Doctor Who Reviews: The Daleks' Master Plan

If Mission To The Unknown was a day return ticket, then The Daleks’ Master Plan is an extensive round-the-world trip. Following the sneak preview (and just before The Myth Makers annoyingly barged in), The Daleks’ Master Plan can be seen as a series in its own right: A whole 12 episodes that went out in the cold winter of 1965/66.

Of course, today, that trip has been considerably cut short, since only three episodes exist in their entirety (as well as a few surviving clips). The recent recovery of the second instalment, Day Of Armageddon, does at least hold out hope that there may be more lost episodes sitting out there somewhere in the world. The only alternative is to go for the reconstructed version of the story, which isn’t for the faint-hearted. Twelve episodes in one go? Not do-able. Your best bet is to tackle the story two or three episodes at a time, so that it doesn’t get stale.

Despite its prodigious length, The Daleks’ Master Plan is actually brilliant. 1965 started out reasonably badly for the evil pepperpots with The Chase, and although Mission To The Unknown saw an increase in fortunes, this was only one episode. However, Master Plan sees the Daleks at their best. It’s helped that they’re filmed by Douglas Camfield, who chooses the best camera angles to make them a real domineering presence. For example, when the luckless Kert Gantry stumbles upon a Dalek in the first episode, we see the Dalek from down below, as it looms over its terrified victim.

Camfield’s direction is inspired overall, with good use of close-ups, cross fades, weird video effects (in the cellular dissemination scenes) and a great understanding of Nation’s and Spooner’s scripts. He brings out the darkness of the story with atmospheric set pieces such as Katarina’s last sacrifice or the final climatic struggle.

The Daleks have also upped their game with the dreaded Time Destructor, a weapon which is seen to have devastating powers, and furthermore, they have entered into an alliance with the duplicitous Guardian Of The Solar System, Mavic Chen. However, throughout the serial, they are shown to be one step ahead of Chen, no matter how powerful he thinks he is. The scripts restore them to their former glory of cunning, devious tacticians who are still prone to destroy all life that doesn’t equate with their own appearance or ideology.

Not even Mavic Chen can break through this barrier. Chen, for all his claims of dominance and power, is basically a whopping great egotist with a greed only matched by Mr Greedy in the Mr Men books. Chen’s the sort of person that is never satisfied. When he got his first bike for his birthday, he probably kicked up a fuss because it didn’t have an in-built stereo, TV and attached drinks. If Chen won the Lottery, he would still wail about how he would want to win another jackpot rollover.

Despite this, Mavic Chen works brilliantly as a villain, and a lot of this is down to actor Kevin Stoney, who adds a suave charm to the character. This makes his acts of treachery all the more inhuman, and it’s a similar pattern that Stoney would repeat in The Invasion when he appeared as Tobias Vaughn. You can’t feel too sorry for Chen when he inevitably gets exterminated by the Daleks. He’s so deluded that he thinks he’s immortal after initially escaping from the Daleks (who have, of course, ended the alliance), but he’s proved badly wrong when he blunders into a whole gang of them.

Another memorable character is Bret Vyon, which marks Nicholas Courtney’s first contribution to the show. Even though he’s not exactly goodie material (and is perfectly prepared to abandon The Doctor on Kembel at the end of the second episode), it’s still hard not to think of the Brigadier whenever Vyon speaks. Courtney is excellent in the part, adding authority and also pathos to the part (when he’s gunned down by his sister, Sara Kingdom). It’s easy to see why he was invited back by Camfield to play such a pivotal part in Doctor Who, a role that would mark him out as a big fan favourite.

In fact, there are so many characters and locales in The Daleks’ Master Plan, that it’s difficult to keep up with them all. We see the return of the consortium members, who are present and correct at the early conference. A conference doesn’t sound like the most inspiring set-piece, but again Camfield uses great big close-ups and strange cross fading of the delegates’ odd hand clapping and table drumming (which makes them resemble a drunken horde of chavs demanding food at an all night bar and grill after a boozy session at the pub) to make the most out of the more mundane ideas and concepts.

Later in the story, we also see the welcome return of the Meddling Monk. The Monk is still in treacherous mode, although wouldn’t you be if The Doctor had just tried to leave you stranded in 1066 Northumbria? Amazingly, the Monk leaves the story intact, even if he’s left stranded again (this time in a freezing cold polar waste) and shaking his fist in impotent rage at the absent Doctor.

The various destinations are very well realised by designers Raymond Cusick and Barry Newbery. Whether it's the jungles of Kembel and Mira, or the depressing Desperus (geddit?) or the pyramids of Egypt, the sets convey enough believability and wonder, and contribute much to the epic feel of the story.

