The Invasion of Time
The War Games
The Deadly Assassin
|Dates||Oct. 30, 1976 -
Nov. 20, 1976
With Tom Baker. Written and script-edited by Robert Holmes.
Directed by David Maloney. Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe.
|Synopsis: The Doctor returns to Gallifrey for the first time since The War Games to attempt to stop the assassination of the President of the High Council.|
A Review by John Riordan 23/7/97
I know I'm not exactly going out on a limb here, but I think The Deadly Assassin is the best story of the Tom Baker era, and therefore one of the two or three best in the series. The Time Lords are explored in detail for the first time, and are shown to be far from the Utopians as whom they had been previously portrayed.
The story has a dark, brooding, and terrifying atmosphere throughout and the Doctor, especially when he is inside the Matrix, seems more fallible and human than ever before. The fact that he has no companions in this story underlines the fact that he is truly alone in his quest to foil his enemies and that his obstacles are enormous.
Peter Pratt's Master may be a triumph of makeup over acting, but all I can say is that the character is memorably scary. Bernard Horsfall is also great as Chancellor Goth (well I hope he's the same Time Lord that Horsfall played in The War Games.) This Gallifreyan yarn of intrigue in some ways needed to be a classic, and Robert Holmes rose to the task beautifully. More gothic than The Brain of Morbius, more morose than Logopolis, it's....
Deadly Measures by Carl West 8/5/98
"You'd delay an execution to pull the wings off a fly."
A lot of us seem a little tired of the Tom Baker era-- I'm sure that here in America this is largely due to far too many re-runs on PBS. The purpose of this review is not to inform anyone about a Who story that we have probably all seen numerous times, but rather to recognize some of the finer points that make The Deadly Assassin one of the classics of Doctor Who.
Like most of the mid-Seventies Who stories, The Deadly Assassin has a delicious gothic flavor to it (there's even a baddie named "Goth"). Gallifrey on the whole is presented as a dark, formal place where an adventurous maverick like the Doctor probably couldn't fit in terribly well. I actually like the concept of the decayed, cloaked Master- Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes were wise to create a Master who was so markedly different from Roger Delgado's cigar-smoking, class-act portrayal (of course, Hinchcliffe chose this approach mainly because of Delgado's tragic death three years earlier). Personally, I think Geoffrey Beevers decayed Master in The Keeper of Traken comes off a little better-- the immobile face of Peter Pratt's Master in The Deadly Assassin makes the character seem a little too lifeless-- but the concept is good nonetheless. I would even say that Pratt's and Beever's portrayals of the Timelord are better than Anthony Ainley's-- Ainley's Master being a little too much like Delgado's to really be considered original. The other great villain in Assassin is the tragic figure of Chancellor Goth-- Bernard Horsfall's best performance in Doctor Who since his lovable Gulliver in The Mind Robber.
Although the Doctor doesn't have any travelling companions in Assassin, Castellan Spandrell and Coordinator Engin more or less form a team with our hero, and these two supporting characters are played quite well (Tom Baker's interplay with Eric Chitty's Engin is particularly fun). The nightmare sequences in the "wilderness" within the Matrix provide for some excellent surreal, horrific moments (like the train scene, or the surgeon with the huge hypodermic needle). The most memorable moment in Assassin, though, would have to be the point early in the story where the mysterious hooded figure (the Master) steps out of the shadows and says his classic: "Predictable as ever, Doctor." Of course, this line was used in an equally chilling moment five years later in Logopolis.
Assassin is a firmly established Doctor Who classic, "neither to flux nor wither nor change its state"...
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 3/5/99
In many ways, The Deadly Assassin is something of a landmark Doctor Who story.Robert Holmes does a fine job in fleshing out the Time Lords and Gallifreyan society, revealing previously unknown facts about The Doctor and his race, e.g. his TARDIS is a Type 40, he is a member of the Prydonian Chapter and the location and function of the Panoptican to name but a few.
So much that is taken for granted now is revealed within four episodes is something to be applauded, because so much of it makes sense. Tom Baker is excellent as The Doctor, companionless, and coming across as more human because the threat is directed at him and is therefore more effective.
Bernard Horsfall as Goth deserves special mention, as does George Pravda as Spandrell. The reintroduction of The Master, albeit in emaciated form, works wells, and Peter Pratt turns in a fine performance here. Perhaps The Deadly Assassin will always be remembered for the scenes within the matrix, which come across as both a serious threat and surreal. However they were essential to the storyline and work very well within this context.
So in summary The Deadly Assassin is a largely enjoyable and certainly groundbreaking tale, despite the rather stupid story title.
Grassy Knoll Revisited by Ken Wrable 11/3/00
This story represents a watershed in Dr Who mythology. Here we have for the first time a detailed look at the Doctor's planet of origin, complete with dissertations on Time Lord social hierarchy and history. Here we have the first mentions of Rassilon, the Eye of Harmony, the Matrix and the Prydonian Chapter. It's no wonder The Deadly Assassin has provoked so much comment and controversy over the years.
But actually, I don't care about any of that. I think this is a great story, in many ways one of the very best, and the reasons have nothing to do with the great swathes of Time Lord paraphernalia Robert Holmes introduces here. I think the appeal of The Deadly Assassin is more to do with the fact that this is pretty much the only time we see the Doctor completely alone, in a society in which (unlike Earth's, for example) he is most certainly not a superior being, and being forced to rely completely on his wits and on his courage in a desparate and treacherous situation.
There is, uniquely in the series' history, no companion figure here (there's also no female characters, no human beings, no monster as such, in fact no characters who aren't reasonably privileged male Time Lords). The Doctor's on his own and is being set up right from the start. It's not until well into the story that he starts to get a handle on how events have been manipulated, and the only route he can see for himself out of his predicament is truly risky - to submit himself to the Matrix in an attempt to smoke out his tormentor.
The scenes set in the Matrix are extraordinary: hallucinatory, graphic and gritty. The Doctor is without his customary weapons of superior understanding, technological wizardry and ego-deflating wit and is forced to behave like a merciless hunter. The climactic images of he and Chancellor Goth wrestling in the lake in a manner lightyears removed from the effete society they both originate from are particularly striking and memorable.
The villain behind Goth is eventually exposed as the Master, and this is certainly my favourite of the many stories to feature the Doctor's arch-enemy. Having taken the decision to re-introduce the character, Hinchcliffe and Holmes were absolutely right to make him radically different to the Roger Delgado incarnation, who was all charm and sophistication. Here the Master is vicious and evil, almost driven insane with hatred, and Peter Pratt does a fine job of investing him with the requisite menace. My one regret is that the mask he uses is too static, but his voice more than makes up for it.
And the rest of the cast are pretty fine here as well. I'd particularly pick out George Pravda, who as Spandrell comes closest to filling the companion role for the Doctor, and Bernard Horsfall, who gives Goth nobility and depth even though he's eventually revealed as nothing more than a stooge. Tom Baker for his part gives an absolutely committed performance, as though he's acting in King Lear or The Seven Samurai rather than a show that started life as a cheap Saturday afternoon schedule filler.
So forget about continuity and contradictions in Dr Who's established mythology. The Deadly Assassin is a must-see because it's a wonderful story with a real edge. Plus it's about as far from tea-time light entertainment as Dr Who ever got (oh - and look out for the Action Man doubling as a shrunken corpse in Episode Two).
Was the hiatus worth it? by Mike Jenkins 17/12/01
While much more well recieved at least in the long run then Ark in Space, I can't see how it's any better. Holmes' scripts are dark and Tom's humour creeps in when it can but they're aren't many opproutunities and the Master is much more of a side bar then in the Delgado classics. It's a 7/10 and good watching but would've been better with a Doctor other than Baker 1.
