Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Daleks’ Masterplan written by Terry Nation & Dennis Spooner and directed by Douglas Camfield

This story in a nutshell: A quest throughout all of time and space to prevent the Daleks from ruling the universe…

Hmm: Recently on a car journey my mum admitted that she had been watching some of the older Doctor Who stories online. She has always had a mild interest in the show and she has fallen in love with it again through the new series (or more succinctly David Tennant – her allegiances were slowly shifting to Matt Smith until this latest season where she seems to have abandoned the show altogether). She remembers watching a lot of the black and white stories (grrr) and she wanted to remind herself of the old Billy Hartnell episodes. She enjoyed a couple recently (The Web Planet and The Daleks) but declared in that no-nonsense way of all mothers ‘isn’t he an awful actor?’ Cue a stunned silence from me in the back of the car and Simon almost slamming on the breaks. Suddenly it became a car journey lecturing my mum (not convincing her, telling her) about so many great moments throughout his tenure. I mentioned his speeches at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Massacre and Simon (Hartnell is one of his favourites, surprisingly) brought up his favourite two stories – The Romans and The Gunfighters (and when he started quoting stories even my mum had to suggest that he had made the leap from casual watcher to fan: ‘Unfortunately I don’t touch alcohol but a little glass of milk and I’d be only too delighted!’). What struck me about this is that my mum couldn’t get over the different styles of acting from then and now, much preferring the naturalistic styles of the more recent actors in the part whereas Simon loves the theatricality, cheek and mystery that Hartnell employed to play the part. I am starting to forget what my point was but it was wonderful to see somebody brought up on junk like Star Trek: Voyager defending the blissful performances of a man of a bygone age. The Daleks’ Masterplan encapsulates everything that Hartnell does well – sure there are guffs but it’s the sixties and there were always guffs (even Troughton can be seen having an occasional moment of panic as he fluffs a line) but throughout he turns in a commanding, affecting and thoroughly entertaining performance. Whether he is bravely putting his life on the line to steal the essential component of the time destructor, offering a beautiful epitaph to Katarina, nattering with a dejected clown in Hollywood, sparring with his old foe The Meddling Monk, harshly confronting the Daleks or mute with horror at the devastating consequences at the end of the story, he reminds me time and again why he won this role and why he was the Doctor so successfully for so long.

The Doctor is not above admitting his mistakes and he chastises himself of being mistrustful of Bret when he had the very medicene he needed to help Steven. It’s very humbling. I know some facetious fans might comment that he fluffs the line but Hartnell’s commanding ‘No you shut up, sir!’ makes me howl with laughter every time I watch. In a moment of brilliant lunacy he heads straight for the Dalek City figuring it is the last place that they would ever look for him, koshes one of the delegates and imitates him to discover what their plans are. No-one ever accused the man of playing it safe but this is ridiculous! When Bret calls him a very brave man he scoffs at the idea and says he is just doing what has to be done – he will happily risk his own life if it means that the Earth is warned about the imminent Dalek invasion. The Doctor says that the Daleks are ‘coming after us again’ remembering the events of The Chase. He is brusque and commanding with Bret and Steven and reserves all his charm and compassion for Katarina. They only have a handful of scenes together but Hartnell ensures we have a peek into another future for the show where she survives this adventure and he develops a sweet and tender relationship with her. When Bret murders his friend in cold blood after the Doctor exposes his part in the conspiracy, the Doctor is venomously angry with him for taking his life. He knows there are better ways to deal with wrong doers than murdering them. Clearly the Doctor has mellowed his opinion of the people of the Earth discovering the secrets of the TARDIS. In An Unearthly Child he was furiously angry at Susan leading her schoolteachers to the Ship but in the Christmas episode of The Daleks' Masterplan he happily comments that the police box is a time travel device to a complete stranger. How awesome does the Doctor look strolling through the Pyramids in a panama? Despite the fact that he is aided by the incredible direction Hartnell alone suggests the gravity and power of the time destructor and his dramatic attempts to get back to the TARDIS are a gripping race against time. ‘GET BACK!’ he barks hysterically at Steven in the full force of the devices onslaught, sounding completely desperate. Is the Doctor’s great age the only thing that allows him to escape the effects of the time destructor? And does his rapuid ageing at the climax conctribute to his regeneration crisis at the climax of The Tenth Planet?  In hindsight it could certainly be seen that way…the Doctor is now living on borrowed time.

