The Deadly Assassin

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088 – The Deadly Assassin
Doctor Who serial
Deadly Assassin.jpg
The Lord President in the sights of the deadly assassin
Directed by David Maloney
Written by Robert Holmes
Script editor Robert Holmes (uncredited)
Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe
Executive producer(s) None
Incidental music composer Dudley Simpson
Production code 4P
Series Season 14
Length 4 episodes, 25 minutes each
Originally broadcast 30 October – 20 November 1976
← Preceded by Followed by →
The Hand of Fear The Face of Evil

The Deadly Assassin is the third serial of the 14th season of the British science fiction television programme Doctor Who, which was first broadcast in four weekly parts from 30 October to 20 November 1976. It is the first story to feature the Doctor without a companion, with Sarah Jane Smith departing in the previous story and Leela joining in the next story. This serial also re-introduces the Doctor's long time nemesis, the Master, for the first time since Frontier in Space; in this story played by Peter Pratt.


The Fourth Doctor has arrived on Gallifrey after receiving a mysterious summons from the Time Lords and having a precognitive vision about the President of the Time Lords being assassinated.

As soon as the TARDIS materialises within the Citadel, it is surrounded by the Chancellery Guard. Commander Hilred reports to Castellan Spandrell, noting the TARDIS is a Type 40 time capsule, which is no longer in service. The soldiers are ordered to impound the TARDIS and arrest the occupant. The Doctor realises that the Time Lords did not summon him.

Spandrell goes to see Coordinator Engin in the Archives Section. Hilred and his troops enter the TARDIS, but the Doctor sneaks out and makes his way to a service lift that leads to the main tower. A soldier who threatens to place the Doctor under arrest is killed by a phantom-like figure who disappears. All of this has been observed by the Doctor's old adversary, the Master.

Chancellor Goth arrives outside the TARDIS. Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor is watching a news broadcast by a reporter he recognises as Runcible, a classmate from his days at the Academy. The President is set to retire and to name a successor. Runcible is talking to Cardinal Borusa, one of the Doctor's former teachers.

The TARDIS is transducted to the museum within the Capitol, and the Doctor borrows Gallifreyan robes. Several floors beneath the archive tower, the Master, severely emaciated, confers with an unseen accomplice. He says the trap has been set and they must make sure the Doctor dies quickly.

At the Panopticon, a Gallifreyan quasi-ceremonial chamber, the disguised Doctor converses with Runcible before the outgoing President appears. The Doctor notes a camera stationed on an unguarded catwalk. He also spots a sniper rifle next to the camera. The Doctor fights his way to the catwalk, warning that the President is about to be killed. Unbeknownst to the Doctor, the assassin is among the delegates and shoots the President dead. However, the crowd sees the Doctor on the catwalk with the rifle and assumes he is the killer.

Under interrogation, the Doctor maintains that he has been framed. Eventually, Spandrell starts to believe him and orders Engin to assist him in an independent investigation. To delay his possible execution, the Doctor invokes Article 17: he will run for President, which guarantees liberty for those running for office during the course of an election.

The Doctor returns to the scene of the crime with Spandrell. They discover that the sight on the sniper rifle was distorted, making it virtually impossible for this weapon to have killed the President. They decide to check the recorded proceedings of the event stored in the camera. The Master, hastening to extract the record himself, kills Runcible's technician using his TCE (Tissue Compression Eliminator). Runcible attempts to take the tape to the archives for review, but he is killed.

The Doctor realises that the Master sent the Doctor the premonition of the assassination through the Matrix, a vast electronic neural network which can turn thought patterns into virtual reality. He decides to enter the Matrix to track the Master. Engin warns him that if he dies in the virtual world, he will die in the real world as well.

The Doctor enters the Matrix and is engaged in a series of surreal nightmare episodes. He realises that his surroundings are an illusion and tries to deny their existence but passes out from the strain. In the real world, Engin tells Spandrell that the Doctor’s adversary is using a lot of energy to maintain the virtual environment, so the Doctor can defeat him if he provides an adequate distraction.

Back in the Matrix, the Doctor confronts an assassin who eventually reveals his true identity: Chancellor Goth. In a struggle, the Doctor hits Goth over the head. The Master, realising that Goth has been effectively defeated, tries to trap the Doctor in the Matrix by overloading the neuron fields. Engin gets the Doctor out of the Matrix, but Goth is fatally burnt. The Master then injects himself with a hypodermic needle.