The matrix scenes are interesting and do advance the plot but are overly violent. The idea of the doctor dying in the matix is interesting but somewhat questionable in continuity, much like Arc of Infinity, although that story wasn't as strong as this one. It's great to have Tom without a companion because he plays a loner well. This really brings out the Hartnell in his Doctor, if in fact there is any. One problem is that the Timelords seem to believe that the Doctor isn't responsible too easily. This story would've worked better had this been drawn out and the story made a six parter. Holmes is one of the few writers in Who that makes stories which are too short.
One of the more humourus scenes in the story is when the Doctor disguises himself as a Timelord and this is comicaly unbelievable in a charming way. Even that lowly Timelord would've known it's the Doctor surely. I mean he's been in this form long enough hasn't he? A mixed bag but the positive outweighs the negative considerably, but I know Holmes can do better. One thing we've learned in the time that elapsed from Ark in Space to this story is that he works just as well as a scipt editor as he does a writer. A keen example of this is Pyramids of Mars or The Android Invasion.
The Pertwee Assassin by Andrew Wixon 11/2/02
Like at least one other Robert Holmes uber-classic there's less to Deadly Assassin than first meets the eye. On first viewing you're so taken aback with the story's self-belief and energy that you just don't notice the many things suggesting that the confidence at least may not be warranted by the material.
As a stylistic exercise Assassin is unique, and it's not too unfair to suggest it's really one astonishing episode (Part Three, obviously) framed by three good ones. It's part three that you remember, for its sheer incongruity both within Assassin and within DW generally. Which may be just as well, as the other episodes exchange location filming and nerve-jangling tension for distinctly iffy sets, doddering played-for-laughs Time Lords and some very eccentric performances (Bernard Horsfall and Angus Mackay excepted). The production values of the Gallifrey sequences are amongst the weakest of the season, compared to the historical richness of Masque and Talons or the art deco nightmare of Robots of Death.
But even here, the story packs a serious punch, not for its details but its intentions and the way it carries them out. Famously this story came bottom of the DWAS poll for that season, and it's not difficult to understand why. Back in 1976, the Pertwee years would still have been a recent memory for most fans and Deadly Assassin coldly and calculatedly sets out to reinterpret two of the icons of the era: the Time Lords and the Master. No longer omnipotent and benign immortals, the Time Lords are extremely cynically recast as antiquated politicians, as flawed and untrustworthy as any other society seen in the series. The new take on the Master isn't much more flattering, either: gone is the cosy, charismatic, likeable Delgado version and in his place is a seething, hate-ridden zombie (in many ways a more effective portrayal of the character). And as a result of this, the Doctor himself seems different. In this story Holmes seems to be proving just how far he can take the Doctor from the charming, patriarchal establishment figure played by Jon Pertwee. In the corrupt and shadowy universe of Deadly Assassin, the Doctor is reimagined as a lone, occasionally ruthless outsider, tolerated by an establishment he has personally very little time for. It's unrecognisable as the universe of the Pertwee stories - but it somehow rings truer, and is certainly more effective dramatically. That is the Deadly Assassin's greatest crime - and its greatest achievement.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 16/4/02
If a fan who'd never watched the serials before, but had read all the books on Gallifrey before watching The Deadly Assassin, they'd think it an exercise in fanwank.
That's because in four twenty-five minute episodes, Robert Holmes set all the things about Gallifrey in motion: the Schools, the Matrix, the stories of old-time, Rassilon, the rank of Time Lord Society, etc.
Holmes, also in four twenty-five minute episodes, told the be-all and end-all story of the Doctor's home planet, leaving others to try and emulate him, and not really measuring up.
The truth, though, is despite all the trappings, all the background, all the things revealed about the Doctor's home world, The Deadly Assassin is a great detective story with a surreal battle of wills bridging the gap in the detective story.
And it's the battle in the matrix that sets this story apart. The Doctor is stripped of his charm, wit, and MacGuyver-like adaptability and forced to tap into basic survival skills in order to defeat -- kill -- his enemy. The world is populated with child-based nightmares given serious weight. A surreal world where one can be run over by a train, shot at by biplanes and hunted down like an animal. Thrust into this primal dreamscape, the Doctor is forced down into the level of his enemy, and through brute force, manages to survive barely.
The Deadly Assassin features the Doctor's biggest rival, the Master, in his most evil and desperate form -- a living corpse hanging on by hate and willing to destroy Gallifrey for his own survival. This portrayal is far removed from the suave, cigar-smoking Bond-ian Villain of Delgado or the comic book villainy of Ainley. It's an interpretation that was closest to Holmes's original intention for the character -- a vile, corrupted version of the Doctor, the dark soul made flesh. Peter Pratt makes him sound like a man on the verge of death, consumed by hatred, moving beyond the static face mask he wears throughout the story.
Mixed into this battle of wills is a portrayal of the Time Lords as petty, political animals; fluid of truth and more interested in appearances and obtaining their power rather than venturing out and seeking the truth of the universe. Holmes shows us exactly why the Doctor left this static, pedantic place without ever having to resort to some silly backstory. The Time Lords of Gallifrey are a living anathema to the Doctor's core ideas of curiosity and truth. And in coming back to help his own people, despite their core differences, also is true to the Doctor's character in general.
There is little of the classic Holmes wit in the story. There are a few good Tom Baker zingers, but Holmes plays it very straight. There is a hint of a double act in Spandrell and Engin, but in actuality, they serve as the companion roles for the course of the story.
The acting is solid, as everybody plays things right. Spandrell is nicely underplayed by George Pravda. Bernard Horsfall makes Goth not only a powerful villain, but a definite force to be reckoned with. As mentioned, Peter Pratt's master is brilliant, and Tom is in top form, giving us a well- balanced portrayal of the Doctor.
The Deadly Assassin is at one a reaffirmation of the core beliefs of what makes the Doctor tick as well as showing how the character can be pushed. It's a benchmark show, not in only of terms of the big picture of continuity, but also in having an influence on every episode of Who going forward. Not since The War Games could a story claim this. It's also one of the best stories of all time, a classic on any fan's list.
The story that changes everything by Michael Hickerson 4/6/02
Close to 30 years later, it's hard to imagine the impact that Deadly Assassin must have had upon Dr. Who viewers the first time it aired.
Most of us who grew up on Who watched in the post-Deadly Assassin era, so it's hard to imagine the impact this must have had on Who fans back in the mid-70s when Robert Holmes' classic story first aired. Up until this point, the Time Lords had been presented as a powerful, almost omnipotent society that seemed to always be in control of things. There were never hints of any types of class struggle or a hierarchy of houses or even a hint that any of the people within the system could be corrupted (obviously seeing the Doctor and the Master, we knew there were those who were discontent with the system, but until now we'd always seem a unified and powerful front both in War Games and Three Doctors).
Deadly Assassin changes all of that in four short episodes.
The Doctor is summoned home to Gallifrey by powerful visions of the assignation of the Lord President of the High Council. The Doctor's return is not treated as a good thing by his fellow Time Lords, many of whom see him still as a rebel and possibly the person there to assignate the Lord President. The Doctor quickly becomes embroiled in the plot and tries to stop the assignation, only to fail and be accused of the crime himself. The rest of the story follows the Doctor as he attempts to solve the mystery, even to the point of entering the Matrix to find the real traitor and the real mind behind the plot. On paper, it sound like a fairly standard Who story -- Doctor arrives in a place, Doctor gets accused of a crime he didn't commit, Doctor solves the crime and finds the real culprit. But along the way, we get so much more than that.
Robert Holmes gives Who fans the first real look at Gallifrey. Before this, we were superficially exposed to the Time Lords home world -- seeing a trial room in The War Games and a command center in The Three Doctors. Here we see the internal workings of Time Lord society. It's a system very much based on class and which house you belong to. We find out the Doctor belonged to a rather esteemed house and that his departure caused a lot of ripples. We even find out that not all the Time Lords are aware of the Doctor's departure and his meddling in time and space, as we see in the conversation with Runcibal at the Panoptican. We also find out that the Time Lords can be just as corrupt as the Master himself and some of them are even power-hungry enough to cast their fortune in with our favorite villain from the Pertwee years.
