After the first groundbreaking Dalek story and its even better sequel, “The Chase” is widely regarded as something of an embarrassment by fans. Aptly named, this six-parter is literally a chase across time and space, an execution squad of Daleks hot on the heels of the four time travellers. A much more light-hearted affair than its predecessors, “The Chase” does still have many moments of dramatic tension, and in a way this is where the story falls down. “The Chase” is neither an out and out comedy nor a serious drama; the story just can’t make its mind up, and almost inevitably it flops. That said, I certainly do not dislike “The Chase.” Somehow, someway, this six-part adventure has its charm…
There are a lot of fantastic elements in the story, some of which are groundbreaking considering when it was produced. The retro-look ‘Space-Time Visualiser’ is one such example; a lovely little device that allows the Doctor and his companions to view any event in history. The Beatles even make an appearance on it where they play “Ticket To Ride” when Vicki tunes in to Top of the Pops! Terry Nation uses this device both to fulfil part of the programme’s education remit by showing certain historic events (the Gettysburg Address and the Court of Queen Elizabeth I, for example) and to set up his plot by having the time travellers watch the Daleks’ hatching their dastardly plot.
Interestingly, “The Chase” marks a significant development in the evolution of the Daleks. By this story, these Daleks no longer need the ‘satellite dishes’ attached to them when outside their city, and even more importantly they demonstrate that they have mastered time corridor technology, which the Doctor would later describe as “very crude and nasty.” This is the first time in the entire series that anyone other than the Doctor demonstrates time travel capability, and it is an idea that is revisited not only in the next story, “The Time Meddler,” but also throughout the history of the show, eventually culminating in the fabled ‘Time War’ just prior to the start of the new series.
The story itself gets bogged down on Aridius for what feels like an eternity before the proper ‘Chase’ begins. The Daleks then pursue our heroes to the top of the Empire State Building in the mid-1960’s, where Peter Purves makes his first Doctor Who appearance – not as Steven Taylor but as Morton Dill, a quite comical slack-jawed yokel. The TARDIS then lands on the Mary Celeste, whose crew leap into the sea at the sight of the Daleks! Next, the TARDIS lands in what seems to a haunted house full of the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. Nation really takes the opportunity to gently mock the series here, having the Doctor dramatically postulate that they have landed in a place outside time, somewhere inside the collective human unconsciousness where spectres and monsters and vampires live… In truth, they’ve just materialised in a robotic amusement park! These are the parts of “The Chase” that I found quite endearing; the parts of the story that are a no-excuses comedic romp across space and time, scored with what sounds like music from a Carry On film!
However, it isn’t long before “The Chase” starts to get a little bit heavier, and still played against the backdrop of a ludicrously jolly soundtrack it just doesn’t work well at all. Vicki is temporarily separated from the TARDIS crew when the TARDIS dematerialises, the Doctor having mistakenly thought that she was on board. Worse, the Daleks create the first (in the entire series) Dalek Duplicate. What could have been a fascinating plot development is ruined by sloppy production. I’m not having a dig at the general production standards of the time, which as everybody knows were notoriously dubious, yet still remarkable considering the time and the budget that they had available. Instead, I’m criticising the idea behind how the production team realised the two Doctors. For example, sometimes William Hartnell plays both the Doctor and the duplicate Doctor. At other times, Edmund Warwick instead plays the duplicate which quickly gets extremely confusing. In my book, Edmund Warwick should have either always played the duplicate (in which case the audience would know he was the duplicate) or they should have come up with a way to allow Bill Hartnell to play both parts. And why on earth was that episode called “The Death of Doctor Who”? The Doctor doesn’t die! It’s a complete no-brainer, unless the term ‘Doctor Who’ is being used as a reference to the ‘fictional’ duplicate much in the same way Steve Lyons uses the term in his novels to refer to the ‘fictional’ Doctor. Somehow I doubt it, though.
