Mission to the Unknown/The Dalek Master Plan

This was the longest single plot arc ever in Doctor Who, a twelve-episode story with a one-episode teaser broacast a month before, over the winter of 1965-1966. Like any serious fan of classic Who, I knew the following basic points about this story:

Two companions are killed off; the Doctor scandalously addresses the viewers directly at the end of episode 7; it marks the first appearance of Nicholas Courtney, later to play the Brigadier with most later Doctors.

So I have been listening to the BBC tapes of the sound track, with linking narrative description by Peter Purves (later of Blue Peter, but who plays the Doctor’s companion Steven in the story), on my commutes to and from work for the last few days; and have also watched the three surviving episodes (#2, #5 and #10). And it is very good.

First off, the plot hangs together pretty well (apart from episode seven and the cricket scene of episode eight, which I’ll get to in a moment). The various settings – the planets Kembel, Earth-in-the future, Desperus, Mira, and the various past and present scenes on Earth – all feel entirely distinct from each other (though one wonders a bit about how firmly the writers conceptualised the terms “solar system”, “galaxy” and “universe”). The ancient Egypt scenes in episode 10 look glorious.

The script, despite being by two different hands (Terry Nation wrote 1-5 and 7, Dennis Spooner 6 and 8-12) is a cracker. There is some great one-upmanship in temporal snobbery among the characters, as in episode 3:

DOCTOR: (holding some circuits) Hmm, it’s the worse of these out-of-date and primitive spaceships. One little bump and they all fall to bits.
VYON: Doctor, what are you talking about? This is a SPAR – the most technically perfect craft in the history of space travel.
DOCTOR: Oh yes, quite so. That’s why we are stranded on this pimple of a planet, whilst you fool with the fuse box!
and in episode 5 where poor Steven is sneered at by both the Doctor and Sara Kingdom:
STEVEN: We could use the Gravity-force from the ship’s power centre. (He points to a control bank.) I mean there’s an outlet, here.
SARA: (laughing scornfully) What?
STEVEN: (belligerently) What’s wrong with that?
DOCTOR: Too primitive, my boy, too primitive and far too dangerous. (He walks off into the lab as a grinning Sara turns to Steven.)
SARA: Gravity-force as a source of energy was abandoned, centuries ago.
STEVEN: We were still using it!
SARA: Oh yes, and the Romans used treadmills.
Also the Doctor himself is jolly impressive. No feeble old man, he sneaks into the Daleks’ council chamber to steal the taranium core for the Time Destructor, and manhandles a Dalek into a passage in ancient Egypt (also, probably, mugging the Monk). He also has several great lines, of which the best is “I am a citizen of the universe and a gentleman to boot!” Hartnell being Hartnell, there are a few fluffs – “Magic Chen” for “Mavic Chen” at one point, he is very hoarse at the beginning of episode 9 and disappears for most of episode 11 – but in general he seems on top form.

Killing off not one but two companions (indeed, three if we are allowed to count Courtney’s Bret Vyon) gave the story a real darkness. Katarina, the Trojan handmaiden rescued from burning Troy at the end of the previous story, only has a brief time to make an impression but her death comes as a real tragedy – an innocent caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is something of a relief to learn that her death scene was actually the first filmed by Adrienne Hill in her brief time playing the character. Again, Hartnell gets good lines and delivers them well:

She didn’t understand.  She couldn’t understand.  She wanted to save our lives.  And perhaps the lives of all the other beings of the Solar System.  I hope she’s found her Perfection.
Oh, how I shall always remember her as one of the Daughters of the Gods. Yes, As one of the Daughters of the Gods.
Episode 4 is particularly bleak, with Katarina killed near the beginning and Bret Vyon shot down by new companion Sara Kingdom, who as it turns out is his own sister, at the end. Sara herself, having developed from loyal servant of the Earth government to loyal companion of the Doctor, then herself dies because she disobeys a direct order from the Doctor to stay away from him while he is stealing the Time Destructor. (Mission to the Unknown, the one-episode preview, also ended brutally, with all three human characters dead; more on that below.) At least Steven manages to survive, having saved the day on a couple of occasions despite his relative technological primitivism. The companions do display a distressing tendency to wander off and get into trouble.

