The Daleks’ Master Plan has often been described as a sprawling epic, which is a reasonable enough summation. But in truth it’s not really one story – rather it’s several different ones bolted together.
The early episodes have a nice downbeat feel (at times it feels like Nation was writing Blakes 7 a decade early). It then turns (god forbid) into The Chase II, although we can take comfort from the fact that Douglas Camfield is directing rather than Richard Martin. But after the mid-story comedy high-jinks the tone once again turns dark – not least in the final few moments of part twelve.
Rewiding back to The Nightmare Begins, one moment which impresses me is the scene between Roald (Philip Anthony) and Lizan (Pamela Greer). Their job is to monitor Kembel for news of Bret Vyon (Nicholas Courtney) and Kert Gantrey (Brian Cant), who are investigating Marc Cory’s disappearance (viewers with fairly long memories will remember that he met rather a sticky fate).
What I especially like about this moment is the way Nation uses the pair to pass judgement on Mavic Chen (Kevin Stoney), the Guardian of the Solar System. Some twenty years later we’d see Arak and Etta in Vengeance on Varos perform a similar function as they debated the merits of the Governor. This aspect of Philip Martin’s script was applauded as rather post-modern and picked up some praise. Alas, Terry Nation did pretty much the same thing twenty years earlier and it seemed to have gone unnoticed. Possibly this was because it’s in an episode that’s missing, or maybe it’s just that you don’t expect post-modernism in a Terry Nation script …
Like the pair on Varos, Roald and Lizan have sharply opposing views about the man in charge – Lizan likes him, Roald doesn’t. It’s slightly disturbing that they both decide to watch television rather than keep an eye out for Bret’s distress signal, but this seems to be another satirical Nation touch. It also helps to make them more rounded as characters – in plot terms they’re not terribly important, but their interaction with each other lets the viewer quickly know what the man and woman on the street thinks about the Guardian of the Solar System.
Bret and Kert are in rather dire straights on Kembel. Kert (an impressively bearded Cant) doesn’t last long as he loses his nerve, rushes off into the jungle and is exterminated by a Dalek (for once a Dalek appears well before the end of part one cliffhanger). This sequence was shot on film and it’s one of a number of film clips to have been preserved. It’s only short, but it shows how adept Camfield was at ramping up the tension.
Up until this point in the series’ history, most stories have been written from the Doctor’s viewpoint. So part one would open with the TARDIS landing somewhere, the Doctor and his friends then leave the ship, explore and are drawn into the story. The Nightmare Begins takes a different tack (one which be used time and again in the future).
The world-building begins before the Doctor becomes involved in the plot properly – we see Bret and Kert on Kembel, are introduced to Chen, etc. One side-effect of this form of storytelling is that it inevitably diminishes the central role that up until now the Doctor has tended to enjoy. When a story’s ticking over so nicely with the guest characters, if the writer isn’t careful then the Doctor can be rather sidelined (see Eric Saward’s scripts for some good examples of this).
Steven, still suffering from the injuries sustained at the end of the last story, needs urgent medical help. Rather surprisingly, the Doctor has nothing aboard the TARDIS which will do the trick so he’s forced to seek help elsewhere. And so he lands on Kembel.
Quite why he’d think that the dense jungle planet of Kembel would be the place to visit is a bit of a mystery (one look and most people would have tried somewhere else!) In plot terms, Steven’s injuries are nothing more than an excuse to get the Doctor on Kembel at the same time as the Daleks and Mavic Chen.
This is an undeniably crude piece of plotting – the Doctor spots some Daleks, decides to follow them and overhears Mavic Chen and the Daleks eagerly planning to take over the Earth and the rest of the Solar System. With twelve episodes to play with it would have been nice to integrate the Doctor into the plot a little more subtly.
The Nightmare Begins sees the Doctor Who debut of Nicholas Courtney, or at least it would if we could actually see him. We can hear him though and despite the fact that Bret’s painted rather broadly here as a single-minded man of action, Courtney still manages to make him seem fairly likeable.