It’s for good reason The Chase is commonly derided. I’m not here to rock that particular boat – or indeed Marie Celeste – although I think by far the worst of it comes early in the proceedings, and the last half, while never amounting to very much essential, is much easier going. One can, if one is lenient of spirit, make all the excuses going for director Richard Martin – in much the same way one might find Pennant Roberts not guilty of Ingrid Pitt karate chopping a Myrka beyond the brink of sanity – but one would be looking in the wrong direction for other culprits.
Such as Terry Nation. Now, it’s very true that Nation in give-a-toss mode – which was most of the time with Doctor Who – constitutes an uphill battle for anyone attempting to produce first-rate television, but there’s more than enough B-grade nonsense going on here most of the time that anyone with a modicum of wherewithal could have kept The Chase fast-paced, zippy and engaging. Indeed, it’s a shame Amicus opted out of their third Dalek movie, as this is easily the best-suited of the early Nation scripts to the big screen (well, maybe excepting The Keys of Marinus).
It isn’t simply enough to point to the constraints of budget and time as the principal offender either, since you can look at most other directors during this era, sometimes in the same story – Christopher Barry on The Daleks – to confirm his peers were bringing the goods. Somehow – one can only assume Verity Lambert fell victim to desertion of artistic sensibilities of almost JN-T proportions – Martin was entrusted with the season’s three “blockbusters”, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Web Planet and The Chase. Only the first of these escapes relatively unscathed. Or should that be un-Slythered?
It’s a shame, because for all the four-square approach Nation takes here – it’s The Keys of Marinus redux, but with purposeful antagonists rather than protagonists – there’s much that could have made good with a sympathetic vision (and score: the soundtrack actively appears to encourage a disengagement with the inherently undramatic proceedings). And there’s also a fair measure of the plain oddball, a reminder that Nation started out writing comedy (for Hancock) and went on to pen several of The Avengers’ best – and funniest – episodes.
The Chase doesn’t start too badly, even if its initial waywardness is a sign of things to come. For a story with an energised title, a sense of trajectory is sporadic at best. The Executioners finds the Daleks where The Space Museum left them, setting off in pursuit of the TARDIS in their own time machine (fortunately, this is long before the ramifications of such temporal shenanigans in the hands of arch villains, as opposed to mere meddlers, was considered, and longer still before fanboys extrapolated them into time wars).
But rather than pitching into a desperate race through time, we then spend nearly half the episode messing about with the Doctor’s recently retrieved Time-Space Visualiser, “a sort of live television”. The larkiness is probably equal parts Nation and script editor Dennis Spooner, but Ian reading Monsters from Outer Space (“Good?”: “Yes… but far-fetched”) is signal enough where this is heading, and it won’t be long before we meet a really stupid Dalek (not just one who mistakes shop dummies for humans, or who suffers peculiar hyperventilation after trying to do with sand what The Dalek Invasion of Earth did with water at the episode climax… just not very well and in conspicuously miniature form).
The Time-Space Visualiser generally validates the history book version of events (I hadn’t realised – or if I had, failed to recall, that post-1600 was initially off-limits for stories, hence the rejection of John Lucarotti’s Indian mutiny idea – but I presume the larky antics here were considered exceptions).
We get George C Scott as Abe Lincoln, the source of Shakespeare’s inspiration to write Hamlet (I wonder if Tom Stoppard saw this one?) and The Beatles performing Ticket to Ride (“I didn’t know they played classical music” comments futuristic hipster Vicki, who as per The Space Museum is by far the story’s MVP). She’s been to their monument in Liverpool, and at this stage in their pre-psychedelic career, the BBC is endorsing the Fab Four’s cross-generational appeal; even the Doctor is bopping away (at least he isn’t breaking out his electric guitar… sheesh).
Barbara (hearing the Visualiser): What’s that awful noise?
The Doctor: That’s no way to talk about my singing!
Things take a turn towards torpor inducing with the time travellers’ arrival on the very Nation named Aridius – it has two hot suns, so naturally the Doctor and Babs indulge a spot of sunbathing – complete with some Terry and June level gags (above). Martin isn’t best suited to high drama, shall we say, and aside from a nice silhouette of Ian and Vicki exploring the dunes, the listlessness of Aridius sets the scene for the shockingly bad second episode (the evocatively titled The Death of Time).
