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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Doctor Who: The Chase

Serial Title: The Chase
Series: 2
Episodes: 6
The Executioners
The Death of Time
Flight Through Eternity
Journey Into terror
The Death of Doctor Who
The Planet of Decision

Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), Vicki Pallister (Maureen O'Brien)

The accursed humans have meddled in the affairs of the Dalek empire for the last time! The fuming pepper-pots have built their own time machine, the DARDIS (Daleks and Relative Dimensions In Space? Destructive Attack Rocket/Daleks Invasion Sphere? Daleks Are Really Destroying Ian Soon? They never say- even the name comes from the novelization, not the episode.)- intent on tracking down the Doctor and his companions once and for all!

The Doctor, unaware, fiddles with his new time/space visualizer (a gift from the Xerons of 'Space Museum')- tuning in to view the past- the Gettysburg address, the Beatles, Shakespeare meeting the royal family- and the TARDIS sets down on a desert world. Ian and Vicki go exploring... and become trapped in a sand-buried hatch. Inside, they find a computer into which they must type the numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42 every few- oh, right. Wrong mysterious hatch. Actually, they find a horrific monster, fleeing into the connecting tunnels beneath the hatch. (NFS: Close enough.)

The Doctor and Barbara become aware of the danger as the time/space visualizer intercepts the Daleks' plans, giving the duo advanced warning. They set out to find Ian and Vicki, and are intercepted by the planet's native Aridians. It turns out that the Sagarro desert in which they stand was once the Sagarro sea- the arid Aridius (oops, did I give away the naming inspiration? Silly me...) was an ocean world whose flaring sun turned it into a desert- the natives now taking shelter in underground catacombs... which are being dangerously overrun by the native predatory Mire Beasts, who have also taken to the catacombs- leading the Aridians to wall off sections of their own shelters to contain the monsters.

Meanwhile, the Daleks have arrived. Finding the deserted TARDIS to be un-breachable and too indestructible for their weapons, they post a guard, and offer an ultimatum to the Aridians- turn over the Doctor and Barbara, who are now sheltering in the Aridian tunnels- or be destroyed. The Aridians capitulate, but Ian and Vicki break through one of the tunnel barriers, allowing several mire beasts into the main city, and rescue the Doctor and Barbara in the resultant chaos.

Returning to the TARDIS, and tricking one of the Dalek guards into a pit trap, they manage to get aboard and take off- but the Doctor cautions that they will need at least 12 minutes after a stop to recharge before they can leave again- a time during which they're vulnerable to being caught. Thus begins an epic chase through time and space...

The TARDIS materializes on the observation deck of the Empire State building in 1966, much to the shock and amusement of a visiting Alabaman tourist, who assumes it to be part of a film-making effort. They manage to leave ahead of the Daleks, ending up on the fabled Marie Celeste in 1872- causing it to become the famous ghost ship of legend when everyone aboard flees overboard at the onslaught of a Dalek invasion.

With the Daleks closing in, the TARDIS lands in a mysterious haunted castle, inhabited by the personages of Count Dracula, The Grey Lady, and Frankenstein's monster! The Daleks catch up with them here, in what the Doctor has determined to be the physical manifestation of the human subconscious, a shared unconscious realm of unspoken fears and collective icons of terror. They manage to flee with the Daleks distracted by the monsters, on whom their weapons have no effect- inadvertently leaving Vicki behind. (In a coda to the scene, it turns out that these were VERY lifelike animatronics in a 'Haunted House' exhibit at the Festival of Ghana amusement park in 1966).

Vicki stows away aboard the DARDIS. There, she sees a terrifying sight- en route to their next destination, the Daleks create an android duplicate of the Doctor, physically identical in every detail- assigned a mission to "infiltrate and kill."

The TARDIS arrives on the planet Mechanus, where they realize their mistake with Vicki, and decide to settle in and make a stand against the Daleks. They escape from deadly native fungoid creatures via a fortuitous pathway of overhead lights (to which the fungoids are averse), highlighting a safe path through to a large cave. They disable the lights to slow the Daleks, who will have to contend with the fungoids- but when they hear Vicki scream, Ian and the Doctor rush out to find her.

The Daleks have landed, and Vicki has slipped out, encountering one of the fungoids (hence the scream)- but she is rescued; meanwhile, the false-Doctor returns for Barbara, still at the cave with an anti-Dalek device the Doctor designed, claiming Ian has been killed, and leads her from the cave. An inevitable meeting occurs and the two Doctors battle with their walking sticks. The Doctor is defeated and the false-Doctor convinces Ian to destroy it- he is about to smash the Doctor's head in with a rock, and the Doctor compassionately shields Vicki's eyes, instructing her "Don't watch, Susan- this will be gruesome." The duplicate, created with knowledge from the previous two Dalek encounters, doesn't know that Susan has left the crew, and assumes this young girl is her. The impostor revealed, he is defeated by the Doctor, shut down by an imitation of a Dalek voice and then disabled by the removal of crucial circuitry. (NFS: Yeah because you wouldn't be able to tell it was the fake Doctor because he was allowing someones head to be smashed he kind of seems a bit head-smashy in the earlier Cave people episode!!)

