Doctor Who #438: The Deadly Assassin Part 1

"Runcible, you had ample opportunity to ask me questions during your mis-spent years at the Academy. You failed to avail yourself of the opportunity then and it is too late now. Good day."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Oct.30 1976.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor returns to Gallifrey to stop the assassination of the President.

REVIEW: This is the start of a most unusual serial indeed. It's the only one where the Doctor doesn't have a companion (he keeps the talking to himself to a minimum, thankfully). It features the return of the Master as  a decaying zombie (though only the credits really confirm he's the Master with a capital M). It starts with a narrative scroll (you can always count on director David Maloney to make the visuals fit the theme, and this is a show of artificiality that prefigures the introduction of the Matrix in its later episodes). And in showing us Gallifrey in more detail than ever before, it reinvents the Time Lords as dotty old men at the head of a pompous society in decline, rife with university faculty-style politics. I've never been able to decide if this is a faux pas or not. On the one hand, it reduces the mystery of the Hartnell era and the god-like beings of the Troughton and Pertwee days to something risible, but on the other, it humorously mocks our own authority systems, while tapping into the same theme that makes the Master a skeletal creature. Does it take away from the Doctor that he comes from such poor stock? Or does it justify his escape into time and space, and sets him apart (and above) from these stuffy old men?

A large part of our interest in these episodes is in the world-building. We've arrived on Presidential Resignation Day, which affords us a peek at the Time Lords' political system, and to the positions of President and Chancellor, we add a Castellan in charge of security, Cardinals, and a Chancellery Guard. The Panopticon is a huge set filled with people, and the main Chapter Houses are represented... It's quickly turning into a Time Lord Bible for future writers to use. A lot of matter-of-fact detail, but relatively little exposition. Along with austere new sets, we get new Time Lord costumes, and the use of the Seal of Rassilon, an image that used to be the Vogans' from Revenge of the Cybermen (see my Theory about that). The ceremonial lipstick is a bit unfortunate, but everything about this event speaks to its irrelevance. Time Lords believe themselves to be a great people, but simply go through the motions, not really knowing why they do (Spandrell's limited knowledge of the bio extracts is part of this). We hear of the Celestial Intervention Agency (the CIA), a play on words that ties into the Kennedy assassination analogy this episode is building, but it makes it clear that the tribunal from The War Games was unofficial and secret, explaining the Time Lords' use of the Doctor as an interference agent. Robert Holmes is telling us that there is no contradiction with past stories here because there are really two groups of Time Lords in play. And the meddling CIA can probably run the show in defiance of Time Lord laws because the official government is so weak. Time Lord writing, Time Lord weapons, Time Lord media (this is a weak spot because it's TOO MUCH like Earth Present, even if it's fun to mock Runcible the Fatuous)... A huge amount of detail to latch onto, wonder about, etc. In that way, it predates Star Wars, which also created a world that you just had to accept, no explanations rendered (and yes, the opening scroll is probably responsible for my making this comparison).

But world-building is one thing, is there a good story to go with it? I say yes. A take on both the real events of the Kennedy assassination (with the Doctor as presumptive Oswald) and The Manchurian Candidate - and the former already has a connection with Who, the program first going out the next day - The Deadly Assassin has plenty of tension and mystery going for it. Who sent the Doctor the recall order and subsequently, the assassin's future memories? Looks like his TARDIS was hacked! Some great direction in these moments takes the edge off the confusion they might cause. Further, who's that decaying figure running everything (we know it's the Master, but it would have been ambiguous at the time), and who's his toady? And did the Doctor really shoot the President in the cliffhanger?! We're constantly trying to catch up in this episode, and that involves us more personally. Perhaps it's a function of not having a companion to act as intermediary. WE have to ask the questions, because no character does it for us (though you could say the role's been shunted to Castellan Spandrell). And the Doctor's as much in the dark, really, because though he's always one step ahead of the authorities, the villains are one step ahead of him. He's being manipulated and framed. To those plot twists, add some great withering lines directed at the less Lordly Gallifreyans, and you've got a story that's both important to the canon and highly entertaining.

THEORIES: So for the first time, we hear some actual Time Lord names as opposed to titles. And they're an eclectic, some might say ridiculous, collection of words. Borusa. Spandrell. Elgin. Runcible. Goth. Some sound like our own words, like the latter, some don't, but none sound like Romana's full, Scrabble-worthy, name. My theory on this has always been that Time Lords have an important tradition of giving each other (or themselves) nicknames. Obviously, we have the renegades who usually go by some alias - the Doctor, the Master, the Monk, the Rani, Professor Chronotis, and so on - and we also have the various names the Doctor's been called by his fellow Time Lords, things like Theta or in the (admittedly extracanonical) New Adventures, like Snail. Perhaps it's something to do with their shifting identities (what does that do to an individual?), perhaps it's a ceremonial thing you go through at the Academy, perhaps different classes of people call you different things (think of the way the Russians play with names based on relationships). Certainly, the Time Lords are quick to accept the Doctor as "The Doctor" instead of whatever name they must have on file. These nicknames come from across space and time, which is their playground, which explains why Goth is an Earth word, while Spandrell is just a silly alien word to us. (Speaking of Goth, I don't want to shortshrift the  twice-a-Time-Lord Bernard Horsfall, who regrettably died earlier this week, so expect a lot more on him in future reviews.)

REWATCHABILITY: High - A game-changer in the making.


Anonymous said...

Due to a misheard episode viewed on very grainy low power UHF 25 years ago, I thought the Doctor's real name was "Pete of Sigma". Even though I know better now, I used to think the Doctor was embarrassed by his completely pedestrian given name. Maybe the Time Lords all have names like Pete, Chad, Todd, and Phil?

Siskoid said...

Or Susan?

Anonymous said...

For all of its myriad flaws, I deeply love the view of Time Lord society as bureaucratic and self-centered. A once great civilization that has turned inward. No wonder the Doctor and the Master could not wait to escape!

Craig Oxbrow said...

"There are some who call me... Tim."

(An Unearthly Child was actually a day after the Kennedy assassination, by the way.)

Anonymous said...

Susan ... ! Never thought of it that way, but I wouldn't be surprised if Romana's real name were "Doris" or "Enid".

Bill D. said...

I've always wondered why the Time Lords and Ladies in good standing (or who start in good standing) have actual names - Borusa, Goth, Flavia, Romanadvoratrelundar - while the Renegades mostly seem to have titles - the Doctor, the Master, the Rani, the Monk, the War Chief, the Corsair (presumably?), etc.

Always kinda wondered if part of the process of being declared Renegades on Gallifrey involves having their name taken away... like they are no longer considered part of Time Lord society to such a degree that even their identities are stripped away.

Siskoid said...

Interesting notion.

Or if their name echoing through the universe could bring the Time Lords down upon them. Doctor Whooooooooooo


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