Saturday 24 October 2020


Ye Olde Plot Spoilers below!
First broadcast: Nov 1965/ Jan 1966
Written by Terry Nation & Dennis Spooner

”That means that the Daleks can invade the universe and conquer it!”

Pricked by the Varga Thorn (Making the Daleks a Threat Again?)

This is a popular story with fans, the fiftieth anniversary poll ranking it as the third most popular Hartnell story and the 29th most popular overall. (NB Rankings for the classic show only.) And the clue most likely lies in the name. For the two Hartnell stories which top it are, respectively, 'The Daleks' and 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth'. Sensing a pattern? And yet languishing way behind it, in (I kid not) 111th place, is the other Hartnell Dalek story – 'The Chase'.

So we should conclude fans like Dalek stories, and like them most when they say they're Dalek stories on the lid? That I suppose would account for the continuing popularity of ‘Gone With the Daleks’, ‘Far From the Madding Daleks’, 'Dalek Copperfield', ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Dalek’ and ‘Let’s Dalek Again Like We Did Last Summer’. (Disclaimer: Some of the above titles may be made up. I am having that sort of a day.) But its not quite so simple.

As we saw, 'The Chase' was a strange attempt to inject comedy into the Doctor/Dalek relationship which left fans decidedly unamused. 'Daleks' Master Plan' is seen as the point where all that silliness gets forgotten, and things get back on track. Director Douglas Camfield has recalled the brief as “give back the Daleks their former menace”.

So the argument goes, it didn't just take the comedy out, it put the darkness back in. Again, clues lie in names. Tim Rolls-Pickering's review is titled 'Not Populist But Grim'. The not-even-necessarily-fannish TV Tropes lists it as 'darker and edgier', commenting “this is a very dark story compared to the previous Dalek serial. In fact, with the arguable exception of the following story, it may well be the darkest story of the entire Hartnell era.... This serial basically established the Daleks to what they are today.” So, kinda dark then.

The loss of so many episodes is partly due to this being the one story not shown abroad. Fan lore puts this down to the departure from cosy family viewing, making it less saleable. And notably, the first episode proper is called 'The Nightmare Begins'.

And, to give folks their due, at first it looks that way. If viewed consecutively it comes after a run of more lightweight stories, quite possibly the previous four. (Though whether you were supposed to take ‘Galaxy Four’ seriously is really anyone’s guess.) The introductory episode 'Mission to the Unknown' is famous for the Doctor neither appearing nor being mentioned. It opens with the line “I must kill... must kill... must kill”, not a great set-up line for gags. The conceit being that the unfortunate speaker's been pricked by a Varga thorn, which turn you into a mobile murderous plant. (Perhaps needless to say, another notion owing a little something to Quatermass – this time 'Quatermass Experiment'.) And at that point it feels like the story has itself been pricked by the Varga thorns, turned into something else.

(This episode was not even transmitted directly before the rest of 'Master Plan', but on the other side of 'The Myth Makers' - yep, another comic story - which must have confused contemporary audiences even more. This was for merely logistical reasons, after 'Planet of Giants' was condensed to three episodes, the previous production block had a spare slot. This time gap, not just in broadcasting but recording, explains the kazillion continuity errors. I've treated the whole thing as one super-long story here, for convenience's sake.)

Space Agent Marc Cory acts less like someone waiting for the Doctor to show up and more like the protagonist of some quite different show. Working from his own rules, when the Varga-pricked killer turns up he simply shoots him dead. And when his pilot protests (“You've just killed Jeff! You shot him down like an animal.”) he calmly produces a Bond-like license to kill from the Space Security Service. Then, in a savage twist which unfortunately we all now know is coming, he’s killed himself before he can get his vital message back to Earth.

The Doctor was from the start a gentleman amateur, blundering into situations. Which became a general signifier of goodness in his world, his allies civilians conscripted by events. The Thals could scarcely have been any less licensed to kill, and even the underground army of 'Invasion of Earth' were as much extemporising Home Guard as French Resistance. Cory is a pro on a specified mission, with a gun and a uniform. This is not the uncanny fantasy of 'Doctor Who'. This is more like hardboiled SF.

