Doctor Who – “Assassin in the Limelight”

Ford’s Theatre, Washington. Friday, 14th April, 1865. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The place, the date and the event which made history. Or did it? Someone has been tampering with time, muddying the waters of history for his own purposes. Time itself is out of joint and the chief culprit is the enigmatic Doctor Knox.

Somehow the Doctor and Evelyn must put history back on track before the future dissolves into chaos. But Knox, it turns out, may be the least of their worries…

Colin Baker is the Doctor in Assassin in the Limelight.

X X X X X

Cast
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Maggie Stables (Dr Evelyn Smythe)
Leslie Phillips (Dr Robert Knox)
Lysette Anthony (Clara Harris)
Eric Loren (John Parker)
Madeleine Potter (Lizzie Williams)
Alan Marriott (Henry Clay Ford)
Paul Dubois (John Wilkes Booth)
Mikey O’Connor (Thomas Eckert)

Written By: Robert Ross
Directed By: Barnaby Edwards
Released: May 2008

Trailer – https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/assassin-in-the-limelight-274

X X X X X

Assassin in the Limelight takes one of history’s most well-known moments and attempts to turn it on its ear. The story gives us well-rounded secondary characters with some great interactions, a plot where the loose ends are all neatly tied up, and a few moments where the Sixth Doctor gets to show off his superb intellect and dedication to stopping injustice. One big flaw stops this story from being a top-notch release. The central villain is well written, but he’s TOO well written as the author tries to instantly turn him into a Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes.

Washington, DC, 14 April 1865. Lee has surrendered at Appomattox, and the city has turned out for the savior of the Union, General Ulysses S Grant. With Grant in high demand, Ford’s Theatre is desperate to have him attend one of their productions. The only celebrity they can land however is President Abraham Lincoln. The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn know that they will be witness to a momentous event in American history and do their best not to interfere. As par for the course with the Doctor, there are a few wrinkles. A veteran playwright named Oscar Wilde is in residence at Ford’s Theatre, but in 1865 the real Wilde was little more than a burgeoning teenager raising hell in England. The Doctor suspects he knows who is portraying Wilde and why; a former foe with access to a TARDIS of their very own. But it pales in comparison to a more pressing matter. Later that evening, John Wilkes Booth will assassinate the President as he sits in a private box watching the play. So what does it mean for history when Booth dies of arsenic poisoning a few hours before his date with destiny?

Assassin in the Limelight is the third and final story noted entertainment historian Robert Ross will turn in for Big Finish. All three of Ross’ stories are steeped in history, from the Burke and Hare murders in Medicinal Purposes to a love letter to British dance hall entertainment with Pier Pressure. Both stories are dragged down by major flaws. In the case of Medicinal Purposes, it’s the Sixth Doctor gleefully looking forward to meeting a pair of violent graverobbers, while Pier Pressure takes a wide and meandering path as the story slowly flows towards its climax. Looking past those flaws however, the urban sprawl of 1820’s Edinburgh and the seaside charm of 1930’s Sussex come to life in the listener’s mind as Ross’ dialogue and descriptions paint a vivid audio landscape, complete with secondary characters who stay with the listener long after the story is over. Assassin in the Limelight is a marked improvement over Medicinal Purposes and Pier Pressure as the Sixth Doctor acts like his normal self and the story moves along at a rapid pace (showing how Barnaby Edwards has grown as a director in the process). Listeners are introduced to a jubilant Washington DC, long at the front lines of the American Civil War and now bursting with emotions at the end of the war as most citizens cheer the success of the Union while others curse the downfall of the Confederacy. It’s not President Abraham Lincoln who is the hero of the day, but rather General U.S. Grant, a true patriot compared to the tyrant Lincoln who suspended habeas corpus and was only saved from electoral defeat by the capture of Atlanta. Army officers and actors swagger around with pride at the victory, even if they never saw the front lines once during the conflict. Young women stand on the arms of these men, some sneaking about with upstanding Colonels and some cavorting with rapscallion actors. But the show must still go on, which means Henry Clay Ford must take steps to ensure Ford’s Theatre is packed for tonight’s showing of Our American Cousin, starring the famous actor John Wilkes Booth.

