The Deadly Assassin, by Andrew Orton (and Terrance Dicks, and Robert Holmes)

I loved The Deadly Assassin when it was first broadcast in 1977, and I love it still. When I rewatched it in 2007, immediately after my first watch of The Mind Robber, I wrote:

As for The Deadly Assassin: I was really a bit worried about watching it this time round; could it possibly be as good as I remembered it being from when I was nine years old, over thirty years ago? But yes, yes it is. Tom Baker is at the top of his form, combining humour, moral outrage, and determination to do the right thing by his home planet and people, even if they seem at times equally determined to do the wrong thing by him. And Robert Holmes’ superb script has so many memorable moments – here’s an early one, spoken by the exasperated official trying to pin the Doctor down who comes closest to filling the companion role. There’s a great Doctor/Tardis love moment as well.

Yet there are a couple of oddities. One, which is nothing to do with the series as originally presented, is that it has been preserved only as a 90-minute movie, which is rather annoying for those of us purists who like the old cliffhangers. [No longer the case, thank heavens.] Another, which is very bizarre indeed, is that there are no women visible anywhere in the Gallifrey of The Deadly Assassin. (Helen Blatch plays the disembodied voice of the Time Lords’ computer system.) This is of course the only story featuring the Doctor with no companion (unless one counts The Runaway Bride), but it really does seem peculiar. One could probably do a short list of stories featuring only male guest stars (?The Moonbase?) but I think this must be the only one with no women on the screen at all.

The interesting linkage with The Mind Robber is that for much of the story the Doctor enters a constructed, invented world, in which he has to battle an artifical reality and try and impose his own will on it. There is an interesting compare-and-contrast between the Second Doctor urging Jamie and Zoe to deny the existence of the unicorn charging at them, and the Fourth Doctor denying the fact that he has been wounded in the leg – same theme but pointing to the very different ways the series as a whole was going in 1968 and 1976. Like the Land of Fiction, the world inside the Matrix of the Time Lords turns out to be under the control of a cosmic villain called the Master – and this time it is that Master, reappearing for the first time since 1973, but horribly altered; with an audacious plan to seize control of the universe by tapping the very power of the Time Lords themselves. (The reality-altering theme is nicely echoed in the final episode by Cardinal Borusa’s attempt to impose his own version of historical reality on recent events.)

As I hinted at above, The Deadly Assassin has Bernard Horsfall returning – this time not as Gulliver (left), but as Chancellor Goth of the Time Lords (right). (I believe he is a Thal officer in Planet of the Daleks too, but haven’t seen that yet.) Horsfall also appeared in the last episode of The War Games in 1969 (middle), pronouncing sentence of exile and regeneration on the Doctor. If we are meant to read the two characters as the same person – though they have very different haircuts – then The Deadly Assassin represents the Fourth Doctor not only overcoming the Third Doctor’s unfinished business with his arch-enemy, but also reversing the Second Doctor’s defeat by the Time Lords in general (and by this one in particular).

Rewatching it in 2010, I wrote:

I always loved The [companionless] Deadly Assassin, and rewatching it made me realise once again how brilliant it is. It is as if Sarah Jane Smith’s departure liberated Robert Holmes from the constraints of the show’s previous history, to go back to the Doctor’s own origins and rewrite them completely. We’ve been gradually moving towards Gallifrey as not so much a place of magical, ineffable power, as we saw in The War Games, but as the fading bureaucracy glimpsed in Colony in Space and The Three Doctors, subject to the political corruption that could give rise to a Morbius. Now it all comes together. I suspect that my own professional fascination with politics may be partly rooted in watching this at the age of nine; the reality that the most powerful people are none the less fallible individuals, operating to their own private agendas as much as to public perceptions, is well portrayed here.

There are so many delights in this: the nightmarish world of the Matrix, the Engin/Spandrell [Pravda/Chitty] double act, Runcible the Fatuous, the final battle amidst crumbling architecture (so dismally copied by the TV Movie). It seems almost churlish to mention two flaws. First off, the re-introduction of the Master worked much better for me at the age of nine, when I barely remembered his existence in the Pertwee era, than it does in sequence – apart from anything else the Time Lords have forgotten him now, having specifically warned the Doctor about him in Terror of the Autons; and of course nobody, not even Peter Pratt who was a great performer, can match Roger Delgado as the arch-enemy. [Since 2010 we’ve seen strong competition from Michelle Gomez and Sacha Dhawan.] Secondly, as my mother remarked when I was nine, there appear to be no Time Ladies among the Time Lords. Now, there are other Who stories without woman among the guest cast – Warriors’ GateThe Power of KrollThe Pyramids of MarsPlanet of EvilRevenge of the CybermenThe MutantsThe Abominable SnowmenThe MoonbaseThe Smugglers and The Rescue – but this is the only one with no visible speaking female character at all (the voice of the Matrix is played by Helen Blatch. It’s a sad lacuna in what is otherwise one of the greatest stories.