The Doctor and Spandrell, accompanied by soldiers, make their way to the chamber where the Master and Goth were accessing the Matrix. They find the Master without a pulse and Goth dying. Goth reveals that he found the Master, near death, on Tersurus. The Master was nearing the end of his final regeneration. Goth went along with his schemes mainly for power: he knew the President had no intention of naming him as a successor, but if a new election was held, Goth would be the front-runner. Before he dies, Goth warns that the Master has a doomsday plan.

When Spandrell relates the story to Borusa, the Cardinal orders that a cover story be created to maintain confidence in the Time Lords and their leadership. The official story will be that the Master arrived to assassinate the President, and Goth killed him but perished in the attempt. The charge against the Doctor will be dropped on condition that he leave Gallifrey.

Attempting to piece together what the Master and Goth were planning, the Doctor inquires as to what becoming the President entails. He is told that the President has access to the symbols of office: the Sash and Great Key of Rassilon. As Engin plays records that describe how Rassilon found the Eye of Harmony within the "black void", the Doctor realises these objects are not merely ceremonial. He inspects the hypodermic needle and realises that it contained a neural inhibitor, which mimics a deathlike state but does not cause death itself. The Master is still alive.

The Doctor, Spandrell, and Engin arrive at the morgue to find that the Master has revived and killed Hilred. Armed with Hilred’s staser pistol, the Master seizes the Sash from the President's corpse and traps the three in the morgue. The Doctor explains that the Eye is actually the nucleus of a black hole, an inexhaustible energy source that Rassilon captured to power Gallifrey; the Sash and Key are its control devices. The Doctor deduces that the Master was planning to steal this energy to gain a new cycle of regenerations; however, if the Eye is disrupted, Gallifrey will be destroyed and a hundred other worlds will be consumed in a chain reaction.

Inside the Panopticon, the Master makes his way to the obelisk containing the Eye. He unhooks the coils that connect it to Gallifrey and is prepared to access the energy. The Doctor makes his way to the Panopticon via a service shaft. The Citadel begins to quake, and cracks appear in the floor. The Doctor and the Master fight, until the Master loses his footing and falls into a chasm. The Doctor reconnects the coils and saves Gallifrey, although half the city is in ruins and many lives have been lost.

The Doctor is now free to return to his TARDIS. He bids farewell to Borusa, Spandrell, and Engin but also warns that the Master may not be dead. He harvested energy from the obelisk before he was stopped and may have been able to channel it. As the Doctor’s TARDIS dematerialises, Spandrell and Engin witness the Master sneak into his own TARDIS – disguised as a grandfather clock – and escape.


The character of Borusa reappears in The Invasion of Time, Arc of Infinity and The Five Doctors. In each subsequent story, the character is played by a different actor, Borusa having regenerated. He has also been promoted in each interim: a cardinal here, Chancellor, President, and Lord High President in the later serials, respectively. Earth is referred to as Sol 3; this name is again used in The Invasion of Time and "Last of the Time Lords".[1] The Factfile for that episode on the official BBC Doctor Who website, compiled by fan Rob Francis, refers to the term as Earth's Gallifreyan name.[1] It is used as such again in "Last of the Time Lords" and "Voyage of the Damned".

The planet Tersurus, where Goth says he found the Master, is seen in the 1999 charity spoof Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death. Marc Platt's Virgin New Adventures novels Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible and Lungbarrow, suggest that the planet is a remnant of the ancient Gallifreyan empire and that the population once provided a servant class to Gallifreyans and early Time Lords.

The circumstances that led to the Master being reduced to his emaciated state are described in the Eighth Doctor Adventures novel Legacy of the Daleks by John Peel- which features the Master having an out-of-sequence encounter with the Eighth Doctor and Susan on Earth in the aftermath of The Dalek Invasion of Earth- and the Big Finish Productions audio drama The Two Masters- which sees the Master being attacked by his own future self as part of a plan to join the Cult of the Heretic in their efforts to remake the universe- although it is possible to reconcile both of these by assuming that Legacy merely saw the Master lose a TARDIS to Susan while Two Masters depicts the events that led to his disfigurement.

This story introduces Rassilon who, along with Omega (introduced in The Three Doctors), would become the central figure in Time Lord mythology. When Rassilon is first mentioned, the Doctor inquires who he is, seeming ambiguous about his knowledge of the name.

This story establishes the Matrix or APC net. The Invasion of Time establishes that the President has full control of the Matrix. Omega is able to take control of it in Arc of Infinity, and the stealing of secret information from the Matrix sets in motion the events of The Trial of a Time Lord.

