Friday, 19 June 2009

The Chase

Previous viewings - one

The Dalek Invasion of Earth established the Daleks as the main Doctor Who villains (and lets face it, at this point there wasn't much competition), enough to make their sudden reappearance at the end of The Space Museum a successful cliffhanger, and probably the first fanwank moment in the series. Given the Daleks have already appeared this season, this might lead to them being overused, but a familiar enemy doesn't necessarily mean a familiar plot, and this is like nothing we've seen before.

The title pretty much sums up the plot. The Daleks aren't bent on galactic conquest this time, they just want to exterminate the Doctor and his companions, which means a chase through space and time, with multiple destinations, planets and setpieces which serve no purpose other than to prolong the showdown. The plot is really no more complex than this, we don't know why the Daleks want to destroy our heroes or if it's anything to do with them foiling their earlier plans. Equally surprising is the lighthearted nature of the story; its a romp and doesn't try to hide it. Most characters react to the Daleks with fear, but viewers are not entreated to feel the same way - a stuttering Dalek, an attack on them by Frakenstein's monster, Morton Dill mocking them, a far cry from their extermination of the defeated human race in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. However, as I noted in my review of that story, Richard Martin's direction diminishes the Daleks' effectiveness, so a comedic turn could well fare better than one of their more 'important' outings.

The story has Terry Nation written all over it (no, I don't mean in the opening credits). It's a story that expands its length by expanding its setting. Even within each setting, there are subplots that serve little purpose. We start off with the TARDISeers getting excited about using the time-space visualiser, a kind of television that can see through time. Glimpses of Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and the Beatles are delightful as we so often see the travellers working to return to the TARDIS it's good to see them chilling out when they actually get there. It's lame, of course - Ian's old fogey dance and Lincoln's weird accent - not to mention why would they get so excited about seeing historical events when they can actually visit them? Overall I liked this section of the episode. In any other story it would be a complete waste of time, but here it works because there are so many other brief setpieces in the story this seems like just another one of them. And it's entertaining!

The story starts proper on the planet Aridius. The travellers are given more time than usual before being alerted to any danger, because the viewers already know the Daleks are on their way. I've come to accept the dynamic between the regulars doesn't have that unifying bond the original group had, it's much more casual, but it works terrifically here with the Doctor and Barbara sunbathing outside the TARDIS and the Doctor singing (the Doctor has come a long way since An Unearthly Child!), while Ian and Vicki go exploring the desert and laugh about the things they find. Barbara sees the Daleks on the Time-Space Visualiser, and goes off with the Doctor to find their friends. Ian and Vicki have found a trapdoor and are being attacked by tentacles. While the Daleks guard the TARDIS, the travellers are rescued by the Aridians, native to Aridius (some clever planet naming by Terry Nation ).

The plight faced by the Aridians - hand over the Doctor and his companions or be exterminated - first of all doesn't seem like a usual Dalek demand, as they would just blunder in and exterminate everybody usually, but it's hard to feel sorry for the Aridians because they haven't been developed beyond all acting sad and we would rather they be exterminated than our heroes. Unfortunate but true. A timely attack by the native Mire Beasts sets the travellers free and they flee in the TARDIS, pursued by the Daleks in their time machine.

The Aridius portion of the story was odd. It never felt like it was going anywhere because it was entirely about the Daleks vs. the TARDISeers, with the incidental oppressed pathetic natives tacked on. This feeling persists because the plot is so thin. What would make a story like this work is the journey leading to the capture being filled with interesting destinations. The first was on the whole disappointing, but then it was the most prolonged.

"Flight Through Eternity" starts off on the Empire State Building in 1966 with our first glimpse of Peter Purves, not playing companion Steven Taylor but Southern tourist Morton Dill, who laughs in amazement at the TARDIS and the Daleks. Sorry to say I found him to be miscast in the role, he wasn't funny and didn't look stupid enough in a scene that was way too long and where the humour fell flat from the word go.

