Monday, 20 July 2009

The Daleks' Master Plan

Previous viewings - none (missing episodes), many (surviving episodes)

Viewers left confused by the apparent irrelevance of Mission to the Unknown would be happy to see this follow The Myth Makers, with the Daleks returning for their biggest story yet, and I mean big - twelve weeks of them plotting to take over the entire galaxy. If you don't like Daleks, look away now....

The length requires the writers to approach the story differently from usual. A typical unfolding plot wouldn't have worked here - it would have been ridiculously slow. Instead, we have the regulars dipping in and out of the main plot, and getting up to other stuff in the meantime. This is really the only way they could have done it (I haven't seen The War Games btw) and the inclusion of multiple planets, time zones, even changes of cast, both heroes and villains, gives this the scope of an entire season rather than just one story, which makes it quite hard to rate this - it contains some of the best moments in the series, and some not-so-good ones that are so divorced from the rest of the story that when considering my opinion I tend to forget or dismiss them.

Mission to the Unknown introduced us to the Daleks and their Kembel-based council of representatives of the Outer Galaxies. However that one episode wasn't the only thing that contributed to the build-up to this one - The Myth Makers did it by introducing Katarina and the new style imbued by producer John Wiles - a faster pace, death on a large scale and more subtle comedy. Because Katarina had only had a few scenes so far, and she's native to a less advanced civilisation than the usual companion, she is only beginning her journey of understanding that all companions go on, but since the TARDIS has landed the travellers into their biggest crisis there isn't time for her to settle in. Any worries about a slow-paced twelve-episode story seem unfounded as the first episode is panicked and quite frantic - the TARDISeers aren't given a moment to relax after their ordeal in the last story. Steven is wounded and two Earth space agents are following up on Marc Cory's disappearance and run into Daleks.

Nicholas Courtney plays the survivor, Bret Vyon, who teams up with the Doctor. Courtney isn't often credited for his acting, but when watching his scenes I don't see the Brigadier, I see a completely different character, even though they're both good guys.

The main thing that strikes me about the early part of this story is that Terry Nation isn't allowed to exercise his usual writing style and have a slow build-up - the story has started without the Doctor and we have to wait for him to catch up with everybody else. The jungle is quite unnerving, although the Varga plants from Mission to the Unknown aren't so much of a threat, the jungle is dense and characters don't know what could be metres away, which Kert Gantry finds out when he is killed in a surprise Dalek attack - a great moment I'm glad survives from the otherwise missing first episode. It's a tense, scary episode that is mainly about setting up the tone rather than advancing the plot. When the plot is advanced, it's through a shock moment. Daleks are surrounding the TARDIS! The guardian of the Solar System is working with the Daleks! The structure of the story, and especially the interactions of the regulars, is a far cry from the rather comfortable days of Season 2.

With the Daleks' presence established, and their mysterious alliance, the Doctor becomes determined to find out their plan and stop them. Bret Vyon is an interesting character and refuses to let the Doctor take charge - he would have made an interesting companion. However the second episode is more plot focused than the first. The Doctor overpowers a council member, Zephon, and enters the council chamber disguised as him. The council members are very distinguished looking and most of them are scary just from their appearances. Mavic Chen is played by Kevin Stoney, the future Tobias Vaughn of The Invasion. Stoney is excellent here, but doesn't quite dominate the story as he does in his later appearance, largely because while despite playing a character dealing with the ruthless Cybermen, he actually convinces us Vaughn could win if they turned on him, this isn't true with Chen and the Daleks. Stoney's performance isn't at fault - Chen doesn't show enough understanding of the Daleks for viewers to be convinced he has the edge over them, and his overconfidence seems to stem more from his ego than anything else, and the lack of Cybermen definitely contributed to Vaughn's power in The Invasion. The main draw of Chen is the fact that the conspiracy surrounding him makes our heroes (and the viewers) unsure who can be trusted. It's played very effectively as the episodes wear on but runs out of steam when the Doctor and company decide they're better off trusting no one and going it alone.

