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This is the official blog of Phoenix Roleplaying, a multi-genre simming site, created in August 2010.

Run by the players, we hope to achieve great things.

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Friday, 18 May 2012

Not quite a full Emm (Review: 'Doctor Who' "Mission to the Unknown" and "The Daleks' Master Plan")


Having to wait until early autumn for the next season of Doctor Who, I’ve decided to go on a bit of a classic era spree.

I’ve started with something from the First Doctor – in fact a work I’ve never experienced before. “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, all the way from 1965-66. This 12-episode epic is the second longest Doctor Who story, beaten only by Season 23’s “The Trial of a Time Lord” – a story that is basically four with an overarching plot.

Of course, there’s a bit of a problem with this one. Only episodes 2, 5 and 10 survive in video form. Never fear though, the wonderful people at the BBC released the soundtrack of this story in 2001, with William Russell (who played Ian Chesterton) providing the linking narration and doing a very good job at it.

Because it’s essential to understanding the plot, the audio release includes the “prologue” to the story – “Mission to the Unknown”.

Mission to the Unknown

This single-episode story is the only serial in the show’s history not to feature any of the regulars instead focussing on a trio of Space Security Service agents on the planet Kembel in the year 4000, as they investigate a Dalek sighting in the “Solar System” – here used to describe Earth’s sphere of space – or at least try to. For one of them is turning into a hideous plant creature. They discover a Dalek plot to take over the universe

Not a single frame of this one survives (although an unofficial reconstruction has been made – h/t Gallifrey Base) – so I’m having to use my imagination here. My brain is automatically putting this into black and white, adding the title captions and all. The effects are probably better in my mind, but they’re helped wonderfully along by this. The sound work of the Radiophonic Workshop was one of the best things of the classic era and they haven’t let themselves down here.

One of the things you notice about 1960s sci-fi, especially if you were born in the 1980s, is how seriously everyone takes it. Watch any TOS Star Trek for example – the delivery is ripe for parody and as such has been plucked many a time. However, it actually works and sells the story. You’ve got to remember that a massive war was not some abstract concept people read about in books or watched on TV – it had happened only twenty years earlier. The cast had lived through it and so had much of the audience.

This is truly superb. The Daleks are truly effective, the story is really dark and the knowledge of how this ends for our plucky heroes just makes it even better. I’m going to give the following rating for the first time for a professional work:

10/10

So, onto the main story, which followed the four-part serial “The Myth Makers”.

The Daleks’ Master Plan

Fleeing the ruin of Troy, the Doctor, Steven and Katarina arrive on the planet Kembel. They are about to enter a nightmare that not all of them will get out of alive… The Daleks have assembled a super weapon and when the Doctor steals a vital component of it, provided by Earth’s treacherous leader, the creatures chase them across space and time.

Terry Nation was a wonderful writer, who created one of the nastiest villains in sci-fi, being able to create richly-rendered worlds from simple dialogue. Unfortunately, half of this was written by Dennis Spooner (considering I’m going to pre-order his “The Reign of Terror”, I only hope that’s better). The first six episodes (which actually include one written by Spooner, the sixth one, “Coronas of the Sun”) are a gripping, dark tale, set in a galaxy that in essence stores the DNA from all its citizens, has a charismatic dictator who is secretly selling out his entire people and features some wonderful characterisations. The death of Katarina (that’s not a spoiler) must have been pretty shocking at the time and still is quite chilling – especially as the audio leaves things a bit ambiguous as to whether it was deliberate on her part.

Then we get “The Feast of Steven”. The first Doctor Who Christmas special, this farcical break in the story is just plain silly – I will just remark that you couldn’t say “It’s a madhouse! It’s full of Arabs!” today and get away with it. It was never actually sold overseas and is completely lost in video form bar a few telesnaps. We get a couple of Spooner clunkers before things get a bit better and the last ten minutes of the final episode are superb.

Personally, I’d have cut two episodes out of this.

Some elements that I think merit further discussion:
·         The Doctor: William Hartnell is on fine form, merrily hmming away and at times delivering the cold fury of a Time Lord. The fact we’ve had the other ten is really down to this one making the show popular.
·         Steven: A fine companion. A Doctor and male companion work just as well as a male-female pairing.
·         Katarina: Hopeless, totally hopeless. Never (well, almost never) recruit a companion from the BC period because he/she hasn’t got a clue about any of the technology. I’m not sure that her death wasn’t through her own stupidity.
·         Bret Vyon: A one shot character, played by Nicholas Courtney, who would play the Brigadier. A good character and well played, but a bit too generic.
·         Sara Kingdom: Jean Marsh’s one-shot (and one crucial blaster shot) character starts off wonderfully chilly, all fascistic. She gets warmer as she realises the plot of the story and her demise is very well done.
·         Magic – Mavic Chen (Hartnell fluffs the line that way): A wonderfully urbane and fiendish dictator who provides the taranium (a full emm of it!) that the Daleks need to power the Time Destructor. Kevin Stoney does a great job. Mind you, you don’t notice the “yellowface” on audio.
·         The Time Destructor – the weapon doesn’t get used until the climax; today we’d see some poor schmuck be used as a guinea pig for it.
·         The Daleks – wonderfully potent here; they don’t get killed in silly ways and generally brood menace. I found myself wondering if there are special “radio Daleks” who pass messages on.
·         The Monk: Ultimately just unnecessary.

All in all, this is a very good story, that could have been a true great but for a couple of poor episodes.

7/10

I’m planning to get the Lost in Time DVD set. It’s got “The Moonbase” in part audio, part video, so I might well give that a review as well.

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