Aggressive Astronaut: This might not make me very popular but I genuinely believe that Peter Purves is the strongest performer throughout the shows opening years. Whilst I think both William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are stunning artists and performed miracles for the show there is something about the way that Purves can tip his hat to just about any genre (in this story alone he plays a desperate fugitive, a comedy policeman and an agonised victim who has lost two friends to the battle) whilst still believably playing the same character. It's an impressive performance that shifts with each twist of genre. This was turbulent time for the show, changing production teams like you would change socks and the one constant throughout all the ruckus is simple, headstrong, loyal Steven Taylor. And Purves and Hartnell are magic together on screen, sparking off each other magnificently. It is not always an easy relationship between the two characters (in this story Steven pushes the Doctor too far and gets ‘and remember that I happen to be the leader of this expedition and I don’t want to keep on repeating myself and never mind the buts if you don’t like it you can get off!’ for his trouble!) but it is the friction that keeps their friendship interesting. And rewarding. Steven is afforded some very nice character development throughout this story and the next. The final scene of The Daleks' Masterplan sees Steven list the names of the friends they have lost throughout this adventure. He is completely demoralized and the only constant left in his life is the Doctor, setting up his reaction to his apparent demise in the next adventure. When he storms out on the Doctor at the end of The Massacre there has been sufficient suffering to explain away his explosive reaction to losing yet another friend. Steven is able to look after himself even when he is sick, bashing Bret Vyon over the head with a spanner when he enters the TARDIS. There is a lovely moment where Steven reminds the Doctor that he knows the Daleks as well as him (possibly even more so) because he grew up fighting them. The Doctor suggests Steven takes a leaf out of Katarina’s book by watching and learning rather than objecting all the time. Steven makes the bad move of criticising the TARDIS and the Doctor smartly dismisses him as still wet behind the ears when it comes to space travel. Because they are way into Steven’s future Sara has some fun comparing him to the Romans when he suggests primitive technology to help with their plans. The Doctor declares that Steven lacks one quality of all his previous companions and that is patience. I love the moment when Steven appears to side with the Doctor over Sara and as soon as he is out of earshot he tells her he knows she is right – you have to know how to play the Doctor and he’s got it pegged by now. His strained anger at the friends they have lost is hard to listen to, expertly played by Purves.

Handmaiden Shock: The Doctor sweetly says ‘as you wish, my child’ when Katarina suggests that the TARDIS is the great beyond and that she has died but I rather think he is humouring her to get her to help Steven. All bets are off when Katarina kills herself and the act brings out the best in Hartnell who imbues his soliloquy with restrained emotion.

Simply Sara: Ruthless, hard and efficient, Kingdom gets a fine build up to her eventual appearance and is spoken about in hushed awe. Sara has been completely brainwashed by her training and refuses to show a shed of emotion after she kills her brother, only concerned with completing her mission. Sara resists the notion that the Doctor and Steven are innocent and the people she has been working for are in league with the Daleks because that would mean she killed her own flesh and blood for nothing. Jean Marsh plays these scenes of conflict superbly as Steven abusively reminds her that she has murdered a human being. She quickly cottons on to the fact that the Doctor and Steven are always in trouble. There are so many vignettes before the final confrontation on Skaro it is easy to see why so many people are convinced that she qualifies for the title of companion - London (twice), Mira, Hollywood, Eygpt, the volcano planet and a cricket match. If you are smart enough to collect Big Finish's companion chronicles (you should, they're superb) there are a wealth of further adventures for this trio as well (and to be fair to Big Finish this is exactly the sort of epic where such additions tales could be squeezed in - there's no telling how long it took from the beginning of this adventure to the end). Within The Daleks' Masterplan, Sara makes more journeys in the TARDIS than Dodo, Liz Shaw or Harry Sullivan did on screen. Showing that it doesn’t always pay to travel with the Doctor, Sara gives her life in an act of kindness when she goes back to help him to escape. Her death so soon after Katarina’s shows that the TARDIS isn’t a safe place to be anymore. Not until the death of Adric would the show manage to suggest with such clarity that travelling through time and space is a genuinely terrifying experience.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You must admit the Daleks have a genius for war.’
‘How I shall always remember her as one of the daughters of the Gods.’
‘You make your incompetence sound like an achievement’ – as soon as Dennis Spooner takes over the writing responsibilities the Daleks suddenly have great lines.
‘They keep moving me house!’
‘I suppose you might say that I am a citizen of the universe and a gentleman to boot’ – best first Doctor line ever.
‘This is a madhouse! It’s full of Arabs!’ – nothing could have prepared me for that!
‘Must you waste time moralising?’ – Chen is not the sort of villains who enjoys his motives coming under scrutiny.
‘What a terrible waste.’