As we find out the council's plan - to use the deadly Time Destructor to conquer the galaxy - we get our of our first tastes of the vast Doctor Who universe out there, because although there have been epic stories in the past (Marco Polo and The Dalek Invasion of Earth spring to mind) they were all about one planet. Indeed, it seems that there is much more at stake than there has been in any other story, and for once the TARDISeers have the choice of leaving and continuing their travels rather than staying and fighting the Daleks. Although this is brushed over, this is a big step for the series. The Doctor takes the chance to steal the taranium core of the Time Destructor, which will prevent the Daleks from activating it, and leaving Kembel with his companions and Bret Vyon in Chen's spar, with the issue of leaving the TARDIS on Kembel rendered moot because the Doctor has been consumed by higher purpose. It's action-driven and the fact that we still haven't got to know Katarina, or been left with the impression that anything has been explained to her, slightly detracts from the third episode. Steven is holding his own and proving reliable as ever, and is a reassuring presence in this unpredictable story, but yet again there isn't much chance to develop him as a character, and with the loss of Vicki the series is really starting to suffer from the lack of well-developed main characters. William Hartnell plays the Doctor with his usual sci-fi story persona, less humour than in the historicals and a strong sense of defiance and justice. More than ever, he's just "there" - Hartnell delivers his lines but is missing that presence that usually lets him dominate an episode even if he doesn't do much. It could be because the Doctor seems remarkably calm despite the desperate situation he's in, only raising his voice when Vyon challenges him.

The Daleks are in pursuit as the spar is forced to land on the prison planet Desperus while the Doctor makes repairs to the ship. This a new setting exclusive to this episode and with characters only seen here - a story within a story of the sort Terry Nation seems to like so much, but the prisoners are dull and only serve to set up Katarina's death. There is some tension from the Dalek chase, more than there was in The Chase (although that was a completely different sort of story), but it's worth it when the spar takes off and one of the prisoners takes Katarina hostage and threatens to kill her unless he is taken to Kembel.

It would have been more effective if we had got to know Katarina, but there is a certain tragedy in that she was totally confused so blowing out the airlock to save the Doctor leaves the question of whether or not she did it knowing what would happen. The scene itself is no surprise, any more than a Doctor Who fan would be shocked to see Adric die in Earthshock (sorry if I've just spoiled it for you, newbies!), but the actors are all on form and it's one of the best scenes in the story, especially for the poignant moment where the Doctor reflects on their fallen friend who was out of her time. Overall I agree with the producer that Katarina wouldn't have worked as a long-term companion, so perhaps this was the perfect exit. Certainly if anyone's attention was drifting after the Desperus diversion, they're alert now (not a relevant observation for when it was originally broadcast, of course).

The next part of the story takes place on Earth as Bret Vyon tries to expose Mavic Chen's machinations to his superiors, only to find Chen has allies in high places and they can't trust anyone. In Dalek stories so far it's been everyone against the Daleks, but this time it's more like everyone against the TARDISeers, which really ramps up the feeling of desperation and hopelessness. We are introduced to security agent Sara Kingdom, who shoots the "traitor" Bret Vyon dead before giving chase to the Doctor and Steven, before all three are swept up in an dissemination experiment and transported to the planet Mira. Aside from being an unlikely stroke of luck for the Doctor and Steven - it gets them away from the Daleks, for however short a time - but gives us a new ally just when things were looking bleak, and as Sara comes to believe that Mavic Chen is the traitor (the fact that Vyon was her brother should have been written out, it's dismissed too easily and should have been a major revelation) she shows more promise as an interesting, likeable character than Katarina did. Jean Marsh returns after her turn in The Crusade to play a character who is nothing like Joanna - Sara never loses that edge that makes it seem like she could be dangerous if you weren't on her side, but she's loyal to her friends and full of humour when the situation calls for it.

