Airdates: November/December 1965
Written by: Terry Nation (Episodes 1-5); Dennis Spooner, from an idea by Terry Nation (Episode 6)
Directed by: Douglas Camfield
The Story So Far: The Daleks ally with the Guardian of the Solar System to conquer Earth, and the Universe; the Doctor temporarily thwarts their plans, but doing so will cost one of his companions their life…
Novelization by: John Peel, as The Daleks’ Master Plan Part I: Mission to the Unknown (September 1989)
If you look at a list of every Doctor Who serial ever, you’ll quickly see that this one is the longest of them all, 12 episodes long (exempting the Key to Time season and The Trial of a Time Lord, two season-long arcs made up of interconnected individual stories). The Daleks’ Master Plan is one running narrative, epic in scope, violent, disturbing, dizzying, and, at times, outrageously comic. For the sake of convenience, and because the novelization is broken up that way, I’m splitting it into two separate blog posts. You can thank me later.
Of course, separating the story down the middle like this doesn’t really do it justice. What it really is, is an insanely downbeat four-part story — a Doctor Who variant on the ethos of Breaking Bad — wrapped around an 8-episode sequel to The Chase. And somehow, except for a lull when we get to Ancient Egypt, the whole thing (to borrow a cliche from every classic-series DVD audio commentary track ever) “holds up really well.”
Episode 1 — The Nightmare Begins: … at a deliberate pace. The TARDIS takes forever to arrive on Kembel and these days, this would all be condensed into a 3-minute cold open. But, pay attention to the individual scenes — this episode is really the the best thing Terry Nation has written to date, and I cheerfully retract every negative, snarky remark I’ve made about the hacky nature of his later writing over the years. (I reserve the right to un-retract that when we get to Planet of the Daleks, however).
The future history here is surprisingly spot-on, when seen half a century later. At a time when England had three TV stations, here in the year 4,000, we learn there’s a Channel 403. Check. Two communications techs miss the most important call in the history of the Universe because they’re too busy playing a game and watching TV at the same time. Check. There’s a dissembling politician being interviewed by an oblivious reporter who’s chasing down the wrong story. Check, check, check (hi, Ted Cruz and Wolf Blitzer!).
Nation also cleverly plays with expectations. Chen is introduced as a good guy — Guardian of the Solar System, idol of TV journalists (Oh, Channel 403 and their biased right-wing agenda!) and telecommunications technicians everywhere. Bret Vyon starts nasty — pulls a gun on his injured partner, tries to hijack the TARDIS, fights the Doctor. But Chen is revealed to be a bad guy at the very end, and, for most of the next three weeks, Vyon will actually be a good guy. Most interestingly, when Hartnell wants to walk through the Kembel jungle in search of medicine for Steven, he does not take new companion Katarina with him. Instead, he leaves her in the TARDIS and just talks to himself while exploring…
Episode 2 — Day of Armageddon: Literally my first thought, when this missing episode was discovered in 2004: “So, was Adrienne Hill any good as Katarina?” It was the first of her five-episode tenure to come to light. The answer is… heck, yeah! When the Doctor returns to the TARDIS, Katarina greets him with a beatific smile and the greeting, “My Lord!”. Hill pulls this off quite well. This is an episode, again, that seems slow-moving, but the drawn-out dialogue scenes that replace high-volume action have hidden merit. The Doctor and Bret Vyon stare each other down and tell each other to “Shut up” — pretty harsh for a family show in 1965. What’s disappointing here is that Hartnell, the Doctor who was at his best playing off against blustery foes, has zero chemistry with Nicholas Courtney, who later became a series semi-regular between 1967 and 1989. Their dialogue scenes together utterly refuse to catch fire; Vyon is too gritty to speak in the witty banter that most interests this Doctor. Speaking of catching fire, it’s awesome that Douglas Camfield uses the Daleks’ flamethrowers to light the Kembel jungle on fire… but, thanks to the limits of Ealing film shoots and a 1965-sized budget, it takes three Daleks to ignite a single plant …
The other bit of padding that isn’t, is Mavic Chen and fellow Dalek Council delegate Zephon bickering for half the story. Kevin Stoney, as Chen, is saddled with unfortunate make-up; he’s given a faintly Asian prosthetic forehead/eyelid piece, and I’ve read that his skin was tinted blue for the black-and-white cameras. But, that aside, Stoney makes interesting actor’s choices. He does bizarre things with his pen while handwriting. He faces the cameras and rolls his eyes while referring to Zephon, who’s made of twigs, as a “man”. He then uses subtle insults and insinuations to manipulate Zephon into skipping the Dalek conference … which, incidentally, gives the Doctor time to knock Zephon out, don his robes, enter the delegate hall, and steal the Taranium Core of the Time Destructor. Which sets up the next 8 episodes of Chase-style action.
