Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 016—The Chase


Hasslein Blog

Friday, June 28, 2013

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 016—The Chase

By T. Scott Edwards

The Chase is something of an oddity. Taken on face value, it is a rather abstract comedy. Yet it serves two vital purposes – one is the swansong of Ian and Barbara, and the other is the return of the Daleks, the cash cow of Terry Nation and the BBC. Much like Nation's script for The Keys of Marinus, it is a brave piece, technically demanding as it warrants a number of elaborate set pieces within a variety of different locations. Unlike The Keys of Marinus, though, the set pieces are far superior, with some excellent set work, blended almost seamlessly with some location filming of extras filling in for the cast.

Following on from the ominous cliffhanger from The Space Museum, as the Daleks gathered around a monitor to declare that their enemies were to be "exterminated – exterminated – exterminated!" the serial becomes rather odd – instead of playing on the tension created here, the first episode sees the crew of the TARDIS take a short holiday. What is particularly odd about this is that whilst the audience are aware of the impending danger, the crew obliviously hang around, dress-making, watching TV and reading, before arriving on Aridius and going sunbathing. Indeed, the greatest oddity about this first instalment are the scenes involving the Time-Space Visualiser. Considering that the crew are in a space ship which can readily travel through time and space, albeit without being controllable, rather than actually going travelling, they decide to sit by and become voyeurs into history. There is a sense of passive laziness here. It is odd, and doesn't quite sit right. We are so used to the TARDIS crew actively engaging in history that to see them prefer to watch them from the safety of the ship seems strange – particularly considering the way in which this story unfolds, but more on that later.

The Time-Space Visualiser scenes are entertaining enough, mind – the deadpan delivery of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address is wonderful, although rather tedious, running for nearly two minutes and including more than half of the original speech. The scenes with Shakespeare and the Queen are wittily handled, as he thinks about the possibility of writing Hamlet. The most bizarre section, though, is the performance of the Beatles, delivering their "classical" music. Seeing Ian dancing is awkward – one can imagine him at a school disco, pupils cringing on the school benches as he does a little jig reminiscent of Susan's dancing in An Unearthly Child.

Richard Martin's direction is always, at best, sloppy, and The Chase is no exception. That said, there are a few neat directorial decisions which show some potential flair – the scene in which the crew decide to go out onto Aridius is wonderfully shot, covering for the absence of the central column in the TARDIS by having Hartnell looming into shot, with a POV angle as he leans forward to flick the controls.

15 minutes passes before there is even a re-emergence of the Daleks, as Barbara pops back in to the ship to turn off the Time-Space Visualiser, seeing the Daleks in their control base discussing their imminent attack and their own time machine. Terry Nation's obsession with having the Daleks repeat phrases which are supposedly threatening is one of my biggest bugbears about his writing, and this scene particularly gripes me where, once the Doctor has joined Barbara at the monitor, she says "Doctor, he said 'TARDIS'" – the Daleks in question said the word about 20 times before we cut back to our time travellers, and whilst Hartnell plays the Doctor as a doddery old man at times, I don't think that there is anything wrong with his hearing!

The cliffhanger to episode 1 is strange – it is either very clever or very, very silly – and sadly I think it comes across as the latter. As the Dalek emerges from the sand, it is reminiscent of the incredibly effective cliffhanger from episode 1 of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, as the Dalek emerged from the polluted waters of the Thames. Here, though, we instead have a wheezing, groaning Dalek, forcing its way up from the sand dunes. What makes the Daleks so impressive and unnerving is their very alienness, but here, Nation has elected to make them humorous and human – we would, ourselves, groan as we pushed our way up from being buried under sand, but to see a Dalek doing so is preposterous. It does, of course, raise an interesting question, though, and one which will be revisited throughout this serial – but not fully cleared up until Remembrance of the Daleks some 23 years later. The emergence of the Dalek in a vertical manner suggests that the Daleks are able to levitate, or float, somehow. Is this the first ever flying Dalek?! We later see them over several floors on the Mary Celeste, too, although in the haunted house of episode 4, Ian makes a comment about the top floor being "safe" due to the presence of stairs.

The planet, Aridius, is very dry, with nothing but sand dunes for miles – it's arid, see? As always, Nation's writing is either questionably clever or, more probably, lazy. Mechanus is peopled by machines, Aridius is arid... the issue with these place names, however, is that since Mechanus was originally empty, and the robots were sent there by humans, surely it would have had a different name before – either that or it's one hell of a coincidence. Likewise with Aridius – we are told that originally the entire world was underwater but dried out due to the twin suns burning down. Again, if that is the case, then it raises the question 'did they rename the planet after the droughts?' or is that, too, just lucky?

Richard Martin clearly considers himself something of an auteur – the use of similar locations (always sci-fi) as well as a staple cast is a trademark of auteurs like Scorsese and Tarantino. Most of the cast in this serial has worked with Martin before, most noticeably in The Web Planet, and so were clearly used to his rather sloppy management.

