The Daleks’ Master Plan Doctor Who, S3 Serial 4

The Daleks fight with Egyptian soldiers armed with rocks and spears

The Doctor: First Doctor (William Hartnell)

The Companions: Steven (Peter Purves), Katarina (Adrienne Hill), Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh), and Bret Vyon (Nicholas Courtney) (possibly)

The plot: The Doctor foils the Daleks’ plan to take over the solar system (galaxy/universe)

Written By: Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner

First aired:13/11/1965 – 29/01/1966

Continuity: Re-appearance of The Meddling Monk
First on-screen death of a companion
Introduction of companion, Sara Kingdom (and Bret Vyon, depending on your definition)
First episode with actor Nicholas Courtney: later cast as companion, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. This character was later speculated to be his descendent.

Nicholas Courtney as Space Agent, Bret Vyon.

Season 3, Episodes 10 to 21

In the year 4000, the Doctor discovers a plot to take over the Universe and ends up being chased through history by the Daleks.


Epic, bloated and sometimes total nonsense, The Dalek’s Master Plan is one of the most ambitious serials to come out of the Classic Who era. It’s not an easy thing as a writer to pad out a story, let alone to double its length. But that’s what Nation was asked to do when the six part Dalek’s Master Plan was extended to 12 episodes. To help him do it, Nation was given Dennis Spooner.

While the three-month serial would have been an epic journey for viewers in 1965, a condensed watch makes apparent all its flaws in tone and pacing. There is a great little story in The Dalek’s Master Plan; a right rollicking adventure of action and intrigue. But the need to pad it out with little notice means its middle episodes veer off into the kind of silliness previously seen in The Chase.

Not helping matters is the fact that the serial is almost entirely lost. What remains are three episodes, full audio, some telesnap reconstructions and the odd small snippets of original film.

The Doctor in a tense standoff with the Daleks and Mavic Chen for the return of his companions, Sara, Steven and his frenemy, The Meddling Monk.

Because of its length and the difficulty of animating it, The Dalek’s Master Plan is a serial a lot of fans have never seen (or listened to in this particular case). As a result, the First Doctor era is missing some important and powerful character development for Purves’ Steven and, as a consequence, for the Doctor himself.

Steven emerges from this serial a devastated man; grief stricken over all his recent loss and angry at what he sees as the Doctor’s unconcern for the safety of his companions. It’s the first step towards his decision to make an angry (albeit temporary) exit at the end of The Massacre resulting in the Doctor’s first real moment of introspection and grief. It’s also the first time since Barbara that somebody truly challenges the Doctor and it fundamentally changes the perception of Stephen as a one-dimensional pinch hitter.

If we see the First Doctor’s era as a hero journey for the character then the Dalek’s Master Plan is not just about the Timelord framing himself in opposition to the Daleks. It’s about him being shaped by his companions and their losses.

The Doctor began as an exile puttering around the universe like a tourist. Then he began to get involved. Now he’s asking himself what that involvement costs. The Dalek’s Master Plan is an important chunk of this character development that has been lost And it’s for this reason that I wanted to review this serial even if I never find the time to review any others.

The Doctor, Steven and Katarina meet Space Agent, Bret Vyon on the planet Kembel

A plan to take over the solar system/ galaxy/ universe possibly

Nobody would ever accuse Nation of getting bogged down in details and so we’re never entirely sure what it is the Daleks are trying to conquer with their eponymous Master Plan. I’m going to assume it’s the Galaxy, although Chen is frequently referred to as Guardian of the Solar System and Steven at one point says they have to stop the Daleks from invading the Universe. This interchangeability of vastly different terms plagued the serial’s prologue as well and leaves us handwaving such things as, “Master plan to do what?”.

What we know for sure is that Mavic Chen (Kevin Stoney), the Guardian of the Solar System, has conspired with the Galactic Council to facilitate a Dalek invasion of (Earth’s) solar system, starting, naturally, with Earth. This plan involves a weapon of mass destruction known as the Time Destructor, which requires the rare element, taranium. Chen has leveraged his ability to acquire the taranium to ingratiate himself with the Daleks in exchange for power after their invasion is complete.

Mavic Chen selling out his own solar system by collaborating with the Daleks

As with most Nation’s stories, all the metaphorical elements are here. The regent collaborating with the far right to elevate himself in the mistaken belief he can somehow control them. The police force that most citizens don’t realise has quietly become an SS-style secret police answering directly to one person. The use of a terrible weapon of mass destruction. But, add it all up, the whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense. What are the Daleks actually planning on doing with the Time Destructor?

If Nation truly wanted to extend The Dalek’s Master Plan, he could have spent more time establishing who all the large assortment of characters are; their planets and backgrounds and relationships and motivations. And why they want to help the Daleks take over their own galaxies. Intergalactic geopolitics in the Year 4000 is the last thing the show expects me to care about. Nonetheless, I have questions.