Spandrell casually mentions the Celestial Intervention Agency and it is implied that they had a hand in commuting the Doctor's exile in The Three Doctors. The CIA feature prominently in spin-off novels and audios plays.[citation needed] The Doctor's trial and subsequent exile to Earth by the Time Lords in The War Games and the lifting of that sentence in the The Three Doctors are mentioned. The Fifth Doctor is later imprisoned in the Matrix by Omega in Arc of Infinity and the Sixth Doctor fights a similar virtual battle with The Valeyard in the final episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord. The source of the Time Lords' power and that of the TARDIS is the Eye of Harmony, the nucleus of a black hole that lies beneath the Citadel on Gallifrey. The Eye, or a link to it, is seen inside the TARDIS in the 1996 television movie. The Eye of Harmony is also mentioned in "Hide", and it is shown to be a star on the verge of becoming a black hole in "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS". One of the artefacts that controls the Eye of Harmony is the Great Key of Rassilon, a large ebonite rod. There are two other Keys of Rassilon mentioned later in the series. One, also known as the Great Key, whose location is known only to the Chancellor, resembles an ordinary key and is a vital component of the demat gun (The Invasion of Time). The other, simply called the Key of Rassilon, gives access to the Matrix (The Ultimate Foe).

This is the first story to state that there is a limitation to the number of times that a Time Lord can regenerate, and that a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times, for a total of 13 incarnations; this was confirmed in Mawdryn Undead and the 1996 TV film and the "The Time of the Doctor" (2013). This line became stuck in the public consciousness despite not often being repeated, and was recognised by producers of the show as a plot obstacle for when the show finally had to regenerate the Doctor a thirteenth time.[2][3] The episode "The Time of the Doctor" depicted the Doctor acquiring a new cycle of regenerations, starting from the Twelfth Doctor, due to the Eleventh Doctor being the product of the Doctor's twelfth regeneration from his original set.[4][5]


Robert Holmes said of The Deadly Assassin that it was difficult to write a script without anyone for the Doctor to share his thoughts and plans with, the usual role of the companion. Working titles for this story included The Dangerous Assassin (which Holmes changed to "deadly" because he thought it "didn't sound right"). The final title is a tautology: a successful assassin must, by definition, be deadly. However, since Time Lords can in general survive death, and the assassin's victims do not, he is perhaps "deadly" in that sense. According to the text commentary on the DVD, Holmes argued that the title was not a tautology, stating that there were plenty of incompetent assassins.

Cast notes[edit]

Bernard Horsfall guest stars as Chancellor Goth. He had previously appeared as an unnamed Time Lord (credited as 'Time Lord 1') in the serial The War Games prompting some speculation that they were the same character. Other parts played by Horsfall in Doctor Who were Gulliver in The Mind Robber and Taron in Planet of the Daleks, all of which were directed by David Maloney.[6] Angus MacKay later played the Headmaster in Mawdryn Undead. George Pravda previously played Denes in The Enemy of the World and Jaeger in The Mutants. Hugh Walters previously played William Shakespeare in The Chase and later appeared as Vogel in Revelation of the Daleks.

Peter Pratt, who plays the Master, was previously a leading man with the D’Oyly Carte opera company and a radio actor.[7]

Broadcast and reception[edit]

Serial details by episode
Episode Broadcast date Run time Viewers
(in millions)
"Part One" 30 October 1976 (1976-10-30) 21:13 11.8
"Part Two" 6 November 1976 (1976-11-06) 24:44 12.1
"Part Three" 13 November 1976 (1976-11-13) 24:24 13
"Part Four" 20 November 1976 (1976-11-20) 24:23 11.8

The cliffhanger to Episode 3 – where Goth holds the Doctor's head underwater in an attempt to drown him – came in for heavy criticism, particularly from the 'clean-up TV' campaigner Mary Whitehouse. She often cited it in interviews as one of the most frightening scenes in Doctor Who, her reasoning being that children would not know if the Doctor survived until the following week and that they would "have this strong image in their minds" during all that time.[11] After the episode's initial broadcast, the master tape of the episode was edited to remove the original ending. However, off-air U-matic recordings of the original broadcast exist with the ending intact, and have been used to restore the ending on the VHS and subsequent DVD release[citation needed]. The edited episode was included when the series was repeated on BBC1 from 4 to 25 August 1977[12] seen by 4.4, 2.6, 3.8 & 3.5 million viewers.[13]

