Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Chase written by Terry Nation and directed by Richard Martin

This story in a nutshell: You might think that I’m taking the piss but I’m not as there are very few Doctor Who stories that give me as much pleasure as The Chase. It’s an infamous six parter shining boldly at the end of season two with so many moments of utter duffness that I always put this story on whenever I am feeling low. I cannot think of many Doctor Who stories that make as many mistakes as this one and yet struggle on regardless to become something so delightfully funny and entertaining. The actors are having a whale of a time and it rubs off on the viewer (or at least this one) and before the final credits come up I find myself laughing myself silly and crying at the loss of some very dear friends. When I point at The Chase’s shortcomings I only do so affectionately as this is a story that I have enjoyed with so many different friends over the years. Not an obvious story to show to a non-fan I agree but I have enjoyed some of the best nights blissed out on wine with non-fans Luke and Hazel and giggling ourselves into a stupor. Good times.

Hmm: How glorious was the team of the first Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki? I love the early domestic scenes of this story with the Doctor poking away at his machine, practically living up to the image that Peter Cushing would promote when he was handed the role for two films. Whilst he and Babs are sunbathing on the sweat beadingly warm planet of Aridius he cannot help but let rip his singing voice that he points out could charm the birds from the trees. I love how much of a moral character he is these days; he doesn’t want the Aridians involved in their squabble with the Daleks regardless of his friends wishes. It is a far cry from the man who was happy to abuse the Thals and use them as his own personal army in the first Dalek story. He enjoys sampling the Aridian food and admiring their (frankly hideous) architecture. He understands that the Daleks do not make idle threats and in one moment of insane braggadocio the Doctor suggests that he built the TARDIS. I can't help but enjoy Hartnell's interaction with Hill and Russell even during the serials duffer moments - he's all bravado when entering the Frankenstein laboratory but runs away scared shitless when the creature sits up on the table, shoving Ian into the lions den! What on Earth is his ‘bumpety bumpety in the night theory' all about? He's clearly making any old shit up to make himself sound insightful and joyfully the travellers believe him and walk away from the location in blissful ignorance of what has actually been going on. He is getting extremely adept at getting rid of these young girls that keep hounding his footsteps, first booting Susan out of the ship and now forgetting to make sure Vicki is on board before taking off. At least he looks genuinely regretful at the error and blames himself entirely. The Doctor suicidally faces up to the Daleks pretending to be their duplicate to save his friends lives…how much has he changed since those early adventures when he would have happily sacrificed them to escape the latest threat? Anybody who suggests that Ian and Barbara have imbued him with a sense of humanity is on precisely the right lines. He’s furious about at Ian and Barbara for wanting to leave, covering up his feelings with bluster and admits once they have gone that he will miss the silly old fusspots. It breaks my heart when he drops all the pretense and withers at the thought of being separated from his friends.

Schoolteachers in Love: Ian is the father of the family and enjoys reading his monster stories whilst everyone else is bickering (and puts on some seriously embarrassing dad dance moves!). He’s quite the tactician, investigating each location as a possible battleground to face the Daleks. Ian is the one who realises at the end that this might be the last chance he gets to go home and his speech about wanting a normal life again, to walk in a park, have a pint and stop this aimless wandering, really hits home. Barbara plays mum, making a dress for the youngest in the peace and quiet. She's such a tough bitch when she needs to be, roughing up the Aridians when they threaten their lives and even tossing one of them into the jaws of the Mire Beast! Barbara is devastated at the thought of losing another cardie in an escape plan, she must have practically exhausted the Doctor's entire supply by now. She loves sailing ships. Watching Barbara and Vicki scare each other silly reminds me of movie night around my place with my mate Kate, we know we aren't in any real danger but we turn the lights out, cuddle close and turn the latest slasher flick up as loud as possible (and if we're feeling particularly cruel we wait outside the toilet in pitch darkness and jump out when the other comes out). Barbara admits that all that they have been through together will remain with them forever and probably be the most exciting times in their lives. It's wonderful that Ian and Barbara leave together, they are made for each other and the retroactive news that they got married in the Sarah Jane Adventures feels just about perfect.

