The Mind Robber; the Deadly Assassin

This was a fortuitously good paired viewing of Doctor Who stories, the first being the 1968 Second Doctor story with Jamie and Zoe, shown between The Dominators and The Invasion, and the second a Fourth Doctor story without companions, which I remember vividly from its original broadcast in 1976.

The Mind Robber features… Oh, let’s get it over with. Zoe. Nobody can keep their hands off her. Certainly not the Doctor (see right). Certainly not Jamie. And the first episode ends like this. In the fourth episode she has a catfight with a caped and masked comic book superhero and wins. No wonder today’s Guardian lists her as one of the top five companions ever! I have to say that I can’t think of a more confident and sexy performance from any of the companions in any other old Who story; Leela, I think, comes closest but that is not very close. (Of course, if we count new Who as well, nobody can hold a candle to John Barrowman.)

And the confidence on her part (and indeed that of the rest of the cast) is remarkable because in fact the story very clearly doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The Doctor and companions are trapped in the Land of Fiction by its Master (not that Master but a different cosmic villain of the same name). We have a forest made of words. We have Jamie transformed into a different actor for an episode, to cover up the fact that Frazer Hines contracted chicken pox. We have clockwork soldiers. We have Rapunzel, we have E. Nesbit’s Five Children, and best of all we have Lemuel Gulliver, played superbly by Bernard Horsfall (and more on him later). We have glorious moments of Jamie and Zoe becoming fictional, becoming hostile to the Doctor, being nostalgic for their lost homelands (to which of course they will be returned by the end of the season).

But we also have Doctor Who coming close to breaking the fourth wall, not in the overt way of the First Doctor in the Daleks’ Master Plan (or the charming Morgus in The Caves of Androzani), but in terms of exploring Story and what it means to be in one. It’s fascinating and bizarre and I’ll have to re-watch it soon, along with all the DVD extras. And not just because I want to ogle Zoe again.

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. 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).

Anyway, these are both essential viewing for the Who fan, and I think The Deadly Assassin keeps its place at the top of my personal list of Greatest Ever old Who stories, despite its lack of gender balance.

1 thought on “The Mind Robber; the Deadly Assassin

  1. I actually translated one of these books (into Dutch): Harpist in the Wind by McKillip.

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