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Doctor Who complete reviews: The Deadly Assassin


Has The Doctor suddenly turned to the dark side...?

The Deadly Assassin

If The Brain Of Morbius courted controversy among both Doctor Who fans and Mary Whitehouse, then that was just a summer breeze when compared to the furore surrounding The Deadly Assassin.

The Deadly Assassin is one of the legendary Doctor Who stories, not just in terms of high quality but in terms of redefining The Doctor’s history and background. Oh, and it’s also high on the list of creepy scares and near-the-knuckle violence.

So let’s look at the new mythology of Gallifrey. We now find out that Time Lords can’t actually live forever, they can only regenerate 12 times. The TARDIS is a Type 40 model. The Time Lords have their very own hierarchy with various ranks such as the Prydonians and outcasts such as the Shobogons (established properly in The Invasion Of Time). Even Rassilon is mentioned for the first time. Robert Holmes goes beyond the bounds of duty, and creates a fully-formed believable society.

"In The Deadly Assassin, some of the fans complained that the Time Lords had become bumbling old fools, who were too busy worried about the conditions of their hips or concerned about the quality of their vis-cast."

Castellan Spandrell in 'The Deadly Assassin'That said, at the time of transmission, some fans weren’t all that happy with the brand new portrayal of the Time Lords. Up until now, the Time Lords have been shadowy, elusive figures, initially full of awe and power, and giving The Doctor a hard time over his freedom (or lack of, in the early years of the third Doctor). In The Deadly Assassin, some of the fans complained that the Time Lords had become bumbling old fools, who were too busy worried about the conditions of their hips or concerned about the quality of their vis-cast. I remember once reading a review that wondered what had happened to the magic of Doctor Who, except it was in BIG SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS. Wow, that’s one angry typewriter.

Looking at it today, I wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. Firstly, it’s a logical progression, not to mention more believable, since all societies have ups and downs. We’ve just chanced upon the bad patch of the Time Lords. Back-stabbing and manipulating the truth, the Time Lords have gone backwards, and after the President is murdered, their society is thrown even further into disarray. Chancellor Goth becomes acting President, but still the uncertainty prevails, as his leadership is already thwarted by The Doctor’s quick thinking at his trial. And the fact that Borusa feels that the true facts need to be distorted to boost public morale shows that the Gallifreyans are not as confident as they once were. Unsurprising, given all the back-stabbing.

On reflection, this is no real surprise. After their god-like portrayal in The War Games , the Time Lords’ appearances have not been as awesome. Either they send The Doctor to do their dirty work for him (Terror Of The Autons , Colony In Space etc), or they are seen to be in trouble themselves - The Three Doctors already shows signs of a fragmented society, with the President of the Council squabbling with the huffy Chancellor. So to single out The Deadly Assassin as a radical rewrite of the Time Lords doesn’t really carry that much weight.

And secondly, the portrayal of the Time Lords was a clever bit of satire on the part of Robert Holmes. In fact, looking at all the power struggles and manipulation, The Deadly Assassin is ahead of its time. We even get a clever reference to the CIA (which in this case, stands for the Celestial Intervention Agency).

Tom Baker in 'The Deadly Assassin'So what parallels are there with modern society today? Well, there’s a greater emphasis on security - as seen in the Chancellery Guard. There’s a greater reliance on media communication, with Runcible’s pompous broadcasts foreshadowing the OTT news reports today. And Borusa’s insistence of twisting the facts and turning Goth into a hero is a chilling prediction of how sometimes the media warps the facts today in the papers and on TV. At the time, Robert Holmes could only have had an inkling of how modern society would develop - but even he couldn’t have foreseen how accurate his satire would become.

