The premise of Assassinis solid enough, even if it relies on an identity twist, which the previous story also utilised. Where the episode flounders most problematically is in the characterisation and casting, rather than the broader plot strokes.
Caroline Holdaway completely fails to convince as either Piri or Cancer. It might be argued that she succeeds at essaying the overwrought, insipid and annoying Piri. But having a character that is so grindingly irritating that it has the effect of undermining any suspension of belief in the set-up is a huge problem; that Tarrant would fall for someone so plain and irritating, that Avon would be so gullible, that we as viewers will be willing to tag along, that Cancer could be a brilliant assassin yet attempt a plan involving a ropey performance and necessitating such unsubtle manoeuvring. It wouldn’t have taken much to (a) cast someone else and (b) tone done the elements that make her quite so wet along with the rather laboured reactions of the other characters to her (Tarrant in particular).
David Sullivan Proudfoot must take some of the blame for giving Holdaway insufficient notes (or casting her, if it was down to him). There are some flourishes in the episode I like, particularly his use of Star Wars-seque wipes and dissolves between scenes. But he stages the action clumsily for the most part.
The dramatic revelation that a communication from Servalan has been intercepted would be more so if we hadn’t seen her twice already this season. And by now don’t we instantly suspect that anything involving her, plucked from the ether, involves ensnaring the crew in a trap? As, indeed, does this.
More interesting in this scene is seeing Glynis Barber with her hair down. Certainly more than Barber’s delivery of a chunk of exposition concerning Space Pirates (it’s good to know that other writers are carrying the torch of Terry Nation’s inspirational names this season; Space Rats, Space Pirates... ) and Avon getting slightly portentous over the threat of an assassin known as Cancer.
In previous seasons, the initial set-up for episodes has generally been solid, even if the episodes themselves have failed to pass muster. In Season Four, easing the viewer into the story often seems awkward, clumsily trying to force the characters into the main plot. Avon does get a few choice lines, though.
Tarrant: He's good, is he, this Cancer?
Avon: You can imagine how much it hurts me to use the word infallible.
Tarrant: Oh, come on. Nobody's infallible.
Avon: All right, then he's not infallible. It's just that up to now, he has never failed.
Tarrant’s characterisation in this episode is shockingly bad, even by previous standards. He suggests that Avon is scared, and the latter asks Orac what he thinks.
Orac: I think you're quite right. A degree of apprehension is not inappropriate.
Avon’s smile in response is classic Darrow.
The teleportation of Avon and Vila to Domo, where the Space Pirates keep and sell their prisoners, suggests we might spend an episode in a sandpit, but this is basically a means to position Avon, Tarrant and Soolin aboard Cancer’s ship for the story proper. It’s one of those plans where you have to conclude there are too many possible scenarios to account for in order for it to be feasible.
Darrow clearly enjoys performing the innocent act that leads to his capture (losing his bracelet, of course) and he ends up in a cell with the First Doctor.
It must have been in Richard Hurndall’s contract that he eats in all his scenes. Either that or JN-T decided when he saw this episode to make this a key facet of the First Doctor’s character. Hurndall’s alright as Neebrox. If you’ve seen The Five Doctors, you’ve seen Neebrox, just here without the sardonic sneer. Neebrox’s tale of a purchase of an entertainer appears to reinforce Piri’s story later – appropriate since it’s accurate but without the fine detail.
Servalan’s pow-wowing with a fat woman with Movellan hair (Verlis) when she spies Avon up for auction. Why does she bid for Avon if her plan is for Cancer to take out the whole crew? I suppose any way to deal with Avon is as good as another.
The sequence that follows with Avon (bracelet returned to him by Neebrox) requesting assistance from Scorpio, which comprises Dayna arriving and Simon making a meal of expressing outrage at seeing Servalan and completely failing to convincingly fail to shoot her, is fairly poor.
Although, Avon shoots nasty Space Pirate Benos with relish.
Having escaped back to Scorpio, throwing in a line of dialogue about considering that Cancer has set a trap for them doesn’t really excuse the lumbering approach Avon and Tarrant take to dealing “him” once they arrive on his ship.
I’m trying to recall if I was remotely convinced by the set up when I first saw the episode; I know I certainly found Piri as irritating as Adric.
Once Cancer has been disarmed we’re left with Piri dropping really unsubtle comments in her guise as whimpering wench. It’s painful stuff, not just as viewer but to have the Scorpio crew required to act so stupidly in dealing with the threat at hand.
Credit is due to Soolin in this episode for the occasions where she at least responds to Piri in the manner everyone else is thinking. On hearing Piri wailing:
Soolin: Avon, what is that terrible noise?
Teleporting Neebrox onto Cancer’s ship so he can get bumped off is fairly unsubtle. Just imagine if Avon and the First Doctor had spent the rest of the season travelling about together?
So Tarrant acts like a drip, unaccountably attracted to Piri, while she, also unaccountably, manages to manipulate the crew into doing daft things for her (checking on the prisoner, letting her sequester herself in Cancer’s cabin, listening to a single word she says while she sets her plan in motion, including stirring tensions between them).
Neebrox: Oh it's terrible to think of a poor little thing like that being a slave, don't you think?
Soolin: No more terrible than to think of you as one.
Neebrox: Oh no, no, I'm an old man. She's merely a helpless little child.
Soolin: Well, I expect a little suffering will have helped to make her a better artist.
Soolin might be the saving grace here if it wasn’t for an awful scene that comes up in a bit. Before that, she gets a highlight moment, slapping a hysterical Piri after Neebrox is killed.
Tarrant: You enjoyed that, didn't you?
I think we all did.
The notion that Soolin could be jealous of Piri is ludicrous, but the clumsy way Tarrant and Avon turn on each other is too. I was hoping there would be some revelation that a mind-altering drug had been released into the air supply, as Tarrant is correct to suggest Avon’s judgement is shot. And his mooning over a terrified troll would make a lot more sense if he was high.
And then the crew split up to go in search of Cancer (who has gone walkabout). Soolin decides to have a sit-down and a think.
On the floor, while a spider thing crawls towards her.
This has to rank as one of the worst scenes in the entire series. I’d be more likely to cut it some slack if there was any effort to make it work, but the staging is atrocious... The spider thing is better than the ones in Full Circle, but that’s not saying an awful lot. That Soolin figures out what is going on as a result of her cogitating can’t hope to compensate for this sequence.
By which time Avon has been captured by Cancer, revealed as a black-clad dominatress (trix might sound like she looks vaguely kinky) unleashing a spider thing on his chest.
I’d like to say Holdaway was better as Cancer, but she’s not. There’s a certain appalled value in watching her performance, as it’s so wrong, in much the same way as the attempts to move characters in and out of danger is so utterly contrived.
Holdaway does have an ace up her sleeve, emitting a hilarious death scream as Avon flicks the spider thing at her neck.
Then she falls to the floor, squashing it rather amusingly.
There’s not much to say about the escape from Servalan’s clutches that follows (but if she has Cancer’s ship wired for sound, why doesn’t she inform Cancer that Tarrant and Soolin are on their way to intervene in her torture of Avon?); the result of a last minute rescue by Dayna. If the final gag is lacking in finesse and wit, it does accurately sum up the episode.
Dayna: Well, aren't you going to tell us what happened? Vila's very worried. He wants to know what became of that sweet little girl.
Soolin: Vila, all sweet things have one thing in common: a tendency to make you sick.
By rights it should be a lower score. But there’s something hypnotically bad about the entire thing. In different hands, and a rewrite by Boucher, it could have been decent. As it is, it’s up there with Voice from the Past for ridiculous performances and insulting plotting.