The Daleks' Masterplan
As for the episode itself, then it's the usual Nation hackjob, with a man wanting to see the sports results on a Mars/Venus game. I suspect that the reason some regard this as a classic is because with the existing episodes it is quite fun. It's not deep, well written or even genuinely epic (it could be at least half the length without effecting the basic plot) but it is fun. It's Who doing a runaround in the least worthy but superficially the most entertaining story of its third and longest season. With the pictures you can see Hartnell gurning and Daleks trundling, as well as gunfights and humour. With the soundtrack alone what is largely a visual story is undermined, and made to seem less than what it is. This was intended as a television programme for a family audience, not an exquisitely concocted play that can be enjoyed just as much with only the soundtrack. Therefore, for once I have to throw in the reviewing towel and admit that it's next to impossible to review The Daleks' Masterplan. From what I can gather, it's crap but entertaining crap.
As for the episode itself, then it's a load of balls with intergalactic delegates that look like giant chess pieces, dildos and people with bits of dried turd stuck on their faces. In a bit of pure Nation contrivance, the delegate who wears a cloak just happens to spit his dummy out and keep the other delegates waiting, so Bret Vyon (Courtney) can knock him out and let the Doctor spy on the meeting using his clothes. "Three galaxies for the price of one" is also a clear sign of Dennis Spooner's heavy influence on the script editing. Again, though, while what is ostensibly the longest Doctor Who story (The Trial of a Time Lord, at fourteen episodes, was sub-divided into four separate plot strands, breaking up the narrative for those with low attention spans) means it drags, it's bollocks but entertaining bollocks. I used to hate this one, hate it with all my heart, as it's Who made so dumb, but even whoring itself so relentlessly to the lowest common denominator it still grasps at significant charm. As an establishing episode written by the staid hand of Nation, though, I suspect many will be disappointed when it does get a DVD release.
This is exciting stuff though, even if the plot does have a tendency to scrape its heels. What makes it so good is that it's Doctor Who as you played it in the school playground. No character introspection or serious political subtexts, just stealing starships and Dalek gunbattles. The Daleks' Masterplan isn't, of course, much of a masterplan at all, but then that's not really the point. After their second story then you'd think they'd think twice about something that involved Earth as the centrepiece, though they also have the mighty Time Destructor! Really it's just a box, but it operates as a MacGuffin in order to draw the story along. Terry Nation's rubbish grasp of science is again made hopelessly clear when he has the Doctor refer to a planet's point of gravity, rather than pull. Also unsettling is the Doctor's treatment of Katarina, where he insists she never asks questions and just does as she's told. Not only does it force the character towards one dimensionality, but it also makes you wonder what the domineering Doctor gets up to with her in private. "Now, now, my dear, it's an old custom, hmmm, just pretend it's a lollipop, yes, yes, quite so." Finally, there's lots of testosterone on screen with Steven and Bret, though it's difficult for anyone to appear macho when they're wearing a suit made of corduroy.
Okay, it's four episodes in so I guess it's well overdue that we discuss Kevin Stoney's Mavic Chen, the most contentious element of the serial. As a Caucasian made up into a half-black, half-Japanese traitor, then does he operate as a reactionary signifier, obsfucating the inverse polemic within the primary adjunct of the narrative? Or is he a cleverer invention than that, a cultural precursor of nouveau feminist cinema, ascending to the status of white feminine gaze by elevating himself pre the postmodern reclamation of the post-colonial vision? Further to this, is his denomination - Mavic Chen - a linguistic distortion of "Magician", thus operating a self-reflexive discourse within the secondary level of the narrative by appropriating the pre-contemporary ramifications of "The Other" within Westernised diagegic circumflex, his role to produce the MacGuffin as literal illusory feat, thus tranversing the literary focal point onto the writer and writing itself, and henceforth causing it to operate as a work of metafiction?
How the f*** should I know?
Incidentally, a big shout out for a line from the previous episode (it just wouldn't fit in, okay?): "The heroic war cry to apparently peaceful ends is one of the greatest weapons a politician has." Tony Blair was taking notes. One thing I don't understand though is how Sara Kingdom is often listed as a "companion" and, say, Bret Vyon isn't - surely he'd have an equal claim to the title?