The final episode of “The Chase” is a tremendous improvement. The eponymous “Planet of Decision” is Mechanus, a wonderfully realised planet that was originally intended to be turned into a human colony world but was actually abandoned. The Mechanoids (custom-built robots who were sent there to prepare the world for the human settlers that never came) now rule the planet. Here the Doctor and his companions meet Steven Taylor (Peter Purves pulling a double-header) the survivor of a spaceship crash who has been a prisoner of the Mechanoids for years. As the Daleks and the Mechanoids destroy one another (kind of ironic considering the events of the much later Big Finish audio drama, “The Juggernauts”) the time travellers escape, Steven stowing away above the TARDIS whilst Ian and Barbara uses the Daleks’ abandoned time machine to return to their home time and place.
The departure of the last of the Doctor’s original companions is superbly handled by Nation. The Doctor is furious with them, ranting and raving, obviously not wanting them to leave his company. I particularly liked how the departure was handled almost as an afterthought; throughout the story there is no clue that they may be leaving (and if you think about it, why would there be?) and this makes it extremely effective as suddenly they seize their one chance to get home and leave their life of adventure behind. In the blink of an eye, they’re gone forever.
A cheesy montage featuring a jubilant Ian and Barbara in London rounds off one of the strangest, and ironically one of the most important, of the early Doctor Who serials. “The Chase” remains to this day an enjoyable story to watch, however it is one that could have been so, so much better were it not for its indecisive tone and a cardboard TARDIS!
After the post-nuclear holocaust horror of 'The Mutants' and the Nazi imagery of 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', viewers at the time might have been expecting further apocalyptic horror from the third Dalek story after the dramatic cliffhanger appearance of a Dalek at the end of 'The Space Museum'. That brief appearance reveals that the Daleks, who had perfectly adapted their environment to suit their needs in 'The Mutants' and then demonstrated their ability to reach beyond their city and conquer other worlds in 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', have made a further technological leap in conquering the fourth dimension. We are told that the Daleks are preparing to follow "the enemy time machine" and track down and exterminate their old foes. This promises the viewer a thrilling and terrifying ride in which there is no escape from the Dalek for the TARDIS crew. What the viewer gets however is nothing of the sort.
Since I discussed the positive aspects of 'The Space Museum' first, here I'll discuss the drawbacks of 'The Chase' first instead. Firstly, the direction is sloppy. There is a BBC camera in the jungle on Mechanus, there is a Dalek in the House of Horror before the Daleks arrive there, an Aridian sneaks around I the background during episode two, and the Frankenstein monster changes its clothes between scenes. In addition, Richard Martin makes some strange directorial choices; during the final battle between the Daleks and the Mechanoids, there are three horrible Batman-style cartoon flashes super-imposed over the action, which look incredibly cheap and nasty. In addition, since Edmund Warwick looks nothing like William Hartnell from the front, the decision to use him in scenes when the Doctor is absent is an interesting one, especially since these scenes often then involve a close-up of Hartnell completing the robot's lines. This jars considerably, and is unnecessary, since during the actual duel between the Doctor and his doppelganger, Warwick is filmed from behind and is reasonably convincing, leading to the obvious conclusion that the entire duplicate plot could have been carried off much better than it is. The shots of the TARDIS and the Dalek time machine traveling through space also look terrible, due to the obvious use of cardboard cutouts of the two craft, and are entirely unnecessary. The ground on Mechanus is shrouded in dry ice in the model shots, but bare and obviously a Dalek-friendly set floor in the studio. And 'The Chase' has Doctor Who's stupidest incidental score to date, which totally destroys any tension that might otherwise have been created.
