The Daleks' Master Plan: An Analysis
By Alan Stevens And Fiona Moore
This is an extended version of an article which appeared in Celestial Toyroom Issue 302
Until recently, the lack of availability of "The Daleks' Master Plan" has made listening to it the privilege of those with the connections to acquire a bootleg audio. Consequently, as with all stories in its condition, most fans have been dependent on second-hand information, from reference books and the occasional retrospective, as to the story's strengths, weaknesses and composition. Even now that the story had been released on CD, beautifully restored by Mark Ayres and with impressive linking narration by Peter Purves, the myths surrounding it are sufficiently pervasive that many still persist in viewing the story as simply a superficial, glorious run-around, a throwback to the chapter-plays of the 1930s, or as a James Bond pastiche. However, a closer look reveals that although these elements do inform the basic narrative, the underlying structure is something much deeper and more complex.
1. Genesis Of The Daleks' Master Plan
"The Daleks' Master Plan" was broadcast into a very different world, Doctor Who-wise, than we recognize today. It was transmitted between 13 November 1965 and 29 January 1966, was the fourth Dalek story in the series and was at the time the longest continuous story in the history of the programme (a title which it would hold until the mid-1980s). Today, most people comment on the length of the story, the impact of the change in scriptwriter midway through, the sudden break in the middle for a Christmas episode (incredible as it may seem, some fans excised Hartnell's Christmas greeting from their bootleg audio copies), and the rather surreal, main-cast-less 'teaser' story, "Mission to the Unknown". At the time, however, evidence suggests a different mentality. Radio Times entries from the story refer to it by individual episode title alone, meaning that only the people who had read the initial launch feature would have any idea how long it was going on, who was writing it, or indeed that it was a full story rather than a series of linked pieces.
The Christmas episode, and the Trafalgar Square sequence in the following instalment, which was broadcast on New Years' Day, are, taken as a whole, not the travesty which some obsessive types have deemed them. The manic, surreal tone of the preceding episodes makes a sudden segue into the worlds of the police drama and silent film less difficult to take than one might think, and the tone is Marx Brothers postmodernist farce rather than Dimensions In Time-style panto. While "Mission to the Unknown" is undoubtedly a bit of a novelty, it must also be remembered that at the time television was an experimental medium, and so a break with the formula along these lines would have been differently received. To listen to "Master Plan" is almost to enter a different television universe.
This aside, however, the origins of "Master Plan" are somewhat less than grandiose. Terry Nation had done two previous long chapter-play serials for Doctor Who, today referred to as "The Keys of Marinus" and "The Chase". Neither of these stories have been particularly well received.
The strength of "Master Plan" also lies in its use of outside sources. The most visible is the space-opera chapter-play, with Bret Vyon and the Space Security Service resembling in some ways Dan Dare and Flash Gordon (Nation, perhaps unsurprisingly, wanted to make the SSS the focus of his proposed Dalek spin-off series). Unlike the earlier long chapter-play serials discussed above, however, the writers of "Master Plan" update this familiar genre by salting it with elements then fresh for viewers: the James Bond films (all references to SSS agents having a license to kill aside, the resemblance's between the conference subplot and Goldfinger, released the year before, are striking); The Avengers (specifically the early Honor Blackman episodes); The Man from UNCLE (Sam Rolfe, its American producer, is known to have visited the set during the production of "Master Plan"); and hard-SF thrillers like those of John Wyndham. This mix of the old and the new captures the spirit of the age, but at the instance includes enough timeless elements that it still has relevance today.
Real-life political history also influences the story. Nation's obsession with the Nazis is well-known to any Dalek fan, but it must also be remembered that co-writer Dennis Spooner, director Douglas Camfield, producer John Wiles and story editor Donald Tosh (not to mention the performers and crew) had all lived through the war years themselves. Unlike earlier Dalek stories in which the Daleks were pitted against a struggling human/Thal resistance, making the Daleks an allegory for Nazism and the others of opposition to it, "Master Plan", perhaps in light of the mid-Sixties political manoeuvering of the two Cold War blocs, throws this black-and-white plotting into question by giving the humans a Fascist political structure themselves. The simple Dalek-as-Nazi equation is shattered as their nature is shown to be totally different to the unquestionably human totalitarian organization ranged against them. The Earth-based regime controlling our galaxy has evidently eliminated gender and ethnic discrimination (of which more later), but is little interested in, and possibly even hostile to, nonhuman regimes. Marc Cory's disparagement of the "Outer Galaxies" suggests a superpower with an isolationist and protectionist culture; we do not know what the Earth has done to unite a number of outer galactic powers against it, but it cannot be insignificant. It is disturbing to realize that, in empathizing with Sara Kingdom, the audience are effectively siding with a servant of this same regime, an SSS agent who, it cannot be denied, wears jackboots and a black uniform, and belongs to an organization with Hitlerian overtones.