The furore over the Time Lords, does, however, pale into insignificance when compared with the backlash against the violence. Mary Whitehouse and her blue rinse brigade were back with a vengeance after presumably spluttering tea and cake in horror at the Matrix scenes. In particular, the closing shot of part three with a freeze-frame of The Doctor’s head submerged under water caused Whitehouse to make her strongest attack yet on the show. And when the story was selected for a repeat transmission in August 1977, the last frames were edited out of part three.

"The Deadly Assassin really pushes the envelope, not just in terms of scaring kids and rewriting mythology, but in terms of making it look like The Doctor really has turned bad"

In hindsight, Waterhouse’s complaints marked a turning point for the show. There would be fewer scares in the following seasons, with a greater emphasis on humour. But looking closely at the violence in Assassin, is it any worse than what’s gone on before? Well, yes and no. The whole of part three is much more of a gritty fight to the death between The Doctor and Goth. The Doctor gets shot in the arm and the leg by Goth, who in turn is poisoned by a makeshift blow dart and then set on fire by volatile marsh gas. The violence is much more rooted in the real world, but even then, characters have been killed by everyday weapons like guns and swords. And more to the point, for all the violence that takes place, it’s still in a purely fantasy context. As Tom Baker has said, all kids have to do - if they’re frightened - is to look around in the living room to see mum and dad, and egg and chips and tea and normality. There’s much more of a moral code too, in Doctor Who than say, EastEnders. The hero always triumphs over evil, and The Deadly Assassin is no exception.

A Matrix villain in 'The Deadly Assassin'Even if it doesn’t start out that way. The Deadly Assassin really pushes the envelope, not just in terms of scaring kids and rewriting mythology, but in terms of making it look like The Doctor really has turned bad. It’s toyed with in the fast and furious first part, when The Doctor is bombarded with Mystic Meg’s crystal ball visions of the Gallifreyan President being shot by… himself! The mystery deepens rapidly, as The Doctor faces a race against time to try and save the President. But as he bluffs his way into the pompous Resignation Day ceremony, he quickly experiences a bad case of déjà vu, and before you know it, he’s on the balcony and firing off a shot from a strategically placed gun - at the same time that the President collapses to the floor in painful freeze-frame.

Now that’s one of the boldest cliffhangers that Doctor Who has ever presented, and it’s just as greatly shocking as the other two in The Deadly Assassin. Of course, thanks to one extra shot of a mysterious gloved hand clutching another gun, it’s all a big cheat - but the ploy definitely works.

The Deadly Assassin not only pushes the envelope in all these aspects, it also pushes the envelope in terms of quality. There’s very little wrong with The Deadly Assassin, which succeeds on just about every point. Robert Holmes’ script touches just about every base. Political thriller? Check. Murder mystery? Check. Action adventure? Check. Surreal trip-out? Check, check and check. The notorious Matrix scenes are among the creepiest in the show’s history, and what’s more, you could argue that Assassin influenced the successful Matrix films. Luckily, there’s no wooden acting from Keanu Reeves in The Deadly Assassin.

What we get instead is a series of trippy threats that links to common nightmares and phobias. Fear of heights. Fear of spiders. Fear of hypodermic needles. Fear of masks and clowns. Fear of plastic crocodiles? Hmmm, maybe not so much. I love these sequences though - they’re superbly directed by David Maloney, who turns in some of his best work for the show. The jerky editing and ominous camera angles really add to that nightmarish quality. And it looks really high-budget too. The bi-plane attack on The Doctor is almost feature film material, as is the last big showdown between Goth and The Doctor. About the only shot that doesn’t work is the silly bit with the eyes on the cliff, but I’ll overlook that.

