Doctor Who: The Weird Anomaly of the 1965 ‘Christmas Special’

40 years before RTD made Doctor Who Christmas Specials a tradition, there was the strange interlude of The Feast of Steven...

Doctor Who The Feast of Steven The Dalek Master Plan
Photo: BBC

To be abundantly clear: the first Doctor Who Christmas Special was ‘The Christmas Invasion’ in 2005. However, the first time the show was broadcast on Christmas Day was in 1965, the seventh episode of ‘The Dalek Master Plan’. The previous two years also had also seen Dalek stories at Christmas, with the first ever Dalek story starting broadcast in December 1963 and the final episode of ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ arriving on Boxing Day 1964, because Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a volcanic eruption by the Home Counties.

‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ capitalised on the initial success of the first Dalek story, and boosted the show’s ratings. The plan for the following series was to capitalise on that and so another six-parter was scheduled for the same time of year. As Season 2’s ‘Planet of the Giantshad been edited down to three episodes from four the BBC gave the production team an extra episode for Season 3, and it was decided that this would act as a prelude to the new Dalek story to build anticipation. While this might give you the impression that producer Verity Lambert and her team were thoroughly capitalising on Dalekmania, the BBC decided they should go further. The Controller of Programmes and Head of Television both asked for the Daleks appearances to be maximised, and the number of episodes in the new story increased.

Doctor Who The Christmas Invasion David Tennant Billie Piper

The problem with this was that Dalek writer Terry Nation had a script-editing job on The Baron for ITV, and so to write the now agreed twelve episodes would require Nation to write an outline with outgoing Doctor Who Script Editor Dennis Spooner completing scripts based on these outlines (the two had worked together, and would continue to do so, on The Baron). Everyone was happy, apart from the new Doctor Who production team, who were so annoyed to find an extra six Dalek episodes imposed on them that Producer John Wiles considered quitting immediately. In the end he waited until after making the episodes before deciding to leave.

Unlike the Christmas Day episodes of 2005 – 2017, ‘The Feast of Steven’ (individual episodes of Doctor Who within stories had names until ‘The Savages’ in 1966) was designed specifically with the assumption that fewer people would watch it than usual. Rather than being any sort of centrepiece or prestige television that would be available for re-watch, there was no concept of this episode ever being repeated. As a result, rather than containing important plot information relating to the ongoing story, it was a throwaway comedy episode based on the assumption that audiences would be less likely to watch television on Christmas Day (and viewing figures went from 9.1 million for the preceding episode to 7.9 million for this one). So while ‘The Dalek Master Plan’ as a whole is a good example of Doctor Who as Event Television in the Sixties, its Christmas episode was actually designed as the opposite.

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Terry Nation would write the episode, although Dennis Spooner suggested basing it around the contemporary police drama Z Cars (the Z Cars production team declined to be involved, even to the extent of refusing to lend Doctor Who their set). The episode ended up set in a Liverpool police station on Christmas Day, and then on a film set in the Silent Era, before the Doctor remembers it was Christmas Day at the police station and breaks the Fourth Wall, looking to camera and saying ‘Incidentally, a Happy Christmas to all of you at home!’

Doctor Who The Daleks Master Plan The Feast of Steven title

This is, as described, a necessary detour from the main story. The first episode was appropriately named ‘The Nightmare Begins’, and a torrid production ensued. Due to William Hartnell’s behaviour, the dressers went on strike, and scripts came in underlength (Spooner said he had to rewrite significant portions of Nation’s scripts, including removing a section where the Doctor invented the Custard Pie in the Face gag, but while documentation suggests there were some problems Spooner was also exaggerating). The new companion, Katarina, was killed off in Episode 4 as it was decided the character didn’t work, and the new production team decided her replacement in the story wasn’t what they wanted going forward, so that character was killed off too. The Chief Designer at the BBC sent a memo to John Wiles describing the shoot as a disaster, with the director Douglas Camfield being too busy to meet with the design team for more than five minutes.

The plot concerns the Daleks’ attempt to deploy a superweapon, the Time Destructor, leading the Doctor and his friends to go on the run from the Daleks and their allies with the main component of the Destructor. The first companion death ensued, and Katarina’s replacement was Sara Kingdom, a Space Security Agent who killed her own brother (played by future Brigadier actor Nicholas Courtney) before also dying at the end of the story. ‘The Dalek Master Plan’ is overlong but has some great scenes, genuine pathos, and from the existing footage Camfield clearly directed the hell out of it.

Thus, as with ‘The Chase’, the comedic elements of the middle episode can seem incredibly incongruous when you’re not aware of the Christmas Day context. Also, bluntly, despite the fact that Terry Nation’s background was as a comedy writer and Dennis Spooner delivered some hilarious episodes of Stingray, it isn’t the best example of comic Doctor Who the Sixties produced (which is, of course the story directly before this one, ‘The Myth Makers’).

Presumably the production team thought Terry Nation’s comedy episodes were amusing enough, because this is the second one he writes, and his first during ‘The Chasehas a sequence where the Daleks turn up on the Marie Celeste and everyone on board flees into the sea in terror to drown, including a woman holding a baby. This makes the first episode of Cucumber seems like an exercise in tonal restraint by comparison.

For a modern viewer attempting to experience this curio their goal is complicated by the fact that the video of ‘The Feast of Steven’ is not in the BBC Archives, and telesnaps (photos taken as a record of transmission) were not taken for this story so fewer images exist of it than other stories. While three episodes of ‘The Dalek Master Plan’ exist in full, this is not one of them. The BBC junked episodes of Doctor Who for a variety of reasons and of the three episodes we have of ‘The Dalek Master Plan’, one was returned by a BBC engineer and the other twowere found in a Mormon church basement. ‘The Feast of Steven’ is unlikely ever to be found, as ‘The Dalek Master Plan’ was sold overseas without its seventh episode, and the story was one of the earliest to be junked by the BBC.

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The first Doctor

The audio (with linking narration) of the whole story is available to buy as part of a CD boxset or download (fans recorded audio from their televisions on original broadcast, enabling Sixties stories with missing pictures to be released in multiple formats), and the Target novelisations (due to its length it was novelised across two books) have also been recorded as audiobooks. There are also fan reconstructions available online, many of which are fully animated. Usually fan reconstructions take existing images of the story and use simple camera movements and animations to provide a sense of movement (rather than simply looking at static images). These are widely available online using whatever Search Engine you so desire, so you may give Dalek Master Plan Recon a cheeky Bing in your own time.

So that’s the first ever Doctor Who Christmas Day episode. Its Audience Appreciation was 17% lower than the previous episode, Z Cars refused to be associated with it, and the production team later disowned the Doctor’s ‘Merry Christmas!’ bit. It’s part of a story which made said production team quit, killed two companions, and most of it was deliberately destroyed by the BBC.

Still. Happy Christmas to all of you at home.