If it wasn’t so er, arid, one might have assumed events were intended as a parody of the kind of cardboard white hats and black hats Nation usually delivered – as Rob Shearman attested of the prior story The Space Museum – with Daleks threatening the fishy Aridians and an inflatable Mire Beast on hand to cause a ruckus where the Daleks can’t (later, inflatable mushrooms will be laying into the Daleks, which is at least more bizarre). The occasional decent line – “Don’t stand there gawping, you twit” Vicki yells at Ian; “My dear boy, we’re trying to reach the TARDIS, not start a jumble sale” – can’t save it.
If that and Episode Three, Flight Through Eternity, were representative, The Chase would richly deserve the title of one of the worst stories evah, something that could comfortably rub shoulders with any Chris Chibnall era effort, although inevitably looking positively classy by comparison. Like the opener, this part is split into two halves. The first is an interminable stop off at the top of the Empire State Building (in, curiously, 1966, a year thence). A few years later and it would probably have been the World Trade Centre, with the Daleks flying a saucer into it, so causing it to collapse in the manner you’d swear was a controlled demolition.
Mostly, this sequence consists of Peter Purves’ very ill-advised Alabaman. Who manages a mimicking of Dalek cadence (“They-just-left” – Vicki will be at it later, but with Mechanoids). There’s also a dim Dalek who can’t count, and mention of the time-path detector: “It’s been in the ship ever since I constructed it”. Which some will obviously take to refer to the detector itself, when it’s quite evident the First Doctor constructed the time machine, and anything said otherwise is egregious retconning. Right, Colours-of-Benetton Doctors?
Crewman: The white terror of Barbary!
The second half of the episode is the biggest missed opportunity in the story. We get our first “Terrileptils started the Great Fire of London” idea in the show, and it’s gold, Jerry. Gold! The Daleks were responsible for the dereliction of the Marie Celeste. Unfortunately, this is absolutely the most shockingly inept evocation of a naval vessel you ever did see, and much of the proceedings consists of strained wandering off (“I love naval ships” announces Babs) or Ian, already suffering a concussion, being coshed by Vicki. My main thought, though, was wondering what a woman with a baby was doing aboard the vessel.
Ian: Daleks don’t like stairs.
Luckily, matters begin to improve with Journey into Terror. This is the one in a haunted house, so it’s ironic that the fakery is much better realised than anything in the previous three episodes. There are also some fascinating ideas percolating. No, really. Taken on its own, the episode is quite mental. And I don’t just mean the robot wench intermittently crying “Unshriven!” The Doctor is fully on board with this being one of the short-lived sideways encounters of the early TARDIS crew, such that he’s fully convinced “We’re in a world of dreams”. And not just a matrix, or the Matrix. Rather “millions of minds…” have conjured this:
The Doctor: This house is exactly what you would expect in a nightmare. Yes, we’re in a world of dreams. Creaking doors, thunder and lightning, monsters and all the things that go bumpety bumpety in the night.
Ian: With one vital difference, Doctor. This house is real. It exists.
The Doctor: Yes, yes it exists in the dark recesses of the human minds. Millions of people secretly believing. Think of the immense power of all these people, combined together, makes this place become a reality.
If it had been the case, this would have been one of the most outré and inventive moves ever made by the series. It’s essentially positing ourselves as the architects of our own creation.
Ian: What an extraordinary place? More spooks to the square mile than the Tower of London. You know that theory of yours?
The Doctor: Theory, my dear boy? Fact. I am convinced that that house was neither time nor space. We were lodged for a period in an area of human thought.
I’d actually like to give The Chase five stars just for the Doctor persisting with this conviction – call him a senile old codger if you like, but you can chatterton right off if you do – that the entire universe may be produced by the collective imaginations of those within it. It’s potent stuff, and curious that the series should throw something like this out there only, generally, to ignore such deep-dive philosophy subsequently. You’d be hard-pressed to get through a viewing of The Chase and recall much of it with any distinction, such is the soporific tone, but this ought to be memorable All the more so for the Doctor being very clearly wrong. It goes to draw attention to the “absurdity” of the idea, because the reality itself is an absurd artificial construct.
Ian: It certainly stimulates the phagocytes.
One that amusingly piles on the Kaled ineptitude as Frankenstein and Dracula meet the Daleks. And come out on top. Yes, it appears Dalek weaponry has no effect on robots from the Festival of Ghana 1996 (perhaps the Eighth Doctor paid a visit. What’s that? 1999. you say?) Further still, the Frankenstein exhibit is more than capable of dispatching them. It’s obviously that expert Chinese craftsmanship at work. In another curious development, the crew contrive to leave without Vicki, who continues to show her resourcefulness by hiding away on the Dalek time machine before meeting up with them again on Mechanus.