The Doctor talks to Katarina, while Steven lies hurt on the Planet Kembel

There are three distinct parts to The Dalek’s Master Plan and so I’ll talk about these three parts as distinct sections. There’s Nation’s original, tautly-written opening sequence, the tedious filler episodes written to extend the piece, and the extraordinary, powerful conclusion.

Part 1

The Dalek’s Master Plan begins straight after the events of The Myth Makers. The Doctor, Katarina and Steven are in the TARDIS. Katarina still believes she’s on her way to the afterlife. Her inability to understand anything that is happening to her gives her entire arc across the serial a tragic poignancy. Being utterly out of her depth culturally and ontologically doesn’t stop her from being brave and loyal and, depending on your interpretation of her death, a true hero.

Steven, being wounded in the last episode, is suffering from blood poisoning. The Doctor lands on the planet Kembel in search of a cure and arrives six months after the events of Mission to the Unknown. He quickly runs into Space Agent, Bret Vyon, who is trying to warn Earth about the Dalek plot and attempts to commandeer the TARDIS (naturally unsuccessfully) to do so.

The Doctor, Bret, Katarina and Steven ponder the taranium core.

Vyon has the cure for Steven’s blood poisoning but, due to the initial confusion, does not tender it and the Doctor leaves for the city to find one. Vyon, restrained in the TARDIS, realises Steven’s state and eventually offers the cure. This engenders enough trust on the part of Katarina that, when he suggests they leave the TARDIS to run from the nearby Daleks, she takes his advice. Both are unaware the TARDIS is the safest place to be.

The Doctor discovers the Dalek’s plan and steals the taranium, then he, Steven, Katarina and Bret escape in Chen’s ship to go back to Earth and warn them. Chen has control over the semi-fascist Space Agents and enlists agent, Sara Kingdom to kill everybody involved and take back the taranium.

Sara Kingdom holding a gun with some glee. She is a woman who does her duty no matter what.

Sara does not question her orders even for a second, believing Chen’s story that they are terrorists trying to acquire the element for themselves. Her unquestioning obedience and naive acceptance of the cover story are a particularly profound statement given what happens next.

The Doctor, Steven, Bret and Katarina crash land on a prison planet and this is where the story takes it first powerfully dark turn. An inmate of the planet sneaks onboard and, once in space, tries to hijack the ship. He takes Katarina hostage in the airlock.

The Doctor and Steven want to cede to his demands to save Katarina but Brett controls the ship and he is resolute. The fate of the solar system is more important than one person and refuses to bows to his demands. Steven pleads with him but he is unmoved.

Despite her terror and lack of understanding, Katarina’s hand reaches out and opens the airlock blowing both her and her attacker into space. Was it an accident or a deliberate sacrifice? It’s up to audience interpretation.

She wanted to save our lives and perhaps the lives of all the other beings of the Solar System. I hope she’s found her Perfection. Oh, how I shall always remember her as one of the Daughters of the Gods.

The Doctor, on Katarina’s death

As the first Companion death in the show, Katarina’s sudden, violent demise would have been shocking at the time. Even today, companions simply don’t die – even when they do (ref. Clara and Bill’s non-deaths). What makes Katarina’s death so powerful is not just that she was loyal, kind and coping with a reality incompatible with her worldview. It’s that it was so sudden and so unexpected. It certainly devastates Steven, who screams her name as she is sucked into the void.

Steven and the Doctor beg Bret to give Kirksen what he wants to save Katarina, who's behind them held hostage in the airlock

But there’s little time to dwell because they have a solar system/ galaxy/ universe to save. Steven, Brett and the Doctor finally land on Earth but have trouble deciding who to trust. Chen’s grip on the Space Agency is strong. In the end, Bret makes the wrong choice and takes them to see his friend, Daxtar, who’s secretly working with Chen.

When he realises that Daxtar is a traitor, Bret doesn’t hesitate and shoots him in cold blood. While Bret is trying to save lives, his violent reflexes and ends-justifies-the-means mentality shows how brutal and amoral a police force the Space Agency is. They’re also qualities we see in fellow agent, Sara Kingdom. So, when he comes face-to-face to her, she shoots him dead without question.

And that’s two.

While there is some debate as to whether Bret counts as a companion (he never travelled in the TARDIS, which some people see as being the pre-requisite), he was nonetheless an interesting and well-realised character that many viewers would have expected to be there for the rest of the serial.

It’s only later that we discover the true tragedy of Bret’s death and what Sara’s unquestioning obedience has cost her. Bret Vyon, it turns out, was her brother.

Sara, Steven and the Doctor in the TARDIS.

