The Deadly Assassin ****

The Master's putrid skull and split bangers for fingers have to be the most revolting images presented on teatime TV

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Deadly Assassin ****

Season 14 – Story 88

"The Master. He'd have destroyed Gallifrey, the Time Lords, everything, just for the sake of his own survival" - the Doctor

Storyline
The Doctor is summoned to Gallifrey on Presidential Resignation Day. Framed for the assassination of the outgoing president, he evades execution by offering himself as a candidate for the post. An old enemy is at large in the Capitol - a cadaverous version of the Master who has reached the end of his regeneration cycle. He plans to unleash ancient powers at the heart of Time Lord civilisation to revitalise himself…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 30 October 1976
Part 2 - Saturday 6 November 1976
Part 3 - Saturday 13 November 1976
Part 4 - Saturday 20 November 1976

Production
Location filming: July 1976 at Betchworth quarry, Surrey; Royal Alexandra and Albert School, Merstham, Surrey; and Wycombe Air Park, High Wycombe, Bucks.
Studio recording: August 1976 in TC3 and September 1976 in TC8

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Chancellor Goth - Bernard Horsfall
The Master - Peter Pratt
Castellan Spandrell - George Pravda
Co-ordinator Engin - Erik Chitty
Cardinal Borusa - Angus Mackay
Commander Hilred - Derek Seaton
Commentator Runcible - Hugh Walters
The President - Llewellyn Rees
Gold Usher - Maurice Quick
Solis - Peter Mayock
Time Lords - John Dawson, Michael Bilton
Voice - Helen Blatch

Crew
Writer - Robert Holmes
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Roger Murray-Leach
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Philip Hinchcliffe
Director - David Maloney

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
The Deadly Assassin is iconoclasm writ large. As an entire story unfolds on the Doctor's home planet, Robert Holmes remoulds Gallifrey in a form peculiarly his own, and whatever we thought we knew about the Time Lords, we are forced to revise.

The truth is the Time Lords were only omnipotent beings in their debut story (The War Games, 1969). Then they could simply stare intruders out of existence. In subsequent glimpses they've been hawkish, pompous, meddlesome. Holmes had fun with a levitating messenger dressed as City gent as far back as 1971, but now, for fear of boring us rigid, he re-invents them wholesale.

There's no mention of the Time Lords observing (or occasionally interceding) in space/time events. Theirs is now a closed, inward-looking society, a Vatican-like state stuffed with cardinals and obsessed with ceremony. And, intriguingly, they're no longer a species.

"Time Lord" denotes a scholastic or political achievement on Gallifrey, an accolade that can be attained and lost. The Master was a Time Lord "a long time ago". Runcible, a commentator for the Public Register Video, reports on them as an outsider and he failed Cardinal Borusa at the Academy. The Chancellery guards don't enjoy Time Lord status, while their Castellan usually watches over "more plebeian classes". Plus, their Lordships alone highlight their faces with silver.

On Holmesian Gallifrey women have no place at all (bar one female computer voice). This intensifies a period of Doctor Who that, appallingly, has become a misogynist's playground. We can only surmise how Gallifreyans procreate. In this men-only domain, we miss Sarah terribly. Companionless episodes occurred in the distant past (Mission to the Unknown and Enemy of the World part 4), but this is a radical departure. Tom Baker seizes his moment, at times awkwardly speaking to himself, but mostly unshackled, proactive, unusually athletic.

The Master's return came out of the blue in 1976, albeit spoilt by the Radio Times cast list. A respectful three years have passed since the death of Roger Delgado, and who better to resurrect the Doctor's nemesis than Holmes? He introduced the character in 1971, and now Holmes gives free rein to his fixation with the Phantom of the Opera. Thankfully, we never once consider the cowled ghoul lurking under the Capitol to be the Delgado Master in a state of decomposition. His putrid skull and split bangers for fingers have to be the most revolting images presented on teatime TV.

"Only hate keeps me alive. Why else should I endure this pain?" While the Master clings to life, other Gallifreyans exhibit all-too-human frailty and expire easily from staser blasts. Surely the President could have regenerated? Crucially, Holmes introduces a limiting factor to their lifespan. "After the 12th regeneration," says Engin, "there is no plan that will postpone death." Best forget then that we saw the Doctor was on his 12th face in The Brain of Morbius earlier that year.

Holmes bombards us with fascinating, incidental detail: the Panopticon, Time Lord chapters, Rassilon, the Eye of Harmony, the fact that the Tardis is one of 305 Type 40 TT capsules, the amplified panatropic computer net…

I've always had an issue with the Matrix sequences. I'll concede they're efficiently filmed and the concept is way ahead of its time. But we're supposedly transported to a virtual reality borne from "trillions of electrochemical cells… the repository of departed Time Lords".

Yet all the horrors the Doctor faces are the earthly nightmares of Robert Holmes: an alligator, a cliff fall, a samurai, a surgeon wielding a syringe, a Great War battleground, feet trapped in the points of a railway, a clown, a sniper… none of them remotely alien. Also I don't relish a half-hour of Tom Baker sweating, grimacing, cavorting around a chalk pit in a grubby chemise and bleeding red blood. It's most un-Doctorly.

What a relief to cut back to that decrepit duo, Spandrell and Engin. Czech actor George Pravda is often unintelligible and it's a marvel the tortoise-like Eric Chitty (acting on TV since the 30s!) made it through the show without regenerating - but their characters are a joy. Angus Mackay hogs the best lines ("We must adjust the truth") as lemon-sucking dowager Borusa, while Hugh Walters as Runcible seems to be doing groundwork for Charles Hawtrey (a part he'd play 24 years later).

He knows the Doctor of old and asks, "Have you had a facelift?" Sadly, no one reveals the Doctor's original name. Everyone on Gallifrey has unremarkable names. Goth is played by Bernard Horsfall, but there's nothing to indicate it's the character he played in The War Games.

Both key Time Lord stories had the same director and, for David Maloney, it's another tour de force. He assembles a magnificent cast and all the top talent from the BBC design departments. If there's one trick the team misses, it's that we don't fully appreciate that the Master is revitalised by the Eye of Harmony. In the final shot of his dematerialising Tardis, it's easy to miss that his face is supposed to be reconstituting.

Ultimately, this is Robert Holmes's baby. He puts an indelible stamp on Time Lord lore, which has endured to The End of Time (2010) and beyond. If The Deadly Assassin is a travesty - as some fans thought in 1976 - it's an elaborate, gorgeous, seminal travesty.

As Borusa says, "Nine out of ten."

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