Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. But lately I decided to spend both some of my 50th birthday spending money and my Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.
(Daily Doctor Who #331)
The Deadly Assassin
Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
Written by Robert Holmes. Directed by David Maloney.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: October-November 1976 (Episodes 9-12 of Season 14)
The Deadly Assassin is a unique story in the whole history of Doctor Who. It was the first time (and the only time in the whole classic era) where the Doctor is traveling without a companion. It’s the first time in the series history where the Doctor returns to Gallifrey after the planet was introduced (and after it was named). And it’s the first time the show introduced a “new” Master, since the death of Roger Delgado, and the first story to feature the character since Delgado’s last appearance several years prior.
Picking up where The Hand of Fear left off, The Deadly Assassin begins with the Doctor en route to Gallifrey, only to receive a strange premonition of an assassination that he himself seems to be taking part in. He continues on to Gallifrey and attempts to investigate, but fails not only to prevent the Time Lord president’s death, but also to avoid becoming a suspect. This first episode is a bit choppy in its storytelling thanks to the future vision which appears (and reappears) sort of out of nowhere, but it’s more than made up for by the interest we have as an audience at taking a closer look at Time Lord society than we ever have before.
Of course, The Deadly Assassin is a bit controversial for what it did to that Time Lord society. Prior to this, when we saw the Time Lords, they were nigh-omnipotent demi-gods who sat untouchably on their mysterious homeworld, seemingly above petty mortal concerns. Those layers are quickly peeled back in this story, revealing a culture who were basically crusty Britishers beset with the same concerns of politics, position, and reputation that anyone might have.
Indeed, the Time Lords of The Deadly Assassin are close to incompetent–they don’t seem to know anything about their own history and practically nothing about how their technology actually works.
Really, if these are the Time Lords that Chris Chibnall had in mind when he wrote Spyfall, then suddenly the idea of the Master being able to destroy them all so easily makes a lot of sense–that’s practically what happens here.
Of course the trade off with the Time Lord’s being demystified like this is all the lore we get introduced to–Rassilon and all his relics, Cardinal Borusa, the Prydonian Chapter, the Eye of Harmony, the general sense of Gallirey’s design and fashion sense…all concepts that the show has held onto for years. The story makes good use of all of this material, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. A big feature is the Matrix, where the story spends about a third of its runtime with the Doctor in a virtual battle the traitorous Chancellor Goth. It’s unusual stuff with some interesting location filming and surreal editing–it’s engaging to watch, but it does slow the plot down radically while it is going on.
Another reason the show is well remembered, of course, is the return of the Master.
Oddly, his appearance is not treated as the “big event” that one might have expected–it’s hinted at in the first episode, and then basically “spoiled” in the credits before things are actually confirmed in Part Two. There is also very little exposition about what is going on with the character–why he looks so desiccated, how he managed to get Goth onto his side, etc. It’s not that these things are ignored completely, they are just breezed over so that if you are not playing close attention you might miss the explanations. Actor Peter Pratt does a decent job in the role but is saddled with a mask which while creepy does not allow for anything like facial expressions. As a result, this Master is more of a concept than he is an actual character.
Writer Robert Holmes was famous for creating notable “double acts” in his stories–characters who worked well in pairs, where the interplay of personalities kept things lively as the plot was progressing. In The Deadly Assassin, this is limited primarily to Castellan Spandrell (George Pravda) and Co-ordinator Engin (Erik Chitty). These two also serve replacement companions in a story that doesn’t have any, and are saddled with a lot of the script’s exposition, but it is never dull. Both actors carry it well and Spandrell in particular might be my favorite guest character amongst a strongly developed cast.
Amongst the story’s other strengths are Bernard Horsfall as Goth, who makes the Chancellor work both as a politician and a physical threat during the Matrix scenes.
Also, I was surprised to see how much I loved Angus MacKay’s Borusa, who just might be the sharpest version of the Doctor’s old teacher that we ever got (Borusa ended up being played by three other actors in future stories). I loved his put-down to Runcible the television presenter: “You had ample opportunity to ask me questions during your misspent years at the Academy. You failed to avail yourself of the opportunity then and it is too late now.”
The Deadly Assassin was a bit known for its violence, and prompted a number of complaints from those concerned with how much of this there was in Doctor Who. In addition to the infamous cliffhanger where the Doctor is being drowned by Goth, there are also images of a man being burned alive, the Doctor in lots of physical pain and danger from things that seemed more realistic than normal (ie, a train, etc). I have no idea if any of this was actually “damaging” for children in the day but I can understand why this story might have been picked out in this way.
Looking back at it now and it all seems pretty tame (while still probably unsuitable for children of a very young age).
It’s often mentioned that The Deadly Assassin‘s title is a tautology, or an unnecessary repetition of ideas. I can’t agree–there are plenty of people who set out to be assassins who failed, and thus were not particularly “deadly”. However, it is still a pretty bad title, and feels like something that was either picked in a big rush, or was decided by a committee.
That said, the serial’s biggest problems are more to do with the fact that certain interesting plot points are just lightly breezed over while others are unnecessarily dragged out. Personally, I could have done with about half an episode less inside the Matrix if it had meant developing the Master and Goth’s backstory a bit more.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the story quite a bit, and certainly nobody can deny the importance of the production to the development of the series’ overall mythology. It’s well worth a watch.