The costume and makeup on the Aridians is impressive – if you look beyond the blatant bald cap, of course – and their simpering performances are quite enjoyable. It is easy to understand why they are such turncoats, willingly handing over the TARDIS crew with nonchalance and resignation. They are effete, camp with no way of defending themselves, and Hartnell's acceptance of their motives is brilliantly handled; he doesn't shout or bluster, but simply looks disappointed. Whilst it is difficult to imagine a more modern Doctor simply swanning off and leaving a race of people to die at the hands (or tentacles) of the Mire Beasts, Hartnell becomes utterly justifiable in his motives. The scene in which the Aridians are being forced to unbury the TARDIS for the Daleks is particularly funny – they are shifting the sand grain by grain, with furtive and terrified glances over their shoulders throughout.

The Mire Beasts themselves are actually rather impressive – particularly considering the abomination of the Slyther in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Again, it was Verity Lambert's input which ensured these were more effective, insisting that Martin shot them cleverly from well-lit angles, as opposed to head on as before. Jack Pitt, as the main Mire Beast, later appears 3 more times in this serial, as a variety of characters, mostly underneath huge costumes, and the strange movements with which the Mire Beast drags itself along makes the costume a little more believable.

Once the crew escape from the Aridians, thanks to the collapse of a partition wall keeping the Mire Beasts enclosed in their part of the underground city, there is a rather obscure scene in which Hartnell and Russell, with an interjection from Maureen O'Brien too, defeat a Dalek, by hollering obscure names at him – in no other serial could the crew get away with referring to a Dalek as "Fred!" and "Archie!" with any modicum of self-respect. That these names were adlibbed by the crew is all the more obscure and telling – even they couldn't take the script seriously.

Once back in the TARDIS in episode 3, Hartnell refers to the incident with Fred, saying that they had given the Daleks "a very good hiding"... which of course they didn't. We know that there are 6 Daleks on board their Time Ship (cleverly created by having the same three rotates through the doors, off screen, and re-entering, a trick later used in Day of the Daleks to equally strong effect) yet they have only destroyed the one. Indeed, the discrepancy in numbers of Daleks throughout is very confusing, and again a sign of sloppy direction on Martin's part. Despite one being destroyed on Aridius, and another falling off the Mary Celeste, and yet another being thrown to the floor by Frankenstein's monster in the haunted house, when we get to Mechanus there seem to be more than six Daleks still going strong!

Again, the Daleks are made to seem rather stupid and a little too human at other points in the serial as well – in episode 2, following a command being given, the commanding Dalek turns back to the first Dalek and barks "Well? See to it!" Throughout episode 3 and again in episode 4, one particular Dalek seems entirely unsure what the hell is going on, mumbling and stuttering its lines, like Gareth Gates with laryngitis. It all seems rather surreal. Added to this Dudley Simpson's frenetic music style, with some very odd choices throughout, and again it is unclear whether we should be taking this whole thing seriously or not.

On the up-side, however, episode 3 does include some excellent set pieces and design work, and allows for some comedy where it is clearly intended – Peter Purves' turn at hamming it up as Alabaman tourist Morton Dill is brilliant. Purves also has some fantastic adlibs, such as speaking into the Dalek plunger. In the scene on the Empire State Building, South African-born Arne Gordon, formerly a Menoptera in The Web Planet, gets a chance to do his best Columbo impression (about 3 years earlier) and a rather burly man, looking every overweight inch the American tourist, has a fabulous little moment where he towers over Dill, presumed insane.

Following the scenes on the Empire State building, and with the time between the TARDIS and the Daleks decreasing with every landing, the crew arrive on board the Mary Celeste, and Barbara is promptly sexually harassed by a sailor presuming that she is a stowaway. There is some comedy here, but it is very quickly stopped with the rather bleak scenes which unfold upon the arrival of the Daleks. Terrified superstitious sailors all prefer to jump into the sea, abandoning ship, than deal with the invaders, and there is a rather horrific moment where a woman, with a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, also jumps overboard. Jack Pitt once again appears onboard, this time as the ship's Steward, and actually gets to speak before plunging to his demise.

But this brings me to my biggest issue with this serial – and one which would, admittedly, have made a rather dull story. Why do the crew ever leave the safety of the TARDIS? It is quite clear that as soon as they have landed they will need to leave again, once the ship is ready, and yet every single time they elect to exit, often split up, and usually get into trouble. The TARDIS is impervious to the Dalek attack, which has been established, and so why they do not simply wait until they reach an ideal location is utterly beyond me.

Episode 4 is another of those surreal moments, and it all seems a little unclear on the intentions. Nation had originally written the scene to take place within the human psyche – indeed, Hartnell's explanation for their presence in a house filled with ghosts, ghouls, bats and legendary monsters even confirms this. Verity Lambert argued that this would never work within the realms of the remit of what the show had already established, and would open a can of worms, a Pandora's Box of troubles for them. As such, it was rewritten that the house was in fact a theme park amusement, abandoned. Why the robots are still roaming the attraction, and quite why they are so violent towards the guests, is never explained – perhaps it is because they are violent that the theme park has been abandoned? Who knows? What this particular episode does do, to some extent, is pave the way for the Troughton serial The Mind Robber, set in the Land of Fiction, and inhabited by fictional characters – a place later revisited in the arguably non-canonical Big Finish audio with Colin Baker's Doctor, Legend of the Cybermen. Fortunately for the serial, this new justification can be used to excuse some of the poor SFX – the bats clearly on strings, the bad dubbing over Dracula's robotic voice and the like are more excusable when looked at as a faux theme park attraction.

