Review: Doctor Who: The Dalek Masterplan, Part 1 (Mission to the Unknown) and Part 2 (The Mutation of Time) by John Peel

Daleks: Mission to the Unknown (Dr. Who: The Daleks' Master Plan, Part 1)

Clocking it at 13 episodes, “The Dalek Masterplan” is one of the longest stories from the classic series and one that, for a long time, I had next to no exposure to. I’d read the synopsis of it in my well-worn and much-loved copy of The Doctor Who Program Guide but beyond that I had little or no awareness of how the story unfolded episode to episode until the early 90’s when Target finally worked out a contract with Terry Nation to adapt several of the Dalek stories from the 60’s.

And given the long running time for the story, Target wisely decided to split the story into two halves, thus insuring that the story was done justice and that fans could purchase two books instead of one to complete their collection. The author chosen for this undertaking with John Peel, who had earlier had success adapting “The Chase” for the printed page. At the time, I recall thinking Peel was an ideal choice for the role and eagerly reading both installments.

Now close to twenty years later, I have visited Peel’s two part adaptation of the saga again and found that it doesn’t quite stand up to the test of time or my memory. Part of this could be that the BBC released narrated soundtracks of the episodes years ago, thus allowing me to get as close as possible to experiencing the lost story as we’re ever likely to get (assuming they don’t turn up tomorrow and I have to buy the story on DVD). There is also the DVD release of the three orphaned episodes from this story that exist in the archives which serve only to whet the appetite for more (it’s probably for the best that the seventh installment which serves as the series first Christmas special isn’t one of them. I think the three episodes we have do a nice job of giving us a taste without necessarily overstaying their welcome).

mutation of timeAll that is to say that listening to the audio reading of the two books that make up the Target adaptation of “The Dalek Masterplan” wasn’t nearly as entertaining or exciting this time around. And a lot of that I have to put firmly at the feet of John Peel. It’s not that he does a terrible job adapting the stories — he gives a fine effort. It’s just that his stories lack any shadings or dramatic tension. The big moments in the story don’t seem any more big than any other moments or carry any type of emotional weight for the characters. For example, it feels like the death of a companion (even one as short-lived as Katarina) should carry more weight to it than Peel gives it here. (This is my biggest criticism of his two Troughton Dalek adaptions as well — he doesn’t give certain events that should be pivotal any more weight than others). I also feel like the return of the Meddling Monk should be given more weight than it does here, if only because this is only the second foe the Doctor has ever faced to return at this point in the series.

Instead of what should be a celebration of everything that is good and bad about 60’s Doctor Who in one, extra-long story, we get an adaptation that is more workman-like than anything else. Looking back over Peel’s offerings to classic Who Target novels, I can’t help but think he really peaked with “The Chase” simply because that story was a bit more fun and less loaded with emotional moments than other stories (well, beyond Ian and Barbara leaving, but he manages to get that right (for the most part)).

Even his adapting of the seventh episode that is a Christmas special and relatively Dalek-free isn’t nearly as much fun or a romp as it should be.

I will, however, give Peel some credit for making the story seem a bit more epic than it is and introducing some room to insert )lost stories in the middle. There’s a gap between books one and two where the Doctor, Stephen and Sara Kingdom could have had other adventures before turning their attention back to the matter at hand of defeating the Daleks and avoiding giving them the core of the Time Destructor. It also allows for a bit of breathing room and bringing readers back up to speed in case it had been a while since you read part one or you hadn’t pick up part one at all.

The audio performances by Jean Marsh and Peter Purvis work well, re-affirming my belief that some of the best Target audio adaptations have come from the first Doctor era. Of course, part of that is you could have William Russell read the call sheets from that era and he’d manage to make it sound dignified and fun. I argue also that this was an era when writers were allowed to add a bit more a flourish to the Target novels. Instead of slavishly adapting the scripts, the writers were allowed to expand the stories and worlds a bit and the novels benefited greatly from it.

Alas, this isn’t one of what I’d call the better examples of that freedom. It’s good and I can certainly recall being glad to see it on my shelf all those years ago. But listening again, I can’t help but feel that this story could and should have deserved better. And still wondering if someday, hopefully we might all be watching it again on DVD.

On a side note, I have to say that the covers for these books were among my favorites of the range, especially the one for
the second novel “The Mutation of Time.”

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