Nation would develop the themes of fascism and human nature explored in "Master Plan" further in his pessimistic take on space opera, Blake's 7. There are casual resemblances between Blake's 7 and "Master Plan", in the references to pursuit ships, prison planets and criminal thugs taking young women hostage. More directly, scenes such as the one in which Roald makes fun of Chen's speech, but does not question its message, echoes similar scenes in Blake's 7, in which the horror of totalitarianism is revealed to be the acquiescence of ordinary citizens to its demands. There is also the overarching question in both, of whether the series' protagonists are really any more heroic than their villains; Bret Vyon, who allies himself with the Doctor and Steven, nonetheless is a ruthless figure who has no compunction in gunning down his friend for an apparent betrayal. Daxtar, too, dies before we discover if he was indeed a traitor or simply a dupe of the regime; in typical Nation fashion, we never learn whether there is a massive conspiracy or, more likely, that loyalty to a corrupt system causes the unfolding of tragic events. The seeds of Nation's later work can thus be seen in "Master Plan".
In view of this, it should therefore not be surprising that, although it was only transmitted the once, "Master Plan" would invariably have an effect on later writing for Doctor Who as well. Although Nation moved on from the series for a while after this production, both of the David Whitaker Dalek stories explore themes which "Master Plan" raises, focusing as they do around Dalek cunning, and their exploitation of human greed and ambition. The Cyberman eight-parter "The Invasion" also has certain similarities; with an ambitious villain (played again by Kevin Stoney) doing a deal with a cyborg race in which he mistakenly thinks he has the upper hand. Ranged against him is a secret paramilitary organization (headed by none other than Nicholas Courtney) which answers to the United Nations, and is dedicated to combating various alien invasions. Nation himself also went back to "Master Plan" for his Doctor Who work, most notably in his rewriting of the Dalek mythos, "Genesis of the Daleks"; Mavic Chen and Karlton are echoed in the later pairing of Davros and his sinister lieutenant Nyder. It is even possible to argue that the time-travelling, meddling and goateed supervillain of Doctor Who, The Master, is an amalgamation of the Meddling Monk and Mavic Chen.
All things considered, then "Master Plan" had an impressive influence on the subsequent programme, and in itself has the hallmarks of a lost gem, with a depth equal to the best stories, which the series has produced. It is thus worth exploring the themes and messages of "Master Plan" in greater detail, particularly as they relate to the central players of the story.
2. Mavic Chen
One of the figures most misunderstood by later commentators is the story's central villain, Mavic Chen. Gary Gillatt, in a quote from Doctor Who from A-Z, wrote:
|'"The Dalek Master Plan" (1965) was casually offensive on two levels. Not only did the script describe one of its central characters- Doctor Who's first "supervillain" Mavic Chen- as being "clearly part oriental," lazily using a Fu-Manchu "yellow peril" shorthand for "evil," but the production team went on to cast a white actor, Kevin Stoney, to play him".|
In making this statement, Gillatt demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the character. Chen is physically an interesting type: his eyes are "oriental", but his hair is kinky, his skin is dark and he is played by a white actor, giving him the appearance of belonging to every known race. His name is a mix of Chinese and Slavonic elements. This alone explains why he is such a beloved popular figure in the forty-first century, and an ideal person to be Guardian of the entire Solar System: no particular interest predominates, as it would, had the character been portrayed as white or "Oriental". Chen is no Fu Manchu supervillain, but almost, literally, a human Everyman.
Hackneyed comparisons to Ming the Merciless are also far off the mark, as Chen's character is developed much further than any chapter-play antagonist. Chen's lack of definite ethnic group and the casual presence of women in positions of power within his organization subverts the stereotypes of Flash Gordon and its ilk. His declarations, particularly his statement that "a heroic war-cry to apparently peaceful ends is one of the greatest weapons a politician has", recalls not Ming the Merciless, but rather that other Thirties supervillain, Adolf Hitler. As a result Chen's drives and motivations are, in fact, quite close to home.
