The Dalek Master Plan

I love “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, and wish I could watch the entire twelve episodes. The quality varies from episode to episode, and yet the story as a whole hangs together and feels like an epic struggle between the Doctor and his biggest enemies.

This isn’t the first time the Doctor drops into the middle of events that are already underway, but almost uniquely the viewer already knows what’s going on thanks to “Mission to the Unknown”. This means that the story hits the ground running rather than spending a great deal of time establishing the plot. The Kembel jungles are superbly realized, and the desperation of Kert Gantry and Bret Vyon as they try to stay alive is well conveyed. It’s good to see Nicholas Courtney in his first Doctor Who role. The grim atmosphere is lightened slightly when the Doctor, Steven and Katarina arrive, but only slightly. The characters meet, clash, and then band together against their common enemy, the Daleks.

The first episode establishes the characters, but it’s the second episode that really sets the rest of the story in motion, as the disguised Doctor sneaks into the Dalek conference, learns their plans, and then steals the Taranium core to the time destructor. It’s so amusing that one old man accomplishes more in ten minutes than three space security agents have managed in weeks. This action sends the Doctor and companions running for their lives in an attempt to warn Earth. Episode three feels like padding which exists purely to facilitate Katarina’s death since it otherwise adds nothing to the story, other than to demonstrate the long reach of Dalek control as they cause Mavic Chen’s spacecraft to crash-land on the prison planet. Episode four is a solid mix of desperation and a “who can we trust?” type of plot, where the value of having Mavic Chen as a co-villain with the Daleks becomes apparent, since his political power and influence can frustrate the Doctor’s plans where the Daleks cannot go. Bret Vyon’s death is a tragic moment, made doubly so by the revelation later on that his own sister killed him.

Episode five is another side step in the main plot as the main characters are transported to another planet. Unlike episode three, this is significant, as the time on Mira allows the Doctor and Steven to gain Sara Kingdom’s trust. The Daleks finally catch up with the Doctor and it’s only by luck that he manages to escape yet again, as the savage and invisible natives of Mira attack the Daleks, allowing their spacecraft to be stolen by the Doctor. The story comes full circle with episode six, which sees the Doctor returned to Kembel where he manages to escape again.

I’ve briefly outlined the plot in order to analyze it a bit. In some respects the story is capture/escape, with the Doctor constantly on the run after the second episode. But the story doesn’t feel repetitious or contrived. For one thing, the stakes are very high and director Douglas Adams successfully imbues the story with a constant feeling of danger. For another, the location changes every episode, presenting new enemies and obstacles to overcome. The Doctor’s limitations are fully on display here. He’s well aware that he cannot defeat the massive Dalek army and their allies. All he can hope to do is forestall them and hope he keeps one step ahead, which he barely does for all of three episodes. He escapes from capture or death several times, sometimes by being smarter than the Daleks, and sometimes by sheer luck. I can’t help but compare this to the ninth and tenth Doctor’s Dalek stories, where they each defeat massive armies of Daleks by some magic plot device, time after time, robbing their conflicts and victories of any real drama. By contrast, the first Doctor is a man of conviction who survives by his wits, knowledge and luck, and it’s an approach that is vastly more believable.

So the first half of “Masterplan” starts and ends on Kembel, and after all that the plot is pretty much where it was at the end of episode two. The Doctor has the core of the Time Destructor and hopes to keep it away from the Daleks. Characters have died, including Katarina and Bret Vyon, and Sara Kingdom has been added to the TARDIS crew. Mavic Chen’s grip on sanity has slipped bit by bit. It’s been a dramatic six episodes, but largely a runaround, albeit a very high-quality and enjoyable one to watch (or listen to, in the case of four of the episodes). Then episode seven arrives, and would I love to have seen that one…

“The Feast of Steven” is a silly bit of fluff between the dramatic first and second halves of “Masterplan”. And it’s not only amusing, it’s a well needed change of pace that allows us to see the Doctor, Steven and Sara relax and enjoy themselves for a little while. William Hartnell and Peter Purves are pretty funny in “The Gunfighters”, and it’s too bad we’re robbed of the visuals for this episode. Jean Marsh plays Sara as a “fish out of water” for much of the episode. And the end, with the now well-known breaking of the fourth wall by Hartnell, caps off the whole bizarre episode nicely.

