21st century Who has gotten us used to Doctor-lite adventures. But even now, we’ve only ever had one Doctor-entirely-absent adventure. It’s the one episode curio Mission to the Unknown.
Writer Terry Nation created the Daleks and, buoyed by three popular TV outings and a feature film in the cinemas, thought they could do without the Doctor and his friends. Given a surplus episode to play with, he grabbed the chance to let his metal babies glide out from behind the time traveller’s shadow. Mission to the Unknown is a first attempt to gauge how they’d hold an audience’s attention on their own.
The answer is… adequately. They’re as strangely compelling as ever, but not so the company they keep. Nation created a great monster, but never created great human characters. Here, three astronauts are stranded on a hostile planet, but they are standard, hammy heroes with not much to distinguish them, saying things like “I didn’t want to touch down on this lousy planet in the first place” and “you can bet your life our whole galaxy is in danger!” Yup, Daleks have better dialogue than these b-movie duds.
But to be honest, Daleks without the Doctor have never excited me. There’s something about their mechanical single-mindedness which seems to need the Doctor’s eccentricity and humour to bounce off. Partnering them against a James Bond wannabe as they are here (replacement lead Marc Cory even has a license to kill), or against a whole SSS of them as proposed in Nation’s would-be spin off, doesn’t have the same alchemy that Doctor Who has.
If the Daleks’ solo plan doesn’t quite come off, it’s partly because they’re not up to much. They spend much of the episode holding a big meeting with their allies from other galaxies. There’s a reason why middle-management strategic planning days don’t feature heavily in drama. Perhaps the Daleks and the Planetarians should have held a team building exercise instead? “Now everyone, we’re going to catch Malpha as he falls backwards… What do you mean you have no arms, big black Christmas tree?” When they start listing their invasion targets (Mars! Jupiter! The Moon colonies!), you can imagine the bullet points appearing onto whatever the Dalek equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation is. And you sense a sparse script being padded.
It all feels a bit inconsequential. But there is one event which promises some to have impact on the bigger story to come. It’s Marc Cory’s (Edward de Souza) attempts to get a message to Earth about the Daleks’ presence on the planet Kembel. He does this by recording it on cassette, which is quaint. But he’s killed before he can transmit the message, and Earth remains unwarned. But this is a prequel, right? So viewers back in 1965 could have reasonably expected that to pay off later.
Unfortunately, it proves to be a fizzer. In the fourth episode of The Daleks’ Master Plan, the Doctor and his allies play back the recovered tape and listen to Cory’s message. It tells them all about the Dalek threat… which they’ve already discovered two episodes ago. “I don’t know if it’s revelant”, the Doctor fluffs when he finds the tape. No, it’s not Doctor. It’s entirely “irrevelant”. It only adds to the general sense that this Mission has been marking time.
But that’s not to suggest that a one episode story, standing alone from the rest of the series, was an experiment doomed to fail. In fact, the Doctor Who team quickly repeated it, with another episode separate from the stories around it. Tellingly, when putting this next odd-episode-out together, the production team left out the Daleks, not the Doctor. Surely an acceptance that Daleks are optional, but Doctor Who really can’t do without the Doctor.
It’s absurd to think of the merry Christmas celebration that is The Feast of Steven as anything other than a standalone story. Sure, it was produced as part of the twelve-part epic The Daleks’ Master Plan, but then Mission to the Unknown was produced as part of Galaxy 4 and we think of them separately. True, it has one scene that makes reference to Master Plan’s ongoing narrative, but that’s it. A few scant sentences in an otherwise entirely separate storyline. And yes, it’s broadcast in between episodes of Master Plan, but who cares? The story’s already been interrupted by four episodes of The Myth Makers.
And if we needed any more convincing, it was omitted from Master Plan for overseas sales. It’s not only seen by its makers as separate but also unnecessary. So meaningless outside its context as a throwaway piece of festive nonsense, to be of no possible interest to audiences outside the UK. Even stone cold Doctorless Mission to the Unknown could be sold overseas, but not this.
So where to start? Well, I suppose the first thing to note is that it’s a comedy (no, really) and more broadly comic than any other Doctor Who story. Even stories like The Romans or City of Death which are comic in tone, have dramatic storylines at their core. The Feast of Steven has no dramatic intent at all. It’s made up of two comic set pieces designed to keep a Christmas Day audience amused.
The first set piece involves some antics at a Liverpool police station. As conceived, this was going to be a crossover episode between with popular police drama Z Cars. Now, I’ve never seen an episode of Z Cars, but quite why a police drama was seen as good fodder for a Doctor Who crossover eludes me (But hey, Dimensions in Time makes anything seem possible). Could the seventh Doctor and Ace have shared a cracker with the cast of The Bill? Could the thirteenth Doctor drop in for Christmas lunch in Broadchurch? (That would be confusing.)
This half of the episode is all very arch and self aware. Steven (Peter Purves) conveniently finds a police uniform and oddly enough it comes with a Liverpudlian accent. As an astronaut from the 25th century it seems unlikely he’d be able to adopt such an accent, but when questioned about it by the Doctor, he says he did so because everyone else was speaking that way. The Doctor himself points out that one of the Policemen is played by an actor who appeared in The Crusade. And although the significance of the man and his troublesome greenhouse escapes me, I’d bet it’s some comment on the regular dramatic fodder on Z Cars.
Never before had the series so knowingly winked at its audience as if to say, you’re watching a piece of television. We both know it, so let’s have some fun. That alone makes it weird enough.
But then the second half changes tack. There’s no self-referential game playing here. Just a load of old slapstick on the film sets of two early Hollywood epics. It’s pure farce, and judging by the cacophonous soundtrack, utterly chaotic too. Unlike the first half which invites its audience to exercise its knowledge of contemporary TV, this is asking them to relive happy hours spent at the cinema, watching quota quickies and screwball comedies (some of which would have starred William Hartnell). Its characters are cliches, its set ups predictable, but that is, I suspect, part of the fun. But blimey – it sounds absolutely barking.
Finally, and infamously, there’s the breaking of the fourth wall when the episode ends with the Doctor wishing the audience a “happy Christmas to all of you at home”. It’s a moment unique in Doctor Who, so bizarre as to be almost impossible to decode. But it is surely the clearest signal that the production team is saying, ignore the last 25 minutes. It was just a bit of fun. We won’t even bother telerecording it, that’s how disposable it is. It’s the exclamation mark at the end of an extended joke between friends. And the second episode in short order which has played fast and loose with the core elements of Doctor Who.
LINK to Tooth and Claw: Both Mission and Tooth and Claw feature monsters that can transform you into said monster, with a scratch.
NEXT TIME… Hey nonny nonny, it’s The Shakespeare Code