Three time machines in one infinitesimal speck of space and time! Tsk. Of course, a coincidence is possible—but hardly likely.
They just don’t make them like they used to. The multi-episode story structure used by Doctor Who allowed quite a bit of flexibility when planning a season, and while most stories of the First Doctor’s era fit into the standard four-episode format, one story in particular stretched the limits: Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner’s twelve-episode epic “The Daleks’ Master Plan” (Story Production Code V), which first aired in weekly installments from November 13, 1965 through January 29, 1966. Nothing like it had been seen in Doctor Who before. Except, um, Terry Nation’s “The Chase” and “The Keys of Marinus,” six-episode stories from which the structure of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” is cribbed.
Both “The Chase” and “The Keys of Marinus” feature whirlwind tours of disparate locations, either climactic extremes (jungles, deserts, acid oceans) or quasi-realistic settings played for laughs (top of the Empire State Building, an animatronic house of horrors). So too with “The Daleks’ Master Plan”—the deserts of ancient Egypt; the lush jungle of planet Kembel; the swamps of planet Mira; northern England at Christmas; the, ah, manicured cricket lawns of The Oval; and 1920’s Hollywood are all stops for the TARDIS in this story. And why does the TARDIS flit from place to place? Because it’s being chased through time and space, not just by Daleks (as in “The Chase”) but by the Mark IV TARDIS of the Meddling Monk, also known as “The Time Meddler,” because, as a Dennis Spooner creation, he’s of course in this one, too. Can’t let Nation and his Daleks have all the fun.
Still, even if we know, broadly, what to expect from a Terry Nation story, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” works, well, masterfully, with but few exceptions. The story starts somewhat slowly, with the usual Nation technobabble—in short order we are introduced to two different types of spacecraft by brand name (the Spar 7-40 and the Flipt T4) and both ultraspace and ultrasonics, neither of which get any explanation. But most importantly, we are introduced to Mavic Chen (Kevin Stoney), the idolized Guardian of the Solar System (essentially the leader of all humans), whom we quickly find to be in league with the Daleks. Why rule a mere solar system, when you can rule whole galaxies?
Meanwhile, the Doctor desperately needs medicine for a wounded Steven and lands, by happenstance, on the planet Kembel, last seen as the location of a secret Dalek base in “Mission to the Unknown.” Before long, the Doctor, Katarina (picked up in ancient Troy during “The Myth Makers“), Steven, and a headstrong Earth security agent named Bret Vyon (future Brigadier Nicholas Courtney) stumble into a conference being held by the Daleks with representatives from several different galaxies. It’s at this conference that the Daleks’ Master Plan is unveiled.
And, as with most Dalek plans, it’s actually kind of stupid.
OK, not turn-a-planet-into-a-spaceship stupid, but close. The linchpin of the Daleks’ Master Plan is the Time Destructor, a device that must be fueled by the extremely rare mineral Taranium and whose purpose is unclear until the very last episode of the story. But what is clear is that, without the Time Destructor, the Daleks lack the strength to wipe out the combined forces of the rest of the universe. So the Daleks engage in false diplomacy, luring representatives from the various galaxies into betraying their people by promising the representatives with untold power. Of course, the Daleks plan on killing these representatives after the conquest of their galaxies has begun, but not one of them sees the possibility of such treachery, so blinded are they by their lust for power.
The only real problem with the plan is that, as we discover, the Time Destructor cannot be turned off once it is turned on, running until the Taranium core burns out, and it ages (or, with the flick of a switch, de-evolves) all organic matter in range, Daleks included (and TARDISes excluded). It’s a one-shot weapon, useful only as a bluff or a deterrent. And given that it took Mavic Chen fifty years to gather enough Taranium from the sole source in the universe, Uranus, it’s not like the Daleks have a spare. So were the Daleks going to threaten to use the Time Destructor as a means of conquering the universe without ever actually firing a shot?
It must be acknowledged that this inability to stop the reaction might be limited to the Time Destructor that the Doctor steals at the very end of the story, as the Daleks were willing to test it on one of the representatives whose usefulness has come to an end. The Doctor does believe that he can neutralize the reaction with equipment aboard the TARDIS—or possibly just by bringing it into the TARDIS—so perhaps the Daleks had a similar dampening mechanism, but when confronted with the out-of-control Time Destructor, they are helpless before it. Still, for the entire plan to hinge on a nigh-unobtainable mineral and not to secure it at the earliest possible moment makes little sense, even if they could use the Time Destructor more than once.
The Doctor manages to infiltrate the conference and steals the core of Taranium, leading to a chase through time and space by spaceship, matter transporter, and time machine. The Taranium core becomes a MacGuffin, much like the eponymous Keys of Marinus, a reason for the chase through fifteen set changes. And so, from the third episode through to the tenth, the Doctor stays barely ahead of the Daleks and Mavic Chen as they frantically attempt to recover the core.