Alien Orphan: We've all felt like Vicki at one point in our lives. Too young to do anything useful and moping about getting in everybody's way. At least the Doctor is impressed with her technical knowledge. She’s the sort of girl that always wants to see what’s on the other side of hill which makes her and the Doctor a right mischievous pair. Thank goodness they aren't going to be let loose on the universe alone, Steven will be watching over them to keep their curiosity in check. What on Earth is Vicki’s ring in the sand story about? I know we've all had moments where we talk utter bullshit but this is taking the biscuit! I find with Vicki it depends on which writer is bringing her to life that determines whether she is portrayed as an older teenager or a younger one and in Terry Nation's hands she is definitely the latter (in The Time Meddler it seems she has suddenly matured about five years into late adolescence). Nation seems to think she is some kind of Susan-clone, grabbing her head and screaming in moments of peril. At least Ian calls her a silly fool. I wonder if the references to her being from the future (the Beatles playing classical music and ‘ancient’ New York) where added by Dennis Spooner (similar moments abound in The Web Planet). Vicki is quite handy with a kosh, knocking poor Ian unconscious (that’s the second time that year one of his friends has done that! I’d get a complex if I were him). Like Vicki I am terrified of heights and she is so terrified she has to be blindfolded and lowered down on the cable but somehow not being able to see would make it even worse for me. Vicki sweetly convinces the Doctor to let Ian and Barbara go, warmly telling him that she wants to stay with him. I think we are seeing Maureen O'Brien's off screen role of appeasing a difficult Hartnell on display during this scene.

Aggressive Astronaut: A fighter in the wars and imprisoned for years, Steven wonders who has won the conflict. Steven has been trapped alone in the Mechanoid city for two years, which he quietly ponders on. He is excited to hear that the Doctor has a spaceship and has thought about climbing down the cable before. Oddly he heads back into the burning city to pick up a stuffed Panda and lets Barbara fall over a 1500 foot drop. Maybe he’s not companion material after all.

The Good and Bad Stuff: This is one of two stories where you cannot separate the good from the bad! You know you are in for a good time (or if you are not in the mood - a bloody awful time!) as the story opens to punchy jazz music and weird shots of the TARDIS wobbling its way over the kaleidoscopic time vortex. Only The Chase could devote an entire episode to farcical japes inside the TARDIS which has no relation to the plot whatsoever but as a result we get to see the crew as more of a family unit than ever. I don't think there is ever a point where the crew has felt more like a domestic family since. I can’t decide whether the Time/Space Visualiser is inspired or insipid but it does give us a chance to glimpse at potential adventures with Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Beatles. Do these stories have potential beyond this little vignettes? I think the Shakespeare one does, certainly. What’s odd is how much importance the device is given when it has no bearing on the plot whatsoever, it’s just another joyful and whacky idea thrown into the mix! One thing this story does very right is establishing its locations. We land on Aridius with an impressive location shot of the TARDIS as the camera pulls away from the ship and it is lost amongst the sand dunes. That is a very atmospheric shot for Richard Martin but as ever his work immediately ups its game on location. The Chase features the most excitable Daleks ever seen in the series and they are introduced by way of their latest hit record - the TARDIS song (it goes something like ‘TARDIS! TARDIS! TARDIS! TARDIS! TARDIS!’) and they get so worked up they start spinning about like their brothers in Journey's End. The interplay between the regulars is gorgeous: ‘Doctor, what’s that awful noise?’ ‘I beg your pardon? Awful noise? That’s no way to talk about my singing!’ ‘No not that awful noise, the other one!’ The production team go to some lengths to terrify their audience even to the point of having terrifying spectres looming in the distance over Aridius…or it could just be the actors’ shadows on the flat looking backdrops (I know, that was a cheap shot). Dudley Simpson comedy music plays over scenes of the man-in-a-duvet Mire Beast as it pulsates in the darkness. And finally the delightful first episode climaxes on another inexplicable moment, the Dalek rising from the sands coughing its guts up.

