The Chase

Airdate: May/June 1965
Written by: Terry Nation
Directed by: Richard Martin (with some footage by Douglas Camfield in Episode 6)
The Story So Far: The Daleks build their own time machine, and pursue the TARDIS across eternity in an effort to exterminate our time-traveling heroes.

The scripts for The Chase, both on paper in 1965, and as novelized by John Peel in 1989, have an epic feel.  With the individual episodes given weighty titles like The Executioners, Flight Through Eternity, and The Death of Doctor Who, there is no doubt that this serial was intended to be one of Doctor Who‘s all-time show stoppers, truly one of the greatest stories ever planned.

So epic that Abraham Freakin' Lincoln has a speaking part.  Featuring Robert Marsden as Daniel Day-Lewis, and Maureen O'Brien as Sally Field.

So epic that Abraham Freakin’ Lincoln has a speaking part. Featuring Robert Marsden as Daniel Day-Lewis, and Maureen O’Brien as Sally Field.

But with great ambition comes great responsibility.  Unfortunately, Richard “The Web Planet” Martin was hired to direct the serial.

The Chase is considered to be one of Doctor Who‘s all-time turkeys. With dubiously-realized alien species, pages’ worth of fumbled dialogue, BBC cameras visibly prowling the jungles of Mechanus, ludicrous accents, and a Dalek with a speech impediment, just about everything that a director could conceivably get wrong in a single TV production, is gotten wrong by Richard Martin.

In this very rare production still taken during rehearsals, two Dalek props line up before Camera 5.... oh, no. Wait.  This is a screen-grab from the finished episode.  Sorry.

In this very rare production still taken during rehearsals, two Dalek props line up before Camera 5…. oh, no. Wait. This is a screen-grab from the finished episode. Sorry.

When let down so dramatically by the production, the script suffers as well.  Lines intended as clever gags by Terry Nation, sound unintentionally stupid; as we learned in the previous story, The Space Museum, when the rest of the production is bad, the audience starts laughing at the script instead of with the script.  Also, the few mis-steps made by Nation during the writing stage take on an even more glaring significance. Take Nation’s unfortunate fascination with writing sentient plants (please!); in 1965, these could only be realized by stuntmen lumbering around in baggy rubber costumes, which leads to Episode 5 of The Chase being dominated by monsters called the Fungoids.

Having successfully played an alien caterpillar with an Eastern European accent in "The Web Planet", Ian Thompson now turns his method-acting skills to the role of a shell-eared fish in striped pajamas.  Even Gary Oldman is not this versatile.

Having successfully played an alien caterpillar with a Yiddish accent in “The Web Planet”, Ian Thompson now turns his method-acting skills to the role of a shell-eared fish-person in stripey tights. Even Gary Oldman is not this versatile.

What I have tried to do for this write-up, is to forget all the production glitches.  But the next two stories produced after The Chase were helmed by Douglas Camfield (The Crusade) and Derek Martinus (Galaxy 4), so Richard Martin’s direction looks so much the worse in contrast.  As a Doctor Who fan, I am genetically wired to be critical and nitpicky even to the stories I like.  So, hide your eyes.  Some of this review is gonna get ugly.

Episode 1 does work really well.  For once, the TARDIS crew is at peace, unaware that they’re being pursued by a squad of murderous time-traveling Daleks.  They spend most of the episode lounging about (with Ian reading a book about bug-eyed monsters,  surely a sly dig at the series’ original “no bug-eyed monsters” remit), or watching famous events from Earth history on the Doctor’s Time/Space Visualizer machine – including the Gettysburg Address (evidently delivered by Robert Marsden on the Planet Aridius set, which looks nothing like Pennsylania in the autumn), and the Beatles,  in a clip, performing “Ticket to Ride”.

Not that awful noise.  The other one.

Not that awful noise. The other one.

Nation, as is his habit from previous stories, makes a meta-joke about the limitations of the visual medium; following his dig about the TARDIS not having a color TV in The Keys of Marinus, here even the Time TV is plagued with poor reception.  Later, Barbara mocks the Doctor’s tuneless singing, and the Doctor introduces the “TARDIS magnet”, clearly a failed attempt at merchandising.  Then Nation gives us a surprise reveal of a Dalek emerging from the sand.  In general, he fills up the margins of the script with so much with that you’re really at a disservice if you miss a single line of dialogue.

