Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Chase - "I beg your pardon? Awful noise? That's no way to talk about my singing!" "No, Doctor, not that awful noise, the other one."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Chase - Details

Season 2, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #16) | Previous - Next | Index

Frankenstein vs. Dalek
via The I Like Doctor Who Project

Ah, "The Chase" ... you're long and kind of random and nobody would dream of making television like you today. You're frustrating, goofy, a bit high-handed, and make almost no sense at all. And, yet, you're important. You send off Ian and Barbara, which is an even bigger shake-up than jettisoning Susan, the Doctor's own granddaughter, was. You also make the Daleks hilarious, a feat not managed again until RTD pits them against the Cybermen at Canary Wharf where, incidentally, they are intimidating, something they're certainly not in this story. As Frankenstein ably demonstrates.

We'll revisit the haunted house, the Mary Celeste, that Dalek v. Mechonoid battle, Steven and his stuffed panda, Morton Dill and the Fat American on top of the Empire State Building, what I call The Adventure of the Rubbish Robot in the Fungal Jungle, and the fish people of the desert planet in due time. But, I want to talk about Terry Nation for a minute first.

Nation, the writer of this story and, most famously, the creator of the Daleks (sort of, he created the name and described them in general terms, but their iconic design is nothing to do with him and everything to do with desinger Ray Cusick), is a fascinating writer of tedious television. The other night, I noticed that MeTV shows the old Roger Moore The Saint series at some crazy hour, so I set my DVR to record it and relive a bit of the old 'Rule, Britannia' block of TV I used to watch as a kid on PBS -- episodes of The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Saint, and Doctor Who, shown all in a row on Saturdays. I was surprised to see Terry Nation pop up in the credits as the writer of the screenplay ("The Man Who Could Not Die," if you were wondering), but then I wasn't because it was obviously a Terry Nation story, that is to say: cold-blooded, workmanlike, conflicted about and a bit hostile to women, yet having something interesting to say about heroism and masculinity.

Nation also wrote for The Avengers, Blakes [sic] 7, and -- go figure -- MacGyver. So, quite apart from Doctor Who and the Daleks, he's got quite a resume of writing for and creating some culturally durable TV. And yet, watching the stories he wrote, it's almost impossible to understand why until we look at his heroes and see how vulnerable, principled, courageous, and crafty they are. Nations heroes are not supermen, they take lumps, seem like they could be on the verge of failing at any moment, are often wrong (before they get things right) and are utterly human, therefore identifiable and sympathetic. Now, the Doctor isn't a human -- but weirdly, the Daleks seem to think he is in this story.

Hartnell's Doctor is often irascible and downright ornery, but he shines here. Early on, when the Aridians -- the fish people of the desert planet ... it's arid, get it? Aridians -- receive an ultimatum from the Daleks, the Doctor shines:

MALSAN: The leader of the Daleks has communicated with us. They have issued an ultimatum. 
DOCTOR: Yes, I suspected something of that kind might happen. What is it? 
MALSAN: We hand you over to them, or they will destroy what remains of our city. 
DOCTOR: They mean what they say. They don't make idle threats. Have you replied? 
MALSAN: Not yet. The elders are still discussing it. We have a half-sun in which to give them our answer. 
DOCTOR: You haven't much choice, have you? Well, I don't propose to inflict our troubles on you, sir, so I think we'll leave and take our chances. 

No entreaties, no attempt to whip them into a fighting force to fight and die on his behalf. Just an understanding that it wouldn't be right to impose on these struggling fish who are already out of water. In that moment the Doctor could be Simon Templar under Nation's pen, or Blake surrendering on the prison transport so the other prisoners aren't executed during their attempt to seize control. Taking the defeats in stride but never giving up, Nation's heroes are resilient.

This is far from Nation's highlight writing for DW -- that'd have to be "Genesis of the Daleks" -- but it's at least better than, while being structurally similar to, "The Keys of Marinus." Nobody tries to rape Barbara in this one, so it's got that going for it. (Though there's a moment during the crew's ludicrous escape from the Mechonoid city where Vicky is tied up, while screaming, to be lowered down from the top of the building that is a bit uncomfortable.) In addition to not writing Vicky very well, Nation gives us another "Marinus"/"Dalek's Master Plan"-style hodge-podge of setting hops hung together by the slenderest of threads (when it is hung together at all) that you might think I'd be OK with given my repeated insistence that DW is capable of, to borrow from the Star Trek universe, IDIC -- infinite diversity in infinite combinations. My complaint, against all three of Nation's long, wild chases, is they are virtually incoherent. We can care about the characters (somehow Steven, a grown-ass man, going back into the conflagration to get rescue his stuffed panda doesn't feel inexcusable), but it is impossible to care about the stories.