The group holes up in the cave as the Daleks come with unstoppable numbers and weaponry... but are suddenly saved when an elevator at the back of the cave opens, and they are ushered in by a strange robot, like a large golf-ball with manipulator arms. They are taken to a city high on struts, hundreds of feet in the air- there, they meet Steven, a 23rd Century Earth astronaut. He reveals that these 'Mechanoids' were robot colony-builders sent on ahead from Earth to terraform the planet and prepare it for human occupation. They built the city and awaited colonists, but none came as Earth had become embroiled in a war. During the war, his ship was shot down, and he crashed here, taken in by the Mechanoids. Now, two years later, he's still being kept in his single, large room- a zoo specimen along with the TARDIS crew for the study of the Mechanoids, as none of them has the correct command code to convince the simple machines that they are the very humans who built them, here to take command.

The Daleks invade the city and a fire breaks out, separating the poor, slightly-mad Steven from the rest of the group. The TARDIS crew repels 1500 meters down to the surface of the planet as the Daleks and Mechanoids battle to the death in the flaming city- fleeing back to the TARDIS. Before they leave, however, Ian and Barbara realize that the DARDIS, with it's more precise destination-controls, can be used to send them home. The Doctor is furious they would want to leave, but after some prodding from Vicki, he takes them in to show them how to use the device.

Meanwhile, Steven, miraculously having survived and presumably followed down the ropes long after they'd left, staggers desperately out of the jungle towards the TARDIS...

Later, having departed Mechanus, Vicki and the Doctor watch on the Time/Space Visualizer as Ian and Barbara return home, set the DARDIS to self-destruct, and then run joyously through the streets, jumping in shock and then laughing with relief upon encountering a genuine Police Box on the streets, celebrating a return to their home of good old 1963 London. Well, actually... 1965 London. Both happily agree that it's close enough as they take a bus home. (As an addendum, later novels indicated they claimed a missionary journey to Africa to explain their 2 year absence- the two later married, and had a son named after two of the Thals they encountered on Skarro.) The Doctor bids Ian and Barbara a fond in-absentia goodbye, shutting off the viewer, confident that the duo has made it home safely and are happy there. He continues on with Vicki, traveling to unknown parts in time and space, finally free of the Dalek menace... when they hear a strange noise from somewhere within the TARDIS...

Alas and farewell, Ian and Barbara! I shall miss you, the two I consider to truly be the first companions! Though a slightly abrupt decision, the departure of the two worked well, and had an excellent, fun, fast-paced coda to their time with the Doctor that wrapped up their story most satisfactorily.

Also, a very cool special effects milestone- this is the first time we see the TARDIS in flight, and the first time we see the Time Vortex... the chase shots through it, though primitive by even original Star Trek standards, are nonetheless very, very cool.

As for the story- like the Keys of Marinus, this is practically a series of individual stories strung together by a common arc. The opening sand planet storyline was mediocre; the Daleks closing in didn't quite engender the feeling of impending doom they should have- at least not consistently- perhaps partly because they were used as simultaneous oncoming menaces... and comic relief. From nodding with their eye-stalks to coughing as they emerged from the sand, the Daleks were at times a little goofy... and one spoke with a cockney accent. You know, "'Ello, guv'nah!" - Daleks should not speak this way. EVER.

It. Does. Not. Work.

No Cockney Daleks.

Still, the first sight of the TARDIS crew being hunted, the Daleks surrounding the TARDIS and preparing to destroy it... certain moments here did have a palpable feeling of dread to them, and were nicely done. The pit-trap for the Dalek was a little too comedic, but interesting nonetheless.

The mire-beasts looked relatively good, as did the Aridians (if slightly cartoony... I am reminded of Flotter T. Water from Star Trek: Voyager, a children's program on the holodeck.) And so did the sandy landscape- clearly a location in long-shots- even if the closeups on sets looked a little more fake as a result. The capitulation of the Aridians was very... well, humanizing- these are not noble-beyond-noble principled aliens, these are scared refugees with no reason to be loyal to our heroes; even if they regret what they must do. Something about that rang very true to me.

The Space-Time Visualizer was an interesting and fascinating concept- one shared by Superman comics at the time- that since all events throughout the galaxy are recorded visually by the photons bouncing off of them, the light containing an event exists somewhere in the galaxy- and by capturing it, you should theoretically be able to view any event from history. (This does not explain where the sound came from... oops!) While Abe Lincoln was on a very, very obvious set, and the Queen and Shakespeare both look and act VERY different from how they would when the Doctor met them in person- this was all a great deal of fun, and a great way to follow-up on Ian and Barbara after they'd left. (As a trivia side-note, several variety-show programs were junked along with old Doctor Who episodes... making the clip of the Beatles appearing here the only surviving clip of their appearance on that program. In other words, the Doctors is doing what we all would with a time machine- using it to recover the missing episodes! :-) ) Some nice humorous moments here, too... Vicki being stir-crazy and getting in everyone's way, the shouting over the loud noise, Vicki's bafflement that the famous Beatles that she's only ever heard of from the ancient past play "Classical music"- and Barbara's afrontery at the notion...

