Although it’s a fairly connective middle episode, this continues to showcase both Whitaker’s talent for pithy dialogue and Letts’ good casting choices. In tandem, these give us Griff the lugubrious chef – a pretty minor role made interesting by Reg Lye’s world-weary performance. It also means Benik, a petty functionary in the scheme of things, stands in for Salamander’s whole approach: placing vindictive Little Hitlers in authority knowing that they will dance to his tune, while they revel in the power they hold. And when Salamander is unable to manipulate someone because, like Fedorin, they’re too basically decent, he assassinates them safe in the knowledge there are plenty of Beniks in the world to fill the vacancy.
Benik’s power is a dim reflection of Salamanders (while he smashes up Kent’s crockery, Salamander is burning cities to the ground), but it’s all part of the same Mafia approach to rule through intimidation and brutality. This all makes the Doctor’s reluctance to throw his hat into the ring with Kent very interesting. Salamander’s regime may be unpleasant and destructive, but to the Doctor it’s not the kind of cosmic evil he’s lately taken to fighting. He’s behaving like a military chief, unwilling to commit himself to battling small fry when there are bigger fish circling. For a clownish little man, the Doctor has a certain rock star swagger about him: he’s got no intention of slumming it on pub gigs when he can fill a stadium.
Importantly, the audience is a step ahead of the Doctor. We’re left in no doubt that Salamander is living up to the story title. Dialogue between Jamie and Victoria affirms that ‘Salamander is an evil man’, and is behind the earthquakes wreaking havoc in Central Europe – which is reiterated by a cut from this exchange directly to Kent and the Doctor having the exact same discussion. And Salamander is brilliantly wicked, jovially murdering Fedorin with ‘Alaskan wine’, and getting the beautifully Bond villainish line to Jamie: ‘Ingenuity requires a constant stream of new ideas – yours seem to have dried up.’ Fortunately, halfway through the serial Whitaker’s are still flowing.
Next episode: The Enemy of the World – Episode 4