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Doctor Who: The Chase (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Chase originally aired in 1965.

You’re from Earth?

No, no, Ma’am. No, I’m from Alabama.

– Barbara and Morton set things straight

There are times when Doctor Who seems to straddle the line between genius and insanity, when the viewer is left completely unsure whether they’ve witnessed something profoundly clever, or infuriatingly stupid. The Chase is one of those stories, one of those rare cases where I’m honestly not sure if I’m reading too much into a piece of television or simply scratching the surface of a whole wealth of complex meaning and symbolism. The Chase is, as near as I can make out, either a desperate attempt to cash-in on the then-current Dalek craze, or one of the craziest attacks the show ever made on the fourth wall. It’s either completely terrible or breathlessly brilliant, and I refuse to rule out the possibility that it is both, possibly at the same time.

Cutting to the chase...

Cutting to the chase…

I’ll begin by confessing my fondness for the William Hartnell era of the show. It isn’t the version of Doctor Who that I frequent most regularly. Nor is it the version that I would recommend to the casual viewer looking to get to grips with the longest-running science-fiction television show ever made. While I think the era produced a number of genuine classics (The Edge of Destruction comes to mind) and that a lot of it is hugely under-rated (yes, The Gunfighters), I don’t even think it’s the most consistent period in the show’s history, or home to its best episodes.

So why, then, do I like it so much? The answer lies in the fact that everybody was quite clearly making it up as they went along. While that would remain a feature of the show throughout the years, with every regeneration or change in producer leading the show to reinvent itself, Doctor Who generally had a blue print against which it could define itself, a legacy of history that it could seek to emulate or contrast, a list of things that worked and things that really didn’t work – even if the show might sometimes get confused about that.

Something fishy is going on here...

Something fishy is going on here…

With the William Hartnell era, however, things were a lot less certain. For example, The Chase would have been impossible by the time Patrick Troughton took over the lead role. Although it is one giant story linked by the idea that the Daleks are chasing the Doctor and his companions through time and space, it is one of the very few stories that could comfortably broken up into a bunch of almost episodic adventures. Some of the show’s later six-parters would take the form of a two-parter linked to a four-parter, but The Chase feels like a chain of six one-part adventures linked by the fact that there are Daleks.

The only other extended adventure that can really work like that is The Keys of Marinus, another Terry Nation six-part adventure that I hold in higher esteem than most. There’s a sense that, this early in the show’s run, the series isn’t even sure that these extended serials should be one story rather than a daisy-chain of linked stories. It suggests a certain flexibility that slipped away from the show. I can understand why the show moved towards the “multiple episodes, same story” formula, but it really gives the viewer the feeling that The Chase is from a slightly different time, when Doctor Who was a slightly different television show.

What the Shakespeare is going on?

What the Shakespeare is going on?

There’s a rather defensible position that The Chase was little more than a shameless attempt to capitalise on Dalek-mania. Even Nation concedes that the public demand played a large part in getting the story to screen:

The Chase was really the demand of the public. They kept saying ‘Can we do another Dalek story?’ We’d done them in their city, we’d done them on Earth, so let’s have a kind of chase through space. It’s a fun thing to do anyway, and we could go through times and locations, and that’s what we set about doing.

After all, Doctor Who and the Daleks was due for release shortly, to capitalise on the public’s fixation on the pepper pots. Some of the models from the film were used in The Chase, even if they didn’t look anywhere near as good in black and white as they would in glorious technicolour.

The sands of time...

The sands of time…

And I can understand the argument that The Chase is really six episodes of nonsense, serving as yet another excuse to bring back the show’s most iconic alien monsters at a time when they were at the front of the popular consciousness. The story, as much as there is one, falls into a familiar pattern where the Doctor and his companions arrive somewhere, engage the Daleks and then leave. And then they repeat. It’s not rocket science.

