Mission to the Unknown (2019) review

Exactly 54 years after it was broadcast, `Mission to the Unknown` or `Dalek Cutaway` or  `The Beasts from UGH` is back, Back BACK!  The most stunning aspect of this faithful remounting of one of many missing episodes is that after less than a minute you believe you’re watching something from 1964. The tone of the picture, the way it is acted, the tight sets and most of all the odd tilt of those old heavy cameras all seem so authentic. Perhaps the only thing that betrays this as a product of 2019 is that the cast are younger than possibly anyone looked in the Sixties! The product of painstaking research courtesy of the University of Central Lancashire this is quite an achievement. 

Famously, the original episode doesn’t feature the series regulars at all and they’re not even mentioned - the only official episode in which this happened and a reflection of the popularity of the Daleks in 1965. Tucked away in his mind along with icecanoes and people called Tarrant, Terry Nation had an idea of having a Dalek series and `Mission` demonstrates the pros and cons such a project would have. On the one hand there is no doubting the screen presence of the metal meanies especially in the Sixties,. They must have looked astounding to viewers then and even today there is something special about them. On the other hand you need larger sets than this episode had to successfully move them about and at the end of the day their narrative options are somewhat limited. Amusingly Nation has them talking more causally here and in other Sixties appearances.

Mission to the Unknown` is possibly the most unusual Doctor Who episode anyway and nowadays seems a bit like programme’s own Rogue One if you like. A small crew are trapped on the planet Kembel after reports of Dalek ships. One of the crew is a space security agent called Marc Cory and they discover a Dalek plan to invade the Galaxy in league with some outer planets. I’m not sure why they need these other worlds but it was an excuse for the production team to go to town on a number of weird alien designs. We see more in the big story but here we do have shouty Malpha whose proclamations of the impending conquest are very Sixties villain indeed. And there’s Daleks too with their customary Sixties menace. It was always the case that whatever else was going on the Daleks looked cool and dangerous.

In many respects this is like a very long opening to the very, very long `Dalek Masterplan` so possesses the attributes of a pre – titles sequence with a brief though compelling plot. The compact three man crew we meet are already well into their mission with one of them infected by the deadly Varga plants who inhabit the planet and move extraordinarily slowly. In fact there’s a later scene where they are surrounding the ship but don’t seem to be moving at all. Anyone infected turns into a Varga in a sudden yet well executed moment. It’s a slight issue that the Varga look like a sort of exotic pudding but there you go. The other major effect is the Dalek gun which is done perfectly and accompanied by the trademark sound effect still underline the ruthlessness of the race.

What I love as well as the accuracy of the recreation is that they haven’t attempted to apply any kind of modern sensibility to proceedings. They never break the character of the era which means some shouty, serious acting, some awkward movement and sets where the studio floor is visible between a rather small amount of leaves. Sticking rigidly to the original script means plenty of stoic declarations from characters that occasionally seem melodramatic so Cory doesn’t start rhapsodising about who he’s left at home or referencing his favourite song. These are things that could conceivably be bettered but that is never the point. Even the occasional uneven camera movement, which is evident in many a 60s episode, is present and correct! Everything is presented as close as possible to how they were because these things mattered less in the Sixties when they were watched once on grainier tv sets.

The cast are great giving it the full- on hard faced Sixties style acting. Characters were never natural in those days and they catch that approach so well here. You can see how the designers of 1964 stretched their imaginations when it comes to the alien life forms. Though they do look a bit odd now, the Varga plants are an interesting idea while the selection of outer world delegates we meet are as good as most of the aliens you’d see in series like Star Trek which was still a few years away. My favourite is the shadowy one with orange tints in the mask. Proving that most planets have a North decades before the Doctor said so is Malpha whose the lippiest of the delegates with a tub thumping approach which makes him seem like the delegate’s union rep! I bet the others moan about him behind his back even though they all join in the “Victory!” chant at the end. These reproduced costumes are a triumph for the UCLAN team and they look indistinguishable from the originals save for obvious differences in actors’ faces.

The episode is neatly placed by Terry Nation at a point where matters coalesce  so that the truth can be found out and even though I knew the outcome there’s a little tension towards the end when you’re willing Cory to send that message in time. 

Could other missing episodes be reproduced in this manner? Considering this is a university project and thus budget limited I would guess a professional tv production company – or even the BBC- could afford to do some if they limited themselves to reproducing faithfully what was originally broadcast. Some fans might object to recasting, especially when it comes to the Doctors, but this has been seen in the actual series with David Bradley and Richard Hurndall at different times portraying the first Doctor. Such an exercise has also been successfully achieved with a completely new cast on two missing episodes of Dad’s Army and you can’t get more iconic tv characters than that team.

Who knows what the future holds? It may even soon be possible to actually have the likes of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton reprising their performances by matching digital recreations of them with the soundtrack. If it is a choice between never seeing an episode or having it faithfully remounted I would always vote for the latter because now it feels like I really have seen `Mission to the Unknown`. The highest praise I can give to this project is that it now seems like one more missing episode has been found.

Who was Daphne Dare? 

·        She was a costume designed on 87 episodes of Doctor Who during both the First and Second Doctor’s periods

·        She designed for tv, film and stage productions in both the UK and US

·        She worked at the Bristol Old Vic from 1958 - 1963

·        From 1964 to 1968 she was at the BBC as a costume designer on various programmes but for some reason never had to use the Varga plants again.

·        In 1967 she became the Head of Design at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter

·        Amongst the productions she worked with Robin Phillips on in the early 1970s were Two Gentlemen of Verona (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1970) with a young Patrick Stewart, Abelard and Heloise (Wyndham's, 1970) with Diana Rigg, Dear Antoine (Chichester and Piccadilly, 1971), Miss Julie (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1971).

·        In 1973 she and Robin Phillips worked on a season at Greenwich with a company that included Jeremy Brett, Mia Farrow, Elisabeth Bergner, Penelope Keith, and Lynn Redgrave, in productions such as The House of Bernarda Alba, Three Sisters, Born Yesterday, Cats Play, and Zorba.

·        She worked as costume supervisor on the iconic film Kes. (btw she did not design the Kestral)

·        In 1975, she became the Head of Design at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, under artistic director Robin Phillips. She designed over thirty-five productions.

·        During the 1990s she focused primarily on film, working frequently with Ken Loach, including on his film Carla's Song (1996).

·        There is an exhibition of her work at Ohio University 

·        She was not related to Dan Dare

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