Aren't all assassins deadly? You'd have to be a pretty inept one not to be. Some Doctor Who story titles are clumsy, and some make little or no sense, whilst others can be downright misleading. This story title certainly has a certain clunkiness about it.
Once Lis Sladen had announced her departure, Tom Baker - now fully established in the role of the Doctor and with ideas of his own about the character and the programme in general - began to argue against the need for him having a companion. A new companion was already being developed, however - lined up to appear in the last half of the season at least. This would be an Eliza Doolittle-type character whom the Doctor would teach and mentor. She wouldn't be introduced until the fourth story of the season, and so Philip Hinchcliffe decided to indulge his star with a single companion-less story - to demonstrate how this set-up wouldn't work, if anything. As this would need someone very familiar with the format of the show to write it, special dispensation was sought from the Writers Guild for the series' Script Editor to do it. Script Editors commissioning themselves was generally frowned upon, but permission was granted, and so Robert Holmes began work. This would have financial implications for him, as we will see when we get to The Sunmakers.
After a couple of years of horror movie homages, Holmes decided to write a political thriller - to be set on Gallifrey, the Doctor's homeworld. It had first featured in 1969 at the conclusion of Patrick Troughton's tenure, when the Doctor was brought home to face trial for interfering in the affairs of other races. After a brief glimpse at the beginning of Colony in Space, when the Time Lords had begun sending the Doctor on secret missions - breaking their own rules - it was only seen again when it came under attack by Omega. It took three Doctors to defeat him, but the Time Lords rewarded him by lifting the exile imposed after the trial.
Holmes was aware of the seeming hypocrisy of those missions which the Time Lords had sent the Doctor on, and came to think of them as being more than just aloof god-like beings. If Gallifreyan society was so great, why had the Doctor left it? Also, what was it about all these rogue Time Lords knocking about the cosmos - especially his own creation, the Master? As well as the Master, we had also seen the time-meddling Monk, the War Chief, Omega and, more recently, Morbius (in a story heavily rewritten by Holmes himself). If Time Lord society could produce renegades like this, then it had to have a darker side.
Holmes envisaged Gallifrey as something akin to an ancient University, like Oxford or Cambridge - full of elderly male dons who knew little about the world beyond their quads and cloisters. He also based it on the Vatican - an enclosed society of strict hierarchy, again populated by elderly men, out of touch with the modern world.
The names and titles of the characters reflect these influences. Borusa is a Cardinal (a senior Catholic cleric), Goth - from the word Gothic - is a Chancellor (a university title). The Castellan (the governor of a castle or fortress) is named Spandrell - a Gothic architectural feature. The Commentator is called Runcible - a made-up nonsense word devised by the High Victorian poet Edward Lear for his 1871 ode The Owl and the Pussycat. (It was later used as the name for a sort of trifurcated spoon).
The main council chamber is called the Panopticon. This was a type of prison designed by the 18th Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which the cells were built in a circle surrounding a central tower, so that the guards could easily observe the inmates at all times. The word comes from 'all seeing' - which is suggestive of how the Time Lords look down upon the universe.
Holmes set the action within the Capitol on Gallifrey, citadel of the Time Lords. There are hints that not everyone who lives on Gallifrey is a Time Lord. Who is Commentator Runcible broadcasting to, for instance? Then we have the security forces - the Chancellery Guards. A very lowly position for a Time Lord, surely, and they don't seem to regenerate when they are killed.
Another inspiration for the kind of Time Lord society envisaged by Holmes might be the Gormenghast trilogy of books by Mervyn Peake, published between 1946 and 1959. These describe a vast crumbling castle where everyone is bound by archaic ritual.
For the main villain, Hinchcliffe and Holmes decided to bring back the Master. As Roger Delgado had died in 1973 it was necessary to recast the role. The actor chosen was Peter Pratt, best known for radio drama and who was famed for his work with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Director David Maloney was a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and knew he needed someone with a good voice as the part would be played from under a mask. In order to give the character motivation, it was decided to have the Master reduced to a walking cadaver, barely existing at the end of his incarnations. (Holmes invented in this story the notion that Time Lords can only regenerate 12 times, and so have only 13 incarnations. This would have been a safe thing to do, when they were only on the fourth incarnation in 13 years. Holmes wasn't to know that the 1980's would see them whizz through Doctors). The Master's monstrous appearance, and his lurking in the catacombs beneath the Capitol, seem to have been inspired by The Phantom of the Opera - something which Holmes would revisit at the end of this season.