And it actually works. “The Chase” suffered from the constant change of scene because the Daleks never caught up to the Doctor and his companions until the very end of the story; here, the Doctor and his companion (and assorted hangers-on) are effectively pursued and in danger from episode to episode. It’s worth noting that Terry Nation only wrote half of the “chase” episodes (three through five and the delightfully infamous number seven), with Dennis Spooner writing the rest (six and eight through ten).
From Kembel, they escape by Spar-70 to a prison planet, where they are forced down by the Daleks’ control randomizer. The Daleks also land on the prison planet, but their ship sinks into the marshy ground, allowing Bret and Steven to repair their ship’s controls in time to escape, albeit with a stowaway prisoner. And at this point, the pseudo-companion Katarina (Adrienne Hill) meets her end, the first continuing character on the show to die.
The prisoner takes Katarina hostage to force the Doctor to return the ship to nearby Kembel rather than Earth, and the handmaiden of Cassandra, either intentionally or inadvertently, sacrifices herself to save the Doctor and the mission to stop the Daleks by hitting an airlock switch and ejecting herself and the armed prisoner into space. I’m not inclined to consider Katarina a companion in the strictest sense of the term—my standard holds to completing more than one entire story by the Doctor’s side, though others seem to equate companion-hood as merely being a continuing character who has travelled on the TARDIS. Regardless, her loss comes suddenly and without much warning; it’s a harrowing moment, played quite somberly by William Hartnell, Peter Purves, and Nicholas Courtney. The Doctor eulogizes her as “a daughter of the Gods.”
Not that Bret Vyon has much time to reflect on her loss, because he dies in the very same episode, after the fugitives crash land near a research laboratory on Earth. Space Security Service agent Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh), his sister, shoots him down as a supposed traitor on orders from Mavic Chen. Cool, collected, and steely, Sara tracks down the Doctor and Steven to a matter transport test chamber, whence they are teleported (or cellularly disseminated) to the planet Mira along with the core of Taranium. On Mira, Sara learns the truth about Chen and her brother, but she has no time to mourn, for they are set upon not only by the Daleks but also by the invisible Visians (Nation naming things again . . .) The giant Visians attack the Daleks, allowing our heroes to commandeer the Daleks’ ship and return to Kembel to reclaim the TARDIS.
From Mira, the chase starts to wend through time, and the Doctor manages to land the TARDIS on Earth. In the 1960s. In England. Twice in a row and three times in total, a feat he spent the better part of two seasons attempting when Ian and Barbara were aboard. In fairness, though, the first of these two materializations (in northern England at Christmas, where the TARDIS appears cheekily outside a police station) takes place during episode seven, “The Feast of St. Steven,” a Christmas episode not shipped to other countries and thus almost certain to never be found in film form. While the episode does make mention of the Daleks, it’s effectively a throw-away episode built for laughs and not integral to the plot at all. The police officers think the police box is one of theirs, dropped off as a Christmas prank of some sort, and after the Doctor, Steven, and Sara extricate themselves from that situation, they wind up in a Hollywood film studio during the Chaplain/Fairbanks era. Aside from the Doctor getting to add Bing Crosby and Charlie Chaplain to the list of historical personages he’s met, the episode is noteworthy mostly for the Doctor’s direct address of the television audience at the end:
Doctor: Here’s a toast to Happy Christmas to all of us!
Steven: Same to you Doctor! Sara!
Doctor: Incidentally, Happy Christmas to all of you at home!
From Hollywood, the action gets serious again, with the Doctor realizing they are being followed through time, just as in “The Chase.” After a quick stop at The Oval, where the appearance of the TARDIS threatens England’s comeback against Australia in a Test match (so 1964, then?), it’s off to a volcanic planet, where the Doctor realizes the pursuing time ship has landed. But it’s not the Daleks in pursuit—they were briefly fooled by a fake Taranium core the Doctor traded for safe passage off of Kembel the second time—but the Time Meddler (Peter Butterworth), still dressed in his monastic robes from 1066. He’s chasing the Doctor to get revenge for being stranded in the Dark Ages by the Doctor, revenge he inflicts by melting the lock of the Doctor’s TARDIS. The Doctor uses his ring, possessed of special properties to reflect universal powers, to burn away the melted keyhole. Attempts to ascertain just how he did it or what the ring is made of are brushed away by the Doctor. The Time Meddler is more than annoyed at this turn of events and vows to continue chasing the Doctor.
The Time Meddler’s re-appearance marks an important moment for the show in terms of the respect being paid to continuity. While we’ve had the Daleks appear for the fourth time now (fifth if you count the static Dalek on display in “The Space Museum“), their presence requires (and receives) no explanation. They’re the Daleks. Just say <dalek>Ex-ter-min-ate!</dalek> and stick your arm at a slight angle and pretty much anyone in ’60s Britain would know what you meant. They’re evil for evil’s sake, no reason needed.
