Master illusionist and psychological trickster Derren Brown returned for the first of four specials last night, collectively known as The Experiments. The first owed a debt to one of his most popular specials from 2006, The Heist, where a group of people were brainwashed into stealing money from a security guard on an empty London street. The Assassin was a personalized version of the same basic principle, as Derren selected a highly-suggestible young man called Chris to shoot a celebrity dead—inspired by the conspiracy theory surrounding the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, as gunman Sirhan Sirhan claims he was "programmed" by the CIA to carry out the deed.
The Assassin followed what's become a successful basic template for most of Derren Brown's Channel 4 specials: starting with fun ways used to select the best candidate for a mission they're never fully briefed about (can you hypnotize people to throw beakers of acid in people's faces, or have them sit in freezing water as if it was room temperature?), and once Chris had been chosen most of the hour focused on his "training" (where polka dots and a specific ringtone became "triggers" for a trance-like state, during which time his accuracy was significantly increased when shooting firearms), before Chris was unwittingly sent to "assassinate" Stephen Fry during a lecture—as Derren's version of The Manchurian Candidate in a similar setting to that of Abraham Lincoln's murder.
While it's true most of the underlying principles and methods of Derren's work aren't totally fresh these days, they remain brilliant pieces of television. Coming off the back of some comparative flops (How To Take Down A Casino, Hero At 30,000 Feet), this latest special felt like a return to form. It helped that there was no live element (which can be fun in the right context, but isn't always necessary), and the idea fitted the hour-long timeslot without overstaying its welcome. As I mentioned, this was largely just a twist on The Heist idea, but I didn't mind too much. By focusing on just one person it added personality, and some of the diversions were very amusing—such as the moments of "magic" when Derren removed Chris's shoe (seemingly in the blink of an eye) by simply putting him into a trance and having Chris take off his own shoe, before forgetting his actions.
The special demonstrated the amazing power of hypnosis in amazing and frightening ways—perhaps lending some credence to the theory that Sirhan Sirhan may have been subjected to a similar ordeal by the US government. Or maybe that's just what Derren Brown wants us believe, as the show is notorious for entangling truth and fiction in a way that makes engrossing television. And that's what people love about Derren's shows. He offers viewers the rare opportunity to be put under a spell for an hour; a time where the impossible becomes possible, and the world feels just a little bit more uncertain and magical than it did before. Maybe there's trickery in what happened with Chris, and you could never really "program" someone to become a crackshot assassin in a matter of weeks, because it would break their moral code, but... maybe you can?