It's a bit shocking, really. The Time Lords are no longer pillars of morality and justice. They have become more complex -- and, thus, some of the mystery surrounding them has been taken away. Robert Holmes knocks the Time Lords down a few notches and forever changes who stories about Gallifrey are told.
In many ways, the changes in The Deadly Assassin are as radical as the changes that FOX TV movie would attempt years later.
But yet, these changes are more accepted by Who fans and not as radically debated or decried among the Who community.
Why is that?
I think a large part of it is that Holmes took seeds that were sown and while he did run with them in a new way, there were hints this was coming. Deadly Assassin is one of those stories that makes you re-examine all the stories that came before and all those that come after it. Holmes does come from out of left field with the story, but not so far as to strain viewer credulity.
And while all of this is important to Dr. Who, Holmes never loses sight of the fact that in order to get these points out there as part of the Who canon, you've got to tell a great story to go along with it. Deadly Assassin is a great story. It's full of politician intrigue, well done dialogue, suspense and drama. And it must have hit some nerves with Who fans since it's infamous for the violent outcry by one Mary Whitehouse over the apparent violent content -- especially in the Doctor's struggle in the Matrix. The story is four episodes of great storytelling with the usual dark flourishes by Robert Holmes and a darn good story along the way. In many ways, Deadly Assassin is the best 4th Doctor story that Robert Holmes delivered, though it can be argued that Ark in Space is as good in its own way.
But along with the intrigue, there are ties to the past -- with the Master coming back to seek his revenge upon the Doctor. This plotline feels like a plot the Master would come up with -- one that is layers within layers and designed to trap the Doctor. You get the feeling like you did during the Delgado era that the Master's plots were complex and complicated in an attempt to trap the Doctor -- but yet, the Master would sometimes miss the blindingly obvious details that would allow his plan to succeed. We also see the beginning of the Master's half-baked ideas that become so prevalent in the JN-T years with Ainley. The Master has a gratutious scheme and is willing to do whatever it takes to carry it out and bring himself the things he wants -- power and the destruction of the Doctor, but only by first humiliating his long-standing enemy.
The Deadly Assassin is many things. It's a violent story of good vs. evil. It's an examination of the Time Lord society in a new way. It's a four-part adventure that seizes you by the throat and never lets go. And most of all, it's a darn fine story. Outside of Caves of Androzani, this may be Robert Holmes' masterpiece of Doctor Who. And saying that about a writer of Robert Holmes' caliber is a high compliment indeed.
A disservice to Gallifrey by Tim Roll-Pickering 13/9/02
The first full story set on Gallifrey sees a radical change in the way that the Time Lords are now portrayed. Gone are the all powerful and mysterious beings who can immobilise people without a second thought from The War Games as well as the advanced technology glimpsed in The Three Doctors. Instead we have a race obsessed with ceremonies and which has forgotten much of its past and powers. This is a major departure from the way Gallifrey and the Time Lords have appeared in earlier stories and it is easy to see why the story provoked so much criticism from fans at the time of its first transmission. But a strict adherence to continuity has never been a major rule of Doctor Who and given the way that this story has set the trend for subsequent Gallifrey-based adventures the changes do not stand out so much today. It's also easy to overlook many minor continuity slips that have been levelled against the story over the years, or easily explain them away. Okay so it says here the Doctor was expelled from the Academy, yet an earlier story states he got a degree, but has anyone ever heard of postgraduate study? Equally excusable are minor errors in the story such as Borusa being the head of the Prydonian Chapter and yet wearing a different set of robes.
At its heart The Deadly Assassin is yet another tale of an entity that is seeking to be restored to its former form by any means possible. These ideas have already appeared in one form or another in Revenge of the Cybermen, Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius and The Hand of Fear to name but four earlier Tom Baker stories. This time the twists come from the conspiracy elements of the story, along with the general ignorance of the Time Lords that allows the Master to carry out his plan almost to success. The story draws many elements from both the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the film The Manchurian Candidate, most obviously the way that the Doctor is set up as the apparent assassin from the distance and finds that his mind has been tampered with in order to carry out the plan.
Part Three is an overlong diversion from the story and it could quite easily have been cut out almost completely from the story. The use of so much film in this episode is a surprise, as is the highly surreal nature of the Doctor's journey through the Matrix and it makes the episode highly enjoyable but that doesn't justify its place in the story enough for it to be valid. The rest of the story is a reasonable tale but it could so easily be any old alien civilisation and not to much would have to change. This is not the best story to show the Doctor's homeworld in full for the first time. The use of the Master is unexpected, especially given the limited reuse of former adversaries in this period of the show's history, but the character is reinvented for the tale in a way that does not harm the memory of Roger Delgado. Peter Pratt gives a good performance especially given the limitations of the mask, though there is no sign of a successor to the interaction between Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado.
Of the rest of the cast Bernard Horsfall gives a strong performance as Goth, providing a strong foil to Tom Baker's usually strong performance, but of the rest of the cast only George Pravda (Spandrell) and Erik Chitty (Elgin) make any memorable contribution. Hugh Walters' performance as Runcible is at times painful to watch.
At the time of the original transmission, this story generated perhaps the harshest complaints about violence in the series so far. Although Part Three is well directed, it is nevertheless particularly brutal at times and given the filler nature it is hard not to agree with the contemporary complaints by Mary Whitehouse about the violence not being necessary, even if for different reasons.
Production wise there's little to fault in the direction and design, though a bigger budget to allow for more extras and a greater sense of scale would have perhaps been especially appropriate for the story. Robert Holmes' script has many good ideas, especially the 1984 way in which Time Lord history is rewritten to suit the needs of those ruling the Time Lords and also on the nature of propaganda. But the superfluous Part Three, the failure to provide a grandiose scale for Gallifrey and the lack of a plot that would really make the story stand out all result in a story that is overlong and disappointing.
But the title's nice and just needs the viewer not to be too pedantic about the definition of 'assassin' to appreciate it. 6/10
What a daft title... by Joe Ford 20/7/03
A story I've always thought was a mite overrated but after a recent re-watching I was able to see the story through a fresh pair of eyes...
I talk about my boyfriend Simon often enough in these reviews, mostly because he gives me the chance to see the stories/books in the opinion of a non-fan. Mostly its very refreshing to have the opinion of somebody brought up on Star Trek and The X-Files to go back and watch Doctor Who, broadcast twenty odd years before and to come out with a favourable reaction.
It was Easter Sunday, breakfast had been prepared and we needed something new to watch. I selected this video from my shelf...
I was never entirely sure whether to show Simon this one before, after all it isn't exactly a regular Doctor Who story. It dumps a whole load of information on you, the very structure of the episodes is jarring, there is no companion (and Si despite his complaints about wimps like Peri and Sarah actually likes having someone gorgeous there to help explain the plot) and the fourth episode is kind of a letdown (in my own humble opinion).
The credits rolled, the writing scrolled across the screen and Simon sat there, ignoring his breakfast, instantly gripped. The opening minutes were the grab, the assassination of the President... by the Doctor!!! Si was mortified, how on earth can this be? Despite the unusual action of the Doctor talking to himself for long periods of time I could tell he got a lot of satisfaction from it. He laughed at the two geriatric Time Lords on the balcony (especially the "You're not Gold are you?") and instantly fell in love with Borusa ("Runcible you had ample opportunity to ask questions during your misspent years in the Academy, you refused to avail yourself of the opportunity then and it is too late now!"). Plus the gripping cliff-hanger had him reaching for the remote to fast forward to the second episode...