And if it seems like a wholly different show, if 'Space Agent Marc Cory' has something of a ring to it, there may well be a reason for that. This was the point where Nation was developing his spin-off Dalek show. (As the creator of the Daleks, his contract entitled him to take them elsewhere.) And Vyon and the SSS are clearly a springboard for this, much as Davies later developed the more 'adult' 'Torchwood'. (Though some accounts suggest the opposite order, that it was this story that gave Nation the notion of the separate series.)

And, while he was not exactly averse to recycling plots, something about 'Mission To the Unknown' seems to have stuck with Nation. He all but rewrote it in the Radio Times Twentieth Anniversary special, long after those plans had fallen through, with the text story 'We Are the Daleks'. Which, with it's breathlessly punchy but flat prose, is even more hardboiled SF than 'Mission'.

The protagonist here is not a space agent but a prospector, travelling to the nightmare planet to stake a claim for yet another rare element. Its vital to the war effort, but he's looking to get rich. When he's shot down in the same way as Cory the Doctor doesn't even show up later to right things, he appears only in an introductory scene as a framing device. Truth to tell, it was so shoehorned into the Whoniverse it somewhat freaked my young mind out when I first read it. (Nation then recycled the Butch-and-Sundance ending a third time. M
ost, I suspect, will already know what I refer to.)

And even when the Doctor does show up he runs straight into the ray gun of Cory's replacement, Bret Vyon, who tells him “give me that [Tardis] key or I'll kill you”. Which is clipped 'Space Agent' prose for “you have turned up on my show. Any new plot elements are clearly being introduced for my benefit, so hand them over sharpish. Reply only if you have been designated a speaking part.”

And perhaps it is intended precisely to set that tone. Because when you look back on 'Mission' it serves almost no plot function. Most of what happens in it is duplicated in the first two episodes proper. Yes they stumble on Cory's recording. But they also find out the bog-standard... sorry, master plan the same way he does – by some lo-fi spying. They do these pretty much simultaneously, suggesting the whole episode could have easily been written out. Cory was hatched merely so he could be dispatched.

Dalek Runaround

The only problem for fans of the dark is, at this point there's another eleven-and-a-half episodes to go. (Yep, you heard that number right! Counting the lead-in episode, this runs to a record-breaking thirteen.) In fact 
the nightmarish stuff starts to tune out even before 'The Nightmare Begins' has ended.

The Doctor might show up in Vyan's universe, but he rapidly makes it his. His response to the ray gun is to trap Vyan in a magnetic chair. Though, unless Space Agents have metal bums, Katarina's more on the mark by calling it “magic”. Its an early indication that the Doctor isn't just seizing control of the situation, he's taking back the tone of the show along with it. He effectively pulls the Varga thorn from the story's paw. In fact those thorns – the bane and tone-setter of the first episode – promptly disappear. From then on everyone seems able to charge through the jungle without even worrying about them.

And what it goes back to is... fans please look away now... 'The Chase'. Even the darker opening mirrors the way 'Chase' starts on Aridius. The only formal difference is that this time the Daleks are after the Doctor because he's pinched an irreplaceable but handily transportable tin of MacGuffinite they need for their Time Destructor. Rather than last time, when they just didn't like him. But they still give... and there is no other way of putting it... chase.

Pretty soon they're even doing it in their own time machine, all over again. Its another episodic saga in which things don't develop so much as ricochet from one setting and situation to another. Not only is the plot clearly extemporised, even much of the dialogue sounds improvised. (A situation probably not helped by Hartnell's failing memory; forgetting a line he'd often simply make up another.)

You would search in vain across 'Daleks Master Plan' for any kind of master plan. Maybe the knife the convicts fight over on Desperus is some petty analogue for the Time Destroyer, like life was ever this. But from thereon in... It's not really a story at all but a serial, like 'Flash Gordon' or some Saturday morning equivalent. The plot exists only as a production line for cliffhangers, like history to Henry Ford, just one damned thing after another. 

