Oh, my giddy aunt... The Daleks’ Master Plan reaches a point where everything goes very, very wrong – and typically, it’s the last episode of the serial written by Terry Nation. The key reason I’m analysing this as a stand-alone episode is that it doesn’t really fit in with the framework of the rest of the serial. Predominantly a Christmas episode, there is no real function to it – it is simply a series of bizarre sketches, climaxing in one of the most bizarre scenes in the show’s history.
Where to start...? Rather than just listening to the audio with some telesnaps, which is an even more confusing experience, I elected to watch an animated recon, available on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WeakujB2nA . Whilst the animation isn’t perfect by any means, it fits with the existing telesnaps and helps to make some sense of the more confusing sections, such as ‘the chase’.
Entitled The Feast of Steven, a clever play on words hinting at the theme of the episode (it was originally transmitted on Christmas Day 1965), the story picks up where we left off last week – a planet with horrifically high levels of poison in the atmosphere. Of course, the planet is Earth, and the poisonous atmosphere is high smog levels of an inner-city somewhere up North.
What makes this episode work, though, is the willing suspension of disbelief. If we look at it as a big, silly run-around, then it almost works. Some of it is evidently funny, but only because of the very metatextuality of it all; for weeks, the TARDIS crew, in its varying forms, has been running away from the Daleks, pursued relentlessly across all of time and space. Indeed, the same thing happened in The Chase, which was also a ‘comedy’ in one way or another. Here though, despite being part of the ongoing saga – and it surely must be, or the references to the story arc involving taranium cores and Daleks would not have been included – the Daleks do not appear. Whilst in The Chase they were used to add to the comedy, mumbling and stuttering and coughing and falling over, instead Nation elects to focus entirely on the folly of humans.
Starting outside a police station – a perfectly normal place for a police box to appear – the humour is milked from the disassociated police officers, world-weary and evidently bored of Christmas hijinks. There are some obscure comedic moments – the sequence with “Man in Mackintosh” discussing his moving greenhouse is rather entertaining, but the knowing comment made by Hartnell is even better – recognising him from “the marketplace in Jaffa!” is a metatextual stroke of genius, highlighting the series’ habit of casting recurring actors as a variety of different characters is a habit of the show, and one which continues to this day, with actors returning to the series several decades later.
Hartnell gets some great comedy to deliver here – particularly in his interview with CID, where he refers to himself as a “citizen of the universe, and a gentleman to boot!” Likewise, his disgruntled attitude towards Steven rescuing him, specifically about being referred to as an old man, is wonderful. The use of false identities is another cliché of Doctor Who, and so to knowingly mock the convention is both clever and brave.
Once inside the TARDIS, having escaped from the police in a farcical scene, we are reminded of the threat hanging over the crew – and about the Daleks desire for the taranium. I actually think this episode would have worked better with absolutely no reference to the ongoing epic – instead acting as a perfunctory bit of silliness aside from the main storyline, in a similar manner to Mission to the Unknown interrupting the flow from Galaxy 4 to The Myth Makers. When Sara says “I’d forgotten about the Daleks”, it is working a signpost for the audience at home, and to some extent is misleading – bearing in mind the way in which The Chase was structured, we now half expect the Daleks to turn up too.
The second half of the episode, though, is where things go horribly wrong. Whilst there is still some humour here, it is mostly just noise. Without any visual clips to base our interpretation on, this is just a mess – on Purves’ audio commentary, he sounds exhausted trying to cover what exactly is happening, with background shouting throughout.
The arrival of the TARDIS on a silent movie studio lot in Hollywood allows for even more metatextuality though – the suggestion that the whole crew are simply players in a drama, or a comedy, throws the audience completely, predominantly because everything is so cheesy and corny and over-the-top, it is doing precisely what the show has been avoiding as much as possible since it started. The scenes with the two film directors are ridiculous, filled with posturing men demanding the best, and yet what we are given is pure insanity. The use of diagetic an non-diagetic music, along with title-cards with captions thrown in, makes us painfully aware that we are watching a work of fiction, a television show, where actors go to makeup and wardrobe, collect their outfits and perform. It’s madness...
But that’s what I like about it. It’s awful, and ridiculous, but fun at the same time. Whilst the audiotrack is a confusing jumble of noise, what the production team have done is very clever. We must bear in mind that the series was recorded ‘as live’ mere weeks before it aired – and that it was on every Saturday for more than three quarters of the year. In 1965, Saturday was Christmas Day, but the Doctor and his companions were in a story about alien plotting and death and destruction; we’d already seen two companions die (depending on your classification of a companion, of course), and there was still a third to come. This story was emotionally draining and exhausting. There was, simply put, no way that the serial could continue over Christmas Day and New Year’s Day without having the mood lightened. And as such, it was a brave decision to, instead of throwing in some levity to this nasty epic, simply do a one-off, crazy chase sequence.
There are some moments of wonder here, though – Hartnell’s exclamation that “This is a mad house! It’s all full of Arabs!” is wonderfully un-PC, and his conversation with a miserable, griping clown is perfectly delivered – by cutting back and forth to the Doctor and the clown outside the TARDIS, with all of the insanity and noise in the other parts of the studio, it allows us to lull in and out of giggles – the complaints that all of the material the Clown had planned has been “done by Chaplin” is brilliant, and the revelation that he is actually Bing Crosby, and intends to go into singing instead of slapstick is brilliant too – “custard pies and Bing Crosby!”
Finally we reach the relative safety of the TARDIS, and the most bizarre moment of all – the breaking of the fourth wall. After the episode we’ve just seen, in which the characters purposefully break down all of the conventions of television, it is a strange moment that throws us once more – once back in the TARDIS, one expects the series to return to its de facto position, bringing us back to normality. Instead, Hartnell practically leans out of the screen, and wishes “a happy Christmas to all of you at home!”
And I’ll end this by running a title-card with the following caption:
(And so they all lived happily ever after...)