Sandwiched between the adventures of the TARDIS crew with the Drahvin warriors in Galaxy 4 and their encounter with The Myth Makers of ancient Greece, the Mission to the Unknown was an oddity and an exception, as the Doctor, Vicki and Steven were made absent for a week, principally to give William Hartnell, Maureen O’Brien and Peter Purves a much-needed break from the hectic year-round production schedule of Doctor Who, then in its third season.
In an arrangement which continues to this day in the “Doctor light” episodes such as Blink or Turn Left, it had been normal practice to simply write a character out for a week, captured by an enemy or fallen ill, solely represented by a pre-filmed insert or voiceover so they could maintain a minimal presence while the actor sunned themselves abroad, but Mission to the Unknown was an experiment.
The only episode of Doctor Who to be entirely self-contained and separate, with none of the regular cast present or referred to although Hartnell maintains his contractual credit in the end titles, instead it featured the most popular villains of the period, the Daleks, on the distant planet of Kembel, under investigation by Space Security Agent Marc Cory who believes an invasion is imminent.
A prelude to the twelve parts of The Daleks’ Master Plan scheduled for broadcast immediately after the TARDIS departed the city of Troy, it could be produced cheaply, largely using the sets and costumes already in preparation for that upcoming epic, but equally it was an episode which could be seen as inconsequential, easily disposable when the BBC were junking material in the sixties and seventies, the reusable videotape more valuable than serials which would never be rebroadcast.
So it was that Saturday 9th October 1965 was the sole screening of Mission to the Unknown in Britain, the master tapes lost, though set photographs, a camera script and an audio recording survived, all that was extant until it was announced earlier this year that the University of Central Lancashire’s media department were preparing to restage the episode as a student project
Produced and directed by Andrew Ireland using Terry Nation’s original script, it is significant that this is not a remake or a reinterpretation of director Derek Martinus’ original so much a recreation, as close to the original production as possible, with no attempt to update the production values, minimal special effects or to adapt the acting style to modern expectations.
For that reason, Mission to the Unknown is unlikely to have a broader appeal beyond those with an existing affection bordering on obsession with the original series and the lost episodes, but for them it is a nostalgic treat, a slightly distorted glimpse through the time/space visualiser to what once was but would otherwise never have been again.
Kembal a jungle planet filled with thick leafy foliage (actually a proliferation of pot plants around the studio floor), could the surface recall what Skaro was like before the long war between the Thals and the Kaleds rendered it a radioactive desert of petrified trees? And who would have thought of the Daleks as botanists, cultivating and transplanting the deadly Varga trees of their homeworld?
The vessel of UN Deep Space Force Group 1 an impressively accurate recreation, perhaps appropriately the interior set is appreciably larger than could be contained within the exterior, and while Marco Simioni, Dan Gilligan and Jacob Marisson do their best as the stoic human expedition of Cory, Gordon Lowery and Jeff Garvey, they are underwritten roles in a filler episode but better developed than the representatives of “the seven great powers of the outer universe.”
Pantomime villains in authentically ridiculous costumes and makeup shouting proclamations that they are “the greatest war force ever assembled,” they are unconvincing accomplices of the Daleks, starkly presented in the classic monochrome in which they established themselves a part of the national consciousness, their dialogue spoken Nicholas Briggs as uncompromising as ever as befits the final promise of the project, that “the Daleks will return.”