The Daleks begin planning for something called “Operation Inferno” while Mavic Chen, “guardian of the solar system”, confides in an ally that he is planning to betray Earth and its colonies to the invaders in exchange for power. Meanwhile the TARDIS appears on Kembel (the planet from “Mission to the Unknown”) where the Doctor sets out to explore, leaving Steven to recover with Katarina’s help. Steven and Katarina are rescued from a Dalek patrol by Bret and Kert, two soldiers looking for Marc Cory, although the latter is killed by the Daleks. The Doctor learns that they are in the year 4000 and that the Daleks are up to something, but nobody can agree what to do as Steven, the Doctor, and Bret indulge in some alpha male posturing. To escape a fire in the jungle started by the Daleks in order to smoke them out, the Doctor and the others sneak into the Dalek base, where they and their allies have gathered again. While the Doctor disguises himself as one of the representatives, the others work on stealing Mavic Chen’s spaceship. At the meeting, Mavic Chen presents a weapon called the “time destructor” that needs a rare element called taranium, but before the Doctor can learn more his ruse is exposed. Bret prepares to fly the ship without the Doctor in order to make sure they warn Earth before getting caught, but the Doctor makes it to the ship in time, along with the taranium, which he managed to steal in the confusion.
On the way to Earth, the Doctor produces the tape left by Corey, which he found in the jungle. Of course, the tape confirms their suspicions that the Daleks are planning a massive invasion of the solar system. Soon the Daleks manage to cause their ship to crash and unfortunately it happens to land on a prison planet. The Doctor uses electricity to keep the prisoners at bay long enough for Bret to repair the ship while the pursuing Daleks accidentally crash on the planet too. Unfortunately, one criminal who managed to get in the ship regardless takes Katarina hostage and threatens to kill her unless they take him to the nearest planet, which happens to be Kembel. After the others comply, Katarina opens the airlock, killing both her and the criminal. Steven cannot believe that she could have done it deliberately, but the Doctor thinks otherwise.
At last reaching Earth, Bret enlists the help of a friend, Daxtar, but the Doctor figures out that Daxtar is secretly working for Mavic Chen. To the Doctor’s horror, Bret promptly kills Daxtar. When Mavic Chen’s chief of security, Sara Kingdom, arrives, Bret is killed fighting her, giving the others enough time to escape. Sara chases the Doctor and Steven into a laboratory where a teleportation device is being tested, causing them to end up on the planet Mira. Steven and the Doctor learn that Bret was Sarah’s brother and that she was convinced they were all traitors, but Sarah is soon convinced that Mavic Chen is the real villain. The Daleks are hot on their trail, but unfortunately the natives of Mira turn out to be unfriendly – and invisible. Luckily the two problems cancel each other out, giving the Doctor and company the opportunity to hijack the Daleks’ ship. However, the Daleks take control of the ship remotely and steer it toward Kembel. On the fly the Doctor constructs a false piece of taranium and offers it to the Daleks if they allow them to hand it over in the TARDIS. They accept, thinking they have nothing to lose. However, Steven, who conducts the handover, is protected from the Daleks’ attacks by a force field, which gives them time to escape in the TARDIS. From there the TARDIS lands in 1960s England, where they are briefly arrested, and 1920s Hollywood, where they accidentally wreak havoc on the set of a silent film. For all that, the TARDIS’ crew still take time to celebrate Christmas.
After several more brief adventures, the TARDIS begins to be pursued by both Mavic Chen and the Daleks, who have realized the Doctor’s trick, and the Monk, out for revenge for when the Doctor stranded him in Anglo-Saxon England. Everyone ends up in ancient Egypt, where Mavic Chen forces the Monk into an alliance. Pretty effortlessly the Doctor catches the Monk in wrappings and traps him in a tomb. Sara and Steven rescue the Monk and enlist him in helping them find the Doctor, who has disappeared. When they run into the Daleks, the Monk acts as if he’s captured Sara and Steven as hostages. Mavic Chen uses a loudspeaker to draw out the Doctor, who hands over the taranium for Steven and Sara’s (and even the Monk’s) lives. Of course, the Daleks plan on killing everyone anyway, but an army of angry Egyptian soldiers gives them the chance to escape. On the TARDIS, the Doctor admits that he handed over the real taranium, but he also lifted the Monk’s directional navigator from his TARDIS. When the Monk flees himself, he finds himself on a frozen planet and vows revenge.
