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.