Now that we have this episode in the archives again, we know what Camfield did is terrifically visual, in a way not evident on audio or via recons. There’s an atmospheric parade of alien delegates slowly lurching toward the camera, each in his own fashion. The camera then slooowly pulls back to reveal the full length of the Nuremberg-style council chamber. Pure style.
Also, how cool is it that the show has now been around long enough that the Doctor can lecture Bret about the time he thwarted the Dalek Invasion of Earth in the year 2157?
Episode 3 — Devil’s Planet: Here comes the padding. The first half of this one, literally, is the Doctor, Bret and Steven bickering inside a stolen spaceship, while the Daleks and Chen bicker back on Kembel. The Doctor, by the way, can’t even bicker properly, which is how we wind up with the line: “The Daleks will stop at anything to prevent us!“… no wonder it takes 8 episodes to wrap this stuff up. The eponymous Devil’s Planet takes up the second half, and gives Hartnell an excuse to poleaxe a Dallas Cavell character for the second time.
It’s all just an elaborate excuse to get Kirksen, a deranged Earth convict sentenced to life on the prison planet Desperus, on board the Doctor’s ship. The seeds for Katarina’s doom are cleverly laid here. The Doctor berates Bret and Steven for asking questions, and tells them to just shut up and observe like Katarina does. Katarina, who’s been taught one thing by the Doctor — how to operate switches that open doors (remember that skill, it’ll be back soon) — is also told to “not ask any questions” and “do as you’re told!” The last thing he asks her to do here, is to go check on the inner airlock door. She doesn’t ask any questions, and does as she’s told. Out comes Kirksen with a knife to Katarina’s throat… but it’s only for a cliffhanger moment, so we know that Katarina will be just fine by 5 minutes into next week’s episode, right? Right?
Episode 4 — The Traitors: I needed a minute after this one. Katarina’s death is shocking because it comes at the exact moment that the cliffhanger dilemma should be happily resolved. But the Doctor can’t save her here, and she escapes her hostage situation by opening the outer airlock door, the one thing the Doctor has taught her how to do, 5200 years into her future. Her story arc ends with 2 scenes that I wish still survived — Hartnell’s “one of the daughters of the gods” soliloquy, and the Adrienne-Hill-floating-dead-in-space film (incidentally, the first scene she recorded for the series). We know this last bit was a doozy, because if you watch the Douglas Camfield documentary on the Terror of the Zygons DVD, they show a contemporaneous production letter praising his direction of this “spacewalk”.