Anyway, the remaining episodes including this one see Dennis Spooner writing the scripts, working from "an idea" (yes, just the one) by Terry Nation. To be honest, there isn't really any great sign of Spooner's characteristic involvement, though the Doctor's mocking "my tin friend" isn't something Terry would have written about his own creations. The Doctor nicks another spacecraft in the episode, which is alarmingly repetitive, but as it is the Daleks' spacecraft then it probably would have thrilled the five-year-olds in the audience. Having said all this, there is a greater wit and flow to the dialogue here. Would the Daleks really have accused Mavic Chen of making his failures sound like achievements in a script by Uncle Tel? Finally, this one has my favourite episode title of the lot - the beautiful, albeit completely meaningless, Coronas of the Sun.
To be honest, while I do have a kind of perverse affection for Billy's pissed-up salutations, the rest of the episode is really about as funny as a routine by Abbott and Costello. Dated beyond compare, the majority of the "humour" seems to rely on people not hearing each other and repeating each other's half-sentences… with non-hilarious consequences. "See that?" "See what?" "That then." "What then?". Yes, yes, quite so. There's even an outrageously self-indulgent in-joke, where the Doctor claims to recognise a bit-part player who had appeared in The Crusade. If they did that in the later JN-T stories fans would be up in arms…. in fact, that's an irrelevant observation because fans are up in arms about this episode. I must admit, Billy's open admittance that he has a time machine is in direct contrast to his usual characterisation, but as the only episode ever transmitted on Christmas Day (sorry, I seem to be regurgitating a lot of the bog-standard facts in this review) then it's to be excused. Yet the references are pitched at a level that would be over the heads of the children watching and not sophisticated enough for the adults - consequently it pleases no one, though I don't despise it by any means.
Okay, I did laugh once - the stuffy old Policeman who tries to be down with the kids and uncertainly proffers "have a swinging time" to Sara amused me. Steven is told that he seems "to know all the queer people" which has since taken on a new meaning, and Sara being told to take off her clothes is unusually racy for the time. Finally, that assistant director looks not unlike Saddam Hussein. Maybe that's why the episode no longer exists - George Bush bombed it.
Anyway, Spooner reintroduces Peter Butterworth as the Monk to pep things up, though why he should still be a Monk when he's no longer in 1066 is beyond me. What's more, any veneer of depth he once had is now cruelly stripped from him, a knock-about comedy character who causes even the mighty Tristram Cary to produce some awful incidental music. Oh - and the cricketting scene was silly, too. Nearly the weakest episode of the lot, but the rapport between Billy and Peter keeps its head afloat.
The episode sees the end of the Monk's involvement, and while Peter Butterworth is very funny, it's a shallow, thankless role, subtle but distinctive shades away from his debut. Funnily enough, before I picked up the review for this episode I caught a bit of Carry On Up The Khyber on the TV. There's really very little difference between Butterworth's playing in the pair of them. Though Douglas Camfield's direction is in another league to Richard Martin's, including a beautiful dissolve from a clip of the sun to the reflection on a Dalek's helmet. However, with lines like the Daleks talking about "Earth miles" then it strains badly, even if the ancient Egyptian's take on the Daleks as "machines that throw fire" is rather delightful. Hartnell's great in this one, incidentally, a real commanding presence with rage in his eyes.
This also sees the beginning of the end for the relationship between the Daleks and Mavic Chen, and the culmination between what's been understated between them all along. Going through the story with bluff, arrogance and the ultimate in spin, Chen has been all too aware of the Daleks' true intentions, and this has played on his face with subtle inflections by Kevin Stoney. Good stuff.
Another major plus of this concluding instalment is that it allows Tristram Cary to reclaim his title. Possibly my favourite incidental music composer, his work here has unfortunately steered a little too close to Simpleton territory at times, particularly in the scenes with the Monk. However, like the aural equivalent of an orgasm, he opens this one by unleashing his mighty "doom" score (my name for it, incidentally, not his) which never fails to rock like a daddy. While a silly story at times, this downbeat coda does dovetail nicely into Steven's attitude in the following The Massacre.
I'm seriously tempted to give this one four stars, or even break my "episode-by-episode" rules and bung a half star into the overall verdict. But I can't, I have to be firm, and an average score is what it uncomfortably settles in as. Production-wise, acting-wise and maybe even script-wise this is the finest of Hartnell's Dalek stories. Yet it's ultimately hollow and lacking in real ambition, the political edge to Chen's character the only real addition to the mythology. Clearly allocated more timeslots than its meagre plotline would demand, it's scope is made up not of universal imaginings, but of standard repetition. However, for all its faults, it never fails to entertain, and is relatively free of smugness. Who knows, maybe one day I'll come back and add to this final rating that extra star it nearly deserves...
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