Aired 30 October – 20 November 1976
Following the departure of long-time companion Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey in ‘The Deadly Assassin,’ a boldly experimental tale that tackles and criticises Time Lord society itself. Likely intentionally referencing the assassination of John F Kennedy, the High President of Gallifrey is murdered during a high-profile event being widely broadcast, and the Doctor, found holding a rifle, is the initial suspect in an increasingly deceptive and conspiratorial plot that even brings in the CIA, the Celestial Intervention Agency.
Of course, ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is a very important episode in many overt and subtle ways. Aside from establishing the means by which Time Lord High Presidents are chosen, this story also establishes that Time Lords are limited to thirteen bodies through the regeneration process, a core piece of mythology that looms large over the programme to this day. Intriguingly, ‘The Deadly Assassin’ also continues with the Fourth Doctor era’s slow deconstruction of the Time Lords who seemed so incredibly powerful during their introduction in ‘The War Games.’ The society is presented as quite overtly British in styling and the script is unafraid to criticise several British institutions along the way. It’s quite telling that the core of the setting is called the Panopticon, suggesting a distinct prison atmosphere that looms large over Gallifrey, intentionally or not.
Ultimately, even with a stereotypical commentator announcing events and conducting interviews during the Presidential Resignation Day ceremony, the British University system is drawn into focus the most, individuals of different Houses walking around with excess pomp and decorum and looking down upon those they deem less worthy. This is perhaps fitting since the programme has gone to great lengths over the years to suggest that the Time Lords treat time as a rather academic affair since they rarely use their powers to actually travel off of their planet, and it also seems oddly fitting that Runcible suggests that the Doctor was expelled for scandal rather than making mention of his renegade or exile status.
It’s unsurprising that the Doctor is not the culprit, of course, but the drama behind the expediency of the Doctor’s trial is certainly successful as the likely next President tries to rush along the Doctor’s execution before he assumes office where tradition dictates he should pardon all political prisoners. Instead, ‘The Deadly Assassin’ brings back the Master after a prolonged absence, this time in his final incarnation as a horribly scarred and mutilated being. It is through the Master’s apparent death that the flexibility of Time Lord history is called into question as well when the Doctor is asked to help compile a record of the Master, not necessarily completely accurately. This explains how even seemingly educated Time Lords can be so oblivious to their own past, dismissing truths as myths to fit their views and furthering the suggestion of how much the culture in general has fallen from its one-time height. The Doctor’s explanation of the Eye of Harmony and of Rassilon stabilising a black hole to fuel the Time Lords’ power is another core aspect of Gallifreyan mythology for Doctor Who, but the widespread corruption is overtaking the need for truth and accuracy.
With a chilling reimagination of the Master who proves to be exceedingly cunning and knowledgeable about Gallifrey and its inner workings and offers the Doctor one of his most intense and personal challenges, ‘The Deadly Assassin’ proves that the iconic foe has plenty of life beyond the unfortunate passing of Roger Delgado, even if he is written in his last regeneration here. At the same time, the reimagination of Gallifrey into a corrupt series of British institutions lends credence to the Doctor’s decision to depart, perhaps alienating some viewers expecting an almighty presence but at the same time making the Time Lords infinitely more accessible and relatable. This story came under fire for showcasing violence and unintentionally became something of a turning point for the franchise as staff and storytelling techniques would soon begin to change, but ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is a fine piece of drama that succeeds on multiple levels, even without a true monster or even a companion.