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.
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.
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…