Doctor Who episode 436: The Deadly Assassin – Part One (30/10/1976)
On the one hand this is a consciously momentous, important episode, as indicated by the narrated opening crawl. The Doctor has finally returned home to Gallifrey, seven years after he was so unceremoniously exiled. And more than this, he’s returned when the Time Lords are facing ‘ the most dangerous crisis in their long history’. Bits of random Time Lord lore are scattered around liberally: the TARDIS is an obsolete Type 40 capsule; the Time Lords have a Capitol; the Prydonian Chaper is a thing. The Doctor speaks of the Chancellery Guard and the Panopticon. Everything has very grand-sounding names.
Later stories, with less sense of the ridiculous, have often leant into this, presenting Gallifrey and the Time Lords with the kind of reverential tones that Runcible adopts as he covers the grand abdication ceremony of the Time Lord President. But the point Holmes is making is that Runcible is fatuous, the kind of obsequious reporter that covers royal weddings in the UK. The reason we haven’t seen the Time Lords dressed like this in previous stories is explained: they’re in ‘seldom worn robes with their colourful collar insignia’ as if they’re the House of Lords at a coronation or state opening, not in their everyday gear.
Actually, the Time Lords are significantly less grand than they’ve talked themselves up to be. They’re Oxbridge dons. They’re decrepit hereditary peers. They’re senior clergymen. They’re any and all of those fusty, musty Establishment types, subject of idle interest and gossip (at least, if that’s the purpose of Runcible’s broadcast) for the plebeian classes mentioned by Engin. Previous stories have set them up if not above the gods then very close to their right hands. This is tearing them down, revealing that the society the Doctor fled from is as corrupt and decayed as the cowled figure of the Master (rather undramatically revealed, although maybe that was a choice given how horrid the mask is).
This makes it difficult to unpick what’s deliberate bathos from what’s unintentionally rubbish. All the business between Engin and Spandrell about the colour of the Doctor’s biog data extract, and its lack of micro dust is meant to set up Spandrell as Gallifrey’s policeman: less hidebound and invested in symbolism than most Time Lords; more practical and in touch with the masses, and railing against the CIA like they’re the pen-pushers in City Hall. It sort of works, but also skirts dangerously close to the Rokon vs Zazzka nonsense in The Hand of Fear – compounded by deliberately melodramatic lines like, ‘He’s a Prydonian renegade, sir, and as you know, when a Prydonian forswears his birthright, there is nothing else he fears to lose.’
The President’s resignation honours is a joke about PM Harold Wilson’s “lavender list” of May 1976. Weighed down by his ridiculously elaborate robes, he waddles down the stairs in the Panopticon every bit as tentatively as a man in a Sea Devil costume. A lot of this is meant to look deliberately absurd, to undermine the Time Lords.
Next episode: The Deadly Assassin – Part Two