So here we have the first ever pilot episode for a Doctor Who spinoff series. If you thought that wasn’t going to happen until we get to K9 and Company then this might come as a bit of a surprise, but apparently that was Terry Nation’s intention: this was his try-out for a Dalek series, without the Doctor.
In light of that it’s all a bit odd. I mean, you can see what he’s aiming for: James Bond in space vs the Daleks. The Space Security Service is licensed to kill. But there are a couple of really big problems with that. Firstly Marc Cory isn’t especially Bond-esque, and secondly the Daleks kill him. So this actually gives little indication of how a spinoff series of this nature could possibly work. In fact The Daleks’ Master Plan functions as a more useful pilot, with its far more capable character of Sara Kingdom, and if you want to find out how that could have panned out then have a listen to the Big Finish Second Doctor Lost Stories box set (yes, it’s got nothing to do with the Second Doctor, but they stuck it in there nonetheless).
Although Mission to the Unknown doesn’t actually function very well as a pilot episode, what it does instead is very effective. The last time we saw the Daleks they were veering towards the comical and incompetent. Something needed to be done to turn them back into a more credible threat, despite the impact of Daleks who were able to time travel. Terry Nation does that here, whether unintentional or not, by matching them up with an opponent that bears at least a passing resemblance to a 007ish sort of guy, and then has them exterminate him. In a fight between Daleks and Bond, Daleks win.
This has the knock-on effect of actually providing a little character advancement for the Doctor, despite his non-appearance. Because this is what happens when he doesn’t show up. Even Spaceman Bond can’t step into the shoes of this strange old man in a blue box, which makes the Doctor seem even more of the hero.
We are used to Doctor-lite episodes nowadays, in which the Doctor doesn’t feature much, but he always has some role in the narrative and his companion generally takes over in his absence as a proxy Doctor. This is different, and it’s a once only deal. For just one week the viewers of 1965 got to see what happens in a world where the Doctor doesn’t arrive to sort things out, and it’s unremittingly bleak. The whole episode plays out like the bit we often get at the start of an Episode 1, establishing the characters and the world the Doctor will be landing on soon. While we wait for him to show up we start getting body horror and people start dying, and then it just keeps happening and we wait for the TARDIS to appear for the entire 25 minutes. It is completely baffling and terrifying, and then next week Doctor Who just carries on somewhere else, leaving this odd little scary episode lingering in the mind of the viewers for another month, so when the Daleks finally show up they are thinking “wow!” instead of “oh it’s them again”. The placement of this episode was all down to departing producer Verity Lambert. It was her final act of genius for Doctor Who. The last of many.
A few stray thoughts:
- Some very dramatic B-movie sounding music is used throughout.
- The Daleks have developed a new invasion strategy – they bring their nasty plants with them to mutate their enemies. Could they have learnt this from their encounter with the killer planets on Mechanus?
- The Dalek voices seem to be under-modulated and at times sound too human, especially those in a higher register.
- The delegates are a wonderful bunch. Their mutterings sound like the House of Lords and their different voices are unintentionally hilarious, although Malpha is quite impressive.
- Robert Cartland (Malpha) tries his best to fill the void left by Hartnell in the fluffs department, but the best he can manage is ‘this is indeed an historic mooment.’
The view from across the pond:
Imagine turning on the television to watch your favorite show and, unlike when you tune in and find it pre-empted for a baseball game or some other madness-inducing nightmare, it comes on… but has none of the expected cast. The opening credits were right, there are even known villains, but at no point do the regulars appear onscreen! Maybe you write it off that it’s a strong build-up to a larger story; a first part that will become clear in a week, but then the next episode has no mention of it at all. In fact, it was to be a 4-week wait until there was any form of payoff.
That’s exactly what did happen with Doctor Who’s Mission to the Unknown. The story is sadly missing and that makes talking about it challenging. We have nothing to go on visually, but it must have captured the audience’s attention with a compelling 25 minutes of tension as the Daleks prepared to launch their first true “master plan”. So much so that when it ended, the realization must have dawned that not even the TARDIS showed up in this story, let alone the hero of the series!
But the story, about a security force intent on stopping the Daleks, definitely opened the door for a larger branch of storytelling, creating a bigger universe that the Daleks inhabit and the war that is fought between them and other races. It was a blip in the overall arc of Doctor Who, but it was a prelude to a story coming up after The Myth Makers: the epic, 12-part Daleks’ Master Plan. (Which master plan was that, exactly? They seem to have so many; none of which are particularly masterful!) And once again, it illustrated just how flexible the format of the show really is! In modern Who, we have what’s called “Doctor Lite” episodes, where the Doctor features only on the periphery, but in 1965, they tried something totally unique. When we say “only on Doctor Who…” let us not forget that it is still a show that can do things very few others can, and it has been successful at it for over 50 years.
Time to water the Varga plants…. ML