We also get to go to Earth during the notorious holiday filler episodes. Much has been said about these two instalments, especially the notorious Feast Of Steven. Admittedly, they have nothing whatsoever to do with the main story, but they’re charming enough interludes and a welcome bit of light relief. Having dodged the local police, the travellers inexplicably become silent film stars (well, nearly), intruding on the Keystone Cops and Charlie Chaplin. Even the main leading lady gets jealous of Sara and her razor sharp cheekbones.

The most infamous bit comes at the end of the episode when the TARDIS crew gets sloshed on only the best champagne and The Doctor turns to the camera to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. The rumours of Hartnell allegedly ad-libbing have recently been quashed, since it was common practice for ‘60s festive TV shows to break the fourth wall and say Happy Christmas to the camera. Just be glad that The Doctor, Steven, Sara and a Dalek didn’t have to stand on one of those revolving turntables and wave cheesily to the camera.

After viewers had gorged themselves on too much turkey, the following week they’d be back for more with drunken New Year festivities. This time, The Doctor and co go to a cricket match, although strangely, The Doctor doesn’t even know what cricket is. Wonder what the Fifth Doctor would make of that… They also get in on the act by going to Trafalgar Square for the New Year’s festivities, and amazingly, don’t encounter hellish weather conditions, drunken morons or Jools' snooze-inducing self-indulgent Hootenannys. Again, the episode doesn’t belong to the story much, but at least it’s a light-hearted break from the relentless doom and gloom of the remainder of the story.

Which is grim. Very grim indeed. Almost as grim as waiting in the rain at a bus stop while a Salvation Army band plods past playing cover versions of Coldplay songs. Doctor Who hasn’t been as dark as this since An Unearthly Child, and in fact, it’s all the more effective. The Daleks’ Master Plan has more death than you can shake a sink plunger at, and what’s even more jarring is that both female companions bite the bullet in the process.

Katarina’s death is greatly shocking. Ejecting both herself and flop-haired criminal Kirksen into space, Katarina does find her fate in the stars – just not in the way she imagined it. We don’t get to see her actual death (another casualty of the junkings), but the intense lead-up to it is brilliantly written and acted. Steven’s crazed screams are convincingly done by Peter Purves, and The Doctor’s shocked epitaph is also touchingly acted by William Hartnell.

As if kids weren’t terrified enough by that, Nation and Spooner had one last nasty surprise up their sleeves as Sara Kingdom bypasses the old folks’ home era of her life, and ends up as skeletal dust, thanks to the devastating effects of the Time Destructor. This scene is even more brutal, not only because it’s the second companion to die on the trot, but also because no other character in Doctor Who, up to this point, had suffered such a grisly fate. We’ve seen shootings and stabbings and falls, but we’ve never seen anyone rot away to a skeleton and ash. This sort of death would become common practice in later stories such as City Of Death, Pyramids Of Mars and State Of Decay, but here it’s all the more shocking because it’s the first instance.

It’s a shame that Sara couldn’t have travelled with The Doctor and Steven onto pastures new. Jean Marsh is very good indeed as Sara, and makes the transition from gun-toting villainess to faithful companion well. But the deaths of both Katarina and Sara at least broke the cliché of The Doctor and his friends living to fight another day.

The final episode is a cracking one, and a fitting sign-off to the epic story. Camfield cranks up the tension to the nines throughout, especially in the Time Destructor scenes. Even the last coda is perfectly presented, as The Doctor nonchalantly announces that the Daleks are finally gone. Steven, aghast at The Doctor’s apparent casual brush-off of all that’s happened, can only brokenly say: “Bret… Katarina… Sara…”, and then The Doctor’s mask slips, as he quietly replies: “What a waste. What a terrible waste.”

A dramatic ending to what’s a towering accomplishment in the Doctor Who canon. It may be too long. There may be the usual avalanche of Nation clichés such as fend-for-yourself prison planets (see Blake’s 7’s 'Cygnus Alpha'), invisible beasts (see Planet Of The Daleks) and gun-toting mercenaries, but that’s of little consequence. The Daleks’ Master Plan is excellently written and produced, and stands as my favourite story of the Hartnell years. Any other TV producer would be proud to make just a standalone story like Master Plan. Doctor Who, however, made it just one of many stories, and made such a daunting prospect seem so easy to achieve.

* My 1970s Doctor Who ebook Masterplan is available in 3 volumes at Amazon, containing extra features such as character/monster/planet/spaceship profiles, incidental music thoughts and lots more: