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DWMR192_thewidowsassassin_1417

“Is this really necessary?  I don’t really work like this, I tend to dive into my adventures and rely on my wits.”

It all goes back to Michael Grade, in the end.

Whovians of the Classic order are doubtless well aware of the situation that led to Who’s initial “hiatus” cum cancellation after a contentious 1984-1985 season, marked by some unusual choices in direction and the BBC’s desire to shunt funding away from the long running program towards a new (and still ongoing) drama series by the name of Eastenders.  I know I’ve both heard and referred to it enough times to be quite sick of reiteration thereof.

But it’s inescapable whenever it comes to the bizarre, amazingly flawed full season Trial of a Time Lord that comprised the entirety of 1987.

While John Nathan Turner’s decade long run as producer of Who (1980-1989) can prove something of a contentious subject in and of itself (known to reduce even the staunchest of Whovians to mouth-frothing, redfaced verbal brawling), it’s a fairly well established fact that the most flawed period of scripting decisions and general misdirection occurred under the watch of script editor Eric Saward, himself a rather catty presence on any number of DVD releases covering his tenure thereon.

Even setting aside the unusual idea of a “flawed regeneration” (due to the events in Caves of Androzani) and the new Doctor’s first appearance onscreen culminating in an attempted strangulation of crossover companion Peri, there were sequences where the Doctor cringed in cowardly fear, made use of firearms and caused, however indirectly, a baddie to immolate in a pool of acid (if memory serves, whilst cracking a joke!)

But all of that can be forgiven as a somewhat radical vision for a long term developmental plan (as the ineffable Colin Baker so often and eloquently proffers in explanatory defense).  What cannot be forgiven is Saward’s decidedly ill advised choice to take the series’ hard-won renewed lease on life and subsume it in an overlong, often boring and quite pissy snipe at Grade and company’s putting the show “on trial”, literally subjecting The Doctor to a trial over his actions. 

For four entire serials. 

For no less than fourteen episodes.

Yeah.  A really stupid move.

And here’s where things get even worse.  Because Baker and Bryant, if nobody else, took the opportunity to jump right into the character space they’d intended from the start, utilizing the long hiatus from the airwaves as an effective bridge from point A to point C in giving the Doctor and his companion a warm, close relationship in place of the more at odds iteration we’d been given in the 1984-85 season.  Gone was much of the haughtiness and snarkiness, long forgotten the bizarre antihero behavior.  It may have seemed a bit of a leap from where viewers left off, but it was a welcome one. 

Then Saward stepped in. 

Apparently unhappy with the very concept of giving a beloved companion a decent sendoff, he and author Philip Martin concluded the second tale (Mindwarp) with a horrific sequence wherein the Doctor was unable to rescue Peri from being turned part animal, and worse, shave-headed possession by the alien Kiv (or to make things even more obnoxious, Mike from the Young Ones, who essayed said role!) before being killed in a fracas led by the inimitable Brian Blessed’s King Yrcanos.  Jaws drop to this day.

But wait! There’s more!

Yes, because in the face of a public outcry over this unprecedentedly awful ending for a Who companion (hell, unnecessary as it seemed to be, even Adric died heroically!), John Nathan Turner pushed through a decidedly sorry backpedaling on this grim conclusion, utilizing slow motion sequencing from earlier in that very episode to imply that Peri did not in fact die, but went off to live with her (cough) great love King Yrcanos (which Whovians to this day referred to as “the fate worse than death!”)

Guess what happened next. 

That’s right, we’re talking more than two decades worth of one bad bit of fanfic and far fetched explanation after another, with seemingly every would be author in Who fandom trying to rework, explain away or generally clean up the horrific mess JNT and Saward left us with.

Big hint to prospective writers out there: just leave it be.  Like mopping up moist fecal matter with a mop, some disasters just cannot be cleaned, any attempts thereto resulting in an even worse mess and smearing over an even wider area and expanse of time. 

