‘The Black Archive #45: The Deadly Assassin’

This wide-reaching study shows just how smart a writer Robert Holmes was.

Certain Doctor Who stories try their hardest to shake the foundations of the show and while many fail in their aim, it’s safe to say that The Deadly Assassin succeeded.  Andrew Orton’s debut Black Archive essay looks at Assassin, grounding it in contemporary politics and media, and in context of what Doctor Who was at the time of its transmission, what it had been, and what it was to be.  All that, and it doesn’t make a gag about the tautological nature of the story’s title.  Impressive restraint, there.

This wide-reaching essay shows (were proof needed) just how smart a writer Robert Holmes was.  From his use of wartime imagery to make the Matrix sequences hit home harder and make the horror more vivid, to the spoken introduction to give the drama unfolding a sense of textbook realism, Holmes pulled out all the stops in this story and Orton is able to show why these methods are as effective as they are.  Elsewhere, he looks at Holmes’s use of language throughout Who and why his idiosyncratic patter works; and then we’ve appendices that try to give a scientific(-ish) explanation of just how the Eye of Harmony might work, and what the Time Lords actually do.

All three appendices are interesting and come with the same degree of depth and intelligence of the main essay, with some well-thought through explanations of how Gallifrey functions, and the difference in Time Lord portrayal from The War Games through to Assassin and why this may not be as jarring or grand a shift as fans take it to be.  As Holmes himself put it, a race that breeds the Monk and the Master and a runaway like the Doctor doesn’t entirely square up with the all-powerful gods who put the War Lord and Doctor on trial.  Whether you agree with Orton’s musings on the subject or not, it certainly makes sense and does tie in with a lot of what Assassin does thematically.

At its heart (or should that be hearts?), Assassin is a story about myth vs. public perception, something that feels depressingly relevant in the age we live in right now.  Why have truth when we can have a more crowd-pleasing truth? It also shows just how many writers went on to miss the points being made in Assassin: that mythologising the past isn’t always the way forward.  In that respect, the essay shows just why Assassin works in every way and why The Timeless Children fails in every one, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I think the Black Archive essays work best when the writer has a clear passion for the story being discussed and a clear passion to share that adoration.  We’ve seen it in tomes on Timelash, Hell Bent and The Curse of Fenric and we see it again here.

I’ve only just started watching my Season 14 Blu Ray set and The Deadly Assassin is up next.  It’s a story I’ve always enjoyed but with this essay to hand, I feel it’ll now be a story that I also understand and appreciate far more than I ever did before.  For that alone, it’s worth the asking price.


‘The Black Archive #45: The Deadly Assassin’ by Andrew Orton is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!

 Nick Mellish is a regular contributor to We Are Cult, and author of Target Trawl. Sometimes, he blogs: http://tinternetmellish.blogspot.com

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