It’s interesting to watch a Doctor Who story that I haven’t seen in years, especially when I remember it so well that I’ve practically memorized parts of the dialogue. I’ve seen “The Deadly Assassin” more times than I can remember, but as with so many episodes, a fresh viewing causes me to see it in a different light. I’ve always thought it was a good story, but now I think it’s outstanding. It doesn’t water down the Time Lords as much as I seem to remember. The Time Lords of “The Deadly Assassin” are a varied lot, as any society would be, from the down to earth Spandrell to the haughty and politically astute Borusa to the ruthless and determined Goth. There isn’t a bland face among the supporting characters.
There are a few unique aspects to the story that make it stand out among the others in the series. The most obvious aspect is that the Doctor is travelling alone, which is almost unique in the series history. This leads to more than the usual amount of the Doctor talking to himself, something which jumped out at me more than it had on past viewings. It’s not unknown for Baker’s Doctor to talk to himself or make asides, so it’s not out of character, but it is noticeable. Later in the story Castellan Spandrell fills the companion’s role, but he is a character of authority who moves independently of the Doctor and is essentially a peer, so he’s not typical companion material.
Another aspect that could be considered somewhat unique is the utterly unobtrusive use of continuity. JNT’s Who contained a lot of references to past stories, many of which whacked you over the head with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer. While sometimes enjoyable, at other times that approach could get tiresome rather quickly. Here we are treated to a mention of the Doctor’s trial (The War Games) his exile (seasons 7 8 and 9) and subsequent remission of that exile (The Three Doctors), and it’s perfectly natural. It makes sense that Spandrell and Engin would discuss the Doctor’s history in relation to a criminal investigation. Notably, the Doctor’s history in relation to the Time Lords does not dictate the plot of the story, it simply provides some background and behavior motivation since the Doctor is regarded as a criminal by Spandrell, even before he’s accused of killing the President. In addition, Runcible's question "Have you had a facelift" and the Doctor's reply of "several so far" again feel quite natural, as two old acquaintances catching up would naturally discuss what they'd been doing in intervening years. It’s rare to find continuity handled so well within the context of a story.
As mentioned, the Time Lords are a varied lot. They do not appear to be the awesomely powerful beings of ‘The War Games’ who put force fields around planets and dematerialize dangerous criminals, though since we see them in a different context, it’s easy to assume we’re simply seeing a different side of the Time Lords. However another option is presented us. Engin and Spandrell bring up the Celestial Intervention Agency, an agency which shares it’s initials with the American CIA, which leads me to assume that the name is something of a joke. Regardless, the existence of such a group does allow for the coexistence of the feared interventionists we saw in “the War Games” and the Time Lords of “Deadly Assassin” who assume much of Rassilon’s technology is a myth and whose society is apparently stagnant. It’s an believable society we’re presented with: the Time Lord aristocracy who rule the planet, who enjoy ceremony and are governed by a president and constitution; who are (like any group of politicians) concerned with the opinion of the general public. They don’t intervene in outside affairs, and despite being one of the most technologically advanced races in the universe have seemingly forgotten or lost much of their past technological prowess, while the covert CIA actively intervenes and has access to more technology and information than Time Lords in general. Perhaps the Doctor’s trial altered the strict noninterventionist stance of the Time Lords and he’s had more of an impact on his society than he knows. Perhaps the CIA was formed as a result of his opening the eyes of some Time Lords to the dangers in the universe. More on this later.
Borusa and Goth are the two main Time Lords we get to know in the course of the story. Borusa’s relation to the Doctor is enjoyable since this is one of the few instances where the Doctor is confronted by an authority figure whom he seems to respect, and certainly remembers well. The Doctor is the perpetual outsider, but that’s not really the case here. He’s not comfortably at home in Time Lord society, but he knows it well and operates within it like an expert. Witness his use of the law to save his life in episode two, and his knowledge of the chapters and their reputations as he sneaks into the Panopticon in episode 1. He shows no favorable sentiment at being home, but is rather eager to leave when he gets the chance, which is entirely in keeping with his character. He mocks Borusa’s ‘adjusting the truth’ despite his respect for his old teacher, and Borusa seems quite fond of the Doctor despite being an apparent willing participant in the trial which would have led to the Doctor’s execution. It’s a unique relationship, expounded upon nicely in ‘The Invasion of Time’. Borusa comes across as pragmatic, recognizing the responsibilities of high office, but willing to mislead the public for what he considers the good of the Time Lords in general.
