The Deadly Assassin in Perspective
Adam James Cuthbert looks back on the 1976 story starring Tom Baker.
The Deadly Assassin represents a pivotal moment in the history of Classic Doctor Who. The story, written by Robert Holmes, was designed in part to reflect the necessity of a companion participating in the Doctor’s adventures, after Tom Baker had claimed he could carry the show single-handedly.
The Deadly Assassin is another example of Robert Holmes delving into literary and socio-cultural influences. The story borrows diversely from George Orwell, World War II iconography, and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. The intended result can easily be enjoyed as a tight political thriller, which voices a clear disgust of post-war politics and propaganda. However, it is also arguably the definitive text on the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey, and its native people, the Time Lords.
The Deadly Assassin is infamous for the controversy that surrounds the serial, both from fandom and the wider audience. Contemporary fandom rejected the serial’s portrayal of the Time Lords, previously deemed godlike in The War Games, as corrupt politicians. Meanwhile, Mary Whitehouse of the NVALA attacked the serial for its perceived endorsement of violence, which she claimed was unsuitable for young children watching the show. Holmes scoffed at this. He remarked that the show was “geared to the intelligent fourteen-year-old, and I wouldn’t let any child under ten see it.”
Holmes held strong views on the show’s mythology. In many ways, The Deadly Assassin is a testament to his constant ability for invention and revision of the show’s ever-expanding and sundry mythology. The serial marks an audacious attempt to demystify the shadowy origins of the show’s most intriguing race at the time. Until The War Games, viewers were kept mostly in the dark about the Doctor’s past, with only occasional, oblique references to his family or background. The Deadly Assassin takes the show back to its foundations and explores why the Doctor left Gallifrey behind.
Free from the restraints of a typical Doctor Who serial, Holmes relishes the opportunity to experiment. This is reflected in Holmes’ innovative use of narrative technique (flashforward, flashback, omniscient narration), but also in terms of progressing the Doctor’s relationship with his fellow Time Lords. Holmes depicts an archetypal portrayal of the Doctor as an anti-authoritian maverick. This can be seen as allegorical of political views of individualism against doctrinal authority.
The serial demonstrates trademarks of Holmes’ writing. Chancellor Goth (Bernard Horsfall) is desperate for power, a puppet of the Master (Peter Pratt), himself a mad genius physically degenerated and seeking a cure to his enervating condition. The Master seeks his revenge on the Doctor from his underground base. Together, they are opposed by the Doctor, an altruistic hero. Cardinal Borusa (Angus Mackay) is a morally ambiguous figure, overseeing the Chancellor’s public responsibilities. He strives for justice, yet is willing to distort the truth for his own agenda (“If heroes do not exist, it is necessary to invent them. Good for public morale”).
Holmes takes advantage of the Doctor’s hitherto nebulous origins to envision a decadent civilisation on the brink of turmoil. The Doctor notes that the Time Lords’ technology, while highly advanced, would be considered “prehistoric junk” on various alien worlds. This contrasts with their godlike powers seen in The War Games. Holmes believed that the Doctor’s trial was a sham, a public display of power and propaganda, and he had in fact been covertly working for the Time Lords. Thus, the depiction of the Time Lords as a stagnated, decrepit culture is in alignment with Holmes’ interpretation of the ‘true’ Time Lords seen here. On more than one occasion, the Time Lords are shown to be ignorant of their own history. The Eye of Harmony, the source of their power, has become enshrouded in myth. Meanwhile, the Sash of Rassilon – which protects its wearer from the forces of a black hole – is a ceremonial item of office worn by the President, himself a figurehead for the High Council.
The Deadly Assassin is also significant for introducing viewers to the concept of “the Matrix”. The Matrix is a vast computer system, a repository for the knowledge of all deceased Time Lords, used to foresee future events. The Matrix becomes the stage for the Doctor’s confrontation with Goth. By creating a parallel world within the Matrix, Holmes is able to diversify the visual dynamics of the serial. This is enhanced by Dudley Simpson’s incidental music, which consists of a rhythmic, tribal-like beat, mixing with cries from wildlife. This intensifies the atmosphere, as Holmes proceeds to script the conflict through the visuals, with sparse dialogue. Peculiarly, the imagery in the Matrix is recognisably human, despite Goth, a Time Lord, manipulating the simulated reality. However, this can be seen as reinforcing Holmes’ political attitudes. The wartime imagery (the gas-masked soldier, the bombs; the evil surgeon, the fighter pilot) allows the viewer to more easily identify with Holmes’ crumbling civilisation. These elements combined clarify why the Doctor left Gallifrey behind: a rebel, unwilling to be caught up in the affairs of a civilisation on the precipice of apocalypse.