The remaining five episodes of the story vary in tone. Episodes eight through ten form their own mini-arc within the larger story as the pursuit is back on. The Daleks discover the Doctor’s fake taranium core, and as they did in “The Chase”, they use their own time and space machine to track him down. How they find him with all of time and space to search, I don’t know, but they do. And the Meddling Monk returns as well, looking for revenge after the Doctor stranded him on Earth, which complicates things. It all comes to a head in episode ten, which thankfully still exists for us to watch, as the Doctor manages to live to fight another day and save his friends. However, the Daleks recover the taranium and return to Kembel to kick off their delayed plans for conquest. The Doctor steals the directional unit from the Monk’s TARDIS and is able to use it to follow the Daleks back to Kembel, despite the fact that it’s not entirely compatible with his own TARDIS.

Episode eleven is possibly my least favorite after episode three. With Hartnell off for a week, the story goes in circles for an episode as Steven and Sara spend the whole time looking for the Doctor. Along the way they encounter the survivors of the former Dalek allies and free them so they can warn their own planets. Naturally Mavic Chen, who is pretty much completely insane and consumed by his own ego at this point, is convinced that he will rule the Daleks and the Universe, and he takes Sara and Steven prisoner.

Episode twelve makes up for the slow previous episode, and does it in spades. The final episode of “Masterplan” is very dramatic and gives a very satisfying payoff to the preceding 11 episodes. And here’s where the story’s length really benefits the viewer. The fact that the story is so long really contributes to the feeling that the fight against the Daleks has been long and difficult in a way that a four-parter would have had difficulty in pulling off. And the Doctor’s solution to the problem of the time destructor is wonderfully simple: turn it on and let it run, and burn out the power source. To do that, he has to expose himself to the effects of the machine, which age him and ultimately ages Sara Kingdom to death. Hartnell gives a great performance here, particularly his desperate, angry cry of “Get back!” as Steven leaves the safety of the TARDIS to try and help him when he’s overcome by the effects of the time destructor. In the end, the Daleks are destroyed by their own machine, and the planet Kembel is reduced to a desert.

Earlier I contrasted this story with new Who when it comes to all-encompassing magical solutions to defeat the Daleks. The Time Destructor might seem to fit that same trend, but I would disagree. I would say that not only is the Time Destructor established from the start as a dangerous weapon, but the entire story revolves around possession of it because it’s so dangerous. The Doctor’s use of it and subsequent victory don’t feel like a writer’s cheat of pulling a last-minute solution out of nowhere to solve an otherwise unsolvable problem, but a well-earned victory rooted in the rules laid out by the plot since the second episode. And crucially, there’s no reset button. The dead stay dead, including Katarina, Sara Kingdom and Bret Vyon. The planet Kembel is destroyed along with the Daleks. The status quo is not what it was at the beginning of the story.

If you’ve never seen the story, three episodes still exist, including one that was recovered only six years ago. There’s the narrated soundtrack on CD, which is well worth tracking down and owning. And there’s the Loose Cannon recon, if you want a decent visual recreation of the story. It’s not perfect, and it’s interesting to compare episode two with the actual recovered episode to see how different the two are, but it’s a darn good fan effort at preserving the story.

“The Dalek Master Plan” deserves the reputation it has among Doctor Who fans. There’s a lot of running and pursuit, but the performances are largely strong, the threat is suitably large, the character and companion deaths add a dramatic punch to the story, and the length adds to the epic feel. Do yourself a favor and track down a copy of the story.

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Posted in 1st Doctor - William Hartnell

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