In the years since The Deadly Assassin was first broadcast, it has become to fans more than simply another four episodes of our favourite television series. It has become emblematic of various differing views of the nature of the show. Originally, it was the story’s treatment of Gallifrey that aroused most interest- and anger – among fans. With time, the fans stopped criticising the story for presenting the iconography of the series in a new way and started praising it for precisely the same reasons. It came to be seen as the definitive Time Lord story, although it was open to interpretation whether this was because it established the continuity perfectly or because it showed that previous interpretations of that continuity could successfully be ignored. The Deadly Assassin almost stopped being a story in its own right and became simply a specimen, a piece of evidence to be used in arguments about the Williams era, the mid-eighties Gallifrey stories, the Cartmel masterplan and the New Adventures novels. Strangely, whether the story is any good, and why, is rarely asked.
Dealing with these ancient criticisms as quickly as possible, I will simply remark that The Deadly Assassin does not actually contradict much previous continuity (not much more than the average original series story anyway). The Time Lords had been very willing to use the Doctor as an agent throughout the Pertwee era, not to mention Genesis of the Daleks and The Brain of Morbius. The latter also shows that they are susceptible to criminality at the highest level. The fact that Time Lord society is corrupt and scheming is therefore not surprising. True, it had not been stated as explicitly as this before, but previously we had seen only the image the Time Lords presented to outsiders and criminals, while here we see more mundane politics. Just compare the formality and ceremony of a British law court or the State Opening of Parliament with the heated debate in the House of Commons (complete with childish cheering and booing) and the careful feeding of stories to the press to manipulate public opinion. In fact, this discrepancy becomes a theme of the story as Borusa adjusts the truth to suit the purposes of the elite.
As a murder mystery The Deadly Assassin is seriously flawed. There are only two suspects and as we know that the Doctor can not be the assassin, the real culprit should be obvious. The first cliff-hanger raises the shocking possibility that the Doctor, for reasons unknown, really has committed murder, but the re-edited reprise at the start of the next episode shows that this is not the case. There are also gaping plot holes, even ignoring the Doctor’s habit of delivering exposition to himself in the first episode. No one seems to wonder why the Doctor would have committed the crime until he raises the issue in his defence, other than vague statements about a possible grudge, which no one thinks to investigate. Similarly, when Spandrell begins to be convinced of the Doctor’s innocence, neither of them does much to find out who might have had a motive to kill the president. At the very least, they might have thought to look at the resignation honours list to check he really was going to name Goth as his successor! Similarly, plot devices such as the Matrix and the Eye of Harmony are introduced through clumsy info-dumps as and when they are needed, giving the impression that the author is improvising the story. Finally, the Matrix scenes are not the narrative dead-end they are sometimes described as, but do not fulfil the function they set out to perform. The Doctor goes into the Matrix to locate the Master. While there he finds out who the assassin really was, but not where the Master is hiding. Yet as soon as the Doctor leaves, he realises that the Master’s base must be in the old part of the city, where he could hack into the Matrix, something he could have guessed without entering the Matrix, as he knew that the Master had done that.
Put like this, it sounds like I think The Deadly Assassin is a terrible piece of television protected from criticism solely by its reputation as an “important” story. Actually, the reverse is true. I think it is a wonderful story whose reputation means it gets praised for things that only appeal to fans while its true merits are often ignored. This begs the question: if The Deadly Assassin ought to be terrible, why is it wonderful?
The main reason is that the audience is never given the chance to spot the flaws. There is always something going on to hold the attention. The script, despite the criticisms above, is excellent, with a suspenseful plot and witty dialogue. Aside from the Matrix scenes (of which more below), there is hardly any padding, with virtually every scene moving the plot on. The direction provides a similar sense of urgency. When the viewers are not trying to keep up with the plot, they are immersed in Time Lord culture, something created here virtually from scratch by the writing and, more rarely for Doctor Who, the opulent design work. Sets and costumes for alien or futuristic societies are always a problem in Doctor Who. Even aside from budgetary problems, a designer runs the risk of producing something that looks so similar to contemporary fashion that it seems too mundane (e.g. The Long Game and Bad Wolf), something very clichéd (the many, many societies that have opted for a minimalist look combining unpatterned walls with unpatterned one-piece overalls or jumpsuits) or something just daft (e.g. The Ark). The sets and costumes here avoid these problems, looking like the product of a real society, albeit aided by sympathetic lighting; in the over-lit Time Lord stories of the future, the same costumes looked far sillier. This is one of very few Doctor Who stories to feel like it is set in a genuine alien culture, which also makes the sudden appearance of plot devices like the Eye of Harmony less noticeable; as late as the final episode, there is a sense that we have only glimpsed a portion of this world and so we do not feel cheated when the story relies on aspects of it that we have not heard about before.
