The Deadly Assassin

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: David Maloney
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1976
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

Robert Holmes was, for me, always overrated as a Doctor Who writer. While his two Auton stories were entertaining, people talk more of the film stock used in Spearhead, or the violence in Terror than the actual scripts. They're excellent TV, despite the scripts, not because of. His final two Pertwee stories were an improvement in themselves, seeing his eye for innovation and sly commentary developing, while The Ark in Space was technically good, though always, for me at least, lacked heart somehow. And let's not even talk about his two Troughton stories. For season 15 onwards then Holmes again drafted two scripts of self-conscious indulgence, before leaving the show with a po-faced racism parable that no one takes seriously because of the large monster present within it. His recall to the programme some years later with The Caves of Androzani is a wonderful return to form, though sees him recycling his best stuff, and later efforts before his sad death show that his muse had long since abandoned him.

All of which I mentioned because season 14 saw him at the absolute top of his game. The two stories he wrote for season 14 - Assassin and The Talons of Weng-Chiang - are not merely "very good" or "adequately witty", they're first-rate. And while Talons emerges as slightly the better of the two stories, from a scripting point of view Assassin is clearly the best story of the entire season. Why Assassin is so great is that it has the audacity to stand as a work in its own right, unfettered by what went before it. So it is that a scrolling introduction (a year before Star Wars) can presage the story, and the Doctor can deliver a voice-over like he's covering for Rod Serling. This sort of stuff never happened in the series before, but Holmes doesn't care a jot. This is his story and he's going to do it his way, even if he has to groundbreak for every page and totally reconstruct the series as a result.

This is a story so far in advance of its peers, who normally stole from other sources rather than create their own mythos, that it contains the basic plot of The Matrix, some two decades before it was made. A story so great that countless Doctor Who stories (most obviously The Invasion of Time and Trial parts 13-14) tried to emulate it. A story so cocksure that it even seems to contradict the previous episode, with Tom getting his "mental summons" here after Sarah Jane has left him. Okay, so it riffs on The Manchurian Candidate, but who cares? This is Doctor Who story so hot it even makes Time Lord mythology cool. This is, of course, the first time that they'd really been featured in the series. Oh, I know what you're thinking: "what about this?" "What about that?" but before The Deadly Assassin the Time Lords had merely served as narrative plot devices there to move along the story. From their underdeveloped all-powerful mystique in The War Games through to their kitsch plankasity in The Three Doctors, they were never really used as characters in their own right. Of course, it's thanks to this story that we got a number of tatty-looking returns to Gallifrey, but here all of it looks wonderful. And while Tom talking to himself is weird, this story displays many examples of the Doctor's ingenuity.

Although budget and cheapness shouldn't worry with Doctor Who, it is always nice to see a story that doesn't embarrass you by sparcity and actually looks decently made. There's so much love gone into the making of this one, with only Dudley Simpson's slightly OTT score giving mild concerns. And Hinchcliffe's love affair with the freeze frame sees him use it again here, which does seem superfluous. But that's more a point of note than a criticism, for this is as near to perfection as Doctor Who ever got.
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I remember when I first saw this one I was surprised that the Matrix was introduced before the infamous third episode, and that it cliffhangers in there. It makes the continued use of the environment in the following instalment feel a little like padding, and underwhelmed me on first viewing. I now realise that even if it is padding, it's ingenious padding, but that's for later…

Apologies for the short review here (though I did waffle on too much in the first anyway) but I was enjoying it so much I forgot to take notes. Absolutely engrossing, with devastatingly sharp lines, all "He is abusing a legal technicality" "I am claiming a legal right". Again, I was so involved I forgot to take down the exact quotes.

Like Logopolis, this one uses Action Men instead of CSO to depict shrunken Master victims, though it thankfully isn't lingered on. George Pravda's eccentric delivery may also distract, but I really like it. This is a great episode, the revelation of the Matrix mixing high concepts effortlessly with populist appeal. When the final minutes do give us the Matrix, then the croc is crap, but the rest is suitably chilling.
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I still don't get how the Doctor gets his foot trapped in between the two rails when it was clearly outside both of them, though maybe this is part of the Matrix illusion. Anyway, there are many who rightly claim that episode three is padding. In many real senses it is, but then every third episode in Who's history is padded - this one makes a virtue out of it with one of the most iconographic Who instalments ever. Never mind the twist with Goth being the traitor, something that was fairly obvious by the voice anyway, this one is commendable for showing the Doctor's survival instinct, and Tom gives possibly his best performance in the lead role.

Of the sore points, then the spider is pretty pathetic, everything else is astonishing. When I see the climax of this one I do feel that maybe Mary Whitehouse did have a point for once, and remember the Tom Baker Years tape where he said he called in to a house especially to see it, so great were his concerns. Was he just making it all up? Possibly, but his concerns are in some way justified with one of the most violent exchanges ever. It's also interesting to note that hardly any of the other Doctors would have worked in such an environment - Peter and Colin, maybe (though Colin did try and ape this one in Trial, and was sabotaged with misguided direction and concept). Sylvester and the first two Doctors would be physically too weak, Pertwee's violence too cartoonish. And Paul McGann's eighth Doctor lacks the depth. But Tom is in a league of his own here, in a virtually dialogueless action episode with some intelligence. What dialogue there is is a little self-aggrandising ("The Doctor is never more dangerous than when the odds are against him") but backs things up nicely. Indulgent? Probably, but it's fantastic all the same.
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This is always where the story stumbles a little for me. After three intelligent, tightly constructed and well-produced episodes, it's a shame that it has to end on one so slightly dumb and so slightly cheap. It's still some way above 80% of Who, of course, but in contrast it does disappoint. Seeing the emaciated Master throwing a Benny with a cardboard sash around his neck is a bit of a downturn in the story's ambitions, as is Goth calling him a "fiend". There's also a three-second close-up of an Action Man that I could do without. And as for the final shot of the Master, superimposed cackling over his Tardis - it's a moment so tacky even John Nathan-Turner would've turned it down.

However, all of the black satire on politics is at least summed up by the best line on the subject: "We must adjust the truth […] in a way that will maintain public confidence in the Time Lords and their leadership." There's also a nice moment where the Doctor is asked to describe the Master's character and describes him as "bad". Almost a commentary on the formerly two-dimensional villain, the Doctor is asked to be more specific. With him faking his own death, this is probably the most resourceful the Master ever got, even if all of the guff about Rassilon, introduced here, is a little anorakky. "9/10" is also one of my favourite scenes, even if there's perhaps not quite the same level of rapport between Tom and Angus as there was with John Arnatt in The Invasion of Time.

Incidentally, can anyone tell me what the Master's line about "taking it to your grave" actually says? It's almost inaudible. Anyway, despite wincing a little over the Master tailing it after the Doctor with a billy club, this is still a very strong way to end the story.
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Probably one of the ten greatest Doctor Who stories ever made. When's the DVD out then?
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