I must have watched The Deadly Assassin half a dozen times, but it was only when I was thinking about writing this article that a thought occurred to me: what exactly is a “panopticon”? Is it just a made up word for Doctor Who, or is it something real? After some extensive research (ok, I typed it into Wikipedia), it turns out that it was an idea for a prison building from the 18th Century. Nobody ever built one, although there are prison designs that come close, but basically the idea was for a circular prison where all the cells are observable from a central tower. The point of that was to make the prisoners feel like they are being watched all they time, whether they are or not, leading to better behaviour. In Greek mythology the Panoptes was a giant watchman with a hundred eyes.
But the Panopticon in Doctor Who isn’t a prison, is it? It’s the most important building in the Capitol on Gallifrey, the place where state occasions take place, the secret location of the Eye of Harmony. So why did Robert Holmes use that word, other than because it sounds suitably grand? Well, actually this story makes the most sense if you consider the Time Lords to be prisoners of their own restrictive, crumbling old society. Let’s look at the relationship they actually have here to time travel.
We are told that the Doctor’s particular model of TARDIS was one of only 305 ever made. This doesn’t seem a lot for the entire population of Gallifrey. I mean, Ford were selling about 100,000 Cortinas in the UK alone around the time this was being made, and ended up selling over 4 million of them, so we are not talking about a commodity like a car when we think about TARDISes on Gallifrey, unless the Type 40 was something particularly rare and unsuccessful. While it is amusing to think of the Doctor’s TARDIS as the Sinclair C5 of TARDISes, even those sold 5000 units, so the most logical interpretation of Time Lord society is that time travel is actually something that is severely restricted. And not just restricted to a privileged aristocracy, but restricted in the sense of not used much. So they have the ability to travel in time, but they don’t do much of it, having instead withdrawn into their own stale little world. The big clue to this is the Matrix itself, which is an exercise in preserving memories, something that would seem redundant for a race that can just pop back in time and see history for itself.
So the clear indication is that the Time Lords have imprisoned themselves in a linear society where order is preserved, they all go forward at the same speed as each other, not jumping back or ahead or crossing each other’s time streams, and keep time travel to a minimum. You can see why this might happen. A society with everyone jumping back and forth throughout their own history would quickly descend into chaos, but it becomes clear now exactly why both the Doctor and the Master would have wanted to run away from this and go off on adventures. They wanted to escape from prison.
At last we have a story that looks in detail at the society the Doctor ran away from, putting everything into context. This might as well be called Genesis of the Doctor, without doing anything horribly obvious like going back to show the Doctor as a young man on Gallifrey. We get a strong picture of his past without it being actually shown. And this makes The Deadly Assassin both an ending and a beginning, fitting for a story with no companion. The whole of Classic Who pivots around this point, and not just because it is accidentally the mid-point of the original run. The Tom Baker era so far has set about dismantling the past. It got rid of UNIT, and overwrote the history of the Daleks, cancelling out the first Dalek story unless you want to engage in a tortuous bit of ret-conning. Now Sarah Jane is gone, and with her even the idea of the Doctor travelling with a companion. That must all start afresh. The Master is a rotting corpse. The origins of Doctor Who are referenced with the assassination story, echoing the assassination of Kennedy a day before An Unearthly Child went out, surely a deliberate invocation of a time before Doctor Who existed. This is Doctor Who, day one. And the series is rebuilt with a merging of British and American culture.
There had been attempts to show Doctor Who to North American viewers before, but never very successful. In 1976 (the year The Deadly Assassin went out in the UK) TVOntario started showing Doctor Who on a weekly basis, commencing with The Three Doctors, ironically the story The Deadly Assassin stamps all over.
Through the millennia, the Time Lords of Gallifrey led a life of peace and ordered calm, protected from 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.
Think about that statement, in relation to The Three Doctors. Two years later, PBS stations would finally make Doctor Who into something of a cult, niche, qualified success in the US, so the consumption of Doctor Who in North America was starting right about now. Whether by luck or judgement, The Deadly Assassin reboots the series with a merging of US and UK tradition. The Time Lords have a President and the CIA, but a fusty old university type establishment history, and Runcible giving a pompous, television commentary on events, which is reminiscent of our own great state occasions.
Having dispensed with the past of Doctor Who, and established a new past along merged UK/US lines, The Deadly Assassin then sets about doing what Doctor Who does best but will ironically not be allowed to do very much after this point: being a horror story.