Initially, the Daleks themselves are impressive, with a new streamlined look that is a massive improvement on the large-bumpered satellite-dish supporting model from 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth'. That they have become the first beings in Doctor Who other than the Doctor himself to travel in time is also undoubtedly impressive and suggests that their technology can overcome any obstacle in their path. Unfortunately, this is all undermined by Nation's apparent decision to pen 'The Chase' as a comedy. Instead of the intimidating and unstoppable monsters of the first two Dalek stories, here we have a Dalek that clears its throat as it emerges form a sand-dune (thus destroying the tension of the first episode cliffhanger), a Dalek that goes "erm" repeatedly when asked to perform mathematics, and Daleks panicked by indestructible fairground exhibits. The segment located atop the Empire State Building is an outright attempt at comedy, but falls flat, like most of the bits in 'The Chase' that seem to want to be funny but aren't (why on Earth, for example, doesn't the Dalek exterminate Dill? I certainly wanted to…). It is almost as though Nation (a former script-writer for Tony Hancock) suddenly realized that homicidal psychotic monsters are not the best comedy fodder and ended up writing a half-hearted semi-comedy. Since these prevent 'The Chase' from becoming as dramatic as it could be, it falls between two stools. What results is more of a parody than anything else – the Daleks chanting "retreat" in high-panicky voices in episode four are hugely reminiscent of King Arthur's cry of "run away!" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Similarly, their frantic chanting of "Attack! Attack! Attack!" brings to mind the Knights who say "Ni". They are easily dispatched too – a fairground android breaks one into pieces (they would have been useful during the Dalek invasion), another roles sedately into the sea, and one is easily lured into a cardigan-based pitfall trap.
Like Nation's earlier 'The Keys of Marinus', 'The Chase' has a multi-location narrative, as the action moves from place to place throughout time and space. Whereas I criticized 'The Keys of Marinus' for failing to live up to its potential, 'The Chase' overcomes this flaw by three separate tactics. One of these is to have a planet with no intelligent indigenous species, inhabited only by robots, about which we are told everything we need to know, and who have a Spartan, mechanized civilization with consequently no hints of a larger culture to entice and frustrate the viewer – this works quite well. Another is to have sequences set on Earth, and thus familiar. The third unfortunately, is to have two episodes set on a planet inhabited by a race so tedious that the viewer (or at least, this viewer) has no interest in learning more about it. Aridius is deadly dull. The sets are OK, but the Aridians themselves are pathetic to the point of contempt, without any accompanying feelings of sympathy (I suspect that this rather harsh view on my part is due largely to their silly appearance and some dreadful overacting). Even the name is ridiculous – the planet is called Aridius and it used to be wet, but became Arid. Serves them right. Perhaps they changed the name after the seas dried up? In a series that will later demonstrate the difficulties of creating convincing tentacles, the mire beasts are quite effective, until at least we see one in full, and learn that it resembles an enormous scrotum. And why do the Daleks tell the Aridians to hand the time travelers over at high suns, instead of immediately, thus giving them time to escape? The entire planet is presented as a soul-destroying combination of tedium and ludicrousness. Admittedly, the Daleks are quite nasty here – their extermination of the two Aridians who dig the TARDIS out of the sand is a reminder of their ruthlessness. Sadly, it is the next episode, which destroys their credibility. In addition, the gimmicky scene with the Time-Space Visualiser is too long and just feels like padding. The Shakespeare bit is particularly unmemorable.
The Morton C. Dill sequence is also crap, although it is to Peter Purves' credit that when he reappears as Steven in episode six, the characters are completely different. With a cod American dialogue, unfunny idiot Southern American tourist routine, and silly hat, Dill is just irritating. As is the tourist guide with the over-the-top Brooklyn accent. Aside from that, the sequences set on Earth are OK – the Mary Celeste sequence is pure filler, and has a couple of moments of half-hearted humour, but the Haunted House sequence is quite good fun. Although the Doctor's sudden conclusion as to where they actually are is absurd and rather out of character for a man who thus far has always favoured scientific explanations.
Despite these considerable flaws however, 'The Chase' is rather enjoyable. This is largely due to the last two episodes. Peter Purves immediately grabs the attention as the slightly manic Steven, who is immediately distinct from the ever-sensible Ian from the moment he enthusiastically greets the travelers. Although he has been a prisoner for two years, he clearly hasn't been sitting idle, as the wooden construction in his cell attests. He has also clearly given some thought to his escape, knowledgably nodding when Ian mentions the cable, but has pragmatically realized that he was better off where he was until he actually stood a chance of getting off Mechanus as well as outside of the Mechanoid city. Admittedly, his decision to rush back into a burning room for his stuffed toy and thus almost cause Vicki and Barbara to plummet fifteen-thousand feet to their death is not his finest moment, but it tells us that he is headstrong and also brave, if foolish. Since he doesn't appear until the last episode, he doesn't get the same sort of character development that Vicki got in her debut story, but his basic personality is immediately established.