Still, I’m not convinced that it’s as simple as all that. For one thing, The Chase seems quite playful. It opens in a way that feels quite strange. It portrays life inside the TARDIS as quite settled. The Doctor is tinkering with stuff. Ian is reading. Barbara is sewing. Vicky is being an impatient young girl. Of course, this makes the eventual departure of Ian and Barbara all the more effective, by demonstrating that they have settled into life on the TARDIS. It also effectively underscores the notion that the TARDIS has become a sort of a family. However, while the peacefulness and tranquillity of the portrayal is new, it’s hardly a revelation.

What's on the tube?

What’s on the tube?

Then we discover what exactly the Doctor is doing. He’s working on “a Time and Space Visualiser” – or, as Vicky succinctly puts it, “a sort of time television.” Because what family evening would be complete without watching a bit of telly? It’s really the first sense the audience gets that things are about to get weird, and it happens fairly quickly. The Doctor shows the team, in quick succession, Lincoln’s Gettysberg Address, Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, the Beatles on Top of the Pops… and then the Daleks.

The order is important, as it starts with something very clearly based in historical fact. We know that Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. That’s something undeniably true. And then we cut to Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth arguing over the insult that “Falstaff has caused to Sir John Oldcastle.” There’s an obvious bit of truth there, in that these people exist and the subject matter is real, and there’s even a historical in-joke. Apparently Shakespeare originally named the character Oldcastle, until Oldcastle’s descendent (Lord Cobham) complained and forced him to change the name.

Sweet music...

Sweet music…

So, at this point, we see the lines of reality and fiction beginning to blur slightly. The real Oldcastle can become the fictional Falstaff. And then the cast of Doctor Who can tune into Top of the Pops, to watch the Beatles. That’s another historical in-joke, this time related to the show itself, with Nation taking a great deal of pride in the fact that one of his Dalek stories apparently beat an edition of Top of the Pops starring the Beatles in the ratings.

And then things get funky. The Doctor apparently tunes in to the Daleks, doing their plotting thing. It seems like the Doctor has shifted from history, to the blending of fact and fiction, to the BBC and eventually to Doctor Who itself. And the Daleks are watching the Doctor and his companions. “Doctor,” Barbara observes, “he said the Tardis. And look, on their screen, that’s us.” So the Doctor is watching the Daleks on Doctor Who, watching the TARDIS crew on Doctor Who.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

While this is the most overt reference, there are several indications in The Chase that reality itself is somewhat malleable. The Daleks aren’t just chasing our heroes through time and space, they are chasing them through stories. The first episode ends with a wonderful visual twist on that iconic first cliffhanger of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Instead of emerging from the water, a Dalek emerges from the sand. It seems like we should treat the first episode as something like a typical Dalek episode, right down to the iconography.

However, the second episode features a familiar Doctor Who set-up that is completely unrelated to the Daleks. The Doctor and his companions land on a world where two alien tribes are at war – the Aridians and the Mire Beasts. This is the kind of story where you’d expect the Doctor to arrive and sort everything out, the kind of adventure that the TARDIS crew would have when they aren’t running into the Daleks.

Monster, meet monster...

Monster, meet monster…

Except, of course, the Daleks arrive. And things get a bit crazy. There’s a boatload of exposition that is ultimately pointless, as if the show is trying to fit a four-episode adventure into a half-an-hour. Events are compressed. At one point, a Mire Beast grabs Vicky, a bomb explodes, and then Ian is incapacitated – all in less time than it takes to type that out. The Chase doesn’t see the Daleks attacking the Doctor, it sees them attacking the show, and so it’s fitting that second episode features them invading a non-Dalek episode.

And from there, things just get weird. But’s interesting to note that there’s always some element of hyper-reality to everything unfolding. When the TARDIS and the Daleks arrive on the Empire State Building, the show calls attention to its nature as a television show with a finite number of actors by casting Peter Purves as a hick. It’s not unheard of for the show to recycle actors, but using a future companion for a one-shot appearance as another character in the same serial where he becomes a companion is a definite attempt to draw attention to the fact that this is a television show.

