Monday, July 18, 2016

"The Deadly Assassin"

Aired Oct 30 - Nov 20, 1976

4 Episodes

Story 88

Written by Robert Holmes

Directed by David Maloney


As the Doctor, travelling alone following Sarah's departure, makes his way to Gallifrey, he is beset by a vision of the future. He sees himself assassinating the President of the Time Lords. 

Once he arrives, events soon spin out of control, as the Time Lord President is in fact killed, and the assassin appears to be the Doctor! Desperate to both prove his innocence and unravel the identity of the true culprit, the Doctor enlists to aid of Castellan Spandrell. They soon suspect that the conspiracy is being directed by the Doctor's adversary and fellow renegade, the Master.
In a risky gamble, the Doctor connects his living mind to the Amplified Panatropic Computer Net, a network that stores the accumulated knowledge of all Time Lords. His hope is that he can use the power of the APC Net, or Matrix, to track down the Master, who has been using it to amplify his knowledge. Inside the Matrix's reality, the Doctor is hunted by a mysterious opponent, eventually revealed to be Time Lord Chancellor Goth, in league with the Master. After a brutal cat and mouse struggle, the Doctor manages to emerge the victor, though Goth dies in the process.

The Doctor learns the Master has been reduced to an emaciated, disintegrating husk of a being, having used up all twelve of his regenerations. His plan is to seize control or the Presidency not just for power's sake, but because the official trappings of the office, the Sash and Rod of Rassilon, are actually advanced technology. The Sash and Rod can be used to access the Eye of Harmony, the technology that is the source of the power that defines Time Lord Society. In this way, the Master's physical form can be renewed, though Gallifrey would be destroyed in the process.

Now in possession of the items he needs, the Master reaches the Eye of Harmony in a chamber beneath the Panopticon. The Doctor races to confront his old enemy, and during their battle, the Master falls through a fissure created by the earthquakes generated by the eye.

Exonerated, the Doctor bids his farewells and heads back into the cosmos in his TARDIS. However, he is unaware that the Master survives, and he too heads back out into space, perhaps to battle the Doctor once more...


To this point, there had been a handful of Doctor Who stories that had changed the programme entirely and forever. The Time Meddler. The Tenth Planet. The War Games. And, it must be definitively said, The Deadly Assassin belongs in that company. In terms of its impact on the series, it's a hugely important story, one the forever changes the relationship of the Doctor to his home planet, and by extension, a story that changed the way viewers would view Gallifrey, for better and for worse.

The story itself is almost perfect, really. Robert Holmes, always a fan of letting his inspirations show, is clearly drawing from The Manchurian Candidate. And like that novel and its film adaptation, The Deadly Assassin winds up being as much satire as thriller. In The War Games, the Time Lords are depicted as bloodless god-like authority figures, reinforcing the Second Doctor's reason for leaving Gallifrey stemming from boredom and the Time Lords' lack of involvement in the Universe as a force for good. I'd argue that they're really not that much less boring here, though Holmes adds this brilliant dimension of pettiness. Holmes' view of the Time Lords isn't one of a race of god-like higher beings, but a race of politicians and bureaucrats, perpetually scheming and back-biting about matters important only to them. The Deadly Assassin is both astute in its assessment of the politics of its time, and wonderfully cynical in a witty and consistently amusing way.

But that's the first episode and a half really. Then the story morphs into a bleak and violent thriller, a variation on The Most Dangerous Game that isn't played for laughs nor watered down for family viewing. The battle within the Matrix is perhaps classic Doctor Who's signature action set piece. It's superbly directed by David Maloney, who ranks as one the classic series' best directors, particularly in how he used film and editing to maximize
The Master (Peter Pratt) in need of
production values and expertly control pace. Holmes' script and Maloney's direction also don't shy away from exploiting the surreality of a battle within a virtual environment. There are several weird and unsettling touches that keep the viewer from forgetting that they aren't in the real world. The high stakes, grim action, surreal touches all combine to create a story where you genuinely feel that the normally implacable Fourth Doctor is totally out of his element and in actual danger. There's a great moment early on in the sequence where the Doctor heals his wound by proclaiming, "I deny this reality!" In other stories, that would be how the Doctor would win, by using lateral thinking and imagination as he often does. But he, and by extension the viewer, is denied that resolution, reinforcing that this actually will be a hard-scrabble, desperate, life and death struggle with no escape hatch.

And then there's the additions to the canon of Doctor Who that this story contains. From the limit of 13 bodies of Time Lords, to the different houses, to Rassilon, to the desiccated Master, this story is rife with material that would be mined and refined in the decades to come. It's true that this story did serve to demystify much of the Doctor and his past, but at this point, thirteen years into the life of the programme, it's arguable how useful that mystery was.

If there's a weak spot to The Deadly Assassin, it's the fact that it encouraged subsequent trips back to Gallifrey. To me, Gallifrey is only useful as the place from which the Doctor ran away. It should be a boring, stifling place seen or referenced infrequently. The trouble is that no one could be expected to return to Gallifrey and keep it as interesting as it is in this story or The War Games, and subsequent evidence proves this. 

But, on the whole, this is an absolute classic story, certainly one of the best of the Tom Baker era, and one of the most enjoyable in the programme's history. And hey, not only was I born during this story's transmission, it also provides us with the name of this blog by introducing the APC Net!

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