The story is set in the year 4000, and concerns the discovery by the Doctor and his friends of a conspiracy between the Daleks and the Guardian of the Solar System, Mavic Chen, who we take to be a benevolent dictator-type figure with a cult of personality, ruling a thriving economy with colonial ambitions, mineral exploitation and a sinister security service - inspired no doubt by Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portuigal, both of whom had been in power for three decades when the story was made. Mavic Chen is one of the great Doctor Who villains, believing that he can use the Daleks for even greater power than he currently holds, via the feared Time Destructor. But the Doctor steals the core of the Time Destructor, and is pursued through time and space by the Daleks.
It's a story that marks an interesting shift in the core narrative of the show, coinciding with the departure of the original producer Verity Newman and her replacement by John Wiles. The Doctor was originally a mysterious and cantankerous eccentric from another time and place; now he becomes a somewhat superhuman hero from a far future society, a vision that has stayed with us ever since. The Doctor spontaneously decides to infiltrate the Daleks' summit meeting himself and steal the tarranuim core; he is insufferably snobbish about the quaint technology of the year 4000; his non-human physiology survives the Time Destructor. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we only really see this under the new management of Season 3.
The surrounding cast are interesting as well. We start the story proper with the Doctor accompanied by Steven Taylor, a future rocket pilot, and Katarina, a handmaiden to the priestess Cassandra who they have just recued from the fall of Troy. Katarina, the shortest-lived companion of Old Who, is written out in episode four; so is Bret Vyon, a security agent played by Nicholas Courtney, later of course to become the Brigadier, who we meet in the first episode and also looks likely to become a companion (but unlike Katarina, was never billed as such). In the first four episodes, in fact, we have the Doctor with effectively two male companions and one female - a pattern that was not repeated until the arrival of the Thirteenth Doctor in 2018.
Episode four also sees the introduction of Sara Kingdom, another security agent, played by Jean Marsh. She must have been the highest profile actor to appear as a companion so far, other than perhaps William Russell, and after her probably only Bonnie Langford in Old Who (and Billie Piper, Catherine Tate, Matt Lucas and Bradley Walsh in New Who) exceeded her level of celebrity at the point they came on board the Tardis. She
As well as the Daleks, we also encounter a time-travelling Monk, who had previously appeared in an earlier 1965 story in which he attempted to change the outcome of English history in 1066 but was outwitted by the Doctor. Until the end of the Patrick Troughton era, the Monk was the only other member of the Doctor's own people who we met (except, presumably, his granddaughter Susan). He pops up in two episodes towards the end.
The story is a bleak one. Sorry for the spoiler, but Katarina is killed by launching herself into space with a deranged criminal to save the others; Bret Vyon is killed in error by Sara Kingdom, who turns out to be is own sister; the Monk ends up marooned on an ice planet by the Doctor; and when the Time Destructor is finally activated, Sara Kingdom suffers the same fate as the Daleks and is aged to death (the Doctor being less badly affected). The two credited authors, Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner, both made most of their career in comedy, so it's impressive that they pull off the tension.
Up to a point. There is a straight comedy episode in the middle of the story, broadcast on Christmas Day 1965; the TARDIS lands at a police station in England and is mistaken for a real police box, and then visits a 1930s film studio in Hollywood for merry chaos. At the end, the Doctor pours champagne for Steven and Sara, and then breaks the fourth wall, wishing "a Merry Christmas to all of you at home". The next episode has a couple of funny moments at a cricket match and Trafalgar Square, but mostly gets back to the serious business of fighting Daleks. It jars modern sensibilities, but in context I think it works - the previous five episodes of the story (and the last of the previous one) have been unremittingly grim, and there's more of that to come, so it's nice to have a change of tone.
I also should mention the single-episode prequel, Mission to the Unknown, the only Doctor Who story in which the Doctor himself does not actually appear. It features special agent Marc Cory on the planet Kembel, uncovering the Daleks' sinister intentions but losing his life to the sinister pepperpots. The episode is lost, but it was daringly recreated by the drama department of the University of Central Lancashire a couple of years ago, doing their best to be true to the original production values (and coming close to succeeding).
Going back to the original version: there is so much to like about it. It all looks good. Unlike in some later years, the constraints are not so much the production values as the technical limitations - if you know what you are looking for, you can see the actors huddle in the restricted angle of view of the cameras, and the careful choreaography of the Daleks so that they look menacing rather than fragile. The sets are economical but generally impressive as well, as far as we can see through photographs and the surviving episodes. The music is just superb. There's a compilation on Youtube here:
I first encountered it through the audio narration by Peter Purves, releasaed by the BBC in 2001 and still available at a price. Purves had a deep affection for Hartnell and for this story, and provides the narration of what we would have seen on screen pretty intensely and convincingly. This the first Doctor Who story that I got to know entirely through audio when I was first discovering the black and white era, and I listened to it again the other week; the magic is still there. Also available on Audible since that's how things go these days. Perfect for a long car journey (and I do mean a long one - it's a good six hours in total).
