Aired 9 October 1965
‘Mission to the Unknown’ is an apt title for this unique Doctor Who outing, a one-episode cutaway that does not feature any of the main characters of the Doctor, Vicki, and Steven. While the so-called Doctor-lite stories have become somewhat more familiar with the modern incarnation of the programme, having a Doctor-absent episode is something wholly unique in its long history.
While the modern Doctor-lite stories are carried more by stellar guest appearances and superb character work, ‘Mission to the Unknown’ instead opts to rely on the Doctor’s greatest foes, the Daleks, to carry events. With memories of the events of the intriguing but ultimately forgettable ‘The Chase’ still fresh in the public consciousness, the Daleks needed something of a redeeming episode to keep their menace and intrigue high. Although the events depicted here serve only to whet the appetite for the upcoming epic ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan,’ the release to which this serial has been tagged onto for home release, ‘Mission to the Unknown’ succeeds in achieving exactly what it set out to do.
Rather than simply continuing their chase of the Doctor throughout space and time, the Daleks here have upped their ambition, scheming to overtake the entire solar system and even using representatives of alien races from throughout the galaxy to help them achieve their aim. The consortium of aliens here is a very worthwhile attempt by the script and production crew to showcase the wide array of life forms present within the early Doctor Who universe even if many would never appear again, Trantis and Malpha being particularly intriguing designs. However, it is undoubtedly the Daleks’ return to ruthless killers that is the most important single aspect of this story, further heightening the tension.
From the existing telesnaps, it appears as though the typical strong set designs are again on display. More importantly given the existing audio format of the episode, though, the cast in general is very convincing, portraying the requisite determination and fear as needed. Edward De Souza, Barry Jackson, and Jeremy Young all do well as the showcased crewmembers, and the introduction of the Varga plants and their powerful properties is effectively chilling. It’s obviously difficult to determine how the action sequences played out during the original broadcast, but the pacing and atmosphere certainly suggest that it was handled quite well.
In fact, the only real complaint about ‘Mission to the Unknown’ is its rather odd placement as a disjointed adventure, certainly no fault of its own. Rather than heading straight into ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ for which this story serves as an introductory prelude, the next story is instead an Earth-based historical with absolutely nothing to do with these events or those of its epic counterpart. Regardless, as an experiment of a story without any of the leads present, ‘Mission to the Unknown’ must certainly be qualified as a success. As the last story to be produced by Verity Lambert, it importantly brought the Daleks back into the spotlight as a cunning and ruthless foe while still showing that the programme is unafraid to experiment with its own conventions.