Doctor Who (Classic): “The Deadly Assassin”
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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Deadly Assassin”

“The Deadly Assassin” (season 14, episodes 9-12. Originally aired Oct. 30-Nov. 20, 1976)

This is one of the giants, one of the cornerstones of Doctor Who. In terms of influence on the rest of the series, “The Deadly Assassin” is almost unsurpassed, establishing much about the Doctor and his homeworld that reverberates through subsequent seasons, from the legendary figure of Rassilon to the concept of artron energy, the quasi-radiation that the Doctor picks up from traveling through the Time Vortex in the TARDIS. The first extended look inside the society of the Time Lords, “Deadly Assassin” showed a much more human side to them, full of flaws and hypocrisy and corruption that explained much about why the Doctor ran away in the first place. It was also a significant step forward, maybe even a culmination, in his long struggle to achieve independence from their control and meddling in his life. Nothing would ever be the same again.

It doesn’t hurt that “Deadly Assassin” is so well-crafted all around, starting with the smart, slyly satiric script by the great Robert Holmes that plays off political thrillers, noirs, and espionage/conspiracy movies (especially The Manchurian Candidate) and restages the Kennedy assassination on Gallifrey, with the Doctor caught in a trap that casts him as Lee Harvey Oswald. Director David Maloney also has more than his share of Doctor Who classics to his name, including “The Mind Robber,” “Genesis Of The Daleks,” and “Talons Of Weng-Chiang,” but I don’t think he ever topped the tense, surreal, and nearly dialogue-free sequence set in the virtual-reality Matrix that takes up around a third of the running time here. 

It’s also a rare solo adventure for the Doctor, with no official companion to back him up. This was done in part to please Tom Baker, who thought there was no need for the Doctor to always be saddled with some co-traveler (and, maybe, Baker with some co-star) just so he’d have someone he could exposition the plot to. In practice, though, two sympathetic Gallifreyans, Spandrell and Engin, basically serve that purpose. And this story does work better with the Doctor alone: He’s in the mode here of the classic Alfred Hitchcock protagonist, the falsely accused man who must uncover the real crime. Tom Baker is in fine form here, approaching the unfolding plot with deadly seriousness while also gleefully lobbing sarcasm and scorn that sails over the head of his old classmate, now a self-important TV commentator, and is unamusedly brushed off by his old teacher Borusa, now a politician whose primary concern is making sure the Establishment doesn’t look bad, even it means turning the whole system into a lie. The Doctor, meanwhile, is risking his life to save that system, even though it’s clearly disappointed him on a fundamental level.

“The Deadly Assassin” picks up directly from the previous serial, “The Hand Of Fear,” in which the Doctor had hurriedly sent away his companion of the past four seasons, Sarah Jane Smith, after getting a telepathic summons to Gallifrey. It’s not hard to see why he rushed her out: The last time he’d brought companions to Gallifrey, in “The War Games,” the Time Lords had erased their memories and sent them back to their own times, never again to remember they’d traveled with him at all. They’d essentially killed his second incarnation, and forced his third into exile and to do their dirty work against his will. After “The Three Doctors” he got some independence back, but they’d continued to pull his strings—the one force in the universe he couldn’t directly defy. And by this time we’d also seen enough evil rogue Time Lords—the Monk, the War Chief, Morbius, and of course the Master—that it wasn’t hard to believe there was corruption and danger back home too.

As the story begins, the call from Gallifrey is augmented by another message, a premonition that Gallifrey’s Lord President will be shot down by, well, a deadly assassin—the most effective kind of assassin, really.  Desperate to prevent the murder but knowing that, as a convicted criminal, his story would just attract the wrong kind of questions from the Chancellery Guard, he sneaks his way into the Citadel and then to the Panopticon, evading Castellan Spandrell and the guard, who have uncovered just enough of his murky past to assume he’s up to no good. The cat-and-mouse game he plays to make his way to the Senate-like Panopticon, where the murder will happen, is deliciously unpredictable and twisty. When the Doctor steals a set of ceremonial robes to use as a disguise, for instance. Normally, that ruse would be enough, being just a means to an end to move the character to the place the plot needs him to be. But Holmes plays it more deviously: Spandrell isn’t fooled, and orders his guards to look for someone in gold robes. The Doctor, no fool either, steals orange robes and wears them instead.

