Matthew Kresal looks back at the proposed 1960s Doctor Who Dalek spin-off series...
Depending on how you choose to count, Doctor Who had to wait until either 1981 or 2006 before it got a television spin-off series. 1981 saw the broadcast of K-9 And Company: A Girl's Best Friend while 2006 of course saw Torchwood beginning its TV run. Nearly forty years earlier though, Doctor Who came remarkably close to producing its first spin-off, one that could have been seen on American TV screens years ahead of Doctor Who itself and starring the show's greatest monsters: the Daleks.
The 1960s were the height of Dalekmania and for a time their popularity might well have overshadowed that of the Doctor itself. As early as 1965, Terry Nation had begun talking about the idea of the Daleks having their own series, as was reported in a story in The Sun newspaper. Nation, as well as creating the Daleks, had also become a writer on several notable thriller series of the era including The Saint and The Baron. Those shows were being sold to American television networks and it was via these avenues that Nation began meeting with US network executives with whom he began to start pitching the idea of launching a Dalek series.
Though Nation retained the rights to the “characters” of the Daleks, the actual design itself of the creatures was owned by the BBC, and so they would have to be involved with any spin-off series that might use them. This quirk is how spin-off videos and audios during the wilderness years came to be produced and also why K-9 had to be redesigned for the Australian produced spin-off series. But back in 1966, the BBC gave permission for Nation to proceed with potentially producing a series, with the BBC as a potential financial baker of the project, if not just a licensee of the the iconic Dalek design.
Nation would spend much of 1965/66 alternating between writing The Daleks' Master Plan, his work on the series The Baron and on his proposal for the Dalek spin-off series. As we shall see, that Doctor Who story was to have particular influence on the pilot in question. It would be October 1966 before Nation had a pilot script titled The Destroyers ready as well as a budget breakdown for the BBC.
The Destroyers was budgeted at £42,000 which was astronomical by Doctor Who standards of the time. An example given in a 2009 Doctor Who Magazine article on the proposed series points out that the first episode of The Tenth Planet (in production around this time) cost only around £4,000. Compared though to Star Trek's pilot episode The Cage, which had cost $630,000, the budget was considerably less. The fact that the series was also being shot on film and in color (two things that Doctor Who was not, but many ITV shows like The Baron were) had something to do with the budget as the show had to compete on American screens, up against Star Trek and Lost In Space. In the end the BBC seems to have agreed to splitting the cost of the pilot 50/50 with American network ABC, and it looked as if The Destroyers might actually be produced...
And then, as often happens, things fell apart. Nation, along with business partner Fred Alper, had their lawyers draw up an agreement with the BBC that also covered a potential series based off the pilot. The financial factors of the contract entailed a contribution of £10,000 for each episode, which seems to have given the BBC second thoughts. While the Corporation seems to have been happy to do a one-off pilot they were having cold feet about an entire series, and so, by the end of 1966, the BBC had pulled out of the project. Prior to this, interest from American TV networks evaporated after the two Doctor Who: Dalek films starring Peter Cushing failed to make much impact. The series went nowhere fast and The Destroyers seemed bound to linger in obscurity.
Details of the unmade series slowly came to the surface over the decades that followed. In 1988, The Official Doctor Who & the Daleks Book by John Peel presented a synopsis of the script amongst its pages, with this being the first time that details about the script's contents had been made known. In 2004, as an extra on their reconstruction of the largely missing Daleks' Master Plan, Loose Cannon presented a condensed and narrated version of the pilot using newly created images and soundtrack. In 2009, a lengthy article about the proposed series and why it failed to get off the ground was presented in Doctor Who Magazine #406, which also contained a brief synopsis of the script. It wouldn't be until the following year that Big Finish, as an extra on their Second Doctor Lost Stories box-set, would present a full fledged production of The Destroyers, producing it in a format in keeping with their Lost Stories from the first three Doctors.
The Destroyers opens with a Dalek attack upon Explorer Base One which leaves only a handful of survivors, including Sara Kingdom who manages to escape into the nearby jungle. With the alarm having been raised by Sara, the Space Security Service (SSS) sends a three man team to investigate: Captain Jason Corey, Sara’s brother David Kingdom and the android Mark Seven. Though the three manage to discover the Daleks and are initially able to evade them, they are soon attacked by man-eating plants. Meanwhile Sara is captured by the Daleks inside a cave and, despite the best efforts of the three SSS team members that includes them disabling a bridge to cause a Dalek to fall into a chasm, the Dalek ship takes off with her on board. The pilot ends with an implied Dalek threat to the Earth, setting up the series to come.
The Big Finish version makes some minor modifications to this plot. The main item being that the roles of the two Kingdoms are switched with it being David who is captured early on by the Daleks and that it is he, not Sara, who is on the Dalek ship when it takes off. The Big Finish version has Jean Marsh reprise her role from The Daleks' Master Plan, which might explain why this change was made. On the whole though, Big Finish's version does stick quite closely to the original script, with its presentation being highly reminiscent of the narrated soundtracks of missing 1960s Doctor Who TV stories.
As readers might well have noticed, there are a lot of connections with previous Dalek stories. Sara had appeared in The Daleks' Master Plan, and it seems that Nation, having been impressed with Marsh's performance, had hopes that she would return for the pilot episode. Jason Cory meanwhile echoes Mar Cory, the SSS agent featured in the Doctor and companion less prequel to that story, Mission To The Unknown. David Kingdom was a development from Bret Vyon, Sara's brother who had been played by Nicholas Courtney in his pre-Brigadier days, though it seems likely that Nation might have well be introducing yet another sibling for Sara here.
The plot comes across almost as a “Daleks' greatest hits album” in the mold of 1973's Planet Of The Daleks. The jungle with its caves and man eating plants calls to mind not just that 1973 story but earlier 1960s Dalek adventures. The jungle and man eating plants also strongly recall Kemble and the Varga plants from the aforementioned Daleks' Master Plan. The caves call to mind the very first Dalek story from 1963/64, as well as Nation's non-Dalek Who story The Keys Of Marinus where caves play a central role in its fourth episode. While all of these elements would have been familiar to UK viewers watching The Destroyers if it had been made, American viewers (who were the primary audience) would have been very much unaware of how much Nation was recycling.
Judging The Destroyers on its own is difficult. Even the Big Finish release, which gives a fully produced version with performances and sound effects, lacks the visuals which are so key to it, despite of how well produced it is. The big problem though is that so much of the script is set-up: the entire thing is an adventure setting up the characters and the threat of the Daleks against Earth with one of the Kingdoms being held prisoner by them. While it has action/adventure moments, it's clearly meant to be part of a bigger whole which never got filled in. Imagine Star Trek with only The Cage or Where No Man Has Gone Before to extrapolate from and you can see the difficulty in trying to picture what the series would have been like.
What success a Dalek series without the Doctor in the late 1960s might have had is anyone's guess. The question is even larger in dealing with the US where Doctor Who was an unknown and still would have been if the show had been made. It's worth remembering that when Torchwood first aired on BBC America here in the States that many people started finding Doctor Who through it. Perhaps a similar situation might have happened in the late 1960s, though what impact that might have had on Who itself is conjecture in and of itself. As a result then, The Destroyers and its untitled series remains a fascinating “what if?” scenario in the annals of Doctor Who.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.