Doctor Who Project: The Chase

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Barbara, could I, ah, have your cardigan?

Terry Nation and his Daleks return to Doctor Who in “The Chase” (Story Production Code R), with their own time machine, ready to pursue our heroes through time and space with one aim: to exterminate. The possibilities are endless, the potential locales and eras limitless. And we wind up on a desert planet populated by fish people. And also on Earth three times. And then on a jungle planet with hungry fungi and truculent robots. By the end of the story, one mourns not so much for the departure of Barbara and Ian as for what could have been.

Much like an earlier Nation effort, “The Keys of Marinus,” “The Chase” bounces around from place to place, episode to episode, and as a result, far too much screen time is devoted to establishing the when and what of where the Doctor and his companions have arrived. This influx of exposition overwhelms any sense of anxiety about the Daleks who pursue them just minutes behind in the time and space vortex. And, of course, the intrepid travellers must conspire to get themselves separated from one another in each and every episode. That takes effort, drawing away from any depth of plot.

The action, such as it is, starts on the heels of “The Space Museum,” with the Doctor tuning in various moments in history on the Time-Space Visualizer he insisted on liberating from that eponymous institution. The Time-Space Visualizer is curiously heliocentric, with the names of the solar system’s planets around it, and indeed the entire story resounds with references to the Doctor as human, though likely an unintentional rather than prescriptive description. Shakespeare makes his first appearance in Doctor Who on the Visualizer, and the United States is referenced for the first time as well, as Ian requests a peek at Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.

A thousand channels and he winds up on the History Channel

But then, in a fortuitous bit of channel surfing, the Daleks appear, chanting “TARDIS, TARDIS, TARDIS!” as they roll one after the other into their own time machine, ready to chase the Doctor and chums through time and space as revenge for the foiled invasion of Earth. They don’t seem overly concerned about the Doctor’s seeming destruction of their species on Skaro way back when, just the whole Earth thing. Because turning the Earth into a hollow spaceship to fly it around the galaxy was totally going to work.

Of course, our time travellers can’t just leave, because the party is split up on the desert planet Aridius, adding yet another lazy planet name to the Doctor Who canon. The fishy Aridians, whose planet was once water covered and who live in fear of octopus-like Mire Beasts, don’t seem at all surprised by the sudden appearance of the Doctor or the Daleks, who threaten to destroy the Aridian civilization if the Doctor and his companions are not handed over.

Fish men. In a desert.

Thankfully, a Mire Beast breaks through a wall and eats an Aridian, allowing Vicki, Barbara, and the Doctor to escape and meet up with Ian, who has passed out from the first of two head-beatings in this story.

Notably at this point, Barbara attempts to rescue the soon-to-be eaten Aridian, only to be roughly pulled away by the Doctor, whose only interest is in escape. Throughout this story, the Doctor seems blissfully unconcerned with the fate of those he leaves to confront the Daleks in his wake. One can argue that he knows the Daleks are after him alone and will not tarry to torture the locals, but his nonchalance at leaving people behind (particularly at the very end of the story) seems almost cruel, further informing William Hartnell’s First Doctor as slightly mercenary and self-centered, opposed to violence only during fits of piety.

The questionable tactical nous of the Daleks reveals itself when they leave a single Dalek to guard the TARDIS on Aridius, who is lured into a pit covered by Barbara’s cardigan, marking the second time in two stories running where her easily unravelled sweater saves the day. And indeed, the Daleks come off quite poorly in “The Chase”—far from being evil masterminds singularly focused on extermination, they moan and grouse and stumble and show vanity and fear. They, frankly, bumble. One cannot fault Terry Nation for trying to provide his signal creation with depth of character or nuance, but there’s a difference between a smart Dalek that the brilliant Doctor and his resourceful companions outwit with bravery, cunning, and a dash of luck and a stupid Dalek that just falls over the side of a boat (the Mary Celeste, no less) for the hell of it.

Dalek overboard!

After leaving Aridius, the TARDIS, with a twelve minute head-start on the Daleks, who were unable to destroy the TARDIS with their neutralizers, materializes in New York City, atop the Empire State Building, in 1966. A group of tourists listens to an Italian-American tour guide with a pronounced accent talk about how the building is the tallest in the “entiayw wowrld” before moving on, leaving only a cowboy-hatted rube (played by soon-to-be-companion Peter Purves) to witness the arrival of the TARDIS, leading to possibly the finest bit of dialogue in the entire series:

Barbara: You’re from Earth!

Morton Dill: No, ma’am. I’m from Alabama.

When the Doctor and friends leave, the Daleks show up in their own time machine, which we see clearly for the first time: it’s a box, bigger on the inside.

All time machines are boxes. It's just the way it works.

The bemused Daleks question Dill and suffer the indignity of having him speak into their sucker arms. Embarrassed, one imagines, they promptly take off after the Doctor, who has landed on the Mary Celeste. This sailing ship’s mysterious and famous abandonment at sea is explained by the subsequent appearance of the Daleks. Nation spends quite a bit of time on the Mary Celeste after the TARDIS has left, lingering over details like the chalkboard log and a sewing machine that would have been quite recognizable to a mid-60s British television audience. The trope of the Doctor’s travels influencing actual events in history (like the burning of Rome) makes a welcome return here, though sadly it does nothing for the story’s languid pacing.