The combination of a fast pace with the sense of being in a truly alien society combine to produce a nightmarish feeling of being trapped in a world where anything is possible. Not only does this help to gloss over the plot holes, it also provides the story with its focus. Edgar Allan Poe argued that art (of any kind) should aim to produce a single emotion in the audience. Whether this is true is debateable, but it seems to apply here. Watching this story produces a feeling of isolation resulting even in paranoia. This conspiracy thriller style is utterly unprecedented for the programme. The fact that this is set on Gallifrey only adds to that feeling. The Doctor returns home, but far from being considered a hero (as he might expect after all he has done), he is an outcast and suspected murderer even there. I believe this explains why the problematic episode is not Part Three, but Part Four. While the Matrix scenes seem to belong to a different story, even a different genre (they are more surreal than anything since season six and more brutal than anything ever seen before on the programme), they share a thematic unity with what went before and are not the padding that they are sometimes considered to be. In the Matrix, as on Gallifrey, the Doctor is alone, fighting for his life, with his wits as his only weapon, against an unknown enemy in a position of power. It is the final episode, with the Doctor in a clear alliance with the forces of law and order on Gallifrey trying to stop an old enemy that really seems out of place in this disturbing tale of conspiracy and isolation.
The other striking thing about the story is Robert Holmes’ use of language.
That the Time Lords have a ‘Panopticon’ has often been noted as appropriate, the word meaning ‘seeing all’ and the Time Lords observing all time and space. The word was coined by Jeremy Bentham (the philosopher, not the fan) for institutions such as schools, hospitals and asylums, but appropriately is most associated with prisons. There is a sense here that the Time Lords see themselves as the guardians of a universe full of unruly elements that they must keep in line. It is fitting, then, that this story introduces the Celestial Intervention Agency, establishing that Time Lord intervention in history is frequent enough to warrant institutional control, rather being limited to occasional and ad hoc actions as The War Games and the Pertwee era led us to believe.
This sense of a fortress mentality among the Time Lords is furthered by the fact that social control in the Capitol is administered by a ‘Castellan’, the keeper or governor of a medieval castle. It is therefore no surprise to learn in this story that the Time Lords have “plebeian classes” who are the main target of the Castellan’s attentions and that the Time Lords are worried about others’ perception of them – they fear being seen as disarrayed after the assassination of the President, although exactly who they think is watching and how is never stated. Indeed, the ‘Capitol’ itself is an interesting word, suggesting both ancient Rome and (like the CIA) contemporary Washington – this being only a couple of years after Vietnam and Watergate, both Rome and Washington would doubtless suggest a narrow, corrupt, conspiratorial, imperialist and murderous elite to many viewers.
(If you really want to run with this, if I recall correctly Chessene in The Two Doctors, also by Holmes, is referred to as Dastari’s ‘chatelaine’, a word cognate to castellan and significant because Dastari and Chessene want a TARDIS (‘a TARDIS’ is an anagram of ‘Dastari’ – another type of Holmesian wordplay) so they can overthrow and replace the Time Lords.)
Moving from words to images, the Doctor’s trip into the Matrix (a term in mathematics and computing, but also denoting an enclosed environment and, in an obsolete sense, a womb – where the consciousness of the Time Lords conceives of the future, perhaps? I think Brian Aldiss had previously used it to suggest a virtual reality environment and Holmes would probably have known this, but the word was by no means an SF standard in 1976) is indicated by use of the tunnel effect from the title sequence. This is usually taken by fans as a ‘time tunnel’, but here as in the mind-bending sequence in The Brain of Morbius it is used to suggest the Doctor’s subconscious mind. The Pertwee era’s psychedelic spirals are similarly used when the Doctor’s mind is probed in Day of the Daleks. There may be a suggestion here that this is a narrative told by the Doctor (to us? To himself? To someone else? Or is he dreaming it? Is he a reliable narrator?), a feeling reinforced by the voiceover at the start of the story (but is that by the Doctor or by Tom Baker? Is there a meaningful difference between the two at this stage?).
The overall effect is the suggestion of a rich society with its own language and culture which we only glimpse in these four episodes. Maybe this is why so many fans have wanted to return to Gallifrey, even though most of the subsequent trips have been disappointing on some level.