Directed by Douglas Camfield
Written by Terry Nation (episodes 1-5,7), Dennis Spooner (episodes 6, 8-12)
Here it is, the big one. At twelve episodes long, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” is the longest Doctor Who serial (depending on if you count “The Trial of a Time Lord” as one or four serials). Aside from this serial here, the entire third season consists of four episode serials and generally that is a good thing. Classic Doctor Who frequently has an issue of dragging things out too long (usually by necessity) and keeping things short keeps the pace up and prevents the weaker serials from feeling like too much a chore. All that being said, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” is the first great serial of the third season even with nine episodes missing.
Following directly up from “Mission to the Unknown”, we return yet again to the Daleks and the Space Security Service. Even with the Daleks making their fourth full length appearance, it’s remarkable how consistently their serials improve from the average. We also follow up on the cliffhanger from “The Myth Makers” with Steven being in need of medicine to save him. The first thing to notice about this serial besides its length is how different it is from the typical serial. There is a clearly defined villainous goal (conquest of the Solar System) with at least three villainous parties all with their own unique motivations. Chen is the Guardian of the Solar System and seeking to expand his power by turning on those he should be protecting and joining in with the other powerful villainous races (that last part doesn’t sound great when I type it out but Doctor Who is really about that some races being good while others are evil thing isn’t it), the Galactic Council is seeking to use Chen’s role to expand their power into the Solar System, and The Daleks seek to use the council’s power to help conquer the Solar System before betraying them. Everybody needs the other, but there is a persistent sense of distrust amongst them.
I’ve spoken of nuanced villains being a part of Doctor Who before, but this is probably the best and most thorough portrayal thus far of unequivocally evil ones. This may be the first episode where the bits without The Doctor or his companions are just as interesting or even more so than the bits with him. At one point the Daleks losing their own pursuit ship and Chen, who has been under great pressure to capture The Doctor, can barely contain a smirk (or what sounds like a smirk since the episode is missing) and to a certain extent pleasure at the Daleks so embarrassingly failing as well.
At the crux of all this political maneuvering is a mass of taranium needed for a weapon the Daleks have built that The Doctor steals. This only increases the distrust amongst these allies as they must pursue The Doctor to recover it. On the opposite side we have the Space Security Service who are interesting especially from the fact that they are at the start unwittingly working for the bad guys in Chen. Pseudo-companion Sara Kingdom even starts off working for Chen in trying to retrieve the taranium from The Doctor and “the traitors” who have taken it without knowing about the Daleks or any of Chen’s plotting. She is also given even further motivation when she revealed she killed her own brother Bret (who had allied himself with The Doctor) believing him to be a traitor and that she was acting for the good of the Solar System.
And now that I’ve gone and brought up companions, it’s time to mark perhaps the biggest moment of this serial. This is the first time a companion has been killed. There have been plenty of deaths before and of friendlies too, but the companion is supposed to be the safe one. Granted it is only Katarina who survived all of five episodes (of which only one is extant and one which was before she was even a companion) before she got offed, but it’s still a big deal. It establishes that no one is safe and even if it wasn’t a frequently occurring element (thankfully in all honesty) it does up the sense of threat enemies pose. In true Doctor Who fashion, she died via airlock taking out a traitor and sacrificing herself. Sara herself also dies heroically helping to save The Doctor which establishes a theme that is more prominent in Doctor Who going forward (especially Modern Who’s “Journey’s End”) and that is how many people die saving The Doctor’s life. He’s saved so many lives but at the same time he’s witnessed so much loss and in the end he can only sum it up with the perfect “It’s a waste. What a terrible waste.”
Katarina’s death was needed from a plot perspective since she was so difficult to write for (being someone from the distant past and unfamiliar with so many things but it does leave a bit of a hole in the companion department. Steven is the only consistent companion and he’s never really gotten anything interesting or consistent in terms of characterization. He does get a quick interesting bit with some reckless experimentation which almost kills him, but this reckless nature doesn’t seem to pop up too much. He is just kind of there as a supporting character failing to add or detract from the proceedings anything more than someone for The Doctor to bounce off of. Sara does her best and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of her, but it is hard getting attached to someone who appears in so few extant episodes and which I admit is a large part of the problem.
