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Digital Subscriptions > Doctor Who Magazine > The Essential Doctor Who 15: Relative Dimensions > HEAD GAMES


Gallifrey’s Matrix is the most prominent example of a computer-generated virtual reality in Doctor Who, but there are others that have proved just as dangerous…

The Time Lords have got a big computer made of ghosts, in a crypt, guarded by more ghosts.”

The Deadly Assassin (1976) was in many ways a groundbreaking Doctor Who story. Significantly, it was probably the first depiction of a computer-generated ‘virtual reality’ in British television science fiction. But The Deadly Assassin doesn’t just feature virtual reality; it also sets out the three ways in which virtual reality will work in all Doctor Who stories. These are: as a means of recreation, of prediction and of resurrection.

Firstly, recreation. The idea is that by linking your mind to a computer you can find yourself in another world. While it’s possible this is what happens in 1968’s The Mind Robber, the first real incidence is in The Deadly Assassin when the Doctor enters the Matrix to find that, in essence, it’s a completely immersive video game. That isn’t the Matrix’s true nature – the Doctor is able to visualise the reality of a computation matrix – but one created by the Doctor’s opponent, who manifests himself within the arena as a surgeon, a clown, a samurai warrior, a train driver, a fighter pilot and a masked game hunter.

Later, in the final two episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord (1986), the Matrix is deployed for a similar purpose by the Valeyard, who creates a nightmare world based around a factory in Victorian London (and, briefly, a beach and the Time Lord’s own courtroom). What’s interesting is that there are always limits to the virtual reality; in The Deadly Assassin the Doctor is able to escape being maimed by a train by denying its reality, and in Trial the Doctor avoids death by quicksand by a similar means. It seems that the effort of maintaining an illusion for both the Doctor and his fellow captive Sabalom Glitz means the Valeyard’s resources are stretched thin. “Your presence here makes his task more difficult,” the Doctor tells Glitz. The Doctor points out that he’s unable to tell reality from illusion (hence his fear that a cloud of nerve gas is “in deadly earnest”), even though, in the Matrix, everything is an illusion. The idea of virtual reality featuring little giveaways recurs in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (2009), where Donna senses the disjointed passage of time and Miss Evangelista points out that the simulated children are all identical, while in Extremis (2017) the simulated people realise they’re incapable of independently generating random numbers.

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About Doctor Who Magazine

Doctor Who’s creators envisaged a series that would go forwards, backwards and sideways in time. The Doctor’s trips to parallel universes and alternative dimensions have provided the show with some of its best-loved adventures – from its black-and-white beginnings to the latest episodes, starring Jodie Whittaker. Uncover the background to these memorable journeys and explore the greatest stories beyond the television series in this lavish publication, which is packed full of exclusive features and rare images.