The Deadly Assassin is an important serial for a number of reasons. It establishes a number of critical legendary pieces of mythology – the identity of Rassilon, the importance of the Matrix, the return of the Master, the crumbling decadence of the Time Lords, the mention of the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency), the regenerational limit of the Time Lords and the Eye of Harmony. A number of these pieces are gently included in the exposition, never focussing too heavily on them, rather than allowing them to slip into the viewers’ subconscious – the obvious exception being the use of the Matrix. But I won’t get ahead of myself...
The Deadly Assassin has always been a favourite of mine. It is unique insomuch as it does not feature a companion. We had bid a fond farewell to Sarah-Jane Smith in the previous episode, The Hand of Fear. Sarah-Jane had followed the Doctor through all sorts of trials and tribulations for three and a half seasons, making her the third longest-running companion, after Jamie and K9. She had been with him for a regeneration, the near destruction of the Daleks, psychological torture at the hands of a Sontaran, being temporarily blinded in The Brain of Morbius and being hypnotised or possessed a number of times. It was Tom Baker’s idea that, following her leaving the show, maybe the Doctor should travel alone. Robert Holmes has been reported to have said that he struggled to write for the Doctor without a companion, as he had no-one to naturally talk through his ideas with. The idea was that this episode would prove to Baker that a companion was essential – which unfortunately didn’t happen. A combination of Holmes’ excellent writing, some superb set pieces, and Maloney’s outstanding direction led to this episode becoming one of the most popular serials in the show’s long history.
Maloney’s direction for this serial is as impeccable as ever – every scene is shot beautifully, and we also have his usual staple guest star – Bernard Horsfall as Chancellor Goth. Goth’s performance is typically predictable to a frequent viewer of the series – that of the corrupted Time Lord – but on first viewing, the revelation may have been more surprising. That said, he still brings to the character a heavy amount of gravitas, and commands many of his scenes. Notably, he also pops up dressed as a clown during this story, looking out of the glass under the soil whilst the Doctor faces the terrors of the Matrix.
As I have mentioned, the Matrix becomes commonplace in Doctor Who mythology – it is corrupted by Omega in Arc of Infinity, and the Doctor is placed on trial for his life in the Trial of a Time Lord series, and spends the final two episodes in a similarly surreal and terrifying world of nonsense. However, never before had such surrealism been used to great effect – whilst there have of course been obscure moments in past serials – the whole serial The Mind Robber featured the Doctor and his companions in fictional worlds inhabited by imaginary characters and creatures, and The Chase was surreal in a completely different way – never had it been used in such a terrifying manner – the sequences with World War One soldiers walking out with blinkered horses, the aforementioned clown, surgeons with huge needles, disappearing trains and the hunter sequence are all truly shocking, and it surprises me that they passed muster in the first place – although, of course, Mary Whitehouse had plenty to say about it.
These sequences, as I’ve said, are truly terrifying – watching our eponymous hero stumble through wastelands and jungles, hunted by faceless demons from the subconscious of the Master, is brilliant, and yet haunting in equal measure.
What is most interesting about this serial is the portrayal of the Time Lords – up until now, we had been led to believe that they were the most powerful beings in the universe, in charge of maintaining law and order, and stability, across all of time and space. In Holmes’ work here, however, they are a decrepit band of politicians and busy bodies, flustering about their citadel in decadence and not being seen to proactively do anything. The suggestion that Cardinal Borusa makes to ‘adjust the truth’ highlights this cynicism and failure to fully appreciate truth and honour. But this is also critical to the mythology of the series – it helps us to better understand why the Doctor left, his boredom of their ‘watching’ and lack of action. In this new society, they simply gather in rooms, mumbling away, broadcasting ceremonies and not generally achieving anything. The stagnation of the Time Lords disturbs the viewer – their reliance on greed for information and reliance upon ceremony is a set-up to many of the later stories, as this society further crumbles, creating a greater juxtaposition between the Doctor and his people – these God-like people who have now fallen from grace.
But what of the serial itself? We open with Tom Baker’s voice-over, the first and only time in the classic run that this was used – as the words roll up the screen, it is fascinating to remember that this is a whole year before Star Wars used the same technique. It then begins proper with Tom Baker’s Doctor mumbling to himself following a premonition of the assassination of the Lord President. This scene proves the point that Holmes made, regarding the difficulty of writing convincing exposition without a companion – the Doctor is talking to himself, but in an unnecessary way that doesn’t make sense. Without a companion, the Doctor’s oddness is exaggerated, and not necessarily in a bad way – after all, Baker’s Doctor was the king of quirks – but it is understandable why this would have become tiresome had Leela not been written into the next story.