Si was a little angry that the reprise to episode two show somebody in the crowd with a staser where the first episode didn't. Bit of a cheat really, but obviously they didn't want to spoil the plot! After long lingering shots of the emaciated skeleton hiding underground spouting out hatred Si instantly declared "Its the Master!!!" to which I cunningly confirmed it was not. Scratching his brain he clearly had fun with the 'trial' scenes. He gasped when the Doc declared his legal right of being a president candidate. My fella prefers a clever script over flashy visuals... I've taught him well! Unfortunately he then went on to blame Runcible for everything, my bluff about the Master apparently working out. Of course when Runcible faints like a big girl he's scratching his head again. He comments on how dashing Tom Baker looks in his white shirt. He now thinks Runcible faked the faint and hid the tape away... unfortunately hopes are again dashed when Runcible turns up stabbed! Of course the Master is now exposed to which I received the entirely unjustified "You bastard!!!"... Suddenly we're in the Matrix and Simon laughs "Another quarry!" but suddenly shuts up as a number of disturbing images are thrown at him. He is clearly shocked by the sudden change of pace, both the huge needle and the foot in the egg were squealed at! He loves the cliff-hanger and starts to wonder if maybe Mary Whitehouse had a point...
Episode three and things are hotting up. Unfortunately the all atmosphere/little pace of this episode means that he curled up in my lap not quite as jump up and down in the seat as excited as the first two episodes. However he notes this all looks very stylish for the show and the kill or be killed situation is dangerous territory for the usually safe show. The spider gets a scream (big girl) and the eyes in the cliff are apparently "well scary". He likes the second half of the episode more especially with the Doctor's ingenious poison darts. He comments that the Master's eyes look like rubber, ahem, well you can't have everything. The ending with the blood soaked Doctor slugging it out in the river with the evil Goth (and get this... he was actually shocked that it was Goth! He had forgotten he was supposed to be guessing who it was what with the sudden switch to location work!) gets him back on his seat roaring in defence of the Doctor with such obscenities I shan't share with you here. The freeze frame cliff-hanger is impressive but he tells me he is not going to go and hold somebody under a river "for a whole week" despite Mary Whitehouse's opinion.
Onto the last episode, the one I usually have most trouble with. Si is a bit confused as to how the Matrix works and just who is in control of the environment, I explain things just in time for Goth's death. The Master with the needle doesn't fool him for a moment. Although the "Do you mind this is a non smoking compartment" gets a hearty laugh. "You mean that guard is going to burn the Master's body? That's disgusting!" pretty much speaks for itself. Borusa's "We must adjust the truth" gets a thumbs up. With Spandrell apparently dead Simon is horrified... "I really liked him!" It appears he is enjoying this more than the much celebrated episode three! Unfortunately the Eye of Harmony is mentioned and comparisons with the hugely budgeted TV Movie begin. "Why isn't that in the TARDIS at the moment?" to which I reply "They cocked up continuity.", "Why does it look so different?"... "I already told you, they cocked up continuity in almost every respect!". Things get exciting as the Doctor and the Master battle it out and Simon is on the edge of his seat saying "The Master can't die! I've seen him with Colin!" but is suitably awed by his screaming exit. With Gallifrey safe again we cuddle up for the "nine out of ten" scene and Simon comments that the story is a great deal wittier than some of the others he's watched. He points out that the Doctor noticed the Grandfather clock in the last scene and surmises he knew he would escape to fight another day.
I asked him what he thought afterwards and he summed it up pretty well. "Love the Tom Baker ones. Haven't eaten my breakfast."
A perfect Easter Sunday morning.
It was whilst I was reading through About Time volume 4 that I had a mad urge to throw down the book and watch this. It surprised me at how negative the writers (the Mighty Lawrence Miles and some bloke called Tat Wood) were towards the Hinchcliffe years (oh they had lovely things to say about The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and Talons of Weng-Chiang but Robot, The Sontaran Experiment, Terror of the Zygons, Planet of Evil, Seeds of Doom, Masque of Mandragora and this come under some harsh criticism) and I wanted a little taster to see if I had been imaging the magic that Hinchcliffe and Holmes brought to the programme.
I wasn't. The Deadly Assassin is one of the best Doctor Who stories there is. Period. And coming from someone who was distinctly unimpressed the first time he watched it that is real praise.
I realise this is madness considering he suggested having a talking cabbage on his shoulder but Tom Baker had a good point when he said that he didn't need a companion. You would think a script editor would shy away from the suggestion of a companion-less story but instead Robert Holmes embraces the idea and writes the story himself and as a result we finally get a story that belongs to the Doctor (and since there had never been a moment in the Time Lord's life before this when he wasn't travelling with somebody there was always someone else there to take the attention away from him). It coincides with Tom Baker at the peak of his powers, three years into his reign and confident enough to tackle a script solo.
Coming home to Gallifrey should be a momentous occasion for the Doctor and Holmes ensures he gets the welcome he deserves, armed guards banging down his door, arrested and tortured. What shocked me was just how unimportant the Doctor seemed to Time Lord society, an embarrassing mistake that has been practically forgotten by everyone but those who knew him. The Castellan hasn't a clue who he is and is astonished that anybody would be rattling around in an old type forty. Given the Doctor's adventures and victories in time and space it is quite astonishing that his own people could consider him so... forgettable.
It gives him all the more opportunity to surprise them on his homecoming. He is delightfully cheeky when talking about his peers ("It might raise some of them from their lethargy") and runs rings around the chancellery guards, abuses the legal system to escape execution and scoffs at Gallifrey's technology ("You think this stuff's sophisticated? There are planets out there where this stuff would be considered prehistoric junk!"). The Time Lords are so used to everything staying as it is that the Doctor's whirlwind visit feels like blowing out some of the cobwebs. It is the Doctor's experience outside of Gallifrey that allows him to outfox the Master whilst his own people just sit back and watch (and adjust the truth).
Tom has never been more striking than rushing through the cloisters in his baggy shirt, the Doctor is freed of his eccentric trappings and forced to confront a long-standing feud on his home turf. All the mysteries about his character and his planet are finally thrown into a harsh light and rather than diminishing his effectiveness he leaves the tale a refreshed character with a solid motivation for leaving and all his issues tied up.
I love how dark this story is... made in a time when the BBC lighting department did not feel the need to light every alien world like Tesco. The Deadly Assassin feels draped in shadows even more than your regular Hinchcliffe, thanks mostly to the shocking plot and gruitous violence. The wooden console room suits this story beautifully, matching the grand, operatic sets for style perfectly. The Panopticon is skillfully constructed and looks huge with lots of fascinating places for David Maloney to shoot the action from. Some scenes -- the Master skulking through the shadows after killing some innocent victim, Hildred carefully walking up to the Master to burn his body beyond recognition, Goth turned to jelly after feedback from the Matrix -- are gorgeously shot and lit for maximum chills. The story is loaded with sequences that could have hopped over from a chilling black and white horror film... in some ways it is a shame it was made in colour because I'm certain it would add even more atmosphere in monochrome.
That was the Master? WOW. I am not the biggest Master fan in the world (I think he worked in about 20% of his stories) but Holmes understands perfectly how to motivate the Doctor's arch enemy... pure hatred. What this means is we are in complete doubt at how far he will go to kill the Doctor and make his mark on Gallifrey rather than the Delgado Master who was so pally you knew he would never do anything to hurt his darling Doctor and the Ainley Master who was simply too stupid to get anything done. This Master is a mean, mad bastard and he wants to hurt everybody. His grotesque, emaciated appearance helps a lot (and gives the story lashing of Phantom of the Opera atmosphere), just what the hell has happened to make him look like a nuclear explosion in humanoid form? Terrible things have occurred and the Master wants total vengeance. That was all I wanted in all those other Master stories... a good, solid motive and ta da, suddenly he works as a character and as a villain. Peter Pratt's squeaky, gutteral voice is perfect and he really chews up those wonderfully evil lines ("They're not dead! They'll live long enough to witness the end of this accursed planet!"). Skulking around in the shadows under Capitol, this should be the definitive image of the Master.
