The Pursuit of Happiness: Analysing "The Chase"
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 321
One of the curious things about Terry Nation's Doctor Who writing in the 1960s is that he seems to alternate wildly between the fantastically good and the fantastically crap. As his previous story for Doctor Who had been the dark and grim "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", it should thus be no surprise that his subsequent contribution is basically "The Keys of Marinus" with Daleks in.
First and foremost, "The Chase" is a comedy. The regulars play up to this, with humourous lines and ad-libs ("You've squashed my favourite Beatles," complains the Doctor, and later has the following exchange with Barbara: "What's that awful noise?" "That's no way to talk about my singing!" "No, Doctor, not that awful noise, the other one!"; he also describes the cable on the roof of the Mechonoid city as "some sort of car aerial, I suppose"). William Russell decides from the outset not to take it remotely seriously; Jacqueline Hill perseveres for a while, before giving up and making cowboys-and-Indians gun noises. The problem is that the Daleks are ill-suited to comedy: outside of Doctor Who, comedy involving Daleks succeeds mainly when it places a Dalek in an incongruous situation (Spike Milligan's infamous "Pakistani Dalek" sketch) or uses them as an allegory for a real-life organisation (a recent piece by Lawrence Miles in which he likens the USA to the Dalek Empire, the Doctor to Osama bin Laden and Tony Blair to Mavic Chen). Consequently, in order not to break the comedic theme, we have a story in which the Daleks do not actually exterminate any humans in situations in which one would expect them to do so, for instance when confronted with Morton Dill or the crew of the Mary Celeste, and in which jovial title music is juxtaposed with the most OTT single-episode titles in the series ("Journey into Terror", "The Death of Doctor Who", or the perplexingly-named "The Death of Time"). Ian's cheap shot about the Daleks disliking stairs (anticipating "Destiny of the Daleks" by over a decade) somehow does not manage to resolve the incongruity, and his Dalek impression at the end, as he comes out of their time machine, is a bit of a sick joke.
A further problem is that most of the comedy is inadvertent rather than deliberate. The initial scene shows a Dalek talking to a flashing light, presumably all that remains of the previous Dalek Supreme; a few minutes later, Hartnell, holding some screws in his mouth as he works on the Time-Space Visualiser, apparently tells Vicki to "F*** off." The Daleks' time machine (which is dimensionally transcendental) sounds like a quacking duck when it lands. Barbara survives having a wall fall on her, which suggests that there might be a bit too much lacquer in that hairdo. It is a complete mystery how the Doctor got the Time-Space Visualiser through the Tardis doors in the first place, and how the fact that it "converts Newtons of light energy into electrical impulses" allows it to show televisual transmissions of past events, complete with sound and (in the Shakespeare sequence) camera pans is unexplained. We also never see the TSV again, either, which makes the whole thing a bit pointless and gimmicky. The tour guide on the Empire State Building (who is amusingly distracted by the vital statistics of a female tourist) gives a performance which appears to anticipate Peter Falk's Columbo by some years, and Peter Purves' performance as Morton Dill ("Are you from Earth?" "No Ma'am, I'm from Alabama") makes one wonder how he got the part of Steven afterwards (although his reference to silent film trick-photography is a nice anticipation of "The Daleks' Master Plan"). The Grey Lady in the haunted house sequence appears to shriek "Anthony Brown," presumably out of concern for the most recent editor of In-Vision, and the Frankenstein's Monster pauses to put on some clothes before going on an anti-Dalek rampage. The true mystery of episode 4 is, of course, how the Doctor manages to get his coat back after Ian has used it in his anti-Dalek trap on Aridius. Dennis Chinnery, better-known for playing the hapless Gharman in "Genesis of the Daleks", appears in the Mary Celeste sequence; as in "Genesis", he is coshed from behind, and falls in exactly the same way, albeit making a less silly noise. He also appears to refer to the ship being attacked by "the white Barbary carrot," and a Dalek, upon discovering that there is no one on the ship, throws itself off the deck into the water in apparent sympathy. The Doctor's subsequent assertion that Ian and Barbara will wind up as "two burnt cinders, floating around in Spain" is more perplexing than anything else. By the time a Dalek remarks "Which planet are we on?" the viewer is asking much the same question of the writing, acting and production teams.
