Doctor Who Project: The Daleks’ Master Plan

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?

Today the Solar System, Tomorrow the Universe!

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.

Gearon, Malpha, and the Dalek Supreme. Or is that Celation?

And, as with most Dalek plans, it’s actually kind of stupid.

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Doctor Who Project: Mission to the Unknown

It is done. The seven great powers of the galaxy are one.

Obviously, far too much time has passed since the Daleks last appeared on Doctor Who in “The Chase,” a whole eight episodes ago. And so, to set up their epic return in the twelve-part “The Daleks’ Master Plan” one story hence, we are treated to Terry Nation’s “Mission to the Unknown” (Story Production Code T/A), a one episode “prologue” also known as the Dalek Cutaway but mostly known because there’s no Doctor in it. At all.

From the start, one imagines “Mission to the Unknown” to be Terry Nation’s vision of the Daleks outside of Doctor Who, with neither the Doctor nor his Companions even mentioned in the episode. The music itself seems a departure from the established series norm, with an excessive use of musical “stings”—quick, crashing, slightly discordant sounds more commonly associated with horror or thriller films.

Opposing the cumbersome pepperpots this time is not a Time Lord but Marc Cory, an agent of Earth’s Space Security Service (also called the Special Security Service in this episode). Had Marc Cory survived the episode, I would have suspected an Earth vs. Dalek spin-off series in the making. But one feels nothing for the deaths of Cory and his unwitting colleagues Garvey and Lowery; they are essentially set dressing.

Ultimately, the episode serves as an info-dump more than a teaser. The actors (Dalek and human alike) fairly stumble over big blocks of text as Terry Nation spends most of the story in expositional mode, setting up the scenario (a thousand years after the last Dalek invasion of Earth) and letting us know what the Daleks have been up to in the intervening years (conquering planets millions of light years away). And now they’re back for another crack at Earth, this time in a great alliance with the galaxy’s six other great powers, noted in the script as Gearon, Trantis, Malpha, Sentreal, Beaus, and Celation. And note, too the black dome of the Dalek Supreme.

As is somewhat typical of early (and, who are we kidding, current) Doctor Who, astronomical terms are thrown around with imprecise abandon. One of the delegates at the Daleks’ alliance meeting, from Malpha, proclaims:

This is indeed an historic moment in the history of the universe. We six from the outer galaxies, joining with a power from the solar system: the Daleks.

Universe, galaxy, solar system? Even the location of the planet Kembel, where the action takes place, is unclear. Cory and his fellows suggest that Earth has a huge galactic network, though, so Earth is no slouch in terms of colonization and, perhaps, conquest.

As with “Galaxy 4” before it, “Mission to the Unknown” no longer exists on film, and given the effects work hinted at in the publicity stills and the script, one hopes fervently that a copy turns up at a jumble sale somewhere after decades in an attic, if only to see the giant headed cone alien walk around.

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Doctor Who Project: The Chase

Barbara, could I, ah, have your cardigan?

Terry Nation and his Daleks return to Doctor Who in “The Chase” (Story Production Code R), with their own time machine, ready to pursue our heroes through time and space with one aim: to exterminate. The possibilities are endless, the potential locales and eras limitless. And we wind up on a desert planet populated by fish people. And also on Earth three times. And then on a jungle planet with hungry fungi and truculent robots. By the end of the story, one mourns not so much for the departure of Barbara and Ian as for what could have been.

Much like an earlier Nation effort, “The Keys of Marinus,” “The Chase” bounces around from place to place, episode to episode, and as a result, far too much screen time is devoted to establishing the when and what of where the Doctor and his companions have arrived. This influx of exposition overwhelms any sense of anxiety about the Daleks who pursue them just minutes behind in the time and space vortex. And, of course, the intrepid travellers must conspire to get themselves separated from one another in each and every episode. That takes effort, drawing away from any depth of plot.

The action, such as it is, starts on the heels of “The Space Museum,” with the Doctor tuning in various moments in history on the Time-Space Visualizer he insisted on liberating from that eponymous institution. The Time-Space Visualizer is curiously heliocentric, with the names of the solar system’s planets around it, and indeed the entire story resounds with references to the Doctor as human, though likely an unintentional rather than prescriptive description. Shakespeare makes his first appearance in Doctor Who on the Visualizer, and the United States is referenced for the first time as well, as Ian requests a peek at Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.

A thousand channels and he winds up on the History Channel

But then, in a fortuitous bit of channel surfing, the Daleks appear, chanting “TARDIS, TARDIS, TARDIS!” as they roll one after the other into their own time machine, ready to chase the Doctor and chums through time and space as revenge for the foiled invasion of Earth. They don’t seem overly concerned about the Doctor’s seeming destruction of their species on Skaro way back when, just the whole Earth thing. Because turning the Earth into a hollow spaceship to fly it around the galaxy was totally going to work.

Of course, our time travellers can’t just leave, because the party is split up on the desert planet Aridius, adding yet another lazy planet name to the Doctor Who canon. The fishy Aridians, whose planet was once water covered and who live in fear of octopus-like Mire Beasts, don’t seem at all surprised by the sudden appearance of the Doctor or the Daleks, who threaten to destroy the Aridian civilization if the Doctor and his companions are not handed over.