The rest of this installment is no easier to watch. As the “traitors” Bret, Steven and the Doctor come to Earth, Chen and his henchman Karlton (who we’ll come back to) sic their best man, Kingdom, on them. Kingdom is “determined”, “ruthless”… and, in the form of Jean Marsh (at that point, already Jon Pertwee’s ex-wife, and Jack Warden’s robot girlfriend in one of the best-ever Twilight Zone episodes), very female. Bret then murders his one friend on Earth, in cold blood, when the Doctor reveals that man to be Chen’s accomplice. Bret to this point has been desperate, determined and single-minded, but still someone the Doctor had respected as an ally. Another of the Doctor’s mistakes, which are mounting in this serial; the Doctor repudiates him with the oddly colorless insult, “You brainless idiot!”. Bret’s subsequent death at Sara’s hands is deserved, but … disturbing — that’s four brutal, callous deaths (counting Kirksen) in the last 24 minutes. The cliffhanger line is Sara ordering the Doctor and Steven shot, specifying, “Aim for the head!” Hartnell reportedly rebelled against the show’s darker direction, and taping this week’s installment must have, for him, felt like John Wiles storming the Bastille…
Episode 5 — Counter-Plot: That title means only one thing — this episode runs counter to the serial’s plot… another new planet, another yanking of the Taranium Core out of the Daleks’ sink-plunger arms. It’s padding, not plotting. But it’s still terrific for two reasons. One, on the face of it, as the new TARDIS crew (counting Sara) are molecularly disseminated across space from Earth to Mira, the travel transport effect is terminally trippy. The screen solarizes; Hartnell rolls his head in mute nostril agony —
— Steven and Sara bounce up and down on a trampoline, superimposed over starscapes (credited as “special photographic transparencies”), in slow-motion, making strange faces… this is ludicrous. But, it’s the most technically complex effects sequence the show has ever tried up to this point. So I give it bonus points for the achievement. Douglas Camfield pulling this sequence off live in studio in 1965 is something that maybe only Stanley Kubrick at the time could have done, and no-one else. There’s a reason they didn’t have Richard “The Web Planet” Martin or John “The Keys of Marinus” Gorrie back to direct this week.
While the Doctor, Steven and Sara spend the next 2 episodes on the planet Mira, dodging invisible monsters (oddly called “Visians”), and while the Doctor tells Sara, at one point, “Do as you’re told!” — the same thing he told Katarina, and we all remember what happened to her — things momentarily get interesting back on Earth. Chen and his henchman, Karlton, make plans to double-cross the Daleks; that’s the real reason why this week is called Counter-Plot, I guess, though I prefer my explanation… meanwhile, Karlton, played by someone named Maurice Browning, is a terrific underling, with a scary bald dome and a mellifluous voice. Next to the posturing, over-dramatic Chen, Browning’s portrayal of Karlton as cold and calculating is memorable in Episodes 4 (through which his performance survives on audio) and Episode 5 (where we can see his body language). I particularly love the moment where Chen starts spinning in circles about the room, waving his arms wide, loudly declaiming his plans for Universal domination… and then realizes that Karlton is silently judging him, and stops overacting, and quiets down, and sheepishly walks out.
Episode 6 — Coronas of the Sun: Honestly, the title is the best part of this installment. While the visual effects on Mira were great the previous week, the plot doesn’t sustain two full episodes. The Daleks and Chen engage in endless dialogue loops about what to do next. Hartnell has already checked out — last week, he got lost in the middle of a dense technical speech about molecular dissemination, looking for all the world as if he were reading off cue cards; then he crazily overacted against the Visians, slashing his cane about with the same lunatic intensity that he previously reserved for the Zarbi. This week, he and Sara inexplicably gang up on Steven; Steven then rigs up a gravity-force weapon, or something, which turns him into a mute zombie for far too long; this bit is embarrassing, really (if not Steven Moffat-esque), but does at least let the TARDIS crew temporarily evade the Daleks …
The best line in Episode 6 is when the Daleks tell Chen: “You make your incompetence sound like an achievement!” Like much of the political set-up in Episode 1, this line still has a lot of relevance today (Ted Cruz).
In total, The Daleks’ Master Plan 1 through 6 has a great start, an intriguing middle with some moments of surprising brutality, and a bit of a comic finish. Next time we’ll tackle the back six episodes… which invert that formula. You see, the Doctor’s not quite finished suffering major defeats just yet…