And the way the Doctor gets the TARDIS into the Citadel building in the first place is a clever early hint at who the real villains are, though it’d take a second viewing to see it: Spandrell complains to his superior, Chancellor Goth, that the Doctor must have an inside accomplice. Goth scoffs at him, then orders the TARDIS to be brought into the Citadel—with the Doctor inside, Trojan Horse style. On first viewing, it seems like the Doctor has caught a lucky break thanks to Goth’s unknowingly stupid mistake, but later we find out that this was all according to plan: Goth is working with the Master, who is dying and has returned to Gallifrey with promises of knowledge and power for Goth. It’s a classic Faustian bargain, especially appropriate since the Master has never looked or acted more demonically. He’s apparently been living a little too hard since last being seen on the show (“Frontier In Space,” after which the character was retired due to actor Roger Delgado’s death). He’s now a decrepit, decaying figure wrapped in what looks like a black burial shroud, his face more skull than flesh. But his brain is working as well as ever, and he’s set up a complicated spider’s web to ensnare both the Time Lords and the Doctor.

All the Doctor’s scheming to get into the Panopticon only winds up putting him exactly where the Master wanted him: Holding a freshly fired rifle and ranting like a crazy person just when the guard bursts in to arrest him. Even the viewers might think he did it—the first-episode cliffhanger deliberately lacks a couple of visual inserts that are there for episode two’s recap, making it clear he was trying to stop the assassination, not carry it out. Someone else had a gun too. But he is, of course, arrested by the Guard, who don’t believe his protestations of innocence for a moment. And the powers-that-be, led by the influential Borusa and Goth, push for his speedy execution, on the idea that restoring order is far more important than ensuring justice. Yet something about the case doesn’t sit right with Spandrell, who is sort of Gallifrey’s version of Columbo. (Actually, I suspect that Czech-born actor George Pravda, with his distinct accent, was cast because the gruff detective is reminiscent of the sharp-witted, earthy inspector who foils the plot of a hypnotist mastermind in Fritz Lang’s classic German thriller The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse.) Spandrell could have been plucked out of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Though he wears the robes and priestlike cap of a Time Lord, he’s more like a grumpy but honest police detective who roots out criminals despite his dyspeptic ulcer, and even if it’s not politically convenient. It’s fitting, since the story is playing here with one of noir’s most persistent themes, the way that corruption among the powerful can stamp on truth and justice.

The Doctor’s trial seems sure to go badly, and he doesn’t even seem to be paying attention, drawing doodles of the witnesses instead as Goth, his judge, leads them into incriminating the defendant. Needing time to uncover the truth, the Doctor buys it with a brilliantly unexpected stratagem: With the Lord President dead, a new election must be held. So he throws his hat in the ring, the only opponent of the previously unopposed Goth.

Spandrell’s investigation soon turns to an outright alliance with the Doctor after he’s convinced he’s been framed, and that the whole thing is connected to the Time Lords’ gigantic database—known as the Matrix—where complete records on all Time Lords are stored. Inside it, the Master and Goth have built a totally immersive virtual reality powered by the collective mental energy and mindprints of thousands of dead Time Lords. (Did I mention it’s called the Matrix?) The only way for the Doctor to prove his innocence is to go inside the Matrix to find out who his real enemies are and what they’re up to. Here, the story takes an abrupt left turn, leaving the trial storyline behind  to jump into a surreal fight-to-the-death in the vein of The Most Dangerous Game and the Star Trek episode “Arena,” as the Doctor is stalked by Goth in a world he seems to have conmplete control over. From “Arena,” Holmes shamelessly nicks the Doctor’s trick of assembling a deadly weapon out of materials he finds in the jungle, and nicks the biplane attack from North By Northwest for good measure. The battle proves to be more brutal and muddy than you might expect even from a presidential campaign. Usually in a debate, the candidates don’t shoot each other with poison darts and set each other on fire.

Whose reality is it in the Matrix? Goth powers it with his mind, provided access to it by virtue of his place on the High Council, and is the one actually fighting the Doctor inside it—but the nightmare world of the Matrix clearly belongs to the Master, who forced Goth to build it to his design. Most of the masked enemies who threaten the Doctor are probably meant to be Goth. (Horsfall himself played several of them, including the samurai and the clown.) But I can’t shake the idea that even though he’s not physically hooked up to the Matrix, the Master shows up in there too—there are certainly a lot of creepy guys wearing round black goggles reminiscent of the Master’s lidless staring eyes. And the gloating laughter is certainly his. (And I'll bet he's the spider, too.)

There’s a good chance that the Doctor knows Goth already—Bernard Horsfall played an unnamed Time Lord during the Doctor’s trial in “The War Games,” and even though it’s never stated outright that he’s playing the same character here, it fits conveniently into the story: Someone of Goth’s rank, a hairs-breadth away from the presidency, would also have been important enough to be a judge at the earlier trial, and then there’s the fact that the Doctor switches off the screen in disgust  when Goth’s name comes up during Runcible’s newscast. If that’s true, then the Doctor’s defeat of Goth is sort of a trial-by-combat recapitulation of the Second Doctor’s trial, one he wins this time.

Goth made a devil’s bargain with the Master for knowledge and power, and it turned out the way those things always seem to. Ironically, even though a big part of the Master’s purpose was to get revenge on the Doctor, his treatment of Goth is a cruel karmic payback for the Doctor’s “War Games” trial: He tricks a member of Gallifrey’s High Council into becoming a renegade, on the same level as the vagabond he presided over as judge, and destroys him for it.

And talking of Time Lords: There’s a distinction drawn here between them and garden-variety Gallifreyans. There are apparently many people living on Gallifrey, but the Time Lords themselves apparently are so few that they will fit into a large meeting hall—maybe a few hundred, a few thousand at most. With their ceremonial robes, ornate collars, and titles like “cardinal” and “chancellor,” they’re evocative of the Vatican or the House of Lords—bywords for powerful elites that also sometimes seem like living museum pieces. Gallifreyan society has many layers, and the Time Lords themselves only constitute those at the very height of power—the 1% of the 1%. Where in “the War Games” they seemed all-powerful, here they’re a crew of duplicitous politicians and doddering old men. They used to seem ancient in the sense of awe-inspiring; now they just seem old. But that fits also with the way the series had often treated the Doctor’s resistance to the Time Lords as something like teenage rebellion.

Holmes flips the notion of the Time Lords as all-powerful on its head. In fact, there’s a sense here that the Doctor and the Master are both stronger than any other individual Time Lord because of their travels in the wider universe. Here, the Time Lords are seen not as all-powerful judges as in “The War Games,” but stodgy, imperfect and, in a word, human. The contrast fits with the idea that the Doctor has been growing and changing in the course of his travels, and is now able to see them in a new way—the way your parents can solve any problem when you’re five, but by the time you’re 35 you realize that they’re just as screwed up as you are. It’s part of an inevitable progression: A big part of the terror the Time Lords caused in “The War Games” was because of their sheer unknowability, so every time they were seen after that, and we learned more about them, they grew more understandable, and less awe-inspiring.

