‘The Deadly Assassin’ (TV)


Please feel free to comment on my review.

The Fourth Doctor and the Master on Gallifrey

And now we come to one of the most popular adventures ever made in the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe era of the ‘Doctor Who’ TV series! It’s also considered a controversial story on certain levels. In this story, the Doctor travels alone as he returns to Gallifrey – the home of the Time Lords!

Yes! ‘The Deadly Assassin’ has to be one of the most highly acclaimed ‘Doctor Who’ stories ever made in the show’s history. It’s a classic four-part adventure that re-introduces the Time Lords of Gallifrey as well as bringing back the Master in a decrypt, husked form to make the story really scary.

As indicated, the story isn’t to everyone’s tastes. This is in terms of how the ‘Doctor Who’ fans reacted to the story at the time, especially when the Time Lords were re-envisioned; as well as the violence issues featured in it. But there is no denying ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is a landmark story here.

The story begins with…a ‘Star Wars’-styled being narrated by Tom Baker?! Hey, wait a minute! ‘The Deadly Assassin’ was made in 1976 before ‘Star Wars’ was made in 1977. ‘Star Wars’ nicked that opening crawl from ‘Doctor Who’, didn’t they?! Mind you, ‘Star Wars’ steals a lot from ‘Doctor Who’.

In the story, the Doctor has been summoned back to his home planet of Gallifrey. He previously said goodbye to Sarah Jane Smith in ‘The Hand of Fear’. It’s sad that the Doctor doesn’t have Sarah Jane with him anymore. Judging by this story, Tom Baker’s Doctor certainly needs a companion with him.

Tom Baker did ask producer Philip Hinchcliffe if he could do the series without a companion and just talk to himself. 😀 I actually think it would be amusing if Tom Baker just talked to himself all the time in the TARDIS. It would probably get boring after a while before Tom’s Doctor realised he was alone.

Of course, Philip Hinchcliffe told Tom that he couldn’t talk to himself and that he needed a companion. Yet, he was happy to do one story where the Doctor was without a companion in ‘The Deadly Assassin’. I’m glad Philip Hinchcliffe was willing to experiment with this approach in the story.

I also think it’s clear that Tom Baker missed the lovely Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith once she left. Any new companion that was going to be introduced was always going to be a hard act to follow, especially after Sarah Jane’s popularity. But that’s all for when we come to ‘The Face of Evil’.

Anyway, like I said, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey where he receives an unfriendly welcome. I would’ve thought Tom Baker’s Doctor’s return to Gallifrey was to help in an emergency since he got the recall signal at the end of ‘The Hand of Fear’? But it soon seems there’s a lot more to it than this.

Before his return to Gallifrey, the Doctor had a premonition of the President of the Time Lords being assassinated on the day of his retirement. Once on Gallifrey, the Doctor tries everything he can in order to warn the Time Lord President or someone in authority on the certain assassination attempt.

Incidentally, I liked it when Tom Baker’s Doctor got to dress up as a cardinal, donning that Time Lord garb and collar, during the Presidential ceremony (more on costumes in a bit). Seeing Tom Baker’s Doctor in Time Lord robes was so remarkable, even if it’s for a short time in one episode of the story.

In the end, the Doctor gets framed for committing the assassination of the Time Lord President, whom he has never met before. The Doctor has to prove his innocence and in order to do that, he must venture into the Matrix of Gallifrey in order to find out who is the true assassin in the TV story.

It’s intriguing to see how Tom’s Doctor copes alone and braves through the dangers of being back on Gallifrey again. He also deals with the charges laid against him when he’s accused for assassinating the Time Lord President. Tom does cope remarkably well being the Doctor during this TV adventure.

It’s also clear from watching this story why the Doctor needs a companion. He has to be restrained when he commits violent acts whenever he’s on Gallifrey or inside the Matrix. Sarah Jane isn’t there to advise the Doctor on his morality. He takes on drastic measures in order to outwit his opponents.

There are elements of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ novel by Richard Condon which became a major influence on the plot of ‘The Deadly Assassin’. I’ve not read that book and I’ve not seen the 1962 film adaptation of it. But I can definitely tell there are political influences in this ‘Doctor Who’ adventure.