The Good:
· With Mission to the Unknown affording the luxury of an entire episode to set up this epic, Vicki departing in a flurry of violence and Steven wounded and near to death, The Daleks' Masterplan has about as dramatic an opening to a classic story than the series ever attempted. It's almost as if Tosh and Wiles want to push the series into ever more uncomfortable situations and with Steven out for the count and the Doctor off looking for medicine the scene between Katarina and Bret in the TARDIS is so out of the ordinary – a setting that we know so well but with no recognisable characters to make it feel safe. I love that feeling.
· The opening moments showing the two technicians on Earth discussing the merits (or not) of Mavic Chen reminds me of Arak and Etta from Vengeance on Varos two decades earlier and I like how the story encourages via two opposing viewpoints to make our own mind up about the character rather than simply shoehorning him into a heroic or villainous role from the off.
· Proof that Doctor Who was getting itself down and dirty in its third year, Gantry moves through the jungle to take on the Daleks and we don’t see a clean, brave, stoic man from the future that sixties science fiction seemed to enjoy promoting (think Star Trek) but a terrified, sweaty, dirty man in a torn and bloody uniform who is murdered indiscriminately.
· Aside from being a superb piece of model work in its own right (in a time when the model work was usually as effective as a duff paper plate hovering on a string – see both The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Moonbase), I love how the descent of the Spar in Kembel is filmed from the Doctor’s perspective. Camfield’s handling of such effects shots compared to his predecessor on the Dalek epics (Richard Martin) is worlds apart.
· Suddenly and with almost dramatic whiplash the Daleks are a force to be reckoned with again. After their unfortunate handling in The Dalek Invasion of Earth (the writing suggested they were a powerful force but this is not backed up by the production) and being used as comic stooges in The Chase suddenly Terry Nation, Dennis Spooner and Douglas Camfield want to remind the viewers that there was a reason why the creatures catapulted this series into the publics eye. Their insane plan to pull together the leaders of the outer galaxies into one massive unified force against ours sees them at their scheming best and everything about how Camfield handles the absurd looking creatures stresses that they are not be messed with. If this is how Wiles and Tosh saw the series developing, with a genuine threat to our heroes then I am all for it. The Daleks have never felt more powerful or intelligent before – they know full well that Chen’s ambition outweighs his usefulness and it is wonderful to watch their power struggle throughout.
· Forgive me a moment of fanboy childishness…but Daleks with flame throwers! Burning through a forest! How lucky that we have always been able to see this spectacular moment of pyrotechnics.
· Such a shame that we are denied so much visual material for this story because the episodes that exist show numerous imaginative directional touches that make the whole piece more exciting to watch. Mavic Chen leans through bars as flickering flames cast shadows onto his face suggesting a roaring forest fire beneath without ever having to show it. The design work also impresses with a real effort to make the cramped BBC studios feel as vast as possible  – the war council takes place in a huge semi circle with a massive ramp at the centre of the room for the delegates and Daleks to make a memorable entrance. The set for the mice laboratory is similarly impressive, it looks huge and the glowing panels reach from the floor like claws. Camfield manages to pull off the potentially ropey idea of invisible creatures by making their approach as dramatic as possible. It has been said before but the choice to create a set of a half completed pyramid in the Egyptian episodes has a much more interesting visual hook than had they all been confined inside. Camfield’s bridging between scenes has so much imagination to it – there is a glorious moment when he ends one scene on a blazing sun and dissolves into a similar looking orb of light on a Dalek casing.
· Thank goodness we don’t get a proper look under Zephon’s hood because his horrible scabby, clawed hands and feet suggest he might make your eyes water to see him in his entirety. Oh wait we do get to see under his hood…ooh nasty. I love how arrogant Zephon is that he thinks he can walk away from the Daleks and how his egotistical strut from the war council soon turns to terror as the creatures execute him. Nobody is irreplaceable in this tale.
· Terry Nation likes to suggests a grand scale even when he is telling his story with the usual Doctor Who resources. The representatives are from the outer galaxies, Mavic Chen is Guardian of the Solar System and this time the Daleks aren’t attacking one planet but an entire galaxy…and the terrainium core is the final element of a destructor that can eat time itself. Everything about this story feels big and when you add in the running time and the myriad of times and places we visit (Kembel, Desperus & Mira as well loads of stop offs on Earth), the loss of two companions and the return of an old enemy – it is an enormous undertaking that embodies the word epic. There is more going on and a greater sense of scale in this story than you get in entire seasons of the show later on.
