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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ The Deadly Assassin (Season 14/ 1976)

August 31, 2013




The wanderer returns: a companion-less Fourth Doctor is summoned back to his home planet Gallifrey where he’s embroiled in a devious assassination plot devised by his arch nemesis 

Coo, isn’t 2013 flying along? It’s nearly September and feels like it shouldn’t be any later than June. Well, at least that means one thing – yes, peeps, we’re getting ever nearer to the day the greatest sci-fi TV show of all-time Doctor Who (1963-present) marks its golden anniversary.

And, in its comprehensive (nay, time- and space-journeying) celebration of all things Who, this blog offers up the latest in its looks-back at/ reviews of outstanding serials from the show’s past. And this time it’s a big one, all right; the one that not only set in stone the look and feel of The Doc’s world Gallifrey, but also notoriously got Mary Whitehouse’s back up like never before. Deserving of celebration indeed, then ’tis The Deadly Assassin





Doctor: Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor)

Villains: Peter Pratt (The Master); Bernard Horsfall (Chancellor Goth)

Allies: George Pravda (Castellan Spandrell); Erik Chitty (Co-ordinator Engin)

Writer: Robert Holmes

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Director: David Maloney








Season: 14 (third of six serials – four 25-minute-long episodes)

Original broadcast dates: October 30-November 20 1976 (weekly)

Total average viewers: 12.2 million

Previous serial: The Hand Of Fear

Next serial: The Face Of Evil







Having been summoned back to his home planet Gallifrey and, thus, having been forced to sadly depart from his maybe more-than-fondly-thought-of companion Sarah Jane Smith, The Doctor unwillingly pilots his TARDIS towards his destination, only to have an unpleasant vision – indeed, a premonition of the Gallifreyan President’s murder… by The Doctor himself (see video clip above).

Landing his TARDIS in the Citadel (the capital city that towers into the sky to a point and is the Time Lords’ home), he slips out, but not before leaving a note about his premonition for the security bods he knows will enter his TARDIS to find whom owns it – because, of course, when he left Gallifrey way back when, he borrowed (i.e. stole) the time- and space-ship, ensuring it’s unregistered. He’s almost immediately cornered by a guard, though, only for the latter to be killed by an assailant dressed in black robes.

The Gallifreyan security chief, the level-headed Castellan Sprandrell is angry that the guards have allowed a TARDIS thief – and seemingly the murderer of one of their number – to escape into the capital, while The Doc himself (disguised in the ostentatious ceremonial garb of the Time Lords) finds his way to the Panopticon, the Citadel’s great hall where the resignation of the very President whose ‘murder’ he witnessed/ carried out  is about to take place.

Here he converses, albeit evasively, with old classmate Runcible, now a newscaster, who’s covering the event for (one assumes) the equivalent of TV on Gallifrey. As our man chats, he spies across the hall a staser rifle resting next to an unattended camera. Rushing to it now, just as The President steps on to the stage opposite, he takes hold of the rifle, looks through its sights and seemingly shoots the former dead.

The Doc isn’t the assassin, of course – but the odds-on would-be-successor to the deceased President, Chancellor Goth, is sure he is and swiftly holds a trial to determine our hero’s innocence or (more likely, the way it’s going) his guilt. However, the latter has an ace up his sleeve and plays it, for he invokes an article of Gallifreyan law that ensures he’ll have time to prove he isn’t the assassin and find out who is. He declares he’s standing for the Presidency in addition to Goth, which means his sentencing will have to be put on hold until the election is completed. Another Chancellor, Borusa (The Doctor’s old teacher, whom appears to hold a prickly opinion of the latter) acknowledges his former student is within his rights to exploit this loophole in the law and declares he therefore has 24 hours to clear his name.

Through the millennia, the Time Lords of Gallifrey led a life of ordered calm, protected against all threats from lesser civilisations by their great power. But this was to change. Suddenly, and terribly, the Time Lords faced the most dangerous crisis in their long history… ~ The Doctor’s voice-over prologue that opens the first episode

Getting to work quickly, The Doc returns to the Panopticon with Spandrell and his underling Co-ordinator Engin in tow. There, the former points out he wasn’t aiming the staser that he fired at the President, but at the figure whom was surely the real assassin, a chap in black robes The Doctor spied at the last moment. He discovers he was unsuccessful in shooting the assassin, though, because the rifle’s sights are off, which Spandrell confirms, while The Doc also discovers the blast mark in the far wall his staser shot made. Could he be telling the truth? Could somebody be trying to elaborately frame him? Spandrell begins to think it’s a possibility.