Paul Cornell, Martin Day, and Keith Topping wrote of the serial in The Discontinuity Guide (1995), "The reputation of The Deadly Assassin rests with its violence and its revelations about the Doctor's people and their culture. Politically literate and cynical ('We must adjust the truth'), the serial is the definitive text on the Time Lords. The Doctor's journey into the APC net ... is a visual and intellectual tour de force of hallucinatory images."[14] In The Television Companion (1998), David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker reported that at the time of broadcast several viewers took issue with the serial's portrayal of the Time Lords, finding it a contradiction of the small details that had previously been dropped about the Doctor's home planet, but over time its reputation became more positive. The pair themselves called it "a truly remarkable story" and praised the reintroduction of the Master.[15] In 2010, Patrick Mulkern of Radio Times was positive towards the serial and its supporting characters, though he did criticise the Matrix sequences for being more earthly rather than alien, despite them being constructed from deceased Time Lords.[16] The A.V. Club reviewer Christopher Bahn praised the plotting and Matrix sequences, calling it "well-crafted all around".[17] In 2010, Charlie Jane Anders of io9 listed the cliffhanger to the first episode — in which it appears the Doctor shoots the president — as one of the greatest cliffhangers in the history of Doctor Who.[18] Similarly, Den of Geek named the cliffhanger to the third episode as one of the ten best Doctor Who cliffhangers, praising the freeze frame.[19]


Tat Wood suggests it is "blindingly obvious" that the story was largely inspired by the film and book The Manchurian Candidate.[15]

Commercial releases[edit]

In print[edit]

Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin
Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin.jpg
Author Terrance Dicks
Cover artist Mike Little
Series Doctor Who book:
Target novelisations
Release number
Publisher Target Books
Publication date
20 October 1977
ISBN 0-426-11965-7

A novelisation of this serial, written by Terrance Dicks, was published by Target Books in October 1977, entitled Doctor Who and The Deadly Assassin.

Home media[edit]

This story was released on VHS in March 1989 in edited omnibus format in the US only. It was released on VHS in episodic format in the UK in October 1991. It was also re-released and remastered for the W H Smith exclusive Time Lord Collection in 2002 with a better quality freeze frame cliffhanger for Episode 3. The Deadly Assassin was released on 11 May 2009 on Region 2 DVD. The serial was released in issue 52 of the Doctor Who DVD Files on 29 December 2010.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Doctor Who - Fact File - "The Last of the Time Lords"". Retrieved 2007-07-01. 
  2. ^ Berriman, Ian (26 October 2010). "Interview: Russell T Davies Talks About THAT Sarah Jane Adventures Line". Retrieved 19 April 2012. 
  3. ^ Darren Scott (26 November 2013). "Steven Moffat on 'Doctor numbers' and the regeneration limit". 
  4. ^ "INTERVIEW Russell T Davies talks about THAT Sarah Jane Adventures line". Retrieved 5 August 2013.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  5. ^ Emily Barr (13 October 2010). "Doctor Who is now immortal, reveals the BBC". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 October 2010. 
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Shaun Lyon; et al. (2007-03-31). "The Deadly Assassin". Outpost Gallifrey. Archived from the original on 2008-07-31. Retrieved 2008-08-30. 
  9. ^ "The Deadly Assassin". Doctor Who Reference Guide. Retrieved 2008-08-30. 
  10. ^ Sullivan, Shannon (2007-08-07). "The Deadly Assassin". A Brief History of Time Travel. Retrieved 2008-08-30. 
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Cornell, Paul; Day, Martin; Topping, Keith (1995). "The Deadly Assassin". The Discontinuity Guide. London: Virgin Books. ISBN 0-426-20442-5. 
  15. ^ a b Howe, David J.; Walker, Stephen James (1998). "The Deadly Assassin: Analysis". Doctor Who: The Television Companion. London: BBC Worldwide. pp. 313–4. ISBN 0-563-40588-0. 
  16. ^ Mulkern, Patrick (28 August 2010). "Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin". Radio Times. Retrieved 1 September 2013. 
  17. ^ Bahn, Christopher (28 October 2012). "The Deadly Assassin". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 1 September 2013. 
  18. ^ Anders, Charlie Jane (31 August 2010). "Greatest Doctor Who cliffhangers of all time!". io9. Retrieved 1 September 2013. 
  19. ^ "10 classic Doctor Who cliffhangers". Den of Geek. 2 June 2011. Retrieved 1 September 2013. 

External links[edit]

Target novelisation