· I'm not being unkind when I suggest that Terry Nation's approach to storytelling brims with melodrama but when it works best is when he is treating the material as a science fiction horror. The first episode of The Daleks applies (with its lightning lashed jungle and foreboding city crawling with nasties) and so does the grim and nightmarish opening episode of Genesis of the Daleks. His creation of the planet Desperus as the penal planet of the cosmos is an ugly, dark concept that he runs with. The prisoners are a violent, desperate bunch and will stop at nothing – even murder – to escape this hellhole of a planet. There are no warders, just the prison ships that drop off more prisoners. Naturally this is last place you would want to put down so that is precisely where the stolen Spar crash lands with the Doctor on board. Nation is aided by Brian Hodgson’s terrifying sound effects that make it sound as if the whole planet is alive with aggressive wildlife and full of nasties that will kill anyone stupid enough to set foot on the surface.
· On audio the end of episode three is even more chilling as Katarina fills your ears with an ear piercing scream. We don’t know what has happened to her but stealing away our one moment of triumph in this otherwise fatalistic tale is unbelievably cruel.
· Everything about Katarina’s death feels adult from her hideous screams that sounds as though she is being violated in a very personal way to Steven hysterically calling out her name as she throws her life away so they can escape and warn the Earth. The fact that she doesn't even understand why she is committing suicide (just that it has to be done to help the Doctor) makes her sacrifice all the more selfless. It’s an astonishingly raw sequence that takes your breath away because Doctor Who usually sugar coats such horrors but the simple fact is this is one human being attacking another which leads to a conscious choice by the Doctor’s companion to commit suicide to prevent her friends from having to make a tough choice. We can see some of the footage and it looks as terrifying at it sounds, Katarina literally dies clawing at Kirkson’s face and whimpering with fear – it's a horrible way to go. Gripping viewing, this really wouldn't be handled as violently as this in the current series.
· He’s not given the best material to play with because beyond trying to get the information back to Earth there is little substance to Bret Vyon (the most important character beat he gets is after his death) but that doesn’t matter one jot because Nicholas Courtney is utterly believable in the role and for a while (it’s a trick that this story plays a couple of times) you begin to wonder if he will be a new companion for the Doctor. An all male TARDIS (bestill my beating heart) is something I have longed to see over the years (head over to Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles to see how well this could have been achieved with the first Doctor, Steven and Oliver Harper featuring in a trio of superb adventures).
· Star Trek was just around the corner but it's great that Doctor got in their first by promoting what was effectively an anti-Federation – a unified collection of races dedicated to destroying the galaxy. Not only that but it sets part of the story on Earth and exposes a conspiracy at the very heart of the planets future government. It takes hold of all the ideals that Star Trek holds dear and twists them into something altogether more dark and insidious (and dare I say, more interesting).
· After Kembel and Desperus you would think that the designers would be out of ideas but Mira is another superbly realised planet with bubbling pools of water (which Camfield glides his camera along the surface of) and more fauna that is teeming with life. If The Daleks' Masterplan can manage to produce a handful of effective alien worlds in one story it surprises me that a show with the budget that it currently commands shies away from the idea more than it explores it.
· Nothing about Mavic Chen conforms to what I recognise as a human being and that is entirely down to Kevin Stoney’s exotic performance. He writes with the pen stuck between his fingers, he points with his little finger, he smiles at the most inappropriate moments (usually when bad news is being relayed) and he allows himself moments of absolute mania when he is on Earth and can be exposed. Watch as he holds out his hands to welcome control of the whole galaxy during his megalomanical outburst and then looks apologetic when he remembers he is being watched. He's nuttier than squirrel shit but Stoney ensures that he always remains believable. Whenever the Daleks fail to capture the time travellers they like to accuse Chen of incompetence like a bunch of spoilt kids. Chen enjoys winding up the creatures, especially when their failure becomes public. During a fraught exchange with them he bats aside one of their eye stalks in exactly the same way you would shove somebody's arm aside to stop them from barring your path. ‘Though we are all equal partners on this great venture…some of us are more equal than others’ says Mavic Chen to his fellow conspirators. You know that any character with an ego this vast is heading for a fall. Nobody can wield such hubris and walk away unscathed. Even when it is clear that he has been locked in with the other delegates his ego remains untainted – he dares to suggest that the Daleks believe he can run the conference on his own. Unbelievable. His delayed death sequence as he tries to escape the reach of their gunpower is a suitably melodramatic exit for a fine villain.