The script manages to juggle up a great deal but achieves a near-perfect balance of satisfying plot, razor sharp dialogue and fascinating ideas. The first two episodes used to drag terribly (especially on my first viewing when I just wanted to rush to the much celebrated episode three) but now they are my favourites, moving faster than a speeding train and full of wonderful characters and lines. The first episode could be considered a mini classic itself with the story rushing by and unfolding with tons of great mysteries (Who is the cloaked figure helping the Doctor? Who is the skeletal monster?) and climaxing on a fabulous cliff-hanger that confirms all our suspicions that this is a loving pastiche of the Manchurian Candidate. The president shot dead! The Doctor holding the gun! Can this get any more exciting? Yes... episode two gets even better with the Doctor's hilarious trial (the old guy with hip trouble is side-splittingly funny) and some mighty fine detective work in the gloomy Panopticon. Despite some unintentionally hilarious doll figures this is all superbly directed and oozing with tension. And never more so than when the Doctor gets trapped inside the Matrix...
It is probably the weakest episode of the lot on reflection, despite being the most gripping. The plot barely advances at all and there are long stretches between the really scary bits (the Doctor gathering his poison dart weapon seems to take forever) and the wit and intelligence of the dialogue is sorely missed. However structurally this is brave stuff; to spend an entire episode outside after two entirely studio bound ones, to defy your audience's expectations and take them on a survival hunt between the Doctor and his masked opponent after all that politics... it is deliberately jarring and works a treat. This is as far as Doctor Who scares ever got and it is pretty heavy stuff; forget how far the Master is willing to go on Gallifrey, the Doctor and Goth's fight in the Matrix is vicious with both sides trying to kill each other. Any feelings that this is standard Doctor Who violence are wiped away when the Doctor is shot in the leg and the arm, Goth is poisoned and burnt and they both start swinging at each other in a river swathing with flaming marsh gas. It's brutal and unflinching and I love it, the freeze frame drowning is just the icing on the cake. The imagery terrifies, preying on some horrific phobias (heights: the Doctor is hanging from a sheer cliff face by his scarf which is slashed by a samurai sword, needles: a surgeon looms over the Doctor with a needle so large it would go in one side and out the other) and getting Mary Whitehouse in one of her beautiful tea and macaroon tizzies! If Doctor Who was an adult indulgence, this is when.
As usual with Holmes dialogue is character specific the glorious lines just go to show how well defined they all are. Borusa is a marvellous creation, a politician through and through ("We must adjust the truth!", "We must allow time for passions to cool") and full of arrogant authority ("You will never amount to anything in the universe if you retain your propensity for vulgar facetiousness!"). Equally good is the Castellan who reminds me of an old teacher with his acidic barbs to Hildred's security ("You're trying to confuse him, hmm?") and is willing to get to the bottom of the affair no matter how disturbing the truth might be. Goth can be trusted to put on a brave face no matter how involved he is ("He is abusing a legal technicality!") but is faithful to his evil mentor to the last ("Only your life Doctor! Your life for my Master!"). And finally the Doctor who gets to be witty ("Do you mind, I asked for a non smoking compartment?"), arrogant ("Brilliant! He's absolutely brilliant! Almost up to my standards...") and surprisingly callous ("I hope not (that the Master has survived) and there's nobody else in the universe I would say that about").
Needless to say the re-invention of Gallifrey from an evil, alien palace to a planet of politics and rickety old men was not received well at first and in some ways I still agree with that initial assessment. This new Gallifrey, one with comedy old duffers, shiny guards and a shocking amount of political affairs lacks the menace of The War Games version and reduces the Time Lords to the level of "people" rather than "beings". That said it works a treat within the confines of this story, in the hands of Robert Holmes he could make anything interesting (even Star Trek Voyager). It was when this spanking new Gallifrey was placed in the hands of lesser writers that it became a tedious backwater. Some of the innovations - the black hole that powers the planet and the Matrix - are astonishingly inventive and give the story the gravitas it needed to suggest that Gallifrey was a powerful planet.
What else is there to say... a beautifully packaged story, which is full of surprises, one that uses the Doctor to the limit and finally gives the Master some depth. I have often cited this as the most overrated Robert Holmes story but in hindsight it deserves all the praise it gets and contains all the elements that made his period of Doctor Who so fucking great.
A Review by Brian May 5/11/03
The Deadly Assassin is one of the great revisionist stories in Doctor Who. From this moment on the Time Lords were changed forever. Since viewers were introduced to them in 1969's The War Games, they were an omnipotent, powerful and sometimes foreboding race. All through the third Doctor's exile on Earth, the fact was reinforced that our hero had met his match. Even Tom Baker's Doctor was reminded of the Time Lords' near taunting influence over him (Genesis of the Daleks, The Brain of Morbius). At the end of the previous story, The Hand of Fear, as he departs for Gallifrey the biggest question for the viewer is what will happen to him, as we're all still a bit wary of these beings.
And now, Robert Holmes demystifies the Doctor's people completely. This god-like race is in fact a decadent, bureaucratic and ceremonious lot, the epitome of power corrupted. Notably, a bunch of old men - no female Gallifreyans appear until the following Time Lord story. At this point we are left to wonder if there are any women on Gallifrey at all. Or are they simply confined to their "sphere" of life, as was the case in Victorian England? The only female performance is that of the computer voice - is this a reflection of a gender defined society, giving machines - effectively servants - feminine characteristics? Given this rigid society it is no wonder the Doctor left to wander the universe.
This unveiling of the Time Lords is not the only remarkable aspect of this story. For the first time the Doctor is companionless for an entire adventure and, more significantly, an old enemy is brought back - the Master. No, JN-T wasn't the only one! - although it can be argued that his major failing with the Master was to recast him (in the form of Anthony Ainley) as nothing more than a second version of Roger Delgado. Robert Holmes made the best decision in making the Master as unrecognisable and different from the original (and probably the most sensitive thing to do at the time, being only three years since Delgado's death). Peter Pratt's Master is - quite literally - a shell of his former self. A wizened, decaying cadaver full of nothing but hatred and thoughts of revenge. Gone is the suave charmer of the Pertwee era.
So Robert Holmes reinterprets one Time Lord - and rewrites the entire race - in one story. And what a corker it is! Part political thriller, part murder mystery, part psychedelic mind-trip. The first half is very suspenseful, as we hang on to see how the Doctor will evade the guards, infiltrate the Presidential resignation ceremony, and how he will escape execution. There are also small horror elements - all the scenes with the cowled Master lurking in the shadows, his skull face, the technician's shrunken corpse, Runcible's murder. Given that the Master's appearances are limited in the first two episodes, his character is all the more intriguing.
The scenes in the Matrix are the most remembered in this tale. Not since The Celestial Toymaker and The Mind Robber had Doctor Who been this trippy, but at least those stories had a large fantasy element to them, whereas this is plain nightmarish. The soldier and horse, both wearing gas masks; the surgeon with his huge hypodermic; the laughing clown - they are all lasting, freakish images (let's just forget that rubber alligator, okay?) There's also that wonderful homage to North By Northwest with the biplane. The third episode sees the Doctor out of his depth in a hostile environment - Tom Baker's more whimsical character is left to think on his feet and survive on more than one-liners and jelly babies. For my liking, the Matrix scenes tend to drag on a little. The second half of episode three is a bit tiresome, as if there are no more ideas left and it's simply become a duel scenario. However the final episode, back on Gallifrey proper, resolves the story satisfactorily (funny enough, I used to dislike the final episode, but have warmed to it in recent viewings).
