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The Deadly Assassin

Reviewed by Paul Scoones

I have always been especially fond of those stories firmly imbedded in the mythos of Doctor Who. The Deadly Assassin is, without a doubt, one of these, but only in retrospect. It is set entirely on Gallifrey, and every single character is a Gallifreyan/Time Lord. This fact alone makes it unique above all others, but it is also the only story in which the Doctor remains companionless from beginning to end.

It is perhaps also notable, in retrospect alone, for two important features of the series in its present day form. Firstly, it established the structure and appearance of Gallifreyan society. The War Games, Colony in Space and The Three Doctors had provided glimpses into the ways of the Time Lords, but The Deadly Assassin was the true scene-setter for Gallifrey stories to come.

Secondly, but just as importantly, it served as a vital and indispensable link between the two established versions of the Master, played by the late Roger Delgado in the seventies and Anthony Ainley in the eighties. The Master was but a shadow of his former self, a rotting, decaying creature clinging fanatically to life. Full credit must go to Peter Pratt for doing his best in what was a very difficult role inevitably associated with Delgado. He only played the part for this one story, but he more than adequately brought across on screen the burning will ever-present in his former incarnation.

The character of Borusa made his debut in The Deadly Assassin. On each return appearance, a different actor plays the Doctor's old teacher; I have so far seen three of the four incarnations, and must profess a liking for the original, played with dignity and reserve by well-known actor Angus McKay. One wonders if Borusa was in fact the President's choice for his successor in the light of the revelation that it most certainly was not Chancellor Goth.

The Amplified Panatropic Compiler, otherwise known as the Matrix, also made an impressive debut in The Deadly Assassin. It has since featured in almost all Gallifrey stories, notably the recent The Trial of a Time Lord, where it was not only used as the source of all the evidence presented at the Doctor's trial, but also the scene of the Doctor's climatic battle with the Valeyard. His battle with Goth throughout Episode Three of The Deadly Assassin is, quite frankly, far superior to the notorious Trial conclusion segment.

It was an original and adventurous step on the part of writer Robert Holmes and director David Maloney to set an entire quarter of the story inside the Matrix. Perhaps unusually for Doctor Who, there was very little plot development or lines in Part Three, instead concentrating on action and suspense in an environment where anything could happen at any moment. The filming of this sequence well was crucial to the success of the adventurous episode, and it worked. The location was used to great advantage, and not a shot of it was stock footage; hence the horse, train, biplane, etc meant a rather expensive location shoot. I believe it was well worth it, and Part Three rates as my favourite for this story, and perhaps even a contender for a place in our Season Poll Best Episode category?

Obviously, as I have already pointed out, The Deadly Assassin is a fundamental part of the overall development of Doctor Who. Aside from this, the story remains a tightly paced, well written, excellently directed production, with amusing performances from a talented cast, notably George Pravada as Castellan Spandrell, Erik Chitty as Engin, and Angus McKay as Borusa. The freeze-frame episode endings, a hallmark of director David Maloney (Planet of Evil, Genesis of the Daleks) were especially effective in this story, when applied to the falling body of the President, and, unfortunately, the edited end to Episode Three. This was to have ended on a frozen shot of the Doctor's face beneath the water, supposedly drowned, but was edited by the BBC years ago after a barrage of complaints about the horror content.

As a particular favourite of mine, and a classic Doctor Who story, it was a real delight to watch all four episodes of The Deadly Assassin.

Reviewed by Michael Mayo

The Deadly Assassin is considered to be an all-time classic Doctor Who story by many people, in much the same way as The Evil of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and Earthshock are. Indeed, it had all the ingredients of one such story: Robert Holmes as scriptwriter and editor, the Master (although somewhat fried), superb acting, and finally, some very exciting and scary cliffhanger endings.

Perhaps the formula used by the late Robert Holmes that makes his stories so successful is the wide range of interesting and strange characters he creates. After all, what other writer would dare to put someone like Engin in their script? Most of the characters in Holmes' scripts would be out of place if any other scriptwriter wrote for them. There were also some humorous interludes during the first two episodes, such as the scene where the Doctor exchanges the robes he borrowed from the museum with the more modern robes owned by a rather rheumatic old Time Lord, and the brief talk the Doctor and Runcible have when they first meet.

Peter Pratt did a wonderful portrayal of the 'sizzled' Master, which JNT later tried' to copy without as much effect in The Keeper of Traken (then played by Geoffrey Beevers). The Master character has been ruined in all the latest stories because he always seems to die at the end of each JNT serial, but worse still, in The Mark of the Rani and The Trial of a Time Lord the stories would have been just as good without the once-brilliant villian. It is a great shame that Anthony Ainley's Master has not only been trapped on Castrovalva and Xeraphas with no chance of escape, but he has also been shrunk, burnt to death, attacked by dinosaurs, etc. In both The Deadly Assassin and all of the Pertwee/Master stories, the Master remained alive, thus making his returns far more believable.

The acting was excellent; the characters of Coordinator Engin, Castellan Spandrell, Cardinal Borusa and the villain, Chancellor Goth, were all well thought out and equally well played. Interestingly enough, this is the only story in which Borusa featured without taking a major role in the plot (he did not even appear in episode three).

The Doctor's dream sequence was attacked by a barrage of complaints about the horror and violence content when it was first shown, eleven years ago in England. This led to the producer Philip Hinchcliffe being removed from the show. Compare the type of violence in the stories we are seeing now with the violence in JNT's Season 22; If he'd made it in 1976, he'd have been sacked instantly!

All in all, The Deadly Assassin is Doctor Who at its best.

This item appeared in TSV 2 (September 1987).

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