Matrix Revelations: ‘The Deadly Assassin’

❉ Michael Seely on the classic Doctor Who serial which began airing 45 years ago, on this day in 1976.

It’s funny, but when I first watched the 1981 Doctor Who story The Keeper of Traken, my young mind recognised the owner of a strange black hand we caught glimpses of living inside a statue. When he span round to reveal his face to the camera, I wasn’t the only one in the living room to call out the Master. Now, according to certain fans, this doesn’t happen unless you have a degree in Whology and have five furious fanzine articles to your name. Although there were a few Target books and fewer Doctor Who Weeklys around the house (I was too poor for the new Monthly), the rest of the family could be classified as ordinary viewers. Those mortals shouldn’t have recognised a character who hadn’t been on the TV for at least five years, even allowing for a repeat in 1977. But I had compelling memories of The Deadly Assassin whose anniversary we are marking today, and the Master who lurked, plotted and schemed in the dank catacombs of Gallifrey.

Geoffrey Beevers is still a magnificent Tom Baker Master, but Peter Pratt was the guv’nor. Wearing a horrific mask (which director David Maloney gives some agreeable close-ups to make a young’un gasp), a tatty cloak, and dialogue dripping with self-pity and hatred, this Master was a million parsecs from Roger Delgado’s performance whose screen life began as a cold and brutal psychopath, someone who wanted to kill everybody, and ended up like a jovial uncle who merely wishes to inconvenience you with a galactic war. The new characterisation was one Holmes was familiar with. See Morbius, Sutekh and later Magnus Greel for similar war criminal nutters with little regard for their disposable henchmen.

In this new horrific incarnation, the Master is the Phantom of the Opera, lurking in the cellars; he is (not quite) The Manchurian Candidate, plotting to kill the President and frame the Doctor; he is Mephistopheles to Chancellor Goethe – sorry, Goth, with promises of power and position. This was a beautiful and operatic performance from Peter Pratt who was appropriately a D’Oyly Carte player and you can hear him on a very early edition of The Enchanting World of Hinge and Bracket as himself, giving verse to one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s tongue twisters.

I was too young to remember either the divine Delgado, or the Time Lords when they were strolling demigods, recapitulating the plot in The Three Doctors, or issuing judgements in The War Games and Colony in Space. Therefore, I did not have an opinion over Holmes’ revamping of what we are pleased to call the mythos of the series. He had previously given us the name Gallifrey, the Doctor his two hearts, and recently the reason why everyone speaks good English in the universe. Now, he throws at us so many references and hints of back story it is hard to keep up. The Time Lords have a CIA, thirteen lives, the TARDIS is really a Travel Capsule, and it is camouflaged by a Chameleon Circuit. The Time Lords live in the Capitol, have chapters, cloisters, chancellors, and they are a bunch of doddery old men who are hard of hearing and have dodgy hips.

Holmes gives us our first Castellan played by George Pravda, a role that must have made a change for the actor who was either cast as a Russian spy, or a Russian émigré, or both. Here he is a hard-bitten copper, investigating the murder of a President no less. He even has a young rookie called Hildred to belittle, and probably told his parents after his murder that he was a pleasure to work with. We have Co-ordinator Engin giving Derek Chitty a chance to steal whichever scene he is in by rattling out lines about excitonic circuitry. Even the retiring President is an amiable old fella. Bernard Horsfall’s Goth and Angus Mackay’s Borusa are younger, but so watchable as line-chewing politicians, wearing bizarre make-up. Tom Baker had a formidable cast to play off.

Robert Holmes gave us the lore, Roger Murray Leach gave us the style, and James Acheson and Joan Ellacot gave us collars, braid, and tracksuit bottoms which no Chancellery guard should be without. Doctor Who had moved on again, and contemporary fans watched as their impressions of Time Lord society were turned upside down. They were not happy, and made their feelings known very politely in the fanzines of the day, and bless him, Robert Holmes wrote back a respectful rebuttal. Oh, those pre-everything days. Although Robert Holmes explained his reasoning, we are only seeing a fraction of Time Lord society, possibly the inside of their Parliament and Westminster Hall, and we had seen precious little before. Frankly, we would rarely see much more in the future.

Suddenly, we are in Betchworth Quarry for the most bizarre set of images as the Doctor fights the Master’s henchman, leading into Part Three, which is mostly on film. Holmes was a master of characterisation, dialogue and set pieces, but when it came to plot, he wasn’t averse to hurrying things along whether the story liked it or not. To get the Doctor into the dreamscape, he has the Doctor point to a machine and ask, ‘What’s that?’ A quick explanation later and he connects it with hallucinations he experienced at the top of the story, and mentally dives in. Luckily, his antagonists were ready and waiting and knew Earth imagery. Then in the final episode, the Doctor listens to a few moments of a transcript about the Old Times, enough to work out the Master’s doomsday plan.

Robert Holmes was supremely good with cliff-hangers. Having the Doctor ‘assassinate’ the President at the end of Part One was a master stroke. Holmes’ ‘what will happen next?’ method was at its best when he ‘executed’ the Doctor and Peri at the end of The Caves of Androzani Part One and tried something similar a few years later in The Trial of a Time Lord when Merdeen apparently shoots the Doctor off-camera. I remember some head-scratching at school over that one.

The Deadly Assassin features one of the most controversial cliff-hangers of all time because the BBC apologised for it. The freeze-frame effect was rarely employed in Doctor Who, and usually, but not exclusively, by David Maloney. It added to the violent fight between Goth and the Doctor in a burning lake. This clip of the Doctor with his head held under the water was shown to Tom Baker for his 1992 BBC video The Tom Baker Years and his reaction was quite a revelation. No big grin here, only a disapproving look worthy of a Bishop. That clip was shown at Pebble Mill at One, but all us kids were at school, we weren’t harmed again, Mrs Whitehouse.

The Deadly Assassin is a delicious story, beautifully directed, exquisitely designed, well-acted, and with a couple of moments for the adults to laugh out loud – how can you not raise a smile at the chalk outline of the dead President, collar? As for the ludicrous dagger which finished off Runcible, well… The narrated introduction at the top of the story suggests something epic is about to unfold, and it does: our understanding of Doctor Who is being pushed into a new direction. The Time Lords are developed in the next series, culminating in a rare sequel for Doctor Who, The Invasion of Time. But we had to wait until 1981 for the return of the Master, and the next stage of his adventure. And we were all waiting to welcome him back.

❉ ‘The Deadly Asssassin’ was originally broadcast on BBC One in four parts, 30 October – 20 November 1976, as the third serial of season 14 of Doctor Who. It was released on VHS by BBC Video in October 1991 and on DVD by 2 Entertain in May 2009, and is available on Blu-ray from BBC Studios as part of ‘Doctor Who – The Collection – Season 14’. The novelisation, ‘Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin’ by Terrance Dicks, was published by Target/WH Allen in 1977 and released as a complete and unabridged audiobook read by Geoffrey Beevers in March 2015 by BBC Audio. A monograph on the serial, The Black Archive #45: The Deadly Assassin’ by Andrew Orton is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £8.99.

❉ A longstanding contributor to We Are Cult, writer Michael Seely’s biography of Douglas Camfield, ‘Directed by Douglas Camfield’, is available from Fantom Publishing and he has also contributed a chapter to a new edition of Barry Letts’ autobiography ‘Who and I’ also available from Fantom Publishing

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