The child wasn’t caught. He was playing under the running board in the gutter. His head was sticking out, and then he decided he wanted to get back on the sidewalk again. But being under the car frightened his mother. He was having difficulty crawling out from under the running board, so his mother looked like she was going to scream, and she looked very desperate. She didn’t scream, but she ran over to the car and, very determined, she lifted up the entire rear of that car. I’m not saying she was a slender woman. She was a short, firm, well-built woman — and the Hulk was there. I didn’t know what it was. It began to form. 

This is rather different from Peter David's quote. Kirby says that the woman's burst of strength was brought on by desperation. He says that desperation could make anyone that strong. He adds that in desperate circumstances people can transcend their normal limits, and that the woman looked very desperate when the child was trapped. To back up this claim, he says that people can also perform feats of strength when they are beserk or in a rage. 

It would have been unreasonable for Kirby (or, indeed, Lee) to claim that the foresaw, at the time of Incredible Hulk #1, what the character would turn into in Tales to Astonish #60. It would be much less unreasonable to say that the original Hulk was about a weak person turning into a strong person, or even that the character had a strong element of the beserker in him.

But in fact, in this case, Lee's pitch, as described in Origins of Marvel Comics, pretty much covers the first run of the Incredible Hulk. It boils down to: "I thought we could do a rip-off of the Frankenstien movies, and maybe chuck in some Jekyll and Hyde for good measure."

If we accept Stan Lee's "divine spark" theory of creation, then it is understandable that Kirby would want to create an origin myth for the Hulk that establishes that the singular flash of inspiration was his, and not Stan's. But we don't need an origin myth to explain why a company that was already producing monster comics would have come up with the idea of a scientist who gets turned into a monster by radiation and fights the commies. 

But there is surely a bigger problem with Kirby's story which neither Peter David nor Abrahan Reisman points out. 

Kirby's Comic's Journal interview was given in 1989 and published in 1990. The story of the mother drawing on unknown reserves of strength to rescue her trapped child is part of the origin of the Hulk in the TV series. Which debuted in 1977 -- 15 years after Kirby co-created the Hulk, but 22 years before he gave this interview. 

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

This blog, this biography

True Believer
Abraham Riesman

A Marvellous Life
Danny Fingeroth

I read two Stan Lee biographies back to back.

Danny Fingeroth's is the more laudatory book -- he knew and worked with Stan and was head of the burgeoning line of Spider-Man comics in the 1980s. Abraham Riesman's is much more critical, and has already been denounced by all the people you would have expected it to be denounced by. And the funny thing is this -- there is hardly a substantive fact on which the two books differ.

Fingeroth concedes that Stan Lee did not, in any straightforward sense "create" Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four: a very large proportion of the creative impetus came from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Riesman equally acknowledges that the voice of Marvel comics, the brand identity, the intermingling of the characters into a universe -- everything that made Marvel Comics the publishing phenomenon which it became -- depended on Stan Lee. Sure, he calls him a "bullshitter" while others have merely called him a spinner-of-yarns. Sure, he counters the silly hype about Stan Lee being the modern equivalent of Homer with an equally shrill assertion that he "pulled off one of the most daring facts of artistic theft in modern history". But as devoted a Lee-booster as Roy Thomas agrees that Kirby and Lee co-created the Fantastic Four. As vehement a Kirby acolyte as Mark Evanier takes it for granted that the Fantastic Four were the products of a creative synergy between Lee and Kirby. The disputed area is more theological than biographical.

In some places, Fingeroth is less inclined than Riesman to full-on-Stanolatory. He admits --what anyone can see -- that the Fantastic Four issue #1 isn't particularly ground-breaking. Kirby was already producing that quirky, rough-hewn artwork in the Timely monster comics; and Lee was already adding cynical, wise-cracking speech bubbles to it.