The other great character is Mavic Chen, Guardian of the Solar System. One gets the impression that while he is a charismatic and popular leader, he is not a very democratic one; indeed, there are elements of him, especially his reliance on a scientific elite who are in some respects a state within a state, which resurface in Nation’s later creation, Davros. He is obviously a villain of the first order, but you can’t help but cheer for him as he outwits the Daleks and the other aliens. Afer all, he is the same species as us viewers. (Well, most of us.) I did wonder if there were any particular historical or contemporary examples of a “good”, democratic leader turning to the Dark Side that Nation might have had in mind as a type for Chen – I’ve seen plenty in the Balkans in the last ten years, but perhaps there were 1960s parallels in post-colonial Africa, or maybe the South Vietnamese, or even Castro in Cuba.

The Daleks are also on top form here. They continually refer to the humans as “aliens” and “creatures”, which gives them a cerain integrity – of course, we are as horrendous to them as they are to us. In the end, like Davros in Genesis of the Daleks, they are destroyed by their own creation, the Time Destructor. (Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore have a lot more to say about the Daleks in their superb, long analysis of the story.) Contrast this story with The Chase, played simply for laughs. I should say also that the Daleks’ appearance in ancient Egypt reminded me rather of the Carthaginian golems in Mary Gentle’s superb novel Ash.

Slightly less impressed by the other aliens – basically people in rubber suits and funny voices, which rather reinforces just how innovative the Daleks were. Also somewhat unimpressed by the Meddling Monk, who seems rather uncertain as to what he is doing in the story, yet somehow manages to break the Tardis lock; the Doctor is able to open it in the end, leading to this peculiar exchange between him and Steven:

STEVEN:  Yes, all right, but first you tell us something.  How did you break that lock?
THE DOCTOR:  Oh, that’s all very simple, dear boy. You see the sun in that particular galaxy has very unusual powers.  I merely reflected its powers through that ring.
SARA:  Is there something special about it?
THE DOCTOR:  Yes, it has certain properties.  The combined forces of that sun together with the stone in that ring was sufficient enough to correct the Monk’s interference.
STEVEN:  Yes, but what properties has it?
THE DOCTOR:  Now, I don’t want to discuss this anymore.  About turn, and do as you’re told. Go along.
No analysis of this story can be complete without addressing the vexed question of episode 7, The Feast of Steven, broadcast on Christmas Day, 1965. Here there are no Daleks (they are only mentioned once); the Tardis crew land near a police station in northern England in the 1960s, then escape arrest to materialise on a 1920s Hollywood film set. The Doctor gives career advice to a young Bing Crosby, and as he and his companions depart, they fill their glasses in seasonal celebration, with the Doctor turning to camera to wish “a Happy Christmas to all of you at home!” The odd thing is that it works, or at least it worked for me. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the picture on the left.) The story so far has been so bleak and at the same time so dislocated that the weird environments of episode 6 – we are told that the northern England setting is horrendously polluted, and the Tardis crew leave Hollywood with neither Steven nor Sara having the faintest notion of where they were – seem not too out of place, and the celebration at the end of the episode is a welcome note of happiness rather than humour. (The two humorous scenes of the next episode – the Tardis materialising at Lord’s, later ripped off by Douglas Adams, and the Trafalgar Square scene, both work rather less well.) As for the Doctor’s breach of the Fourth Wall, Wikipedia points out that “Tom Baker would sometimes give his lines while looking directly at the camera. In The Caves of Androzani, the character Morgus makes private comments as a theatrical aside to the camera, whilst Colin Baker delivers one of his first lines as the Doctor directly to the camera as well.”

Some day, someone (maybe me) will write an analytical comparison of The Feast of Steven with The Christmas Invasion, broadcast exactly forty years later.

I must finish, as it’s getting very late, but I’ve made only one reference so far to the single-episode story, Mission to the Unknown, which has to be considered as part of the Dalek Master Plan arc. It is probably the closest Doctor Who has ever come to pure space opera – in that the Doctor himself does not appear and is not even mentioned. The idea of the three astronauts fighting against both the Daleks and the “most hostile planet in the universe” is well done, and I hope it looked as good as it sounded.

This was the first classic Doctor Who story I have listened to entirely on audio, and I must say I enjoyed it a lot. I may try and get hold of the audio version of the story that followed, The Massacre – I tried watching a fan “reconstruction” and didn’t get much out of it, but now I’m comfortable with the format – and, perhaps more important, have a better understanding of where the story fits in the timeline.

By the way, isn’t it just utterly bizarre that episodes 5 and 10, having been lost by the BBC, were eventually located in a Mormon temple in Clapham?

One thought on “Mission to the Unknown/The Dalek Master Plan

  1. Cynthia Dwork at MSR silicon valley is working on the mathematics of privacy in databases. With enough queries and an interesting data set correlation is pretty easy and you have to add a lot of noise to query results to avoid it. She has papers with a lot of math…

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