Monday, April 11, 2011
Daleks Experiencing Mechanoid Issues
We see now that the Daleks are somehow indestructible. Having already had two adventures with them (The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth) we now get two types of stories for the price of one: a historic piece and a science-fiction story collectively called The Chase. Whether it's a good or bad thing to have such a long story in The Chase depends on your tolerance. Over the course of six episodes (The Executioners, The Death of Time, Flight Through Eternity, Journey Into Terror, The Death of Doctor Who*, and Planet of Decision), we see both the good and bad of the Daleks, both as villains and as comic pieces.
The Doctor (William Hartnell), and his companions Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), and Vicki (Maureen O'Sullivan) have just left the Space Museum. Unbeknown to them, the Daleks have been tracking their movements, and are now in pursuit of the travellers. They land on the planet Aridus. While the Doctor and Barbara are content to stay and get some sun (courtesy of the dual suns in the sky--pre Tattoine), Vicki goes exploring with Ian guarding her. The Doctor and Barbara soon discover, thanks to the Time & Space Visualizer that the Daleks are after them. While Vicki and Ian attempt to escape from the Mire Beasts which have taken over this once-watery world, The Doctor and Babs get help from the Aridians, fish-like people who are barely surviving in this now-desert world. The Daleks attempt to take the TARDIS but cannot, and then try to take the Travellers. However, they manage to escape Aridus and fly off, with the Daleks in furious pursuit.
Now it becomes a chase. They first arrive at the Empire State Building in 1966 New York, much to the befuddlement of Alabama native Morton Dill (Peter Purves), with the Daleks coming soon after. Next, they give them the slip aboard a sailing ship, and when the Daleks arrive there, the crew flees in terror...off the Mary Celeste. Next, they arrive at what the Doctor calls a world of dreams, filled with the Frankenstein monster and Dracula, and at first we think the Daleks will be overcome, but in the confusion Vicki becomes separated from the others. With no way of going back for her, it's decided that the Travellers will make a stand. Vicki, however, discovers the Daleks have made a robot Doctor, with the intent to infiltrate and kill.
They arrive on Mechanus, a planet filled with large fungi. Vicki and the others are reunited, and the False Doctor is destroyed, but they are not out of the woods yet. Trapped in a cave, they find rescue with a Mechanoid, a gigantic round machine. At first, it is believed they are saved, but they discover that they are now prisoners of the Mechanoids, as is astronaut Steven Taylor (Peter Purves...again). It is decided to make an escape while the Daleks and Mechanoids are battling it out. They destroy each other, and the travellers believe Steven has been killed when he went back to get Hi-Fi, his teddy bear (in reality, he had survived and was last seeing fleeing into the forest with his bear in his hands). Barbara and Ian realize that the Dalek time machine could take them back to their own time, and after a furious argument with the Doctor he reluctantly agrees to show them how to operate it. The Coal Hill teachers safely arrive in 1965 London, delighted to be back home. The Doctor and Vicki see them on the Time & Space Visualizer, and while he is happy, he is also sad.
As a whole, The Chase holds up remarkably well, especially for such a long story. Terry Nation wrote some wonderful moments of adventure and even comedy. For example, in Episode One the Doctor is singing when Barbara hears something off. "What is that awful noise?" she asks. The Doctor is insulted, telling her that's no way to refer to his singing. "No, not THAT awful noise," she replies perfectly straight. Most of the time in New York with the country bumpkin Dill was just for comedy. We even have comedy from the Daleks...one Dalek stutters (The Dalek's Speech, anyone), and in Episode Two when a Dalek is told to get backup and he doesn't move, Dalek One turns back and tells him, "Well, get to it".
Maybe it was a way to lighten the Daleks up, and in retrospect, given how evil they were to become, these funny bits come off as a bit peculiar. It isn't so much that they end up looking like a joke, but it doesn't really flow naturally from the story or from the limited Dalek mythos already established from earlier stories. I think that in retrospect, where the comedy comes into The Chase, the story actually suffers. The arrival of the travellers and the Daleks at the Empire State building feels as if the story is being stretched out.
In fact, part of the problem within The Chase is that, like most long stories, it feels rather stretched out. Looking at it now, I can't help think that Episodes Three, Four, and Five could have been either collapsed into one episode or cut altogether. This is especially true in Episode Four, especially when we are given the resolution of how the Frankenstein monster and Dracula and a banshee are all appearing out of nowhere. When we discover the real reason, it is an eye-rolling moment.
In short, Episode Four is not merely the weakest of the six-part story, but also the most patently idiotic. Terry Nation's script for this episode had great promise: what if they had somehow truly ended up within a world of dreams? Think of the possibilities, of how real people (and Daleks) could enter and escape a world of unreality. Instead, we are given the BBC version of The Haunted Mansion, and it's such a blatant disappointment.