With previous stories I've had to resist the urge to continually click 'next', to watch the episodes in instalments, retain some semblage of the way they were first seen. With 'Master Plan' an episode a time seems the most natural thing in the world. It's a virtual circuit breaker for your sanity.

Like many rules, however, this has an exception. The hardboiled tone goes soon enough, but the wider soap opera elements stick around. 'Doctor Who' has since gained a popular reputation for being stuffed to the gills with arcane and incomprehensible references, as in this French and Saunders sketch. Yet at least in this early era, it was really anything but. Anything that might require explaining was reiterated a thousand times. And what required explaining was plot functions, not setting. No-one really cared when Vortis, Marinus or Aridius didn't seem much like real places, they were only really there as a backdrop to the action.

'Master Plan' is about the first time you can imagine someone getting that impression. For example Zephon, one of the delegates, goes on about his allies in the system he dominates. Such incidental details can't really be called world-building, they're more world-sketching-in. But they're there. There's even a couple of stabs at a Dalek chronology, something scarcely bothered with before. People remember they once invaded Earth, and had their own empire.

Companion Runaround

At this point fans will be asking “if it ain't dark what about all the death? Death is dark, isn't it?” For here we encounter the hitherto-unknown prospect of companion deaths - and not once but twice.

Katarina throws herself out of an airlock to save the others. But she only became a companion at the end of the previous story, 'The Myth Makers'. So, while she formally made the companion-defining transition between stories, she scarcely had time to engage audience sympathies to the degree of Susan or Vicki. And, thrown from an early civilisation into the future, she interprets everything from the start as “the place of paradise”, the afterlife. Before she's even aboard she has said, and I quote, “This is not Troy. This is not even the world. This is the journey through the beyond.” Which would seem a fairly hefty clue as to what she's in for.

True she had originally been intended as a new companion, replacing Vicki. But it came to be feared her past background made her unsuitable; she'd be asking “but what's that Doctor?” about a kettle as often as a Ozbluturator. (Perhaps an odd decision for a show which would soon pick a Highland warrior and a sheltered Victorian daughter for companions, but the one they made.)

But she may have in fact been too good for the role rather than too bad. A slave, she sees the Doctor as her new master. At one point he says to the more argumentative Steven “Look at Katarina over there. She doesn't ask questions, she just looks and learns. Now, why don't you try the same thing?” As Tomb of the Anorak points out “It's an uneasy and low point in 'Who's development, seeing someone who is female in the most negative way sacrifice her own life for that of her male 'master'.”

Ironically the moment that proves their theory right, fans tend to ignore. The significance of Katarina's death isn't that it happens. Characters sacrifice themselves in this show all the time. Its that it comes after a cliffhanger, a device whose sacred rule is to rack up the tension only to resolve it. In his 1936 film 'Sabotage' Hitchcock raised the aforesaid in a scene where a small boy carries a ticking bomb on a bus. He then let it go off, something he later called “a serious mistake”, which left the audience “resentful”. Here the hornet's nest of thwarted expectation is deliberately stirred. They're doing it because they're supposed not to.

Perhaps what's most striking is the juxtapositional difference between Katarina and her replacement, Sara Kingdom, described by Eddy Wolverson as “far more aggressive and capable than any other female companion seen thus far in 'Doctor Who'.”

Except... For a long while it was part of fan lore Kingdom was planned as a permanent companion. True, the point she appears is just as Katarina flies off. But beyond that no-one connected to the series has said such a thing was intended, and more to the point there's no intra-story reason to suppose it. Would anyone have watched 'Invasion of Earth' and assumed Jenny, a character who is to some degree similar, was joining the crew? (The BBC now officially list the notion as a myth.)

And, in an example of fans ironically under-counting the death toll, this overlooks Brett Vyan. Like Kingdom, he travels with the Doctor long enough for us to get to know him, before dying along the way. Steven lists the three of them as the significant deaths at the end.