As the chase continues, the Doctor wants to confront the Daleks in an open space, which is equally impossible aboard their next destination, a sailing ship, where Barbara stupidly insists on going out to explore. I think this exposes one of Terry Nation's flaws as a writer - he has a good feel for the characters, but also tends to write them out-of-character when the plot demands it. A minor altercation ensues resulting in Ian getting whacked on the head (again!) and the TARDIS taking off just before the Daleks arrive. There were finally a few laughs to be had, although it was at the Daleks' expense, as the ship's crew got terrified and jumped overboard at the mere sight of the Daleks - weird when you think about it because a few moments ago an idiot had reacted in the completely opposite way. However, I liked the reveal of the ship's name - the Mary Celeste (kudos for getting the spelling right!).

The story improves as we land in the human mind - or so the Doctor and company think, as they experience some weird sights and sounds in a haunted house. It does have a little of what The Keys of Marinus suffered from - interesting places, but given more time they could be even more interesting, however as it's revealed at the end that this is only a festival that disappointing feeling dissipates. It's a failed attempt to be a bit scary in a funny story, but the scarier it tries to be, the funnier it is, because it's so naff. Plus the Daleks finally catch up with the TARDISeers, only for Vicki to be left behind, leaving her to hide in the Dalek timeship and catch up with her friends later. It does stretch credibility that nobody would notice the TARDIS has taken off without Vicki, and again if it weren any other story it would stick out like a sore thumb as a WTF moment.

And so we're taken to the planet Mechanus for the final showdown in episodes 5 and 6. Its a planet of killer plants and giant robots, and the Doctor has built a machine to use against the Daleks (pity he didn't keep a few more around in later stories). The Daleks have built a robot Doctor to infiltrate the TARDIS crew, which alternates between being played by William Hartnell and an actor who looks only vaguely like him. I know my excuse of 'it's okay because it's a lighthearted story' can only excuse so much, but this doesn't bother me a great deal. It does make it difficult to suspend disbelief, because there seems very little that isn't. It's what the robot was trying to do that isn't clear - all he does is attack Barbara then fight against the Doctor, and it isn't hard for the companions to figure out which is the real Doctor. All in all, this is a worthy subplot, if a little baffling.

This takes us to the big (well, maybe not) finale, with the Mechanoids appearing and instantly doing a better job to ensnare the regulars than the Daleks have done in five episodes. The Mechanoids are giant spherical service robots which turn out to be preparing the planet for a colonisation plan that never happened. A robot race is a good match for the Daleks, because while the Daleks are villains, they are just robots, so we don't care if they go out in a blaze of glory while destroying the Daleks, who they think are interfering with their mission. It's all very convenient, and strange that the Doctor isn't involved in the Daleks downfall, but I like this ending. It's still a struggle to escape the city alive given its altitude, but give me this over the more common quick fix solutions any day.

Peter Purves returns to the series in the role of Steven Taylor, who may seem incidental at first, but he becomes a companion in the next story. This time he makes a better impression, with his charm and enthusiasm making Steven instantly likeable.

My favourite part of the story is Ian and Barbara's departure. The Daleks have been destroyed, so their time machine is up for grabs. The Doctor is furious that they would risk death to get back to the 1960s, but it's a real character moment for the Doctor as he's clearly hiding that he doesn't want to lose his friends. The possibility of getting home has suddenly come up and he thinks he might never see them again. It's every bit as good as Susan's departure, but the clip of the Doctor saying goodbye to Susan is so overplayed I'm a bit sick of it, whereas I had only seen this farewell once. Ian and Barbara are by no means overjoyed yet - they still face the risk of using the Dalek time machine, but once they realise it's worked, and they're in 1965, it hit me - Ian and Barbara are leaving, and I don't want this to be the last I see of them. The homecoming picture montage was cheesy but it's good to see the two character gets what they've wanted since the first episode. I will miss them.

...And the Doctor and Vicki watch it all on the Time-Space Visualier. Aw, what a nice moment.

Horror quotient - Some brief scary moments, and I mean brief.
Comedy quotient - Okay, it's a comedy story, but many bits aren't funny, and if they're intended to be, they don't work, but this story is full of the charm I associate with the classic series I'm inclined to give it a free pass for the misses.
Drama quotient - Ian and Barbara's farewell.

It's a load of setpiece strung together, some average, some great, but none terrible. It's quite uneven in places, but get better as it goes, which leaves a satisfying taste by the end.


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