The Deadly Assassin

You’d delay an execution to pull the wings off a fly.

The Fourth Doctor


Through the millennia, the Time Lords of Gallifrey led a life of peace and ordered calm, protected against all threats from lesser civilisations by their great power.  But this was to change.  Suddenly and terribly, the Time Lords faced the most dangerous crisis in their long history…


The Deadly Assassin, at the time of its original broadcast, was an incredibly controversial episode in Doctor Who fandom.  The main bone of contention was that it fundamentally changed the society of the Time Lords, making them flawed and very similar to humans.  It also sees the return of the Master, played here by Peter Pratt, following Roger Delgado’s death in 1973.

This is quite possibly Robert Holmes’ masterpiece.  It takes a certain talent to take a story that could seem quite dry and political from the outset and make it an entertaining and at times amusing story. I think that this story might just have one of the best cliffhangers in the show’s history at the end of Episode 1, with the Doctor seemingly assassinating the outgoing President.  The story even takes the time to provide the solution – even though the Doctor is obviously not the one who fired the shot.  I think that Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes may have granted Tom Baker’s wishes to have a solo story to demonstrate just how crucial the companion is to the show.  There are several moments where characters who should know better ask questions that would usually be asked by the companion but here are asked instead by the Castellan.  Most glaringly, the Castellan at one point asks the Doctor who the Master is, which feels like something he would already know.  The Doctor is not exempt from this problem too, having to have Engin explain Rassilon and Gallifrey’s history to him, something that surely would have been taught in the Academy.

When the Doctor enters the Matrix, the story goes a little bit crazy.   I think that this is a much more interesting way of showing the Matrix than we’ve had at the end of Series 12, with the Master and Doctor battling for control and the Master’s assassin.  I like the idea of the Doctor’s disappearing and reappearing wound, which is really effectively used.  It does allow this serial to feel a bit more exciting than the sets making up the Panopticon.  Whilst the filming clearly takes place in a quarry, it feels like quite an exciting and diverse place.  Like a lot of stories, the conclusion does struggle and the Doctor and the Master wrestling for the Rod and Staff of Rassilon is something that would probably be done really well now but suffers here.

Whilst the Time Lords had featured previously in brief appearances, this is the most time that we as an audience spend in their company and they certainly are different to previous iterations.  Gone are the seemingly omniscient Gods, sentencing the Doctor to exile and giving the Third and Fourth Doctors missions, replaced by people more concerned about their own petty politics.  I prefer this version of the Time Lords, flaws and all, as the idea of flawless all powerful beings is rather dull. There’s something amusing about seeing how the retirement of the President is covered just like a human election, complete with Runcible’s election coverage.  Regardless of which versions of the Time Lords you choose to accept, it is easy to see why the two renegades chose to leave.  Borusa is obsessed with managing the story concerning the fall and ultimate demise of Chancellor Goth and his involvement in the Master’s plot, which feels very relevant to this day.

One of the biggest flaws of this story is one that a lot of stories written by Robert Holmes share – there is an absence of any female characters amongst the guest cast.  This is perhaps exacerbated here by the absence of any companion following the departure of Elisabeth Sladen in the previous story but it certainly makes the Time Lords seem pale, male and stale.  Perhaps blame should be shared here with the director David Maloney, who would have had a say in casting, as there is no reason why we could not have an equal split of Time Lords and Time Ladies in the scenes surrounding the assassination of the outgoing President.  Equally, there is no reason why some of the more prominent characters to the narrative could not also be female.  It is perhaps notable that the next time we would see the Doctor return to Gallifrey in The Invasion of Time, we are introduced to the character of Rodan and later get a Time Lady companion in the shape of two incarnations of Romana.

The Master makes his first appearance since Frontier in Space and whilst the make-up might not hold up well when overly lit, it is quite effectively horrifying.  The Master is robbed of his charm through the truth of his existence and is just full on evil here, skulking in the shadows of the Capitol and murdering the Castellan’s guards, desperate to restart his regeneration cycle.  Typically with the Master’s schemes, he doesn’t care about the collateral damage, with it here being the destruction of Gallifrey.  Pratt’s Master feels a million miles away from the gentlemanly charm of Roger Delgado, which is just goes to show how wildly characters can vary through regeneration.

Oh, Doctor?


Nine out of ten.