Ross simply is fantastic with establishing the traits of the secondary characters. From the well-meaning but money focused theatre treasurer Henry Clay Ford (Alan Marriott) to the cocky and self-assured actor John Wilkes Booth (Paul Dubois) to the pragmatic and corrupt cop John Parker (Eric Loren, aka Dalek Sec, aka the Penis Dalek from Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks) to Thomas Eckert, an Army officer stationed in the White House (Mikey O’Connor) and the scheming young woman who hopes to use his position to catapult her social standing Lizzie Williams (Madeline Potter), Ross’ script does a superb job of weaving the myriad plotlines together. The actors and actresses help with this task by turning in performances that ensure their characters are more than just one-note players. The stand-out is Lysette Anthony, a veteran actress of stage and screens small and big (and known to me as the insanely hot woman in the 1980’s music video for Bryan Adams’ hit “Run To You”). She portrays Clara Harris, a Senator’s daughter whose life would be ruined by the evening’s events. A bright young proper 1860’s woman, Harris would be the chief witness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln while her then fiancée and future husband Major Rathbone would be stabbed by Booth several times during the murderer’s escape. Neither one of them would recover from the constant public scrutiny, severe mental trauma, and physical reminders of that evening, leading to Rathbone fatally shoot Clara in December of 1883. Anthony gives us a prim and proper socialite who has her airs about her (at one point telling Lizzie ”I’m the daughter of a Senator, you’re a daughter of the gutter.”) while seeing actors, specifically Mister Booth, as ”degenerate, filthy-minded libertines.” There’s a sense of remorse around Clara due to Anthony’s turn. The listener knows that her future will turn undeniably tragic and her dismissal of those around her makes her final fate a bit more heartbreaking.

For his third Big Finish script, Ross brings back characters from his two previous stories. The aliens from Pier Pressure, the Indo, make their return. As a malevolent race that feeds on suffering, the American Civil War was akin to ringing the dinner bell to them as they swirled around Washington DC and Northern Virginia, possessing their victims to enjoy the misery and agony of battle and forcing the hand of their puppets in an effort to further gorge themselves. The second character hails from Medicinal Purposes, one Doctor Robert Knox. Having obtained an advanced TARDIS from a shady second-hand dealer, Knox spent the runtime of Medicinal Purposes charging alien businessmen for the right to view the suffering brought to Edinburgh via a nasty little plague – a plague that the Sixth Doctor allowed to infect Knox at the end of the story. Having somehow found the means to stave off the effects of the plague, Knox’s current plan is simple. Change history by allowing certain historical figures to live, or to impersonate them in different eras, and make money off the lecture tours. The Doctor, of course, finds this incredibly vulgar. But there’s much, much more to Knox’s plan than meets the proverbial eye…

It’s a very well written plan, one that ties all three of Ross’ stories together. Leslie Phillips is absolutely great as Knox. The man has made a career out of playing all kinds of roles, from smooth-talker to lecherous suitor to Sorting Hat. Knox’s charm and arrogance simply oozes through the speakers. His true plan is one that brings everything to a boil – the Indo, the plague, the advanced TARDIS, and just why he’s hanging about in 1865 pretending to be Oscar Wilde. Knox easily runs rings around the secondary characters, smooth, oily, and witty when he needs to be and coldly calculating when he doesn’t. Only Evelyn and the Doctor see through him, and even when all is said and done with Assassin in the Limelight Knox has one final card to play…

If this story had been, say, the sixth or seventh story to feature Doctor Robert Knox, Assassin in the Limelight would have been an instant classic (tm Captain Charisma). Phillips’ charisma and chemistry with Maggie Stables and Colin Baker is top-notch as they play off each other, human from the future, annoyed Time Lord, not-putting-up-with-either-of-them historian. The problem with this particular story is that for being only Knox’s second appearance, he’s TOO well written and TOO good at playing the long game. His plan is very complex and convoluted, relying on the Doctor and the other characters to make certain choices and engage in specific actions and calling it right down to the letter. With the way Knox is written during Assassin in the Limelight, it’s akin to the Riddler’s first appearance being one where he manages to momentarily stump Batman before the Caped Crusader puts him in jail. But during the Riddler’s second appearance, he’s figured out that Batman is really Bruce Wayne, there are things called Lazarus Pits that can ensure healing and longevity, and that Thomas “Hush” Elliott, Bruce’s childhood friend, holds a major grudge against him, and together the Riddler and Hush can bring down Batman once and for all. The jump in both skill, talent, and ingenuity just smacks of Knox being one of “those” characters, one where the author absolutely falls in love with them and makes sure he’s amazing, awesome, and even in defeat still manages to win. If there had more appearances for Knox between Medicinal Purposes and Assassin in the Limelight, then I could buy the natural evolution of the character and how much of a threat he is towards the Doctor (who is written, again having only met Knox once before, as instantly recognizing that Knox is the one masquerading as Oscar Wilde and easily shrugging him off at the end of the story in a way that smacks of “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll see him again each and every week, always in more sexy and exciting ways.” It can’t help but remind one of Nimrod, another Big Finish villain that in the course of two stories became so amazing and awesome that it totally ruined what could have been a potentially interesting villain.