"To say the issue was feeling its way is an understatement. The story is choppy, internally inconsistent, lackadaisically drawn, and indifferently plotted, whether by Lee or Kirby or a combination of the two. The other stories the team did that were on sale that same month, such as those in Rawhide Kid and Strange Tales, were, as far as craft and readability, far superior, far more polished."

Riesman is rather more inclined to take Stan on his own terms -- to say that yes, Fantastic Four # 1 was ground breaking, and then to try to work out whether it was Lee or Kirby who broke that ground. Lee says he came up with the characters and told Kirby to draw them. Kirby says he found Stan Lee crying in the Marvel offices one day, and took it on himself to create a bunch of new characters to save the company. Riesman correctly says it's a fallacy to assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: either man could be lying. Or both could. 

To be sure, there is extant a typed synopsis of Fantastic Four #1, and of course the provenance of that synopsis is worth pondering. Did Lee write it himself, from cold, without input from anyone? Did he write the synopsis after a brain storming session with Jack in the Marvel offices — putting on paper ideas they had together? Was he merely providing a narrative treatment for ideas of which Kirby was the onlie begetter? Or did he, perchance, write the synopsis after F.F #1 had seen print, to dishonestly make it look as if he had more input into the comic than was really the case.

The faithful Roy spends fully two thirds of his rebuttal of the book asserting the authenticity of the synopsis. But the truth is that is doesn’t make much difference one way or the other.

Fantastic Four issue #50, and Amazing Spider-Man issue #33 are immeasurably superior to anything Marvel had published in the 1940s or 1950s, and utterly different from anything that any one else was doing in the 1960s. It may very well be true that five years earlier it had been Stan Lee who said to Jack Kirby "Let's do a comic about a strong guy, a stretchy guy, a firey kid, and an invisible lady". It may equally be that Jack Kirby presented that idea to Stan as a fait accompli. But nothing in the Origin of the Fantastic Four leads inexorably to This Man, This Monster.

It is true that Alan Moore recalls, even as a child, feeling that the Fantastic Four was a bolt from the blue that changed his whole relationship with comics. ("This comic was utterly stark-raving foaming-at-the-mouth stupendous") But he found the F.F strange and different compared with the DC comics of the day and compared with the British children's comics he was familiar with. It wasn’t radically different from what the Stan/Jack synergy had produced the previous month. The Fantastic Four is a better strip than Doctor Droom (and certainly a less racist one). But it's part of a series of incremental changes, not a singular creative burst.

The saddest thing that comes through in both books is how little Stan Lee liked, or cared about comic books: how rarely he read them. This may be why his own comics were so different from anything that had come before and everything which came after. A clever man, a talented wordsmith, was doing his very best in a genre with which he was always going to be at crossed purposes. Kirby and Ditko's fantasy characters were ventriloquized by a man who would much rather be adding risque jokes to photographs of celebrities or (this was new to me) chairing a talk show about Vietnam and the generation gap. 

Riesman and Fingeroth rehearse the basic facts -- Spider-Man is neurotic, the Fantastic Four quarrel, Thor talks like the King James Bible -- but otherwise they have relatively little to say about the actual comics that had Stan's name on them. One never gets the sense of a committed chronicler or world builder -- you don't hear Stan saying "I don't think Reed would react like that" or "No, Iron-Man couldn't get from Avengers Mansion to Forest Hills High School that quickly”. The stories about the later Stan Lee, acting as executive producer on an X-Men cartoon without knowing the names of any of the characters, or slipping out of premiers because he doesn't actually enjoy superhero movies -- are hard for any born and bred Marvelite to read. But that disjuncture -- that gap between the myth of the grey, smokey bullpen and the brightly coloured world of the superheroes -- is surely a big part of the unique ambience of Marvel Comics. Fingeroth refers more than once to the Wizard of Oz: part of the magic of Marvel was that Lee was always drawing our attention to the man behind the curtain.

