Thursday, 23 August 2012

Mission to the Unknown

Mission to the Unknown, or Dalek Cutaway, is frankly a very brave decision.  It is the last work of Verity Lambert on the show as producer, and sees her out in style.  For the past 2 seasons, the cast and crew have had to deal with recording an episode a week, week in, week out, for almost an entire year at a time.  Within those constraints, we have had the use of film inserts and pre-recorded dialogue to cover for the absence of the principals during certain episodes – most recently Hartnell’s absence in The Time Meddler.  Here, though, they strike on gold – why not send all of the principals off for a break, and fill it with a teaser story leading into The Daleks’ Master Plan, due to air in 5 weeks’ time.  It was also written by Terry Nation as a pilot episode of sorts, as he was hoping to get the Daleks their own mainstream TV show, sans Doctor, ideally over in the United States.  Since the last Dalek serial was The Chase, which made the nemesis of the Doctor look like a bunch of dithering morons, it is nice to see them back on form in all of their menacing glory...

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Considering this is a Dalek serial, and the entire serial is only one episode long, it still works as a tense slow burner – opening on the planet Kembel with the reprise from Galaxy 4, we have Barry Jackson’s Jeff Garvey still murmuring about needing to kill.  What makes this all seem so genuinely threatening – from telesnaps alone – is the set work and soundscape created to make a truly alien environment.  The constant screeching of animals, unseen yet referenced by Lowery and Cory, keeps the viewer – or listener – on edge at all times. 

Marc Cory is fantastic – and Edward De Souza’s performance is absolutely perfect.  In the stead of the Doctor and his companions, Cory is created as our hero, and he is a post-modern James Bond in space – he’s even “Licensed to Kill”, for goodness sake!  His calm exterior when goading Lowery to work quicker is brilliant, and his cool and collected response after shooting Garvey – “It was him or you” – is superbly delivered with a dry and sardonic tone.  His slap to calm Lowery down looks fantastic – he looks like a snake, coiled tightly and ready to spring out again if need be. 

As the pair return to the safety of the ship for their chat about the truth of Cory’s mission, there is a horrifying moment where Garvey’s hand twitches.  As it flips over, we see thorns sprouting from the back of his hand, and white fuzz growing there.  Whist the Varga plants are not the best looking creatures – they look a little too fluffy to seem deadly – it is the very idea of them which is so utterly repellent.  One prick can kill a man, slowly and, it would seem, painfully, yet even once dead it is not the end.  The humanity is gradually eked out of you, driving you to become homicidal, driven only by the desire to kill.  The idea that all of these Varga plants on Kembel were once people, but are now slowly-shuffling vegetation, is a rather gruesome concept.  Again, it is de Souza’s delivery that really sells the idea – his description of the transformation is enough to make you shudder, and the name-dropping of the Daleks leads us into the next scene wonderfully...

13 minutes into the serial, we see our first Daleks, and begin to learn something of their nefarious plans – a collation of the emissaries from a number of galaxies.  Following their ludicrous sending-up in The Chase as bumblers and coughers, it is fantastic to see them as mysterious enemies again, and they progress nicely throughout the story.

An aspect of this particular story that has dated slightly is the technology used by the rocket – at one point Lowery says that the SOS machine works “just like an ordinary tape recorder”.  My issue with this is that, bearing in mind the story is set some thousand years after the failed Dalek Invasion of Earth, which itself was at some point after the year 2164, surely the technology would have advanced quite substantially by then?  It seems a touch lazy on Terry Nation’s part, and the technical crew are just as bad for not having created a more ‘sci-fi’ prop. 

The arrival of a huge space ship, “from the planet Gearon”, signals the beginnings of the Dalek plan, and signposts to Cory and Lowery that something huge is happening on this abandoned rock of a planet.  The Daleks arrive promptly at the rocket ship, with Lowery and Cory narrowly avoiding being caught, and under Dalek fire their rocket disintegrates.  Again, with nothing visual to base it on, it’s unclear how effective this is – but it sounds magnificent, and the awe in Jeremy Young’s voice as he exclaims “it’s just falling apart!” also helps to sell this.  Tragically, Lowery falls to the ground and is pricked by a Varga thorn, sealing his fate – he is destined to become one of them.

The following scenes, involving the alien delegates, is the principal reason that this serial is so impressive, and such a shame that it is missing from the archive, as the makeup and costumes are, from the telesnaps, incredible.  Malpha, in particular, is incredibly impressive.  Looking like The Thing from the Fantastic 4, his face is a series of criss-crossed fragments, and his voice is pervasive and unnerving.  As the only delegate named in this serial – although others are named in The Daleks’ Master Plan, despite changes in appearance, stature and actors even – he drives this meeting with the Black Dalek, and Robert Cartland, returning already from his voice work for the Rills in Galaxy 4 is as impressive as last week.

One special mention, however, must go to one of the delegates, and one whom certainly makes no return in the later serial – part Christmas tree, part “Sorting Hat” from Harry Potter.  Good lord.

The serial ends with Cory realising that Lowery is infected and once again calmly shooting him, as he did with Garvey.  And then, having recorded his message, he is executed by the Daleks, falling to the ground, the tape recorder lying nearby but remaining unnoticed by them.  The final scene is chilling with hindsight – a contemporary audience would never have known that this was a stand-alone episode.  Even more confusing is that the TARDIS crew were listed in the Radio Times as appearing, and Hartnell still gets an on-screen mention – although Purves and O’Brien don’t, as their contracts weren’t as iron-clad! – despite not showing up to save the day.  Indeed, the day hasn’t been saved.  The delegates chant about their imminent victory... and the credits roll.  It must have been quite an unnerving experience for the contemporary viewer.  Added to this the fact that next week’s serial is utterly unconnected, taking the TARDIS crew instead to Ancient Greece instead.  Nothing is resolved... not yet, anyway...

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