Contrary to popular belief because they are portrayed so idiotically at times the Daleks are actually rather gorgeously shot in this story. Unlike their uncomfortable movement in the Dalek Invasion of Earth these Daleks are mostly kept in the half dark and their casings glow menacingly, they glide across the studios with some speed and are filmed threateningly from below and above. Clearly Martin learnt some lessons in his previous Dalek blockbuster. However all this good camerawork is rather spoilt by the scene of them working on their next rap hit. It goes something like… ‘It must be uncovered before we can destroy it/Yes! We will take some Aridians prisoner/Yes! And use them to dig the ship free/Yes! Well see to it!/Yes!’ Nation hasn't learnt his lesson from The Keys of Marinus. When you script so many locations you are stretching the already meagre budget beyond its ability to convince. Everything about the planet Aridius smacks to me of saving cash from the body stockings’n’rubber caps inhabitants to the barely constructed wall of Lego bricks that the less than convincing Mire Beast tears through. Watching a pair of sweaty testicles swallow an amphibian has to be one of the most surreal moments in Doctor Who’s canon. And whose idea was it to represent the digging up of the TARDIS by showing a few grains of sand being wiped from the bottom? Unbelievable. Anyway we’re trying to defeat the Daleks and not start a jumble sale so what could be more appropriate than tearing up one of Barbara’s cardigans for the last time to lure a Dalek into a trap? Never before have the Doctor’s adventures felt more like kiddie friendly high japes than the ‘Ooh-ooh! Dalek!’ sequences! How spectacular does the TARDIS look into episode three? The console room is sunk in shadows and the lights make it glow and pulsate with life. The only competition the Daleks can offer is one of those magnificent swirly wall panels that could only have escaped from the hypnotically designed sixties. Who ever knew there was a Dalekian scale? Or that Daleks could be as dim as the one who forgets his lines and stumbles when asked to contribute some vital information.

Stylish shots of the Manhattan skyline introduce us to the utterly deranged Morton Dill. He’s such a ridiculous character with no point to serve but to remind us how silly this story is. Imagine if they had decided that this was the character Peter Purves was to play in the series? The only story he could successfully be inserted into would be The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters because of their comic leanings and just imagine him corpsing his way through Katarina's death scene in The Daleks' Masterplan. However the dialogue really sings during these scenes. ‘You’re from Earth!’ ‘No Ma’am I’m from Alabama!’ and ‘You mean you have different years here?’ Dills’ reaction to the Daleks is unthinkable…he bursts out laughing, grabs the sink plunger and declares ‘They...just... left!’ and informs the creature ‘Hey Mister, you’ve come all over in blue spots!’ You have to wonder about the sanity of a series that not only emplays a director that highlights the flaws of what is supposed to be its most successful monster without allowing the characters to get in on the action too! This is either spectacularly confident or a really moronic and given the fortitude of the rest of the story I will let you decide which. The Daleks would be raised back to their previously held levels of menace in their next handful of appearances so why don't we just assume that High Command pulled together all of their underachievers and sent them off on an impossible mission to kill the Doctor hoping that their arch nemesis would finish them all off. A bit like the B-Ark of middlemen quietly segregated and 'lost' in Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

The Mary Celeste segment is the only piece of the story that I feel could have been extended into something more thoughtful and interesting. Certainly the split-level wood panelled sets are very impressive and the director went to the lengths of filming this at Ealing and having scenes of the ships crew jumping into water. I could imagine a much longer historical tragedy centring on the destruction of the Mary Celeste, something more akin to The Massacre and minus the Daleks. Instead we get chaotic scenes of the metal meanies miraculously finding their ways up stairs and suicidally jumping of the ship. The slow pan across the deserted ship set suggests what this story could have been like.

Nobody knows what to think about the haunted house sequences and I have to join them. The first thing I noticed was how good the design (another expensive looking split level set) and atmospherics (thunder, flickering lights, real spectres and a screaming grey lady) were. The second thing I noticed was how badly directed and disorganised it all was. I would hope that the darkest reaches of the human mind would be a little more horrifying than this pantomime. Regardless of all the madness of Daleks duelling with Frankenstein  and Dracula (yeah, you heard me), Ian and the Doctor are great fun during this sequence with both of them terrified and neither wanting to show it. The unthinkable happens at the end of this episode…they leave Vicki behind!

What should have been scenes of claustrophobic terror with Vicki trapped in the Dalek ship instead becomes Maureen O’Brien totally without any direction (by her own admission) grasping at knobs and over emoting. The Chase also features some of the most melodramatic episode titles ever to grace the small screen. How exactly can you possibly live up to the expectation of The Death of Time or Death of Doctor Who? Somehow Ian, Barbara and Vicki spectacularly fail to notice that the Dalek duplicate of the Doctor looks anything like him. Now Richard Martin is starting to make some of the most intelligent companions the Doctor has ever travelled with look like morons and that is unacceptable. Barbara starts losing her mind, grabbing the light gun (surely the most ineffective weapon ever presented on the show?) and mocking up showdown with the Daleks (she even goes 'pwar! pwar! pwar! pwar!'). The fight between the Doctor(s) is quite effective if you squint away Edmund Warwick’s face but that's quite an ask of the audience.