The Hand of Fear had concluded with the Doctor receiving a telepathic summons to return to Gallifrey - necessitating the departure of Sarah, as she is unable to go with him. This implies a law of the Time Lords, but it might simply be something he made up, as we now see that he had a vision of the President being assassinated - and it is he who has pulled the trigger. When the TARDIS arrives, the Doctor learns that it is Presidential Resignation Day. He slips past the guards and goes to the Panopticon wearing purloined robes, in order to stop the killing. He is decoyed up to the higher levels, and the assassin shoots the President from close at hand - but the Doctor is the interloper found to be holding a rifle.
The inspiration for all this is clearly the assassination of President John F Kennedy, on 22nd November 1963 - the day before Doctor Who was first broadcast. In particular, the inspiration derives from the commonly held belief that Lee Harvey Oswald was merely a patsy - set up as a scapegoat by others, and the shots which killed JFK came from somewhere else (the famous grassy knoll).
Most reference works will mention the book / movie The Manchurian Candidate as a primary inspiration for The Deadly Assassin. This deals with American soldiers being brainwashed by the Chinese, in league with powerful US communist sympathisers, into carrying out a political assassination. The book was written by Richard Condon and published in 1959. It was filmed in 1962, starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury. The 2004 remake, with Denzil Washington, replaced the communists with a big business syndicate.
The problem of not having a companion makes itself felt very early on, as the Doctor is forced to talk to himself for much of the first episode. He is then teamed up with Castellan Spandrell and with Co-Ordinator Engin, who basically become one-off companions in parts two and four.
The third episode is the one that everyone remembers, however. The Time Lords have this thing called the Matrix - which is a repository for the minds of every Time Lord who has ever died. This allows them to predict future events. The Doctor realises that the Master must have access to the Matrix - otherwise how was he able to prevent the Time Lords foreseeing the assassination, and for it to have been transmitted to the Doctor's mind.
In order to track down his old enemy, the Doctor decides that he must join his mind to the Matrix, and so enters a nightmare realm which is under the control of the Master and the real assassin, whose mind is also there. We have a series of adventures in this dreamscape, many of which are quite surreal. Apart from the Third Doctor's fight with the dark side of Omega's mind in The Three Doctors, we haven't seen much in the way of surrealism in the series. The closest would have been the Second Doctor story The Mind Robber, set in the Land of Fiction. The assassin proves to be Chancellor Goth - the man tipped to become the next President. He had learned that he was going to be passed over for the position, however - so assassinating the President before he could announce his successor was his only option.
The Episode Three cliffhanger - in which Goth holds the Doctor's head underwater, and Maloney opts to use a freeze-frame - brought down the wrath of Mary Whitehouse upon Philip Hinchcliffe's head, and would ultimately result in him being moved on from the programme. She had been sniping at the show for a number of years, but this was the final straw. Whitehouse had an objection to the series' cliffhangers at the best of times - feeling that children would be left for a whole week with some traumatic image. With this episode however, it was claimed that a child had told his parent that if his baby sibling did not behave then he would hold him under the bathwater until he went quiet, just like Doctor Who. The BBC upheld the complaint, and the offending sequence was shortened for the story's repeat screening the following summer.
With Goth defeated, the Master's true scheme is revealed. He plans to steal Gallifrey's energy source in order to give himself a new regeneration cycle - something which will destroy the planet. He wanted Goth to become President only so that he could acquire the various symbols of Rassilon which would enable him to achieve this aim. (It should be noted that this is the first story to mention the fabled architect of Time Lord society. Actually, pretty much everything we now think about when it comes to the Time Lords derives from this story - from Rassilon to the costumes).
The Doctor manages to win the day, saving the planet and knocking the Master down a crevasse.
The wily old Cardinal Borusa decides to manipulate the truth for public consumption - removing the Doctor's role from the narrative and making Goth out to be a hero who died saving Gallifrey.
Shortly after the Doctor departs, reminded of just why he left in the first place, Spandrell and Engin see a slightly rejuvenated Master follow close behind. Hinchcliffe and Holmes had set this up so a future production team could bring the character back with a new actor playing him.
Mrs Whitehouse was not the only person to take umbrage at this story. One of its biggest critics was the President of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society - Jan Vincent-Rudzki. He was appalled at Holmes' revisionist take on the Time Lords. As far as he was concerned they ought to be the aloof, god-like beings as seen on the programme before. He was shocked to see them portrayed as decadent and corrupt, and resorting to torture to gain a confession from the Doctor. He disliked how a pair of elderly Time Lords were seen to complain of aches and pains. Basically, he didn't like that they were portrayed as human. However, I have already pointed out Holmes' own views on the Time Lords above - a society which the Doctor had rejected, and which was capable of creating monsters of its own.
Next time: One of the best story titles never used. The Doctor experiences the consequences of a previous intervention by himself, in a tale of mad computers and eugenics. Let's face it, having no companion didn't really work, so it's time to welcome Leela...