Now, there are also a couple of other problems within The Chase. Chief among them, the Mechanoids themselves. For those who think the Daleks are pretty useless monsters, what with their inability to go up the stairs, well, get a load of the Mechanoids (perhaps we should call them Make-A-Noise or Make-Annoys). This rotund robots with thin pincers for arms appear even less mobile than Daleks, and while the battle between the Mechanoids and the Daleks is shot beautifully, as full-formed monsters they fall flat.
Another problem is with the False Doctor (which to my mind is reminiscent of the False Maria from Metropolis). Even from the wide shot it is obvious that the False Doctor looks nothing like William Hartnell, and having the real Doctor give the chilling last line in Episode Four fails to mask the technical aspects. On the contrary, they only serve to enhance them. Granted, given the limitations of technology at the time, one extends a bit of generosity to them and appreciates that they tried the best they could.
Of course, one can't throw out the baby with the bathwater, and The Chase has some wonderful moments. The rising of the Dalek at the end of Episode One (while reminiscent of The Dalek Invasion of Earth) is still shot beautifully by director Richard Martin. The scenes aboard the Mary Celeste are also filmed quite well and do give as probable a solution to the mystery as any other. The early scenes in Episode One, where they see the Gettysburg Address and Shakespeare summoned to an audience with Queen Elizabeth I are extremely clever and well-filmed (although if one looks carefully, Pennsylvania has a rather desert look...not unlike Arius, but again, a minor glitch). Side note: sadly, The Beatles' performance of Ticket to Ride, which is the 'classical music' Vicki requested to see in the Time & Space Visualiser, could not be included in the DVD release of The Chase, and more bizarrely, it is the ONLY surviving footage of the Beatles performance of the song for the BBC's Top of the Pops. The Beatles had wanted to make a cameo appearance as older versions of themselves but the idea was vetoed by their manager Brian Epstein. Of course, no one in 1966 could have contemplated the fate of John Lennon.
There are wonderful performances all around. Purves has to be singled out. First, he had to play TWO characters (the Alabama hick and the British astronaut), and he had to do one of them with a foreign accent. Second, he has to make it believable that a sensible astronaut would go back for a teddy bear (!). Granted, when we last see him, he looks slightly crazed and appears to be chastising the bear...which comes off unintentionally comedic, but that's a minor point. Side note: I figure it's a curiosity that the bear is named Hi-Fi--if The Chase had been made today, he would have probably be named Wi-Fi, but I digress. His dual performances rightly earn praise--both as the innocent and naive hillbilly and the brooding and intense (albeit a bit daft) space traveller. Purves had to be comedic and dramatic, and that he handled both well is a sign of why he was brought back. (Of course, it's curious that the travellers never question why Steven Taylor looks a lot like Morton Dill...). O'Sullivan's Vicki maintains a balance between the youthful enthusiasm for adventure and fear of a young girl. Her best moment is in Episode Six, where she calmly tells the furious Doctor that in the end, the decision to stay or go is not his to make.
It is in the last episode that the original crew's performances really rise to new levels. Both Hill and Russell in Episode Six capture the need for stability and the desire to go home with the tinge of regret for leaving. They communicate that they are not so much tired of the adventures but desire to be back in their own time, in their own world. Hartnell is also wonderful: when he's railing against their idea it doesn't appear so much a fear that using the Dalek's machine will kill them, but that he is personally wounded by their desire to leave HIM. It doesn't come off as egocentric because at the end, we see in his face a genuine sorrow to see them leave...happy they made it safe, but sadness that they will no longer be with him. It is curious that Hartnell is best when he plays the Doctor not as a daring adventurer but as a caring, grandfather-type figure. However cantankerous he may have been (especially with O'Sullivan) the best acting scenes are always whenever the Doctor shows his tender side with Vicki and previously Susan.
The technical aspects have some excellent work too. Raymond Cusick and John Woods' set designs cover a vast spectrum, from the deserts and underworld city of Aridus and the Mary Celeste to the organic architecture of Mechanus. Daphne Dare's costumes, especially for the Aridians, are beautiful. I would question Dudley Simpson's score, which struck me as rather jazzy for the story. A Gershwin-type score works when they arrive in New York, but the music was curiously upbeat for a story like The Chase.
The Chase is, unfortunately, a bit too long for the story it told. The midsection of the story falters and appears to stretch the story (both the Empire State Building scene and almost all of Episode Four especially so). The comedy with the Daleks doesn't work (and in retrospect, is bizarre), and one almost has to resist the temptation to laugh at the Aridians (beautiful-looking costumes can't hide acting that draws from the Menoptra in The Web Planet). Still, the story is lifted by some wonderful acting, especially the final part of the story between Barbara, Ian, the Doctor, and Vicki, as well as both Barbara and Ian/the Doctor and Vicki.
Adieu, Miss Wright and Mr. Chesterton...
Next Story: The Time Meddler
*Episode Five of The Chase, The Death of Doctor Who, is one of only two times the actual term Doctor Who is used in a title. The only other time I can think of is the Jon Pertwee story Doctor Who & The Silurians, which might have actually been a mistake. In fact, overall, again with few exceptions, the Doctor himself is never referred to or refers to himself as Doctor Who, so this is a curious bit of trivia.