In keeping with the popular idea of the Sixties, that in the future human life would be prolonged by up to two hundred years, Chen is apparently very old-- to have been mining Taranium in secret for fifty years, he would have to have been at the hub of an enormous web of influence, the likes of which few achieve before their fifties. Ten years in power, we are all aware, can make even the most respectable of modern politicians corrupt; Chen has had considerably more power for least ten times as long. He prides himself on being Guardian of the Solar System; however, Chen would like to add to his sphere of influence, and consequently hatches more ambitious plans. Although these plans involve solar systems and galaxies rather than political offices and offshore real estate, we must remember that science fiction of this sort is largely allegorical, taking everyday political corruption out of the sordid, mundane sphere and reframing it in terms of almost mythic elements. The scale may be vast, but Chen's ambitions are all too understandable.
The burning question, then, is how a man of Chen's evident intelligence, erudition and political know-how would be so insane as to think he could form an alliance with the Daleks and come out the better for it. An examination of Chen's motives may cast some more light on this subject. Chen may be the Guardian of the Solar System, but his conversations with fellow delegate Zephon reveal that, like Servalan in Blake's 7, he is merely a part of a wider power structure. To be Guardian of the Solar System is to rule "nothing more than a part, however influential, of one galaxy". Like Servalan, too, Chen would like to increase his power both within and outside the organization. "Would you be satisfied with just a part of a galaxy?" he asks.
The Doctor states that Chen by "sacrificing the Solar System hopes to gain more power", but in reality, Chen's scheme is far more sophisticated. Much of Chen's power stems from the respect he commands from people like Lizan and Sara Kingdom; he is a man of the people, as Lizan and Roald's reaction to his speech expressing a wish for "peace, progress and prosperity" in the future demonstrates. He is also ruler of a divided empire; he explicitly refers to "conflicting powers within our Solar System". He cannot therefore simply order the SSS to lead a coup, as both he and they would lose popular support, and risk the whole affair falling apart. There would also undoubtedly be dissent in SSS ranks if asked to fight against the very system that they are supposed to be defending. Furthermore, Chen is a politician popular with the masses; he does not order, he persuades. Chen in his initial speech continually refers to his role in securing peace; it is the impression that he has people's best interests at heart which allows him to keep power, as we see in the sequence in which Lizan and Roald discuss his politics. In his scenes with Sara Kingdom, Chen does not directly order Sara to kill her brother Bret Vyon, but persuades her that it is the right thing to do using platitudes and half-truths. If, however, an outside force attacks the Earth, it will both take out and discredit the centres of opposition to Chen, and then, if Chen is able to destroy this outside force, he will be a hero. Consequently, Chen makes a secret alliance with such a power, with the deliberate intention of double-crossing them later using a special force assembled by Karlton.
Everything that Chen knows about his chosen allies, the Daleks, leads him to believe that this is a workable plan. The Daleks have formed an alliance with six other powers, which are ranging themselves against the galaxy, intending to start with an attack on Earth's solar system. The Daleks are the catalyst behind the alliance, but otherwise appear to be no more powerful than any other member. They also have a weapon called the Time Destructor, about which Chen knows little other than that for it they require a full emm of Taranium, only obtainable from the planet Uranus. In exchange for this, Chen can become a member of the alliance; without it, their plans would come to nothing. Chen does not underestimate the Daleks-- he suspects them of eavesdropping on his conversations with Zephon, who, by contrast, is careless enough to speak its mind-- but he does not have the full story. Chen has convinced himself that his aims can be achieved through the Daleks, and the fact that the Taranium is essential to their plan causes him to further believe that his role within the alliance is more important than that of the other delegates.
Everything thus seems to be unfolding as Chen intends. Prior to the invasion of the Solar System, Chen will disseminate bad feeling among the Daleks' allies, as well as between the Daleks and the other delegates, ensuring that he is next in line to the Daleks and trusted more by them. We can see this plan in action in his pinning of the blame for the loss of the Taranium core on Zephon and then later Trantis. Next, with the delegate's unity weakened and the battle for the Solar Systems in full swing, Chen will use his forces stationed on Venus to launch a counterstrike, destroying the Dalek-led assault force and dealing a fatal psychological blow to the alliance. Chen can further take advantage of the disarray to commence a justifiable counteroffensive against the other powers, for having supported the Daleks. With the alliance's leaders discredited, the Daleks taken by surprise and Chen's popularity at its height, not just in the Solar System but across the galaxy, he can establish himself as the leader of the known universe, promising to unify and bring peace to the shattered territories.