Despite the padding in episode three, The Deadly Assassin remains a solidly produced story. The acting is of a high standard - at first George Pravda seems a bit stilted as Castellan Spandrell, but then you realise what a sarcastic, deadpan character he is! Erik Chitty is also great as the archivist Engin - the Time Lord equivalent of your stereotypical librarian. Angus Mackay gives us a wonderfully pompous but at the same time shrewd Cardinal Borusa - giving us the first backstory of a teacher-student relationship with the Doctor (which is examined in more detail in The Invasion of Time). Peter Pratt, as I mentioned before, does not try to be like Roger Delgado - he gives his own interpretation of the Master, which gives the character's return more impact. The best performance is that of the wonderful Bernard Horsfall as Chancellor Goth, who exudes confidence, arrogance and even elegance in his character. The cliff-hangers are all extremely good - episode one is one of my all time favourites, and the underwater ending of episode three has become notorious (unfairly so, in my opinion). David Maloney's direction is assured and effective. The sets and costumes are also of a high standard.
As for Tom Baker's outfit - that white puffy sleeved shirt definitely gives him a gallant edge. He's quite the romantic hero - a combination of Jon Pertwee and Mr Darcy! So much more strapping than that Time Lord robe worn over a pair of longjohns! It begs the question, is such a dashing ensemble standard prison issue on Gallifrey?
The Deadly Assassin is a very important Doctor Who story. Time Lord history, including the legend of Rassilon, was introduced, as was their culture and politics. From now on, the Time Lords were changed indelibly, with major implications for the future of the series, even beyond television. For such an epochal tale to succeed, it needs to be complemented by a strongly written, acted and directed story - which it is. 8.5/10
Thirty Years On by Daniel Saunders 20/4/06
In the thirty years (come November) since The Deadly Assassin was first broadcast, it has become to fans more than simply another four episodes of our favourite television series. It has become emblematic of various differing views of the nature of the show. In retrospect, the protests about the drowning sequence that would see Philip Hinchcliffe replaced as producer have perhaps given the story added popularity among fans who dislike subsequent stories and can present this as one of the last "proper" Doctor Who stories. Originally, it was the story's treatment of Gallifrey that aroused most interest among fans. With time, the fans stopped criticising the story for presenting the iconography of the series in a new way and started praising it for precisely the same reasons. It came to be seen as the definitive Time Lord story, although it was open to interpretation whether this was because it established the continuity perfectly or because it showed that previous interpretations of that continuity could successfully be ignored. The Deadly Assassin almost stopped being a story in its own right and became simply a specimen, a piece of evidence to be used in arguments about the Williams era, the mid-eighties Gallifrey stories, the Cartmel masterplan and especially the novels ("I draw the jury's attention to exhibit A, a videotape found in the accused's possession at the time he wrote Lungbarrow."). Strangely, whether the story is any good, and why, is rarely asked.
Dealing with these ancient criticisms as quickly as possible, I will simply remark that The Deadly Assassin does not actually contradict much previous continuity (not much more than the average old series story anyway). The Time Lords had been very willing to use the Doctor as an agent throughout the Pertwee era, not to mention Genesis of the Daleks and The Brain of Morbius. The latter also shows that they are susceptible to criminality at the highest level. The fact that Time Lord society is corrupt and scheming is therefore not surprising. True, it had not been stated as explicitly as this before, but previously we had seen only the image the Time Lords presented to outsiders and criminals, while here we see more mundane politics. Just compare the formality and ceremony of a British law court or the State Opening of Parliament with the heated debate in the House of Commons (complete with childish cheering and booing) and the careful feeding of stories to the press to manipulate public opinion. In fact, this discrepancy becomes a theme of the story as Borusa adjusts the truth to suit the purposes of the elite.
Three decades later, The Deadly Assassin has to be judged on its own merits, rather than on its attitude to the stories before it or its influence on the stories after it. The general view here seems to be that it is a good thriller with lots of twists, but a bit padded in the middle. However, I would argue that this is not the case. As a murder mystery, it is seriously flawed. There are only two suspects and as we know that the Doctor can not be the assassin, the real culprit should be obvious. The first cliffhanger raises the shocking possibility that the Doctor, for reasons unknown, really has committed murder, but the re-edited reprise at the start of Part Two shows that this is not the case. There are also gaping plot holes. No one seems to wonder why the Doctor would have committed the crime until he raises the issue in his defence, other than vague statements about a possible grudge, which no one thinks to investigate. Similarly, when Spandrell begins to be convinced of the Doctor's innocence, neither of them does much to find out who might have had a motive to kill the president. At the very least, they might have thought to look at the resignation honours list to check he really was going to name Goth as his successor! Similarly, plot devices such as the Matrix and the Eye of Harmony are introduced through clumsy info-dumps as and when they are needed, giving the impression that the author is improvising the story. Finally, the Matrix scenes are not the narrative dead-end they are sometimes described as, but do not fulfil the function they set out to perform. The Doctor goes into the Matrix to locate the Master. While there he finds out who the assassin really was, but not where the Master is hiding. Yet as soon as the Doctor leaves, he realises that the Master's base must be in the old part of the city, where he could hack into the Matrix, something he could have guessed without doing this, as he knew that the Master had done this.
Put like this, it sounds like I think The Deadly Assassin is a terrible piece of television protected from criticism solely by its reputation as an "important" story. Actually, the reverse is true. I think it is a wonderful story whose reputation means it gets praised for things that only appeal to fans while its true merits are often ignored. This begs the question: if The Deadly Assassin ought to be terrible, why is it wonderful?
The main reason is that the audience is never given the chance to spot the flaws. There is always something going on to hold the attention. The script, despite the criticisms above, is excellent, with a suspenseful plot and witty dialogue. Aside from the Matrix scenes (of which more below), there is hardly any padding, with virtually every scene moving the plot on. The direction provides a similar sense of urgency. When the viewers are not trying to keep up with the plot, they are immersed in Time Lord culture, something created here virtually from scratch by the writing and, more rarely for Doctor Who, the opulent design work. Sets and costumes for alien or futuristic societies are always a problem in Doctor Who. Even aside from budgetary problems, a designer runs the risk of producing something that looks so similar to contemporary fashion that it seems too mundane (e.g. The Long Game and Bad Wolf), something very clich? (the many, many societies that have opted for a minimalist look combining unpatterned walls with unpatterned one-piece overalls or jumpsuits) or something just daft (e.g. The Ark). The sets and costumes here avoid these problems, looking like the product of a real society, albeit aided by sympathetic lighting; in the over-lit Time Lord stories of the future, the same costumes looked far sillier. This is one of very few Doctor Who stories to feel like it is set in a genuine alien culture, which also makes the sudden appearance of plot devices like the Eye of Harmony less noticeable; as late as Part Four, there is a sense that we have only glimpsed a portion of this world and so we do not feel cheated when the story relies on aspects of it that we have not heard about before.
The combination of a fast pace with the sense of being in a truly alien society combine to produce a nightmarish feeling of being trapped in a world where anything is possible. Not only does this help to gloss over the plot holes, it also provides the story with its focus. Edgar Allan Poe argued that art (of any kind) should aim to produce a single emotion in the audience. Whether this is true is debateable, but it seems to apply here. Watching this story produces a feeling of isolation resulting even in paranoia. The fact that this is set on Gallifrey only adds to that feeling. The Doctor returns home, but far from being considered a hero (as he might expect after all he has done), he is an outcast and suspected murderer even there. I believe this explains why the problematic episode is not Part Three, but Part Four. While the Matrix scenes seem to belong to a different story, even a different genre, they share a thematic unity with what went before and are not the padding that they are sometimes considered to be. In the Matrix, as on Gallifrey, the Doctor is alone, fighting for his life, with his wits as his only weapon, against an unknown enemy in a position of power. It is the final episode, with the Doctor in a clear alliance with the forces of law and order on Gallifrey trying to stop an old enemy that really seems out of place in this disturbing tale of conspiracy and isolation.
