50 for 50 — The Greatest Stories in Doctor Who History — #21

The story that resides at Number 21 in our continuing countdown is The Deadly Assassin, a landmark story that created many aspects of Doctor Who lore that we take for granted these days.

Before this, we knew little of the Time Lords. We’d seen them most predominantly in The War Games, where they were portrayed as all-powerful God-like beings, but The Deadly Assassin shows them as a corrupt and decaying society, full of political maneuvering, lies and deceit.

In creating this new vision of the Doctor’s race, writer Robert Holmes created aspects of Doctor Who mythology that would remain to this day. He introduces the character of Rassilon as the founder of Time Lord society; establishes the Matrix as the repository of all Time Lord knowledge; we learn that The Eye of Harmony is what gives them the power of time travel; it’s the first time we hear the term Arctron energy used; and, of course, it firmly establishes that Time Lord’s have a limited regeneration cycle of twelve regenerations. And although some of these aspects of so-called lore have been warped and altered over the years and will forever be the subject of never-ending debates on Doctor Who forums, essentially, they remain the same.

After The Deadly Assassin, the back story of the Doctor and his planet and race would never be the same again. In fact, at the time it was broadcast, many fans felt that the serial devalued the mystery surrounding the Doctor, his past and his people. However, I was not one of them. I remember being terribly excited that we were actually on the Doctor’s planet! Time Lords! These are actual, proper, bona fide Time Lords! You see, I was too young to see The War Games when it was broadcast and, in these days before video recorders, I didn’t have the luxury of watching old stories. So I’d only ever read about them in books or seen the odd renegade here and there. So seeing actual, living Time Lords was very exciting to my 10-year-old self.

And talking of renegades, The Deadly Assassin brings back the Doctor’s ultimate foe, the Master. And what a clever way to bring him back. I had absolutely no idea that the emaciated figure we saw glimpses of would turn out to be the arch villain from the Third Doctor’s era. I was like an Adipose that got the fat when I found out! How could this decaying remnant of a man possibly be the Master? A brilliant twist and a genius way to bring a much-loved character back. Peter Pratt is brilliant in the role. Suitably scary and deliciously evil and, foreshadowing John Simm’s partially skeletal Master in The End of Time, utterly insane.

The story itself moves along at a cracking pace and has an epic feel to it in terms of its design. And, of course, it has the amazing scenes when the Doctor is inside the Matrix. As was mentioned in last week’s review of The Mind Robber, Doctor Who doesn’t do “surreal” very often, but these scenes are staggeringly good and brilliantly realized and the depiction of violence seen here would cause much commotion in the Mary Whitehouse fuelled world of 1976.

And, of course, let’s not forget that this is the first story where the Doctor doesn’t have a companion of some sort. The Doctor is on his own here and as a result, we get a much darker and brooding Fourth Doctor, partially due to the events surrounding him but also because he doesn’t have a proper outlet to let off steam. In fact, this aspect of the Doctor was to be explored further during the Tenth Doctor’s reign, when Donna says that the Doctor needs someone to stop him sometimes…

The Deadly Assassin is groundbreaking and influential on so many levels. Without this story, much of what we regard as hardened elements of the mythology of the series would not exist. And we wouldn’t be able to debate, ad infinite, on every Doctor Who forum anywhere, whether the Eleventh Doctor was joking when we said that Time Lords can regenerate 506 times… — Steve

Alan’s #21 — The Doctor’s Wife
Andy’s #21 — An Unearthly Child
David’s #21 — A Christmas Carol

The Countdown finally reaches the top 20 next week.  Time to hunker down for the good stuff to come.