Fish men. In a desert.

Thankfully, a Mire Beast breaks through a wall and eats an Aridian, allowing Vicki, Barbara, and the Doctor to escape and meet up with Ian, who has passed out from the first of two head-beatings in this story.

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Doctor Who Project: The Dalek Invasion of Earth

What’s worse? The alligators down here or the Daleks up there?

At last, they return! The Daleks appear once more after their resounding first season success in “The Mutants,” invading Earth in Terry Nation’s “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (Story Production Code K). This time, the Daleks want nothing more than to, um, empty out the core of the planet and replace it with an engine of some sort.

But whatever! It’s the Daleks! And they’re in London!

This story, which Howe and Walker claim “surely ranks as one of the series’ all-time greats” in their Doctor Who: The Television Companion, starts in familiar enough style, which is to say that our travellers leave the TARDIS, become separated from it because of Susan—this time she brings an entire bridge down upon it—and then become separated from each other. Even Ian comments upon the party’s tendency to split up: upon realizing Barbara and Susan are missing from the landing site, he exclaims, “Why, why do they do it?”

Still, the separation works to good effect in this six-part story, as Susan and Barbara are spirited away by the human resistance to the Daleks and Ian and the Doctor are captured by the Robomen, the human semi-cyborgs enslaved as footsoldiers by the Daleks, who are few in number on Earth. The development of the resistance figures adds depth to the story, as thus far in the series, our sympathies have been almost entirely on our travellers finding their way back to the TARDIS. Very few secondary characters have been roundly developed in the series so far, and as will become obvious, the development of one resistance figure in particular takes on real significance.

The capture of the Doctor and Ian gives good reason to explore the Dalek saucers and to see lots of Daleks rolling around. There’s probably a good ten minutes of scenes showing nothing but Daleks moving back and forth in this story. The audience wants what the audience wants.

That said, Terry Nation wisely holds off on revealing the Daleks until the very end of the first episode, where one rises ominously from the murky Thames…

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Doctor Who Project: The Keys of Marinus

Now, now! Twist the dials!

The First Doctor and his companions, having left China behind, find themselves once more at the mercy of the wonky time mechanism in the TARDIS, arriving on a glass sand beach surrounded by acid seas. Over those seas and far away are the titular Keys of Marinus, four of which this fab foursome will be coerced into finding.

Much like the preceeding “Marco Polo,” Terry Nation’s “The Keys of Marinus” (Story Production Code E) is a sweeping epic of a story, stretching a simple “fetch and carry” plot over six episodes. Four Keys must be found, each in a different location on the planet Marinus and each accompanied by a different type of story. Finding the first Key involves psychological suspense, with a struggle to separate reality from illusion. And there are brains in jars.

Doctor Who 005 (1964) Hartnell - Keys Of Marinus4 on by Père Ubu via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license

The second Key is in an overgrown laboratory with violent plant life, and in finding it, Ian and Barbara undergo a horror-type encounter with eerie whispering from creeping vines. To find the third Key, Ian, Susan, Barbara, and two new helpers run around a frozen waste in an action episode, fending off wolves, a burly trapper, and ice warriors who come to life when heated up. And the acquisition of the fourth Key requires solving a murder mystery that is nowhere near as puzzling as the very awkward jump between episodes four and five, when we go from Ian escaping the trapper’s hut to Ian being knocked out in a vault with no explanation.

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Becoming One with Blake’s 7

Over on science fiction mega-blog-site, there’s a recent article on “How to Get into Rebel Space Opera Blake’s 7” that addresses the emotional and psychological aspects of attuning yourself to this slightly quirky show’s worldview:

Be willing to suspend your disbelief a bit in the first season. Blake and his crew have a run of good luck that’s pretty hard to swallow, including stumbling on the greatest spaceship in known space and later inheriting the most awesome computer ever built. Just run with it, because it sets up some great stories later.

Blake's Seven 7” single back cover, on, by Unloveable, via a Creative Commons Attribution licence

Yet another of Terry Nation‘s creations, Blake’s 7 does take some getting used to, as the heroes, broadly taken, are really anti-heroes determined to overthrow the oppressive Federation at pretty much any cost. It’s widely considered one of the very first of the “arc” science-fiction shows that focus on character development over a pre-planned story line (like Babylon 5), rather than being purely episodic in nature, where one episode’s events have little if anything to do with the next (like the original Star Trek).

The io9 article does not, however, address how to actually get Blake’s 7 in DVD Region 1 countries, as they have not been released with our region coding, other than a wink and nod at the torrent route in the comments. Region 2 has the full series, and both PAL and NTSC video tapes were produced. As far back as 2004, there were plans to produce Region 1 DVDs, but there is very little information available about why the deal or project fell through. Some sites claim to have region free versions of the show on DVD for sale, but you don’t have to be Orac to realize that there’s something strange going on there.

I realize that Blake’s 7 will always be a niche show in the United States, and it’s certainly the rights holders’ prerogative to not find a way to take my money, but it would be a shame to have this unique show stuck in the proverbial film can for American fans.

(Image courtesy of Unloveable via a Creative Commons Attribution License.)