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Doctor Who: The Luxor Alternative

By Matthew Kresal

In 1963, the BBC’s Doctor Who was simply another new television series looking for an audience. With its series debut having been overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy, it was the second serial of the series, introducing the Daleks, which was to secure the series its successful foothold on UK popular culture. Yet Terry Nation’s creations might not have made it to the screen had they not replaced a script by writer Anthony Coburn. Entitled first The Robots, but soon becoming known as The Masters of Luxor, Coburn’s script presents us with an intriguing “what if?” situation as well as creating a legacy that has lasted for nearly six decades.

The story of The Masters of Luxor begins in the summer of 1963 as the production team was commissioning the first serials. The intended debut story, The Giants, was abandoned due to both BBC head of Drama Sydney Newman’s unhappiness with the script as well as possible technical issues with its realization. As a result, the intended second story 100,000 BC (later to become known as An Unearthly Child), was moved forward, leaving the second serial slot unfilled. Coburn was quickly commissioned to write a replacement story for the slot, which soon acquired the working title The Robots.

Soon, the almost inevitable changes to the story began as it was developed from storyline to scripts. Originally slated to last four episodes, The Robots was soon expanded to six episodes. The setting changed as well from the originally planned thirtieth-century Earth to an alien planet. The story was quickly taking shape, but so were other events that would change the history of Doctor Who.

Producer Verity Lambert and script editor David Whitaker were becoming increasingly unhappy with the story and, as Coburn made rewrites to An Unearthly Child, it became clear that his second story was not going to be ready in time for its production slot. In late September 1963, Lambert and Whitaker decided to swap the story around for the intended fifth serial, allowing more time to develop Coburn’s script. The intended fifth serial was by a writer better known for his comedy work with Tony Hancock, named Terry Nation and his story, The Mutants, was soon to become better known simply as The Daleks.

This decision would ultimately seal the fate of the story. While the story would pick up a new title, one that would remain with the story from that point onwards, The Masters of Luxor, in October 1963. Despite the continuing work, as The Daleks was being aired across seven weeks between December 1963 and January 1964, the decision was made to push Coburn’s script even further back until the series’ second production block. As a result, its intended fifth story slot was taken by another Terry Nation penned story, The Keys of Marinus. While The Masters of Luxor would eventually be considered for the second production block, it would ultimately be abandoned all together. Coburn would never write again for Doctor Who and his unmade Doctor Who story would remain in obscurity for nearly thirty years.

As the series was coming to the end of its original run in the late 1980s, the UK-based company Titan Books received a license to begin publishing a range of Doctor Who script books. Appropriately titled Doctor Who – The Scripts and edited by John McElory, the range began in 1988 with publication of the script for An Unearthly Child, though published as The Tribe of Gum. It was in the process of putting together the release of that script book the previous year that Coburn’s widow, Joan Moon, revealed to McElory that she had the unproduced script. Previously planned script books, as well as apparent issues with BBC Enterprises regarding further books in the range, meant that it was September 1992, twenty-nine years after the story had been initially postponed, before it finally hit the shelves and fans were given an opportunity to, at last, read the story.

Though the script being published be the end of the story, so to speak. In 2008, Big Finish Productions (the UK-based company that had been producing Doctor Who audio dramas and spin-offs since 1999) began a new range of releases under the banner of Doctor Who – The Lost Stories. Initially producing unmade stories from the Colin Baker era, it soon became clear that there would be stories from other eras of the show. The first Lost Story release from the First Doctor’s era was to be the more recently rediscovered Farewell, Great Macedon and The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance by Moris Farhi in 2010 as The First Doctor Box-set. The success of that box-set and its “enhanced talking book” format led Nigel Robinson (former Target book editor/author and the adapter of the two stories in the box-set) to suggest a production of The Masters of Luxor. After clearing the rights with Coburn’s widow, the story was recorded across three days in February 2011 and released in August 2012, nearly twenty years after the original Titan script book was published.

Carole Anne Ford in 1986 as photographed by Joe Siegler. She played Susan and narrated the 'The Masters of Luxor' audiobook

Unlike the usual full-cast audio dramas that Big Finish normally releases for Doctor Who, this production of The Masters of Luxor was done instead as an “enhanced talking book”. To explain the format, Robinson took the Coburn script and turned it into what is effectively prose. This prose is read by actors William Russell and Carole Ann Ford (who reprise their respective roles from the television series, as well as narrating the story and also taking the parts of the First Doctor and Barbara). Joining them is actor Joseph Kloska who reads in the various robots as well as The Perfect One and Tabon. The result gives this version of the story the most unique feel of its three versions: a cross between a novelization of the scripts and one of Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles releases.

From these two versions, the published script and a produced version with part of its intended original cast, what can we make of the story that might have been Doctor Who’s second ever outing?

Coburn’s plot, across six episodes, sets forth first a mystery, then a fight for survival and lastly a desperate race against time. Following on from the events of An Unearthly Child, the TARDIS is drawn by a signal to what appears to be a dead planet and a mysterious crystal building. The Doctor flies the TARDIS like a helicopter over the building, despite reservations from Barbara. Soon though, the time-space craft is drawn into the building and is drained of power. Having found a meal prepared for them, the TARDIS crew find themselves exploring the multi-level building whose only occupants appear to be various robots (the Mark One robots and the more advanced Derivitrons) and a mysterious man known only as The Perfect One. The robots believe the travellers to be “the masters of Luxor”, a technocracy who built the various robots to be their servants, and programmed them to act like slaves so they could feel superior to them. They also dreamt up a greater robot, one that their robot servants would ultimately build: The Perfect One.