Goth is an altogether different man, ruthless and ambitious, though seemingly charismatic as seen in his dealings with Spandrell. He’s more hard-edged with Borusa, who gives as good as he gets in exchanges with Goth. The conflict between him and the Doctor gains (unintended at the time of this was made I’m sure) depth since Bernard Horsefall played one of the Time Lords at the Doctor’s trial. In one of those happy accidents when I was taping Doctor Who off PBS, I taped the end of "the War Games", and then story that follows it on that tape is “the Deadly Assassin”, so it’s easy to watch the trial of the second Doctor and then go straight into this story. Of course it’s never stated that Goth and the Time Lord are the same character, but why not draw that conclusion since the first character is never named? It alters the way I see the characters of Goth and the Doctor relate in the story since they’ve met before and have some small history together. Goth presides over two trials of the Doctor and is almost responsible for his death. In the first instance he’s clearly out for justice by Gallifreyan standards, but in the second his motives are not so noble. However, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him, since despite his evident character flaws, he’s under the influence of the Master and thus not entirely to blame. Goth seems out of his depth during the hunt through the Matrix dreamscape in episode three. Despite being armed and knowing the terrain, he makes several mistakes which cost him the struggle.
Another aspect of Goth that distinguishes him from other Time Lords is the fact that he’s been off planet. As I mentioned above, it’s easy to imagine that his exposure to the outside universe during the Doctor’s trial opens up his mind to the responsibility of those in power to fight evil, and so he begins to examine the universe and its problems, and to travel. He mentions meeting the Master on Terserus, and like the Doctor and the Master, Goth has had his mind broadened by spending time outside Time Lord society. His dream world in the Matrix does not reflect the environment of Gallifrey, but contains a lot of imagery from Earth. Perhaps it’s been tailored by Goth to be something familiar and disturbing to the Doctor (and of course the viewer), and it is worth noting.
Peter Pratt’s interpretation of the Master is a far cry from Roger Delgado. Seen for the first time since “Frontier in Space”, the Master is ghastly looking and is as ruthless as he ever gets. His plan is dangerous but sound enough, and had he exercised restraint and not involved the Doctor, it would have succeeded. Just like “Colony in Space”, he puts the knowledge of the Time Lords to better use than they do, as he uses the information about the artefacts Rassilon left behind in an attempt to perpetuate his life. This Master is a far cry from the lunatic we see in Logopolis or Castrovalva. Unlike those stories, the Master doesn’t kill for no reason and doesn’t chuckle insanely, and most of all isn’t stupid enough to cause the destruction of half the universe by not doing his homework. He knows the effect that releasing the power of the Eye of Harmony will have, and he’s prepared a way to survive it. He plans ahead and considers consequences. He’s simply out to survive and take his revenge on the Doctor. However, as the Doctor observes, hatred is the Master’s weakness, and it proves his undoing as the Doctor, being the master improvisationalist that he is, lies about the sash and distracts the Master long enough to avert total disaster.
Despite the less than stellar quality of my old off-air copy, I have to admit that the Panopticon set looks impressive. The Time Lord robes and high collars are very fitting for this austere race, and the Master looks suitably emaciated, though he would be a bit more convincing if his mouth moved better. And the poor guy can’t even close his eyes! No wonder he’s in such a bad mood. The chancellery guard don’t seem incompetent so much as outclassed by the Doctor and the Master, despite Spandrell’s sarcastic remarks to Hilred. The commander gets some exercise in police-work, since Spandrell mentions running Shobogans in for vandalism, so crime is not unknown on Gallifrey. Crimes on the scale that the Master attempts to perpetrate are another matter entirely.