Then we’re off to a gothic-style mansion inhabited by animatronic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, a ghostly lady) that the Doctor is sure is a manifestation of the human collective unconscious and thus off-limits to the Daleks, who turn up as soon as the party separates itself. The Doctor is notably freaked out by the surroundings, though his curiosity does manage to overcome his fear. Vicki and Barbara content themselves with just being freaked out, period.

Never split the party.

Once the Daleks appear, they are disconcerted by the animatronic creatures, who are immune to their rather ineffectual neutralizers, allowing the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara to escape. Vicki, sadly, is left behind, to watch the Daleks get outsmarted by Dracula in Frankenstein’s House of Horrors, an exhibit at the Festival of Ghana in 1996 that has been “Cancelled by Peking,” as a sign briefly informs us. (As an aside, this bit of obscure world-building by Nation is possibly the most interesting aspect of the entire story, setting up a future Earth history, one that is shown to be expansionistic and war-prone later in the story. Nation will go on to posit China as the cause of a worldwide pandemic in his series Survivors.)

Good evening . . .

Vicki manages to stow away onboard the Dalek’s time machine, where she displays quite a bit of composure and, surprisingly, knowledge of Dalek technology. Her character has developed nicely since coming onboard in “The Rescue,” but she is also thrust from time to time in this story into the Susan role, where she cringes and screams and faints and runs into things, usually things that want to kill her. Still, can’t blame her for being a bit upset at seeing the robot version of the Doctor that the Daleks plan to use to “infiltrate, separate, and kill” the Doctor and the companions. The robot even has the cane that the Doctor picked up in “Marco Polo” and which, serendipitiously, the real Doctor grabs before disembarking the TARDIS on the planet Mechanus, not having used it previously in this story.

Ian and Barbara are adamant that they must rescue Vicki somehow, rousing the Doctor from his resignation that they’ll never see her again because the TARDIS has a broken time mechanism. So they plot to capture the Daleks’ time machine, hopefully with a weapon the Doctor has been fiddling with that will wipe them out. Again, we see a rather martial Doctor here, and they plan to make their stand on the jungle planet Mechanus.

When the Daleks (and Vicki) arrive, the robo-Doctor is sent out to infiltrate and kill, the real Doctor and his remaining companions doing a fine job of separating on their own. When the inevitable confrontation between real-Doc and robo-Doc occurs, Ian is ready to bash real-Doc in the head until robo-Doc makes the mistake of urging him to kill, causing Barbara to recoil in horror and recognize the robo-Doc as the impostor. Not, of course, that real-Doc has been any less blood-thirsty during this story.

In terms of continuity, Nation missed a very nice opportunity to use the Kublai Khan cane as the tip-off for the impostor Doctor; the real Doctor could easily have lost it during a prior stop during “The Chase,” with the Daleks unaware of the fact.

Then the Mechanoids show up and rescue all four of our time travellers from the Daleks, who have tracked them to a cave that happily contains an elevator to a city in the sky, where they meet Steven Taylor (played by Peter Purves, our erstwhile Morton Dill), a space pilot from a future Earth who crashed on Mechanus, which was to be an Earth colony before the interstellar wars started. The Mechanoids, angular, spherical robots sent from Earth to prepare the colony, have imprisoned Steven for two years in a type of zoo because he didn’t know the code to control them.

Steven Taylor, Flight Red Fifty!

Together they contrive to lower themselves fifteen hundred feet from the roof of the city just as the Daleks show up and have an elaborate robot showdown with the Mechanoids that destroys the city. The visual effects are, for the time, impressive, with superimposed fire and hand-drawn explosions as the scene cuts from the Dalek firing line to the mass of Mechanoids, over and over.

Dalek, meet Mechanoid.

In the commotion, Steven runs back to rescue his mascot, a toy panda bear, resulting in a terrified Vicki being nearly dropped to her death. Once the Doctor and his companions make it back to the TARDIS, they assume that Steven has perished in the city’s destruction and don’t give him another thought. Their focus, now that the time-travelling Daleks have been, ah, exterminated, is Ian and Barbara’s realization that the Dalek time machine could send them home.

The Doctor will have none of this, viewing their desire to leave as tantamount to betrayal. William Hartnell’s performance in this story has been adequate at best, but when his First Doctor finally agrees to let them leave, after being convinced by Vicki, Hartnell again turns in a splendid moment of regret and wistfulness, as last seen when Susan left the TARDIS.

A sombre farewell to Ian and Barbara

Both William Russell and Jacqueline Hill play their characters in this story with gusto, certainly with more joy than in prior stories. The montage of still scenes when they manage to pilot the Dalek time machine back to 1965 London (close enough!) are breezy and full of obvious glee, a nice counterpoint to Susan’s leavetaking, at least from their perspective. It’s a pleasant close to their runs as companions, possibly the happiest exit of any companions in the series’ entire run. We’ll leave unexplored the fact that they explode a Dalek time machine in an abandoned warehouse in the middle of London.

But you can’t lose a companion or two (even if that word is never mentioned in this story) without adding one, right? So here comes Steven, except that the Doctor and Vicki (and the viewers!) have no idea he’s onboard, having apparently snuck on at some point. We’ll all have to wait until next week for his companionship papers to become official, when “The Time Meddler” turns out not to be stowaway Steven but a rogue Time Lord . . .

(Previous Episode: The Space Museum)

(Next Episode: The Time Meddler)

Post 16 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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