These days, Doctor-lite episodes are more common. What’s jarring about Mission To The Unknown is that there’s not even a single glimpse of The Doctor. At least, today, The Doctor’s still managed to crop up for a couple of minutes. While today’s Doctor-lite episodes are carried by award-winning actresses or the man from Hustle, Mission To The Unknown is only carried by a gaggle of worried spacemen, two of which are about to become background foliage in a plant shop.
But when in doubt, the Doctor Who team relied on the next best thing. After no shows from Tom Jones, Sandie Shaw or Lulu, at least there were still Daleks to fall back on. After the disastrous Chase, the motorised meanies needed to redeem themselves. Luckily, Mission To The Unknown sees them back on form, as they appear in the prelude to the much-anticipated Daleks’ Master Plan.
The Daleks are much more impressive than in The Chase, mainly because they’ve upped their game from harassing The Doctor just for the hell of it. Now, they are hell-bent on overthrowing the Solar System in much higher stakes, and have even drafted in a consortium of outer galaxy representatives to achieve their goal.
The consortium is a worthwhile attempt to show the diverse range of alien races that Doctor Who is notorious for. They may look like a Scooby Doo ghost convention, but the alien races are undeniably well designed. Malpha, the only speaking alien, looks particularly distinctive with his crazy paving head, and even though Trantis would look different in The Daleks’ Master Plan, his appearance is memorably macabre in this story, with rocks hanging off his craggy face.
The Daleks are also back to their fire-spitting best. During The Chase, it looked as if they’d lost their mojo, but here, they’re back to picking off any threats with the casual nonchalance of swatting flies. Hence, Lowery’s space ship is consigned to the scrapheap, as is Marc Cory himself, just when you think he might make it out in one piece.
Marc Cory and his crewmembers are generally well portrayed by Edward De Souza, Jeremy Young and Barry Jackson (in the days before conducting pathology reports on countless Midsomer residents who’d been bumped off by some mad old eccentric). Poor old Garvey and Lowery are threatened with the undignified fate of turning into plants. The deadly Varga plants showcase one of the show’s future themes: possession.
Mission To The Unknown may not have the same impact as Noah doubling up in pain over his bubble wrap hand or Marcus Scarman strutting about with white flour over his haunted visage, but the scenes of Garvey and Lowery succumbing to the Varga plants are still convincing enough for the kiddies. Still, Blake’s 7 fans may heave a sigh of Blessed relief that they are not turned into Vargas, the shouty mad priest from Cygnus Alpha.
Overall, the action is handled well in Mission, even though it’s back to playing guessing games with soundtracks and the recons. Derek Martinus’ cast is well chosen, and by the looks of it, Richard Hunt’s Kembel jungle designs are well realised. The only real problem with Mission To The Unknown for me is that it just seems a little oddly placed. Right after this, we’re dragged back down to historical Earth with The Myth Makers. We won’t see how this story unfolds until another five episodes’ time. Surely it would have made more sense for Mission To The Unknown to follow on from The Myth Makers? That way, the storyline would have still been fresh in viewers’ minds, and would have made far more sense in the context of The Daleks’ Master Plan.
Despite this niggle, Mission To The Unknown is a worthy experiment, and proved that a Doctor-lite episode was possible, 40-odd years before it became common practice.
It’s also worth noting that this was the last story to be produced by Verity Lambert. Lambert’s contribution to Doctor Who is immeasurable, taking a crazy idea and running with it to make it plausible and in the process, create TV magic. Lambert since demonstrated that she didn’t lose her knack for producing well-crafted, intelligent TV such as Love Soup or Jonathan Creek. But it’s for her big TV breakthrough that she’s still remembered, and justifiably so. She’s the reason that I’m sitting here nearly 50-something years later trotting out waffle about the best TV programme in the world, ever.
* I have written 3 bumper ebook guides that cover many aspects of the 1970s Doctor Who stories. All of which are available at Amazon for very fair prices!
JON PERTWEE ERA
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 1
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 2