The story itself plays around with the four episode structure in a creative way. Episode One sets up the conflict and tension beautifully by showing the viewer the presumed assassination of the President by the Doctor, and ending with the same event. In between we are introduced to all the characters and situations as the Doctor works with the limited time he has to try and prevent what he has forseen from actually taking place. Episode two deals with the fallout from the events of episode one and sets up the Doctor's enemies and allies. Now the plot is a little thin for four episodes, so rather than drag out episode three with empty running around after false leads, etc., the story takes a brilliant left turn into surrealism and the wonderfully depicted duel between the Doctor and Goth, which is an outstanding bit of drama. Part four finishes the story up with a suitably grand threat and climax. Never does the story feel strung out, and so it's a triumph on the structural level as well.
I used to be irritated that Robert Holmes had diminished the Time Lords from the high-and-mighty beings that were seen in the War Games. I’ve changed that opinion to a large degree. They are certainly de-mystified, but still interesting and in many cases equal to the Doctor, and believable as an aloof race that has turned away from the universe. As such, they no longer grow as a society. Having achieved the pinnacle of technological achievement, they’ve diminished and have become self-absorbed and complacent. The Doctor’s boredom with their society is entirely understandable. Anyone who would rather risk death time and time again at the hands of numerous hostile alien races would be out of his mind with boredom on Gallifrey. In short, “The Deadly Assassin” adds to rather than ruins the Time Lords, and is a minor masterpiece of characterisation and drama. Highly recommended.
'The Deadly Assassin' was apparently rather controversial amongst Doctor Who fans at one time, due to its depiction of the Time Lords as a bunch of silly old fools. It's long since undergone something of a reassessment and is now considered to be something of a classic. Whilst I consider the term classic to be overused by Doctor Who fans on occasion, in this case it is entirely warranted; 'The Deadly Assassin' is a triumph, and works extremely well, despite being rather unusual in a number of respects.
Firstly, I'll discuss the Time Lords. The Time Lords have not been seen to anywhere near the degree that they are used here at any point in the series history prior to 'The Deadly Assassin'. What little we have learned about them paints them as a powerful and technological advanced race; the first story to feature the Time Lords properly is 'The War Games', in which they are shown to be powerful and rather austere. Both the Doctor and the War Chief are clearly afraid of them and they have both the ability and ruthlessness to dematerialize the War Lord and quarantine his home planet. Time Lord technology is often hinted at rather than seen; creating a force field around a planet is no mean feat, and of course the TARDIS itself is a fantastic creation, being as it is both dimensionally transcendental and able to travel anywhere in time and space. In 'Genesis of the Daleks', the Time Lord who appears to the Doctor on Skaro smugly boasts that the Time Lords mastered the technology necessary to interrupt a transmat beam safely when "the universe was less than half its present size", again suggesting considerable technological advancements. In 'The Three Doctors', we see the Time Lords under threat for the first time, and whilst a combination of Roy Purcell's wooden acting and cheap and nasty sets rather undermine them anyway, the fact remains that it takes a being capable of destroying the entire universe in that story to seriously trouble them; significantly, he's also one of their own. Despite that story's considerable shortcomings, it also maintains the image of the Time Lords as a dignified and solemn race.
