No Place for Girls: The Deadly Assassin and its lack of female characters

Tom Baker in “The Deadly Assassin”

It can’t be easy to be Doctor Who Magazine. The 21st-century incarnation of the show is 13 years old, which means that there’s a whole new generation to cater to alongside its core audience of fans of a certain age. It’s why we now have regular features on cosplay (keep an eye out for next month’s Pigbin Josh tutorial) and it’s also why the Time Team has regenerated. For the uninitiated, the Time Team were a group of fans who rewatched Doctor Who from the beginning, providing DWM readers with a running commentary. The most recent iteration of the format finds a group of “new” fans with an average age of 22 watching selected episodes of the show linked together by a theme. In a recent issue (DWM 527) the theme was “Gallifrey” with The War Games Part Ten, The Deadly Assassin Part One and Hell Bent on offer.

The new DWM Time Team

Of the three episodes, The Deadly Assassin Part One received the most criticism. Whilst in recent years it has become beloved, named by David Tennant as his favourite classic story and narrowly avoiding a spot in the Top 20 stories of all time, it can’t be easy to be The Deadly Assassin. Robert Holmes’ 1976 story has had a controversial history. The infamous drowning Doctor cliffhanger attracted the attention of Mary Whitehouse and eventually led to executive producer Philip Hinchcliffe being replaced by Graham Williams on the following series. The serial also attracted the ire of Doctor Who Appreciation Society president Jan Vincent-Rudzki, who pored over the story’s canonical inconsistencies in forensic detail. The manner of Vincent-Rudzki’s review is reminiscent of the sort of furiously pernickety YouTube videos from the likes of CinemaSins.

For example, he points out that “Elgin said that premonition does not exist. Yet the Doctor had them in ‘Time Monster’, ‘Frontier In Space’, ‘Evil of The Daleks’ and ‘War Machines’.” Some of his points do chime with the thoughts of the youthful DWM Time Team 42 years later. Both he and professional David Tennant impersonator Jacob Dudman find the 70s Time Lords to be dull and uninteresting when compared to the all-powerful omnipotence of The War Games.

One of the few things that didn’t upset Vincent-Rudzki about The Deadly Assassin was the lack of female characters identified by the Time Team. A point that Steve Buscemi gif made flesh, Benjamin Cook identifies as a dubious honour shared with 1965’s Mission to the Unknown. Whilst it’s more problematic for Terry Nation’s futuristic Dalek Cut-Away not to feature any powerful female representatives of the seven galaxies, the lack of women in Holmes’ Gallifrey set political thriller is sort of the point.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) dir. John Frankenheimer

Influenced by Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate which, incidentally, features the complex female character of political manipulator Mrs Iselin (played by Angela Lansbury in the John Frankenheimer movie of 1962), The Deadly Assassin has no roles for women. It’s not helped by the fact that this is the only story in the 1963-1989 run where the Doctor travels solo. That being said, if Sarah Jane had stayed on then The Deadly Assassin would probably never have existed given that it was written to prove to Tom Baker he couldn’t carry the show alone.

Whilst Holmes is on record as finding inspiration from the outdated structures of academia (which was hardly a bastion of prominent progressive gender roles in the 70s either) in how he realised the Time Lords, there is a sense that the political situation in the UK was also a factor. In March of that year, much like the Lord President of Gallifrey, Prime Minister Harold Wilson had resigned. This occurred soon after his re-election with an incredibly slim majority of three MPs. What followed, dramatized in James Graham’s terrific play This House, was the beginning of two and a half years of hard-fought battles to vote bills through parliament. The succeeding Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s former private secretary Lord McNally refers to this period as a “state of permanent crisis”, or as Robert Holmes once wrote, perhaps it was the “most dangerous crisis in their long history”.

Margaret Thatcher, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson in 1976

The situation would worsen over the years, with ill and infirm party members being drafted in to participate in crucial votes. Within this landscape, it’s tempting to view the Panopticon and the various Time Lord chapters as an allegory for Westminster or the House of Lords. The reporter, the old boy’s network, the chapters (colleges) as indicators of status seem as outdated and over the top as the braying mobs at Prime Minister’s Questions or the pomp and circumstance of the opening of parliament.

Which brings us back to the issue of the lack of female characters. In the October 1974 election, a total of 27 female MPs were elected to parliament, representing 4.3% of the House, a number which, admittedly, is still higher than the overall cast of The Deadly Assassin. The Labour government had one female MP in their cabinet and the Conservative party was led by Margaret Thatcher with only one other female MP in her initial cabinet, Sally Oppenheim, shadow secretary for prices and consumer protection. Two women in political positions and the other in one of politics’ most prominent roles. One small step for diversity, but the giant leap is still a decade or two away. Indeed, on the Doctor’s home planet, we have to wait until 1983 before Chancellor Flavia takes the reins of Time Lord government, paving the way for President Romana in various spin-off fiction.

Thatcher & Flavia: Coming Soon to Big Finish

Given that, it’s not surprising that Holmes’ view of Gallifrey is of a crumbling patriarchal society in need of a good shake-up. Whilst it’s almost certainly not an endorsement of either Thatcher or feminism (you need female characters to do that), it is railing against a situation which is very much the making of, predominantly, old white men.

The story Holmes is telling is of a once grand institution which has become riddled with corruption and general malaise. The United Kingdom itself was in a similar situation, facing financial rather than the moral bankruptcy of the Master, with inflation at 20% and a commitment to cuts in public spending following a $4bn loan from the International Monetary Fund. The days of Britain as a superior imperial power were long gone and perhaps Holmes sees the once omnipotent Time Lords, now reduced to idleness, ancient tradition and a need to mythologise their past as a metaphor for the United Kingdom in the 1970s. In Brexit Britain, The Deadly Assassin is perhaps as relevant as it has ever been.

All of which is rather a long-winded way to appeal for a bit more context when approaching classic Doctor Who. Doctor Who on Twitch was an absolute blast and proved that there is very much life in the old dog yet with which to appeal to the woke online streaming generation.

Whilst the observation about a lack of female characters is a legitimate and pertinent reaction to the story, a lot of the Time Team’s responses felt incredibly superficial. Sure, the feature is supposed to capture gut reactions to Doctor Who and you shouldn’t need to spend your increasingly rare free time researching 1970s British politics to enjoy an episode. However, the best stories contain thematic heft underneath the surface which is why we have so many excellent podcasts, academic essays and indeed, Doctor Who Magazine itself to revisit these adventures.

There’s more to watching The Deadly Assassin than guessing what Hogwarts house the Doctor would be sorted into, categorically stating that the 1970s Time Lords are dull, as if that isn’t the whole point, or bemoaning that it contradicts what has gone before. In that regard, it’s comforting in these difficult times of venomous reactions to a Christel Dee convention appearance that the fans of 1976 and 2018 often have more in common than they realise. And there will always be some idiot who rises to the bait and writes over a thousand words on why they’re both wrong. Ain’t fandom great?


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