And still we keep chipping our way through the bits I wrote for DWM #474…
At the end of The Day of the Doctor, we saw our hero reenergised, ready to head out into the cosmos with a fresh sense of purpose. To find Gallifrey. The Deadly Assassin culminates with a similar sentiment, although for exactly the opposite reason. This time we see the Doctor choose to leave home again, now on a new course (albeit a course he doesn’t end up following; Robert Holmes’ script foreshadows continual battles with the revamped Master, but as we know, that doesn’t happen for another couple of years).
For whatever reason – perhaps Holmes’ awareness his time as script editor is nearly up – this four-parter from 1976 feels like an unusually bold statement on Doctor Who. Firstly, and most infamously, it rewrites some of the tenets of the (non-existent) series bible regarding the Doctor’s own race. This isn’t something Holmes has naively strayed into, and he makes capital within the story of the malleability of truth. “Before you leave you can assist Coordinator Engin to compile a new biog of [the Master]”, says Borusa to the Doctor. “It doesn’t have to be entirely accurate.” “Like Time Lord history,” comes the reply. Or, in other words, if this version of Gallifrey doesn’t tally with The War Games, well then, perhaps it’s just a “modern transgram” of that older text.
As well as changing Doctor Who forever, as if readying it for a reboot, Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe also take this opportunity to unapologetically make a one-of-a-kind drama under the show’s banner. A drama the like of which it could never attempt again. Quite apart from the lack of companion for the traveller, and the shockingly disturbing imagery – which includes stabbings, burning, drowning, choking, hypodermic needles – there’s the business of the Doctor’s journey into the nightmarish APC Net. “The script was technically innovative, with subjective and surrealist sequences that I felt widened the vocabulary of the show,” said Holmes writing a defence of his piece for a 1977 fanzine. Said sequences are wild and off the handle. They’re brilliant, but they can only work once – as the comparatively lacklustre return in The Trial of a Time Lord proved.
But if there’s one lingering, notorious image from The Deadly Assassin, it’s Goth holding our hero underwater. “Finished, Doctor! You’re finished!” he growls. With this experiment, yes. But far from finished. He’s now at the beginning of a whole new history.