‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ is one of the most cherished of the missing Doctor Who stories. However, it’s an adventure that few people wanted to make, with a production that was riddled with problems.
In 1965, Doctor Who was as popular as ever. The Daleks, in particular, proved to be a tremendous draw for audiences, and the BBC asked the Doctor Who team to feature them more regularly. This fell to outgoing producer Verity Lambert, who asked Dalek creator Terry Nation to devise a 12 part epic that would star the metal mutants from Skaro.
Originally titled ‘Battle of Wits,’ ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ was written incredibly quickly. In 1965, Terry Nation was a busy man, and was pre-occupied with writing for ITC. Thus, delivering his ‘Daleks’ Master Plan’ scripts was no easy task, and when he finally handed over the first six, they weren’t in the best of states. According to legend, the story’s director Douglas Camfield had to write many of the scenes himself.
At the same time, the new producer John Wiles was unhappy with the idea of having a Dalek story that would span four consecutive months, and later revealed in an interview that, given the choice, he wouldn’t have commissioned the serial, describing ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ as “a rock in the middle of the ocean.”
Moreover, his relationship with the First Doctor William Hartnell was not the smoothest. Indeed, during the making of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ there were rumours in the popular press (most notably the Manchester Evening News) that the Doctor himself was due to quit the series with immediate effect. This came about after a row between William Hartnell and his dresser caused the production team to go on strike.
And whilst the First Doctor did indeed stay with the series, Wiles was already looking for ways to replace the leading actor, one of which was a body-swap in the upcoming story ‘The Celestial Toymaker.’
Another problem the production team faced was the fact that episode seven of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ (dubbed ‘The Feast of Steven‘) was due to go out on Christmas Day. The writers didn’t want an episode that was pivotal to the main arc – as they suspected that many of Doctor Who‘s regular viewers would miss it – but at the same time they needed something to fill the gap.
As a result, the seventh episode of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ became something of a Christmas special, deviating completely from the main plot and featuring no Daleks. In addition, the episode became infamous for the fourth wall-breaking moment in which William Hartnell turned to the camera and said, “A merry Christmas to all of you at home!”
There are contradictory reports as to how this come about. Some people claim that this was an unscripted improvisation from the actor himself, whereas others maintain that it was planned well in advance. We may never know for sure.
It seems, though, that ‘The Feast of Steven’ was doomed from the start. Although it performed well in the ratings (achieving an audience of 7.9 million) the BBC knew that it would struggle to sell the episode to overseas broadcasters. Subsequently, no copies of ‘The Feast of Steven’ were ever made, and it officially became the first Doctor Who episode to disappear without a trace.
Similarly, ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ as a whole proved difficult to sell to foreign TV stations. Indeed, Australia was the only country to request prints for consideration, which it ultimately passed on. This means that ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ (along with its prequel, ‘Mission to the Unknown’) became the only story in Doctor Who‘s history to be offered to overseas broadcasters, but never bought.
It is remarkable, therefore, that so much of the serial survives to this day. Whilst nine episodes remain missing, three – against all the odds – currently reside in the BBC archive. Episodes five and ten were recovered from the basement of a Mormon church (an occurrence which remains unexplained to this day) whilst episode two was returned by a former BBC employee in 2004.
And as bleak as the prospects are, there is still hope that more episodes of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ are out there. One of the most likely candidates is episode four (‘The Traitors’) which was loaned to the children’s show Blue Peter on the occasion of Doctor Who‘s 10th anniversary. Blue Peter showed an extract from the episode during its Doctor Who feature, but the episode was never returned the BBC Film Library and remains unaccounted for. Presumably, it was either stolen or junked by mistake.
Overall, it seems that ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ always had the odds stacked against it, with over-stretched writers, a reluctant producer, an unhappy crew, and a lack of overseas buyers.
So it’s remarkable that it has become so highly-regarded in Doctor Who fandom. Indeed, it is often cited as a lost classic, and frequently tops fan polls as being the story that most people would like returned, or animated. This is certainly understandable. For a start, ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ stands out as being the single longest Doctor Who story in the show’s history. (‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ is two episodes longer, but it’s made up of multiple tales.)
Moreover, it contains the first ever Doctor Who Christmas special, and the first and only instance of a Doctor Who character breaking the fourth wall, with Hartnell wishing his viewers a merry Christmas whilst toasting the camera. The story also has the boldness to kill off two of its companions, with Katarina dying in episode four, followed by Sara Kingdom in episode twelve.
Would you like the BBC to animate ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ one day? And what is your favourite thing about this classic Doctor Who adventure? Let me know in the comments below.
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