Doctor Who Project: The Deadly Assassin

Cash and carry, Constantinople.

From their first mention in “The War Games,” the Time Lords represent a vague, ominous, near-omniscient force in Doctor Who, operating behind the scenes, pulling cosmic strings while feigning a non-interventionist approach to time and space. Writer and script editor Robert Holmes burnishes away that infallible patina with his definitive Time Lord story, “The Deadly Assassin” (Story Production Code 4P), making wholesale changes to our understanding of these powerful beings—and, for better and for worse, to the future of the series as a whole.

Graceful Gallifreyan script

When Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor encounters the Time Lords, they sit in judgement of him for his interference in the affairs of the universe; solemnly robed, they effect a sombre, passive demeanor, one the Second Doctor rails against. They seem timeless, devoid as they are of ornamentation or emotion. Jon Pertwee’s involvement with the Time Lords takes on a more whimsical tone, with a nattily dressed member of the Tribunal that exiled him appearing out of nowhere with warnings of the Master in “Terror of the Autons.” By the time the two of them, plus William Hartnell’s First Doctor, meet the Time Lords again in “The Three Doctors,” cracks begin to show in the Gallifreyan facade, with the terrible secret of Omega’s eternal banishment revealed.

Resplendent in Prydonian orange

Robert Holmes effectively reboots the Time Lords in “The Deadly Assassin,” keeping but the barest outlines of established Time Lord history. The ornate trappings of the Time Lords start here, with chapters such as the Prydonians and Arcalians gaining their colors and high collared robes. Too, Holmes posits the Time Lords as an elite ruling class on Gallifrey, above ordinary citizens who, presumably, lack regenerative powers, given the number of Gallifreyans who wind up quite dead in this story. Far from standing as exemplars of rectitude, the Time Lord hierarchy engages in petty political power plays, concerned more with appearance than substance, to the extent that they have forgotten the truth of their own origins.

The plot of “The Deadly Assassin” centers around a significant change Holmes wreaks, that of a limit on regenerations: twelve. The Master (played in decomposed form by Peter Pratt) has reached his limit and is slowly dying in his final regeneration. Only the Sash of Rassilon and the Great Key, traditional trappings of the Time Lord Presidency, hold the solution to gaining additional regenerations, leading to the Master’s convoluted plan to obtain these items. As a plot contrivance, it’s a fine MacGuffin, conceptual in nature and neatly playing off of the series’ most unique conceit, that of regeneration. And in providing a means to escape the otherwise hard limit of regenerations, by allowing the Master to gain another one (or dozen?) at the end, Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe seek to have their narrative cake whilst eating it. That cake, alas, could have used a bit more time in the plot oven…

The Master, not looking his best

Making his first appearance in the series since Roger Delgado’s untimely passing three years prior, in 1973, the Master drives the story forward here, but besides changing the Time Lords, Holmes also alters the Master in ways that far surpass his now-hideous visage. Delgado’s Master cared not a whit for anyone in his drive for power, but one sensed that the Doctor always saw some redeemable core in him, some element of enlightened self-interest that could be reached and reasoned with. Pratt’s Master serves solely as an evil force, lacking the nuance, venality, and savoir faire that made this renegade Time Lord an interesting and worthy foil for the Doctor. The Master always loses and ultimately always escapes, of course, but before he did so with style. Here, Holmes reduces this fascinating villain to a one-note monster on par with the Daleks, cackling—rather than vaingloriously boasting— as he vanishes in his own TARDIS in the end.

The Master lures the Doctor to Gallifrey with a premonition of the assassination of the Time Lord President. With the connivance of Chancellor Goth (Bernard Horsfall), a power-hungry politician who seeks the presidency himself, the Master then frames the Doctor for that murder. Had the Master not desired to humiliate and discredit the Doctor, he could have easily gained access to the Sash of Rassilon and Great Key, allowing him to bypass the regeneration limit; however, this over-the-top need to spite his greatest foe leads to further plot complications as the Doctor uses a legal loophole to avoid imminent execution. That vindictiveness towards the Doctor, at least, seems in keeping with the Master as previously developed, but the relish Pratt’s Master takes in causing pain and suffering goes far beyond that of the prior incarnation.

Castellan Spandrell and Chancellor Goth

Oddly enough, the Doctor and the Master are not well-known on Gallifrey, even amongst the Time Lord elite. Only a Gallifreyan reporter, Runcible (Hugh Walters) and the Doctor’s prior teacher, Cardinal Borusa (Angus Mackay), recognize him—this despite several regenerations since they could last have interacted, suggesting some inherent trait in Time Lords that can be detected across regenerations. When Castellan Spandrell (George Pravda), in charge of Gallifreyan security, researches the Doctor, he surmises that the secretive Celestial Intervention Agency has obscured the Doctor’s background. Holmes’ invention of the CIA retroactively suggests that they, rather than they Time Lords as a whole, were responsible for sending the Doctor’s TARDIS to particular times and places in need of attention during the Third and Fourth Doctor’s earlier adventures.

The Master, by contrast, is not known at all, his records wiped entirely from the system that tracks all Time Lords’ lives. Much of the story hinges on the Master’s ability to manipulate Gallifrey’s records and computer systems, including the Amplified Panatropic Computation Matrix, a storehouse for the minds of deceased Time Lords that controls Gallifrey’s infrastructure. Holmes goes to great pains to portray the Time Lords as disconnected from their own history, with the custodian of all the records, Co-ordinator Engin (Erik Chitty) played as a doddering fool whose knowledge of the systems under his care extends only to their use, not their workings.