The Empire State Building was a short comedic segment that was a little overdone, and a little silly... but kudos to the actor playing the hick- it's the same one who plays astronaut Steven later in the final episode, and the characters couldn't be more different- I never would've known they were the same actor!

The Marie Celeste was very clever- maybe a little too much waiting for the payoff reveal, but still clever. A Dalek, being destroyed by falling off the side, helps to decrease their menace even further. Ian getting conked on the head from behind (which also happened to him in The Romans) was a nice continuity/running gag.

The 'human subconscious' bit has a nice creepy haunted-hose flavor and an air of mystery- but the payoff is insufficient for the setup, the explanation feels weak, and the robots are clearly human actors- thus making these supposed animatronics far too realistic, especially by 1966 standards, to be believable.

While the synopsis indicates that the Daleks created a duplicate Doctor, in reality the duplicate is a body double; inexplicably even in scenes where the duplicate is alone and they could have used Hartnell; the double has the mannerisms, the costume, and the body... but not the face. In closeups, it's Hartnell (even more confusing) but in long shots, it's the double, with Hartnell's dialogue badly dubbed over his mouth movements. It's not very well accomplished, and not very smooth; continuity is shoddy, but at least the fight is good- in fact, I'm surprised it's not more iconic or oft-mentioned in the annals of Doctor Who.

The Mechanoids were impressive- if immobile and clunky looking- props, whose speech patterns were as unique as they were unintelligible. I felt that whole storyline.section was a bit slow, but the props themselves were quite good, and the miniature balcony with miniature Mechanoids to sell the concept was a failed but valiant attempt at making the exteriors work. A+ for effort, even if I wasn't convinced. The final explosion of the city- an explosion matted over it- actually looked quite good, however! (NFS: Daleks vs. Mechanoids is one of the coolest looking and just...coolest thing to think about ever.)

And as for that final battle, the choreography, cinematography, and camera angles/movements- even the corny 'row of fire along the bottom of the screen that doesn't change when the shot changes' technique- all contributed to what felt like a truly epic conflict between machines from vast armies; the whole battle scene was an impressive achievement of Hollywood- er, BBC- magic over resource limitations, and utilizing clever technique to create a vast impression greater than props or effects could convey. It felt truly epic, and should be commended for that- it was a very well-done climax.

Steven annoyed my wife initially, though for me he simply felt like a slightly pitiable non-entity; he wasn't well-defined here, so I haven't much to say about him. His cliffhanger fate was baffling, but makes sense later on (it did lend to it's suspicions at the time.)

The departure of Ian and Barbara felt a bit sudden and unprompted, as no mention had been made of Ian and Barbara wanting to get home for some time (I don't count the Beatles nostalgia in this serial as sufficient foreshadowing). That said, it was well-handled- from the Doctor's reaction, and his growing closer to Vicki through her convincing of him, to the very necessary and appropriate epilogue. (Initially, the DARDIS disappeared with so little fanfare that I was floored with a jaw-dropping "That's IT?!?") It gives an emotional payoff to Ian and Barbara's departure that, for all the magnificence of the Doctor's farewell speech in Dalek Invasion of Earth, Susan's departure never had. The self-destruct bit was exciting and well-executed, the photo-montage unexpected but fun, especially the moment of spotting and momentarily panicking over the appearance of a genuine police box. The Doctor and Vicki watching it on the time viewer afterwards wrapped it up neatly with a bow on top- film-technique-wise, and emotionally. Farewell, Ian and Barbara... I think I'll miss you most of all.

Overall, The Chase is a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows; special effects were largely top-notch, vignettes were hit-and-miss, humor was generally good, and some set pieces truly excelled. It didn't keep the pace as well as, say, the Keys of Marinus, which was overall a superior story, but it was generally enjoyable with a touching farewell.

Great moments:
The flight through the vortex, the Dalek/Mechanoid battle, Ian and Barbara's epilogue. Lots of great stuff here!

Crowning moment of hilarity:
Ian's dance to the Beatles. 4-5 seconds of absolute, pure, unadulterated comic gold. Almost a tie to the Doctor's Victorian bicycle from the last serial and the Web Planet's camera-collision for 'funniest moment ever in the Hartnell era'

Overall rating is 4 out of 5 Shrunken TARDISes- the opening and ending arcs were too slow- and too much comedic use of the villains, lessening their threat- keeping it from perfection, but it was very highly laudable nonetheless, with some truly superb moments; the low points should drag it down to a 3.5, but the departure of Ian and Barbara and the duel of the Doctors triggered my personal response to it more than the sum of its parts.

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