Assassin opens with Vila crowing to the others about the following message he’s intercepted from Servalan. “Utilizer to Cancer, Utilizer to Cancer. Domo the ninth, five subjects.” This allows Avon to glower and mutter “Servalan!” in a way that only Paul Darrow can, leaving the others wonder what on earth the message can mean.
Luckily it doesn’t take them long to work it out. Domo is a planet, Cancer is an assassin who kills people for a great deal of money and the 9th must be a date. And there’s five of them … so it looks like Servalan has hired Cancer to bump them all off. Why she would want to go to all this trouble is a slight mystery, since Avon and the others haven’t exactly been striking many blows for freedom recently, but no matter.
Domo is a planet colonised by a gang of space pirates who capture unwary space travellers and sell them into slavery. Avon elects to pose as one such unfortunate, which gives us an opportunity to marvel at Paul Darrow’s ability to wring pathos and emotion out of even the most innocuous lines. Churlish folk might call this over-acting or simply bad acting, but I’ve always found there’s something compelling in Darrow’s S4 interpretation of Avon – a man constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Avon might start off by acting weak and feeble, but the goading he receives from Benos (Peter Atard) means that he can’t resist showing his true colours and so knocks a few of the pirates about for fun (I think it was the taunt about being skinny which pushed him over the edge). Vila, watching from a safe distance, is asked by Soolin if all had gone well. “Oh yes, wonderful. First they beat him to a pulp, then they dragged him off”. The unconvincing facial hair sported by the pirates is an early episode treat.
Avon’s thrown in a cell with an old prisoner called Neebrox (Richard Hurndall). He tells Avon that Servalan is here and that she purchased a member of an entertainment troupe (a plot-point which will become important later on). As probably everybody knows, this appearance led to Hurndall being cast as the First Doctor in The Five Doctors. It’s easy to see why, with his long hair he does have more than a touch of Hartnell’s Doctor about him. Hurndall was always an actor of depth and dignity and his presence helps to lift the story no end. Alas, the same can’t really be said for Verlis (Betty Marsden), the slightly tipsy slavetrader in charge of the slave auction.
The auction part of the story is rather … well, it’s just rather. The notion of Avon being paraded in chains before Servalan no doubt pleased a section of the audience (and I’m sure led to numerous fan-fiction sequels) but the actuality is a little embarrassing. The various bidders look ridiculous, all clothed in fancy dress it seems (plus fake beards of course). Servalan wins the bid for Avon, telling him that he now needs to refer to her as mistress. That was a late-night spin-off show just waiting to happen.
We can now bid the slavers a fond farewell as Neebrox comes up trumps and he and Avon hot-foot it back to Scorpio. This leads us into the second (and better) part of the story as Cancer’s ship is tracked down and they get to grips with the galaxy’s finest assassin. Everything seems rather straightforward at first- they find a ship which contains Cancer (John Wyman) and a young woman called Piri (Caroline Holdaway). Piri might be a rather limp lettuce but she’s invaluable in helping Avon and Tarrant overpower Cancer. Tarrant’s fight with Cancer is a hoot.
After being rather anonymous during her first few stories, Soolin has more recently developed a sharp and cynical sense of humour, which Glynis Barber plays very well. Soolin quickly becomes irritated with the weepy Piri and gives her a well-deserved slap. Well done that woman! Tarrant is rather upset with this, but Soolin’s comeback line is rather good. “There are two classic ways of dealing with an hysterical woman. You didn’t really expect me to kiss her, did you?”
Tarrant isn’t well served by the script, turning into a rather gauche schoolboy whenever Piri’s around. And since Piri is really Cancer, that makes him look more than a little foolish. Yes, the mysterious assassin Cancer is a woman, who decided to masquerade as Piri whilst Servalan bought a slave (remember the earlier plot point) to pose as Cancer. It’s fair to say that Caroline Holdaway’s performance has come in for a little bit of stick over the years and it’s easy to see why. True, the hysterical Piri isn’t the easiest role to play, but Holdaway never really convinces as the ice-cold killer either.
But although her casting is a bit of a problem, the concluding half of the story, set aboard Cancer’s ship, is still strong – David Sullivan Proudfoot elects to keep the lighting low, thereby creating a nice sense of tension. Generally the direction is solid (this was his third and final B7 story following Traitor and Stardrive) although he’s a little too fond of Star Wars style screenwipes ….
Rod Beacham’s sole script for the series, Assassin is another story which signifies that after a shaky start series four was finding its feet. This was Beacham’s debut as a television script-writer (he’d previously been an actor) and he would go on to contribute to a number of series, most notably Bergerac, before his death in 2014. For a television debut, it’s a very solid effort.
On the negative side, Assassin would have worked better without Servalan, who doesn’t do a great deal (mind you, there are quite a few stories we can say that about) but thanks to a nice guest turn from Hurndall and some sharply scripted lines for Glynis Barber it’s still a good ‘un.