As the TARDIS materialises outside of the capital, the Doctor sets up a ruse reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, creating a dummy of himself using his coat, hat and hookah pipe to fool the Chancellery Guards. It is telling that amongst the first Time Lords we see in this serial are stupid enough to have fallen for what is, realistically, the oldest trick in the book.
Castellan Spandrell is an incredible character, played with enthusiasm by the inimitable George Pravda, and adds a wonderful depth to this degraded society – particularly in his scenes with Erik Chitty’s Engin. The scenes over Baker’s unconscious body are filled with drama, using the script and plumbing new depths from the dialogue.Their scene together recapping on the Doctor’s background, and touching on the CIA involvement, provide some reminder for newer audiences as to why the Doctor is not in Gallifrey for the long haul, without undermining the nature of the story – often, scenes like this are tedious to the older fan, but here it simply aids the gelling of the scenes, justifying why the guards have been told that the Doctor is a ‘criminal’.
Once Baker manages to slip away from the guards a second time and return to the TARDIS, turning to the ‘local news’ to watch the live footage from the Panopticon. What’s interesting about this sequence is the manner in which it is delivered. Holmes has said that a source for The Deadly Assassin was the film and book The Manchurian Candidate. In this scene, it is particularly telling, as the media is used to coerce the unseen masses outside of the capital, all over Gallifrey, and it is through this medium that the ‘truths’ are told. Runcible is fittingly named after a nonsense word, made most famous in Edward Lear’s poem “The Owl and the Pussycat”, and his performance is perfectly reminiscent of a Monty Python caricature of a news broadcaster. It is Runcible’s character that allows us to see into the world of the Time Lords, with introductions to the different chapters prevalent within their heavily structured society.
Following on from this scene, we meet the Master again. After being absent for three and a half years, and following Roger Delgado’s tragic death, the Master was reintroduced to become another recurring character – not to quite the extent that he was in Pertwee’s second series as Doctor, but recurring nonetheless. Peter Pratt does an admirable job, stepping into Delgado’s empty shoes, and maintains all of the charisma that made the character so iconic. What is interesting about the Master in this serial is that he is just as scary, powerful and intimidating as he ever was – and yet it’s just a man in a mask. The only frame of reference we have for Pratt’s performance is the power of his voice and his stature.
The cliff-hanger for Part One, and the lead in to Part Two, show the most subtle difference, yet are simply excellent – at the end of Part One, we are led to believe that the Doctor has assassinated the Lord President, only to be informed in Part Two that there was a second gunman, and that the second gunman is who the Doctor was aiming for. This is the second thing that this story is indebted to – the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The assassination is commonly misquoted as being something which led to the delayed screening of An Unearthly Child (in truth, only by about 80 seconds), and so it seems fitting that it so perfectly is parodied in this story – not only the ‘second gunman’, but also the speedy hand-out of ‘justice’ to the accused, the Doctor.
Following his arrest, we see the extent to which this perfect, god-like society has fallen, as the Doctor is handcuffed and tortured in a scene reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is followed by a sequence in which Goth, Borusa and Spandrell discuss what to do, again highlighting that they cannot, as Time Lords, be seen to be weak at a time of crisis within their society. Their desperation to appear strong highlights how fickle and weak they have become, and how far the mighty have fallen.
After the court case, throughout which the Doctor doodles on a pad (which is just brilliant!) he declares that he wishes to run for the Presidency, a loophole which allows the Doctor to be let off the charges. It seems ironic that the Doctor is more clued up on Gallifreyan legalities than Goth and Borusa – turning the law back on them, and taking advantage of the system. Once again, this undermines the omniscient power of the Time Lords – and I love it. They continue to come across as bumbling idiots, unable to operate their own society properly and fairly.
Once the Doctor is free and discovers the shrunken body of the camera operator, the tension is knocked up another notch – now that that the Doctor is aware of who is behind everything, the fear in his face and voice is palpable. Tom Baker is at his best when he is vulnerable – which makes the sequences within the Matrix all the more unnerving. He is lost, trapped within an insane universe where anything and everything is possible. It is also pleasing to see that this is how the Master’s warped mind works.
