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Saturday, 27 June 2020

'THE CHASE' (WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO)

First broadcast: May/June 1965
Written by Terry Nation
Ye Olde Plot Spoilers below!



“A madcap chase through time and space with the Daleks.”
- from the BBC episode guide

Hey Hey! It’s the Sixties

Should you ever feel in need of a very, very odd experience try watching ’The Web Planet’ and ’The Chase’ in close succession. (Disclaimer: perhaps thankfully, this was not quite the transmitted order.) Admittedly, this feels much more like ’Web Planet’ than it actually is. Like two patients stuck on the same mental ward, they may have the same relationship to sanity but that doesn’t mean they have much in common with each other.

That story was intended quite seriously while so much here is played for laughs. However, neither is it anything like it’s comic predecessor, ’The Romans’. (For all that poor Ian gets another accidental whack on the head.) And so it stuck to the age-old conventions of farce, while ’The Chase’ couldn’t be any more contemporary.

You could contrast it to any previous adventure, quite possibly, but perhaps its best set against Terry Nation’s previous script – ’The Keys of Marinus’. That's possibly the closest we're going to get to like-with-like. Both took on a highly episodic structure. (On both occasions most likely down to being rush-written). But, as speculated earlier, ’Marinus’ epitomised the first season’s tone of post-war ration-book morality; noble-jawed heroes withstanding earthly things in pursuit of what's right. Though the non-RP-speaking companions are still some way off, ’The Chase’ is another step towards Doctor Who swinging with the Sixties.

At times the soundtrack even gets jazzy, as if someone had slipped something in the Earl Grey down at the Radiophonics Workshop. But the tone is really set by all the crazy op-art going on in the Dalek’s time machine, which looks like they’ve had some funky ’Changing Rooms’ makeover since we last saw their interior decoration. Those endless featureless corridors of Skaro? They were just so yesterday!


Early on, the crew are watching Space TV. (It's called a Time/Space Visualiser. It's Space TV.) The original idea was they’d tune into some Winston Churchill. It ended up being The Beatles. “Get with it” explains Ian. “Styles change.” Well they might, but he doesn't. The real marker of how contemporary things are getting is that this proves to be his and Barbara's last appearance. Once this was a show which could as easily have been called 'Schoolteachers In Space.' Now school's out, and teacher with it. They disappear off into what looks strangely like a French New Wave film.

In this way the story’s nearest neighbour wouldn’t be from the TV show at all, but the two more lightweight matinee movies. (Some have speculated it was produced with an eye on becoming the third.) However, the two films took their storylines fairly straight from Nation’s first two adventures, however much they lightened the tone. ’The Chase’ is the one which ups the pace of change.

’Marinus’ used its episodic structure to chop storylines down into smaller but still recognisable chunks, like worm sections becoming mini-worms. ’The Chase', conversely, foregrounds this structure. It abandons even the pretense of thematic integrity, and makes a point of forcing together pieces from quite different jigsaws.

The Daleks chase the crew across time and space, arrive at some place or other, they all run round for a bit, then its back into their respective ships to do it all again. The jumps and leaps become part of the fun, as if we’re watching some crazy type of collage. At time it feels like they’re crashing through genre walls, like the classic closing scene in ’Blazing Saddles’. Science fiction, comedy, historical, horror… you name it! It would be tempting to just list some of the kooky stuff they run into, and make that your review. (Though this highly episodic structure would cut against the notion this was made with an eye on a movie version. Films are not episodic by definition.)

The Sixties associated collage with modernity for too many reasons to successfully delineate. (Look for example at how many times it shows up in my review of a Pop Art retrospective.) Let’s just remember the Empire State Building sequence rests upon the gag that the hick tourist Morton Dill doesn’t distinguish between the building he’s on, the time ships and even the Daleks! To him they’re all part of that thar newfangledness. However this ‘Sixties-ish’ collage includes not just Ian and Barbara, but their more classical type of story, jammed in with everything else.

Fans tend not to like the flippancy. “If the story doesn’t take itself seriously, how does it expect anyone else to?” asks Andrew Wixon in his review, before ruefully answering his own question – “perhaps it doesn’t.” Admittedly things make little sense even by the standards of the times. Logic doesn’t lapse so much as corrode altogether, with the result you sometimes feel you must not be watching events but somehow dreaming them.