It’s always a bittersweet joy to hear Colin Baker and Maggie Stables together as the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe. The duo comprises an amazing team as both actors and characters. The Doctor takes the long view, realizing time itself might be thrown off-kilter should Abraham Lincoln live, while Evelyn is more worried about what will happen to poor Clara Harris in the immediate future to the point where she wants Lincoln to live just to save Clara from her life of heartache. Of course, this is before Evelyn realizes just how foolish she is, a conclusion she comes to all on her own. Stables always played Evelyn as someone who sees the forest for the trees and how individuals are affected by their role in the larger picture of history while willing to admit when she was wrong, but also as someone who will stand their ground and argue with the Doctor about how things will go. This goes for both drama and for comedy, including an amusing scene where the Doctor and Evelyn snipe back and forth while Knox patiently waits for them in the background. As for Baker, the script for Assassin in the Limelight, with the exception of his easy dismissal of Knox, gives Six the characterization he should have held during Medicinal Purposes. His focus is more on ensuring the Web of Time is kept intact, no matter how much Evelyn asks otherwise, but his ego is more concerned with deducing just what it is Knox is up to. Six puts up with people asking if he’s part of the show or shilling for the theatre, thanks to his wardrobe, with the resigned acceptance that only he could pull off. When Knox’s true plan is revealed, the Doctor is caught in its wake, and must make a grand sacrifice to ensure that Evelyn and the Web of Time is kept safe…

…until he shoots the plan completely to hell in the course of one brilliant scene inside Knox’s advanced TARDIS.

It’s Six being Big Finish Six, and it’s really well done, with Six brushing off how long it really took him to work his way out of the trap once Evelyn points out he had a few more gray hairs than when he first stepped inside.

After the low point of Medicinal Purposes and the slog that was Pier Pressure, Assassin in the Limelight is a return to the high quality of the Six/Evelyn run, with only three more stories to come. The plot ties together neatly (if a little too quickly insuch a pat matter), the character shine through, the Doctor is as brilliant as he always is, Evelyn is the companion who keeps him grounded, and the Indo and Robert Knox make solid villains. The only drawback is that Knox is TOO good of a villain and TOO much of a match for the Doctor in only his second (and final) appearance, and it comes off as a case of the author trying too hard to push their pet character. Still, Assassin in the Limelight is a solid tale and well worth a listen.

Random Thoughts
– Knox, as Wilde, runs down Booth as a poor actor. Booth was one of the most renowned thespians of his time…
– The dialogue is worth paying attention to, as Evelyn herself gets caught up in the moment and make a double entendre regarding being smacked with Tommy Truncheon.
– I was a little confused at Evelyn’s proclamation that the survival of Abraham Lincoln would be a harsh blow to the advancement of civil rights in America, but then I glance over at CNN regarding another police shooting and wonder if it would have made things any worse…
– I liked the grey hair moment. Just how long DID it take the Doctor to work out an escape plan?
– I also liked Six’s unspoken jealously at Knox’s TARDIS, complete with elevator and voice controls.
– Stay tuned after the closing music for a final scene that’s completely predictable.

Cobi’s Synopsis – A top-notch play with great secondary characters, enjoyable dialogue, and a complex but workable evil plan make Assassin in the Limelight a story whose only blemish is a villain whose written to be the Doctor’s equal without having earned the credibility first.

Next up – When the Doctor arrives on a sky station above Antikon, a single accident has already set in motion a chain of events that will mean the death of every living thing…

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in…The Death Collectors.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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