Unfortunately, though, some of the problems with it are not so entertaining. For instance, the implication in Episode 1 is that the Daleks built the time machine solely to chase the Doctor, rather than from some more generally applicable reason; it is also never explained how they know that the Tardis (whose name they repeat no less than twelve times) is the Doctor's time-space machine (although the Doctor mentions the name in episode 2 of "The Daleks", and also describes his ship to the Daleks in episode 7, he never makes the connection between the two in their presence). We also never learn how they know about the Doctor's involvement in defeating their invasion of Earth. Later, the robot Doctor calls Vicki "Susan," which similarly would only make sense if it refers back to "The Daleks", suggesting that perhaps the Daleks saw the Doctor on Earth during the invasion and made the connection, but it is all a little convoluted (and suggests that the Doctor's theory that the Daleks of "Invasion" were an earlier group than those he first encountered is incorrect). Some of the Daleks are movie Daleks with the bases removed, which looks rather strange. The sequence in which Vicki reminisces about a castle in a field near where she grew up (written, apparently, by Dennis Spooner) seems at odds with what we know about her life to date.
The Aridians, in the same episode, are also so irritating that one finds oneself starting to sympathise with the Daleks; they are unbelievably thick, taking in the travellers after the Doctor has warned them about the advent of the Daleks, and then, apparently, admitting to the Daleks that they had the travellers, without trying to lie or dissemble (as The Completely Useless Encyclopaedia notes, also, naming your lush and watery planet Aridius is just asking for some disaster to render it into a desert). It is never explained why they don't rebuild their city on the surface, as they can apparently live above ground with no difficulty, which would neatly solve the Mire Beast problem. They also apparently dig the Tardis out with small trowels, lending credibility to the Daleks' assertions that they are "inferior creatures." In episode 2, Ian sets a trap for one of the Daleks guarding the Tardis, but what happened to the second is unexplained. The Dalek in the lift in episode 3 is clearly a cardboard cutout, although the director could have got away with that, if he had cut away from it sooner once the lift had stopped. It is also strange that the crew of the Mary Celeste throw themselves off the ship to their deaths at the sight of the Daleks, since all the latter do is ask them simple questions. It takes the regulars far too long to notice that Vicki is missing in episode 4. In the final episode, Peter Purves periodically slips into a slight American twang which he subsequently abandons, suggesting that he is trying to give the character a bit of glamour, him being a pilot and all. After fussing about not operating the anti-Dalek device in an enclosed space in the previous episode, the Doctor goes and does just that (and it only actually gets one of them). How the crew survive a 1500-foot downward climb, while just hanging on to a cable, is unexplained, and Ian and Barbara wantonly blow up a garage in London without much thought for property or safety hazards.
There are also an unusually high number of production gaffes even for the Hartnell era. Bad and rather abrupt edits are visible throughout, and when Vicki kicks an Aridian in episode 2, the extra appears to forget that he is in shot and rushes off stealthily, before sauntering back in. A BBC camera is clearly visible behind the film Dalek in one of the jungle sequences towards the end of episode 5; in the next episode the Daleks call the Mechonoids "Mechons" (a gaffe presumably related to the fact that this is what they were originally to be called). In the same episode, when Steven Taylor falls after being attacked by a Fungoid, he bumps into the backcloth and it shakes visibly. There is an appalling camera wobble in episode 5, as if the operator had run into something, and later Ian tries to strangle Barbara with the cable, then to pull her trousers off.