The story is by Robert Holmes who again was the current script editor of the TV series at the time in 1976. Holmes was asked to deliver a conspiracy-theory style of story by producer Phillip Hinchcliffe. What he delivered is a remarkable reintroduction of the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords of Gallifrey!

The Time Lords were introduced in Patrick Troughton’s swansong story of ‘Doctor Who’ called ‘The War Games’. For a while, they were considered god-like in the TV series during the Jon Pertwee era, especially when they were seen again in ‘The Three Doctors’. They weren’t god-like anymore in this.

In ‘The Deadly Assassin’, the Time Lords became a complete contrast to those early god-like versions featured in ‘The War Games’ and ‘The Three Doctors’. They’re now considered ‘merely old men with big collars, arguing’, which is well-described by Paul Cornell in the audio story ‘Circular Time: Spring’.

I enjoyed Robert Holmes’ depiction of the Time Lords in this ‘Doctor Who’ adventure. Mind you, not many fans at the time in 1976 were happy with this version of the Time Lords, since they’d grown accustomed to the vision of the Time Lords as god-like beings by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke.

Nowadays however, the Time Lords as ‘merely old men with big collars, arguing’ is a depiction that’s now fixed in the minds of everybody today. The current image of the Time Lords from ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is pretty resonant in recent stories such as ‘The End of Time’ and ‘The Day of the Doctor’. 🙂

In ‘The Deadly Assassin’, the Time Lords are seen as corrupt and power-hungry whenever they deal with matters of state on Gallifrey. They’ve imprisoned themselves on Gallifrey with their policies of non-intervention, despite being bureaucratic in the rules they’ve made regarding the universe itself.

It’s easy to see why the Doctor ran away from his people, the Time Lords, in the first place considering their lives must be so boring and strict to go by when living on Gallifrey. This is before the Time Lords became even more corrupt and cold-hearted during the Time War with the Daleks. 😐

It’s interesting how fans of today regard and accept the Time Lords as they are now compared to how fans back in 1976 disapproved of them. Mind you, the same could be said of the War Doctor being introduced and how the Timeless Child arc got unveiled during Series 12. Fans are divided on that.

This story features many firsts regarding the Time Lords in ‘Doctor Who’. First of all, there’s the first mention of Rassilon, who was the founder of the Time Lord society. Rassilon would feature prominently in stories like ‘The Five Doctors’ as well as the aforementioned ‘End of Time’ adventure.

There’s also the seal of Rassilon, which looks distinctly similar to an emblem featured in ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ with the Vogans. Are Time Lords and Vogans related? 😀 There’s also the introduction of the Panoptican; the Capitol of Gallifrey; the aforementioned Matrix and also the Eye of Harmony.

As mentioned, there are the Time Lords in their iconic collars and robes for the first time. A lot of the design choices featured in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ are down to the production designer Roger Murray-Leach as well as the costume designer James Acheson who have become really popular very lately. 🙂

I don’t know how the actors who played the Time Lords in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ managed to cope with wearing those cumbersome costumes. The collars they wore must’ve been very uncomfortable. They do look grand and impressive though. It’s an image of the Time Lords that’s recognisable today.

This is especially in the new series when they made a triumphant return in ‘The End of Time’. Before seeing that story, I was getting into my research on previous ‘Doctor Who’ stories in the classic series whilst watching the new series and seeing the return of the Time Lords in that was so magical.

As I hinted before, Tom Baker is magnificent as the Doctor in this adventure. As well as trying to prove his innocence, Tom’s Doctor uncovers what’s going on in how the assassin managed to get away with killing the Time Lord President; how the Master’s involved and what his motive in this is.

I did fear for the Doctor’s life when he was facing danger inside the Matrix with his deadly opponent. ‘Part Three’ mostly features the Doctor inside the Matrix with being threatened by a samurai; a fighter jet and the scary-looking clown in the sand. The Doctor does all he can to cope with illusions.

The story’s guest cast are equally impressive. Bernard Horsfall guest stars as Chancellor Goth in this adventure. Bernard appeared in ‘Doctor Who’ before and is a favourite of David Maloney who directed this. Bernard has been in ‘The Mind Robber’, ‘The War Games’ and ‘Planet of the Daleks’. 🙂

He was also in the Big Finish audio called ‘Davros’. In ‘The War Games’, Bernard played a Time Lord in that. I wonder if Goth in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is the same Time Lord from ‘The War Games’. 😀 Goth happens to be a bitter man and is one of the candidates in the Presidental election on Gallifrey.