In the cheapest episode of the serial we land on Mechanus and are confronted with giant hopping mushrooms known as the Fungoids. After everything else this show has failed to realised you have to wonder why there wasn't somebody in the wings asking if this was a bit of an ask of the designers. Imagine a story where the Fungoids team up with the Krynoids and try and take over the universe? I think Big Finish are on it at the moment. As if to comment on how exciting the story is in episode five all of the regulars fall asleep. They wake up to be greeted by the Mechanoid City, which is one of the most imaginatively designed pieces of model work the show ever presented and somehow shot this blandly by Martin it fails to impress. He really has to go.

Suddenly, inexplicably, the story gains focus in its last episode as we are immersed in a genuinely interesting location and finally get to see the Daleks at their kick ass best. The story has been one long wind up for five episodes since we know that they cannot catch up with and kill the Doctor (as much as the production might have wanted to shift the emphasis of the show onto the Daleks we probably wouldn't still be talking about it today if they had) but finally another race of robots are introduced that they can blast the shit out of and regain some of their former glory. The Mechanoids are fascinating, oddly cumbersome but still tasty on the eye. It is quite a muted introduction for Steven Taylor, shoehorned into the climax story that has already been  chugging along for a month and a half. Peter Purves gives a much calmer performance and the ex soldier comes across as a small touch of realism in an otherwise outrageous story. The Daleks can’t wait to get up to the city and pick a fight with the Mechanoids (they get some stunning dialogue: ‘We attack! Attack! Attack! Attack!’) and the fight sequences filmed at Ealing genuinely surprise because they are so good. Fast paced with some great camerawork and full of drama and flashy visuals, this is how the entire story would have looked in a perfect world with time and money in abundance. It’s like a glimpse at a punchier, sharper version of the same story. I don’t know though – would it be as fun?

Without warning William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are acting again (their waltz through this story barely stretches them for the most part, it could have improvised on set) as Ian and Barbara realise that they can return home in the Dalek time machine. The Doctor's reaction is one of absolute fury, mirroring Hartnell's at his fellow actors choosing to depart the show at the peak of its popularity. After all the high jinks in The Chase this is a sudden slap in the face, character drama that suddenly makes this story feel important. Losing Susan had a profound effect on the Doctor but losing Ian and Barbara seems to affect him even more. They have been our audience identification figures throughout the first two series and it always felt as though with them around everything would be okay. We are now heading into the much more dangerous territory of season three and without Ian and Barbara to hold our hands it would be a far more unforgiving ride. That’s for later though and what better ending could we have asked for than Ian and Barbara larking about in London, addicted to each other and their last shot featuring them holding each other and laughing. I think the Doctor speaks for the audience when he says that he will miss them. Like Sarah Jane, they were leaving at a point where their characters were still to be fondly remembered – any longer and they might have seemed tired. A fine ending for a wonderful pair of companions.

The Shallow Bit: We get the equivalent of Doctor Who pornography as the Doctor ties up and blindfolds Vicki, Ian grabs Barbara’s pants and they all fall into a heap together groaning! What a climax! Sorry I can't help myself with this tale.

Result: How exactly can you sum up The Chase? It really isn’t very good and yet it is one of the very few stories that transcends its faults and becomes something that is deliriously enjoyable, even addictive, the more you watch it. It's one last hurrah for Ian and Barbara and the actors seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. It’s a testament to the ambition and imagination of the Doctor Who production team at the time (to never attempt anything this ludicrous again!). It manages to make you laugh (intentionally or not) and cry. It has some damn fine design work and lighting and the Daleks (despite acting like sulky schoolboys) are often shot with real care. The Chase is all of these things and more but to me it is a number of chilled out evenings of laughter and companionship enjoying this little epic. For that it will always be one of my favourites. No matter how infantile the writing and direction is: 9/10

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What I like about The Chase is that is quite well-paced and you have a new location in every episode.