But the real significance lies in comparing her not to Katarina but to Vyan. As afore-said, Vyan and the Doctor's approaches are very different. But they evolve a grudging mutual respect, in a pre-echo of actor Nicholas Courtney's later role as the Brigadier. (I assume someone's already written some fanfic explaining one as the descendent of the other.) And the Doctor's objections to his more brutal methods seems as much aesthetic as moral. After he's inelegantly left yet another body littering the place, the Doctor chides “we have other ways and means of dealing with evildoers”.

Kingdom comes from the same space police agency, yet with her everything is different. She's first spoken of, where she's described as “ruthless, hard efficient” but not identified as a woman until she appears. The transcript then describes her as “strikingly attractive, dressed in the black cat suit of all SSS operatives but she is unsmiling, her blue-grey eyes lacking any warmth.” This ruthlessness drives her to kill Vyan. Only in her realising her mistake is it revealed he was her brother.

Steven challenges her “even though it meant killing one of your own people, you obeyed [your orders] blindly, without question?” In short, what were effectively positive attributes in Vyan become problematic in Kingdom – something she needs to be cured of. Her key point of character development is realising she should be doing what the Doctor says, just like Katarina. It's really not so far from the infamous 'Galaxy Four' in it's notions of the perils of too much “women's lib”.

When she dies the Doctor claims “without her help, this could never have been achieved”, yet this is really nothing but a platitude. Apart from fixing a scanner, she hasn't had all that much agency in the story. Even her well-intentioned yet life-limiting going back to help the Doctor achieves nothing, and she’d have done better to heed his words when told to head for the Tardis. Unlike Katarina, her sacrifice is ultimately pointless. (It's Steven who actually rescues him by discovering the Time Destructor has a reverse gear. We'll come to that later and it won't make any more sense.)

Both 'The Daleks' and 'Invasion of Earth' were dark stories with high death tolls. The truth is, here the production line of short-lived companions has the opposite effect, people crop up and are killed off as a symptom of the overall hurtlingly episodic nature of everything. It happens so often it just becomes hard to care.

Hearing It For Hokum

Yet overall, this letting the darkness out... It may not be what the fans want to hear, but it was most likely a wise decision. Eleven-plus episodes of unremitting grimness would be unremittingly grim. ('The Daleks' was seriously dragging at seven.) Eleven-plus episodes of flying through space, getting into scrapes and adventures, balancing on the barest of through-lines, seems a more bearable prospect.

Tomb of the Anorak says the single smartest thing about this serial: “it's 'Doctor Who' as you played it in the school playground. No character introspection or serious political subtexts, just stealing starships and Dalek gunbattles.” We don't want something metafictionally 'self-aware' like 'The Chase', which was all too often the very definition of neither clever nor funny. But we could cope with something happy to be hokum, something which charges across the galaxy while wearing something silver and silly for the sheer sake of it.

And once we've adjusted to how we should be taking this episode, rather than the way we've always been told to, there's some great moments. Freed from 'The Chase's' need to be funny, it becomes a whole lot more entertaining. You can relish the Black Dalek saying “their greed for power is so great that they can be trusted”. Or screeching “this is not an emergency! We are still in command!” (Reminiscent of Principal Skinner's urgent tannoy announcement that “all is well in the school”.) While the nest of nasties that is the Galactic Council are such an Addams Family of creatures and weirdies, bedecked with absurd costumes and arch dialogue delivered in silly accents, you half-expect Dr Evil to turn up.

It’s like the tropes of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder and You Have Failed Me marinated together into some super-virulent bumping off. It’s all so telegraphed that when they turn on Council member Trantis it doesn’t even happen on-screen. (I always imagine some director’s cut moment with the Black Dalek peering down at him through a withering eyestalk - “seriously, you didn’t see this coming?”)

If you're going to do hokum you need to do it with gusto and aplomb. Its one of those dishes where the taste is all in the sauce. And Hartnell hams it up like a trouper, as if the Doctor's secret weapon is his own eccentricity. Most of his plans involve doing something so audaciously daft no-one else could possibly conceive of anyone attempting it. After all, he has more in common with Brer Rabbit than with Buck Rogers.

