Retrospective: Mission to the Unknown

Foreshadowing the events of The Daleks’ Master Plan, Mission to the Unknown comes in a short, sharp burst of energy, encompassing the adrenaline and danger of the lives of a space crew attacked from all sides. It’s about desperation, nerve, and… well, the unknown.

What an apt title for an episode which sees us without the safety net.

The Doctor always arrives – look, he’s listed in the credits! – and saves the day. But not this time. This time, the Doctor Who universe has to survive without its titular hero.

And if you want to survive without spoilers, you’d best leave this article imminently and come back once you’ve given the soundtrack a thorough listen.

We see the consequences of this Doctor-less place (and the theme of the piece) surprisingly quickly, as Barry Jackson’s Jeff Garvey is despatched. But at least he made a good impression at the end of Galaxy 4, helping to draw in 8.3 million viewers to the only stand-alone episode of ‘Classic’ Who. (Last seen as Ascaris in The Romans, Jackson returns once more as Drax in 1979’s The Armageddon Factor, fact fans.)

Through Garvey’s death, we’re introduced to the hero-of-the-hour, Marc Cory (Edward de Souza), a man on a mission. And here, Mission to the Unknown’s inspirations are revealed: Cory works for the “Space Security Services – Licensed to Kill.” He put this into action when he shot Garvey. Doesn’t sound like much of a hero – but it was a mercy kill, as Jeff had been infected by a thorn of a Varga plant. That’s one dangerous bit of black felt. Yes, Mission to the Unknown is James Bond meets Day of the Triffids.

Kembel is “the most hostile planet in the universe. People from other civilisations avoid it” and the jungle that surrounds our two remaining protagonists, Cory and Gordon Lowery (Jeremy Young), is very impressive. It feels genuinely intimidating, dangerous, and close (admittedly, the studio was pretty cramped), excellent work that looks to have inspired further serials like Planet of Evil and Terror of the Vervoids. The latter’s, uhm, roots may also lie in this episode’s juxtaposition of the futuristic (Cory’s tech) and the organic.

The crew achieved some wonderful things with limited funds; the space ship is nicely designed, and while the interior isn’t as impressive in scale, it’s still pretty cool. (Oh, and Cory apparently asked for a small rocket, so that’s alright.) All the related paraphernalia feels like a natural extension of the ship too, with some neat-looking guns and stylistic spacesuits, the designs of which remind me somewhat of The Android Invasion.

And that’s not the only bit of gleaming metal in the story. Cory reveals why he’s really there: a ship has been spotted over Kembel, and the Varga plants confirm the worst, as they only naturally grow on the planet Skaro. About ten minutes in, we see the Daleks.

It must’ve been a surprise for a 1965 audience to have the Daleks return again so soon after The Chase, but they nonetheless add some gravitas to a tale which began as a ‘base-under-siege’ story (where the whole planet is the enemy!). Their inclusion really gives Mission to the Unknown a sense of doom and it’s this fascinating and exhilarating dread that’s kept them popular for over 50 years. You can easily see how they prop up an episode without the Doctor.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but I wonder how far into the episode the audience would’ve realised that the TARDIS isn’t going to materialise. The idea of what happens when the Doctor isn’t there is, of course, genius – and it’s further explored in Turn Left and Love & Monsters – but I’m not sure that’s what writer, Terry Nation, had in mind when scripting Mission to the Unknown. What he might’ve thought was, ‘cor, the Daleks are cool, aren’t they?’ Or perhaps more accurately, ‘cor, the Daleks could make me loads more money.’ Because Mission to the Unknown is as much a pilot episode as a prologue.

Based on this, Nation’s idea of a TV show centred on the Daleks would’ve worked brilliantly. But thank God it didn’t go ahead, or else we probably wouldn’t have incredible stories like Genesis of the Daleks, Remembrance of the Daleks, and Bad Wolf/ The Parting of the Ways.

Mission to the Unknown is, most notably, a prologue to The Daleks’ Master Plan, so we see “the beginning of the great alliance,” mainly consisting of an ashen Christmas tree and a man with the Giant’s Causeway for a face. It’s an odd bunch, but you can see how the Daleks fit in. The alliance’s voices are ridiculous, by the way, while the Daleks’ barkings are excellent… on and off. Still, it’s fairly obvious a war is coming.

And it’s up to Marc Cory and Gordon Lowery to save the solar system!

There’s “not a chance” they can repair the ship, so their only hope lies in contacting another of their fleet. If all else fails, they can warn everyone about the Daleks using a device like “an ordinary tape recorder” (because they still have them in the far future – and I’m pretty sure the buttons still stick).

Edward de Souza is a great James Bo – – uh, secret agent, but it’s Jeremy Young’s Lowery who’s the hidden gem here, suitably grouchy and out-of-his-depth. Young, incidentally, played Kal in An Unearthly Child, the first villain in Doctor Who (yes, he was that shadow at the end of the very first episode) and was married to the Rani herself, Kate O’Mara, from 1961 to 1976!

… So it’s a shame that he’s turned into a ticking bomb when he’s stung by a Varga plant. With roots that pull the main body along, the Varga plants are a deliciously scary concept (though not realised to their full potential), and The Ark in Space and The Seeds of Doom surely owe Mission to the Unknown a debt.

There’s some wonderfully dramatic incidental music (albeit stock) that helps the production crew – kept on from Galaxy 4 – achieve the Armageddon feel. There are one or two little mistakes – like the Daleks stupidly announcing their secret plans over the tannoy – but, on the whole, the episode is a triumph, heightened by the fact that no one is coming to save them.

Of course, this isn’t the last we hear of Kembel, or the alliance, and certainly not of the Daleks, with Nicholas Courtney’s Bret Vyon and Brian Cant’s Kert Gantry investigating what happened to Cory. But while it foreshadows the future, it’s also a tribute to a huge factor in what made Doctor Who such a success: Mission to the Unknown is the last serial to be produced by the ever-amazing Verity Lambert, who died in 2007.

But let’s carry on looking at the future – at her legacy.

And, coming right after Mission: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon colonies will all fall! But guess which planet is first! PLUS: Daleks! The Time Destructor! And – – oh, wait. No, we’re in Troy, aren’t we…?