This is at its most extreme example when the Daleks build a robot duplicate of the Doctor, who is not only played by someone who looks nothing like Hartnell but is then used completely inconsistently. Sometimes we swap to Hartnell for close-ups, sometimes not. At one point they don’t even both overdubbing Hartnell’s voice. But it’s not just their eyestalks that the Daleks need to have examined. As the Doctor’s not actually been separated from anyone else at that point, their plot would seem to hinge on no-one suspecting anything when another one of him turns up. (“Mmm, two Doctors. Funny sort of a day, really.”)

Much of this is no doubt due to speed of production, necessitating little short of making it up as you went along. At times it feels as frenetic as a child’s game – “now we’re in a haunted house… now it’s an alien planet… now it’s a ship…” There’s a quite excessive amount of plot threads raised which then don’t go anywhere. (For example, Steven Taylor mentioning the hidden access codes on Mechanus, promptly forgotten from thereon in.) Sometimes too many cooks intervened. (Was that really a haunted house or just a fairground attraction? Don’t worry too much. The makers couldn’t decide either.)

Daleks Do Funny

But I suspect the real basis of the fans’ ire isn’t that these are joke episodes of ’Doctor Who’, but that they dare poke fun at the dreaded Daleks! Andrew Wixon goes on to lament “the fatally misjudged tone of it all. The Daleks are out for revenge on the time travellers, and intend to ruthlessly pursue them throughout infinity! And given this, [they] opt to play it as a jolly romp with lots of slapstick humour.” Indeed, it might seem a leap from the dour claustrophobia of 'The Daleks' to all this frenetic rushing round time and space.

But look a little deeper. 'The Chase' isn't the end of the Daleks as we know them. If anything it marks the start of the Daleks as we know them.

For one thing, look to their motivation. In 'The Daleks', their chief enemy is the Thals. And in 'Invasion Earth', the Earth is just a staging post in their plans for galactic domination. But the Daleks in 'The Chase' - they're out to get the Doctor. They now exist just to oppose him. Catch them on a random night in and they’ll be screechily ranting about how much trouble he’s caused them. A corner has been turned.

Significantly, this is the first time they use their catchphrase chant “ex-ter-mi-nate!”, at least in the way we now think of it. They’d been repeating things, repeating things, repeating things in ’Invasion Earth’. (At one point saying “Exterminate him! Exterminate him! Exterminate him!”) Here, before this story has even started, in the out-tro to ‘The Space Museum’ the waste no time in getting in “they will be exterminated! Exterminated! Exterminated!”

But there's a bigger shift, to the show itself. If 'The Chase' marks a sea change, from doing the right thing in a universe of post-war austerity to road trips and crazy Sixties hijinks against some far-out imagery, its because the Daleks make the perfect bridge. Designed as living nightmares, visualisations of minds maddened by the bunker mentality, they still slip easily into pop icons and examples of Sixties kitsch. ’Dalek Invasion Earth’ existed largely to set up the merchandising spin-offs. Now they’ve fed back into the show. This is the point the toy range rose up to replace the original Skaro-confined psychos.


But that change was always due. Because of course they always had it in them. Let’s face it, the Daleks were never that bloody scary to begin with! They were designed as a kind of visual metaphor, a demonstration of a concept. They worked best in the very first story, inside their own city. Despite the iconic London landmarks scenes of the sequel, they were often looking ludicrously incongruous even then. In 'Inside The Tardis' James Chapman recounts how “many children identified with the Daleks rather than being horrified by them... there were requests from children for pictures of the Daleks and even for them to attend birthday parties.”

Noted 'Who' sage Andrew Rilstone has argued that the premise of the show is already so absurd that it's effectively auto-innocculated against parody. Yet the Daleks are the glaring exception to this rule – they're the screechy-voiced subject of a thousand skits and parodies. And that was first spotted in the show, at the start. There’s the trooper in ’The Daleks’ who tries to take a radiation cure which sends him doolally. There’s the Dalek accosting a tailor’s dummy in ’Invasion Earth’. Morton Dill was right to laugh at them! (Even if they should still have exterminated him for doing it.)