But do you listen?  Oh, no.  Everyone’s got to prove they can attain the unattainable, rolling that same damn rock up the archetypal mountain slope towards a truly Sysyphean end…

(sigh)

And so it is that we come to Nev Fountain’s (Dark Shadows’ The Darkest Shadow, New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield’s Revolution, Breaking Bubbles) attempt to throw his hat in the ring, in a sadly doomed effort to sanitize the unsanitizable.  And while filled with odd plot twists and turns, in the end, it’s really no exception to the rule. Despite a worthy attempt at fulfilling the most Herculean of labors, the end result remains the same: the Saward/Turner sh*tstorm simply cannot be cleaned.

“I forgot, you were one of the educated ones…”

With the unexpected departure of Flip (at the end of Scavenger), “Old Sixie” decides to pay a call on former companion Peri, the version who actually did marry King Yrcanos.  But with Yrcanos newlywed and newly dead, he finds a decidedly frosty reception from Queen Peri, and is escorted to the royal dungeon post haste, where he remains for (get this) five years.

You read that right.  Apparently Colin’s Doctor left Peri to her fate for an expanse of five years (don’t ask me how that math works out…), and in a rather womanly display of holding a grudge to the utmost extremities, she leaves The Doctor to rot in jail for the exact same expanse of time.  Talk about a woman scorned…

Making pals with all the guards and giving gifts to their families, The Doctor has become something of a popular fixture around the guardhouse when he’s called into the royal presence, pardoned, and made the Queen’s advisor all in one rather unlikely fell swoop.  But on their first paired foray into the world of courtiers and political politesse, Peri is poisoned, suspicion falling directly on The Doctor’s head.

Marked for death and with even his sympathetic jailors accusing him of having delivered the near-fatal drug, can The Doctor solve the mystery and reunite with his fallen companion?

“Those Monoids had an eye for you, Peri!”

With an extremely involved and convoluted plot crossing the standard whodunit policier with the world of feudal political intrigue, Fountain certainly gave this one his all.  Relying firmly on the general feel of the two Pertwee-era Peladon serials, we’re treated (or subjected, depending how you look at things) to a diverse gallery of alien races, plenty of tongue in cheek humor and so many twists and turns it quite literally comes unraveled, story elements straining so far afield of the ostensible plot as to teeter on the edge of virtual collapse.

There are time loops and gratuitous Monoid jokes and multiple suspects with mysterious advisors in tow…and believe it or not, it all ties directly back in with Mindwarp in ways we can’t even touch on without giving the whole game away.  Suffice to say, not all is as it seems, and there’s a surprise villain waiting in the wings.  And if all this nonsense wasn’t enough, we’re even treated to a game of musical brains worthy of the Steve Gerber Defenders…one wonders what state of mind or altered consciousness Fountain was in, drafting a script quite so scattershot and bizarre.  Hell, he even pulls in a sort of “happy ending” for Flip, if you can believe that

John Banks (The Wrong Doctors, Spaceport Fear) offers a very exaggerated take on a Gabriele d’Annunzio-like Baron, prone to preening misogyny as much as political scheming and dueling.  Banks, Tim Chipping and Andrew Dickens (Afterlife, Domain of the Voord) essay multiple roles as competitor suitor-suspects and the jailhouse guards The Doctor ingratiates himself to, and Fiona Sheehan offers a suitably imperious Princess to whom the frustrated suitors of Queen Peri redirect their respective attentions.

Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, delightful as always despite the decided limitations of the material, get to swap voices and personae, and each does a creditable job at approximating the other’s mannerisms and linguistic peccadilloes (extra points to Bryant for her spot-on impersonation of Baker’s often affected Shakespeareanisms of speech in the final episode).

The bottom line is this.  If you know Nev Fountain, you pretty much know what to expect here in terms of the strongly comic approach to the material. 

But unless you’re one of those diehards still stewing over the (two) ending(s) of Peri’s televised tenure after a quarter century, demanding what must be the fifteenth posthumous fanfic, audio or whatever medium you prefer’s rewrite thereof, the subject is a sleeping dog that should have been left to lie, festering in its own vastly befouled grave.

When it all comes down to brass tacks, the fact is simply that Turner, Saward and Martin screwed up, badly

And no matter how hard anyone may try, there’s really nothing that can be done to gild that particular lily…or perhaps more to the point, polish that particular turd.

 

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-widow-s-assassin-864

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