The Deadly Assassin is a well rounded story with a tight script from Robert Holmes who obviously borrows from a variety of thrillers, noir, espionage and conspiracy movies. He also gives us the story of the Kennedy assassination just told on the planet Gallifrey. The Doctor is caught in a trap, almost casting him in the same light as Lee Harvey Oswald. And the director, David Maloney, packs everything he possibly can into the story and gives us massive, virtually dialogue-free sequences set in the virtual reality of the Matrix that run for nearly a third of the overall running time!
It was also a rare adventure given that it featured the Doctor travelling on his own. This was done, mainly to please Tom Baker, who believed that the Doctor could travel on his own. It was also done to prove that the Doctor did need a companion and he gets a companion through the traditional Holmes pairing of two sympathetic older men, Engin and Spandrell, who basically serve the role of companion. But the story does work with the Doctor being on his own, he is stuck in the middle of a Hitchcock thriller, as a falsely accused man who has to discover who really committed the crime. And Baker really is at the top of his game here, tackling the plot with a seriousness we never really saw from him again, while also lobbing sarcasm and scorn at the Doctor's former schoolmates. But underneath all this, the Doctor is once again risking his life, risking it for a society he is disappointed with on a deeply personal level.
The story follows directly on from the end of The Hand of Fear, an adventure which saw the surprising departure of Elisabeth Sladen's, Sarah Jane Smith. And from our previous experiences with the Time Lords, it was no wonder why the Doctor rushed her away. The last time we had properly seen the Time Lords was in the final episode of the epic story, The War Games. The companions at the time, Jamie and Zoe, were forced to part company with the Doctor and the Time Lords proceeded to wipe their memories of all their adventures bar their initial meeting with him. And then they practically killed the Second Doctor and forced his Third incarnation into exile and often made them do their dirty work. He was finally granted his freedom after The Three Doctors but continued to have them interfering with his life. And then there are the evil Time Lords, The Monk, The War Chief, Morbius, The Rani and of course, The Master. It isn't too hard to believe there was plenty of danger and corruption on their home world too.
As the tale begins, the call to Gallifrey is shown as a vision of the Time Lord president being shot down by a deadly assassin. The Doctor is desperate to stop it but knows he is a criminal so sneaks his way into the main citadel and onto the Panoptican. He manages to evade both Spandrell and the guards, who have discovered enough of the Doctor's slightly shady past to believe he is up to no good. And the dangerous cat-and-mouse game, the Doctor plays with them on the way to the Panoptican is unpredictable and twisty. The Doctor steals some robes and sneaks in. In a normal adventure, that would have been enough but given it was a script from someone like Holmes, the events were played out more dangerously with Spandrell unfolled and ordering the guards to look for anyone in golden robes. So it is a good job then that the Doctor stole orange ones.
Something that I didn't notice on the first viewing was that the way the Doctor sneaks into the Panoptican gives us a sly little hint at to who the real baddies are. Spandrell complains to his boss, Chancellor Goth, that the Doctor must have an accomplice. But Goth scoffs at him and instructs that the TARDIS be brought into the citadel like a Trojan Horse. First time around it looks like the Doctor caught a really lucky break thanks to a mistake on Goth's part. But Goth's mistake is only part of someone else's plan. Goth has been working for the Master. The Master is now decaying, wrapped in a black burial shroud, his face has become more of a skull than something of flesh and blood. He is at the end of his regeneration cycle. But his brain is still working and he has set up a complicated spider's web that ensnares both the Time Lords and the Doctor.
But despite all the Doctor's scheming to get himself into the Panoptican, he winds up being exactly where the Master wants him. He holds a newly fired alien rifle and is ranting like a madman when the guards turn up to arrest him. Even the way episode 1 reaches its conclusion makes the audience think that the Doctor did do it! The guards don't believe his protestations for a moment and the powers on Gallifrey call for his speedy execution. Luckily, there is something which doesn't sit right with Spandrell, Gallifrey's version of Colombo. The Doctor's trial is a farce, with not even the Doctor paying attention. But the Doctor does have a plan, with the original president of Gallifrey now dead, a new election has to be held and he throws his hat into the ring.
Spandrell's investigations with the Doctor quickly develop into an alliance and the pair discover the whole series of evens is related to the Matrix. The Doctor's journeys into the Matrix only to discover that Goth as been the Master's right-hand-man all along and the pair proceed to fight in a world that Goth appears to have complete control of. And the battle is more deadly than any usual election. A normal election doesn't have candidates shooting each other with poison darts or setting each other on fire! Well, normally.
But who is really in charge of the Matrix? Goth appears to control the world with his very mind but the reality is really controlled by the Master, who had forced Goth to build it to his design. There are other things that appear in this reality who I assume is supposed to be Goth in different guises. And while he is hooked up to the Matrix directly, the Master can just appear and disappear at will. We see his lidless eyes and hear his gloating laughter. Oh, and I bet he is the giant spider we see at one point, too!
And could there be a possibility that Bernard Horsfall played Goth when he appeared as a Time Lord in The War Games? Someone of as high a standing as Goth would have been present at such a trial and the Doctor does switch off the newscast in disgust when his name is mentioned. But Goth only made his deal with the Master, for power and things proceeded to turn out the way they usually do, he ends up dead.
What is so good about this story is that Holmes flips the idea of the Time Lords being all powerful on its head. And the only reason the Doctor and the Master are so powerful is because they have travelled throughout the universe. The Time Lords are not the all powerful beings they appeared to be in The War Games but are in fact imperfect and human. And the contrast fits with the notion that the Doctor has grown and changed over the course of his travels and can now see them in a new light. The terror that surrounded the Time Lords during The War Games was their unknowability. But every time they appeared during the Pertwee era and the opening series of the Baker era, they became more understandable and less aw-inspiring.
But the corruption of their society doesn't just end with the upper classes, their is a guard who interrogates the Doctor through torture and is only too happy to bring some pain to the proceedings. Spandrell also makes a comment that he is always having to deal with hooliganism involving indiscriminate gunfire. And Gallifrey's main citadel isn't the gleaming dome like structure that it is in the new series, here it is covered in cobwebs and dust, exactly the sort of world that the Doctor would want to run away from. And for a society gifted with the ability to travel through time, it is ironic that they have come to a standstill. The panoptican makes it look like the Time Lords are all living in a cell. There society is powered by the Eye of Harmony, a black hole, which makes their planet feel like the eye of the hurricane. And we need to remember that it is the eye of a hurricane that nothing happens.
The Deadly Assassin makes the Time Lords a part of the story rather than one that they have just been written into and the opening monologue at the beginning of the episode is telling as it explains that they had been too powerful to be threatened by lesser species but that events in this story would change all of that! And that makes all the Time Lords the baddies. And the Master doesn't exactly lose at the end, he has weakened his society and broken the invulnerability bubble they have lived in previously. I doubt that Holmes had any of this in mind when he wrote this story but the next story set on Gallifrey, The Invasion of Time, saw the Doctor arrive just before a Sontaran invasion and then they were at war with the Daleks where both species lost.
But the Master's plan ultimately has nothing to do with politics but a childish need for petty revenge and a desire to cheat his impending death. He used the assassination as a way to humiliate the Doctor and used Goth so he could find a way to obliterate his planet to keep him from having to die. While Gallifrey was the eye of the hurricane, the Master is the hurricane itself, he is a deep, dark abyss who destroys everything he touches...