Indeed, he believes it even more likely when, just as The Doctor suggests they check the ‘TV’ camera’s barrel (for surely it would have recorded the actual assassin), they hear Runcible scream in terror. He’s discovered the camera barrel is empty of film and in its place is the cameraman – miniaturised. Suddenly, things become much clearer for The Doc; death-by-miniaturising is one of the favourite forms of murder of his sworn enemy, renegade Time Lord The Master. Instantly, having departed to try to find the film, Runcible wheels back towards them, a knife in his back; he dies within in seconds.

Curiously, neither Spandrell nor Engin are aware of The Master’s existence, claiming there’s no record of him in the Matrix – a database that taps into the minds of past ‘saved’ and present ‘living’ minds of every Time Lord, which among other things operates as an effective forecaster of future events. Engin is responsible for maintaining the Matrix and is thus flummoxed, in particular; The Doctor’s adamant however – for The Master to be wiped from it (presumably by his own hand or that of an accomplice enmeshed in the Citadel) there must be another unknown ‘entry point’ into the network, which one of them accessed.

This, The Doc reasons, was why he had a premonition of himself ‘murdering’ the President; it was generated and sent to his mind and then all trace of it deleted along with The Master’s details. There’s nothing for it then, he decides, he must interface – or, essentially, ‘go into’ – the Matrix and find who’s been manipulating it, as the culprit will most likely be the assassin. Spandrell and Engin stress how dangerous this will be, but The Doc won’t be swayed – he has no choice; he has to do it.

Once inside the Matrix, he finds himself in a reality seemingly created and shaped by its interloper, which gives the latter a distinct advantage as a battle of wills takes place between the two. It’s a hostile terrain that, one moment, takes the manner of a sliding, shale-rock-filled quarry and, the next moment, a tropical-like jungle. Outside the Matrix, Spandrell and Engin observe the ‘virtual’ physical trials The Doctor is undergoing (almost being struck by a by-plane, escaping a train within seconds of it running him down and journeying for what feels like miles and miles and hours on hours with an injured, bleeding leg – see bottom video clip) are taking a huge toll on his mind, and fear he may not be able to survive it. There’s a danger too The Master’s accomplice, we discover, we may not make it out of the Matrix alive either, as hiding elsewhere in the Citadel, The Master (the figure in the black robes of before, but now a husk of a humanoid that’s little more than a skeleton) turns up the power with which they’re manipulating the network to maximum, despite the pleading of his unseen accomplice.

The Doctor: What was his plan?

Assassin: [Dying] Couldn’t… fight… his mental dominance. Did everything he asked. Sorry now

The Doctor: What was…

Engin: It’s no use, Doctor

The Doctor: No answer to a straight question. Typical politician

Eventually, The Doctor gains the upper hand in this nightmarish ‘reality’ over his opponent – in the guise of a big-game hunter with a rifle and a netted hood over his face; a hood that the former manages at least to remove – only to discover his enemy (and presumably the assassin) is none other than Goth. A tussle ensues, during which Goth unsuccessfully attempts to ‘drown’ The Doctor in a lake. The manufactured world of the Matrix begins to burn around them and The Doc manages to escape and – only just – regain consciousness. He informs Spandrell and Engin of the assassin’s true identity and they hasten to his and The Master’s lair, having been able now to trace its location via the Matrix.

There the trio discover The Master lifeless and seemingly dead and Goth on the verge of dying, owing to the further power surge pushed into the Matrix and the toll of his ‘mind battle’ with The Doctor. He confesses, having discovered The Master near death (the evil Time Lord at the end of his regeneration cycle of 13 ‘lives’), he brought him back to Gallifrey and devised with him the intricate plan they almost pulled off by which he’d definitely gain the Presidency. Before the other three can learn what The Master would have got out of it, though, Goth slips away, leaving The Doc uneasily feeling The Master surely wouldn’t have accepted ultimate death as easily as it seems he has.