By locking himself into the Matrix, against Engin’s advice, the Doctor ensures that this battle of wits is one which he has little chance of winning – as he constantly assures himself that he denies “this reality. This reality is a computation matrix”, we see that the Master has the upper hand. Just as a bleeding leg is healed by the Doctor, the Master steps in and reaffirms that he could very easily die within the system. It is truly horrifying – our hero really could die at any moment, and his death could easily be so much worse than anything else he has ever suffered. “All right – I’ll fight you in your reality” he cries into the ether, only to be assured that the Master will take pleasure in destroying him. Typically of an arch-nemesis, rather than simply murdering him, he continues to throw traps and hunters at him.
The cliff-hanger at the end of Part Two, with his foot trapped in a railway-line changer, and again at the end of Part Three, being drowned by Goth, are both horrifying, and it is easy to see why Mary Whitehouse was so appalled – I can only imagine now, with hindsight, how terrified children must have been, on first watching, having to wait for a week before discovering that the Doctor was OK. The sequences in the jungle, hunted by the masked hunter (Goth), are rather drawn out, with little or no dialogue, and yet the action never lets up – it is a relentless barrage on the senses, and one which keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat.
At the start of Part Four, the Matrix begins smouldering, as the Master takes the life of Goth in an effort to destroy the Doctor once and for all – quite why the Master didn’t do this as soon as the Doctor entered the Matrix is unsure, although obviously that would have shaved the best part of two episodes off of the running time. Once the Doctor recovers from the Matrix, he uses a typically witty Baker comment – “Do you mind? This is a non-smoking compartment!” I simply love these little one-liners, which litter most of Holmes’ work, and are so atypical of the Doctor, making light of the worst situations imaginable.
Once Goth has been discovered, we see another example of the degraded society of the Time Lords – Borusa is unhappy with the information provided, and creates a new ‘truth’ to be announced. As Spendrell tells him the truth, Borusa responds “No... We must adjust the truth.” He relies on the silence of the Chancellery Guards, and recreates a truth turning Goth into a hero – which he follows with the cynically written “Yes. I can believe that.” The Doctor clearly makes his disdain for this society known, as he jibes that “Time Lord history” is not entirely accurate. The fact that the Co-Ordinator and Castellan willingly go along with this, assuring that a relatively believable biog can be written by the following morning, proves that this isn’t abnormal for these people – fictitious news is commonplace on Gallifrey. Also symbolic of this rotten society is Engin’s description of the President – the fact that it is a redundant position, “no different from any other Time Lord”. Once again, the Time Lords are focussing on tradition and political greed, all of which is redundant in this decadent society.
The use of the neural inhibitor is a fascinating twist, one which was unlikely to have been predicted at the time – and the way in which the Master rises from his death bed is a fantastically unnerving moment, his corroded limbs and face rising up, driving a terrified scream from the guard, Hilred, due to destroy, or ‘restructure’ the body. As the Master tells us that “hate is strength”, it is chilling – this emaciated figure, not as infirm as he looks, is a terrifying creature driven by his hatred of all things good and pure. Quite why he only stuns the Time Lords, rather than killing them, is beyond me – why a man so driven by evil would not murder them is unfathomable. True, he plans to use the Doctor as a scapegoat, but why he would leave him to avert his plans is typical of the ‘James Bond villain’ shortcoming.
The final showdown is of an epic proportion – as the Eye of Harmony opens and the structure shudders and crumbles, and the Panopticon is destroyed, we see the strength building within the Master – his stooped figure straightens, his voice gains a stronger timbre, and the fight sequence is wonderfully choreographed, with tumbles down stairs, punches thrown, and all with the walls tumbling around them. The Master’s fall into the chasm is horrible – that the Doctor wouldn’t try to save him is telling of the horrendous mistreatment that the Doctor has suffered in this episode.
As Borusa looks around him at the destruction caused, we must smile at his upset of the devastation caused in the Panopticon – this petty civil servant, frustrated by the damage caused to a building merely intended as a status symbol, a place for the ‘worthy’ to gather and dither around. The Doctor’s farewell to his former teacher, whose scathing farewell is lightened by his “9 out of 10” rating, is excellently performed – and as he leaves, and Spandrell and Engin watch the Master disappear, we are left with a chill, one which is solidified by the Master’s chilling laugh as it blends into the final theme.
Overall, this is an excellent episode, one which is of critical importance in the mythology of the show. It cannot, and should not, ever be dismissed, as so much of what follows is based upon this new style. Holmes was able to write the episode, despite being the Script Editor, as it was proposed that rather than being just another episode, it was the ‘pilot’ for a new take on the series. And that much is certainly true – Hinchcliffe and Holmes truly did recreate the series from the ground up, and I, for one, am pleased that they did.