Friday, July 30, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Daleks Master Plan"

As I've said before, since it's inception Doctor Who has had problems with scripts and schedules... they can never quite get them balanced. And it was scheduling problems which led to the production team coming up with the bright idea of creating a massive, epic story... and said epic was to create precedents and controversy.

Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said is that, for all intents and purposes, "The Daleks Master Plan" is actually a 13 part story rather than a 12 part one. A single-episode story was created as a kind of prologue to "The Daleks Master Plan" -- making it the first and only stand alone story in the show's history until the program was relaunched in 2005. It also still stands today as the only episode in which neither the Doctor nor any of his companions appear. The prologue was originally created under the working title "The Dalek Cutaway" but when it aired it went out with the official title "Mission to the Unknown". There are some fans and sources out there who still refer to it under the "Cutaway" title.

Interestingly, the prologue aired only to be followed by the four part comedy-adventure-historical "The Myth Makers" instead of having "The Daleks Master Plan" air directly afterwards. "The Myth Makers" marked the departure of Maureen O'Hara who played companion Vicki and the introduction of Adrienne Hill as the new companion, handmaiden of Troy Katarina.

When the BBC released "The Daleks Master Plan" as an audio drama, however, they included "Mission to the Unknown" as the opening -- further proving that, for all intents and purposes, "The Daleks Master Plan" is a 13 part serial and "Mission to the Unknown" is really the first episode.

As "The Daleks Master Plan" started so would the precedent and controversy. Although Hill was chosen and written into the role the producer soon came to think better of the decision. Worried that a character who came from an archaic time would not fit in he told Terry Nation, who was writing "The Daleks Master Plan" to write the character out and insert a temporary female companion who would accompany the Doctor through the rest of the story. There is, therefore, some question of whether or not Katarina counts as a companion. Many fans and official sources from the BBC Doctor Who office tend not to include the character on official companion lists since she did not continue to travel with the Doctor and, in fact, did not even finish out one adventure. Other fans, however, usually claim that anyone who assists the Doctor and travels in the TARDIS is a companion. It is certainly true that the way in which Katarina was introduced to viewers put her clearly in the "companion" category. Had Katarina continued the character would have been the first companion to come from the past rather than the present or the future. As it stood, the first companion to come from the past would be the Second Doctor's stalwart Jamie McCrimmon and the Second Doctor would become the first and only Doctor to travel with two companions who were both from the past. But I digress...

Terry Nation, the creator of the Daleks, had been up to that point the one who had written all of the Dalek stories. Having seen the popularity of his creations he had hopes of developing a spin-off series featuring the Daleks. He soon saw this story as a chance to develop some of his ideas and see how they worked. His original concept for the Dalek series was that there would be agents of a "Space Security Service" who would be the protagonists and oppose the Daleks nefarious schemes. These Space Security Service Agents would be like futuristic James Bonds (in "Mission to the Unknown" Agent Mark Cory even says "Licensed to kill"). To that end Nation introduced three SSS Agents over the course of the story -- Mark Cory, Brett Vyon and Sarah Kingdom. Interestingly, Brett Vyon would be played by Nicholas Courtney in his first Doctor Who role but certainly not his last. Sarah Kingdom was Nation's idea for a 'replacement' female companion and he took his inspiration from the butt-kicking character of Cathy Gale from The Avengers TV series. Nation wanted to introduce a more modern, tougher model for female companions and he had hoped that she would become an ongoing companion but the producer did not take the bait.

Sarah Kingdom, like Katarina, would become one of those characters who are questionably companions. Kingdom (mostly) finished out an adventure with the Doctor and did get to travel in the TARDIS but she did not get to go on traveling with the Doctor. As a result some people claim her others do not.

The final bit of controversy surrounding the story comes from the 7th episode. With the 12 part story it was quickly realized that the seventh installment would actually air on Christmas Day. In Great Britain, unlike here in the United States, it was quite common for TV shows to have new episodes on Christmas Day (here we get re-runs and specials. Bleh.) so it was decided to make the Christmas Day episode a comedy romp befitting the season. There were some, at the time, who apparently felt the jar in tone but really it has been the years after which has seen the single episode take such a hit. Many people really, actively hate this installment for it's light-hearted silliness and feel that it ruins the tone of the rest of the story as a whole. I don't agree but we'll get to that in a minute.

Because of the BBC's policy of wiping tapes when no longer seen as useful (a subject I covered in my review of "The Moonbase") out of all 13 episodes on three full installments and a few clips exist anymore today. Thankfully, however, the audio was saved by fans and the BBC cleaned it up, remastered it, and then released the story as an audio drama with actor Peter Purves, who played companion Steven, providing descriptive narration; which is what I've used for this review.

Now, on with the plot!

The Plot: The Doctor and his companions stumble into the middle of a plot by the Daleks to conquer all of space -- starting with Earth's solar system. Forming an alliance of power-hungry aliens, the Daleks have solidified their position and are ready to attack. Among this alliance is even the Guardian of the Solar System, Mavic Chen, willing to sell out his own human race in the quest for more power.

The Doctor and his friends and allies race through space and time, pursued by many enemies, hoping all the time to find a way of putting an end to the Daleks' plot. If the Doctor does not succeed humanity will fall first and then other alien planets will follow. Even if the Doctor does succeed what will the cost be to himself and those who fight beside him?