It's worth having another listen to the spoken word record that was sent out to members of Marvel's first fan club. We aren't asked to imagine Stan and Steve and Flo talking about bank robbers and aliens and cosmic radiation; we are listening in on them wise cracking about deadlines and paychecks and days off. ("How come I don't get my name plastered all over the mags like you?" "Because I can't spell it, that's why...") The club song -- a parody of every club song that has ever been written -- doesn't mention superheroes. We are fans of Marvel because we are fans of Marvel. It could be a breakfast cereal or a duck hunting lodge for all you would know.

If you growl, if you groan with a down and sour outlook,
if you howl, if you moan, you can lose your sour grout
by keeping trim and in step with the vim and the pep
of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.

This is also true, incidentally, of the theme songs to the first wave of Marvel Cartoons, which seem to have been written by someone who hasn't read the actual comics:

Wreckin' the town with the power of a bull
Ain't no monster clown
Who is as lovable
As ever lovin' Hulk!

So there is not much point in having the who-did-what argument all over again. No-one who has bothered to look into the background believes that Steve Ditko was simply Stan Lee's illustrator, in the way that E.H Shepard drew pictures to go with A.A Milne's stories or Tenniel added illustrations to to Lewis Carol's text. And no-one apart from a very small number of fan activists think that Lee was simply annotating comics into which he had no-other input. Jack Kirby, or rather his wife, Roz, may have claimed that once, in one very acrimonious interview, but no-one at this point in time believes that Lee was functionally illiterate, as she seems to come very close to claiming. Everyone who has heard of the Marvel Method thinks in terms of co-creation.

But there are two questions which it is still worth asking. One is about taste. The other is philosophical.

The question of taste is simple. When I read the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, how much importance do I attach to the words, and how much importance do I attach to the pictures. There is an extreme position which says that Stan Lee was, at best, adding extraneous verbiage to stories he had nothing to do with. Lee is no more a comic book creator than the man who scrawls graffiti on the Mona Lisa is renaissance painter. Marvel Comics would have been much better if Lee's bombast could have been deleted and replaced with bland, Silver Age exposition. Ignore the words and look at the pictures.

At the other extreme, a few people have said that the words are what you are reading: you could delete the artwork and replace it with stickmen and the comic would be much the same. This is a much more problematic claim; since it smuggles in the idea that Kirby and Ditko were mainly illustrators. As a matter of fact if you erased the pictures, you would still be left with their breakdowns, their pacing, their narrative structure. That is why John Romita’s Spider-Man and John Buscema’s Fantastic Four are so much poorer than the Ditko and Kirby versions of those characters. They are arguably better draftsmen; but they are immeasurably worse story tellers. (This is also why Kirby’s brilliance shines through even when he is poorly served by inkers, mentioning no Vince Colletta’s in particular.)

There may be a wider question about how the text of a comic book is constituted. Is "Spider-Man" twenty two pages of superhero adventure; or does the text include the letters pages, Stan's soapbox, the adverts for FOOM membership packs and value-stamps, all the endless plugs for other titles? Should we indeed stop talking about Spider-Man and see Stan Lee as the author of an intertextual creation, extending across multiple titles and into T-shirts and TV cartoons? Certainly, when I transitioned from being a Beano reader to a Marvelite at the age of eight, the face of Lee and the cryptic references to mysterious people with outlandish names like Steranko and Forbush were a major component of my epiphany. Fingeroth is particularly good on this: Marvel Comics as a single interlocking text, pulled together by Stan Lee's voice, despite the undoubted contribution of superior creative talents to the collage.

"I was totally immersed in the inside news, gossip, and wisecracks found in the comics’ letters page responses and Bullpen Bulletins that Lee wrote. And I loved visiting with—or was it being visited by?—the literary creation, found in those pages, known as “Stan Lee.” Sure, I worshipped Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but it was clear that Stan Lee was the one whose supervision held it all together. Some combination of the Lee-overseen comics’ words and pictures and colors—and even the ads—made up an imaginary world that I loved."