Borusa and the Fourth Doctor

It is probably well known that Tom Baker maintained that he did not need a companion after Elisabeth Sladen, and his view is certainly vindicated here.  It’s not something that you would want to see every episode, but this actor and this Doctor are able to pull it off here.  Baker gives a tour de force performance as the Doctor here and his booming voice and towering stature are allowed full potential to shine.  He’s great throughout the scenes of him being chased through the Capitol in Episode 1 and when he doodles caricatures of the witnesses for the Prosecution during his trial.  He is such an authority usually but when confronted with Borusa, he is almost cowed with respect for his former tutor.

Verdict: This story is flawed but it deserves its reputation as one of the highlights of Tom Baker’s era.  It certainly is one of Robert Holmes’ best stories. 10/10

Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Llewellyn Rees (The President), Bernard Horsfall (Chancellor Goth), George Pravda (Castellan Spandrell), Angus MacKay (Cardinal Borusa), Peter Pratt (The Master), Hugh Walters (Commentator Runcible), Erik Chitty (Co-ordinator Engin), Derek Seaton (Commander Hilred), Maurice Quick (Gold Usher), John Dawson and Michael Bilton (Time Lords), Peter Mayock (Solis) & Helen Blatch (Voice).

Writer: Robert Holmes

Director: David Maloney

Parts: 4

Behind the Scenes

  • The only story in the original run of the show to not feature a companion and the only one to feature no companion-surrogate.  Heaven Sent runs closest, however, Jenna Coleman features as a part of the  Doctor’s mind manifestation.
  • The first story entirely set on Gallifrey.  It marks the first mention of Rassilon, who later go on to be seen in The Five Doctors, The End of Time and Hell Bent, as well as establishing a lot of Gallifreyan society as well as establishing that Time Lords can regenerate a maximum of 12 times.
  • The closing shot of Episode 3 generated further complaints, including those of Mary Whitehouse who stated that children watching would have “this strong image (of the Doctor appearing to drown) in their minds” for the week until the resolution of the cliffhanger.  Due to the negative reactions to this cliffhanger, the BBC edited the mastertape to remove the offending section and Philip Hinchcliffe would eventually leave the show at the end of the following season. 
  • George Pravda did not learn the lines for the letter written for him by the Doctor, and the prop was actually his lines.  David Maloney switched the prop for one written in Gallifreyan without telling the actor, meaning that his reaction to the lines is actually Pravda’s real reaction.
  • The story marks the first appearance of the Master since Frontier in Space.  The original actor, Roger Delgado, had died in a car accident which had caused the character to be written out, so this story also establishes that the Master can regenerate too, although has come to the end of his regeneration cycle.  The “burnt Master” reappears in The Keeper of Traken, played by Geoffrey Beevers.
  • The biplane used was a 1949 Stampe SV.4C.  The specific plane used in this story also featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Mummy.

Cast Notes

  • The cast is exclusively male, apart from the voice work of Helen Blatch.
  • Bernard Horsfall previously played one of the Time Lords who tried and exiled the Second Doctor in The War Games, as well as appearing in The Mind Robber and Planet of the Daleks.  All four of his televised appearances were directed by David Maloney.  Fan speculation that the Time Lord officiating the Doctor’s trial was Goth was confirmed in the short story Future Imperfect.  Horsfall also appeared in the Big Finish play Davros.
  • George Pravda played Alexander Denes in The Enemy of the World and Professor Jaeger in The Mutants.
  • Angus MacKay would go on to appear in Mawdryn Undead, playing the headmaster of Turlough’s school, Mr Sellick.
  • Hugh Walters appeared in several Doctor Who stories, playing William Shakespeare in The Chase and Vogel in Revelation of the Daleks.  He would also appear in the Big Finish play The Fearmonger.
  • Erik Chitty had previously appeared in The Massacre.
  • Maurice Quick had previously had uncredited roles in Spearhead from Space and The Masque of Mandragora.
  • Michael Bilton previously appeared as Charles de Teligny in The Massacre and Collins in Pyramids of Mars.
  • Peter Mayock previously appeared as Ibrahim Namin in Pyramids of Mars.
  • Helen Blatch would go on to appear as Fabian in The Twin Dilemma.

Best Moment

The cliffhanger at the end of Part 1.

Best Quote

If heroes don’t exist, it is necessary to invent them.  Good for public morale.


Previous Fourth Doctor story: The Hand of Fear

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