The return of The Monk from “The Meddling Monk” is our first recurring character other than the Daleks and his appearance a little over halfway through the serial energizes the story. Considering the whole thing is one long story and how the latter half feels a bit like “The Chase Redux” with the Daleks chasing The Doctor through time, this change up is needed. It also helps break the serial into three parts (Episodes 1-6, 8-10, and 11-12 with “The Feast of Steven” acting as an outlier) making it feel not as long. He’s perfect as the weasely tool that Chen attempts to use against the Doctor trading his meddling for petty attempts at revenge and a desire to survive at all costs.
The final two episodes wrap up the story and lets all the build up with the villains play itself out. Chen takes control of the Council only for the Daleks to quickly turn on him. Despite this he still keeps believing that he is an essential component of the Daleks plans long after it is apparent to everyone else that they have no use for him and ultimately his pride does him in. With the Time Destructor complete, The Doctor is able to take it from the Daleks and use it to escape. By turning it on however The Doctor winds up killing everything aside from himself and Steven. The Daleks are dead but the once lush world has turned to dust, Katarina is still dead and now Sara is dead. It’s quite easily the most depressing end yet to a serial with no levity whatsoever.
Obviously any long Doctor Who story is going to have padding and there is certainly plenty here (“The Feast of Steven” or when they land in the middle of a cricket game), but for the most part it actually manages to keep up the pace throughout. The first half is still superior (along with the final two episodes which tie more directly into this story), but it’s a great serial all around.
– This is the first Dalek serial not fully written by Terry Nation
– Just how great is the name of the machine, the “Time Destructor”?
– This time around, Doctor Who dabbles in yellow-face (based on the same and other stereotyped features) with his dark skin indicating he is supposed to be of Southeast Asian descent
– After Daxtar is killed, The Doctor is given a great bit of acting opportunity in expressing his frustration at both the killing and the fact that they are now unable to get any information out of him. It’s a moment that wouldn’t have felt at all out of place in a Modern Who episode.
– Bret is played by Nicholas Courtney who would later become known for playing Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart on the show.
– The teleportation of The Doctor, Steven, and Sara allows for some truly laughably bad facial acting to go along with some goofy effects trying to indicate the process.
– This is hardly the first time The Doctor’s intentions have been misinterpreted as working against the good guys dating back to “Marco Polo” among others. It’s hard to blame anyone for not trusting him though considering the way he always seems to miraculously arrive out of nowhere just as some big conflict is happening.
– It’s quite a shame they only showed up in one episode because the Visians make for a cool enemy. They are eight feet tall and completely invisible and would make for a cool modern era horror episode.
– There are also all the races of the Galactic Council who are never seen from again. While they were all fairly humanoid, it still would have been cool to see the Council made up of at least a few races seen before or after.
– Episode 7 is the first Christmas (and only of the Classic era) special the show had which would be a yearly tradition of NuWho. This episode basically exists for some indirect and in one instance direct fourth wall breaking and feels barely connected to the rest of the serial. Heck they stumble into a film set at one point and there’s a lot of really goofy comedy.
– The Monk’s three episodes could almost be their own serial.
– I do wish he would show up again in the modern era since he does escape and they do tease his return and give him yet another reason to want revenge and forced to wander about randomly like The Doctor.
– While it briefly seems like The Doctor is going to be able to control his TARDIS after stealing the device from The Monk, it quickly breaks leaving all of them without ability to navigate once again.
– Episode 11 gives the companions a brief moment to shine away from The Doctor which reminds me how little Steven has seemed to get his own plotlines compared to previous companions.
– “Though we are all equal partners with the Daleks on this great conquest, some of us are more equal than others”. I love Chen channeling George Orwell.
– I also love the following moment where Chen realizes that while he was speechifying,
– The Daleks may have their name on the serial, but Chen is the one who feels like the more prominent villain even if he’s on screen less and is certainly less powerful. Chen is smart but not as smart
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Nothing just pain, suffering, and a shot of the TARDIS disappearing on a ruined world.
Next Up: The sadly missing “The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve” on 3/4