A Review by John Reid 22/4/09
The Time Lord vice president is informed by the retiring president that he won't succeed him so he does a deal that the president is to be killed beforehand, allowing the vice president to succeed him. But a patsy is needed to pin the blame for the assasination and what better way to use a computer that is fed endless information to predict things and forsee the assasination and beam it into the Doctor's mind. The Doctor of course tries to prevent the assasination, grabbing a broken gun and shooting the assassin's gun out of his hand, but failing. The poresident is killed and the Doctor is left with a smoking gun being seen as the only one to have fired in that area.
Of course, this story is inspired by the assasination of JFK and the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald (the believed assassin) was nothing of the sort and that JFK was not only shot from a different angle than where Oswald was believed to be, but that the vice president Lyndon Johnson was behind it as he wasn't to succeed JFK.
The story's writer, Robert Holmes, also draws on other theories about the Kennedy assasination: witnesses are killed, cine footage goes missing, a police officer is also wrong believed to be killed by the Doctor and the CIA (the Celestial Intervention Agency) have the president's and the Master's body altered while laying in state,
The Deadly Assassin came about because Holmes wanted to a) bring back the Master (Roger Delgado, the first master, having died and the production team didn't want to tie a specific actor to the role so they had him cast as looking like the grim reaper) and b) they wanted to explore the history of the Time Lords, something only hinted on in the deadly assasin. A story that had featured Bernard Horsfall as an all-powerful leader, rather than the corrupt figure he plays here. The story a four parter of course divided neatly: episode 1 sets the scene, episode 2 tells the story, and episode four wraps it up, with the exception of the plot hole. The Master looking like death wants to get Time Lords' power to regenerate as he can't, so he would draw on their planet's energy but not wanting to kill himself he would wear a mathematically balanced sash that he had got off the dead president... the plot hole being: if the sash did balance out energy and protect people from death, why didn't it protect the president when he was killed?
The story borrows from Flash Gordon and at a time when the movie Star Wars was out. It fits the feel, as does reusing the emblem from Revenge of the Cybermen for the Time Lords. Whatever you think of this story, it set the feel for the next twelve years and has to rate after Power of the Daleks as the second most important story in the show's history,
And then there's episode 3. Apart form causing Mary Whitehouse stress when the Doctor's head is held underwater in a dream for the cliffhanger, it was at the time the most expensive epsiode ever and brave to have 25 minutes of the Doctor and his enemy taunting each other over man traps. I particularly like the samurai warrior and the clown's face in the sand. Similar ideas would be used again in the Ultimate Foe part of Trial of a Time Lord. The dream world was created by the matrix, an idea that would return as well in TOATL and would also feature in different lights in Arc of Infinity and Invasion of Time. This was the only story where the Doctor didn't have a compainion with him. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if a prototype Romana had been seen there as it's one of the few stories where you're left wondering if the Doctor will ever be the same again as he departs at the end and how he would cope when he would meet the Time Lords in the future.
That certainly clarified a few things for me by Richard Evans 23/3/13
Sometimes, the exploits of my much younger self come back to haunt me. To put that another way, I used to have an embarrassing tendency to believe everything, everywhere, that I was reading, and to take it purely at face value without questioning it. "The Dalek stories of the Pertwee era were dull and unimportant," I discovered. "The Deadly Assassin seriously upset Mary Whitehouse, and here's why: it was highly violent and contained rather a lot of disturbing images," was one allegation that I took on board. As a result, I avoided those Pertwee Dalek stories and didn't go near The Deadly Assassin for years. That first claim is a load of balderdash, by the way. The second may be true on all counts, but that doesn't prevent this political tale of the Time Lords from being one of the greatest Doctor Who stories I have seen so far.
To throw in a third allegation, The Deadly Assassin seems to have been condemned on its original release for presenting the Time Lords in a way that was inconsistent with what had gone before. Such is simultaneously true and false. It's true because we've never seen them presented in this way before, but that's where this side of the argument ends. It's false because the overarching theme of corruption - and the suggestion that these Time Lords are above the law and they know it - is perfectly in line with The War Games and the "Earth exile" story arc. In either event, the revolutionary depiction of these Gallifreyans as uncompromising, snarly politicians makes the story highly intriguing right from the word go, and hence it does not fall into the pitiable category of "stories that fail to go anywhere at the beginning" (here's looking at you, Frontier in Space).
Tom Baker, who could always slip into the "angry Doctor" type so easily, plays the Boris Johnson role with great panache (putting his abundant charisma to good use and sticking out like a sore thumb among the orthodox politicians in the story). When he is faced with his apparently unavoidable execution, it is enjoyable to see him continuing to do so. It is a testament to Baker's skill that he is able to change direction and act the deeply worried, proactive protagonist type when the ingenious conspiracy waged against him becomes fully clear, and he succeeds in heightening the atmosphere of serious jeopardy. That said, it is also a testament to the skills of Robert Holmes that the conspiracy against the Doctor is so convoluted, and yet completely coherent and captivating.
I've not yet watched many of Holmes' stories, but of those I have seen, only The Caves of Androzani is able to compete with The Deadly Assassin in terms of narrative strength. These two classics differ, however, on one very significant point: one is character-driven and the other is reliant on its mood and imagery. Therefore, I must make the surprising observation that almost the entire cast of The Deadly Assassin are relatively thin characters. Engin and Spandrell are the archetypal nobodies who are slowly swung round to the Doctor's cause; Goth is the archetypal grumbler who refuses to believe a word of what the Doctor says; and the President is a largely unseen, largely unknown figurehead who is at his most powerful when other characters are talking very highly of him.
That said, the plot and grandeur of the story mean that it doesn't really matter. The President is, to his credit, a titanic on-screen figure, whose entry is well built-up with heavy organ music. Had the story been helmed by lesser crewmembers than Holmes and David Maloney, we may not have raised an eyebrow upon the President's assassination, but as it is, he evokes enough authority to make us panic at the time of his death. Goth, despite his shortcomings as a personality, has a clear role to play in events: first supporting the President, then coming down with an iron fist on the alleged assassin (as any loyal statesman would) and finally proving himself to be a rotter. The motivation for Goth's evil is somewhat overfamiliar, but given the all-powerful image that the Time Lords develop in The Deadly Assassin, it is enough to rank him among the most ambitious, nasty villains in Doctor Who's long history. Plus, Bernard Horsfall is possibly the strongest guest actor the series has ever seen, bringing out the deepest facets of each of his characters, including Goth. As he fights Baker in the swamp in Part Three, Horsfall depicts a sadism that few other villains have achieved. How fitting, then, that it is he who got the "honour" of giving the nation's children a collective nightmare by forcing the Doctor's head underwater.
It doesn't take a wide stretch of the imagination to picture my sadness in discovering, minutes after watching The Deadly Assassin Part Four, that Horsfall had passed away at the end of January 2013. RIP, sir; you were one of the greats.
Then there's that one little man who lurks around in the story and makes all the difference: the Master. He's far from the first antagonist that one thinks of in conjunction with the Tom Baker years, but if there was one production team who would change his appearance completely and make him a decaying husk, in a story that changed the rulebook completely by not having a companion for the Doctor, Holmes and Hinchcliffe were the ones to do it. Being the sly, compassionless brute that he is, it makes perfect sense that the Master is dying, unhinged, bitter, desperate and outright scary here. He doesn't have much to do until Part Four, but he is always there in the story, a destabilising influence over everything that occurs on screen. As he executes his master plan, nobody is in any doubt that he is utterly committed to realising it, nor that the stakes are very high. His demise and subsequent escape are also brilliantly directed. That horrific final shot of the Master's decaying face, just like the chillingly scary shot of the clown's face in Part Three, is emblematic of The Deadly Assassin's iconic imagery.
