Thursday, July 14, 2011

Serial 19: Mission to the Unknown

Doctor: None?
Companions: None?

Written by: Terry Nation

Directed by: Derek Martinus

Background & Significance:
Leave it to Terry Nation to come up with titles that mean no sense.

"Mission to the Unknown" is something of an odd bird. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that there is neither sign nor reference to The Doctor or his current companions (Vicki and Steven at the time; about to become Steven and Katarina) and all that we have in sight are The Daleks and their allies for the forthcoming epic "The Daleks' Master Plan".

So really, it's like a prologue.

If that sounds weird, that's because it is. It doesn't feel like Doctor Who, nor (do I think) is it supposed to. The show was about to capitalize on the last gasp of Dalekmania before the Daleks went into a four year retirement between the back two seasons of Hartnell and the first two of Troughton. At the time, Terry Nation was attempting to capitalize on his most famous creations, working on getting a Dalek television show made. As such, this becomes an almost backdoor pilot to what would have been a Dalek television series (think something like a Dalek show starring Sara Kingdom as head of a counter-Dalek squad or something). So it... Yeah. It's weird. But they got away with it, I guess.

It also marks the final contribution to the show by producer Verity Lambert, which is also strange. You'd think she'd go out on a bit of a higher note. But no, she goes out on a quiet, experimental, Doctorless story. Which is strange to me. After this John Wiles takes over. And that's all fun. But... yeah.

Also, as one final point of ego-boosting background: This is the halfway point for the blog. Apparently we've so far covered the first half of Classic Doctor Who, meaning it's all downhill from here. I know you probably don't care, but ummmm... Yeah. Milestone. Go us. Go team. Go everybody.

So let's get to it!


Good golly this story is weird.

Like I said before, it's strange that this story comes where it does. It's very much a prologue for "Daleks' Master Plan" in every sense of the word. But it's also completely self-contained. The only thing other than the Daleks and the basic plan of The Daleks attacking the solar system that ties into the eventual story is the warning Cory records and leaves behind for the space agency to pick up when they eventually investigate the goings on of Kembel. This is, of course, later discovered and picked up by Bret Vyon in the real proper adventure in a few episodes. We then get a playback and that's how it's covered later... Which is... which is cool.

But the rest of this is totally 100% standalone.

This, I think, is the best choice made by Nation and the whole company involved in making this story. Despite the fact that it feels weird and completely alienating by not including The Doctor and co, by not having ANYTHING involved, we get something of a MASSIVE tease that doesn't make a LICK of sense. The only thing that grounds us to reality or Doctor Who at all through this whole thing are the Daleks themselves. And they're not even.... It's weird that they're the grounding force in all this. But we're suddenly getting privy to Dalek information before the Daleks are meant to reveal themselves. Does that make this unique? Possibly. I can't think of a time when we see The Daleks before they're revealed to The Doctor etc. No. Wait. That's not true. Saward does it in his Dalek stories.

But that's a whole different issue.

I think if nothing else, this is a setup for "Master Plan" in terms of sheer tone. Which is... good, I think. Because The Daleks' last appearance was nothing but a horrible farce in every sense of the world. But suddenly they become the ruthless killers Terry Nation can never seem to make them after this. Which is unfortunate because this... This is good Daleks. They're scheming, evil, nasty... Killers, in every sense of the word. Especially that bit with the Varga plant. That's also good on the part of Terry Nation. A Dalek-developed plant that's deadly to all non-Daleks and placed on Kembel in the hope of catching people like our intrepid astronauts.

And what the Varga plant does....

Seriously, I think I'd love this more if it wasn't so odd. There's a lot of awesome here. That opening with Garvey waking up on the ground, as though possessed and starting to traipse through the woods is just... that's masterful, if you ask me. It really sets a tone, especially that part where he says "Kill, kill, kill" as the Varga plant starts to infect and take over his system, transforming him at a genetic level. And then we see him meet our protagonists Cory and Lowery. Cory gets infected. Lowery kills him. Lowery is executed by Daleks. That's just... That's really dark for a Terry Nation story. But it also really establishes stakes really well for what's about to come. We're about to hit some real death on Doctor Who. And it's established here.

The Daleks win in this story. And all the "good guys" perish.

That's ballsy, Terry Nation. But it sets it all up and does it well.

We also get a hint at the alien congress as put upon by The Daleks. Which is fantastic. I do so love aliens, especially because they went out of their way to make them all unique and weird. From what I understand, the majority of who these aliens were is lost to time, but it's fascinating to see just the few telesnaps as exist and imagine what this story must have looked like at the time. It's all wonderfully visualized and (if I may be so bold) reminds me a lot of "The Web Planet" in terms of lessons and all that. It's... yes.

There is a plot hole, however, in that none of these aliens return in the eventual Master Plan. But to that I say "Do you really think they'd last that long in an alliance with the Daleks?"

Which plays into the larger concept of this story. Which is that this takes place some time before The Doctor's eventual arrival on Kembel in "Daleks' Master Plan". We never get a good idea of just how long this break is (because The Doctor has an entire adventure between the end of this story and the start of "Master Plan"). But you can almost imagine it's a while, while The Daleks wait for Mavic Chen to produce the Terranium or whatever it is. Which is... badass. It's almost like The Doctor has arrived much later than he should have.

But that's a different discussion.

Final Thoughts?: While weird, it's... actually kinda good.

For a story that is completely standalone and off-putting in how NOT Doctor Who it is, there's... there's a lot of merit to this story.

While perhaps not the best final vehicle for Verity Lambert to go out on, this is... it's definitely a forgotten little gem, lost between "Galaxy 4" and "The Myth-Makers" and completely overshadowed by its parent story. There's a lot to love here. Terry Nation takes his hand at a story that is... much darker than anyone (including me) was expecting. It's grizzly, bleak, and far from uplifiting. I mean, one guy gets slowly turned into a Varga while trying to suck the poison from his hand. But it's too late. And there seems to be no hope because The Doctor is... well... he's nowhere to be seen.

Honestly, this is a great story for Verity Lambert to have gone out on. It's odd, weird, and oddly optimistic because it's the leadup to something big that's going to come up in just a few short weeks, something that people are still talking about almost fifty years later.

Rightfully so, I think. This story manages to capture the darkness that someone like Lambert was trying to incorporate into some of her stories while also capturing the bleak, hopeless tone of "Daleks' Master Plan", which is... impressive, especially given the John Wiles tone. This story really does a good job of bridging the gap between the two as Doctor Who underwent its first major production handoff, just a year before the first regeneration handoff.

But "Mission to the Unknown". It's just entertaining. Dark. Good. Thrilling. A promise.

And I see the potential in Terry Nation's premise. If he had kept the Daleks at this level always, that Dalek show would have been a force to be reckoned with. The stakes are up, the gloves are off. The Daleks are back and this time they really mean business. No more dancing or flitting around through time and space just for a jaunt (he says, knowing that Master Plan eventually devolves into that). They're here and they're killing people. They're about to light Kembel ablaze and construct a time destructor to destroy earth.

The only two hopes are a tape left behind and forgotten in the forests of Kembel, and The Doctor, who's nowhere to be found. He, of course, is about to land in Troy.

And he doesn't know what's coming for him just around the corner.

Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Original TARDIS crew! A long journey! Desert sands! Supposedly lush sets! And a story that is completely missing! "Marco Polo"! Coming Next Tuesday!

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