"Looking back, it’s a brave move to bring The Master back, especially after the tragic death of Roger Delgado. But Peter Pratt makes great use of his voice to add another dimension to The Master"

All of the images thrown up at The Doctor are memorably macabre: The Samurai Warrior. The masked surgeon. The speeding train. The eerie clown. There’s a lot of emphasis on disguise and it’s not hard to work out that these aren’t random threats, but the real assassin who’s been pitted against The Doctor. Cleverly, it’s not so easy to work out that it’s Goth who’s the assassin, but his identity is slowly but surely unravelled. First completely masked, then made up as a clown and then nearly obscured by a stocking mask, Goth is broken down bit by bit. Good thing too, since the ominous booming voice in part three is clearly Bernard Horsfall’s. Never mind, since Horsfall is an ideal choice for The Doctor’s nemesis, since he has both the presence and acting chops to pull off such a role. Diehard fans may also like to speculate that Goth is the same Time Lord that we saw in The War Games , who between then and now has had the misfortune to stumble across The Master.

The Master in 'The Deadly Assassin'The Doctor’s arch enemy isn’t exactly back with a vengeance though. This Master is, for the most part, immobile, and what’s more looks and sounds like the walking dead. The grotesque skull face is well matched by Peter Pratt’s unusual, quavering intonation. “You will ignore them and obeeeeyyy-eeeyyy-yyyy only me!” is one such quote that sounds like The Master’s voicebox has been infested with cobwebs. Looking back, it’s a brave move to bring The Master back, especially after the tragic death of Roger Delgado. But Peter Pratt makes great use of his voice to add another dimension to The Master. All of the grudging respect and underlying hint of friendship seen in the Delgado Master has vanished - to be replaced by a bitter hatred and malevolence. “Who else but you Doctor?” crows The Master at one point. “So despicably good, so insufferably compassionate!” If it wasn’t for The Doctor’s ingenuity and knack for survival, it’s feasible that this Master really could kill him.

The other characters all work well. George Pravda is having a much better time here than he did in The Mutants - he’s much more suited to the cynical, bluff Spandrell than the rather cliched Jaeger. Erik Chitty’s doddery old Engin is a right laugh, and Big Tom’s clearly enjoying the lengthy chats that they have. Angus MacKay’s Borusa is also very good, although he’s just lodging behind John Arnatt’s definitive interpretation in The Invasion Of Time. Even the lesser roles such as Hugh Walters’ jumpy Runcible and Derek Seaton’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later Hilred are well acted and credible.

"The Deadly Assassin may be one of the most controversial Doctor Who stories ever broadcast, but it’s also one of the very best"

And the production and direction really do stand up well some 34 years later. Even in the studio sequences, David Maloney surpasses himself. His editing with freeze frames, quick flashback scenes and jump cuts is top rate, and contributes much to the fast pace of the first part. His camera angles are subtle and well-chosen too, such as the out-of-focus shot on The Master’s eye in Part Two, which then cross fades to a shot of The Doctor holding a gun.

The designs and costumes really invoke the grandeur of Gallifrey. Roger Murray Leach contributes some of his best work, with notably good sets for the Panopticon (cleverly helped by camera trickery to make the place seem really crowded) and the dark, doomy cloisters. Award-winning costume designer James Acheson, along with Joan Ellacott, are also responsible for the memorable Time Lord costumes, which were the blueprint for adventures right up to The End Of Time. And once again, Dudley Simpson’s music really sums up the feel of the story - in this case, it’s dramatic percussion and horns for the Matrix scenes and ersatz organ for the scenes on Gallifrey (in keeping with the music he provided for The War Games).

The Deadly Assassin may be one of the most controversial Doctor Who stories ever broadcast, but it’s also one of the very best. It’s got something for everyone - well apart from dads expecting leggy companions (the lone Doctor works well here, but it’s not something that would work on a longer-term basis). It’s thought-provoking, intelligent, cynical and heroic by turns, well made, scary and exciting to boot. A classic.

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, The Hand Of Fear

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked



#1 Great Episode Matthew 2015-08-25 08:19
I remember a long time ago reading how Tom Baker said his Doctor didnt need an episode and that Holmes and Co wrote this episode to show Tom why he DID need a companion. All Holmes did was write another awesome episode though!.

This is one of my all time favorite episodes.

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