But the real cherry on this cake is Kevin Stoney's performance as arch-villain and traitorous Earthman Mavic Chen. Interestingly the script conspires to keep the two apart, so they largely react to one another from afar. Even in the final episode the Doctor disappears just before Chen appears, then shows up again just after he's been dispatched. (The Daleks bump him off. I don't think that counts as a plot spoiler.)

With his supreme scheming and monstrous ego, Chen is also the one element which legitimises the use of the Daleks. In a rapid degeneration they've already become a generic menace. The story needs a recurring villain, the side we know to be uber-badass enough to win out over the rest of the Council. But the Daleks are given that role by default. It couldn't have been the Mechanoids because they were crap, but that's the only reason it couldn't have been the Mechanoids. Had the Cybermen or the Ice Warriors been around then, they'd have done. Yet Chen is both a worthy opponent and a contrast to them, his suave tones contrasting to their metallic screeching. He relishes telling them things like “guile and cunning will succeed where force would fail”.

He is perhaps not an easy figure to parse. The most silken-tongued of snake-oil salesmen, he's mellifluous-voiced and statesmanlike. When its established he has a large public following on Earth it seems credible. He's headmasterly, reassuringly posh. Which makes his traitorousness reminiscent of Kim Philby, who had fled to Moscow only two years before in a betrayal which became a great staple of popular culture.

But Chen also has an Oriental name, and his look is that of a 'Blackamoor', a jumble of foreign stereotypes. He's essentially wearing blackface. (An element perhaps diluted to modern audiences, who with all the lost episodes are mostly reliant on audio.) The juxtaposition is deliberate (if not necessarily conscious) - his tongue may be honeyed, but that face is there to give him away. He's not really one of us. Like “the Jew” in Nazi propaganda, the jumble tries to prove something through it’s own incoherence. It conveys a ruthless cosmopolitan, blood untied to soil. Compare him to Flash Gordon's Ming the Merciless, or the Hood from 'Thunderbirds'. 

Why this combination? U Thant, had become the first non-Western Secretary-General of the United Nations, whose role was sometimes controversial. (For example, his sympathies with Algerian independence from France.) Unlike Philby, Thant was probably more symptomatic than causal – he typified a trend. It was getting increasingly hard to tell who was 'one of us', among those who might have talked like one of us but looked and acted like one of them.

But overall Chen is probably no more than a riff on the popular distrust of politicians, filtered through some knee-jerk racism then dressed up in SF tropes. He's a barefaced liar possessed of tremendous chutzpah, a Blair of the future. (Which I suppose would make the Daleks into Dubya.) And ritual distrust of politicians, however understandable, when held in isolation remains reactionary. They're assumed to be separated from 'real life', a ‘political class’ in 'the Westminster bubble', not functions in an inherently exploitative political system. Here for example it comes with a corollary trust of the military in the shape of the SSS, honest and dutiful workers.

Comparisons to Thant do convey the way the Galactic Council are like some anti-UN. (We even see the UN logo on Brett's spaceship.) Events are specified to happen after twenty-five years of galactic peace, on a show broadcast just over twenty years after the end of World War Two, and in the thick of the Cold War. The “outer galaxies” who mostly populate the Council are the Third World, drawn into the powerful orbit of the Russian empire. And the Daleks... well, this means this time they're not Nazis! 

As we’ve seen, not only was the Ian and Barbara era chock-full of World War Two analogies, it was the first two Dalek stories which were the most classic examples. That so soon into the Steven era even the Daleks are being morphed to more resemble the Cold War, that suggests some fairly fundamental changes are afoot.

And if all these references to contemporary politics seem off for a self-styled space adventure, consider this... The script has a chronic inability to distinguish between the fairly basic terms 'solar system', 'galaxy' and 'universe'. (See the Steven quote up top.) Which is ludicrous and laughable. But also fitting. Just as the show often came from a world view which assumed southern England to be the centre of the Earth, so in a case of pan-galactic parochialism the Earth here is essentially the centre of the universe. Even in the story where they make some stabs at world-building, this is still unashamedly a displaced tale about us.

To be continued...

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