And what a horror story! The matrix sequence contains everything that people fear the most, all the horrible images that are the stuff of nightmares: a laughing clown, a surgeon, the horrors of war, even a spider. It’s an astonishingly brutal sequence that lasts for more than an entire episode. Strictly speaking, it’s a way to pad out the story and do something with what tends to be a redundant third episode in a four-episode story, but what a way to do that. This is a different series we are watching, Master Who, and the Doctor has to fight desperately just to survive from one minute to the next. Even without this sequence, The Deadly Assassin would have been an amazing piece of work, but the Matrix episode elevates it to the absolute peak of what Doctor Who has to offer. What a way to make a fresh start. Doctor Who is born again.
I could write ten times this amount of words on The Deadly Assassin but everyone would get bored, so instead here are some bonus observations. Feel free to skip straight past them to Mike’s article.
- Peter Pratt does a remarkable job as the Master, not only given the near-impossible task of stepping into the shoes of the much missed Roger Delgado, but having to rely almost entirely on his voice to create the character.
- I have mentioned the Mary Whitehouse controversy elsewhere, so I won’t repeat myself here, but you can find more on the subject here: The Invisible Enemy (see point 3 in the list section) and here: Dark Water
- …but I will just say this: Parts Two and Three include: a screaming samurai warrior, a masked surgeon with a huge syringe full of blood, a war sequence with a gas-masked horse, a laughing clown in a mirror under the sand (scariest of all!), the Doctor’s leg dripping with blood, Goth stabbing an antidote into his infected leg, Goth on fire, and a vicious fight between the Doctor and Goth. What did Mary Whitehouse choose to complain about? A freeze frame of the Doctor under water.
- This is the first truly companion-less story, in which the Doctor arrives without a companion, and does not gain a new one during the course of the story. It had never happened before, and would not happen again until (arguably) The Movie.
- There is lots of new information about Time Lord society. We see the President for the first time, and learn that he names his successor. The Celestial Intervention Agency is mentioned for the first time, as are the different ‘chapters’ of Time Lords: the Prydonians (of which the Doctor is a member), the Arcalians, and the Patraxes. The Panopticon is also seen for the first time, and the ‘Shaboogans’ are mentioned (some kind of Gallifreyan underclass, who go around vandalising things!) Then there are the ‘transduction barriers’ that protect Gallifrey from invaders.
- The Doctor’s trial is rather low-key: a bunch of people stood up in a room that is so small that only the Doctor and Goth get to sit down!
- Some speculation: Bernard Horsfall also played a Time Lord in The War Games, and Colin Baker was seen as Maxil in Arc of Infinity before he played the Doctor. In the War Games, the Doctor was shown a choice of faces, and Romana seemed able to choose a body, running through some alternatives first, in Destiny of the Daleks. Could all this point to a choice of standard bodies available to regenerating Time Lords? Is there a fashion world of regeneration bodies, like choosing a set of clothes?
- ‘The sentence was subsequently remitted at the intercession of the CIA.’ This happened at the end of The Three Doctors, although the involvement of the CIA is new information.
- The Matrix is seen for the first time in this story (and pre-dates the films of the same name by a couple of decades).
- The resolution to the Part Three cliffhanger is a bit odd: Goth lets the Doctor go, has a bit of a funny turn, and then the Doctor hits him with a big stick.
- We learn that ‘after the twelfth regeneration there is no plan that will postpone death’, but it is never stated whether this is a natural limitation or something that has been imposed by Time Lords on themselves. In light of one particular scene from The Brain of Morbius, is this even a cheeky attempt on the part of Holmes to kill off Doctor Who when Tom Baker leaves?
- The Doctor and the Master have one line of description each that sums each other up perfectly: ‘the Doctor is never more dangerous than when the odds are against him’ and ‘you’d delay an execution to pull the wings off a fly.’
The view from across the pond:
ArU: “Hello, Assassin’s R Us, how may I help you?”
Customer: “Yes, I need to take someone out, and I do not mean on a date!”
ArU: “Very good sir, we can help with your ‘non-dating’ needs. We have availability all week. Will you be paying cash or with an offshore account?”
Customer: “Ah, yes, well I’m on a budget!”
ArU: “I see sir. We can still accommodate, but depending on how ‘budget’, we may have to offer you our less effective range. We have “The Inept Assassin”, “The Sometimes-Lucky Assassin” and the “Hit-and-miss assassin”. This last usually hits his target but rarely accomplishes the kill! We also have a logic assassin but he’s been hired by an S. Moffat for some future writing work, so he may not be available.”
