Doctor Who Reviews: The Chase

You know that feeling when you have too much of a good thing? Think of Christmas or Easter when you combine so much turkey, Easter Eggs and copious amounts of booze that all of a sudden you feel like Mr Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life. Or after chancing upon the umpteenth Beatles track on your MP3 player, and then realising that you keep skipping much-touted “classics” like Hey Jude (which wouldn’t feature on my MP3 player in any case). In Doctor Who land, however, the end result of too many Daleks arrived somewhat prematurely in the form of The Chase.

Yes, Dalekmania had hit Britain with the full force of a tidal wave. There was no escaping the Daleks in 1965: They were on TV. They were on the radio (Thanks to a novelty ditty called “I’m Going To Spend My Christmas With A Dalek”, a song that makes Jedward resemble Gilbert And Sullivan by comparison). They were on the big screen. They were in toy shops. Heck, they were presumably at your local nightclub, supermarket and workplace too.

The downside of all this Dalekmania is that they became caricatures, and nowhere is this more evident than in The Chase. Rather than the terrifying, omnipotent villains of the first two adventures, the Daleks of The Chase are seen to be blundering, incompetent pepperpots. They cough. They dither. They can’t be bothered to exterminate yee-haw tourists or terrified sea captains, something which they would have done without a second’s thought before. Given that Terry Nation took such care to make them convincing baddies in earlier outings, it’s a great surprise to see that the Daleks are now reduced to ineffectual stooges.

The Chase does exactly what it says on the tin. The Doctor and co are being pursued throughout time and space by the Daleks. That’s all. It’s a plot so simple that it could have been devised blindfolded on a toddler’s Activity Centre. We regularly see this chase in an annoying visual effect, where very obvious cardboard cut-outs of the TARDIS and the Dalek ship (which resembles a futuristic portable toilet) wobble drunkenly across a kaleidoscope of stars (making it look like a space-age version of the Jackanory titles).

It’s back to the grab-bag style of storytelling that was seen in The Keys Of Marinus. Here though, there’s even more stories in one, but paradoxically, there’s even less substance. We open up with our four heroes clustered round a futuristic TV that can conjure up any scenario in history. We’re treated to shots of Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare (who amazingly, doesn’t say: “Oooh, I must write that down” once) and even The Beatles who perform “Ticket To Ride” (no, I don’t mind this one), causing Ian to indulge in some truly cringe-inducing John Sergeant-style dad dancing. If only someone could build a time-space visualiser today, that way we’d finally get to see Fury From The Deep in all its foamy glory.

Entertaining though this segment is, it doesn’t exactly catapult the viewer headlong into the plot. Carrying on in this pedestrian fashion, the first port of call for both The Doctor and the Daleks is Aridius, which – get this – is a desert planet (Arid-ius, geddit?). Aridius’ population comprises a load of fey wet blankets who look like a cross between The Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz and a fish. In amongst these Aridian goons is the late Shelley actor Hywel Bennett, who tries his best not to look too embarrassed. There is also a deadly creature called a Mire Beast, which is basically an extra rolling around in a lumpy duvet cover.

Unfortunately, the main crux of this subplot falls back on two hoary old Nation staples: Splitting the team in groups and Natives selling out The Doctor and his friends. The latter was done with slightly more effect in The Dalek Invasion Of Earth. In The Chase, it’s blatantly obvious that the Aridians are going to betray The Doctor and his friends to the Daleks, given that they have all the spine of jellyfish.

Matters aren’t helped by rather obvious stage sets (a problem even more obvious on the crisply remastered DVD) and again, limp direction from Richard Martin. Just as Terry Nation constantly wrote about oppression, quests and people called Tarrant, I seem to keep harping on about poor old Richard Martin’s second-rate direction. Throughout The Chase, the action sequences drag on, the camera angles are largely static and wooden, and a lot of the performances are crying out for retakes (culminating in one of the all-time classic Hartnell fluffs that I’ll mention later).