They've had some cowboys in here...

They’ve had some cowboys in here…

More than that, when Morton is convinced that the TARDIS crew are from Hollywood, he seems to have difficulty distinguishing between the movies and real life. While he searches for a trapdoor after the Dalek ship disappears, he also asks whether they know the character Cheyenne Bodie, not the actor Clint Walker. He treats the TARDIS disappearing as a practical effect, rather than something that would have to be handled in post-production. “That’s real clever, how they done that,” he admits. “Sure, if it don’t beat all.” Apparently Morton doesn’t realise that it isn’t in the power of production companies to make objects fade from view.

The same sort of thing happens when the Doctor and the Daleks emerge in a haunted house. It’s a surrounding that the Doctor seems to understand on some elemental level, recognising that he is trapped inside a particular type of story. “You know, it’s uncanny, strange and weird, but it is familiar,” Ian remarks after the first scare. The Doctor agrees, “Yes, that’s the word, dear boy, familiar. You know, when I was coming down those stairs, I knew that thing was going to move. I knew it.” He recognised the tropes and conventions of a horror story, which helped him when he was trapped inside one.

There's not mushroom for error...

There’s not mushroom for error…

These classic monsters (Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster) make quick work of the Daleks, as if to demonstrate that the Daleks aren’t quite that terrifying and primal a terror… at least not yet. As we reach the end, the Daleks get more aggressive in their attempt to conquer the television show themselves. They even grow themselves a cloned version of the Doctor, to help them hijack the series. In a nice touch, it’s quite clear that this is William Hartnell’s stand-in, even for quite a few shots where Hartnell himself is not present. Like the casting of Purves in two roles in this story, that draws attention to the nature of The Chase as a piece of television.

Indeed, the fifth episode of the serial is named The Death of Doctor Who. Of course, the credits are still calling the character “Doctor Who”, so it seems to apply to the character, but there’s also the indication that the Daleks are attacking the fundamental underpinnings of the series at the same time. They travel around in a time machine designed to evoke the TARDIS. There’s a central console, and the sense that it’s bigger on the inside.

Talk about an awkward lift ride...

Talk about an awkward lift ride…

They create a clone of the First Doctor, but one who is sinister, scheming and untrustworthy. In short, a version of the character as he was present in An Earthly Child. In case viewers don’t get this rather striking regression, the imposter!Doctor instructs his companions to “Destroy it with a rock!”, evoking one of the more iconic images of that first episode – and one of the images that feels most at odds with the current portrayal of the Doctor. He also calls Vicky “Susan”, as if to call viewers’ attention to the fact that this is an outdated model.

Of course, the Daleks’ plan ultimately backfires, spectacularly. They try so aggressively to take over the show that by the time we reach the climax of the adventure, the Daleks discover that another concept or idea has taken their place in the mythology. Mechanus seems quite familiar to Skaro. It’s another hostile jungle world, with an eerily abandoned futuristic city. There’s another race of hostile life-forms occupying the city, called the Mechanoids. Like the Daleks were presented in The Daleks, it seems that the Mechanoids are trapped on this planet.

Barbara's about dune with this...

Barbara’s about dune with this…

It seems that the Daleks, in their desperate attempt to assume the Doctor’s place in the narrative, left their own narrative role vacant. As such, by the time the Doctor and the Daleks circled back around from their genre-busting adventure, the role of the Daleks had been taken by the Mechanoids. This obviously puts the Daleks on the backfoot, and allows the Doctor to escape. The Daleks are now fighting to justify their own place in Doctor Who, rather than laying siege to his.

Interestingly, the episode does make a point to spoof these sorts of overly-complex theories and readings. When the Doctor and his companions land in a world where it seems like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster have come to life, the Doctor is quick to offer a pseudo-metaphysical explanation for everything. “This house is exactly what you would expect in a nightmare,” he explains to Ian. “Yes, we’re in a world of dreams. Creaking doors, thunder and lightning, monsters and all the things that go bumpety bumpety in the night.”