The Master returns to ‘Doctor Who’, now played by Peter Pratt. Robert Holmes decided to do a new version of the Master, following the original played by Roger Delgado who sadly died in 1973. Holmes’ new interpretation of the Master is a decaying corpse and he does appear so ghastly in this.

I enjoyed Pratt’s menacing voice for the Master, but I wasn’t convinced by the skull-like mask he had to wear despite it looking scary. I liked it when Geoffrey Beevers played that Master in ‘The Keeper of Traken’ as he got to use his own face with decaying make-up on it and he also wore that grey cloak.

Also featured in the story’s guest cast is Angus MacKay as Cardinal Borusa. Angus MacKay would go on to play the Headmaster at Turlough’s school in ‘Mawdryn Undead’. 😀 Borusa used to teach the Doctor as a student at the Academy on Gallifrey. Perhaps Borusa is not really that important here. 😀

There’s also Erik Chitty as Co-ordinator Engin in the adventure. I’ve seen and heard Erik Chitty in TV and radio episodes of ‘Dad’s Army’! 😀 He’s also well-known for being in ‘Please Sir!’ It’s so surreal to see Erik Chitty in a serious role compared to the comedy roles he has done in ‘Dad’s Army’ and such.

George Pravada guest stars as Castellan Sprandrell, a Time Lord who has a Czechoslovakian accent. 😀 George Pravada was also in ‘The Enemy of the World’ and ‘The Mutants’ before this. I enjoyed how Castellan Sprandrell and Co-ordinator Engin worked with the Doctor to discover the assassin. 🙂

And there’s Hugh Walters as Runcible, a TV news reporter on Gallifrey. Hugh Walters played William Shakespeare in ‘The Chase’ and he would go on to play Vogel in ‘Revelation of the Daleks’. I enjoyed the interaction Runcible had with the Doctor. It’s a shame he got killed off at the end of ‘Part Two’. 😦

The Matrix that features in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ predated ‘The Matrix’ movies (I’ve yet to see those films though 😀 ). I found the Matrix scenes pretty strange and eerie, especially when the Doctor’s in peril. There are images of frightening horror when the Doctor attempts to find ‘the deadly assassin’.

I don’t fully understand what went on in the Matrix scenes, especially since it’s a nightmarish world for the Doctor to be in to avoid the perils. Like I said, the image of the clown in the sand laughing at the Doctor must’ve been scary to watch. It was a brief moment, but kids must’ve been very terrified.

The ‘Part Two’ cliff-hanger where the Doctor was about to be run over by three trains was also gripping to watch. I did see a 1960s ‘Spider-Man’ episode – ‘The Menace of Mysterio’ – where Spidey’s foot got caught in the train track. The Doctor was in a pretty similar situation to Spider-Man. 😀

Like I said, this story received a lot of criticism upon its initial transmission in 1976, especially by the fans on how the Time Lords were portrayed. The story was also criticised by Mary Whitehouse who objected to ‘Doctor Who’ a lot. ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is where she said the show had gone too far. 😐

Mary Whitehouse became upset by the ‘Part Three’ cliffhanger where Goth (yeah, he turned out to be ‘the deadly assassin’) attempted to kill the Doctor by drowning him in a river. The final shot of ‘Part Three’ is where the Doctor is seen drowning and it freeze-framed before the end credits rolled up.

And to be fair to Mrs. Whitehouse, she did have a point. That image of the Doctor drowning did look inappropriate for a family audience to watch, especially when kids were watching this. That kind of thing wouldn’t be shown today for a Saturday TV audience and it’s amazing they did back it in 1976.

Incidentally, Robert Holmes introduced the 12 regeneration cycle for the Time Lords in ‘The Deadly Assassin’. Meaning that Time Lords can only have 13 lives! How that’s changed so recently with the Doctor being able to regenerate more in ‘The Time of the Doctor’ as well as ‘The Timeless Children’!