My Take: The new series, since the relaunch in 2005, has tried to give each series finale an epic feel and/or scope -- battles with the Daleks, rounding up all the Doctor's companions to fight together, facing down the Master, facing down the Time Lords, etc. But in a way it could never quite reach the kind of epic this story did simply because of the constraints of time.

The length of this story means that we as the audience really get to know these characters well. The villains become more and more villainous and we can trace Mavic Chen's descent into madness and delusion and we become closer to our heroes as well to the point where the deaths of characters make impact. In the end, when Steven mournfully names off their dead friends and allies it really tugs at the heartstrings.

It is true that there is a LOT of padding here. With this many episodes how could there not be? There is a detour to the planet Desperus that serves no purpose except to set up for the death of Katarina and there is another detour to ancient Egypt that serves no purpose period. The TARDIS team travels by spaceship and TARDIS all over the galaxy and through time until the viewer (or in this case listener) gets lost and dizzy.

The padding, though, is at least entertaining padding for the most part. The Doctor's old enemy from "The Time Meddler", the Time Lord known as 'the Monk' (played by comedy actor Peter Butterworth), makes an appearance here and, just as with "The Time Meddler" he and the Doctor play against each other beautifully -- conning and conniving around one another -- setting up plots and traps and then reversing them on one another. Even the notorious 7th episode is actually a lot of fun. It's played for comedy and all of the actors involved seem to have a blast -- particularly when they land in 1920's Hollywood and run rampant on a movie studio. Yes, the tone change is a bit jarring but after six episodes of desperation, dirty dealing and death the 7th comes as a needed breath of fresh air to relieve some of the unrelenting darkness of the story.

and then there is that darkness... While Doctor Who stories have had and continue to have their share of character deaths this story gives us some of the most deaths of what are really main characters... and most of those deaths are not really through enemy action either which adds an extra layer of tragedy Katarina and Sarah sacrifice themselves for the Doctor and Brett is the victim of Sarah's devotion to duty which causes her to never question her orders. As I mentioned earlier, Katarina was introduced to the audience in such a way as it was logical to assume that she was going to be the replacement companion for Vicki. I can only imagine how shocking it was, then, to viewers at the time to see her die. It was, probably, the first real time a 'companion' of the Doctor's died and it brought home this idea that traveling with the Doctor could be fatally dangerous.

There is also a slight theme of anarchy here. Mavic Chen gets away with murder because everyone is conditioned to follow the authority figure and never question anything. Rules and regulations throughout the story cause turmoil and troubles and are shown to be useless and even in many cases favoring the villains. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Steven are agents of chaos. They do not follow orders, they disobey rules and conventions, they do not kowtow to authority figures, and they pass these attitudes on to others such as Brett and Sarah.

The cast on the whole does an excellent job. Admittedly, Hill's Katarina is somewhat weak sauce. It is understandable that she would be somewhat wide-eyed and innocent but there is a vocal quality she throws into it that makes her sound like a four year-old instead of as a bewildred and awestruck adult. Jean Marsh's Sarah Kingdom is perfectly pitched as she deals with the impossibilites of the Doctor's life and moves from there -- driven all the while by her detrmination to save her home planet and see Chen punished for his trechery. Nicholas Courtney is... well, his Brett Vyon is a bit like his Brigadier only shorter on charm and humor. One does have to love the scene where he tells the Doctor to shut-up much to the Doctor's surprise. Kevin Stoney also makes a lovely bad guy. As far as Doctor Who was concerned, though, he got a little typecast. He appeared in the series a total of three times (the last of those times almost unrecognizable under heavy make-up and prthestics as an alien) with the second appearance being in the Second Doctor story "The Invasion" playing a VERY similar character to Mavic Chen. This, being his first outing, though, has the benefit of originality as he schemes and tries to spin his failures into victories and eventually descends to delusion and madness. For the regular cast William Hartnell is at the top of his game. There are a few blown lines but overall, Hartnell dashes through the script making his Doctor determined, arrogant, funny, witty, defeated, clever, and more by turns. When delivering his dramatic lines his voice rolls like thunder with authority and you are again reminded why, no matter which incarnation, the Doctor is not one to be triffled with. Peter Purves as Steven also gets a chance to really sink his teeth into this story. Purves character of Steven has always been a bit of a departure. Despite being on the series to handle the action sequences the Doctor could not the character has never been depicted as much of a fighter. Instead, Steven was a more sensitive soul. It may have been an odd tack to take but it worked surprisingly well with the character making the more emotional appeals and feeling rather protective of his fellow travelers. It is Steven as the emotional compass who suffers the most of the survivors and provides the sobering conclusion to the adventure.

While the extreme length of the story and some of the back and forth through time and space and oh-so-convenient plot points work against it "The Daleks Master Plan" really does deserve the title "epic". Even the fact that it is in audio format does not hurt it that much as the descriptive narration works with the surviving audio and lets the listener paint the action in their head... a place where there are no wobbly sets or poor special effects. If you're someone who has a long commute or takes driving trips or likes to listen to things at work then "The Daleks Master Plan" is well worth checking out. You can be entertained for hours immersing yourself into a Doctor Who adventure that engages your imagination instead of just your eyes.

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