The Doctor and Ace (Sophie Aldred) arrive in Shoreditch in 1963. They meet Group Captain Gilmore (Simon Williams) and Sergeant Smith (Dursley McLinden) who are tracking magnetic fluctuations from Coal Hill School, where the First Doctor’s grand-daughter Susan had gone to school. In the basement of the school is a transmat device linked to a Dalek ship in geostationary orbit. Another fluctuation is coming from a junkyard in Totter’s Lane, where the First Doctor kept his TARDIS.
It appears that two Dalek factions are involved: The Imperial Daleks on the Mothership and a band of renegade Daleks who reject the Emperor. Both are looking for the Hand of Omega, a Time-Lord device left behind on Earth in 1963. Sergeant Smith is working with a group of Fascists, led by Ratcliffe (George Sewell), who report to a renegade battle computer, which employs a schoolgirl (Jasmine Breaks) as its eyes and ears. There seem to be no lack of bad guys.
The Doctor has the Hand buried in a local cemetery, but Smith tips off Ratcliffe and it is dug up. Imperial Daleks arrive to steal it from the renegades. But the Doctor and Ace defeat them and destroy their Transmat. The Doctor has Captain Gilmore fortify the school while he tries to get the Macguffin—sorry, I mean the Hand—back from the renegades. He fails at this but disables their Time Controller and flees with the Daleks in pursuit, just as the Imperial Daleks land. All but the Supreme Dalek are wiped out. Ratcliffe and Smith escape with the Controller. The schoolgirl kills Ratcliffe.
The Imperial Daleks take the Hand to the Mothership and leave for Skaro. Ace follows Smith to recover the Controller. The Doctor communicates with the Dalek Emperor—who is really the Daleks’ creator Davros (TerryMolloy)—who intends to destroy the Time-Lords with the Hand. The Doctor mocks him and then pretends to be afraid. Davros launches the Hand, Skaros’ sun goes supernova, and the planet is destroyed, wrecking the Mothership as well. The Hand returns safely to Gallifrey.
Smith captures Ace and tries to kill her, but the schoolgirl kills Smith. The Doctor persuades the Supreme Dalek to relinquish control of the girl, since Skaros is gone and she serves no purpose. The Supreme Dalek self-destructs, and the girl screams and faints. At Smith’s funeral, Ace asks the Doctor if they have done well and he says Time will tell.
This was the start of the 25th Anniversary season of Doctor Who, and producer John Nathan Turner wanted to start off with a bang. He succeeded, and the serial has often been voted the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. 25-year-old Ben Aaronovitch, who had never written for TV before, was hired to write the script. His first idea was used later as the basis for Battlefield, but he was then commissioned to write this story. Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, had to approve, and he did. The big surprise was a shot of a Dalek levitating upstairs, putting to rest a long-standing joke.
There were lots of references to an Unearthly Child, the very first Doctor Who story in 1963, and not just the settings in Coal Hill School and the I.M. Foreman junkyard in Totter’s Lane. Ace picks up a book on the French Revelution in Susan’s classroom, which Susan had handled, and Sophie Aldred studied the film to do it the same way. The Doctor refers to events in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Terror of the Zygons, The Web of Fear, and Planet of the Daleks. He calls Captain Gilmore Brigadier by mistake. There are also references to Quatermass and the actual Doctor Who Show on TV. An undertaker remembers the Doctor as an old geezer with white hair. Terry Molloy was called Roy Tromelly in the credits to keep Davros a surprise. The computer was voiced by Jon Leeson (voice of K9), copying the voice of Davros, to make us think the computer was Davros. Sophie Aldred did many of her own stunts. She loved beating the crap out of a Dalek with a baseball bat, as who wouldn’t?
Coal Hill School was played by St. John’s School in Hammersmith and the junkyard by the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in Brentford. The big battle scene was so loud that neighbours called the London Fire Brigade because they thought an IRA bomb had gone off. The emergency service drivers were startled to see Daleks coming toward them out of the smoke. Ace sees a sign that says No Coloureds. The schoolchildren are relatives of the cast and crew. Buckingham Palace would not let the Queen’s voice be used, but the Duke of Edinburgh was okay. A Machiavellian side of this Doctor was revealed that remains for the rest of the classic series. The director, Andrew Morgan, wanted to improve on the badly received Time and the Rani story, but overspent by 13,000 pounds and was banned from directing Doctor Who forever. But the expensive special effects were brilliant and contributed mightily to the story’s success.