“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.”
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, scene ii.
Greetings, dear readers.
Hell-Bent was first transmitted about a year ago, leading to all kinds of discussion about the merits and flaws of what could have been one of the greatest Who finales ever. The Doctor returns to Gallifrey and banishes the corrupt Council and power-mad Lord President, and the fandom rejoices. That banishment, however, leads to some serious consequences, as anyone who has read Supremacy of the Cybermen knows. Looking back over those consequences, two questions need to be asked: was banishment really a just punishment? Is Rassilon really so evil that he deserves to be humiliated on that level? I submit that while Rassilon may not be the friendliest Time Lord in the universe, he is by no means the “monster” that the fandom has been led to believe he is. Perhaps, it is time to hear his side of the story.
Before you tune me out, consider Rassilon's origins and contributions to Gallifrey. Early Gallifreyan society was based in fear and superstition created by the Pythian Cult. According to canon, Rassilon led a revolt against the Pythians and ushered in the Gallifrey we know now, a Gallifrey ruled by logic and science. During his initial Presidency, Gallifrey also became the home of a respected civilization that watched and maintain the balance of Time.
While his original fate is unknown, at the start of the series, Rassilon has been gone for several millennia. Most accounts say that he is sleeping in his tomb. Some, like Classic Who screenwriter Terrance Dicks, hold the opinion that Rassilon has merely gone to a higher plane of existence where he is “a benevolent being, who can, if he feels it's a big enough crisis, intervene.” Read that sentence again: “A benevolent being.” Even Rassilon's relationship with the Doctor hasn't always been one of conflict.
In The Five Doctors, Rassilon's first onscreen appearance, each of the Doctors speak of Rassilon with profound respect. The Second Doctor even goes so far as to describe him as “the greatest single figure in Time Lord history.” In the end, the Doctor meets Rassilon face to face. When they decline Rassilon's offer of immortality, Rassilon's floating head ghost not only returns the Doctors to their own times, but tells them “you have chosen wisely, Doctor. Farewell.” That is the Rassilon of Classic Who and that is the Rassilon the show has abandoned in its regeneration.
So how did we get from the respected patriarch of Classic Who to the power-hungry demagogue of modern Who? The most obvious answer is the Time War. Most of canon agrees that Rassilon was dead long before the Time War and was resurrected to lead Gallifrey in the War. While we don't know much about the Time War, we have been given hints that it drastically changed Gallifrey for the worse. In Night of the Doctor, the Eighth Doctor has to qualify that he is one of the “good” Time Lords, while in Hell Bent, Rassilon himself admits that “Things were done, that should never have been contemplated.” Even hardened by centuries of war, however, he is able to continue with “when the fighting stops, surely the first duty of peace...is forgiveness. Shall we forgive each other, Doctor?” Rassilon, the one who is often seen the authoritarian, is the one who makes the first move towards reconciliation. The Doctor, the one usually associated with forgiveness, is the one who turns it down. In this complete reversal of common perception of the Doctor/Rassilon dichotomy, we are given a glimpse of the man Rassilon used to be, and that leads to another perspective on why Rassilon is viewed the way he is.
As fans, we see the Doctor's universe through his eyes. We become his companions and he becomes our hero, while those who oppose him are automatically placed in the role of Villain. Most of the enemies that The Doctor encounters are diametrically opposed to everything the Doctor represents, and it is that which make them the Doctor's antagonists. Though Rassilon may take actions that are seen as questionable, they are rarely taken out of pure malice, but rather out of a necessity to preserve balance and he has never acted against the Doctor unless the Doctor has gone too far. In that light, Rassilon is less of an antagonist for the Doctor and more of a foil, and one who has many similarities to the Doctor. Rather than seeing their conflicts as a result of so many differences between them, I would argue that the Doctor and Rassilon have such a difficult relationship because they are too much alike. Both are willing to go to extremes to save those closest to them, whether that means destroying reality to save Gallifrey (End of Time part 2) or destroying reality to save Clara (Hell Bent), and both are the only person who can keep the other's power and ego in check.
The Doctor and Rassilon are not altogether that different when viewed in an unbiased way; when viewed through the lens of what little we know of Gallifreyan history and culture, Rassilon's actions bring to light a leader who is more than a two-dimensional dictator. Regardless of what we or the Doctor may think of him, every action he takes has a reason behind it, and surprisingly few of those reasons are to further his own power. If we take those actions in the context of a very flawed man who is facing his own demons, Rassilon becomes a character worthy of much deeper consideration and depth.