In short this ludicrousness was always an innate part of their appeal, they were always kitsch kidult toys in waiting. There are still Daleks on the TV for the same reason there’s still dodgem cars on Brighton pier – despite the development of bigger and more dynamic rides. Some things you don't want to work well. You'd rather just leave them the way they are. Charm trumps utility.

Their real success was as an iconic object of design. Like Superman’s big S or Mickey Mouse’s ears, you simply don’t forget a Dalek once you’ve seen one. And like design can, it somehow summed up a zeitgeist – the Daleks are as Sixties as op art, mini cars and Mary Quant dresses. It was designer Ray Cusick who created the Daleks as we know them, even if it was Terry Nation who wrote them down. In much the same way as the theme tune was made what it was by Delia Derbyshire, even if Ronald Grainer officially composed it.

The Old Curiosity Show

A development of this fannish opposition is the frequent suggestion that Terry Nation had the comic angle forced upon him by Dennis Spooner. (This despite the fact that fans will otherwise frequently lambast Nation!) However, this argument seems to ignore two inconvenient facts. First, as script editor, Spooner could have turned the whole show into an out-and-out comedy had he chosen, rather than merely the self-scripted ’Romans’. In fact Glyn Jones, writer of the predecessor story ’The Space Museum’, has complained that Spooner took his humour out!

And before 'Who' Nation was chiefly known as a comedy writer, scripting for Hancock and others. It’s bizarre to think the bleak dead planet of ’The Daleks’ turned to this so soon. But that doesn’t make it - still less inappropriate.

Aren’t fans just missing the big broad point again? If its not intended for us to take seriously, then let’s not. Like the haunted house we visit, it’s a fairground ride and we should just enjoy the ride.

Well, yes and no. But mostly no. Fans are not always wrong just because they’re fans. Gerry Hume is onto something when he comments “please don't call it postmodernist which a lot of people, who don’t know what the word means, use as an excuse for rubbish.” We don’t complain that a comedy lacks gravitas. But we do prefer it to be funny. While the overall tone can carry you along, many actual gags fall hopelessly flat, chiefly (and surprisingly given that they seeded so many sketches) the intra-Dalek scenes.

These often feel like someone else’s private joke, a home movie recorded for the staff Christmas party which was then broadcast to the nation through some terrible mix-up. It’s noticeable that almost all the Dalek gags are verbal, as if they were inserted post-hoc, at voice-over stage. (Is, for example, the coughing Dalek coming out of the sand some skit on the Dalek rising from the Thames in ’Invasion Earth’?) Alternately it can feel like a blooper reel dressed up as a programme, the inevitable result of people forced to deliver deadpan lines about time and relative dimensions in space no longer being able to stifle their smiles. Actors call this corpsing. Just saying, is all.

Plus, a problem with a ride through the genres is that those genres can clash, like plasticine losing its individual colours and turning to grey formlessness. And this leads to the truly, weirdly odd-beyond-oddness thing about ’The Chase.’ Andrew Wixon is right in a way, the scenario is actually quite a bleak one, the Daleks have mastered time travel and are relentlessly pursuing the Tardis wherever it runs. (It’s formally quite similar to the battle-fatigue ’33’ episode of ’Battlestar Galactica’, placed early in the show's run specifically to set the post 9/11 feel-bad tone.)

And the first and last landings reflect this bleakness, despite the comic middle sections. First off, the Daleks exterminate some Aridians for not much more of a reason than to remind us they do that sort of thing. Later, they don’t exterminate the grievous tourist Morton Dill when half the viewing public would have paid them good money to do it. Exterminating him may have undermined the comedy. (Though it might have significantly upped the entertainment value.) Of course we’re no longer watching the show as intended, in separate weekly installments. But mixing traditional episodes with out-and-out absurd ones still feels jarring.

Of these two, the opening scenes on Aridius are the most throwaway. The Aridians are another race of noble luvvies, and we even get lost in caves all over again! The one interesting element is to make them into anti-Thals, born appeasers. When ordered by the Daleks to hand our heroes over or die, they decide the best policy is to comply! At this point we are invited to feel their dilemma. However, this is somewhat undermined when no-one gives them a single thought once they’re left behind.



