“You must admit the Daleks have a genius for war.” – Mavic Chen
A long review for a long story. This is the first Doctor Who story you could label an epic both in terms of the scope of the story (galactic empires across many planets) and its length (twelve episodes). Unfortunately, all but a few of the episodes are missing which has made it a challenge for people trying to listen through all of them without any video. I have known the story from the novelizations (which I now find follow the script/audio fairly closely) but had only half-heartedly put effort into watching reconstructions of the rest until now. Because the overall tale is quite long and penned by two different writers, it waxes and wanes a bit in quality and interest. It starts out quite well with a return to the tense story set up previously in Mission to the Unknown on the planet Kembel—the Daleks’ alliance is now expanded to include the traitorous leader of the Solar System Mavic Chen—but it soon descends into random bits of silly chase on various planets (including an entirely throwaway slapstick episode with no bearing on the story) until righting itself at the close back to a serious and intense ending.
The Doctor’s authority shines throughout this story. He’s still retains his endearing acerbity (when he somehow chastises Sara for something he himself did she is shocked and Steven laughs “good, you’re getting to know him quite well”), but it’s made obvious every step of the way that he is in control and respected for it, coming up with strategies (“We can’t act without thinking.” “I never do and never shall!”) and full of determination. Never very humble, the Doctor describes himself thus: “I suppose you might say that I am a citizen of the universe…and a gentleman to boot!” [As a side note, the fact that the Daleks don’t recognize the Doctor here seems to suggest this story takes place before events in the earlier episode ‘The Chase’ in the Dalek timeline. Perhaps his actions here arre why the Daleks were so angry and pursued him through time—and the time ship we see here is the one later destroyed by Ian and Barbara.]
There are tons of additional characters introduced in this epic tale—almost none of whom make it through. The group of alliance delegates are purposefully alien and ambitiously costumed (though perhaps a bit overboard on some of the oddity of their speech and movements). Mavic Chen is quite a dynamic character. He is an absolute pitch-perfect corrupt (and eventually insane) politician with his smarmy demeanor, shifting alliances, and ability to make impassioned speeches that sway his followers. (“A heroic war cry to apparent peaceful ends is one of the greatest weapons a politician has.”) The Solar System here is apparently the name of a larger galactic empire centered on Earth. I think there was a goal to show its futuristic global scope by giving Chen some odd characteristics and racial ambiguity through a mix of Asian and African characteristics. (A nice idea but putting a white English actor in make-up toward that end would of course not work today.) But even as he muses on how he will outwit the Daleks and be the true victor, we know that this will never end well, especially as the Daleks already point out from the start that “his ambitions exceed his usefulness.”
I do enjoy the first several episodes of the story. Like the earlier lead-up Mission to the Unknown, these comprise what is almost a spy story in terms of the struggle to find out the Dalek plan, infiltrate the meeting to steal the Taranium core, and escape. The pace is kept up well starting with the introduction of a new set of Security agents fighting to stay alive in the Kembel jungle. The Varga plants are mentioned again though their not quite as ubiquitous as before. (In fact, by the end, they don’t seem to be there at all while the group is running around, but this could be explained by the Daleks having chased them away prior to burning the forest.) The Doctor stumbles across the recording left by Marc Cory, and I was surprised to learn on watching the telesnap photos this time that they actually have his skeletal remains on screen including a horribly disfigured skull. (Kind of surprising for a kid’s show.) The failed escape and landing on the planet Desperus continues the grim nature of the story. Like Kembel, the landscape is jungled and full of screaming creatures. The abandoned prisoners are desperate and ferocious. Despite all of this, I am sure that no one ever thought that it would lead to the death of a companion.
Poor Katarina. She didn’t have time to get established as a companion, and I had not found her very compelling in the way she was written in the novels. On listening to the episodes, however, I find that her tenderness, especially in the scene of taking care of Steven, really comes through in the performance. She seems simple but is beginning to work things out and find her place. Even the Doctor recognizes her potential for growth (“Look at Katarina over there. She doesn’t ask questions – she just looks and learns. Now, why don’t you try the same thing, hmm?”) and she trusts him implicitly (“You show me so many strange mysteries. With you I know I’m safe.”) Her innocence makes what follows so horrific. At least she gets a very emphatic send off line from the Doctor: “Oh, how I shall always remember her… as one of the Daughters of the Gods. Yes, as one of the Daughters of the Gods!”
The brief interlude on earth is where we switch out to the second act of the adventure where the tables start to turn as Mavic Chen uses his influence to corner our heroes and give the upper hand back to the Daleks. The episode finds a clever way of getting our crew back out for another adventure by introducing a futuristic Cellular Disseminator, our first encounter with a version of the transmat or T-Mat that we’ll see in many later adventures. The tone seems to shift for these episodes—less grim and gritty and more fantastical. The psychedelic scene that represents the cellular projection is particularly notable. The story also introduces our first (but definitely not last) invisible alien race. Future earth is shown with lots of oddities—the strange bald scientific ‘Technics” (are they intended to be some kind of genetic offshoot of humanity?), the unflinching and powerful Space Security Service. We’ve started to like Brett Vyon at this point and it is a shock to see him suddenly cut down by one of his own unit—even a bigger shock when we learn that she is her sister. This is to underscore that the Space Service are hardened and unflinching at following orders. Their authoritarian presence makes one wonder if the “dawn of an everlasting peace” of the year 4000 is really all that much of a utopia.
