A few nights ago, we watched “The Deadly Assassin,” a Fourth Doctor episode that is unique among the classic show for having no companion. Sarah Jane had departed the episode before because the Doctor had been summoned to Gallifrey and at the time, humans weren’t allowed on the planet. The next episode is “The Face of Evil,” which is Leela’s introduction.
If you couldn’t tell from the title, this episode centers around an assassination attempt and the Doctor’s efforts to find the assassin. The plot is a bit complex, so here’s a synopsis. While the Doctor is returning to Gallifrey, he has a premonition of himself assassinating the Time Lord President just before the President is about to resign and name his successor. When he arrives at Gallifrey, he starts to try to prevent the assassination, but ends up in the place he saw in the vision, holding a gun just as the President is assassinated. Chancellor Goth calls for the Doctor’s immediate trial and execution, but the Doctor submits himself as a candidate for the Presidency, which causes the trial and execution to be put on hold. He uses the time to try to figure out what’s going on.
The Doctor is able to prove his innocence to the Castellan Spandrell, then they find one of the Gallifreyans miniaturized, which points directly to the Master (if you didn’t know, his preferred method of killing people was miniaturizing them with his Tissue Compression Eliminator). He determines that the premonition had be placed in his mind by the Master by using the Matrix, a network of past and present Time Lord minds. He enters the Matrix psychically to find out the Master, and is subsequently chased and attacked by an assassin in the Matrix, through a variety of means (fighting, guns, poison, etc.). He manages to turn the tables on the assassin, and discovers it’s Chancellor Goth, who had been serving the Master. Returning to the real world, they find Goth dying, but are unable to get any real information from him. They find the Master’s body, burnt and shriveled, and the Doctor realizes that he had been after the President’s relics of office, which together with the Eye of Harmony, could grant him new regenerations at the cost of destroying Gallifrey. Then he discovers the Master faked his death and is able to stop him before he could use the relics with the Eye.
This episode, with all of its plot twists and its focus on the Doctor, was very riveting, and we actually stayed up well past bedtime so that we could see the end of it. Both in the premonition and at the moment of the assassination, we see the Doctor holding the gun, and so the first compelling point was to see how it could possibly not be the Doctor killing the President. Then, there’s the puzzle of who the assassin is and what the Master’s intention really is.
The one thing that really dragged the episode down, though, was the time in the Matrix. I suspect that at the time, in the 1970s, this sequence was thrilling and surreal, but looking back now, it was boring and too drawn-out: it starts near the end of episode 2 and ends at the beginning of episode 3. During that time, the assassin attacks the Doctor using very dream-like attacks (one was shooting at him from a biplane; I think there were others with animals chasing him), but for the modern audience, they aren’t innovative, and there was too much footage of the Doctor running through a quarry and sliding down gravelly slopes.
This episode could also be interesting for its glimpse into Time Lord society, but again, it fell short of the mark, as it wasn’t innovative. The Time Lords were all old doddery men, and while they wore the gorgeous Time Lord robes and collars, that was about as non-humanlike as it got. No alien attitudes or ceremonies, and there was even a Time Lord reporter covering the resignation of the President on their version of TV. I would have definitely liked to have seen the Time Lords be alien, but I think that they did as best as they could at the time to make an alien society that was still understandable to us.
The last thing that I wish they had done was address the problem of assassinating a President who should be able regenerate. There was no mention of the President being out of regenerations, or the special gun preventing regenerations, or anything that would indicate to the audience that actually managing to kill a Time Lord is a very big deal. However, even with all of these failings, this episode is actually very good, and we enjoyed it a lot. And it was nice to have an episode without a companion, to let the Doctor roam on his own for once.