The reconstructions of the missing episodes by Loose Cannon are available on Dailymotion as of this writing, and can probably also be obtained by the usual methods. If you're in a TV watching mood, they are as close to the original experience as you can get, but the three surviving epsiodes really bring home to you what has been lost.
John Peel was given the job of turning the story into a Target novelisation, and was given two books totalling 331 pages to do it - a bit more generous in terms of pages per episode than some of the medium length Old Who stories got. It's one of the better novelisations, with some of the trickier plot points retconned and a lot of establishing background given for the setting. Chen's plan turns out to involve eliminating most of humanity, which is more extreme than we are given to understand in the TV version. There's an odd plot alteration at the end of the second last episode/beginning of the last, where the Doctor is captured along with Steven and Sara rather than evading the Daleks as on TV; perhaps it is a bit more logical. Anyway, there are plenty of copies floating around on the second-hand market; you can get the first volume, Mission to the Unknown, here and the second volume, The Mutation of Time, here.
Also floating around the darker corners of the internet you can find a PDF of a twelve volume comics adaptation of the story by Rick Lundeen. He skips the comedy Christmas episode, but otherwise remains pretty faithful to the script, adapting the visuals for the comics genre. Unconstrained by the technical limitations of the camera, he is able to give the story a lot more colour and movement; well worth trracking down (also, in these hurried times, a quicker read than the novelisations). And he gives Sara Kingdom a very sexy figure.
Here are three different takes on the same scene from the second episode so that you can appreciate the different approaches of each creator in each medium. The Doctor has disguised himself as an alien delegate to infiltrate the meeting (that's William Hartnell in the hood and cloak). Here is the original TV version.
Here's John Peel's adaptation from the first book, Mission to the Unknown:
‘Search for him!’And here is Rick Lundgreen's economic graphic adaptation:
Watching the Dalek glide away on its task, Mavic Chen felt a deep satisfaction. Capital! The more trouble he could stir up between the Daleks and these ridiculous allies of theirs, the better. When everything was finished, there would be that much more left for him to grasp...
The Doctor watched his three young companions scurry towards the large starship on the launch pad, and nodded with satisfaction. Now it was time for him to make his move. He had managed to conceal his own unease about his foolish plan from the others, but he was not at all sure he was being very wise. Still, they had to know what the Daleks were planning, and this was their best chance.
Pushing his fears down, the Doctor pulled the hood over his head, and started walking towards the doorway to the building.
The door hissed open, and a Dalek glided out. The eye-stick spun to examine him. The Doctor swallowed instinctively, and hoped that his disguise was as effective as he had believed. If the Dalek suspected his identity for a second, his life would be forfeit.
‘Delegate of Zephon,’ the Dalek grated, ‘the meeting is about to begin.’ The Doctor waved his hand, and the Dalek spun about and led the way into the city. As he entered, the Doctor seized his chance to look around. The walls and floors were all constructed of metal, since the Daleks found this easiest to travel over. It also served to carry auxiliary power for their units, in that strange form of static electricity they had mastered centuries before on their home world of Skaro. These Daleks could move freely about without needing metal below them, thanks to solar panels about their mid-sections, but they still constructed their buildings of pure metal.
One large window faced out at the space-port, but there was no one in the room now who might see Bret, Steven and Katarina as they crossed the open space to the Spar.
The Dalek led the Doctor into a short corridor, and from there into a large, dimly lit room. Some twenty feet away, a meeting table was illuminated. About one side was the Black Dalek and several of its minions.
The Black Dalek! This had to be important, then, for the Black Dalek was second in the Dalek hierarchy, and rarely left the planet Skaro. Now, more than ever, the Doctor knew he had to discover what was happening here.
‘You seem lost, representative Zephon,’ said Mavic Chen.
The Doctor recalled seeing him land in the Spar, and there was no doubt now of his identity. ‘Here is your place, next to me.’
The Doctor didn’t dare risk speaking, so he grunted in reply, and moved to the lectern that the traitor had pointed to. Glancing around, the Doctor recognized no more than two of the other species present. These were beings from the outer galactic groups indeed!
The Black Dalek had had enough of delays.
‘Representatives,’ it stated, ‘I have important news. The manufacture of the Time Destructor has now been completed.’
By the sighs and excited looks on the face of the other delegates, the Doctor realized he was the only one who had no idea what a Time Destructor was. Still, it sounded ominous enough, and given the Dalek capacity for inventiveness when it came to mass destruction and murder, it was certainly a weapon to be reckoned with.
Clearly, the Dalek was pleased with the effect its words had had. ‘It lacks only its Taranium core to activate it. Mavic Chen will speak.’
A born politician, Chen could never resist the chance for a speech.
Anyway, if you are not all that familiar with Old Who, particularly the partially lost episodes, and want to improve your knowledge, I think The Daleks' Master Plan (and the prequel Mission to the Unknown) will well reward the time investment needed to experience them. Rather a delight to return to it in days of not getting out all that much.