Even  Ian, who recently lived through "The Web Planet", calls this book is far-fetched.

Even Ian, who recently lived through “The Web Planet”, calls this book far-fetched.

Unfortunately, none of Nation’s skills can save Episode 2, which Martin’s direction destroys.  The Doctor, Barbara, and two pathetic Aridians, hide from the Daleks by sitting in the sand, chatting.  The Aridians are spineless, and not just because they’re evolved fish; they come across as stupid versions of The Sensorites.  The episode is so badly made that even suspension of disbelief is near-impossible, given the Mire Beast, the bad blocking of the actors playing the Aridians, and the Dalek operators standing up to walk their props over the sand.  If you’d missed Episode 1 and began the story with this installment, you might never want to watch the show again.

The actual “chase” of the title takes up most of Episodes 3 and 4, featuring three consecutive Earth-bound locations.   A comedy sequence set on the Empire State Building – one of the few times Doctor  Who has used intentionally bad American accents as a comedy device, rather than just hiring bad actors – populates the majesty that is New York City with a lady in an awful hat, Peter Purves playing a Southern yokel, and Arne Gordon (another refugee from The Web Planet) adapting a heavy Brooklyn accent to play an Empire State Building tour guide (“When you come up in the elevator, it took you seven minutes. Well, this way down, you wanna get down in a hurry, it would take youse, ah, toity seckints”).

Of course, one of the reasons I find this funny, is because I'm from Brooklyn, and this really  is how we actually talk...

Of course, one of the reasons I find this funny, is because I’m from Brooklyn, and this is how we actually talk…

The Marie Celeste sequence to close out Episode 3 is a bit ludicrous, a comedic rendering of an actual tragedy, with the crew (who, apart from a stray “youse”, appear not to have authentic American accents, the real Captain Briggs having been from Massachusetts) throwing themselves overboard to flee the Daleks.  The cliffhanger music has the kind of menacing jazzy piano sting that would later be used as… scene transition music on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

"Won't you please, won't you please, please won't you be, my Monster?"

“Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be, my Monster?”

Episode 4, Journey Into Terror, is… here we go, the most gaffe- and fluff prone episode in all the Hartnell years.  Even setting aside Barbara and Vicki’s comedy double-takes and Ian’s ludicrous fear of bats (the man just got knighted two stories ago, fought a duel in Nero’s arena, and survived deadly nightshade poisoning), you can see the Dalek prop visible in Frankenstein’s laboratory even before the Daleks have arrived; Vicki speaks her cue “What’s that in aid of?” too early; and the haunted house androids attack and destroy the Daleks, which abruptly turns Abbott And Costello Meet The Wolfman into Westworld. We have one comedy Dalek with the speech impediment, and also a Cockney Dalek who pronounces “chamber” and “destination” in a distinctly un-Skarosian way.  The episode cliffhanger, with Edmund Warwick as a Dalek robot duplicate Doctor, is said to be “impossible to distinguish from the original”, which, of course, he isn’t…

The devoted husband and family man, versus the wicked uncle who just don't give a damn...

The devoted husband and family man, versus the wicked uncle who just don’t give a damn…

Episode 5 is called The Death of Doctor Who, the kind of title you can only use once. Spoiler alert, it’s the robot double who dies.  While this installment has trouble with visible camera cables, and a visible camera, and the aforementioned men in baggy rubber suits… what it really is, is the four regulars having fun running around a jungle set.  Jacqueline Hill discovers a “light gun” and starts enthusiastically making Kapow! noises as she begins zapping imaginary Daleks.  Hartnell, during the scenes when he’s playing his double, seems to be clearly sending up his own mannerisms and affectations – the duplicate tries to club Barbara with his cane, a comment on the Doctor’s own violent tendencies to this point in the series.  And, of course, the Daleks’ ruse is found out when the double refers to Vicki as “Susan” – a nice callback to the Doctor’s departed granddaughter, and a necessary reminder (given what comes in the following episode) that companions don’t travel with the Doctor forever.

The Mechonoids do to the Daleks on TV, what toy Daleks did to Toy Mechonoids during the next holiday sales push.

The Mechonoids do to the Daleks on TV, what toy Daleks did to Toy Mechonoids during the next holiday sales push.

