“THE DEADLY ASSASSIN” – Season 14, Serial 3, Story 88 – Written by Robert Holmes; Directed by David Maloney – It’s a highly unique serial in DOCTOR WHO lore as the Doctor gets a solo adventure, free from any Companion. With Sarah Jane having departed and Leela yet to arrive, the Doctor is left to his own devices to foil an assassination attempt on the Time Lord President. Only problem is, the Master is behind it and he’s super angry because he doesn’t have a real face anymore.
THE DEADLY ASSASSIN is one of the more difficult serials for me to wrap my head around. I do not mean that the plot is extra complex or the philosophical issues deeply troubling. I simply mean I don’t know if I like it or if I really like it.
My consternation comes from two primary aspects: the first is the slow start and the annoying “TV program infodump” and the second in a mind-numbing third episode that completely takes me out of the plot. I’ll take them in order.
After dropping Sarah Jane off in Not Croydon at the end of the last serial, the Doctor sets a course for Gallifrey. On the way, he gets a powerful vision of killing the President. When he arrives, the Time Lords freak out about the appearance of a Type 40 TARDIS, and we get a full introduction to the pomp and circumstance of the Time Lords with their crazy cloaks and funny hats and strange titles. DEADLY ASSASSIN is one of those serials where the budget doesn’t necessarily hurt the serial, but if they had more money to spend, we could have gotten sets to match the Time Lords’ grand pomposity.
This is the first time we get a really close look at the Time Lords and as interesting as it is to take them in, it’s just as interesting in how they view the Doctor and the Master.
Which is to say, if this serial was written today, there would be about 42 “Doctor Who?” jokes because the Time Lords largely don’t know who he is. The Doctor returning to Gallifrey with a missing TARDIS is greeted with all the fanfare of crickets chirping in a nearly empty cathedral. Imagine if Cameron had spent all that time worrying about what his dad would think about him taking the Ferrari 250 out for a spin and his dad came home and was like, “Huh, I thought I left my gloves in the driver’s seat and not the passenger’s seat.”
All of that is awesome, which is why it’s so damaging when they introduce Runcible, who’s a TV reporter. Ugh. Coming so near the start of the serial, the image of the Doctor trying to find the local news report for an update of the day’s festivities is kinda lame.
The serial moves quickly, though, blending humor with its political intrigue and before the first episode is out, the Doctor appears to have killed the President.
It’s good stuff, and the interplay between the Doctor and the Castellan during the investigation of the crime is the best part of the serial. The Doctor is quickly put on trial and Chancellor Goth wants him executed as quickly as possible. It’s obvious that Goth is one of the bad guys, but he’s just a flunky for the return of the Master.
The Master is making his first appearance since the tenth season’s FRONTIER IN SPACE. He’s in bad shape, with a scarred, disfigured face, but he’s still up to his evil genius tricks. While it’s a shame, of course, that Roger Delgado passed away and thus it’s someone else beneath the costume, this version of the Master is serious and well worthy of the name.
There’s not a lot of direct Doctor/Master interaction here, but both men are clearly playing a chess game against one another and we get to see both of their intellects at play. To get out of being ramrodded through a quick trial, the Doctor invokes Article 17 and runs for President. The Master, for his part, unleashes lackeys, uses mind control, and tricks the Doctor into entering the Matrix, which is really just an excuse to get a bunch of outdoor sequences into the narrative.
It’s a huge mistake. Prior to the Doctor’s mind becoming one with the Matrix, the serial had recovered from Runcible and had set up a good political thriller. But then the Matrix happens and we get an entire episode of the Doctor running around a virtual reality world being chased by a guy who’s hiding his face. It’s Goth, of course, and the whole episode is wasted by being outside. It’s not that this sequence is executed poorly; Director David Maloney does a really solid job with it, but I just don’t care. I want to be back on Gallifrey, not stuck in a VR simulation that looks like a whole lot of other episodes.
There’s a lot of whiz-bang at the end and it’s a satisfying conclusion. THE DEADLY ASSASSIN is one of those serials you have to see for the novelty of the Doctor having a solo adventure (though the Castellan really serves in the Companion’s place) and the disfigured Master. I could do without Runcible the TV Reporter, without the shot of the shrunken man, and without the journey through the Matrix, but the rest of the serial is rather enjoyable.