· Only in a story this long (and with this amount of hopping about from place to place) could you get away with unashamedly halting the plot for a week and indulging in 25 minutes of Christmas high jinks. I don't know how they managed to get away with it but the sheer cheek of the exercise is admirable.
· The Christmas episode. It’s just bonkers, isn’t it? Forget robot Santa’s and deadly Christmas stars – this is the biggest departure from the norm we have ever had. The Doctor is mistaken for Santa (although what Santa is doing inside a police box is anyone’s guess) and recognises an actor from The Crusade playing another role in this story, a greenhouse is stolen, our heroes are chased around a Hollywood set to a mad piano score straight out of a silent movie complete with slides before the Doctor opens a bottle of something special and wishes everybody at home a happy Christmas. Its not really about anything but after a succession of fatalistic episodes it is lovely to have this impertinent little break before heading back into the serious stuff.
· Just when you think they could not throw anything else into the mix the Meddling Monk turns up to clash horns with the Doctor for the second time. Trapping the Doctor on a newly formed and cooling planet of Desperus is the perfect revenge after he marooned him in 1066 and he takes absolute glee in turning the tables on his old adversary. Hartnell and Butterworth are absolute gold together and their polite chatter and insane cackling when they confront each other makes me bristle with joy. Proof that he is only out for himself he even allies himself with the Daleks to get back at the Doctor although cheekily this is only a cover so he can make his escape. Or is it…? Big Finish would later suggest a a much more sinister alliance between the Time Lord and the Daleks. I like the ambiguity here and Butterworth plays the role with enough uncertainty that you could believe he is both a victim of circumstance and a willing conspirator. Isn’t it rather wonderful that there is a cliffhanger built around the horror of a mummy coming to life only to find out in the next episode that it was the Monk wrapped in embalming robes by a vengeful Doctor? You can definitely feel Dennis Spooner's in these later episodes. His mute attempts to summon the Doctor had me in stitches. When the chips are down and the Doctor has to negotiate with the Daleks for their prisoners’ freedom he even includes that Monk fellow…even though he doesn’t know why he should bother! Even after he has allowed him to escape it is hilarious that his involvement in this story ends in exactly the same manner as The Time Meddler with him marooned somewhere unpleasant screaming ‘I’ll get you for this one day, Doctor!’ It’s quite comforting to know that even in the least predictable story there is an element of narrative security with this repeated motif.
· With the greatest war force ever assembled ready to launch and the time destructor a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, the final two episodes are almost unbearably tense. I wont pretend that I don’t find the Hartnell science fiction stories less enthralling on the whole than the historicals but every now and again they get a futuristic piece so right (the original Dalek story is another great example) that you wonder why the SF tales cannot be of this quality all the time (it usually comes down to the director). The concluding two episodes have all the great character drama, tension and atmosphere that I associate with the best of the historicals. Removing the Doctor from the action for most of the penultimate episode leaves Steven and Sara trying to worm their way into the Dalek City on their own. There is an air of disquiet about the whole thing as both the Doctor and the Daleks are no where to be seen. The atmosphere is too quiet and it really puts me on edge. The silence that Chen assumes is the Daleks complying with his instructions is unbearably tense – somehow these creatures are far more menacing when they don’t say a word and are seen waiting to make their move (see also the Thal massacre in The Daleks and many powerful moments in Power of the Daleks). After so much build up it would have been appalling to have never seen the devastating power of the time destructor but I never expected the show to attempt the death of an entire planet (and given that it is one that has played such a large part in proceedings it is shocking to see it reduced to an ashen desert). Once again this story is thinking big, taking risks and winning. The fact that the sequence goes on for nearly ten minutes means the tension is relentless and the final indignity is for the Doctor to lose another friend. It is the only ending that could have trumped how awesome this story has already been – saving the most memorable set piece and it's best twist for last. Not only that but it gives the rest of the story even more impetus because we can see now just why it was necessary to steal the terrainium and go on the run in the first place. The music, sound effects and performances work together to make this sequence one of the series most chilling, even on audio. God knows how jaw dropping it was to actually watch. What is so effective about the unquenchable force of the time destructor is that both sides lose. This device is indiscriminate regardless of what has played out before and will destroy anything that comes in its path.