Episode 4 is the worst offender, however, to the point where "Invasion of the Floor Managers" would be a better title than "Journey into Terror" (one clearly traverses the screen towards the end of the episode, and a boom-mike operator can be seen in Frankenstein's laboratory as the Doctor and Ian descend the stairs). Maureen O'Brien is too quick off the mark with her lines in the same episode, and a Dalek is also visible in the laboratory behind the Doctor and Ian, some time before it is supposed to have arrived. Although there are practical reasons for using a double for Hartnell in the robot Doctor sequences (as they were filming as live, and it would be difficult for Hartnell to get around the sets fast enough), the Daleks' assertion that the robot Doctor is "impossible to distinguish from the original" only works if one ignores the fact that it gives off a slight electrical hum, is a foot taller, looks nothing like Hartnell and, whenever it talks, sounds like its voice is coming from somewhere else. According to Edmund Warwick, he was given the part as a reward for doubling for Hartnell in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth"; a bit of a dubious reward, as he is filmed mostly in long-shot and then gets roughed up by his alter ego.
This is not to say that the story is entirely without redeeming features. Episode 4 manages to sneak in a couple of understated subtexts in the much-reviled haunted-house sequence, when the Doctor remarks that the things they see are "familiar," and what one might expect in a nightmare; he speculates that they are in a "world of dreams" populated by evil archetypes from the dark recesses of the human mind, made real by people's beliefs. It is therefore interesting that the Daleks do come there, as they are, in fact, themselves an archetype of evil from the human mind. The signs reading "Festival of Ghana" and "Cancelled by Peking" cleverly suggests a future world government dominated by China (cf. "cancelled by Washington"). Terry Nation also engages in a bit of self-parody, when Ian is caught reading a book entitled Monsters from Outer Space and describes it as "far-fetched," and later referring to the common Nation plot devices of "pools of acid" and "a trail of blood."
This is the first time that we see the Tardis flying through space, and the sequence on Camber Sands of Ian and Vicki climbing up a sand dune, talking, surrounded by eerie groupings of frozen seaweed, is rather lovely. Maureen O'Brien's performance throughout is very good, and Vicki is well-served by the script, making grandiose pronouncements, getting in the way and having no intimation of her own mortality, just like real-life teenagers. The Mire Beast is quite good on its first appearance (it is only on the second, third and fourth ones that it starts to look naff), as is the sandstorm sequence (and its subsequent revelation that the whole landscape has changed). The fact that the Dalek rises out of the sand (albeit with much grunting and coughing) is the first indication that they can levitate, explaining how they got onto the upper deck of the Mary Celeste, and their guns are also named as "neutralisers". The episode title "The Death of Doctor Who" argues that this is in fact the title character's name (Edmund Warwick is credited as "Robot Dr. Who"). The design of the Mechonoids was inspired by the work of American architect Buckminster Fuller and bears a strong resemblance to the Telstar; they don't acknowledge the crew or Steven as human, because they will only recognise the settlers when they are given the right code, and so instead they treat them as scientific specimens. Episode 4 has some good directing in the sequence on the Dalek Ship in which a well-organised panning shot makes it look as if there are a large number of Daleks on the ship rather than just four. The Mechonoid City model is lovely (if somewhat undermined by the cuteness of the model Mechonoid speeding along the walkway), and there is some nice synchronised exterminating during the Dalek/Mechonoid battle sequence, along with animated explosions. Finally, the story ends with a lovely sequence of still photos directed by Douglas Camfield (reminiscent of A Hard Day's Night), and the bus sequence (which again recalls the Beatles' performance of "Ticket to Ride" at the start of the story); considering their reaction to the inflation of bus ticket prices, it is just as well that Ian and Barbara did not come back a few years later, after the advent of decimalisation.
In sum, then, "The Chase" fails in its attempt to do a deliberate comedy, and lacks the depth and subtlety of Terry Nation's best work. The large amounts of inadvertent humour, and the problematic production, however, mean that this is an enjoyable story for a good night in with friends who don't take things too seriously.
Effects courtesy of Fiona Moore