Thursday, 10 March 2016

Mission to the Unknown

Chapter The 20th, sans video, sans regular cast, sans happy ending.

A three-man rocket crew including Marc Cory, the Space James Bond, are stuck on the hostile planet Kembel. But any minute the Doctor will come along and save them. As well as killer plant life, there are Daleks based on the planet scheming with a bunch of evil co-conspirators to take over the solar system. But any minute the Doctor will come along and defeat them. The crew scramble to fix their ship, but it gets blown up by the Daleks before the Doctor can arrive. Desperately, they record an SOS, but all are killed before they can transmit it. The Doctor doesn’t show up.  Next Week: Ancient Troy. So, erm, The End.

This is one of the few whole stories for which no visual material exists, no master tapes, no film copies, no clips, no off-screen ‘telesnaps’, only audio. But, as luck would have it, it’s also the shortest ever Doctor Who story to date - ignoring charity skits and online prequels - at only 25 minutes long. There are fan-made animated versions of Mission to the Unknown online, but I stuck to listening to the BBC audio release with narration by Peter Purves. I did this using my generic fruit-based MP3 device during a commute to the day job, and I had the time to give it a couple of listens all the way through for clarity. (For the uninitiated, although it was scheduled as a stand-alone story, Mission to the Unknown acts as the prologue to the twelve episode epic, The Daleks Master Plan, two stories later, but I’ll blog that separately when the randomiser drags me back to Kembel).

First-time round:
For perhaps obvious reasons related to the majority percentage of communication that is conveyed visually, my memories of first experiencing audio-only Doctor Who stories are not as potent as for those that I could actually see. The multi-CD set of Mission to the Unknown / Daleks Master Plan came out in late 2001. This was before I started regularly buying anything online, but I was already commuting to work in those days; so, I likely bought it either from the MVC on London Bridge, or from Borders in Brighton. Crikey, I feel like I’m writing about the 18th century: neither of those establishments exists anymore.

I suppose it’s a good one to lose if you have to lose one, with only three main characters to keep track of; mind you, it doesn’t make it easy that their names all end in a ‘y’: Cory, Lowery, Garvey. Also, because I’m over familiar with the footage from Master Plan episode 1 of another doomed spaceman on Kembel, Kurt Gantry, I picture everyone as being played by Brian Cant. (Hey, Gantry is another one that ends in ‘y’, the space security service really needs to review the diversity of its hiring practices.)

It’s a shame not to have the mad delegates with their spots and stripes and Christmas tree hats to look at, but there is footage of them surviving from Master Plan later. Aside from them, one mainly has to picture Daleks, a jungle, and a rocket. And if one’s imagination isn’t good enough to do that, it doesn’t matter, as Terry Nation handily included Daleks, a jungle, a rocket, or some combination of the three in every Doctor Who episode he subsequently wrote, so you just have to remember those instead.

The story succeeds in channelling a Flash Gordon style Saturday morning picture vibe, with shrill stock incidental music, aliens, and transformations. But there are some issues: it feels a bit out of character for the Daleks to be forming a grand alliance, but one immediately rationalises this assuming that all their seven emissaries are rapidly gonna get offed. However – like most things in Mission to the Unknown – it’s not concluded in these 25 minutes.

Cory and Lowery bitch like theatrical luvvies, in a way hardened spacemen shouldn’t, and they’re the most unlucky crew in the universe: they choose to land on Kembel, but somehow manage to crash in such a spectacular way that their ship and the radio is rendered inoperable and they’re reduced to using a Space Message in a Bottle. But the story works nonetheless, and the piece is not long enough to outstay its welcome. One wonders, though, how many people at home in 1965 were watching confused as to why the Doctor never featured.

Both stories are about three members of a spacecraft crew stuck on a planet with something alien that will transform them. Both can lift out of the schedule without causing any head-scratching regarding following the overarching plot.

Deeper Thoughts:
What do you call someone who strives to collect something that can never be completed? Human.  Star Trek fans can own every episode ever made of their favourite SF show in the original broadcast format, the poor deprived souls. Where’s the imagination in that? Doctor Who, on the other hand, and despite its longevity, has scarcity built in. Even if they stop making episodes tomorrow, you’ll never have them all without some kind of miracle. This could be frustrating: clearly, Who attracts those of a collecting mindset, but it can’t ever possibly satisfy them.

The reasons for this are more than adequately documented in 'Wiped: Doctor Who's Missing Episodes' by Richard Molesworth, a very good book that tells the story far better than I can hope to do here. But to summarise: the BBC didn’t have a process for throwing recordings away, they only had a process for keeping them. Throwing recordings away was the default option, the path of least resistance; keeping them required effort and justification.

This wasn’t a callous or wasteful policy, it made perfect sense in the context of how TV drama originated, as broadcast live theatre. Programme recordings, filming in advance, video editing, all of these came gradually, and less from any desire to introduce film aesthetics than due to the convenience of not having to get a cast to perform the damn thing again a day or two later for the repeat. The BBC and Doctor Who were also not unique in this regard, of course.

The Beeb may not have been a commercial entity, but it was a corporate one, and it had a duty of cost effectiveness to the public. The tapes that Doctor Who were made on were as big as a bin lid, as heavy as a bin lorry, and as costly as a bin Laden, so they were wiped and reused. Film copies were made, but they took up valuable space, so they wouldn’t be kept forever either.  With hindsight, they should have woken up a few years earlier to the importance of their archive, but that’s easy to say now.

Now, this could be frustrating, and no doubt often is (we Doctor Who fans can be a miserable lot sometimes), but it’s also wonderful. Those lost episodes have inspired so much. For a start, dedicated individuals have made it their own mission to the unknown in trying to locate every last missing scrap. Thanks to all those efforts, the soundtrack to every episode has been located, as have clips and off-screen photos from most, and remarkably, the missing total of whole episodes has been reduced to only 97 at the last count. Beyond that, many technological advances of restoration have been inspired - bringing colour and video look where they had been lacking - and creative endeavours of reconstruction and animation.

I hope it's not too much to say that, in this regard, Doctor Who is a metaphor for life. You can strive for completion, and you'll never fully achieve it; but, the striving is the point.

In Summary:
Missing Mission.

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