Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin Review
At the end of The Hand of Fear the Doctor received a summons to his home planet of Gallifrey, which meant leaving his companion Sarah Jane behind on Earth. As he arrives on Gallifrey, the Doctor has a premonition that the President will be assassinated, on the day that he is due to stand down and name a successor. However, the Doctor soon realises that an old enemy is at work behind the scenes.
The Deadly Assassin is a serial vitally important to the history of Doctor Who for a number of reasons. More than any story except Patrick Troughton’s epic swansong The War Games (itself due for DVD release later in 2009), it expanded – as The War Games did – our knowledge of the Doctor’s home race, the Time Lords, and their planet Gallifrey. It reintroduced The Master after a gap of three years. For the first and only time in Classic Who, the Doctor operates without a companion. (Sarah Jane had left at the end of The Hand of Fear and Leela would not be introduced until the next story, after a Christmas break, The Face of Evil.) And less fortunately but just as momentously, complaints about the programme’s content and suitability for children came to a head and the show would never be the same again.
Many of Robert Holmes’s stories raid classic film and literary motifs, and The Deadly Assassin’s resemblance to The Manchurian Candidate (a film that at the time was out of circulation) cannot go unnoticed and is in fact dwelled on in the extras on this DVD. Intrigue there certainly is, and to be honest it's a little tedious in places – this isn't my favourite Who serial. However, many items of Who lore were introduced here, and this story also saw the return of the show's arch-villain The Master.….
The Master had been a regular adversary earlier in the decade, the Moriarty to the Third Doctor’s Sherlock if you will. Roger Delgado’s portrayal had been definitive, despite claims made for Anthony Ainley’s version. (Not to mention John Simm’s.) But all that ended with Delgado’s sudden death in a car accident in 1973. The Master in The Deadly Assassin, played by Peter Pratt under heavy makeup, is a decrepit decayed thing, having exhausted its maximum twelve incarnations. (This rule also had its first mention here, though The Master would later be given a get-out clause (see The Keeper of Traken). I wouldn’t be surprised if the makers of new Who simply ignore this limit in the foreseeable future, as we are now about to meet Doctor Number Eleven as I write this.)
The majority of Part Three and some of Parts Two and Four is taken up with The Doctor’s battle with Chancellor Goth (Bernard Horsfall) in The Matrix. Tom Baker, much as Pertwee was before him, was a physically imposing actor, both men being about 6’3” tall. Importantly, Horsfall is even more so, being a couple of inches taller, and for once The Doctor genuinely seems to be in danger. At the cliffhanger of Episode Three, Goth seems to have the upper hand, and he has his hands around the Doctor’s neck. Freeze-frame...and as the theme tune starts up, it looks as if the Doctor has drowned…tune in next week to see if he escapes. And at that point Mary Whitehouse, head of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, blew a fuse. She had complained about torture in The Sontaran Experiment, about the grim tone and Nazi overtones of Genesis of the Daleks and about the Frankenstein themes and grisly imagery of The Brain of Morbius. This time she drew blood. The Director General of the BBC wrote her a letter of apology. Philip Hinchcliffe was replaced as producer, ironically to go on to another series (the cop show Target) criticised for its violence but at least post-watershed. His successor at Who, Graham Williams, was under instructions to lighten the tone and make the show more child-friendly. Elements of whimsy, if not outright farce, crept in, some of it contributed by a more and more uncontrolled lead actor. Watching at the time, this viewer sensed that the show was on a downhill slide from a peak, and I stopped watching in 1979. (The offending freeze-frame was edited from the master tape for future showings, and has been restored, seamlessly, from a home video copy.)
Just for once, for what is still a mainly studio-bound drama shot with multiple video cameras, The Deadly Assassin allows the director to shine. The Matrix sequences, which take up about four-fifths of Part Three, are exteriors shot on film with two actors (plus a couple of extras) and very little dialogue. That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the director, and David Maloney does some of his best work for the show, conjuring up a compellingly surreal, if not nightmarish, computerscape for The Matrix. That said, the more realistic fight scenes near the end stand in jarring contrast to the earlier scenes, which may have contributed to the complaints. (As well as Goth, Horsfall turns up as the samurai and the clown, not to mention the biplane pilot's laugh.) The Matrix sequences are so well done I wished I liked the serial better. Other pluses are Roger Murray-Leach's production design and the costume designs (partly the work of James Acheson, who went on to be an Oscar-winning cinema designer), Dudley Simpson's score and the work of the rest of the cast, in particular George Pravda.
The Deadly Assassin is released on DVD by 2 Entertain as one dual-layered disc. The region coding is unusual. Where every other Who disc I've seen – and almost all discs of any kind from this distributor – have been dual-encoded, 2 and 4, this is encoded for Region 2 only. As well as the usual menu, there is an optional audio navigation menu.
Given that this is 70s television, the aspect ratio is 4:3. As usual, the Restoration Team have done a great job: the all-important film sequences in particular look very good. Given that the rest of the serial was shot on standard-def video, it looks as good as it is ever likely to.
The same goes for the soundtrack, which is mono as per original broadcast, and dialogue, effects and Dudley Simpson's music score are well balanced. Subtitles for the hard-or-hearing are available on the feature and all extras except the commentary. The ever-informative production subtitles are this time the work of a new name, Niall Boyce, who does a fine job.
The commentary features Tom Baker, Philip Hinchcliffe and Bernard Horsfall. Baker is more restrained than he has been on other commentaries (with an all-male gathering for a change?). Hinchcliffe who holds the chat together, with occasional contributions from Horsfall. A worthwhile listen.
There are three featurettes. “The Matrix Revisited” (29:16) is the making-of, with contributions from Baker, Horsfall and Hinchcliffe, Roger Murray-Leach. Former president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society Jan Vincent-Rudzki describes the reservations the fans had about the serial at the time. Appearing in archive interviews are David Maloney and Mary Whitehouse.
“The Gallifreyan Candidate” (10:30) expands on the parallels between The Deadly Assassin and the 1962 film referred to above, directed by John Frankenheimer and adapted by George Axelrod from Richard Condon's novel, with the aid of two academics, Stacy Gillis and Andrew Shail.
“The Frighten Factor” (16:36) features a large number of interviewees – many of the usual suspects plus some new ones – addressing the question, What scares us? This addresses many of the sources of our common fears, using particular Who episodes as examples.
In addition, the disc contains a self-navigating stills gallery (5:38), a coming-soon trailer for Delta and the Bannermen (1:02) and, as a PDF, Radio Times listings. To find the Easter Egg, click left from “The Gallifreyan Candidate”, and you will find twenty-seven seconds of a programme trail from the end of the final episode of The Hand of Fear.
So there you have it. The Deadly Assassin is one of the most important Who serials in establishing what we know about the Time Lords. It's a product of a time when the show was producing one high-quality serial after another – and gaining some of its highest audiences in its history – and any reservations I have are more to do with personal taste than anything else. Given the controversy over the serial's content, and the BBC's response to it, it can also be seen as the beginning of the end.