The other main characteristic of the Time Lords that we already know of is that they have adopted a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of others. They break this on numerous occasions, especially during the Third Doctor's era, when they send him to different alien worlds during his exile, including Uxarieus, Peladon and Solos. But whilst they do therefore interfere, they prefer to do so through an agent provocateur, who of course is often the Doctor; as he says in 'The Brain of Morbius', they get him to do any dirty work that they aren't prepared to touch with their "lily white Time Lord hands". In doing so, they thus further contribute to the aloof air that surrounds them at this point in the series, as they manipulate events from behind the scenes. Faced with the task of writing a story set on Gallifrey, Robert Holmes remains true to all of this, but gives it a brilliant - and rather irreverent - twist. The Time Lords seen briefly in 'The War Games' are ultimately rather dull, so here Holmes takes the amusing option of presenting the Time Lords as politicians, obsessed with ceremony and bound by procedure. The Time Lords of 'The Deadly Assassin' have the trappings of dignity seen in 'The War Games', but we see beneath the surface; the two old Time Lords in Episode One who we see getting changed into their robes are clichéd old men, hard of hearing and grumbling about the young people of today. Hugh Walters' Runcible "the fatuous" is a vain and silly man, entirely consumed by his job of presenting the Public Register Video, a job he carries out with only a modicum of competence and little charisma.
In addition to these rather daft Time Lords we have Borusa and Chancellor Goth, both wily politicians, each intelligent and cunning and each ruthless in his own way. Holmes takes the opportunity to poke fun at politics, mainly through Borusa who gets to utter some wickedly sharp lines such as "if heroes do not exist it is necessary to invent them", and best of all, "we must adjust the truth". Goth is utterly ruthless, more than willing to assassinate the President for his own ends and equally prepared to use the Doctor as a sacrificial lamb, first by helping the Master to frame him and later by hunting him down through the dreamscape in the Matrix. But for all that these two are intelligent and cunning, renegades upstage them both; Goth is foolishly trusting of the Master and it takes the Doctor to uncover the conspiracy that the pair of them have perpetrated. The Doctor's trial showcases this brilliantly, as he sits and draws offensive caricatures of the witnesses before calmly standing up and invoking Article Seventeen, thus taking refuge in the convoluted loop holes of Gallifreyan law, which Goth is forced to accept in public. Unusually for a Robert Holmes story, a character who is essentially a policeman proves to be the Doctor's greatest ally; the plain speaking Castellan Spandrell approaches politics with cynicism and quickly realises that the Doctor is telling him the truth in Episode Two. This then, is how Holmes approaches the grandeur of the Time Lords: by revealing it to be a sham, a hollow veneer of pomp and ceremony beneath. Even the Chancellery Guards, splendid though they look, are supported by a veneer of ceremonial armour, beneath which they are shown to be incompetent, the Doctor and the Master both running rings around them.
If the Time Lords are thus portrayed however, it raises the question of how this meshes with their reputation as technologically advanced manipulators. The latter point is brilliantly accounted for by a throwaway reference to the Celestial Intervention Agency, an organisation so secretive that even the Castellan is not privy to their secrets. With this one line, Holmes is able to convincingly present us with his rather unfaltering portrait of the High Council, whilst still allowing for the interventionists seen in stories such as 'Colony in Space'. The second point is even more brilliantly realized, as it becomes clear that whilst the Time Lords are indeed possessed of incredibly advanced technology, they can't actually remember how most of it works. The Eye of Harmony, the power source for their entire society, has passed into legend to such an extent that Spandrell thinks it is a myth and that if it did once exist it doesn't any more. The tools Rassilon (mentioned for the first time in 'The Deadly Assassin') built to control the power of the Eye have been reduced to the status of mere ceremonial relics, symbols of power but with no known function. Even the potential of the Amplified Panatropic Net, used to predict the future, is not fully realized until the Master makes use of it. Co-ordinator Engin, who maintains the Matrix equipment, is in awe of it rather than understanding it; he simply cannot believe that anyone could interfere with it in the way that the Master does. Thus, we do indeed see the technology hinted at in previous Doctor Who stories, but Time Lord society has become so stagnant and apathetic that most of it has fallen into disuse.