It’s not just the upper classes who are corrupt. The Doctor is interrogated via torture by a guard who’s a little too eager to bring the pain, and Spandrell makes an offhand mention that he constantly has to deal with “hooliganism” involving indiscriminate gunfire. Gallifrey’s Citadel is hardly the shining city on a hill. What we see here is a cobwebby, Gormenghast-like world that the Doctor was right to run from: very old, and very stagnant. “They live for centuries and have about as much sense of adventure as dormice.” They think they’re the center of the universe, so why change? The quote from the book of Rassilon is revealing: In giving his people the gift of time travel, he also froze them in place. Time, for them, does not really change. Stagnation is suggested even in the name of their hall of government. “Panopticon” suits the Time Lords well, meaning “place from which all can be seen.” But it was originally coined to describe the location of a guardhouse in a penitentiary—implying that whether they know it or not, Time Lords live in the center of a kind of prison of their own making. It’s even in their most revered legends and the language they use to describe their most powerful technology. Their world is powered by a black hole they call the “Eye Of Harmony,” which suggests the eye of a hurricane—and remember, that swirl the TARDIS travels through is called the time vortex. The eye of a hurricane is the one place in it where nothing happens.

Until now, that is. “The Deadly Assassin” makes the Time Lords part of the ongoing story instead of the ones writing it. The opening monologue in the first episode is intriguing in that regard, explaining that the Time Lords have previously been too powerful to be threatened by “lesser civilizations” but that the events about to happen will change all that. What’s weird about that is that the villains here are all Time Lords—no barbarians are knocking at the gate. But it seems that the Master didn’t entirely lose: He weakened the Time Lords and broke their invulnerability. I doubt Holmes had any plan for this in mind, but future episodes took this ball and ran with it. The next time the Doctor returns to Gallifrey, in “The Invasion Of Time,” he arrives just in advance of the Sontaran army. And much later, we’ve got the Dalek/Gallifreyan Time War that finished up just before the 2005 revival launches.

Ultimately, the Master’s plot has nothing to do with politics, but petty revenge and a selfish, monomaniacal desire to cheat death. For as much chaos of the assassination produced, it was all about finding a way to humiliate and frame the Doctor, and to use Goth to gain access to a long-forgotten secret of the Time Lords’ original techno-wizardry, so he could obliterate his home planet to keep from having to die. He’s a little like the center of that hurricane, or indeed the real center of the Eye of Harmony: A deep, dark abyss that destroys everything it touches.
 
Stray observations

• A significant loose end: The results of the election. When Goth dies, the Doctor is left as the only candidate for Lord President, and therefore wins by default. From detested outsider to head of the government? Yeah, I’d say his relationship with Gallifrey has changed. The thread is picked up in a big way in the next Gallifrey-set story, “The Invasion Of Time.”

• “What is the Master like on mathematics?” “Brilliant. He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s almost up to my standard.”

• Time Lords can recognize each other on sight even after regenerations—Runcible’s memory of the Doctor might be hazy, but he clearly knows exactly who he is. (“Weren’t you expelled or something?” ... “Have you had a facelift?” “Several, so far.”)

• Like Rassilon and Omega, both the Master and the Doctor now exist outside official Time Lord history. The Master, because he erased his own biographical files, and the Doctor because the Time Lords erased almost all traces of his TARDIS after the “War Games” trial, and even the guy who’s equivalent to their police chief doesn’t know about it. So the whole time the Third Doctor thought he was working for the covert international intelligence agency UNIT, he was actually working for a covert intergalactic intelligence agency, the Celestial Intervention Agency—named, with Holmes’ sardonic humor, for the American spook shop.

• Another great cynical joke: when we see the assassination site being examined for clues, in the center of it all is the chalk outline of the Lord President’s body, complete with the gigantic ceremonial collar, ridiculous in context.

• The design of the Great Seal of the Time Lords had been used a couple of years earlier for the Vogans in “Revenge Of The Cybermen.”

• The closing story of season 14, “The Talons Of Weng-Chiang,” was originally conceived as a direct sequel to “Deadly Assassin,” with the Master in the place of Magnus Greel. It’s easy to see how that would have worked; the mangled and vampiric Greel is just a rewritten version of the dying Master seen here.

• Upcoming schedule:
Nov. 11: “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy”
Dec. 9: “Planet Of Giants”
TBA in December and beyond: “The Ambassadors Of Death,” “Warriors' Gate”

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