But the theological question is this: what is creativity? How do we bottle an idea? Did Spider-Man come into being in a single moment in the mind of a single creator, or can many people be said to have contributed to an emergent idea? George Lucas can be said to be the auteur of Star Wars, because he had an overall vision which he was striving towards. He hired artists and model makers and script writers to realise that vision. It is much harder to say that Sydney Newman (for example) created Doctor Who, although he unquestionably created a template from which the show could develop.

It seems to me to be overwhelming unlikely that the totality of Spider-Man can be contained in a singular moment of up-dreaming. But perhaps you do believe in inspiration. Perhaps you still have faith that "we could do a comic book about a teenager who sticks to walls" represents a promethean spark that no-one but Stan Lee could possibly have ignited. Then it must follow that the Silver Surfer, equally, emerged fully-formed from the mind of Jack Kirby and what was added afterwards by Stan is no part of the initial creation. Is the Silver Surfer without Shalla Bal, without Zenn La, without Mephisto, and without his particular mode of self-aggrandising dialogue still the Silver Surfer? But then in what way is Spider-Man, absent Ditko, still Spider-Man? 

And this, it is clear from both books, is why the third act of Stan Lee's life is so pathetic.

"He never sold himself as comics’ greatest editor" writes Riesman "but rather as its greatest ideas man. One can argue that that was a core tragedy of Stan’s existence and legacy: He was never able to put his most inarguable achievements front and center and instead opted for the ones that were most debatable."

He'd spent the 40s and the 50s beavering away at disposable monster comics which were often slightly better than they needed to be. He spent the 60s editing and dialog-ing a new series of superhero comics which became, if not best sellers, then certainly a cult. But he spent the the last two decades of the last century and the first two decades of this one trapped in the belief that he had a unique superpower — which no-one else believed in. He had the unique capacity to come up with ideas which could be instantly transformed — by someone else— into sure fire lucrative comic books and movies. "What if the hero is a milksop scientist by day and a terrifying monster by night — maybe he could turn green?" or "What if the hero is a lame doctor who can transform into the literal god of thunder -- maybe his walking cane turns into the hammer?" Either he convinced his business partners at Stan Lee Media and POW to believe in power or else they convinced their investors to do so. 

If you read comics you have heard of Mr A and the Question: you have certainly heard of Darksied and the Celestials. Ditko and Kirby continued to produce comics until an enviably old age. Parenex the Fighting Fetus was not Galactus, but he was unquestionably Kirby-esque. The old magic was still there. But as for Lee -- he scripted a decent Silver Surfer story for John Byrne, and a more than decent one for Mobius. And he came up with heaps of ideas: what if an exotic dancer led a double life as a secret agent? What if a crippled lawyer’s wheelchair turned into robot armour? What if Ringo Starr, or the Backstreet Boys, or Barak Obama were gifted superpowers by aliens? Not one of these ideas went anywhere. A writer could have written a story based on those premises — a writer could write a story based on any premise — but Stan Lee's infallible idea well had run dry. If, indeed, it had ever existed.

Stan Lee's end is no sadder than that of many other very rich and very old men. Either you die before your friends and miss out on a lot of life; or you die after them and end up all alone with your money and your sledge. It is sad to contemplate Lee being made to sign autographs for a hundred dollars a go when he could barely remember how to spell his own name; but the final YouTube videos suggest that he was very much Stan Lee right up to the end. I suppose most of us would chose to have been Charles M Schulz, turning in the final episode of your most beloved strip in your eightieth year and politely falling off the perch shortly afterwards. Dying all alone in your art-studio still working on idiosyncratic texts read by a few thousand die-hard admirers, knowing you never compromised, is not a bad way to go either. 

I hope that the next generation of comic book fans can dispense with the idea that Stan "dreamed up" Wolverine or has anything very much to do with Wandavision: but I hope they will still go back and read the comics he worked on, the only place where his words and his voice still live. So funny; so full of innovation; so very much of their time.