Prior to this, however, the Doctor announces that, in order to capture the Dalek vessel and thus return to get Vicki “Our next landing will be our battleground and we shall fight. We shall fight to the death!” It makes his theory on the funhouse seem entirely plausible by comparison.
Dalek 1: Success! Paramount success! It is impossible to distinguish from the original.
He’s not the only batty one here. The Daleks have developed a robot double of the Doctor (lest you thought that plotline in Resurrection of the Daleks was as free from continuity as the Movellan virus). He’s played cunningly by Edmund Warwick. Bizarrely, and counterintuitively, this Doctor is indeed impossible to distinguish from the original in close up or medium shot. In longshot, however, he’s most definitely Warwick with Hartnell’s voice. The effect is one of monumentally “What were they thinking?” proportions. Given Martin’s general acumen, I’m sure it was all deliberately and precisely worked out beforehand.
Robot Doctor: Infiltrate, separate and kill. Yes, yes, I understand.
The final two episodes, titled the very nu-Who The Death of Doctor Who and the not exactly riveting The Planet of Decision, settle down a bit, everyone gathering on Mechanus for the duration. That’s Mechanus, with its greatest robotic rivals to the Daleks – for about ten seconds, before everyone involved realised they were a bit rubbish – the Mechanoids. Or Mechonoids (the latter makes little sense as an expansion, but when did that ever stop anyone?) You’d have to wait another nine episodes for a decent Terry Nation and the Daleks jungle, when Derek Martinus (and then Douglas Camfield) gave us Kembel.
Daleks: Attack and destroy! Destroy and rejoice!
Nothing about Mechanus is very convincing, from the giant shrooms to the robot Doctor easily convincing Barbara he’s the real thing. Before the two – fake and real – confront each other. I rather like the full circle, though, of evil robot Doctor encouraging Ian to kill good genuine Doctor with a rock. This is of course, something good genuine Doctor would never do (per An Unearthly Child, The Cave of Skulls). Quite aside from that, Ian is about to stove the Doctor’s head in, in their penultimate episode together. Not something that generally gets remembered about their budding relationship.
Ian: Halt! You will be exterminated!
If you can’t call any of this “quality” TV, it is consistently watchable in a “see the regulars brave their way through Richard Martin’s shitstorm” kind of way. Vicki has a hilarious “Tha-hah-hank you-oooo” imitation of a Mechanoid (Ian does a Dalek impression later, so that’s two in one story – it’s amazing they ever recovered from this. And fans complain about Destiny of the Daleks!)
Steven Taylor overexplains his captivity in the kind of manner whereby, if he hadn’t become a stalwart companion thereafter, you’d think he was a quisling Turlough type. He’s also touched enough to go after teddy bear Hi-Fi when the Mechanoid city catches alight. The Mechanoid story itself is an odd one, of AI left to its own devices (an intended Earth colony, with a robot advance party, interrupted by “interplanetary wars” such that “this place was forgotten”). And then there’s the insane notion that the Doctor climbed down 1500ft of cable to the ground.
The Doctor: Aimless? I’ve tried for two years to get you both home!
The Chase writes out Ian and Barbara, of course, by way of using then destroying the Dalek time machine and engaging in a photo montage in Trafalgar Square. I’m less convinced the Doctor is truly concerned about the “enormous risks” of their using the time machine, as some have suggested, but rather that he doesn’t want to give them an excuse to leave, hence his raging, eventually soothed by Vicki. And as yet no hint that Steven and Hi-Fi have stowed away.
The Chase isn’t very good, but I do perversely rather like it. Well, except for episodes two and three. As much as you come away wondering what someone with a modicum of expertise would have done with the story, Nation’s anything-goes approach – clearly an influence on RTD – and Spooner’s humour just about carry this one along. The Chase is too much of sprawling mess by design to be coherently “about” anything, but by virtue of its slipshod approach, and arch attitude to ideas of history, reality and the show’s own iconography, it may be the most meta moment in Spooner’s frequently meta run. The most meta the show would get prior to the Williams era.
The Death of Time
Flight Through Eternity
Journey into Terror
The Death of Doctor Who
The Planet of Decision