One of the great lost stories of Doctor Who history makes a triumphant return in the University of Central Lancashire’s remount of Mission to the Unknown
It’s 5.50pm. Teatime. Tens of thousands of people of all ages lean forward in unison as a black and white image flickers into life. It’s a new episode of Doctor Who. But also not. Because this isn’t playing on cathode ray tubes in 1965 but on another kind of tube entirely. YouTube, in fact. And filming of this Mission to the Unknown took place earlier this year, in February 2019.
Not that you could tell. Mission to the Unknown is such an authentic slice of 1960s television that if you sat someone unfamiliar with the story in front of it and told them it was the genuine article, they’d likely believe it. But the fact that there once really was a genuine article makes this version all the more remarkable. The original Doctor Who episode aired exactly 54 years to the minute before the remake. But it’s one of the 97 episodes still missing from the BBC Archive today. It graced screens only once, and never repeated. And only a handful of photos from the production exist, though we have the complete soundtrack thanks for dedicated fans who recorded the audio from their televisions on October 9th, 1965.
Resisting the urge to improve on the past, the look and feel of sixties Who is authentically recreated
So we do have a yardstick by which to measure how close the new 2019 Mission matches it. Extensive research helped recreate the same production methods in use in 1960s television. And it doesn’t merely accomplish that goal, but does so spectacularly. This origin, as a special project for students at the University of Central Lancashire gives it a unique mandate and opportunity. These days even official BBC Studios animations of missing episodes can’t help but tweak the stories. But led by producer/director Andrew Ireland, this remount firmly resists any temptation to improve on the original.
So the jungles of Kembel have the same distinctly smooth ground as in the surviving studio photos. While you get some fantastically Doctor Who moments. Like when our heroes and a Dalek work hard not to notice each other across two feet of set. Even Terry Nation’s most cosmologically challenged script survives, word perfectly, into the 21st century. So his interchangeable use of ‘solar system’, ‘galaxy’ and ‘universe’ as all meaning pretty much the same thing can be brought to a whole new generation to scratch their heads over. Right down to Malpha’s glorious and surprising revelation that the Daleks are from Earth’s Solar system.
With the new life breathed into it by UCLan, Mission to the Unknown is revealed as a tense and atmospheric drama
So is Blogtor Who suggesting that this is a great recreation of a duff story? Not a bit of it. If anything one of the gifts of UCLan’s work is to make clear how much there is to enjoy in Mission to the Unknown. It’s always been one of the hardest lost stories to appreciate on audio. There are many long pauses filled only with generic jungle sounds, or the hum of Daleks slowly gliding into position. While the throaty, growly alien delegates make for difficult listening at times.
But reborn on screen, Mission to the Unknown is a mood. Tension and dread fills every shot panning across a monochrome jungle. The Daleks (brought back to life with the help of Dalek enthusiast and operator James Burgess) move among the rest of the cast with that ideal mix of menace and disdain. And being able to see the alien delegates makes an incredible difference. Looking simultaneously silly and frightening, like all the best Doctor Who beasties, they’re so much more than a random collection of murmerers. Scribbles of them must have appeared on a hundred school copy books the Monday after the original aired, and it would be nice to think a few more appeared this week too.
The entire cast step perfectly into the world of classic television acting
Paul Stenton as Malpha bears singling out for particular praise. He’s plainly having a whale of a time being a Doctor Who monster. It wouldn’t have been a shock if the episode had ended with Malpha declaring “And the first to be chewed will be… this bit of scenery here! Nom nom nom!” And yet, listening to the original audio, this captures perfectly how Robert Cartland played the part in 1965. It’s simply that actually being able to see Stenton transforms Malpha from a dull shouter to a fun, sparky performance. It’s probably the greatest opportunity to reappraise a Doctor Who villain ever.
Stenton even holds his own against Nicholas Briggs. Official voice of the Daleks since 2005, he’s the projects only ‘ringer’ brought in from outside. But he too seems fired up by the opportunity and having a great time. Briggs may have taken part in huge extravaganzas for audiences in their millions on BBC One. But Blogtor Who suspects this really is Briggs living his ultimate dream in 625 lines of black and white.
UCLan’s cast for the human characters acquit themselves equally well. They step seamlessly into the roles and their interpretation of that particular 1960s brand of clipped, earnest heroism is such that there’s no doubt that, given access to a TARDIS, they would all have become steady fixtures of British TV of the time. Marco Simioni carries easily the weight of being the story’s effective lead. He also manages the most subtle trick in the production by making his new Marc Cory both completely true to Edward DeSouza’s original and slightly more human and likeable. On paper Cory’s not just carved from solid ice, but the type of ice that has bits of stone hidden inside, beloved of little playground menaces every winter. But in allowing him rare, momentary flickers of doubt and anxiety Simioni hints the spark of humanity beneath the ice.
The project represents a unique and special opportunity that’s been seized with both hands
Mission to the Unknown is famously an anomaly in the history of Doctor Who. It’s our first window into how cruel the universe can seem when the Doctor doesn’t turn up to save you. And in isolation it can seem pessimistic, almost nihilistic, with its clearly doomed heroes and all conquering Daleks. And it only really fits into the Doctor Who universe when considered alongside its sequel, The Daleks’ Master Plan, in which the Doctor steps forward to put an end to the shenanigans on Kembel, if at a terrible cost.
So here’s hoping that someday, somehow, The Daleks’ Master Plan can live again too. And that it’s done with the same dedication, talent and skill as UCLan brought to Mission to the Unknown.