The Perfect One, though, wants to be more than a machine. He has been experimenting on the criminals sent to this world from Luxor in an attempt to reach that goal, and intended to use the TARDIS crew as his next test subjects, starting with Barbara and Susan. To stop an attack by the travellers, The Perfect One warns that he is connected to “an atomic magazine” that will destroy the building if any harm comes to him. Before they can take any further action though, they realize they’ve been drugged. While The Perfect One begins his experiments, Ian and the Doctor escape into the dead world beyond the building and locate the source of the signal that drew the TARDIS here to begin with: a mausoleum in the center of a cemetery. Inside the mausoleum, they discover Tabon, the former Scientific Master of Luxor. He is a man with grief and self-loathing, a scientist who once experimented on his own people to further his dream of building The Perfect One. Though he realized the madness of his dream, the robots nevertheless built him anyway. The Doctor and Ian convince him to return with them to try and save Barbara and Susan, setting the stage for one final confrontation between man and machine to decide the fate of them all.

What is clear from reading the script is its strong emphasis on heavily religious themes. In fact, the religious themes aren’t even subtle, they are made explicit at times such as a scene in episode five where Barbara and Susan sing the hymn Onward, Christian Soldiers, or the scene in the final episode where Susan, Ian and Barbara discuss The Perfect One’s anticipation of meeting his creator. In particular there is an exchange that makes the themes quite clear:

Susan: Why are you Earth people afraid of the word ‘God’?

Ian: Because he is no longer scientific.

Barbara: He waits for his God, and his God is only a man. I can’t bear to watch.

Ian: (to Susan) Does that answer your question?

These themes are at the heart of the story. The Perfect One, his wishes and desires, especially with the involvement of the character Tabon in his past, is the perfect example of this. In this regard, the script bares some superficial resemblance to the climax of the 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Pictureas a machine seeks its creator (or ‘God’ as the characters themselves state in the above quoted exchange) and tries to become more like it so it can be something greater than what it is. As a result, the script – at least in terms of its themes, is certainly more philosophical then many of the serials that were made in its wake. This thematic emphasis might also explain why the story was ultimately dropped as the series moved more and more into sci-fi/adventure stories and away from doing the type of story that The Masters Of Luxor was pushing to be.

Intriguingly, Robinson in the Big Finish version chose to tone down that subtext. As the adapted explained in a 2012 interview in Big Finish’s promotional magazine Vortex, “There’s quite a heavy religious subtext in The Masters of Luxor which I had to tone down a little – but not excise completely – as I thought it would jar with a modern and increasingly secular audience which isn’t really used to seeing such philosophical concepts explored so deeply in Doctor Who.” The main result of this is that the scene in episode six, quoted earlier in this article, was cut out completely as well as the hymn sung by Susan and Barbara being changed from Onward, Christian Soldiers to the somewhat less religious hymn Jerusalem. Given that the point of the Lost Stories range is to present stories from the era, this change in emphasis (while having its reasons) seems odd as surely the point is to present the story, even with some possibly anachronistic themes, intact. Indeed, it didn’t stop Big Finish from keeping the overtly sexist elements in the conclusion of Mission to Magnus, a story written twenty years after Luxor was scrapped.

William Russell at BAFTA, London 1998. Photo by Simon Harries and shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence. Russell played Ian and would also narrate the audio book for Masters of Luxor.

The Big Finish version of the story also has two of the series original cast members both reprising their roles and narrating the story. William Russell and Carole Ann Ford, having done similar jobs elsewhere for Big Finish, were well versed in this style of production and are the definite highlight of this production. Their performances also bring out the best parts of the original Coburn script such as Ian’s “the projectionist has gone home” line in the first episode. Joseph Kloska’s performances as the various other characters is the icing on the cake, giving Russell and Ford both a fine actor to bounce off in their scenes together. The sums of their performances give this Big Finish version an air of authenticity and offers plenty of tastes of what a 1963-64 TV version of the story would have been like.

Which brings us back to the central “what if?” at the heart of The Masters of Luxor’s role in the history of Doctor Who: as Robinson himself asked in response to a similar question the Vortex interview, “Would there have been Luxor- and Derivitron-mania rather than Dalek-mania”? Like Nation's Dalek script, Coburn’s Masters involved a seemingly deserted city set on a deserted world, seemingly robotic creatures, a reluctant ally based outside the city, and the TARDIS not quite working the way it was meant to be. Superficially, at least, they're quite similar tales. Diving into Masters further, both in the form of its Titan scriptbook and the 2012 Big Finish version, it's clear they couldn't be more different tales, as Coburn's script is more talkative and more philosophical. If it hadn't been for producer Verity Lambert and script editor David Whitaker being unhappy with those scripts as they stood, it could have defined what the series would have become.

This fan, for one, isn’t so certain that Derivitronmania would have hit 1964 Britain in the same way Dalekmania did. But if it had, would Doctor Who have become the long-running and eventual globally known series it has become today? Would it have been enough to save a series already overbudget and unpopular with BBC management, contemplating killing it after its initial 13 episode order? Or would it have sunk the show, leaving it to be wiped and forgotten?

What’s clear is that the series’ future was never guaranteed. The fate of Doctor Who may well have been decided when one serial was set aside in favor of another. And, fifty-seven years later, both the series and its fans continue to live with the results.

A version of this article was first published as Lost and Found: The Masters of Luxor in Whotopia Issue 25 in April 2013.


Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has also written a book about the TV series 'Dark Skies'


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