Unfortunately, the Doctor didn’t count on issues of technological compatibility, and because the Monk’s TARDIS was another model activating the navigator causes it to shorten out. Still, the TARDIS lands in Kembel as the Doctor wanted. In the jungle the Doctor and the companions are separated. The latter find the Daleks’ allies, including Mavic Chen, who have all been imprisoned to further the Daleks’ goals of universal conquest. In exchange for their freedom, all agree to turn their military forces against the Dalek Empire. Only Mavic Chen, whose ship explodes when he tries to leave, is unable to escape. However, Mavic Chen has only faked his death, and takes Sara and Steven prisoner. Chen tries desperately to salvage his partnership with the Daleks, but only winds up dead for his trouble. The business of mopping up Mavic Chen distracts the Daleks long enough for the Doctor to activate the Time Destructor, which causes lifeforms and objects to age rapidly. They flee with the Destructor back to the TARDIS, aging to old age as they go. Steven manages to cause the Destructor to go in reverse, but not before Sara dies. The Doctor flies the TARDIS away, leaving behind the now unstoppable Destructor. The Daleks try to destroy the Destructor, but only succeed in causing it to malfunction further, destroying them and Kembel. Back on the TARDIS, the Doctor reflects on the losses they’ve suffered and mumbles, “What a terrible waste.”
Our Future History
It is hinted that Earth is now heading an intergalactic empire or has at least extensively colonized dozens of other planets. At the least the entire solar system has been thoroughly colonized.
Katarina, who has only been with the Doctor briefly, is killed off, making her the first companion to die. It was purely a practical decision – the showrunners quickly decided that a character from the Bronze Age, who must have everything explained to them, would simply not work in the long term (arguably Leela would prove them wrong, but even with her the emphasis was not on her technologically backward background but on her violent warrior ethos). Unintentional as it may have been, it does add a bleaker edge to the show, as well as the idea that the Doctor is not as in control of events as he appeared before.
Plus it’s the first appearance and death of companion Sara Kingdom. Originally she was intended to have a leading role in an American-produced spin-off of “Doctor Who”, featuring characters in Earth circa 4000 fighting against the Daleks, but of course that never got off the ground.
This serial also has historical value as the first time the Doctor and his companions interact with a time contemporary to the viewing audience, unless you count the kick-off to “An Unearthly Child” or “Planet of Giants”, which arguably doesn’t count either.
To be honest, it’s probably unfair for me to review this episode, since several episodes from this serial are lost and I couldn’t find reconstructions or even just the audio to fill in the gaps. Like the best early “Doctor Who”, there’s a strange but potent mixture of dark elements (two central characters die in this, after all, as do quite a large number of background characters) and high camp. Not one but two companions die, in fairly horrific ways, in addition to a sizable number of less important characters. Never has the world of “Doctor Who” looked so dangerous and uncertain.
Like “The Chase”, it’s a Dalek story that runs too long for its own good and takes some downright bizarre turns (the digression that has the TARDIS’ crew arrested in contemporary London and ends with William Hartnell wishing a merry Christmas to the audience at home probably being this serial’s equivalent to the haunted house episode), but at least there’s more meat to the plot. Still, it is awfully repetitive; just about every cliffhanger until the conclusion ends with the Doctor and the crew being saved by some kind of very unlikely coincidence. It’s hard not to think that, at least in some respects, the scripts were being phoned in. Also, in hindsight, it’s a shame that the Monk is reduced to little more than a cameo in this, his second and last appearance.