The Deadly Assassin is a unique serial in the canon of Classic Doctor Who and is the first serial to be set entirely on Gallifrey. It is the first time the Doctor is without a companion, as Sarah Jane had just left the serial before. The absence of a companion won’t happen again until the modern series. The Doctor finds himself in between companions during special episodes such as “Runaway Bride,” “Voyage of the Damned,” and “Waters of Mars.”
It’s also perhaps the only time we see The Doctor in Gallifreyan robes. Can you imagine if every incarnation of the Doctor wore them? They would have a difficult time with all that running!
The Doctor wearing Prydonian robes (image credit)
The Doctor received a summons to return to Gallifrey at the end of the last story, The Hand of Fear. He left Sarah Jane Smith on Earth since she would not be allowed on Gallifrey. At the start of The Deadly Assassin we learn the Doctor also received a vision of the Time Lord President being murdered. The Doctor feels compelled to warn the Time Lords of the impending danger.
But things do not go smoothly for the Doctor. As soon as he lands, his TARDIS is surrounded and impounded. He manages to avoid the guards who are ordered to arrest him by stealing a set of Time Lord robes and mingling with the crowd gathered for the Presidential Resignation Day. Despite the Doctor’s best intentions of saving the President, the leader of the Time Lords is assassinated. To make matters worse, the Doctor is assumed to be the killer and arrested.
In order to prove he is innocent, The Doctor must present evidence that it was the Master who sent him the vision of the assassination, luring him to Gallifrey, as well as conspiring to frame him for the murder. He deduces that the Master has been tampering with the Matrix, the super computer that connects all Time Lords (past and present) with each other. The only way to prove he is right is to enter the Matrix and catch the Master or his co-conspirators in the act.
Inside the Matrix, the Doctor plays a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the assassin. The stakes are high – if the Doctor dies in the virtual world of the Matrix, he dies in the real world as well. The assassin is already acclimated to the Matrix and nearly manages to kill the Doctor multiple times. Through sheer will, the Doctor is able to work the virtual environment to his advantage and finally defeat the assassin.
Now the Doctor must apprehend the Master, who will not go quietly. The Master will stop at nothing to get access to the Eye of Harmony, the source of Time Lord power, so he can restart his regeneration cycle. The two Time Lords fight as the Capital crumbles around them. The Master appears to fall down a fissure. But just like in his first appearance, neither the Doctor nor the viewers are convinced that he’s defeated for good.
The Deadly Assassin is a very dark story. The plot kicks off with an assassination, and the Master kills several people as means to his end. And the cliffhanger for episode 3 is the Doctor drowning in the Matrix. Even with all that in mind, it’s still a great serial to watch, mainly because it introduces so many tidbits of Doctor Who mythology that fans hold dear today. Elements of the Time Lords and their society that were hinted in The War Games and The Three Doctors are cemented in this serial. No wonder the Doctor stole a TARDIS and ran away, because the Time Lords are corrupt!