The original DVD special features were as follows. There was the making-of documentary called ‘The Matrix Revisited’ with behind-the-scenes cast and crew interviews. There were also two featurettes including ‘The Gallifreyan Candidate’ and ‘The Frighten Factor’. There was also a photo gallery of the story. There was a mono sound audio mix option for the story and a DVD audio commentary with Tom Baker, Bernard Horsfall and producer Phillip Hinchcliffe. There was an info-text commentary option to enjoy; the ‘Radio Times Listings’ PDF of the story; and a ‘coming soon’ trailer for ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ with Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford. There was also an Easter Egg which happened to be a continuity announcement for ‘The Deadly Assassin’ which can now be found the BBC trailers and continuity announcements for ‘The Hand of Fear’ on its Blu-ray disc.

On Disc 3 of the ‘Doctor Who – The Collection – Season 14’ Blu-ray, ‘The Matrix Revisited’ making-of documentary; ‘The Gallifreyan Candidate’ featurette; ‘The Frighten Factor’ featurette; the mono sound audio mix option for the story, the DVD audio commentary and the ‘Radio Times Listing’ PDF can be found on there. The photo gallery and the info-text commentary option for ‘The Deadly Assassin’ have been updated for 2020 on the Blu-ray.

The new special features on Blu-ray include the ‘Behind the Sofa’ feature on ‘The Deadly Assassin’ with Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela) and producer Philip Hinchcliffe as well as Peter Purves (Steven) and Sophie Aldred (Ace). There’s also the ‘Dressing Doctor Who’ interview with costume designer James Acheson (taken from ‘The Mutants’ DVD). There’s a ‘Nationwide’ interview with Tom Baker and Louise Jameson; BBC trailers and continuity announcements for ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and a ‘coming soon’ trailer for ‘The Face of Evil’ (taken from ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, ‘The Three Doctors’ and ‘The Robots of Death’ Special Edition DVDs). There’s also a brand-new 5.1 surround sound audio mix option for the story to enjoy.

On the PDF front, as well as the ‘Radio Times Listings’ of the story, there are also production documents and scripts.

‘The Deadly Assassin’ is a true classic of a ‘Doctor Who’ story! It was heavily criticised at the time it was transmitted on TV in 1976, but it’s fondly remembered nowadays. I found this to be an exciting story, starring Tom Baker as the Doctor, fighting against the villainous Master on the planet Gallifrey.

This story was also interesting in reintroducing the Time Lords in terms of concept and image. From here on, Tom Baker’s Doctor would go on a different journey compared to what he’d go on before. Who will he meet next in his travel in time and space? Will he meet a new likeable companion next?

‘The Deadly Assassin’ rating – 8/10

The previous story

For the Fourth Doctor was

The next story

For the Fourth Doctor is

Return to The Fourth Doctor’s Timeline
Return to The Doctors’ Timelines Index
Return to Doctor Who Timelines
Return to Doctor Who
Return to Sci-Fi

2 thoughts on “‘The Deadly Assassin’ (TV)

  1. Timelord007

    Awesome detailed review of this Fourth Doctor classic Tim, this story wasn’t held in high regard on original transmission i think because it took risks but it has since become a cult classic.

    Robert Holmes is my favourite Doctor Who writer & this story delivers a dark twisted surreal adventure, the scenes set in the matrix are some of my all time favourite moments of Doctor Who (the clowns face in the sand still terrifys me).

    You captured this story brilliantly in your review Tim & i loved reading your thoughts on this classic story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim Bradley Post author

    Thanks Timelord Simon. Glad you enjoyed my DVD review on ‘The Deadly Assassin’.

    Interesting that this wasn’t held in high regard back in 1976 at the time. It is an interesting story that took risks, but I’m glad it’s become a cult classic and it’s embedded in our minds about what the Time Lords were like and how they are today.

    Yes, Robert Holmes is good on writing the dark; surreal and suspense adventures in his time as script editor and his stories are always engaging to watch. The Matrix scenes were terrifying for me, especially when the Doctor’s being hunted down and when he gets drowned in Episode Three, which upset Mary Whitehouse for such. Yes, the clown in the sand was terrifying, wasn’t it?

    Glad you found I captured the story well in my review. I’m pleased you enjoyed reading my thoughts on this story.


    Tim. 🙂



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.