Back in November 1965, some television critics would have had us believe that the Daleks were running out of steam. After the disappointing 'The Chase', hopes were not necessarily high about the Doctor's next meeting with the metal monsters. William Hartnell was unhappy about producer Verity Lambert's recent departure from the show, and Dr Who's ratings were not as consistently impressive as they had been.
Rumour has it that the BBC Managing Director at the time, Huw Wheldon, viewed his mother-in-law's television preferences as an indication of those of the general public. As she was a huge Dalek fan, their fourth television story was extended from six episodes to twelve on his instruction. This made the story a huge headache for new producer John Wiles and director Douglas Camfield.
That 'The Daleks' Masterplan' has survived as one of the best of all Dalek tales is a proud achievement indeed.
A month before the first episode proper, there was a trailer, also included on this mammoth five CD collection, called 'Mission to the Unknown' (or 'Dalek Cutaway'). This one-episode taster for what was to come, featured none of the regular TARDIS crew. Instead, Edward de Souza played Marc Cory, a Space Security Agent, who was involved in an ultimately doomed mission concerning the Daleks, who soon destroy the agent - but not before he has left a recording of his exploits on the planet Kembel. Apparently, 'Mission to the Unknown' was an experiment carried out by Terry Nation to see if his metal creations could 'carry' a story without the involvement of the Doctor. It was then his intention to 'break' the creatures in America. As far as various members of the production team were concerned, this was to be the beginning of the last Dalek story ever.
In between this 'trailer' and the story proper was the entirely unconnected 'Myth Makers', which wrote out the character of Vicki, and introduced Katarina as the Doctor's new companion, played by Adrienne Hill.
Basically, the story's plot involves the Doctor stealing the Daleks' Teranium Core, which they need to fuel their deadly Time Destructor. He manages to stall them for a while by giving them a false version of the Core, but eventually they blackmail him into handing it over, where shocking climactic chaos ensues. In that respect, the story is quite straightforward, and could easily have been a ponderous affair, especially when stretched over twelve episodes.
But the swift change in locations, the imaginative situations and characters, and most of all, the acting, serve to make this story highly enjoyable. Possibly the collaboration between writers Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner allowed them to bounce ideas off each other and produce such an enjoyable collection of episodes. The frequent comings and goings of friends and enemies never seems forced, instead serving to make events seem more fast-moving than they otherwise might have been. The constant changes of location, unlike similar changes in 'The Chase', seem smooth and natural, caught up in the events of the story as they are. 'Masterplan' thrives on its extended run, providing good character development, the occasional shock (still effective after all these years) and of course, lots of Daleks.
There are, however, a few controversial moments of humour that detract from the story. Episode Seven: 'The Feast of Steven' (originally aired on Christmas Day 1965) is entirely superfluous, ending with William Hartnell's seasonal message, '...and incidentally, a happy Christmas to everyone at home!' Whether this was scripted or not, it is the only moment the character of the Doctor has directly addressed his viewers in such a way. Although this episode (and the Cricket Match scene in the following episode) are a little awkward, they are nevertheless a reminder of a nostalgic innocence from days gone by, and in their own way, provide a more festive atmosphere than the relentless soap opera shock-tactics of today.
Strangely, other humorous moments in 'Masterplan' are far more successful - including the addition of Peter Butterworth's Monk character, returning after 'The Time Meddler'. Right from his first appearance in the story, the Monk is a joy to hear, with he and the Doctor outwitting each other with every sentence and chuckling put-down. The Monk could be seen as the first Doctor's Master, or Moriarty figure. Their relationship is far more playful, however, and although their endless endeavours to trap and abandon each other are serious indeed, the way such manoeuvres are carried out are products of time-travelling mischievousness than anything else. As the Monk is last heard bereft on an unnamed planet of ice, expectations must have been rife for another return. Tragically, however, such a return was never to happen.
The other main characters to emerge from the story are Sara Kingdom, played by Jon Pertwee's one-time wife Jean Marsh and the Guardian of the Solar System himself, Mavic Chen. Kingdom is introduced as a somewhat icy agent of Chen, but soon mellows enough to make her a very likeable part-time companion for the Doctor. Viewers must have been very shocked back in 1966 when she aged to death before she could reach the safety of the TARDIS in the closing moments of the story. She was also the sister of Security Agent Brett Vyon, played with cold precision, by a youthful Nicholas Courtney.
But it is possibly Mavic Chen who is the tale's greatest invention. He grows from a silky smooth public hero who manipulates the press and his followers alike, into an ultimately unstable follower of the Daleks, and his greed and arrogance finally prove to be his undoing. This progression is carried out brilliantly in such a way that would have been far less effective in a four-part, or even a six-part story. Towards the end, he has become so aloof and misguided, the listener is crying out for his immediate extermination.
This huge and expansive story is, apart from the occasional glitch, highly successful. It could almost be seen as Lord of the Rings, Dr Who-style - the relentless chase, the many friends and foes met along the way, the blurring of the line between friend and foe. And the slimy Selation bears some resemblance to Gollum. The story offers mirth and drama and balances adventure and shocks with ease.
At the stories close only The Doctor and Steven are left, coping with their reactions to recent tragic events in a way that is absolutely real. They are the heroes of the hour, and it is sad that after a few more stories, both characters would be resigned to Doctor Who history. The 'Masterplan' may not strive for the sophistication of 'Remembrance of the Daleks', for example, or the clinical claustrophobia of 'Genesis...' but it excels as a story of its time, with Ray Guns and Guardians of the Solar System and Space Security Agents and other such escapist elements of the idealism of childhood.