Another noteworthy aspect of 'The Deadly Assassin' is of course the return of the Master. Rather than simply recasting the late lamented Roger Delgado and introducing a new incarnation, Holmes and Hinchcliffe choose instead to reduce the Master to the status of a walking cadaver, hideously disfigured and both literally and physically near to death. Peter Pratt's Master is twisted in both body and mind, and whilst he's true to the character established during the Pertwee era, he's also dramatically changed, his characteristic charm literally seared away along with his distinguished, if rather devilish, looks. This corpse-like Master fits perfectly into the gothic horror of the Hinchcliffe era, alongside such memorable villains as Davros and Morbius, and with his skull-like visage and his billowing black cloak he inevitably, and strikingly, resembles the Grim Reaper. Ironically, in bringing the Master this close to death, the production team also gives his character a new lease of life. Whereas the Master of old was motivated by power and a desire to humiliate the Doctor, his motivation has now changed; he still wants revenge against his old enemy more than anything (he notes on two occasions that hatred keeps him alive), but his primary motivation now is to survive, a drive so overwhelming that he is willing to destroy both Gallifrey and the Time Lords in order to succeed. Whereas in the past the Master occasionally seemed more interested in his rivalry with the Doctor than actual victory, and could therefore often be reasoned with, his new status brings with it a desperation that makes him far more ruthless and dangerous than before. 'The Deadly Assassin' would have worked perfectly well as a final story for the Master; brought to such a state and clearly dying, the Master could quite easily have been permanently written out of the series at this point. Instead, Holmes gives him a new slant and then sends him on his way, temporarily revitalized by the Eye of Harmony and escaping in his TARDIS at the end. As a means of reintroducing an old and popular enemy, it works very well and gives a tantalizing promise of a rematch in the future.
In terms of structure, 'The Deadly Assassin' is highly unusual. Episode Three is rightly famous, set almost entirely in the Matrix and consisting as it does of a long battle between the Doctor and Goth, with a plethora of surreal and impressive imagery and making great use of the location filming. With very little dialogue, the episode is an intense twenty-five minutes as the Doctor struggles to survive, and this means that whereas Episode Three of a four part Doctor Who story is often reserved for an explanation of the plot, here that takes place at the start of Episode Four. Episode Three is so well directed and so well paced that it never once feels padded and passes at break-neck speed, and the notorious final shot of the Doctor's head being held under water by Goth is highly effective. However, it is also worth mentioning Episode One. 'The Deadly Assassin' is unique because it is the only Doctor Who story in which the Doctor is unaccompanied by a companion, and this results in a first episode in which the Doctor is entirely on his own, desperately trying to evade capture as he strives to save the life of the President. After the equally unusual voice-over introduction with caption, this results in a fast paced and adrenaline charged episode that is just as worthy of recognition as Episode Three.
In production terms 'The Deadly Assassin' is flawless. The green-tinted sets of the Capitol look old but dusty, reflecting the sense of stagnation prevalent in Time Lord society, and amidst this faded splendor the colourful Time Lord robes with their distinctive collars look entirely appropriate. The ominous but slightly pompous musical score also perfectly suits the story, and David Maloney's superb direction brings everything together perfectly. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Erik Chitty's doddery and absent minded but thoroughly likeable Engin forming a classic "Robert Holmes double-act" with George Pravda's caustic Spandrell (making amends for his atrocious performance as Jaeger in 'The Mutants'). The ever-reliable Bernard Horsfall is perfect as Goth, bringing the necessary dignity to the character in Episode One, but also having the physical presence to convey menace as he hunts the Doctor in the Matrix. Entirely obscured by his costume, Peter Pratt does wonders with his voice alone, bringing some of the Master's old charisma to the role but also sounding suitably ghoulish. But for me Angus Mackay as Cardinal Borusa, bringing to the role dignity, presence and dry wit, steals the show; his casual dismissal of Runcible is hilarious, but best of all is his final scene with the Doctor, as he first utters the withering line "you will never amount to anything in the universe whilst you retain your propensity for vulgar facetiousness", and then follows it up with the wry "nine out of ten", briefly hinting at real affection for his old and wayward pupil. It's a marvellous performance in a superb story and is just one of the many reasons that 'The Deadly Assassin' is a true classic.