The end of episode 4, and the majority of episode 5, drives me crazy. It isn't that the idea of a robotic Doctor is a bad one – it is genius, to be fair, as a way of separating the TARDIS crew and dispatching them one by one. Unfortunately, it is Richard Martin's cack-handedness with direction that destroys all plausibility in this. Through selective camera angles and effective lighting, the concept could quite easily have worked. Instead, as with the Zarbi fiasco on The Web Planet, he elects to shoot Edmund Warwick, as the Robot Doctor, directly from in front, with too little distance to hide the fact that his miming along to Hartnell's pre-recorded dialogue doesn't sync up with Warwick's mouth at all. Now, of course, because of the limitations of recording the show 'as live' in the 1960s, this was unavoidable for some scenes – it was literally impossible to have had Hartnell as both Doctors. I get that, and I appreciate it. But what I don't understand, particularly considering only 2/3rds of the floor was used for sets, was why the locations for the separate scenes requiring Hartnell and Warwick were not closer – as if the simple fact that they claim that he is "a perfect replica" were not bad enough, Vicki then concurs. What would have made sense were for Warwick to only double as the Doctor in those scenes shot from behind, or above, or where both were in shot at the same time. It is made no less confusing when in a long shot, the character is played by Warwick miming terribly – and then we cut to close up and it is Hartnell. What then adds to the confusion even further is that the production crew are evidently aware that Warwick looks nothing like Hartnell, and so in some scenes, it is Hartnell playing the replica, with Warwick miming as the 'real' Doctor.

My god, it just gets me so angry.

Particularly because, other than the Warwick fiasco, episode 5 is rather well done. The Fungoid costumes are actually rather good – also featuring Jack Pitt again! – and the idea of an intelligent life having set up this safety system, but not being present, is also very good. Maureen O'Brien here once more gets to prove her worth, never screaming – except for the bellow she gives for assistance – and proving that she isn't a typical companion for the Doctor. The set design and model work is also exceptional – the Mechanoid city in particular is wonderfully realised thanks to Cusick's plans and Shawcraft's model work. In fact, my only bugbear about the end of episode 5 and the whole of episode 6 is, really, the Mechanoid voices. They are almost indiscernible.

Again, episode 6 features one of those few Martin flairs, where the cameras in the lift show the action in a rather interesting way – firstly shot through a 5" square cut in the set, as the TARDIS crew enter the lift, and then from in front, with the enormous Mechanoid covering said hole. Unfortunately, no-one thought to cover said hole up, as it is a huge glaring black square on the set when the group leave the lift.

On the upside, though, is the return of Peter Purves, this time appearing as Steven, soon to be a full time companion of the Doctor. Apparently, he was cast as Steven as he'd impressed the cast and crew so much as Morton Dill – which frankly baffles me, since Dill was a character created almost entirely as a caricature of ridiculous Americans, and whilst he was funny, he was hardly groundbreaking. That said, Steven is one of my all-time favourite companions, and the realism with which he embodies his performance here is magnificent – when he first sees the TARDIS crew and asks them if they're real, my heart bleeds – and then they ask him to repeat his name for him, and it is wonderful. He bites his lip, scarcely willing to believe that there is finally some company for him.

Following the cartoon violence of the final showdown – which is rather disappointing, although the slanted camera angles at least detracts from the monotony of the hand-drawn cartoon explosions and repetitive chants of Daleks and Mechanoids both – comes the sole purpose of this serial; Ian and Barbara's farewell. After nearly two years of travelling with the Doctor, they are offered the opportunity to return home, and it is lovely. Of course, the very fact that they'd returned to Earth in the 1960s in episode 3 – albeit America in the 1960s – is by-the-by. That the travellers are finally faced with a fool-proof method home is great – unlike other travellers who end up miles and years away from home, including Steven in the future, and Susan in the past – Ian and Barbara are finally given the opportunity to return to their own place and time, and it is that Ian is so slow to realise the ramifications – and that even when he does, he waits for Barbara's approval first – that is so genuinely wonderful about this. The scene in which they beseech the Doctor to assist them to return never fails to make me shiver; as with Susan's leaving, it is Hartnell that really sells this, and his solemn acceptance, leading the teachers into the machine, and then his mute resolution to not turn around and see them leave is beautifully underplayed.

The photo montage is a little cheesy, but having said that, it seems only right – after all of the wonders of time and space, the look of genuine excitement on their faces as they scare pigeons and then laugh at a bus driver is fantastic. As we cut back to the Time-Space Visualiser, to see Vicki and the Doctor looking back at them, watching from their unknown place and time, wondering the stars, Hartnell's speech resonates hugely – "I shall miss them. Yes, I shall miss them".

Me too, Billy. Me too.

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

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