Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts one and two)

For many people who participate in fandom, the past is always preferable to the present. It’s not unique to Doctor Who, you see it in many long-running franchise fandoms, especially Star Wars. 1977’s “The Deadly Assassin,” written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney (who, again, cast Bernard Horsfall in a key supporting role), is a funny case study. The fandom that existed in 1977 was of the typewriter-and-mimeograph school. Zines and newsletters from that year show that fans hated this story.

By the early eighties, it was considered a modern classic. Some of my first fan purchases were things like Peter Haining’s 1983 book Doctor Who: A Celebration and some 1982-84 issues of Doctor Who Magazine and they all praised the show. But in ’77, the fan press was howling for blood. They got Gallifrey wrong, apparently. It’s a funny complaint. We’d seen three Time Lords in 1969 being all old and boring and putting the second Doctor on trial, and we’d seen three other Time Lords in 1973, also old, arguing in a garish control room. What’s new in 1977 is they have different clothes – the script specifies that they’re “seldom-worn,” for special occasions, and every costume designer since has reused them as casualwear – and, instead of being a unified mass of TV aliens who groupthink as one, these Time Lords have individual characters, and they squabble, plot, and stab each other in the back. The fans of ’77 were so silly.

Another complaint was that they brought back the Master after Roger Delgado’s death, but why shouldn’t they? Although I should point out that somebody suggested that in a parallel universe, they cast Peter Wyngarde as the Master opposite Tom Baker, and I want a dimension-hopping travel machine RIGHT NOW to see those episodes. Wow! Just imagine that for a minute. The Master in our less amazing universe is played by Peter Pratt in this story, wearing a grotesque, skeletal costume. When I first saw this at age 12 in 1984, he also reminded me of the Incredible Melting Man.

(Sidenote: Around the same time that my three best pals in seventh grade were refusing to watch Doctor Who, we were all devoted fans of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, which I think was shown Saturday or Sunday afternoon in Atlanta on WATL-36. The first episode that I caught was The Incredible Melting Man, which fueled my tweenage love and obsession with skeletal people. Other favorites, which we recounted and replayed in class as loudly as possible, were Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the based-on-a-true-story (suuuuuure) Monstroid, and the Gamera: Super Monster compilation movie. Wikipedia tells me these all aired during our seventh grade year. Because the four of us were spectacular troublemakers, we were separated into different “pods” in the eighth grade. Whenever we’d manage to pass each other in the halls the next year, we’d shout “So Sad About Gloria!” at each other. As Manos is to MST3K, So Sad About Gloria was to Elvira.)

Now, a year ahead of me in the eighth grade was another best pal, Blake, who wanted to watch the show, but couldn’t. “The Deadly Assassin” seems to have first aired in Atlanta on April 7, 1984, by which time, in the UK, Colin Baker’s first story had just finished airing. I spent the rest of that spring raving about the skeletal Master and how cool he was, and hoped that I would see his earlier appearances one day. I drew him all the time.

So I wasn’t all that pleased when, in the first week of July – I’ll explain how I can date that so precisely later – Blake phoned me, having found a copy of Starlog‘s American release of the Radio Times Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Special, as related in this post, and proceeded to rubbish two claims I’d made. First, as related earlier, he called hogwash on my claim that the anti-matter monster looked cool because the magazine printed a production photo of it, proving it looked pretty dopey before they finished the visual effects trickery. Second, as Blake put it, “the Master’s not a skeleton man, he’s some normal guy with a beard!”

I didn’t just run down to Blake’s house to see this magazine, I stormed down there.

I got some relief from a single sentence on page 25: “Peter Pratt played the Master in emaciated form in The Deadly Assassin.” But while grown-up me appreciates the great work by all the actors who have played the Master, particularly Roger Delgado, twelve year-old me could only snarl and complain “Well, he looked a lot cooler when he was 'emaciated'!”

Tonight, though, our son thought the new-look Master was astonishingly creepy, although he’d forgotten the Master’s old calling card of shrinking people to death and wasn’t entirely clear on how there’s a “to death” part of the equation. It took me quite a few minutes to realize that he didn’t understand that the Master’s “matter condenser” isn’t a “shrink ray” in the traditional sci-fi sense – and which we’ll see in a story next month – it’s a death-ray that leaves your corpse shrunken. He gets it now, but I’m afraid he probably wishes he hadn’t asked. Nasty way to die.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts one and two)

  1. I had a similar experience to yours. The very first story I ever saw that featured the Master was The Keeper of Traken. I thought the Master looked so incredibly cool and spooky as a skeletal figure of death, and I was confused why at the end he was turned into a relatively normal looking man with a beard. For some time after that I actually thought the Master had always been a skeletal figure before Anthony Ainley had taken over the role. Then a couple of years later another PBS station started showing the Jon Pertwee stories, and very soon I saw Terror of the Autons… at which point I finally realized that the Master had actually started out as a man with a beard, later got turned into a walking corpse, and then turned back into a man with a beard.

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