Linking what Goth would practically have gained in assuming The Presidency to what The Master could have gained – the actual seals of office of The President, the ceremonial relics that are the Sash and Rod of Rassilion (the latter being a legendary Time Lord whom original harnessed ‘Time Lord power’ and created Gallifrey’s society), The Doctor learns that it is precisely these two accoutrements that can act as tools to open the Eye of Harmony (the heart of a black hole that Rassilion captured and from which he derived Time Lord power), which lies beneath the Panopticon. Indeed, he and the dignitaries soon discover that The Master has faked his death and stolen the Sash and Rod and, clearly then, wishes to use them to open the Eye in order to jump-start his regeneration cycle – even though doing so will destroy Gallifrey.

Reaching The Master just in time, The Doc wrestles with him, as the entire Citadel begins to shake and start to break up owing to the Eye being opened. Yet, The Master slips and falls through a fissure in the floor and the former is able to close the Eye before the city – and the planet – are destroyed. Accordingly, Borusa (dismayed at all the damage) accepts The Doctor has saved the day, as well as Spandrell’s explanation of how he was framed and who really murdered the President, thus he drops the charges against The Doc so long as he leaves Gallifrey. This our hero is only too happy to do – although Spandrell witnesses a survived Master also fleeing the scene in his own TARDIS, which is disguised as a grandfather clock. Nonetheless, Borusa grudgingly gives The Doctor a mark of ‘nine out of ten’ for his efforts…





Why is The Deadly Assassin such an essential Doctor Who serial? Because it’s utterly unique while, conversely, also fitting very much in the mould of a classic Who story – and does both of these brilliantly, ensuring it’s easily one of the best adventures of The Doc’s long back catalogue of escapades.

First up, distinguishing itself from every other ‘Classic’ serial ever made (and every Doctor Who story ever made apart from – at my count – the late Tennant specials The Next Doctor from 2008 and The Waters Of Mars from 2009), The Deadly Assassin features no companion whatsoever for its protagonist. It boasts allies, sure, in the shape of Spandrell, Engin and to a lesser extent Borusa and Runcible, but as The Doc’s been forced to dump (arguably his greatest ever) companion Sarah Jane at the end of the directly preceding story The Hand Of Fear (1976), as she can’t accompany him to Gallifrey, he has to visit his home planet entirely on his tod. Indeed, this too ensures there’s not even a single human being in any of the story’s four episodes. Another first and only for the series?

It’s something of an experiment, for sure, but as a one-off it works – with TARDIS-like cloister bells on. Caught up in The Master’s near-ingenious murderous scheme, with all its high political machinations, and framed as the killer, at times The Doc’s left more singularly alone than we ever usually see him, emphasising then the trap into which he’s fallen among the people one not versed in what makes him tick would think he’d feel most at home.

Secondly, we have that assassination/ political-underbelly-revealing plot. Like so many from Who‘s ’70s golden age, it was dreamt up by then script editor Robert Holmes (other classics of his being 1975’s The Ark In Space, much of 1975’s Pyramids Of Mars and 1977’s The Talons Of Weng-Chiang). It’s an absolute humdinger, full of thrills, spills and marvellously imaginative ideas (especially the ‘virtual reality’ of the Matrix). The influence of Richard Condon’s iconic brainwashed-assassin-themed novel The Manchurian Candidate (1959) – and its subsequent, equally iconic 1962 Hollywood adaptation – is clear to see to any fan of US literature and cinema, yet Holmes does far more than turn out a sci-fi take on a cultural classic of political corruption gone wild.

Fusing wit and irony to the proceedings throughout, in Assassin he and director David Maloney arguably don’t give us a fascinating (and smartly constructed) window on to the running of Gallifrey’s Time Lord society, but instead deconstruct the whole thing as they show it to us, gently satirsing the everyday oneupmanships, frippery, corruption and cover-ups that take place in governments and the running of powerful states.

If you doubt that, consider Borusa’s starched, unyieldingly (supposedly) upstanding demeanour at the end despite all that’s happened and his unchanged attitude to The Doctor, Runcible’s smug reaction to our man’s black sheep-like return to the fold in spite of the former being merely an establishment-connected TV presenter and the general slow, lumbering, ceremonial-filled, millennia-old ways of Gallifreyan society. The Deadly Assassin has as much in common with Yes Minister (1980-84) and Yes Prime Minister (1986-88) or the humour of a top sketch from That Was The Week That Was (1961-63) as it does with, say, Inferno (1970) or The Dæmons (1971).