Even the theft of the Taranium core does not set Chen back for long. He does manage to put a spin on the various obstacles which the scheme encounters, and hatches a secondary plan involving a preemptive strike on Kembel which will partly achieve his ends; the alliance will still be united against him, but Chen will at least be able to rally the divided Solar System and push himself into the leadership of the galaxy, although not the universe, by smashing the Dalek force. "Whatever happens, we shall outwit the Daleks", he tells Karlton.
Chen's fatal flaw, however, is his overweening arrogance. His conversations with Karlton reveal that his subordinate is in fact the more intelligent and levelheaded of the two, providing the excuses to give to the Daleks when the SSS fail to recover the stolen Taranium on Earth. Chen's ego-tripping however appears to worry Karlton, and there are hints that Karlton might be capable of mounting a coup himself. Chen's ability to be rational is compromised by his arrogance and lust for power; significantly, all of the delegates appear to share these qualities, making them clearly the reason for their selection by the Daleks. The way in which the Daleks treat Chen confirms this; the Daleks put up with Chen's behaviour until they no longer need him, at which point the double-crosser finds himself double-crossed.
A key scene occurs in episode 6, "Coronas of the Sun". Up until this point, Chen has been successfully playing the delegates off against each other and the Daleks themselves. Here, the Dalek Supreme accuses Chen for the first time of failure, an accusation that normally carries a sentence of death:
DALEK SUPREME: Mavic Chen, you have failed in your task.
MAVIC CHEN: Failed! Is this my greeting? I agree that my mission was to return to Earth and recover the Taranium. This I have not done.
DALEK SUPREME: Failure will not be tolerated!
MAVIC CHEN: But I did notify you of the fugitives' whereabouts: The planet Mira. There the vital core can be taken from them, without suspicion. Their presence on Earth was a constant danger! At any time they could have contacted forces unsympathetic to our plans.
DALEK SUPREME: You make your incompetence sound like an achievement!
MAVIC CHEN: Incompetence now, is it? You forget that the original blunder was not of my doing. I journeyed to and from Earth to correct a failing your security force should have dealt with. The core was stolen from here! My actions have brought about a situation that will allow you to recover the missing Taranium easily and simply. If that is a failure, then I have failed.
At this point, the Dalek Supreme is quite clearly flummoxed and does not pursue the argument further. It turns its attention to a report that the pursuit ship sent to Mira to apprehend the fugitives has failed in its mission:
DALEK SUPREME: Dispatch a rescue ship to their aid. They will be dealt with on their return. Meanwhile, I will personally supervise recovery of the core.
This last line is quite clearly a feint on the part of the Dalek Supreme, as it has been in charge of the operation all along. Chen notices the manoeuver, however, and starts actually to taunt the Dalek:
MAVIC CHEN: And you had the audacity to accuse me, Mavic Chen, of incompetence!
DALEK SUPREME: It is...
MAVIC CHEN: A Dalek pursuit ship stolen...
DALEK SUPREME: It is not...
MAVIC CHEN: Really.
DALEK SUPREME: IT IS NOT AN EMERGENCY!
MAVIC CHEN: No. More like a catastrophe!
DALEK SUPREME: They may believe that they have successfully escaped from us, but we, the Daleks, are still in command!
Chen's arrogance on this score also causes him to miss key elements of the plan unfolding around him. The Doctor's theft of the core means that the Daleks must expose, if not their true intentions, at least the extent of their abilities. Chen seems to totally miss the significance of the fact that his supposed inferiors have the ability to travel back through time, to say nothing of the destructive power conveyed by the casual remark that "One Dalek is capable of exterminating all". Even though the Daleks do not reveal the full power of the Time Destructor, hiding its strength by testing it out only on one delegate, a man of Chen's abilities ought to have been suspicious that he, along with one other member of the alliance, was allowed to observe the execution. Further clues are given when the experiment fails. The Daleks exterminate Trantis anyway, but again, Chen fails to make the connection. The fact that the Daleks need him in case the mining of another emm of Taranium becomes necessary allows him to continue in his deluded state; he can convince himself that since the Daleks do not kill him, he must be indispensable to them. Chen thus seemingly believes that he is now in charge of the alliance, not realizing that his lifespan after the core has been obtained will be short.