Plot convenience strikes again on Mira - the native aliens are invisible and attack the Daleks when they seem to have captured our heroes. The plot is beginning to outstay its welcome, as it's now been four episodes since the Doctor stole the taranium and every time he's almost caught something unlikely happens in his favour. At least the tension has been maintained, but if this was a shorter story this would be the point where it approaches its conclusion. With a stolen Dalek ship, the travellers are forced to land on Kembel, where the Doctor makes a fake taranium to fool the Daleks and Chen. It's still not clear what the Time Destructor will do, knowing that the Daleks are going to use it, combined with its terribly evil name, lets viewers know that if the Daleks get the taranium it would be a very bad thing.

However, the end of episode six is not played out like a conclusion. The enemies accept the fake taranium, but they haven't been defeated, only fooled. Strangely, I'm not tired of the Daleks because they have only had bit parts so far, there haven't been any big action set pieces like the failed attack on the saucer in episode 2 of The Dalek Invasion of Earth or the extended scenes showing the Daleks testing the radiation in The Daleks, this story has been more about enlarging the universe the Doctor inhabits and making the situation seem more and more desperate. It hasn't been a character-driven story at all, and however tense it has been I really want it to slow down and give us some character moments.

Then we are given The Feast of Steven, the story's seventh episode, broadcast on Christmas Day. It's quite possibly the oddest Doctor Who episode yet (keep in mind I've seen all episodes of The Chase) - the Daleks are gone, the plot forgotten, the TARDIS has landed next to a London police station at Christmas, 1965. The escapade here boils down to the Doctor leaving the TARDIS, getting into trouble, and Steven disguising himself as a policeman to rescue him, then they all leave in the TARDIS. There is a lot of humour to recommend it, but when they leave, I'm left wondering what the point of it was.

The same can be said of the second half of the episode, where the TARDIS appears on the set of a 1920s silent film in Hollywood and a runaround ensues. I was at a loss as to what was happening - just lots of shouting and music, it seemed going by the audio, with a cameo by a young Bing Crosby for no apparent reason. When the travellers get back to the TARDIS and leave, I'm left befuddled. I wouldn't call it bad - it seemed very visual - but it was quite possibly the most bonkers extract of Doctor Who there has been yet. The Doctor suddenly deciding that they have to celebrate Christmas because for a few minutes they were visited Christmas seems equally strange, so much so that even the Doctor breaking the fourth wall to wish viewers a Merry Christmas doesn't surprise me. An odd episode indeed - possibly brilliant, maybe the worst ever, but of all the missing episodes, the one I would most want to see.

As we get back to the main plot, Dennis Spooner takes over writing duties from Terry Nation for the last five episodes. His writing style is different - until the action returns to Kembel in the last two episodes, it's more lighthearted, not least because the Monk is back from his excellent debut in The Time Meddler, and the Doctor relaxes a bit and starts being funny again (though not to excess). Steven and Sara form quite a good team as the companions, in fact Peter Purves has better chemistry with Jean Marsh than any of the other actresses playing companions during his time in the series.

The Daleks discover the taranium is fake and the cracks in their alliance start to show. More than before, we know the Daleks are keeping Mavic Chen on a leash until he secures them the real taranium, but the break of a few episodes as just what the story needed to stop itself from becoming tiresome five episodes too soon. We still haven't seen the Daleks in full force, which might be for the best considering the failures of past stories to accomplish those moments with success. Douglas Camfield's direction is better than Richard Martin's, and it's about time someone else was given a Dalek story - as with his previous stories, The Daleks' Master Plan looks like it has a higher budget that it does in reality. It's action-driven in the sense that a small-scale setpiece follows the last with quick succession. This makes them more convincing and effective, but far less memorable individually, which does hurt the story somewhat.