The Mechanoids themselves, despite being an obvious attempt to cash in the success of the Daleks, are visually effective, although their strange speech patterns doom them from true Dalek rivalry.
Nevertheless, their battle with the Daleks at the end, cartoon flashes aside, is impressively shot and is the highlight of the story for me. The final destruction of the city is also impressive. The sub-plot with the robot double of the Doctor is obvious padding, but quite effective and leads to much more dramatic scenes than we saw earlier in the story. Barbara at its mercy in the jungle is particularly creepy.
The regulars continue to impress, with Hartnell, unlike the script, effortlessly switching between comedy and drama (witness his TARDIS scenes in episode one and the "Yoohoo! Auntie!" bit in episode two). Most of the time, the Doctor is at his most intense, as he commits himself to battling and defeating the Daleks. Whether he's working on his bomb or vowing to defeat his foes, he wears a permanent frown of concentration and is at full force when he lets rip with one of his typical First Doctor impassioned rants. Admittedly, there is a classic Hartnell fluff ("you'll end up as a couple of cinders floating around in Spain!"), but this is a solitary slip in an otherwise well-acted story. Vicki too continues to impress – she follows up her newfound independence from the Doctor during 'The Space Museum' by sneaking on board the Dalek time machine (which, lets face it, would be a terrifying experience) after being accidentally abandoned by the Doctor, Ian and Barbara, which allows her to learn about the robot, which might otherwise have killed Barbara. This contrasts nicely with her fear of heights, revealed in the final episode as the travelers climb down from the Mechanoid city. And then there are Ian and Barbara…
Having never watched this era of Doctor Who in order from the start before, I've never fully appreciated the impact of Ian and Barbara's departure, but this time it came as a bit of a shock. They've been the backbone of the TARDIS crew since '100,000 BC' and suddenly, at the end of episode six, without any build-up, they seize the chance to return home. The impact of this is powerful – we've seen them both develop during their travels with the Doctor from reluctant abductees to hugely resourceful and vital members of the TARDIS crew, and they've been in the series from the start, providing the viewers with someone to identify with in the various alien surroundings that the Doctor introduces them to, and suddenly they've gone. This is made doubly effective by Hartnell's acting, as the Doctor is obviously deeply hurt at their decision to leave him after all their adventures together, and covers this up with angry bluster. Only as the Doctor and Vicki watch Ian and Barbara returned to London on the Time-Space Visualiser at the end does the Doctor show his more vulnerable side, reminding us how close he and the two teachers had become. Ian and Barbara's final scene in London, complete with photo-captions of the pair of them revisiting London's landmarks, is a bit twee, but provides a nice sense of closure and also hints at a doubly happy ending – we've seen how close the two have become since they first entered the TARDIS and we're reminded of this during 'The Chase' both on Aridius and Mechanus as Barbara fears that Ian is dead and as Ian then realises that Barbara has left the cave with the robot. The final scene on the bus shows them acting very much like a couple, and it is easy to believe that they will end up together (as indeed they do, in 'The Face of the Enemy'). For the first time in the series, not just the TARDIS crew has changed, but its actual dynamic; whereas Vicki essentially filled Susan's role and Steven takes over from Ian as man of action, Barbara's role – sensible, older female companion – is lost, and doesn't return. We also now for the first time have no companions from the viewer's own era, with both Steven and Vicki hailing from the future – admittedly, they still provide identification for the viewer if no other reason than that they provide somebody for the Doctor to explain things to, but the feel of the show is nevertheless in someway different after 'The Chase'. Then again, Ian and Barbara have become two of my favourite companions from the show, so perhaps I'm just missing them J.
Overall, though I appear to have found more bad points than good, the good points of 'The Chase' nevertheless just about manage to outweigh the bad, resulting in a story that manages to be enjoyable overall, and marks an important change in the series. This is quickly followed up with another significant development for the series, during the final story of season two.