Things end up with the Mechanoids. The brief for whom would seem to have been ‘if only the Daleks could be made more clunky’. (Perhaps the most genuinely funny idea of all is that it was the Zarbi and the Mechanoids who were groomed for spin-off merchandise.) Despite this, and despite the laugh-out-loud killer foliage with which they share their planet, the Mechanus sequence works a little better.

It’s not particularly well explained why, as colonising robots, they choose to keep captive the crashed pilot Steven Taylor. If I’m away from home for a while, will my toaster and DVD player gang up on me as soon as I’m back? Perhaps it would have been better to play up the irony of their servant nature, having them provide to Steven’s every whim apart from escape – like a bird in a gilded cage.

Steven’s character also seems strangely at odds with itself. This is probably because it was ambiguous during filming whether he’d be replacing Ian and Barbara or not. At times we’re intended to believe he’s an intrepid space pilot, as much Ian as Vicki was Susan. At others he’s portrayed as driven barmy by captivity, at one point risking their lives to rescue his ‘mascot’ – a cuddly toy!


The Crazy Paving Shows the Way Forward

All in all, ’The Chase’ is the ultimate curiosity from a very curious era. ’The Web Planet’, however strange, however flawed, was trying to do something at least in keeping with Who tradition. Watching this, you often feel like one of those bystanders in comedy films who does a double take and then throws away the bottle they’re drinking from.

We’ve talked earlier of the ‘sideways’ stories, too askew to fit into any category. ’The Chase’ is the most sideways of them all, cutting sideways into its own sidewaysness and then taking to the straight-and-narrow for a bit just to confound you. Perhaps it seems so mad because it doesn’t really seem to be trying to be mad, at least any way near as mad as it is. It’s like one of those mind-warping drugs shamans would give their initiates to see if they recovered, on the grounds that if you can be exposed to that much primal weirdness and get up again you can probably cope with anything.

To reiterate, fans are not wrong to point out 'The Chase' is neither clever nor funny. But they then try to write it off as a mis-step, an embarrassment best forgotten. In fact the story seen by many as the nadir of Hartnell's second half is in many ways its epitome. 

With its perpetual switching between SF stories and historicals, the Hartnell era might seem to have an institutionally split personality. By policy, these were written by two separate stables of writers. There was never any overlap. Yet more than that it was almost pathologically variable, almost dizzyingly eclectic within those genres. 'The Aztecs' is as different to 'The Romans' as it is to, say, 'Keys of Marinus'.

And as time went on, rather than things settling down they became more volatile. While the first season chiselled away at creating a recognisable formula, the rest merrily throws all that work away in favour of blithely going mad. Endless experiments and perpetual variations are slung across a very overloaded washing line, till something must surely snap or burst. The first season is like finding which of a huge set of keys unlocks the treasure chest, then the subsequent episodes try the rest of them anyway.

In that way you could see 'The Chase' as the whole of 'Who' to date happening at once, as if on fast-forward - 'Keys of Marinus' double-booked with 'The Romans', an 'Odd Couple' scenario induced just to see what happens. And, in this often-inventive but rarely coherent of eras, they don't fit together at all. It's like chalk and cheese. Covered in custard. Quite possibly fish custard.

Yet even that underestimates the scope. If 'The Chase' is like taking a drug, it was probably the brown acid - for the Whoniverse never seemed the same again afterwards. Remember this is the story which sees the departure of Ian and Barbara, not just the Doctor's companions we first met but once the central characters of the show.

However it’s less a fracture point than a collision. The strange leaps in tone, stranger than any of the sudden changes in setting, suggest the shows' various identities are locked in some civil war, struggling for dominance. Seen this way, it’s only putting within storylines what was already happening between them.

If the high-minded drama opens and closes proceedings, it was ultimately unable to contain the corrosive effect of what else was unleashed. The genie was out the bottle, the LSD in the water supply. Some lament the loss of that seriousness to this day. But the paradox remains – this was an 'aberration' which still managed to change the nature of the show forever.

Further reading: For a defence of ’The Chase’ as a case of “engineered narrative collapse”, which genuinely makes sense despite it’s own author insisting that almost nothing she's saying is likely to be intentional, try the Tardis Eruditorium's ’Anybody Remotely Interesting is Mad.’ (And yes, though you might not think it possible, it really is as good as its title.)

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