In fact, this Master is the perfect epitome of this rebellious, unique story. Trying to appreciate that Peter Pratt is playing the same character that would later be so suave under Anthony Ainley, and so smug and immature under John Simm, is harder than it may sound!
After watching this saga, I finally settled an unusual unsolved mystery in my mind, so thank you very much for that, Mr Holmes. In my review of The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, I mentioned how I had portrayed the Master and helped to run a "haunted house" for charity. I was standing just outside the door and controlling the flow of students into the "house", a darkened room with menacing sound-effects, spider-webs, fake skeletons and other horror movie cliches: the stuff of nightmares for many a participant! Well, inspired by watching the Master exert his fearsome mental will over the Doctor in the Matrix in The Deadly Assassin, I have decided to think of that haunted house as the Matrix: my mental dominion! It makes perfect sense. I may be crazy, but at least I'm decisive.
In conclusion, I take my hat off to The Deadly Assassin on all counts.
One final point that I can't resist addressing is a conspiracy theory in fan circles, which proposes that Goth is the same Time Lord as the judge played by Bernard Horsfall in The War Games. I don't believe he is. The two characters have entirely different manners of speech, entirely different areas of expertise and entirely different attitudes to matters. Plus, Goth and the Doctor don't appear to have met before. To solve this strangeness - and also account for Colin Baker's appearance as Maxil in Arc of Infinity, before he became the Doctor - I propose that if two Time Lords are regenerating at exactly the same instant in time, something in the Matrix or the Gallifreyan mental data bank clicks and they regenerate into each other's forms, or one of them takes on the appearance of the other. Yes and yes again: I am proposing that Maxil's next incarnation after Colin Baker looks like Peter Davison. Make of all this what you will.
A Review by James Neiro 9/10/17
This serial has always secured a spot in the Top 5 Classic Doctor Who Stories and it's clear to see why. TDA is epic, saturated with rich layers of Doctor Who mythology. A companion-less Doctor (for the first time it's 13 year run) returns to Gallifrey following the dire warning of the assassination of the home worlds President. But is he there to save the President... or execute him?
Set solely on the Doctor's planet of origin, Gallifrey, we are introduced to many aspects of Gallifreyan lore including the President, the Matrix, the Celestial Intervention Agency, Rassilon, the 13 Regeneration Limit, the Eye of Harmony, the Time Lord hierarchy, etc. If that wasn't enough to digest, we also have the return of the Master, who had been absent from the show for just long enough - three years - to warrant a return. A decrepit and skeletal like adversary, this version of the Master was quite possibly my favorite and the most terrifying. Gone were the quips and villainous cliches - he was totally ruthless.
The story was also notable for featuring the first film version of a Matrix that would later become a plot element for many TV shows and feature films. The story was atmospheric, grim and violent, with a fantastic cast that could not be faulted and set pieces and location shooting that for its time was brilliant. The lone Doctor plot worked superbly and showed two things: the show could absolutely survive and sometimes even thrive with the Doctor as a lonely wanderer not requiring a sidekick to scream or complain, and it also showed that Tom Baker was such a fine actor he could carry the show (as if we didn't know this already).
TDA was mature, with no sign of padding or 'campy overtones' that would sadly dominate the later seasons. It stands as a testament to how good gothic Doctor Who could be. Peaking at 13 million viewers, TDA was clearly a triumph - so much so that a year later the series attempted to clone its success with the mediocre The Invasion of Time. At this point in the show's history, it had clearly reached its high point - and quite frankly, it doesn't get much better than this. 9.6/10
An "Assassin" Revisited by Matthew Kresal 12/8/18
It's the story that changed Doctor Who forever. Coming nearly half-way through its original run, it was the story that forever altered the show and its mythology. Writer Robert Holmes (along with producer Philip Hinchcliffe and the production team) crafted four episodes that remain among the most watched and talked about it in the history of the show. Looking at the story, it's not surprising.
The Deadly Assassin is the story that gave us the Time Lords as we know them, after all. For six years, they'd been non-existent. At the end of the Troughton era, they had arrived on the scene very lordy and powerful. They had maintained that presence throughout the Pertwee era and into earlier seasons with Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor. They had been like a mountain range, magnificent and looming, but distant. In the summer of 1976, that all changed in a heartbeat.
To say this story changed everything would be an understatement. If it involves the Time Lord, chances are it came from Holmes' scripts. Be it Rassilon as the founder of their society, the Eye of Harmony, the Doctor's TARDIS designated a Type 40, even the twelve-regeneration limit (which caused fandom so much consternation a few years ago) all come from here. That's also true of design and costumes as Roger Murray-Leach's Seal of Rassilon and James Acheson's high collars became the definitive presentation of the Time Lords. The sense of them as an isolated, even dull people watching over the rest of the universe presented for the rest of the series which informs New Who decades on can all be found here.
Not that it was apparent back in the summer of seventy-six. It is only in retrospect that it's visible, for at the time the burgeoning fandom hated it. Jan Vincent Rudzki's now (in)famous review of the story crying out "What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?" sums up reactions to it at the time rather nicely. Time has shown how important the story was to be as generations of writers across different media have used it as the basis of how the Doctor's people should be. Concerns over its portrayal would give way to it being the norm, perhaps demonstrating how what is once radical becomes commonplace?
The funny thing is that much of that is window dressing. The references that become all important aren't plot points but throwaway lines. The various artifacts of Rassilon and the presentation of the Time Lords, yes, but as part of the larger plot and story. All these things serve a purpose in context: telling the story set out in Holmes' script.
That story is a thriller. Forget all the lore: The Deadly Assassin is a thriller first and foremost, albeit a sci-fi one. The 1970s was the era of the political and conspiracy thriller from The Three Days Of The Condor to The Parallax View and All The President's Men. It was the era that spawned theories about the JFK assassination in the wake of Watergate and the revelations of nefarious government activities in the United States. Britain was no exception to that, and the decade was to spawn questions about efforts to remove Harold Wilson from Downing Street or how much remained hidden about former Soviet spies in high places. It was the birth of the age of conspiracy and here's Doctor Who in the middle of it all.
When the conspiracy thriller angle comes up, it's customary to mention The Manchurian Candidate. Richard Condon's 1959 novel and its 1962 film adaptation are classics of the genre, of that there is no doubt. The film's influence is apparent in the opening episode, especially as the Doctor races to stop the President's assassination. The portrayal of Runcible and the media coverage also owes more than a debt to Manchurian Candidate. Of course, the Master's presence as a villain with mind control powers would further seem to prove the point.
It isn't the most powerful or only influence on the story, however. The aforementioned JFK assassination hangs over the story with many echoes throughout from a second gunman, a framed assassin with a misaligned weapon, murdered witnesses, and missing evidence. While Manchurian Candidate informs the opening of the story, the basic plot owes it debt to a much older thriller. The plotline of a man returning to his native land and soon framed for murder while trying to foil a plot to destroy it comes not from Richard Condon. It's the plot of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was published in 1915 and famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. The Hitchcock influence is especially apparent in the Matrix sequences with its nightmare-scape including a biplane chase. That sequence also draws on the short story The Most Dangerous Game, further demonstrating the influences on the story are far more than a single source. What Holmes does is bring them together as perhaps only Doctor Who can.
Even with the passage of four decades, The Deadly Assassin remains a unique story in the annals of Doctor Who. It is a story that singlehandedly reshaped the show's mythology and the origins of its lead character. On a pure story level, it drew on various genre elements and recent events to present a science-fiction political thriller. It stands then as a prime example of what Doctor Who can do and why it's lasted more than fifty years.