After some inconsequential landings on a volcano planet and a stadium, the TARDIS lands back on Earth, ancient Egypt. The realisation of Egypt isn't so good - the sets aren't as detailed as the one in The Aztecs and are slightly cumbersome - but after putting off the inevitable for so long it's great to see some sort of plot progression. The Monk is tasked with finding the Doctor by Mavic Chen, and ultimately the Monk is captured along with Steven and Sara. Episode 10 is a highlight of the story, as the Doctor arranges his friends' release in exchange for the real taranium. William Hartnell is alert and attentive as the Doctor and a formidable force against the Daleks - I loved the moment where it looked like he was going to hand the taranium to Mavic Chen then suddenly turned away and led him elsewhere. Hilarious!

Following the exchange, the story FINALLY gears up as it approaches its final episodes. The Monk is satisfied that he has got his own back on the Doctor and leaves in his TARDIS, only to find the Doctor has stolen his directional circuit, rendering him lost. The appearance of the Monk was delightful in that it as a welcome dose of humour in a fairly downbeat story, but otherwise he might as well not have been there.

The TARDIS materialises back on Kembel to chase up the Daleks before they activate the Time Destructor. The Daleks, the Time Destructor in hand (well, plunger), have no need for their "allies" and imprison them. The Doctor mysteriously goes missing, which is a disappointment at this crucial point in the story, but it allows him to return triumphantly at a key moment when all seems lost, which is cool I suppose.

Around this point, I'm officially tired of Mavic Chen, because he has turned into quite a stupid character - despite having no back-up or plan he thinks he can blunder into the Dalek underground city and destroy his enemies just because he is Mavic Chen, and it pretty much guarantees he's next on the Dalek extermination list. Right on cue, he's dead, and the Doctor shows up to free his friends, telling them to get back to the TARDIS. From here on in, it's absolutely gripping stuff - the Doctor activates the Time Destructor, hoping to burn out the taranium rendering it useless so the Daleks can't use it against anyone, but again the lack of visuals makes me sigh because no matter how much I'm enjoying it, I'm aware how visual this is and how great it would be to actually see it. As the Doctor and his companions try to get back to the TARDIS, the Time Destructor is aging them to death, as well as the jungle around them, and the Daleks are pursuing.

This isn't the usual resolution of finding the right switch, it's jaw-droppingly awesome, partly because it was the last thing I expected. Steven is back in the TARDIS and otherwise fine, but Sara is close to death and disintegrates while trying to deactivate the Destructor, but Steven is able to reverse the device and de-ages everything around them, allowing him and the Doctor to return to the TARDIS where they're safe. This blows the resolution of more or less every story so far out of the water, it manages to be exciting on a level I associate more with the new series - a modern sense of excitement, not the type I experience with the classic series, where I have to put myself back in the era it was originally broadcast and judge it compared its contemporaries (a sort of "aw, how quaint" feeling). This is even more amazing when you consider that I'm getting this just from the audio. Stunning.

"What a terrible waste" says the Doctor as he and Steven reflect on what they've experienced. And so it is. They are the only characters who made it through the adventure alive (except the Monk). Twelve episodes in, I'm wondering whether this story proves that long stories do work, or that they don't. It held up over its twelve episodes, but could it have been done in less? I'd say it could have been a better eight or six-parter. I guess we'll never know!

Horror quotient - John Wiles' era of grim stories continues. This isn't a fun era, despite its merits, and I'm not surprised William Hartnell didn't like the direction the series was taking. I can take stories like this in small doses, but if this is what the series would be like if the fans clamouring for more "darkness" got their way, I don't want more of it.
Comedy quotient - I'm still undecided whether The Feast of Steven is funny or not. I'll get back to you.
Drama quotient - Lots of tension but little drama. The Doctor is quite disengaged from the plot at times, and the story suffers from it.

The Daleks' Master Plan manages to stay on the right side of great through its long running time, but it's not quite up there with its even greater (and mercifully shorter) rivals. Definitely the best Dalek story yet though.


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