All of the events here set up a third act of ‘the chase’ once the Daleks realize the Doctor has given them a fake core, but first we have the infamous “Feast of Steven”. You almost have to make apologies for this episode as it is so badly out of step with the greater storyline. It was a Christmas episode and never was intended to be taken seriously. (When the program was sold overseas, this episode not even included—it obviously has no bearing on the story) Still, we are stuck with it now—a totally campy episode where amongst other things the TARDIS crew land on an old Hollywood movie set complete with Keystone Kops chasing them around, clowns and sight gags, old-timey silent movie signs, and even the Doctor breaking the fourth wall. Sigh. The crazy thing is that it was actually Terry Nation that wrote this episode not the more comic Dennis Spooner.
The next episode of the show returns us to the story proper, but it doesn’t recover well because it continues in a light and farcical vein. We see the re-introduction of the “Time-Travelling Monk” (one wonders why they never game him a real name), and he remains a humorous, prankster character—constantly conniving naughtily and trying to play both sides. There is of course lots of funny spluttering as he tries to figure out which side is winning so he can fawn and grovel for their favor. His presence doesn’t add much to the story except to be a point of surprise and confusion as we think the other time ship following the Doctor must be the Daleks and have him show up instead. From the planet Tigus, the scene then shifts to ancient Egypt which might have been a cool setting in a more serious story but the tone of silliness continues with a walking mummy reference of all things. (Okay, I have to remember it is a children’s show and they would expect this.) I doubt the Egyptian characters would have been so immediately resolute in attacking the Daleks as “ war machines” but rather should have been cowering in fear at the gods come to Earth. It’s almost sad to see them being slaughtered left and right as they uselessly throw sticks at the Daleks. There really seems no point at having the story set there in the end.
[I again have to temper my critique of this section a bit since we don’t have the video to see the entire thing. Listening to the audio, it drags noticeable with long silences between discussions. There may be some interesting shots going on, however; the one existing episode “Escape Switch” shows this. I really like the visual of the Doctor in his panama hat coolly strolling in front of the hieroglyphics of the temple as he sternly responds to Mavic Chen’s threats. There is also a really nice transition as one Egyptian peers up to the sun which suddenly becomes the glare off the dome of a Dalek as the camera pulls back. Well done and something that would not at all come out in the reconstruction.]
Only in the final two episodes does the story finally get back on track and shifts to being deadly serious. The Daleks show their true colors and turn on the delegates (the only surprise is that they don’t actually kill them all). Mavic Chen snaps and goes spectacularly crazy. And we finally see the Time Destructor, the device that has been the threat hanging over everything throughout the whole twelve episodes of the story, in operation—a device powerful enough to accelerate time and turn people and planets to dust. More than just settling for this as an idea, the episode shows the effects by having what we suppose to be the Doctor’s new companion killed horribly. I thought this compelling scene in the novel would be hard to convey on the budget of the time, but the telesnaps of the missing episode show the Sara Kingdom character almost ghoulishly made up, screaming in agony as she crumbles away, so they may have managed to show that progression and the whole destruction of the planet Kembel much more than I would have imagined.
Like Brett Vyon’s death, Sara’s demise is a shock because we’re just coming to like her change from the mindless killing drone to a stalwart ally. She’s obviously been working through her regret at killing her brother and it would be interesting to see more of that. Though she ends up dying because she returned against the Doctor’s instructions, it’s made clear that she knows this might happen but bravely recognizes that if “all we’re doing is running to save our own lives” then it’s better to return just in case needed. When the Doctor points out to her that the Time Destructor is killing her, her simple statement “You think I don’t know?” shows that she had already accepted that as the inevitable outcome and found no need to comment or feel sorry about it.
Though the story has highs and lows, the basic storyline itself is quite good and the fact that it is full of the deaths of so many supporting characters makes it quite adult. The story finishes by acknowledging this as Steven sadly laments: “Brett! Katarina! Sara!” All the Doctor can do is shake his head and reply: “What a waste. What a terrible waste.”
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
The constant death of companions, especially the horrible ways they die, definitely gives a frisson to the story. In terms of specific scenes that leave you feeling odd, I know they wanted to make the planet Desperus an evidently violent penal colony, but they take it a bit far. As the ragged, bearded men scrape and struggle to get the knife, it’s obvious the winner will inherit leadership of the band. What’s bad is that as Bors points to miserable, silent women in the corner it is made clear that the winner would have “inherited” them as well. How very odd and unnecessary to include such an element in a children’s show! In terms of visuals, there is a nightmarish moment in the cellular projector as the screen turns to negative and the Doctor’s contorted face becomes almost demon-like as he writhes in pain.
- Death of a companion
- Earth-based teleportation
- Invisible aliens
- Visit to the African continent
- Returning non-monster character
That certain episodes are missing is quite a shame, particularly the last one. I am sure many fans like me desperately wish they could see how they portrayed the final havoc of the Time Destructor and the death of Sara Kingdom and also that we could see the sad scene of Katarina drifting off into space. I also really wish we could have had at least one more story with Katarina so she was established in fans’ minds. Everyone remembers Adric as the first companion who died but it’s really Katarina who gets that honor.
As for the story itself, however, the mix of serious and silly undercuts the overall storyline. Imagining how compelling the story would have been had retained its intensity and grimness all the way through. It would have been nicer to have the Monk return in a totally separate story of his own.