Airdate: October 9, 1965
Written by: Terry Nation
Directed by: Derek Martinus
The Story So Far: On the jungle planet of Kembel, the Daleks are secretly amassing an intergalactic alliance to help them invade the Solar System, while an Earth space security service agent tries to unravel their scheme and dodge their carnivorous plants. Meanwhile, why isn’t the Doctor coming to the rescue?
Novelization by: John Peel, December 1989 (part of The Daleks’ Master Plan: Mission to the Unknown)
Mission to the Unknown was, until Rose aired in April 2005, the only one-part Doctor Who story. It’s also, to date, the only Doctor Who episode to not feature any of the regular cast. In that regard, it’s one of those episodes whose behind-the-scenes story is almost more compelling that what aired on television. Or, in our case, since the episode is missing, almost more compelling than what we believe it looked like on television.
I said “almost” more compelling, because Mission to the Unknown is actually pretty riveting stuff. But, a quick review of the behind-the-scenes goings-on is still instructive. First, because Planet of Giants had been shrunk from four episodes to three in post-production (“shrunk”… see what I did there?), Verity Lambert and the rest of the production team still owed the BBC an extra week of television. Second, because it was the end of the second production block — and the end of Verity Lambert’s too-short tenure as producer — none of the regulars were under contract for an additional week’s shooting. Third, Terry Nation, now unimaginably rich thanks to the efforts of multiple parties like Christopher Barry, Raymond Cusick, and Peter Hawkins & David Graham, in bringing his Daleks to life, had his eyes cast on America, and a lucrative development deal in Hollywood to bring his most famous invention to the New World.
For all these reasons, the final episode of Doctor Who‘s second production season was a one-week “Dalek cutaway” in which the Daleks actually succeed in their vile misdeeds without the Doctor stopping them. The episode serves as a prelude to the coming 12-part epic The Daleks’ Master Plan, which Lambert had locked into place for Season 3 even though she was quitting at the end of Season 2. The lead human role for this week thus falls to Edward DeSouza, playing Special Space Security agent Marc Cory. Any James Bond parallels were entrely un-coincidental; Cory is even described as “licenced to kill!” by another character. It would take DeSouza another 12 years to make the James Bond franchise proper, when he played Roger Moore’s local Arab Sheikh(!) contact in Egypt in The Spy Who Loved Me (a character description that, interestingly, echoes both one locale, and one awful line of dialogue, from The Daleks’ Master Plan).
Agent Cory has tracked the Daleks to just outside their secret base on Kembel. He’s commandeered a spaceship and its two-man crew. But one crewman, Garvey, has fallen prey to the homicidal Varga plants and is quickly turning into one — we’ve already explored Terry Nation’s penchant for men in rubber suits playing sentient plants. Garvey was played by Barry Jackson, the mute assassin from The Romans; here, his dialogue is essentially limited to variations on the word “kill” (I think RADA must have offered a class in that). The other crewman, Lowery, a more rewarding but equally doomed character, was played by Jeremy Young – Doctor Who‘s first villain, the Machiavellian Neanderthal with the anger management problem in The Tribe of Gum. Young is quite sympathetic here, even though it’s jarring to see him (or to look at reconstructions, or to watch illicitly-leaked homemade animated versions posted on YouTube, of him) without animal skins or scruffy facial hair. His fate in this story is tragic and well voice-acted, at least.
Meanwhile, in a secret city hidden in the jungle, the Daleks have gathered the representatives of the outer galaxies in an effort to invade the Solar System and finally conquer Earth. We know that, in Doctor Who history, they tried this, and were ultimately thwarted, in the 22nd century in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and, in this story, it’s implied that they also tried it — and failed — in the year 3000.
The Daleks are, somewhat surprisingly after The Chase, competent and full of menace here. Their Varga plants turn victims first into homicidal maniacs, and then, into more Varga plants; this is a pretty nifty concept but vanishes from the story after the first episode of Master Plan. Only the Daleks’ alien allies are somewhat goofy, in part by appearance and even more so in audio format. They’re a very odd-looking and -sounding bunch of alien species.
By the end of the story, the Dalek council is unanimous in their aim to conquer the Solar System; the two-man spaceship crew have become Varga plants; and Marc Cory is exterminated, seconds before he can rocket-launch his emergency SOS message to headquarters. Trantis’ bizarre face-tentacles aside, this is a plan that has worked.
I really wish I could have seen this story during its original transmission. I’d like to know first, were the audiences aware in October 1965 that this was a Doctor-free episode? Were people waiting for the TARDIS to appear and rescue Cory? Also, the episode is so sui generis — the Daleks win and the nominal good guys lose — that I’d love to have seen it with no preconceptions, no foreknowledge of what was to happen next. There has literally never been another episode like it. Certainly one would expect that Derek Martinus’ live direction (never minding the high quality of the animation brought to us, for 6 hours on YouTube, by a particular eccentric millionaire celebrity fan) would have lent more gravitas to the Daleks’ council of allies than I suggested earlier in this post.
So, in parting, let’s talk about some fan theories regarding Mission to the Unknown that I’ve just made up. We know that this story was made as the de facto fifth episode of Galaxy 4, by the same director, and carrying over Barry Jackson and Robert Cartland from the cast. Jackson had a cameo as Garvey the previous week, and Cartland becomes alien delegate Malpha, essentially the lead speaking role of the Daleks’ allies. Cartland had been impressive as the Rill voice, but his Malpha here is all non-menacing throaty whispers.
Again, how neat a twist would it have been if Malpha were actually a Rill instead, saved by the Doctor only to ally with the Daleks the very next week?
More interestingly, the last scene of Galaxy 4 bridges into Mission to the Unknown via the following transition: Vicki turns on the TARDIS scanner, sees the planet Kembel, and wonders what’s going on there. The action then jumps to Barry Jackson as Garvey, waking up from a Varga plant attack, and vowing to kill kill kill. Now… why was the TARDIS scanner showing Kembel in the first place? We already know the TARDIS to be telepathic. This was, almost certainly, the TARDIS’ way of getting the Doctor’s attention and trying to get him to stop the Daleks now. Because, if he doesn’t, the Daleks are going to invade the galaxy, kill two of his companions, and force him to wade through a Christmas special… but the TARDIS crew ignores the message, and instead takes a relaxing, stress-free trip to the Trojan War. That should end well for everybody…