Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Where on earth do I begin? Every Doctor Who fan in the universe has heard of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” – the Christmas episode; the death of a companion; the one that got away…

Many people will have purchased the Lost in Time DVD collection on the strength of the three existent episodes of this story included on the disc. They do not disappoint! The newest discovery, “Day of Armageddon” is presented remastered with the option of an audio commentary from Peter Purves (Steven), Kevin Stoney (Mavic Chen) and Raymond Cusick, the designer. The visual quality of the episode (as well as that of both “Counter Plot” and “Escape Switch”) is so good that you would think it was only shot yesterday! Although I enjoyed watching these three episodes, it really is so sad to see. Such an epic, landmark story, and all that remains of it are three episodes and a narrated soundtrack (available separately on CD from the BBC Radio Collection.) Nevertheless, what we have is worth enjoying…

“Mission To The Unknown”, a single twenty-five minute episode broadcast four weeks before the first ‘official’ episode of the serial, is an episode unique in the history of the classic series – not one; not two but all the regular cast were on holiday! Moreover, despite being regarded as part of the larger “The Daleks’ Master Plan” narrative, this stand-alone episode is the only single-episode story in twenty-six seasons of Doctor Who (except for the feature-length special, “The Five Doctors,” I suppose.) Effectively a lengthy trailer for the upcoming story, this ‘Dalek Cutaway’ episode focuses exclusively on the exploits of the Space Special Security Service Agent Marc Corey (Edward de Souza) on the planet Kembel. He discovers that the Daleks are planning to unite several aggressive alien species against mankind, and although he is exterminated by the Daleks, a tape containing his findings survives, setting up the twelve-parter wonderfully… Only available today as an audio soundtrack, “Mission To The Unknown” is a curiosity that even die-hard Doctor Who fans will struggle to get excited about. It’s entertaining enough, but personally I had no real interest in the characters. In fairness though, when listened to in conjunction with the rest of the story, this little episode does do a remarkable job at slowly cranking up the tension, and at the time must have had a lot of viewers scratching their heads, looking for a resolution that wasn’t forthcoming. Moreover, if nothing else, this episode gives us a glimpse at what Nation’s spin-off Dalek series, “The Destroyers”, could have been like. Unfortunately for Terry Nation, it also gave the BBC an impression of what such a series may have been like…

As episode one proclaims, “The Nightmare Begins.” Depending on whether or not one has seen “Mission To The Unknown,” this episode is either wonderfully compelling or a bit been-there-seen-that. Much of the material from the teaser episode is rehashed, but even so this episode has a lot going for it. The Doctor, Steven, and new companion Katarina are really thrown in at the deep end – the wheels of the Daleks’ plan are already turning, and following on directly from “The Myth Makers”, Steven is badly injured and the Doctor is forced to venture out into the jungles of Kembel in search of aid. This episode also introduces a familiar face to the series, albeit in an unfamiliar guise. Nicholas Courtney makes his Doctor Who debut as Bret Vyon, another Space Special Security Service Agent. It is Courtney’s superb performance that really engaged my interest in this episode; his character is (initially) portrayed as a very unlikeable and very militant individual, someone who appears to be as much a threat to our heroes as the Daleks are.

The second episode, “Day of Armageddon,” was famously returned to the BBC archives in late 2003, and subsequently released commercially the following year for the first time as part of the Lost in Time DVD collection. After listening to the soundtracks of “Mission To The Unknown” and “The Nightmare Begins,” it was absolutely fantastic to be able to enjoy the wonderful visuals on display in this episode – beautiful shots of Daleks in the forest with pyro weapons; all the aliens in the council… even Mavic Chen himself. It’s a really enthralling episode. To those who have seen it on the DVD but don’t own the soundtrack, I cannot stress enough how much more enjoyable the episode is in context. “Day of Armageddon” may give us some wonderful visuals and some truly classic moments of television, but it isn’t until later episodes that characters like Bret Vyon and Mavic Chen (Guardian of the Solar System) are explored more fully, and moreover, it isn’t until later that things really heat up!

The loss of episode three, “Devil’s Planet,” is truly heartbreaking. Almost a completely self-contained adventure, this episode is set on Desparus (the prison planet of the ‘Solar System’ – how many planets does our Solar System have, hmm?) and contains the most shocking moment in the series to date – Katarina’s death. Like many people, I’d heard about her death long before I saw the surviving clip or heard the soundtrack, yet I was still taken aback at how well it was handled. Completely unexpected; totally understated. My only criticism would be that her death lacked a bit of weight because her character was so new. If, for example, it would have been Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki being sucked out into space I think it would have hit a lot harder, but even as it was the writers and producers have to be praised for taking such bold action. 

From the third episode onwards, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” borrows a lot from “The Chase” in terms of format and pace, but thankfully not in tone. Instead of the Daleks’ chasing the Doctor and his companions through time and space just to exterminate them, in this story they are chasing them to retrieve the Taranium Core of the Time Destructor and the whole universe is at stake. Episode four, “The Traitors,” continues the ‘chase’ format but also takes more time to dwell on characters like Mavic Chen and Bret Vyon. In this episode we witness Vyon kill a man in cold blood, outraging the Doctor, but due to some clever writing on Nation’s part Vyon still gets over with the audience. His methods may be worlds apart from the Doctor’s, but their goals are the same. It’s almost reminiscent of the relationship between the Doctor and certain Brigadier… Moreover, “The Traitors” give us a little bit of exposition, allowing the audience insight into Mavic Chen’s own private master plan. Here we also see his ruthlessness in practice as he stabs one of his ‘allies’ in the back, framing them for a crime against the Daleks.

“Counter Plot” is one of the two episodes of this serial that were found in a Mormon Church basement! It has had limited exposure in the past, having been released commercially on the BBC Video Daleks – The Early Years, but now is available on the Lost In Time DVD gloriously remastered. It’s damn good thing too, because it’s a cracking episode. Jean Marsh as Sara Kingdom is absolutely superb. She’s yet another Space Special Security Service Agent, and on initial appearances she seems like just a female version of Vyon. The trouble is, she won’t believe the Doctor, Steven and Vyon’s story, and it isn’t until she has actually killed Vyon – who we then find out is her brother! – that she realises that it is all true. This gives her character a troubled, unstable edge – something a lot of the Doctor’s early companions lack. Of course, whether Sara is a proper ‘companion’ or not is another issue entirely, and one I don’t give a shit about if the truth be known! She’s here for one story, and she’s fantastic – that’s all I care about!

Some Doctor Who fans may experience a little bit of déjà vu watching the existing episodes of “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, particularly if they were the sort of Doctor Who fans raised on a staple diet of Jon Pertwee Dalek stories. Already in this twelve-parter, we have seen the familiar concept of a killer jungle in “The Nightmare Begins” and “Day of Armageddon,” and in this episode we are treated to another Terry Nation trademark – invisible monsters, the classic budget-saving baddies! Both the killer jungle and the invisible aliens would later be rehashed in “Planet of the Daleks” six years later, but strangely, because I’m so familiar with “Planet of the Daleks,” it is this story that feels like the rip-off, when of course it was written years beforehand!

With the beautifully titled “Coronas of the Sun,” Dennis Spooner takes over the writing duties and immediately there is a noticeable change in the serial’s style. Nation’s beginning to the story makes the Daleks’ plan crystal clear, but they do not actually do much themselves, nor is there any real interaction between the Daleks and our heroes. Spooner brings the Daleks to the forefront, giving us a battle between them and the Visians (the invisible creatures) and also a showdown outside the TARDIS with the Doctor and his companions – here there is a rare moment of brilliance for Steven, who manages to save the lives of the TARDIS crew but only at great risk to himself. The nefarious Mavic Chen is also handled well by Spooner, who really plays on Chen’s manipulation of the Daleks. In this episode Chen actually wants the Doctor to escape with the Taranium Core, just to annoy the Daleks!

The story’s seventh instalment, “The Feast of Steven,” was the first episode of Doctor Who ever to be broadcast on Christmas Day. Unlike 2005’s action-packed blockbuster, “The Christmas Invasion,” this episode is nothing more than a whimsical diversion – not a Dalek in sight! I confess, I did enjoy listening to the surviving soundtrack, not because it is good by any stretch of the imagination, but just because I found it so amusingly rubbish. I still think it is incredible that the producers decided to cut away from the biggest, most ambitious story that they’ve ever attempted and instead give the massive Christmas audience a slapstick knockdown run-around show! Out of all the episodes churned out in the sixties, without a shadow of a doubt this one has dated the most. The Doctor even famously salutes the audience from home! Yuk.

“Volcano” throws the audience right back into the action, the Daleks’ resuming their pursuit of the TARDIS back through time and Mortimus, the Meddling Monk, rears his ugly head once again. Here, the Monk is just as good as in “The Time Meddler”, if not better. Peter Butterworth works so well with Hartnell; they just have that chemistry between them, a bit like Roger Delgado and Jon Pertwee. “Golden Death” sees the Monk being forced by the Daleks to trick the Doctor, making for some hilarious television as the Monk schemes and plots – sometimes in a very sinister way, but mostly playfully. He’s actually a very likeable character – something Paul Cornell would later play on wonderfully in his superb novel, “No Future.” He’s certainly my favourite black and white Doctor Who villain!

“Escape Switch,” the last of the extant episodes, is the best of the three in my opinion. It wraps up the Monk ‘trilogy’ of episodes superbly – William Hartnell is at his absolute best, both forceful and clever, as is Kevin Stoney’s Mavic Chen, and there are also some wonderful scenes where the native Egyptians react to the Daleks. It’s hard to believe that this segment of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” is the only Doctor Who television story ever set in Egypt – what’s up with that? At the end of the episode, the Doctor actually gets his hands of a directional unit for the TARDIS and manages to steer it back to Kembel, only to be forced into handing over the core of the Time Destructor to the Daleks! 

For me, the worst part of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” is its ending. Admittedly, watching the credits roll at the end of “Escape Switch” (the last surviving episode of the serial) is a very deflating experience which doesn’t help the final two audio-only episodes. As good as the narrated soundtracks are, you cannot beat the much more visceral experience of an actual episode. “The Abandoned Planet” is a slow and drawn-out affair, and features far more exposition and political scheming than any of the other eleven episodes. To make matters worse, the Doctor is nowhere to be seen.

“Destruction of Time” is rather a grim title for an episode, and grim is what you get. Chen meets a rather predictable end, gunned down by the Daleks he strived so hard to outwit. It’s quite a shame really - even though he was so evil, part of me wanted to see him out-manoeuvre the Daleks! The Daleks then detonate the time destructor, but it is so powerful that it kills them – reducing them to microscopic embryos. The death toll mounts as Sara dies horribly, aged to death by the Dalek weapon. In the end, only the Doctor seems pleased that the Dalek menace is destroyed; Steven is far too distraught about the deaths of Katarina, Bret, Sara and so many others that he can’t bring himself be pleased, leaving us with a very downbeat ending indeed.

In all, the epic centrepiece to the 1965/1966 season is quite simply that; epic. The greatest compliment that I can pay this story is that it holds up over thirteen episodes – in forty years no other story can claim that. The sheer ambition of the story is breathtaking - several planets; ancient Egypt; Earth in the far future; spaceships; the meddling Monk; the death of two ‘companions’… it’s absolutely groundbreaking stuff, beautifully and imaginatively written by both Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner. The constant shifts of location and emphasis really help the story maintain its pace over such a long stretch, so much so that at time it feels more like The Lord of the Rings than Doctor Who! What I love so much about this story is how one can easily dip in and out of it – the plot is grounded in a relatively simple premise so that you can miss the odd episode and still follow it, and (although I doubt anyone will approach the story this way these days) if you were to watch/listen to it over thirteen weeks, the gaps in your memory are so easily filled. It’s like intergalactic Coronation Street. That said, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” is a story that works on a lot of different levels. There’s a lot of action, a lot of politics, a lot of a humour, a lot of pathos and a lot of death. Arguably, it’s the most ‘grown-up’ Doctor Who story of the Hartnell era. Sadly, there aren’t any telesnaps out there to allow any decent sort of reconstruction to be made, so it there was ever a contender for another story to be animated… there’s cash to be made, BBC!

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