Customer: “Damn, you don’t have any Deadly assassins available?”
ArU: “Well, as I said, it is possible that one of the aforementioned assassins will get the job done, but we can’t guarantee anything …on a budget!”
For those not enjoying the silly phone call, let me spell it out. Who names a story “The Deadly Assassin”? How many other kinds are there? It’s like “Would you like ice in your drink?” “Only if the ice is cold!” Or “Is that fire hot?” “No, no, I have a cold fire going, feel free to jump in!” The crazy thing is that the working title was “The Dangerous Assassin” which doesn’t make it any better. I ask again, is there any other kind? “Don’t worry. He kills, but he’s not ‘dangerous’!” The thing is, barring the idiocy of the title, that’s about as bad as it ever gets. The rest of the story is damned good on a number of levels And let’s just say I’ve been looking forward to talking about this one for a long time.
The biggest reason for that is to rub it in the proverbial faces of The Matrix fans who like to talk about how unique and special that movie was. You know, where “Neo” goes into a computer that, through sheer force of will, he could do anything he wanted if he just thought hard enough. That vast computer program, called “The Matrix”, wherein he fought an enemy that was more adept at reconstructing reality than he was, but he learns the trick and wins anyway? Yeah, that one. The one that took the title from the Matrix, the computer program where the Doctor fights his archenemy, the Master, who is more adept at reconstructing reality than he is. Yeah, that The Matrix. Been there, done that 2 decades earlier. And on Gallifrey!!! After the first movie, the others ruined the story anyway whereas Doctor Who went on for…well, ever, so we can see which won out in the end.
Then there’s the Master. As a kid who started my Doctor Who viewing with Tom Baker, this was my first encounter with the character and I loved it. That face with those horrible, open eyes that could not blink… it was a nightmare visage. And while I do understand why they went with a human face for The Keeper of Traken, I did miss this version. I thought that burned out husk was fantastic looking. I may be in a minority here, but I felt they should have kept that mask rather than give the actors face the screen time, because it hung out in the uncanny valley, a place I love to explore. It was disturbing in a way the human face never could be.
We were also given our first close look at Gallifrey. We see the society, their ways of life which includes news reports and camerawork, and discover they too have a CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency). We see their style of clothing, all academia, colored robes, and high collars. Also their technology, with “biodata extracts” and “excitronic circuitry”. Oh, and medicine like “tricophenolaldehyde”, a word I still enjoy saying even if I can’t say it the way Baker does! We learn a bit about Rassilon (woohoo!) and that wonderful seal leaves Voga and makes it to the place it belongs. And we learned that Time Lords get 12 regenerations giving them 13 lives. Who knew then that there would be a need to give the Doctor 507 lives one day? I suspect the show will go on long enough to use all of them.
The episode also did another exciting thing: it opened with an on-screen scroll a full year before Star Wars came out. Tom Baker narrates the scrolling words, which is a step up from the non-voiced Star Wars version. But then Tom Baker, like Morgan Freeman, could probably read the phone book to a standing ovation, so that may not be the victory I imply. (What do you mean, “what’s a phone book?!”)
And we can’t ignore the supporting cast. Bernard Horsfall is fantastic as the ever-squinting Chancellor Goth. He was great as Gulliver back with Troughton and he’s fantastic here too. There’s something very likable about him, except for maybe when he’s drowning the Doctor. I won’t get into the whole “Mary Whitehouse thing” because any fan of the classic series knows the story and understands that Mary was a cranky old bitty who didn’t understand television, so let’s just be happy that Horsfall made a great addition to the cast and move on. To add to the cast, Castellan Spandrell and Coordinator Engin (George Pradva and Erik Chitty, respectively) made a great team to help the Doctor out. Engin…. Oh, who doesn’t love Engin!
As the only companion-less story of classic Who, and in some ways, even New Who, this story still delivers. In fact, it proved that Doctor Who could still tell an intelligent story and not need someone asking for explanations every five minutes. There are no humans in this story, so everyone on Gallifrey has more or less the same understanding of the technology, and by default, so does the viewer. The few questions we may be left with are answered by good ol’ Coordinator Engin about technical issues. So it’s a rare treat and one that works exceptionally well.
Kudos on yet another experiment gone right in Doctor Who’s long history. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Face of Evil