Dalek continuity already is a mess at this point anyway, because the Doctor ostensibly did away with the Dalek species upon their first encounter with one another, requiring some handwaving in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Indeed, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” is dated to the year 4000, and the Daleks here don’t initially even recognize the Doctor or the TARDIS, the events of the former story (and “The Chase”?) having taken place almost two thousand years in the past. They just see a blue box in the Kembel jungle and shrug their eyestalks indifferently.
The Time Meddler’s desire for revenge on the Doctor carries right through from that eponymous story to this one, whereas the Daleks in “The Chase,” though similarly motivated by a desire to eliminate the Doctor for his past crimes against the Daleks, make no definitive mention of just what it was the Doctor did. You don’t have to have watched “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” to understand why the Daleks want to kill the Doctor. Despite some quick expository fill-in by the Doctor and Steven, you do need to have watched “The Time Meddler” to really understand his ire. This story marks the first point at which prior exposure with the show enhances the viewing experience for attentive viewers.
Another stop in England, this time Trafalgar Square at New Year’s Eve (in an episode broadcast on New Year’s Day, 1966), then on to the real showdown, in ancient Egypt, where the Doctor manages to find a natty Panama hat somewhere in the TARDIS wardrobes.
Expecting to confront the Time Meddler again, Steven and Sara are captured by the Daleks instead, while the meddlesome monk himself is likewise captured by the Daleks and pressed into their service to ensnare the Doctor and the precious Taranium. But the Doctor has snuck into the Time Meddler’s own TARDIS, reset the chameleon circuit to look like, yes, a blue police box as a decoy, and stolen the Directional Unit for good measure. It’s noteworthy that Mavic Chen recognizes that the Doctor would do just about anything to save his companions (though, alas, for yet another story they are not referred to as such), and thus he convinces the Daleks to offer a trade rather than just killing Sara and Steven outright.
The Doctor does swap the Taranium core for the safety of Steven and Sara, without really having a plan for stopping the Daleks once they’ve gotten their precious object. Steven and Sara are somewhat dismayed, but once the Doctor uses the purloined Directional Unit (missing from the Doctor’s TARDIS) to steer to Kembel, they gird themselves for a fight. (In protection of future narratives, the journey burns out the Directional Unit—it’s from a Mark IV, after all.)
Kevin Stoney’s portrayal of Mavic Chen as a power-mad politician reaches epic heights by the end of the story, as he nonchalantly bats away Dalek eyestalks and graduates to ordering the Dalek Supreme around. It doesn’t end well.
The Doctor manages to infiltrate a Dalek base for the second time in the same story and steals the Time Destructor with more ease than he snatched the Taranium core in the first place. For a species bent on universal domination, you’d think they’d keep the doomsday devices better guarded. Willing to sacrifice himself, the Doctor orders Steven and Sara back to the safety of the TARDIS, but Sara disobeys, and she is killed by the aging rays of the Time Destructor. The Doctor himself is affected, but not as drastically as Sara. Steven, trying to rescue them, switches the Time Destructor in reverse, causing the Daleks to regress back to embryonic versions of the slugs we see inside the Dalek shells in “The Daleks.”
The loss of Sara Kingdom, literally turned to dust by the Time Destructor, comes as a shock. She seemed set to become a bona fide companion—intelligent, resourceful, strong, rationally minded. Her fifth millennium background is to Steven’s third millennium knowledge as his was to Katarina’s. And yet, no. The Doctor will encounter a new female companion in the next story, younger and less technologically advanced, but Sara not surviving to journey with the Doctor must have struck contemporary viewers as a bit bewildering.
In all, a tour-de-force. The Doctor experiences real loss, confronts his own death more certainly than ever before, stops the Daleks at the last moment, and even gives the Time Meddler an off-screen thrashing with his trademark cane. Of all the early serials to be mostly missing on film (only episodes two, five, and ten are extant), that it should be this one! There are multiple fight scenes (Daleks vs. Visians and vs. Egyptians), elaborate and numerous sets, wild effects, and possibly more cast members than in any other story of the original era of Doctor Who. And while William Hartnell is by this point having significant issues with his lines—the “Billy Fluffs” come fast and often—there’s still a real dignity in his delivery and demeanor.
There are some problems with the story, notably in the entire build-up of the Earth political scene by Nation that subsequently goes unused by Spooner, but they are quibbles. The Doctor outwits Daleks in the shadow of the Great Pyramid armed with nothing but a cane and a spiffy hat. After fifty years of Doctor Who, there’s not been much better.
(Previous Story: The Myth Makers)
(Next Story: The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve)
Post 21 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project