Yes, all right, there are two or three quibbles. The otherwise gloriously OTT Time Lord costumes look a little too plastic (and sadly cheap) not to be distracting, The Doctor himself surrenders his overcoat, hat and – sacrilege! – scarf throughout (although this just emphasises the serial’s difference and its different treatment of the character, plus he looks pretty cool in just his white shirt and burgundy bottoms) and, of course, the story’s title itself is an example of monstrous tautology, yet ultimately these points simply can’t detract from Assassin‘s unquestioned quality and iconoclasm.








As mentioned above, Assassin‘s status as an experiment of a Who story is no exaggeration – apparently Baker had suggested to mid-’70s era producer Philip Hinchcliffe that, upon Elisabeth Sladen‘s departure from the series, the show – and maybe more specifically he – could go it alone without a companion and change the thing from a two- to a one-hander drama.

Oddly, given the terrific thing the serial turned out to be (yet, for the sake of the show to come, it was surely the right decision), Hinchcliffe deemed the result mixed and the idea of Baker leading the show alone not to be its future – maybe he could envisage the perhaps excessive artistic influence Baker might wield in the years to come? Although, maybe a bigger concern was that Holmes had actually found it especially challenging to write a story in which The Doctor had no companion to bounce thoughts, ideas and plans off – the essential role, one might argue, of his companion. Louise Jameson made her debut as The Fourth Doc’s new companion Leela in the following story, The Face Of Evil (1976).

This serial too, lest we forget, marked the height of ‘TV standards’ campaigner (read: media prude extraordinaire) Mary Whitehouse’s obsession with Doctor Who. The cliffhanger at the end of the third episode (in which Goth holds The Doc’s head underwater attempting to drown him) was the moment that broke the camel’s back for her; she claimed children could be damaged by it as they wouldn’t know whether he’d survived it for at least a week – although the show had been offering up cliffhangers of that exact nature for years. What was new about it perhaps, was it’s visceral nature – it’s seen been cited a classic exemplar of the Hichcliffe/ Holmes old-school horror/ terror-influenced era.

A particularly intriguing point cast-wise concerns Bernard Horsfall, whom played The Master’s stooge Goth. Outside of Who, he’s maybe best recalled as 007’s ill-fated MI6 colleague in the George Lazenby-starring Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969); inside Who, he’d previously appeared in the serials The Mind Robber (1968), in which he portrayed Lemuel Gulliver, The War Games (1969) and Planet of the Daleks (1973). In the second of those two stories he also played a Time Lord, whom because he’s unnamed, many have suggested may be Goth in younger years – probably not, but it’s interesting to speculate.

Elsewhere, following the sadly premature death of the great Roger Delgado, the role of The Master (in a very different guise to that of Delgado’s goatee-bearded, devilish smoothie) was taken by Peter Pratt, a thesp famed for his stage roles, especially Gilbert and Sullivan operas, while Czech actor George Pravda (Spandrell) also appeared in the Bond film Thunderball (1965) as an Eastern European scientist.

Aside from Baker, none of Assassin‘s thesps would appear in the show again, but their characters would. Angus McKay’s Borusa cropped up again at the end of the following series in the also Gallifrey-set The Time Warrior (1977), as well as in Arc Of Infinity (1983) and, most notably of all, in the 30th anniversary-celebrating special The Five Doctors (1983) – although in these three serials the character was played by John Arnatt, Leonard Sachs and Philip Latham respectively. Just like Borusa, the Time Lord society (its disciplined dedication to its stuffy traditions, its lofty stand-above-it-all attitude to the universe, its political machinations and its look as established in Assassin) was to appear over and again in the ‘Classic’ series and eventually in the ‘timelocked’-era of the ‘NuWho’ The End Of Time specials (2009-10).

The very model for Gallifrey then was established – and has never better presented than – in The Deadly Assassin. No question, few stories in the show’s history have looked through the sights and pulled the trigger as well as this Gallifreyan juggernaut.





Next time: The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (Season 14/ 1977)


Previous close-ups/ reviews:

Pyramids Of Mars (Season 13/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Ark In Space (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

Inferno (Season 7/ 1970/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)


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