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'Doctor Who': Revisiting 'The Deadly Assassin'

I'm looking back at one of the most unique stories of the BBC science fiction series.

"The Deadly Assassin."

It's the story that changed Doctor Who forever. Coming nearly half-way through its original run, it was the story that forever altered the show and its mythology. Writer Robert Holmes (along with producer Philip Hinchcliffe and the production team) crafted four episodes that remain among the most watched and talked about it in the history of the show. Looking at the story, it's not surprising.

"Deadly Assassin" is the story that gave us the Time Lords as we know them, after all. For six years, they'd been non-existent. At the end of the Troughton era, they had arrived on the scene very lordly and powerful. They had maintained that presence throughout the Pertwee era and into earlier seasons with Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor. They had been like a mountain range, magnificent and looming, but distant. In the summer of 1976, that all changed in a heartbeat.

To say this story changed everything would be an understatement. If it involves the Time Lord, chances are it came from Holmes' scripts. Be it Rassilon as the founder of their society, the Eye of Harmony, the Doctor's TARDIS designated a Type 40, even the twelve regeneration limit (which caused fandom so much consternation a few years ago) all come from here. That's also true of design and costumes as Roger Murray-Leach's Seal of Rassilon and James Acheson's high collars became the definitive presentation of the Time Lords. The sense of them as an isolated, even dull people watching over the rest of the universe presented for the rest of the series which informs New Who decades on can all be found here. 

The villainous Master as portrayed in the story.
(Artwork by Andy Lambert)

Not that it was apparent back in the summer of seventy-six. It is only in retrospect that it's visible for at the time the burgeoning fandom hated it. Jan Vincent Rudzki's now (in)famous review of the story crying out "What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?" sums up reactions to it at the time rather nicely. Time has shown how important the story was to be as generations of writers across different media have used it as the basis of how the Doctor's people should be. Concerns over its portrayal would give way to it being the norm, perhaps demonstrating how what is once radical becomes commonplace?

The funny thing is that much of that is window dressing. The references that become all important aren't plot points but throwaway lines. The various artifacts of Rassilon and the presentation of the Time Lords, yes, but as part of the larger plot and story. All these things serve a purpose in context: telling the story set out in Holmes' script. 

That story is a thriller. Forget all the lore: "The Deadly Assassin" is a thriller first and foremost, albeit a sci-fi one. The 1970s was the era of the political and conspiracy thriller from The Three Days Of The Condor to The Parallax View and All The President's Men. It was the era that spawned theories about the JFK assassination in the wake of Watergate and the revelations of nefarious government activities in the United States. Britain was no exception to that and the decade was to spawn questions about efforts to remove Harold Wilson from Downing Street or how much remained hidden about former Soviet spies in high places. It was the birth of the age of conspiracy and here's Doctor Who in the middle of it all.

When the conspiracy thriller angle comes up, it's customary to mention The Manchurian Candidate. Richard Condon's 1959 novel and its 1962 film adaptation are classics of the genre, of that there is no doubt. The film's influence is apparent in the opening episode especially as the Doctor races to stop the President's assassination. The portrayal of Runcible and the media coverage also owes more than a debt to Manchurian Candidate. Of course, the Master's presence as a villain with mind control powers would further seem to prove the point.

It isn't the most powerful or only influence on the story, however. The aforementioned JFK assassination hangs over the story with many echoes throughout from a second gunman, a framed assassin with a misaligned weapon, murdered witnesses, and missing evidence. While Manchurian Candidate informs the opening of the story, the basic plot owes it debt to a much older thriller. The plotline of a man returning to his native land and soon framed for murder while trying to foil a plot to destroy it comes not from Richard Condon. It's the plot of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps which was published in 1915 and famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. The Hitchcock influence is especially apparent in the Matrix sequences with its nightmare-scape including a biplane chase. That sequence also draws on the short story The Most Dangerous Game, further demonstrating the influences on the story are far more than a single source. What Holmes does is bring them together as perhaps only Doctor Who can.

Even with the passage of four decades, "The Deadly Assassin" remains a unique story in the annals of Doctor Who. It is a story that singlehandedly reshaped the show's mythology and the origins of its lead character. On a pure story level, it drew on various genre elements and recent events to present a science-fiction political thriller. It stands then as a prime example of what Doctor Who can do and why it's lasted more than fifty years.

Matthew Kresal
Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first piece of fiction was published in the anthology Blood, Sweat, And Fears in 2016.

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