Sara pursues the Doctor and Steven into an experimental transporter room and they all get dematerialised and beamed to a planet near Kembel, called Mira. Once Sara sees the Daleks are pursuing them, she realises she’s been lied to – and that she murdered her own brother for nothing.

Meanwhile, Chen is trying to twist his failure to recover the tiranium into a cunning plan to stop them from warning the planets of the Solar System. The Daleks have almost lost patience with Chen but his megalomania is so great that he believes that he is the one in control of them.

You make your incompetence sound like an achievement

The Daleks, not fooled by Chen

The Doctor, Steven and Sara steal a Dalek ship but the Dalek’s have control of it and send it back to Kembel. They decide to use this as an opportunity to fool the Daleks by creating a fake taranium core. It works and they hand over the fake before escaping from Kembel in the TARDIS.

Part 2

Let the games begin!

Remember those first seven episodes of intrigue, scheming, betrayal, tragic deaths and timely warnings about collaborating with fascists?

Forget that, because we’re now in a farce. Remember The Chase? The Daleks chasing the Doctor willy nilly across the universe and its weird thematic and musical obsession with silent films of the early 20th century?

Well strap yourself in, we’re back to it!

The Feast of Steven

Doctor Who’s first ever Christmas special was not a big-budget romp to cheer its viewers stuck inside on the holiday season. It was instead a burner episode made with the assumption that nobody would be watching Doctor Who at all. It wasn’t even bundled with the serial for overseas sale but was quickly destroyed. It was written, essentially, to be irrelevant. And it does its job well,

The TARDIS lands outside a police station at Christmas and farce ensues as the local constabulary tries to make sense of its appearance and the people who keep going in and out of it. They think the Doctor is a vagrant, Steven a fellow police officer and Sara a socialite. Misunderstandings ensue!

The three travellers finally make it back inside and end up on a silent movie set in the early days of film! More farce as everyone runs around for little reason and the whole thing is filmed as if it is a silent movie, complete with interspersing intertitles.

A Director tries to shanghai Sara into a harem scene, Steven is pushed into a Keystone Cops film, and Charlie Chaplin is spotted at several points. This “whacky” unfunny interlude is seemingly interminable but the three finally escape in the TARDIS and the whole film set cheers at what they think is an illusion.

Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor proposes a toast to Christmas and iconically breaks the fourth wall to wish everyone – including us – a Happy Christmas.

The Doctor breaks the fourth wall to wish everyone a Happy Christmas


We briefly revisit Kembel where the Daleks discover the taranium core is fake and the Time Destructor doesn’t work. They call for a time machine from Skaro and plan to go after the Doctor.

Meanwhile, in the TARDIS, the Doctor finds they’re being followed and assumes it’s the Daleks. Sara doesn’t think having the taranium is enough and wants to go back and destroy the Dalek fleet. They are, after all, trying to stop the Daleks. But instead of doing that, the Doctor…

… lands the TARDIS on a cricket pitch in the middle of a match!

What follows would, in other circumstances, be a very funny skit as the two commentators treat the appearance of a large blue box on the pitch as an interruption in play. The clipped English commentator and the broadly laconic Australian give a perfect stand-up routine. Except the entire solar system/galaxy/universe is at stake so you’re mostly just wondering where the plot has gone.

Maybe it’s on the next planet, which thankfully has a volcano. Since the episode is called Volcano.

This is a boiling new planet still gripped by planet-wide seismic activity. They stop and their pursuers finally catch them.

But it’s not the Daleks following them. Oh, no! It’s the Meddling Monk!

The Meddling Monk looking joyously devious, He's coming out of what appears to be his TARDIS in disguise.

He’s trying to get bumbling revenge on the Doctor for trapping him on 11th century Earth and locks them out of the TARDIS to strand them there. The Doctor almost instantly breaks it open and they take off again.

This time it’s Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve, although the significance of the event is lost on the TARDIS crew.

They take off again, this time with the Daleks and the Monk in pursuit. Also the kitchen sink.

And we end up in…

The Doctor in Egypt with a frieze behind him with hieroglyphics.

Golden Death/ Escape Switch

… Ancient Egypt!

The Doctor needs to fix the lock from the Monk’s meddling and so they stay around, giving the Daleks and the Monk time to catch up with them. The Monk gets captured by the Daleks and instantly forms an alliance against the Doctor. Whether he would have really made good on his word is made moot when he ends up accidentally delivering Steven and Sara to the Daleks as hostages anyway.

The Doctor hands over the taranium core to get them back.

The Doctor faces the Daleks and Chen who have Steven, the Monk and Sara hostage

The locals aren’t thrilled with what they assume are tomb raiders come to pillage their pyramid and end up raising a force to attack the Daleks. They are gunned down to a man but it gives the TARDIS trio the chance to get away. Oh, and the Monk as well.