Consequently, when the core is finally reobtained and the Daleks lock up all the delegates with no explanation, Chen cannot comprehend what has happened. The realization that he has been a fool, and has been double-crossed by the very beings he had intended to double-cross himself, must have been shattering for him. For fifty years, if not more, he has been working towards fulfilment of his plan; now, he learns that he is just as expendable, and shortly to be just as dead, as anyone else. The reality becomes too horrifying for him to face; the paranoia which we have briefly glimpsed in his conversations with Karlton is now given full rein, and he allows himself all manner of fantastic speculations, chiefly that the Doctor is conspiring to usurp his position with the Daleks. "I am immortal!" he declares, but at the same time he belies his words by attempting to flee. Confronted with his own insignificance, Chen cannot cope and dies in a state of denial.
The final twist of Chen's story remains unspoken. Chen's death means that only Karlton knows about Chen's betrayal, and Karlton is in charge of a secret force capable of taking on a Dalek invasion. Although what we have learned thus far suggests that the Solar System is an ultra-right-wing society, the future, if anything, looks worse. Even with the Daleks defeated, then, the problems of the Solar System are not over.
3. The Daleks
The key to understanding the Daleks in "Master Plan" is their single-mindedness. They are individually very clever, but work as a team, almost as one mind. Despite their occasional bouts of hysteria, they do not argue with each other, instead following problems through methodically. They will exterminate one of their own pursuit ships because of failure on the part of its crew, but will put up with Mavic Chen's arrogance in spite of their visible hatred of other forms of life, demonstrating that the Daleks possess an enormous strength of will. Any other group attempting a takeover scheme on such a scale would either collapse through internal strife or through the difficulty of maintaining operations over such a great length of time; it is thus no wonder that the delegates do not see through the Daleks' plans early on, as none of them could possibly have conceived of such a gambit. The Daleks' scheme thus requires superior technology, discipline, total loyalty, longevity, and an infinite patience in dealing with species which they despise.
The Daleks show a great understanding of psychology. They exhibit contempt for other species-- calling their allies "creatures"-- but do not therefore dismiss them. Although the Daleks are totally loyal to their own cause, they subordinate other races by playing on weaknesses alien to the Daleks themselves: treachery, greed, and lust for power. The Daleks clearly understand Chen; they brutally lay open Chen's mindset in the Dalek Supreme's conversation with Trantis.
4. The Doctor
By "Master Plan", William Hartnell's Doctor has reached his peak, with writers now picking up on the actor's performance, and tailoring the character to the way in which he is played.
The scriptwriters have also taken this beyond a simple point of characterization, making it a fundamental trait of the Doctor's that it is impossible to tell when he is speaking from insight and when he is bluffing. Hartnell's Doctor continually throws the audience curveballs, to the point at which one has no idea which direction he is going in. He comes up with wonderfully appropriate phrases like "The Daleks will stop at anything to prevent us"; he tells Bret Vyon to look to the Dalek invasion of Earth in 2157 for the solution to his problems, despite the fact that there is no reason for the incident in question to be relevant in any way. These elements of bluff and occasional silliness mean that the Doctor comes across as a genuine person.
Conclusion: A Master Work?
The answer exposes a sharp difference in the way in which popular television was viewed in the 1960s to how it is viewed today. In this age of videotape, television programmes are made as if they were films; with the expectation that they will be repeatedly viewed. At the time "Master Plan" was produced, however, the Reith doctrine, which held that television should entertain, educate and inform, was in full swing. Programmes were therefore made as if they were plays, with the expectation that they would be seen once, albeit by several million people. The irony, however, is that television audiences in the twenty-first century are treated as consumers; programmes are made with the assumption that the audience will watch it, and, if it is entertained, will watch it repeatedly, but not necessarily that they will give it a great deal of thought. By contrast, "Master Plan" was made with the assumption that people would only watch it once-- but that they would therefore watch it carefully, and talk about it afterwards. It is thus perhaps appropriate that "Master Plan" has ended up as an audio CD, because these days it is radio audiences-- who still inhabit a world of cerebral, one-off programmes-- who are the ones willing to take time to appreciate the story, and consider the full implications of the plot.
"The Daleks' Master Plan" thus
easily stands up among the two
or three best stories to come out of
Doctor Who in
the Sixties if not in all its run. With complex villains, truly
disturbing Daleks and, most of all, a Doctor who is neither a
conventional hero nor the amoral creature which lesser writers have
tried to make him, "Master Plan" is well worth a second listen, and one
can only regret that one cannot take a second look.
Effects copyright Andy Hopkinson