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14x3. The Deadly Assassin
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: David Maloney
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Doctor has a telepathic vision of the Time Lord President's assassination upon arriving on Gallifrey and then finds himself framed for the act itself in the course of trying to prevent it. The incident has been orchestrated by the Master, who, having used up his regenerations, seeks to access the Eye of Harmony to obtain new life and has enlisted Time Lord Chancellor Goth in his scheme.

Review: "The Deadly Assassin" is a story that might seem at first like it's entertaining but not very creative, in that it portrays Gallifrey as the sort of declining aristocratic society we've seen in so many other Doctor Who serials, until we realize that that's the point. Robert Holmes' script contains its share of signficant revelations, not only about the Doctor and his past but also his home planet and its history and culture.

The Time Lords' first appearance in "The War Games" portrayed them as supremely powerful. The great import that their arrival clearly carried for the Doctor and the War Chief, along with their aloof manner and the fact that we didn't actually see much of their technology, left the impession of a race far beyond human comprehension. Though we saw them in slightly more mundane settings in "Colony in Space" and "The Three Doctors," they have remained mostly an off-screen presence, and I might have imagined them as existing in a state that would be completely unrecognizable to a human, at least some of the time. It's to the credit of "The Deadly Assassin" that it manages to reconcile all the conflicting demands of Time Lord backstory, explaining the source and nature of their power while also accounting for why they're walking around in front of standard flashing lights and computer consoles.

Though "The Deadly Assassin" still imagines Gallifrey as a technologically advanced civilization, one does not get the impression that progress is ongoing, as Engin declares that the Time Lords have "turned aside from the barren road of technology". The Eye of Harmony, perhaps the crowning achievement of Rassilon, is regarded as a legend now, and the Sash and the Great Key (used to access it) are thought to be ceremonial relics. The Matrix, a computer system that not only records Time Lord history but also can predict the future, is admittedly impressive, and the idea that it contains the memories of deceased Time Lords is a neat idea. But it apparently doesn't land them at the top of the heap, as the Doctor claims it's "prehistoric junk" compared to what he's seen on other planets. (Though, to be fair to the Time Lords, I don't think we've actually seen any of those other planets on the show.) In addition, Gallifrey appears to be a politically regressive society. The office of the President is apparently mostly ceremonial, with little indication of democratic input into the line of succession, while executions, torture, and propaganda seem to be accepted methods of control. We also learn, interestingly enough, of the existence of a "Celestial Intervention Agency" that arranged for the Doctor's pardon in "The Three Doctors," perhaps accounting for how this otherwise stagnant and isolationist society has remained involved in the business of other races and planets.

Against this backdrop, Holmes assembles a diverse and entertaining cast of characters. Castellan Spandrell and Coordinator Engin both carry a certain appealing light-heartedness, particularly Spandrell at the beginning when he teases a guard for his incompetent and poorly planned pursuit of the Doctor ("You are trying to confuse him?"). Cardinal Borusa, the Doctor's former teacher, is intelligent, but openly willing to "adjust the truth" (as he famously puts it) so as to avoid bringing scandal upon the Time Lord government, and he amusingly shows himself to be a creature of the Gallifreyan establishment when he admonishes the Doctor, "As I believe I told you long ago, Doctor, you will never amount to anything in the galaxy while you retain your propensity for vulgar facetiousness." At the same time, he seems to retain an affection for his former pupil, slyly awarding him a "9 out of 10" as he prepares to leave, and in turn the Doctor is only gently mocking rather than malicious (in other words, the attitude of the irreverent student we imagine he must have been). Still, even though the Doctor clearly cares a great deal about his home and returned to try to stop the assassination, it's not hard to see how he might have found all the self-absorption tiresome and stifling.

Goth, as the secondary villain of the piece, demonstrates the complacency and selfishness of Gallifrey's political culture. There's the obvious fact that he's made a deal with the Master to participate in an assassination plot in order to maneuver himself into the Presidency, but what particularly struck me was the scene in which he explains his reason for wanting the Doctor tried and executed quickly. Because Time Lord Presidents traditionally pardon all political prisoners upon assuming office, he would have to either break with tradition or pardon his own predecssor's alleged murderer -- and this is his cover story. Though Borusa does call him on it, the fact that he would use indecisiveness as his overt motive to deflect attention away from his true intentions indicates the extent to which the Time Lords have come to accept a certain mediocrity from their leaders.

The Master, meanwhile, appears in truly grotesque form. The character of the Master, as portrayed by Roger Delgado and later by Anthony Ainley, has often had a slight camp factor, but there's none of that here. Stripped of his Bond-villain-esque sophistication, the character is boiled down to pure malice, still irrationally obsessed with the Doctor and surviving, as he himself says, on hatred. The brutal nature of the alternate reality in which the Master and Goth attempt to trap and kill the Doctor stands in stark contrast with the supposed intelligence and advancement of the society from which they hail. This is the Master's egomania taken to its logical conclusion, using the technology of the Matrix as nothing more than a death trap where the Doctor is reduced to the state of a hunted animal with no prospect for the sort of peaceful solution we might expect from an advanced alien race like the Time Lords. We also learn, incidentally, that the Doctor, the Master, and Borusa all hail from the Prydonian Chapter, a caste known for its cunning. This both accentuates the contrast between how the Doctor uses his intelligence and the more cynical Borusa and the selfish and sadistic Master, while also hinting at the darker side of the Doctor's character.

I may be slightly overrating "The Deadly Assassin," partly because it's considered a classic, and partly because I really, really wanted to like one of these acclaimed Hinchcliffe/Holmes serials as much as most other fans. Still, after watching the serial more than once and reading other reviews, I really do think everything clicks into place nicely in this one. The portrayal of Gallifrey and the Time Lords is jarring at first but credible, the characters are well-written, and the Doctor/Master rivalry is taken in a direction we haven't quite seen before. Both for first-rate storytelling and for skillful handling of crucial backstory, "The Deadly Assassin" deserves its place in the Doctor Who Hall of Fame.

Other notes:

- The Celestial Intervention Agency is undoubtedly a joke in reference to the United States' Central Intelligence Agency, but I can't help but chuckle when I hear it simply because I once belonged to a Doctor Who fan club called the Celestial Intervention Agency.

- On a sort-of-related note, it's interesting that the Doctor managed to get himself trapped in a VR environment inside the Matrix long before Keanu Reeves ever did.

Rating: **** (out of four)

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