The Bad:
· The Doctor, Steven and Sara being transported to Mira with the experimental mice is the first time you begin to wonder if this story can hold onto its consistency of tone without some pretty illogical leaps to get them to the next set piece. If they weren’t beamed to the planet the story would just have stopped.
· Whilst episode five remains buoyant thanks to some sympathetic direction it is a definite pause in the action after four frantic episodes. What a relief it was when episode two turned up, one of the story's best.
· As we can see from episode ten the trip to Egypt is visually stunning but ultimately it is a pointless affair. Dennis Spooner is just passing the time before he can get to the climax.

The Shallow Bit:
 Steven. Ruff, ruff.

Result: The first four and the last two episodes of The Daleks’ Masterplan constitute some of the most powerful and exciting material in the whole of the black and white era. The story is treated with such gravity and seriousness and there is a real sense of desperation to the situation that the Doctor and Steven have found themselves in. The running theme of the story is pretty much the same as The Chase except the Daleks have a good reason for pursuing the travellers throughout all time and space…and the material is top quality rather than bottom of the barrel. Even the less successful episodes (two of our remaining three unfortunately qualify) have many moments of charm and lovely visual touches from virtuoso director Douglas Camfield as to leave the previous two Dalek epics in the dirt. Both the reappearance of the Monk and the delightfully bonkers Christmas episode provide some levity and the trip back to ancient Egypt means that this story pretty much encapsulates everything that makes Doctor Who unique (past, present, future, science fiction, comedy, drama, crazy aliens, exotic landscapes…I could go on all day!). The one thing that continually impressed me was how this seemed to fly by considering it is the single longest story in the shows history and I couldn't even watch two thirds of its running time. There is something about how it briskly moves from set piece to set piece and confidently shifts genre that I simply relented to the many tones it adopted. There are a few problems with The Daleks’ Masterplan (I think it could happily take place over ten episodes) but so much of this material is absolute gold that I cannot in my good judgement give it anything less than full marks. With a cast this big, a storyline this epic and so much incredible drama, action and comedy on display this is a microcosm of everything that makes Doctor Who as brilliant as it is and exposes the ambition and guts of the series in the sixties. Jean Marsh rocks and it is her incredible performance and that of William Hartnell, Peter Purves and Kevin Stoney along with Douglas Camfield’s superb direction that hold it all together into a gripping, coherent whole: 10/10


Dan Lee said...

Absolutely agree. The Daleks' Masterplan is one of the best stories of Doctor Who ever(it's in my Top 10).

David Pirtle said...

Usually I complain about six parters. Here's a 12 (13, really) parter that I couldn't get enough of. Definitely a top ten story for me, too.