When the whole thing was streamed on Twitch in January 2019, I happened to be stuck at a loose end in London and watched it again, live-tweeting as it rolled.

Needless to say I watched it again for this post, and needless to say I enjoyed it again. You can get it here. Nothing much to add to what I have already extensively written. But I was intrigued to learn that the following slide was dropped from the end titles:

We thank the High Court of Time Lords and the Keeper of the Records, Gallifrey, for their help and co-operation.

Who are “we”?

Diverting to another book entirely, I am intrigued by Richard Molesworth’s suggestion, in his biography of Robert Holmes, that the writer at this point was getting irritated with Doctor Who, and that the tall blond Chancellor Goth stalking the hero through the swamp in hope of wiping him out could be seen as wish fulfillment by the author, who was also tall and blond, and had fought in the swamps of Burma / Myanmar during the second world war.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Terrance Dicks’ novelisation is:

Three figures appeared out of the gathering darkness. Castellan Spandrell and Chancellor Goth walked side by side, Hildred following respectfully behind them.

When I reread it in 2007, I noted very briefly that it’s an average Terrance Dicks treatment of one of Robert Holmes’ best scripts, and there’s nothing much to add to that now. NB that “Hildred” in the book is “Hilred” on screen. You can get it here.

Andrew Orton’s Black Archive on the story is very meaty, with seven chapters and three appendices. Up front: I liked it a lot for shedding new light on a story I already love.

“Chapter 1: The Gothic Assassin” is the longest of the chapters, setting out Orton’s agenda. It leads with a consideration of the Gothic in Doctor Who of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes period in general, and of course in The Deadly Assassin in particular. There’s a whacking great indicator in the name of the main Time Lord villain. Even the opening rollover caption echoes the faux manuscript theme in Gothic literature.

“Chaper 2: The Noir Assassin” looks not only at the visible noir influence in the story but also as American and British political scandals: Watergate, Jeremy Thorpe, Harold Wilson’s resignation honours (announced the day the first episode was shown).

“Chapter 3: The Wartime Assassin” looks at the influence of the Second World War and the Cold War on British TV of the era in general, and on Doctor Who and this story in particular. Orton makes the point that the first twenty years of Doctor Who were dominated by the memory of conflict, Holmes in particular with his Burmese experience (it has been previously noted that he has a fondness for swamp planets with bubbling explosive gas). The second paragraph is:

The Second World War cast a massive pall over the first 20 years of Doctor Who, as it did over most of British culture. The Leisure Hive (1980) and Terminus (1983) were the series’ final real dalliances with War imagery, through their use of background radiation as a threat. Up until this point, the War permeated the series. Almost all of Doctor Who’s writers had lived through it (Douglas Adams was the first writer who hadn’t lived through at least a part of the War, although Chris Boucher was only born in 1943 and Graham Williams was born after VE Day but before VJ Day), and its influence informed and is present throughout the series’ first couple of decades. This tended to be shown in two strands: that of the totalitarian regime against which a resistance is formed, and that of the atomic bomb and the dangers of nuclear fallout.

“Chapter 4: The Symbolic Assassin” looks at the way in which the Time Lords mirror British society, especially parliament, and at the symbolism of the Matrix.

“Chapter 5: The Observant Assassin” reflects on the significance of the Panopticon and the Eye of Harmony; what are the Time Lords actually observing?

“Chapter 6: The Linguistic Assassin” looks at Robert Holmes’ inventive use of language throughout his Doctor Who career.

“Chapter 7: The Dangerous Assassin” points out that the story comes more or less at the half-way point of Old Who, and reflects that Holmes’ attempt to myth-bust the Time Lords resulted in yet more mythology.

“Appendix 1: Engines” reports briefly on the whereabouts of the four railway engines seen in Episode 3, all of which are still intact.

“Appendix 2: How Might the Eye of Harmony Actually Work?” unsuccessfully attempts to bring scientific rigour to a technobabble plot twist.

“Appendix 3: Observer Theory” looks at why it is that the Doctor (generally) has his adventures in order. Of course, we know the real reason, but it’s fun to try and put it in fictionally coherent terms.

In summary, Robert Holmes is the greatest Old Who writer, The Deadly Assassin is his greatest story, and this book is a great book because it provides further evidence for those uncontroversial opinions. You may be able to get it here.

Next, The Awakening.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44)| The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | The Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37)