The Doctor has stolen the Monk’s directional unit and also disabled his chameleon circuit so it’s stuck as a police box. It fools the Daleks long enough for them all to take off for Kembel. But, of course, Chen has the taranium so the Time Destructor can be finished and the Daleks are set for… whatever their plan is. We still don’t really know.

Part 3

With two episodes to go, we’re finally back to the main story.

The Daleks have a working Time Destructor and no more need for their intergalactic allies. While Chen tries to wrest control of the Galactic Council for himself, the Daleks quietly turn on them and imprison them all. I’m still not sure why this alliance was necessary or what either side of it got out of it. Nonetheless, the Daleks are done with the galactic leaders and plan to e.x.t.e.r.m.i.n.a.t.e them when the invasion commences.

The Doctor, Steven and Sara are making their way to the Dalek City to try to stop the Daleks but soon notice something is wrong. The Daleks, and their Varga plants, seem to have gone. Then the Doctor vanishes as well. Steven and Sara worry he might have been captured but when they get to the city, they find the imprisoned Galactic Council instead.

The Galaxy Leaders have had a predictably self-interested change of heart and are now willing to raise their armies against the Daleks. Chen, however, has lost his mind to megalomania and has begun envisioning a grand future as Master of the Universe. He fakes his death and plans to re-ingratiate himself with the Daleks.

Kevin Stoney’s performance as Mavic Chen is indeed masterful and works wonderfully in audio. However, from a visual perspective, it suffers from all the requisite issues the era has with representations of non-white characters. Stoney is white but Chen is not and even the black and white of the era couldn’t hide the exaggerated and stereotyped features. Put bluntly, Stoney is in yellowface and it’s an uncomfortable thing to try to overlook when reviewing a serial like this. Doctor Who has issues with race going back to the beginning, sometimes more subtle but never more obvious than in stories like this.

Nonetheless, racism aside, Stoney’s portrayal of Chen’s growing derangement is compelling. Too arrogant to admit he may have been the architect of his own downfall by aligning himself with the Daleks, he instead decides the Doctor has been auditioning for his role and has been working specifically to oust him from his position so he can take it.

The Doctor sets off the weapon of mass destruction that is the Time Destructor while Sara looks on, concerned

Completely mad by this point, Chen marches into the Dalek base with Sara and Stephen and declares himself Ruler of the Daleks and of Everything. When they refuse to take his orders, he fires a gun at them, which of course has no effect. As they drag him off to be executed, he continues ranting wildly.

You cannot turn against me! I, Mavic Chen, first ruler of the universe, am immortal!

Mavic Chen, (absolutely not Donald Trump)

At this point, the Doctor appears, having followed a Dalek into the base and snuck into the control room to set off the Time Destructor. Having the Dalek’s own weapon of mass destruction turned against them is narratively satisfying but it doesn’t change the fact that the Doctor chooses to unleash it without very much consideration of the consequences.

He technically has a plan for them to escape but it involves staying behind himself. We all know the Time Destructor won’t harm the Doctor as much or as quickly as a human being. But it’s not something Sara knows. Her entire outlook has been transformed by her recent experiences and she can’t countenance leaving somebody behind. She turns and heads back to help the Doctor.

Thus we get one of the most powerful and horrific scenes in Doctor Who history. While Stephen looks on helplessly from the TARDIS, the weapon speeds up time around them, slowly and terribly ageing Sara until she collapses. She tries to crawl weakly towards the safety of the TARDIS but in the end is reduced to a skeleton and blown away in a gust of wind.

It’s a truly brutal death for a character that started off believing blindly in an autocrat but then channelled that ruthless efficiency into correcting her own mistakes. Her death is gruesome but represents a true heroic arc from villain’s henchman to hero.

In a death-heavy serial, it’s hard to say whose is more tragic but the sum total of them makes this one of the darkest stories of Doctor Who to air. Not only do two (arguably three) companions die, but the Doctor unleashes a weapon of mass destruction that destroys an entire planet.

Steven runs out of the TARDIS and helps the Doctor back to the ship but Kembel, the Daleks and Sara are dust. It’s a bittersweet victory paid for with too many pointless deaths. “Bret, Katarina, Sara,” Steven cries in anguish.

What a waste. What a terrible waste.

The Doctor delivers the serial final, blunt line

As well as clocking in at a whopping five hours and being the longest Doctor Who serial ever, The Dalek’s Master Plan is a fantastic story undermined (arguably ruined) by a shallow and glib extension. Its underlying message – about the dangers of collaborating with the violent far right in the belief you can get rid of them when your work is done – has never been more appropriate than today.

I would have liked to see a more thoughtful extension fleshing out the plot elements and motivations that need more clarity. But the serial is what it is. Epic, bloated, sometimes total nonsense, and well worth the investment of time.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top