Assassin in the Limelight

Posted in Audio by - July 03, 2016
Assassin in the Limelight

Released May 2008

It’s Good Friday in Washington, D.C., in 1865, and conflicting sentiments about the recently-concluded Civil War still run rampant. Against that backdrop, Oscar Wilde is attempt to gain backers for his new play, The Importance of Begin Earnest. With the current run of American Cousin garnering such positive press for Ford’s Theater, President Abraham Lincoln himself has decided to take in the show personally. Yet as Evelyn Smythe anticipates experiencing one of history’s greatest tragedies firsthand, the Doctor is more concerned with how Wilde- who should be ten years old at this time- is producing a play that shouldn’t be written for another thirty years.

Robert Ross returns to the main range for his third story, and though he states that he did not set out to write a trilogy originally, ‘Assassin in the Limelight’ does act as a conclusion for the actions displayed in ‘Medicinal Purposes’ and ‘Pier Pressure,’ the latter of which was met with rather unenthusiastic reviews. Oscar Wilde, perhaps unsurprisingly, turns out be Dr Robert Knox, returning once more to change history, this time by killing John Wilkes Booth and averting Lincoln’s assassination. As a result, this is a rare opportunity for Doctor Who to focus on non-British history, and Big Finish mercifully populates D.C. with a range of more realistic accents than the typical Southern stereotypes that have been all too common in other America-centred releases.

With all of that in mind, then, ‘Assassin in the Limelight’ offers Ross an attempt at redemption, but the end result is an enjoyable but strictly average affair that fails to fully capitalize on its intriguing concepts, characters, and setting. The timing of the release did this story no favours either as coming out directly after ‘The Haunting of Thomas Brewster,’ itself another story set in the past dealing with time travel and paradoxes, further highlights the script’s shortcomings. Knox’s plan is rather convoluted, his motivations to continue changing history on a whim for his own monetary gain- planning to charge admission for repeated deliveries of the Gettysburg Address after saving Lincoln- causing him to come off as a human Meddling Monk, whether that was the intention or not. Unfortunately, the script does little with the meddling in time other than to use it as a plot device, not even bothering to really discuss the possible ramifications were Knox to succeed. As such, regardless of the engrossing and charismatic work that Leslie Phillips again brings to the role, Dr Knox himself fails to come alive as a fully three-dimensional character, instead becoming just another obstacle that doesn’t truly or personally affect the Doctor or Evelyn except on principle.

Despite the script’s inability to bring another layer of depth to the character of Knox, he does offer a wonderfully charismatic and droll presence, and the combination of Phillips along with Baker and Smythe truly offers some genuinely comedic moments. There is clearly unexplored potential for Knox even as he grandiloquently meets his own demise, assuredly a missed opportunity for Ross since this is Knox’s final act. Still, it does tie previous events together nicely as the virus Knox was infected with in Edinburgh caused him to make a deal with the Indo creatures that the Doctor stumbled upon in Brighton to keep him alive after death by offering them the chance to get inside the head of one of Earth’s most noted assassins, John Wilkes Booth, to satiate its need for emotional pain. Along the way, the script continues to veer and change course to keep audiences guessing as to how history’s fate will eventually occur, bringing extremely good acting skills, the threat of reanimating aliens, and even a hired assassin into question as the ultimate means of the assassination.

In the end, ‘Assassin in the Limelight’ is loaded with interesting ideas and red herrings, bolstered by entrancing sound design and a unique Doctor Who setting. However, reducing Evelyn’s role to the stereotypical companion and failing to fully explore the main antagonist and the repercussions of his actions were he to succeed keep this story from reaching its full potential. It’s an engaging twist on the typical change-in-history script, but a few extra lines of dialogue and an enhanced companion role could have helped immensely.

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