Doctor Who – The Deadly Assassin

Doctor Who Story 088 – The Deadly Assassin

The Skeletal Master
Source: IGN

Who Wrote It: Robert Holmes

What’s It About: After having a premonition in which he kills the Time Lord president, The Doctor returns to Gallifrey and discovers The Master has deadly plans for the secret technology at the heart of Time Lord society.

This is a story that I enjoy even though I hate it.

Maybe hate is too strong of a word. I guess I should say that I don’t enjoy what this story does to the Time Lords. Prior to engaging in this project, my knowledge of the Time Lords was derived from The Deadly Assassin and all post-Deadly Assassin stories. The Time Lords were extremely powerful but a bit dull. The stories were not too interesting, The Deadly Assassin being the best of the lot. But when I started watching Doctor Who from the beginning, I discovered Time Lords that were extremely mysterious. Especially after watching The War Games, The Time Lords seemed a force of nature. As much as I hate to admit it, they did seem a bit more “oncoming storm” than grumpy headmaster. For me, the best rule for the Time Lords is “less is more.”

With The Deadly Assassin, Robert Holmes completely redefines the Time Lords and Gallifrey. This isn’t such a great shock. In fact, over the past few years the show has been building toward this. Appearances of Time Lords in the Pertwee era prepared the way for The Deadly Assassin. The Time Lords in The Three Doctors don’t seem too far removed from Robert Holmes portrayal. A story such as this one was going to happen sooner or later, who better to take it on than a world-builder like Holmes?

But at the same time, the magic is gone. We couldn’t avoid the Time Lords forever. It was fun while it lasted. And as good as 70s Doctor Who was (from a budget perspective), it still wasn’t likely to create a Time Lord society that was truly mind-bending or godlike. This obviously wasn’t a goal for Holmes (although, if the portrayal of the Time Lords had occurred for the first time in the Cartmel era, we may have got something truly magical). Robert Holmes took what had been established so far (much of it during the Pertwee years), and he added in a healthy dose of his own love of Victorian adventure stories (The Most Dangerous Game seems to be a major influence on this story). Then throw in a pinch of The Manchurian Candidate, and you have The Deadly Assassin.

It is astounding how much Doctor Who mythology was introduced in this story: the Celestial Intervention Agency, Castellans, the Matrix, The Great Houses, the robes and helmets, Time Lords as stuffy academics and bureaucrats, Borusa, shobogons, the twelve regenerations concept, Rassilon, The Eye of Harmony, The ___ of Rassilon, and many more. With regard to the mythology of the show, The Deadly Assassin is probably the most important story since The War Games (or maybe The Tenth Planet part 4).

As a story itself, The Deadly Assassin is decent and fairly experimental. The concept of a virtual world that is controlled by thought is quite innovative for television sci-fi. It starts as a surreal horror dream and quickly becomes an homage to The Most Dangerous Game, which is fun for what it’s worth, but is unnervingly dark. The story reaches for an epic feel but falls short in the end as part four becomes extremely rushed. But there are some great characters, including Spandrell and Engin (the latest Holmes double-act), Borusa, Chancellor Goth (played wonderfully by Bernard Horsfall), and The Master in a transitional state—with hints of the Delgado Master, but truly a new character. The story works, for the most part. For this reason, it is hard to completely dislike it. I wish it had never been made, but I enjoy it nonetheless.

My Rating: 3.5/5

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