I rate this one slightly higher than the other two stories though because a couple things very well. I mentioned the Doctor's shining moment already, but it also sends off Ian and Barbara in a touching, fun, and quirky scene goes beyond the standard set of visual storytelling tools the show has used to this point. It also has an interesting beginning, picking up as it does from the end of "The Space Museum," where the Doctor had acquired the Time and Space Visualiser. Why is that interesting, you ask?  Because that device was basically a TV. This story starts with us watching the TARDIS crew sitting around watching TV. (To be fair, Ian was also reading some pulp sci-fi.) "But, wait, that sounds boring," you could point out with absolute accuracy. We wouldn't have a time traveling adventurers show to watch if they could just tune into the Gettysburg Address, or the Beatles performing live, or Shakespeare (whoa ... does this Shakespeare have anything to do with the guy we meet later in "The Shakespeare Code"?) meeting Queen Elizabeth I (whoa ... here's the first time DW shows us good ol' Bess who's got quite a bit screentime in her future/past) and not have to deal with the TARDIS's complicated navigation or getting thrown in a dungeon. Watching TV is shown as the more effective way to get a glimpse into history than actually going back and visiting history. Watching TV is what we're doing and it's what the TARDIS crew would be doing if they didn't have to run from the Daleks, which the TV (fortuitously and improbably) happened to be revealed during their planning stage of taking off after the TARDIS.

We all have seen these disingenuous TV ads about how TV networks want us to get off our fat, lazy asses and do sports, but of course they don't actually stop showing promos for the next show, they don't go dark after telling us we ought to go out and play, because they want us to keep watching TV. They don't really want us to go outside, they want to pretend they do, and they want us to say, "Yeah, later, that sounds good, for later. The outside. But this next cartoon looks pretty fun, so after that." Unless I'm mistaken, DW is coming right out and saying, "Isn't watching TV pretty effing cool?!" Freaking time travelers will stop and watch the Beatles and Shakespeare given the chance. Try to go see Shakespeare in actual history and you've got to deal with slop in the streets and alien witches and whatnot.

While I'm back on the subject of fat Americans, I'll mention one of the high-handed moments in "The Chase." The scene atop the Empire State Building is famous for introducing Peter Purves, who will return to play Steven just a few episodes later, in his Morton Dill incarnation as a hick. But he's not the most insulting American stereotype in that scene, the fat guy who rudely pushes a woman out of his way takes that honor. Is this something to get worked up over on its own? No. But as part of a dizzying string of set pieces that can't do anything right, it's a cheap shot that exacerbates the unsatisfying experience of watching a lazy writer's not bother to tell a funny joke (which he managed while Barbara and the Doctor were sun-bathing on Aridius), turn a neat twist, or get anything to sound right, or even plausible.

The Twilight Zone-style twist Nation tries to pull is to pin the mystery of the Mary Celeste on the Daleks. That whole sequence is a miserable drag. The crew of the ship, including a woman and child, sent to their deaths so the camera can linger on the ship's nameplate and reveal that we've just seen a historical mystery solved. But, this isn't the Doctor solving a historical mystery, it's the Doctor leading the Daleks to a bunch of innocents, then hopping off to save his own skin, reasonably, but still ... he effectively leads the Daleks to the ship and gets a bunch of people killed without ever realizing what he's done. Sort of undoes the effect of seeing him nobly heroic earlier in the story.

The haunted house sequence is famously a mess, every bit as much as everyone who ever reviews this story says it is.  Lousy job leaving Vicky behind, lucky she managed to get aboard the Dalek ship, luckier still the Daleks -- scourge of the galaxy, the Doctor's greatest enemy -- manage to escape a carnival haunted house. Granted, it's a near future haunted house, so a little scarier and more advanced than the haunted houses we're used to. But these Daleks aren't like the one we meet in Van Statten's Utah bunker. What the lack in competence and menace, they more than make up for with comedic timing. The disconsolate Dalek reacting to their inability to destroy the TARDIS delivers the greatest utterance of "Failure" ever.

Before this post goes on as long as "The Chase" itself did, going to resort to a list for the final few stray mentionables:

  • There are many, many reasons to miss Barbara when she leaves with Ian and we see many of them in this story. No companion had better chemistry with this Doctor, no actress better chemistry with William Hartnell. The sun bathing scene on Aridius where she mocks his humming is delightful. The way she calms him down when he reacts to their desire to leave is something only she could pull off based on their history together. Ian needing her cardigan (again) is delightful. 
  • That Dalek/Mechonoid battle is as intense an action sequence as the classic series ever delivered.
  • The Daleks' robot Doctordroid is ... well, unfathomable. Why even ... I mean, it doesn't even look like him ... and the dubbing. Oi. So much failure. 
  • In addition to the Daleks seeming to think the Doctor is a human, how in the world of continuity are we supposed to credit the Doctor's claim that he built the TARDIS we know he stole? (Or was he only talking about the part? It's not clear. Lazy writing will do that.)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...