After the Aridian shenanigans, events take a further dive when the TARDIS and the Daleks visit the Empire State Building. Here, gormless hillbilly Morton Dill is being taken on a tour by a cross between Fagin from Oliver Twist and Peter Sellers, but instead stumbles upon a bouffant-headed schoolteacher and then a thick, overgrown pepperpot. It’s meant to be a light-hearted diversion, but it’s hard to work out who ends up more stupid: Dill or the Dalek. In a Sawardian world, Dill would probably last less than three seconds, but here, the Dalek is ridiculously inept. Poor old Peter Purves, it’s a good job he’d get a second shot to redeem himself later in the serial, but Morton Dill isn’t the sort of thing he’d want at the top of his CV.

Following this, we’re off on the high seas with some hi-jinks aboard the Marie Celeste. Once again, the limitations of the Daleks are all too obvious as the terrified crew speedily jump off the boat, something that pre-21st century Daleks are incapable of doing. No matter how many close-ups of aghast sea urchins there are, the Daleks are a slow, lumbering presence who are just there for show rather than for any dramatic purpose. Good performance from Dennis Chinnery though, who at least here, makes it out alive against the Daleks, unlike poor old Gharman in Genesis Of The Daleks.

The bizarre haunted house sequences drag on for most of the fourth episode, and by now, The Chase is starting to try the patience. This episode seems to be characters walking or trundling about the set, like they’re taking a leisurely romp around a kids’ ghost tour. How many times can you put up with bad extras mooching about cackling like a one-woman hen party or intoning “Ahhh ahhm Count Dlacoolaa” like a stuck record of William Shatner Sings For You In Transylvanian?

What’s really disturbing is how on earth any sane viewer is meant to buy the Daleks’ lookalike of The Doctor. I’m reviewing this story from the muddy old VHS prints of 1993, and even through the grimy mire, the Daleks’ Doctor doppelgänger looks more like Geoffrey Bayldon. What’s more, Bayldonalike keeps cropping up in scenes where they could have brought in Hartnell, and to make matters worse, they dub over Hartnell’s voice terribly. So much so that The Chase starts to resemble Silas or The Legend Of Tim Tyler or any of those other English-dubbed foreign classics of early-'80s holiday TV. All rubbish, of course. It’s like saying that the Daleks invent a doppelgänger of the Fourth Doctor, which is played by Ronnie Corbett.

The final act of The Chase plays out in the studio-bound forests of Mechanus, where matters reach a sort of head. We’re introduced to wilful new companion Steven Taylor, who, after the useless Morton Dill, fares much better here. It’s nice to see a character that’s a bit more headstrong and doesn’t always ask “How high?” when The Doctor asks him to jump. And the teddy bear is a cool afterthought.

The Mechanoids themselves are a bit silly, though, and it’s no surprise that they never captured the imagination in the same way that the Daleks did. They have stupid croaky, squeaky voices and look like giant Christmas baubles on wheels. The much-acclaimed battle between the Daleks and the Mechanoids doesn’t impress me much either, since, despite the sideways camera angles and dramatic music from Dudley Simpson, it looks like two sets of toys being moved around by kids – the sort of effect you’d get if you saw a battle between a toy tank and a horde of Star Wars figures.

The Chase is silly. Rambling. Incoherent. But then, in the last 10 minutes, it becomes brilliant. It’s the end of the line for Ian and Barbara, who finally discover a way of getting back to their own time and place, thanks to the Daleks’ abandoned ship. The Doctor is totally against the idea, even going so far as to say that if they use the ship, they will end up as burnt cinders floating around in Spain. Despite the angry Time Lord’s protests, Ian and Barbara touch down safely in London, and enjoy their freedom in a charming montage of still shots. I like to think that the two get married and set up their own school for slightly mad pupils who like John Smith And The Common Men (the couple did get betrothed according to the Sarah Jane Adventure, Death Of The Doctor). William Russell and Jacqueline Hill have been fantastic throughout their time on the show, and became vitally important elements of Doctor Who’s early days.

The Doctor evidently laments their going too, in one of the show’s most touching companion departures. His “I shall miss them… yes, I shall miss them” is wonderfully acted by Hartnell, and marks a moving contrast to his early hostility towards the two teachers.

Even in stories which don’t really work, there’s at least one golden nugget of brilliance tucked away in every Doctor Who tale. It’s not quite enough to save The Chase, but Ian’s and Barbara’s departure marks one of the defining moments of the Hartnell years. Just try not to think about the story itself, that’s all.

* Be sure to snap up my value for money Doctor Who ebook guides (covering the 1970s period) or you may end up as cinders floating in Spain!