The Doctor enters the Matrix

Only Castellan Spandrell believes the Doctor when he suggests that the Master has interfered with the Matrix, both to hide his own records and to send the assassination premonition to the Doctor in the first place. To some extent, Spandrell fulfills the companion role in this story, famously the first to lack a dedicated companion. (Defining just exactly who counts as a companion is a debate much belabored in fandom; at a minimum, the term should encompass only someone who travels in the TARDIS between discrete stories.) Because of the insular and legalistic nature of the story, no “outside” companion could do much on Gallifrey. Only Spandrell possesses the authority necessary to allow the Doctor free rein on Gallifrey to investigate the assassination, and his willingness to assist the Doctor keeps our hero within the bounds of Time Lord law and tradition. Notably, he is one of the few characters to receive scenes independent of either the Doctor or the Master.

Holmes delivers an incredible amount of exposition in “The Deadly Assassin,” with veteran director David Maloney doing his level best to keep the story exciting and moving along. But once the action moves into the virtual realm of the Matrix, where the Doctor seeks evidence of the Master’s plot, the story begins to falter. Most of the third episode takes place in this changing realm that veers from quarry to swamp and back again, as Chancellor Goth, aided by the Master, manipulates the Matrix and hunts down the Doctor with gun and poison. Nothing in this part of the story actually advances the plot beyond the ultimate revelation of Goth’s role in the Master’s plans, such that the bloody limbs, plastic spiders, poison darts, flaming stuntmen, and an infamous drowning sequence all feel gratuitous.

Blood and mist in the Matrix

The violent action sequences from the third episode add greatly to the visual discomfiture in “The Deadly Assassin.” Already, the Master’s rotting skull presents perhaps the most unsettling special effect in the series to date, topping even the protean horror of the Zygons. The series under Hinchcliffe and Holmes continues to strive towards a more adult presentation, earning it some public opprobrium at the time. Used well, such techniques can add to the storytelling, but here it’s simply violence for violence’s sake, or, more charitably, an attempt to compress four episodes worth of action into one extended sequence that overstays its welcome.

Goth the Hunter

Tom Baker makes the most of his unfettered time in the spotlight, handling both the dialogue—which tends to the overwrought—and the action—which involves much clambering up and down quarry faces—with skill. He looks born to wear the Prydonian orange, and the earnestness with which he approaches the long strings of Time Lord exposition inclines the viewer to accept these details as significant rather than as filler. Baker sells the story, elevating it and helping to paper over the relative thinness of the plot through sheer enthusiasm.

The Fourth Doctor holding forth.

Holmes requires significant elisions in contemporary Time Lord knowledge to make his plot to work, straining even the most well-inclined credulity. Indeed, looked at too closely, many of the new details about the Time Lords fail to cohere even as they create an impressionistic vision of a decadent species that has turned the technical wonders of its past into legend. The Doctor immediately recognizes the Sash of Rassilon as a technological wonder that protects the wearer from the intense gravitational energy of the Eye of Harmony, while everyone else thinks of it as a gaudy, oversized necklace. Most telling, the source of all Time Lord power, the Eye of Harmony, sits under a floor panel in the grand Panopticon, with a key hole the exact shape of the Great Key right in front of it; yet, supposedly, no one knows it is there, Castellan Spandrell insisting that this trapped black hole nucleus is a myth.

Behold, the Eye of Harmony

The notion of a black hole empowering the Time Lords comes from “The Three Doctors,” where Omega, rather than Rassilon, harnessed the incredible forces but was inadvertently trapped as a result. Holmes’ invention of Rassilon stands at odds with the Omega history, unless one reads this new creation as a Time Lord cover story to hide the shame of abandoning Omega.

The strongest theme in “The Deadly Assassin” is the willingness of the Time Lord hierarchy to dissemble, which is to say, lie. In one notable interaction between the Doctor and Cardinal Borusa, the Cardinal desires to “adjust the truth” of the president’s assassination, proclaiming Goth to have died trying to defeat the Master. The need to preserve public belief in the Time Lords overrides any obligation to the truth.

Cardinal Borusa: It doesn’t have to be entirely accurate.

The Doctor: Like Time Lord history.

Perhaps more than any other change Holmes introduces, even more than the already-evaded limit on regenerations, the suggestion that the Time Lords continually fabricate their own history in ways great and small provides the most significant alteration in our understanding of these time-travelling Methuselahs. By positioning the Time Lords as self-interested and potentially corrupt, “The Deadly Assassin” colors all their future demands on the Doctor, to say nothing of all their past coercions. The trivia about Rassilon, the Prydonians, and the Eye of Harmony provides interesting window dressing, but those details pale in comparison with the revelation of the Time Lords’ untrustworthy nature.

A contemplative Fourth Doctor

Shorn of omniscience, shorn of infallibility, the Time Lords gain much needed dimension, and the Doctor’s tangles with them consequently become more meaningful. A tension develops here between his loyalty to his home, his people, and his desire for them to be better. Heroes are defined by their foils, and especially with the Master reduced to an angry cipher, the Doctor now stands defined in opposition to the Time Lords. They will become, in a sense, his longest lasting foe, setting up an uneasy—and fascinating—future for them both.

(Previous Story: The Hand of Fear)

(Next Story: The Face of Evil)

Post 91 of the Doctor Who Project

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