Aired 13 November 1965 – 29 January 1966
With only three of its massive twelve episodes still surviving in the video archives, ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ remains somewhat of an unknown entity despite its rather legendary status. While looking back it’s easy to comment solely on the length of the serial or to consider the effect that a change in writer partway through or the break for an isolated Christmas Day farcical tale have on the overall experience, the audience’s lack of foreknowledge of what was coming at the original time of broadcast would undoubtedly have yielded incredible rewards.
This, the fourth ‘true’ Dalek tale in Doctor Who, very much draws from Terry Nation’s previous scripts. Having previously submitted two serials with somewhat linked individual stories, ‘The Keys of Marinus’ and ‘The Chase,’ it’s clear that he has learned from the strengths and faults of both as he initially sets out to create a more cohesive and grandiose tale. While ‘The Keys of Marinus’ failed to effectively connect its vignettes together with a strong theme and ‘The Chase’ failed to effectively build the tension and danger despite the persistent presence of the Daleks, ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’- allowing for the Christmas diversion- presents a suitably complex plot that duly delivers the requisite drama required, providing a unique mix of old and new concepts at the same time.
This is also the first time that the obvious allegory of the Daleks as Nazi-like figures is brought into question or at least challenged somewhat. Whereas in earlier stories the Daleks were a much superior force taking on a small and struggling human or Thal resistance group, the humans of the forty-first century have apparently taken on a Fascist configuration themselves, eliminating gender and racial discrimination but holding an isolationist stance and somehow becoming the target of many nonhuman powers from across the galaxy against them. Even the human SSS regime, to which companion-that-never-was Sara Kingdom belongs, carries an obvious Nazi overtone with its uniforms, and the Dalek’s motivations and actions are shown to be quite different to the humans’ along the way, adding an extra level of depth to both races as assumptions are challenged. The totalitarian regime and all that it entails is subtly dissected as otherwise normal citizens comply and accept what they are told and as questions of conspiracy on one side are balanced against the possibility of corruption on the other.
The Guardian of the Solar System, Mavic Chen, is a fascinating figure, clearly an amalgamation of all human races given his appearance and name even if there are retrospective cries of subtle racism in the casting. Having a very extended lifespan compared to present-day humans, Chen has been in power for a very long time, always ambitious enough to continue seeking more power on a cosmic scale. While a potential alliance with the Daleks may seem like a foolhardy idea, it does make sense from his own corrupt perspective. Much of his power results from the respect he commands from his subservients, but he also makes it clear that he is ruling over an empire of divided factions, meaning that he cannot simply ask the SSS to lead an attack on a particular faction without both losing support for himself by taking away the appearance that he holds eveyone’s best interest at heart and also making it seem as though he is attacking the very system he is supposed to shielding. Thus, the utilization of an alien force to attack Earth discredits Chen’s detractors while also giving him the opportunity to arise a further hero by defeating said force.
The Daleks themselves are the mortar holding together an alliance of several intergalactic forces, and Chen will be allowed to join this alliance by obtaining a specified quantity of Taranium from Uranus that can be used to power the Daleks’ mysterious Time Destructor that accelerates time around its target to fully remove its entire existence from the time continuum. Believing that his responsibility for the Taranium makes him a more vital component of the alliance than any other power, Chen fully believes that his own plan for conquest will come to fruition. Even when the Taranium he obtains is stolen and other aspects of his plan continue to fail, he spins the story so that he is still in a position to gain at least some semblance of his intended power, always aiming to destroy the Daleks to achieve his goal. In fact it is Chen’s overwhelming arrogance and haughtiness- the very reasons that the Daleks chose him as well as the other delegates of the alliance- that prove to be his undoing as he finds himself the subject of a deceptive betrayal.
The cleverness and deceptive capabilities of the Daleks hinted at in ‘Mission to the Unknown’ is on full display here. Although they could easily attack the solar system themselves, they instead create the alliance as a means of acquiring needed material with minimal effort while actually dividing the universe against itself and making it more open to attack. Considering their open revulsion for any other species, this long game shows not only a previously-unknown patience but also an incredible understanding of human psychology, using weaknesses and emotions totally foreign to themselves to play the allied delegates and Chen off of each other. Taking the allegory a step further, it’s incredibly appropriate that the Taranium is mined by humans on Uranus and that the Daleks once more make humans themselves the greatest threat to humanity.
As strong as the overall plot is, however, the masterful presence of the First Doctor is equally so. By this point, the writers in general have a very firm grasp on the character and what William Hartnell is able to do with it, making strange flubs and asides an endearing part of this eccentric and somewhat anarchic figure. He obviously has an incredible amount of knowledge and intuition, but he sporadically throws in bluffs and bouts of seeming madness to always keep everyone on edge and wary. At times willing to sacrifice the life of himself and his companions for his own beliefs, he also shows flashes of the utmost humanity as he is willing to sacrifice his plan to save individuals he hardly knows. Yet for all of the Doctor’s bravery, he is not flawless, killing Sara and nearly himself as he attempts to eradicate the Daleks with the Time Destructor. It is an accident by Steven that ends up saving the day as the Time Destructor is set to reverse, finally having an effect on the seemingly impenetrable Daleks. Following the shocking death of his newfound companion Katarina, the Doctor’s acceptance and regret of all of the lives lost during this tale is extremely touching and great development for the staunch character.
Even accounting for the Christmas Day sidestep, ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ is a masterpiece, easily one of the strongest stories of the First Doctor’s era and, indeed, in the lengthy run of the programme. Even in a time when repeated viewings of a television episode were unheard of, ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ weaves together an intricate tapestry of world-building, characterization, and scheming to offer an incredibly deep and rewarding experience.