Yes, Doctor, it's clearly a nexus of the collective unconscious...

Yes, Doctor, it’s clearly a nexus of the collective unconscious…

He restates that opinion as they escape, only for the show to reveal that the Doctor might be over-analysing a bit. They are actually just is a Halloween fun house, in Ghana in 1996. Apparently mankind has perfected animatronic robots that can wrestle the Daleks into submission (and are immune to their weapons) by the end of the twentieth century. It seems a bit weird, then, that The Dalek of Invasion of Earth could still happen, even using biological warfare. Still, it’s best not to think about these things too much.

There are a few awkward moments to be found here, even for a show featuring an extended sequence with an Alabama hick atop the Empire State Building. For one thing, the Mary Celeste gag seems a little black and bleak for a show like Doctor Who. It’s hard to find the image of a woman and her child drowning particularly funny, especially as punchline to one of the great maritime mysteries. The extended one-note gag is also somewhat undermined by the fact that the plate of the “Mary Celeste” is quite clearly visible long before the final reveal.

That's the name of the game...

That’s the name of the game…

Still, despite this, I don’t actually hate The Chase. I can understand the frustration that a lot of viewers feel towards it, particularly as it represents the climax of the Daleks’ first shift into figures of fun, eroding the dramatic credibility that they had. Here, the Daleks are present as much for comedic support as for a sense of menace. “How long before we reach them?” one Dalek demands during their pursuit of the TARDIS. His subordinate stutters, looking for a reply. “Er… eh… in Earth time… er… four minutes.”

It’s a surreal scene, and one that doesn’t fit with how the Daleks have been presented so far. Indeed, The Chase figures a remarkably low “extermination” count. The biggest body count comes from the Mary Celeste, and the Daleks did little more than simply show up. Quite simply, The Chase is hardly the high-point of the Daleks’ credibility as the show’s iconic bad guys, making them seem ridiculous and absurd more than terrifying or scary.

Stickin' it to the man!

Stickin’ it to the man!

I don’t mind that. For one thing, the credibility of the Daleks as a major villain tends to move in cycles. After all, The Chase is positioned between The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Daleks’ Master Plan, two high-points for the pepper pots. For another thing, these are alien villains who were clearly designed to resemble pepper pots. They’re hard to take entirely seriously at the best of times. Acknowledging their inherent absurdity is part of the charm.

After all, isn’t the power of the Doctor the way that he finds a way to undermine these scary things that go bump in the night? And he doesn’t do it through threats or force of will. He does it by rendering them absurd and ridiculous. He runs circles around them, he bluffs them. He smiles and he laughs. As such, reducing the Daleks to figures of fun is perhaps the best way of defeating these sorts of monsters. That’s probably the reason why I am so fond of The Chase, despite its somewhat ropey critical consensus.

It's alive!

It’s alive!

The Chase also marks the departure of Ian and Barbara. It’s quite sudden, despite the nice little set-up scene at the start that exists just to demonstrate that the TARDIS has become a large family. Of course, it’s worth noting that this cements the idea that the one truly indispensable part of Doctor Who is the Doctor himself. In the early adventures, Ian and Barbara had generally been presented as our point-of-view characters, and the Doctor was much less of a heroic archetype.

In the time since, however, the Doctor has grown as a character to such an extent that he can effectively carry the show himself. It’s important, because this lesson would carry over to the First Doctor’s final appearance in The Tenth Planet. In a way, The Chase is really a trial by fire for the Doctor himself, struggling to hold onto the show not only as the Daleks lay siege to it, but also as half of the primary cast (and the only other remaining original cast members) depart. If the Doctor can survive The Chase, it seems, he can survive anything.

It's a trap... door!

It’s a trap… door!

The Chase is one of those stories that I worry I am reading too much into. It’s something that could easily just be nonsense padding, a cynical attempt to tell a Dalek story while getting as much mileage as possible. However, there is something fascinating here, something very worth a bit of attention.

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