So now we come to Episode 6, The Planet of Decision.  This is the first moment, really, where Doctor Who celebrated itself on TV as the cultural phenomenon that it had become to this point.  It’s the longest episode of the series to date – 26 and a half minutes, a good two minutes over the norm – and with good reason.  Two companions exit, a new one joins, and the Daleks are seemingly wiped out in an epic battle with the Mechonoids. The Mechonoids, enormous EPCOT-sized geodesic-dome-shaped robots, were supposed to be The Next Big Thing in toy shops, and would, of course, never be heard from again.  If memory serves me right, this is also the first episode that was released on vinyl as an audio soundtrack.

First comes the new companion, Steven Taylor, a marooned astronaut from Earth’s future, played by Peter Purves, who’d played the Alabama yokel way back in Episode 3. Purves is a strong presence, entering the story in disbelief; his character is encountering fellow humans for the first time in four years, and Purves portrays this with a manic jumble of half-finished sentences.  He even adds gravitas that the story had lacked up to this point, bitterly muttering “Help yourself to a piece of eternity”, when he realizes that the TARIS crew are just as trapped on Mechanus as he is.

Meanwhile, the Dalek/Mechonoid fight is loud and busy, with animated fireworks superimposed over the screen, and anticipating the epic on-screen battle between Daleks and Cybermen in 2006’s Doomsday.  Ostensibly, the two sides annihilate each other, but the Mechonoids win the battle, forcing the Daleks to utter ludicrous death cries such as “TOTALLY IMMOBILIZED!” and “AM EXTERMINATED!”…of course, that didn’t matter in the end, as the Daleks would win the merchandising war.

A couple of burnt cinders riding around in Spain, er, London.

A couple of burnt cinders riding around in Spain, er, London.

And then Ian and Barbara say goodbye.  William Russell and Jacqueline Hill were the first two characters introduced in An Unearthly Child, and they served as the audience identification figures for the first several serials, when the Doctor was still an untrustworthy anti-hero.  By the end of Season 2, where we are now, however, William Hartnell has become the show’s central figure; Ian and Barbara no longer have to carry the drama, and so it’s time to say goodbye to the two “silly old fusspots”.  On screen, Ian and Barbara have to convince an emotional and angry Doctor to let them go home, back to England of 1963, by way of the defeated Daleks’ abandoned time machine.  Hartnell tells them it’s too dangerous, too risky, to travel in that ship, leading to the following bit of found poetry:

You’d both be a couple of burnt cinders riding around in Spain, er, space!

Jacqueline Hill nails her one last monologue, an emotional plea to the Doctor that it’s time for her and Ian to go home.  And home the Doctor lets them go (of course, getting back to the wrong year, 1965… although, in John Peel’s novelization, which is ostensibly based on Terry Nation’s original scripts, this is a deliberate decision in order to account for the fact that Ian and Barbara are now two years older, wiser and stronger).  Hill and Russell exit the series in a photo montage of the two of them bustling about London, and even having a comic encounter with a police box.  As an emotional farewell, this is a counterpoint to Susan’s reluctant goodbye in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and it’s going to be several more years before any subsequent series regular gets so satisfying a send-off.

And that’s The Chase.  A bunch of crowd-pleasing ideas crammed into a single serial, a chance for Verity Lambert and Terry Nation to celebrate the show that they’ve helped turn from a mild curiosity in a junkyard to an iconic center of mid-1960s’ British pop culture. The story idea stretches the budget and design woefully thin, and most of the middle bits, quite simply, looks ludicrous half a century later.  But the serial has an enormous heart, with Episodes 1 and 6 containing several stand-up-and-cheer moments.   It’s not Shakespeare (even though it has Shakespeare in it, in Episode 1), and even with the seams quite literally showing in places, I think it’s hard to come away from this story without grinning just a little bit.

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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16 Responses to The Chase

  1. I liked “The Chase” more than you did, evidently. But, nevertheless, that was a very funny write-up. And bonus points for working in a reference to the Pet Shop Boys.

    • drwhonovels says:

      Ha! Glad someone caught that quote. I will always defend “The Chase” to others, but the glitches pile up so fast and furious that they tend to overwhelm even a favorable review…

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  3. I agree about Ian and Barbara’s send-off. While I wished they had a stronger final story, I thought their departure was one of the best.

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