|The Daleks realize the difficulty of fighting a monster|
who does not so much roll natural 20s as is a natural 20.
Hello. There’s a lot of you reading this post right now, and I can’t figure out where you’re all coming from. Would anyone mind letting me know? I’m just curious. Thanks. Hope you enjoy.
It’s May 22, 1965. Number one is going to pass among four artists for the next six weeks – Jackie Trent, Sandie Shaw, The Hollies, and Elvis. So, basically, a melange of pop acts. Which is once again fitting for Doctor Who, which airs The Chase, a story that is, basically, a melange of set pieces punctuated by occasional Dalek attacks.
Let’s start by being honest here. There are, two my mind, two ways to read this story. Either it’s a flawed but mostly edgily brilliant piece of early post-modernism, or it’s a complete crap-fest.
I won’t lie and pretend the latter case is not, on paper, stronger. Terry Nation is, in many ways, a tough writer to love. He parlayed his brief description of some robotic monsters into copyright on one of Doctor Who’s two most iconic images, managing to run roughshod over Ray Cusick, who was the one who changed Nation’s description into an iconic design. Nation is credited whenever the Daleks appear on screen. Cusick… isn’t. On top of that, of Nation’s many Doctor Who scripts, it’s a braver man than I who can argue that several do not feel phoned in. Not the least of them this story’s most obvious antecedent, The Keys of Marinus.
On the other hand, Nation was able to put together Genesis of the Daleks, rightly considered one of the best Doctor Who stories ever. And it’s basically impossible to argue that he is anything less than one of the most influential creative figures in Doctor Who history. Looking even at his three stories prior to this, we can see that it was Nation who introduced the capture/escape sci-fi model, the Doctor’s love of pioneers, genre juxtaposition, and, of course, monsters. And that’s the root problem with Terry Nation. He’s a genius who is perfectly willing to be a hack instead.
So with this story, it’s genuinely tough. Because I do think there’s a reading to be had that mostly makes this story work and work quite well. I’m also very much uncertain that this reading has anything to do with anything that Nation or anyone else involved with this story had in mind at the time.
Still, this blog is not about reviewing stories in the context of their time (there’s been enough quality writing on Doctor Who that does that, most notably Miles and Wood’s sublime About Time sextet). It’s about understanding a story of Doctor Who that continues to this day. And the version of The Chase that I can bring myself to quite enjoy is a version that seems to me to have been tremendously influential on, say, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. And even if, on paper, it seems more probable that this is a warmed over piece of hackery from Nation that got maimed by Richard Martin when it was directed… maybe they were just ahead of their time.
So here’s the key to The Chase’s redemption. Narrative collapse. By which I mean that the Daleks, in The Chase, are not merely threatening to exterminate the Doctor and his companions. The Daleks are threatening to completely destabilize the entire narrative foundations of Doctor Who, and The Doctor has to figure out a way to stop them.
This is established quickly in the opening episode. The first ten minutes are occupied by the TARDIS crew operating the Time-Space Visualizer picked up at the end of The Space Museum. As explained here, the visualizer is a time television, allowing them to watch any historical event on television. So we get ten minutes of the TARDIS crew watching TV instead of having adventures, culminating in a bizarre sequence of Ian dancing to The Beatles “Ticket to Ride.” (The Beatles make their sole Doctor Who appearance here via a tape made from Top of the Pops – although it appears that the Beatles were all in favor of it, and in fact a photo of John Lennon chilling with a Dalek exists and is easily Googled. Note, however, that Vicki expresses surprise that the Beatles played classical music – in other words, as mod and hip as the Beatles may be in 1965, Vicki is way, way hipper.)
This, needless to say, destabilizes the narrative considerably. It is, in fact, basically the end of Doctor Who, as a concept. If the TARDIS crew can simply watch the universe on television, why voyage into danger? Indeed, the Time-Space Visualizer effectively reduces the TARDIS crew to the same position occupied by the viewer – watching events on television. Thus the first ten minutes are not, as they might appear, a kind of boring stretch of nobody doing anything, but rather a significant challenge to the entire structure of the show.
Especially when one realizes that the TARDIS crew is contrasted with the Daleks, who have developed time travel themselves. I’m going to talk about the Dalekmania craze next week, but suffice it to say for now that the Daleks were massively popular, readily rivaling the show itself at this point. And now, in the opening episode, the Daleks have literally usurped the show. The TARDIS crew is sitting around watching television, and the Daleks are adventuring in time and space. The Daleks have even gotten to where they break into a mass chorus affirming the last line of their orders, leading to the first really classic moment of Daleks sitting around screaming “EXTERMINATE!”
This continues as the TARDIS crew heads out onto Aridius and… sit around sunbathing. Ian and Vicki go and wander, while the Doctor sunbathes with Barbara in a nice throwback to the old Doctor/Barbara scenes we haven’t really seen much of this season. But they don’t do anything. It’s not until they see the Daleks on the Time-Space Visualizer – by which point, as the Doctor points out, the Daleks must already be on Aridius, since the Visualizer just sees the past – that they actually do anything.
In other words, the show opens by having us be more inclined to sympathize with the Daleks, who are actually giving us a plot, than with the TARDIS crew, who are painfully boring. But in the very end, this inverts again and we are reminded that the Daleks, awesome as they may be, are still a force of narrative collapse.
Way back in The Dalek Invasion of Earth I talked about how the cliffhanger at the end of the first episode is a matter of delayed gratification. We know the Daleks are coming, and so the episode of withholding them finally pays off with the iconic shot of one emerging from the Thames. The first cliffhanger of The Chase is superficially similar, with a Dalek emerging from the sand. Except that there is no delayed gratification. The Daleks are all over this episode prior to the one that rises from the sand. So instead, the cliffhanger is nothing more than a 25 second shot of a Dalek, which we’ve already seen tons of this episode. There’s no pleasure to be had – it’s just a rote recitation of standard narrative beats. The episode even mocks this, by having the Dalek cough and grunt as it works its way out of the sand. Even the Dalek knows it’s stuck in a rubbish cliffhanger. And this is the central threat of The Chase. The possibility of the entire narrative structure of Doctor Who collapsing.
Even here, though, I think we can make something out of it. Most significantly, there’s the fact that our Alabama yokel assumes that the TARDIS and the Daleks are from the movies. Because apparently America is all about the movies. But again, we can parse something pretty good out of this, in that the Daleks are explicitly threatening basic storytelling. The joke, after all, is that Morton Dill doesn’t realize that he’s already in a fictional story. The TARDIS isn’t from the movies, it’s from the telly.
Nowadays, of course, this sequence would end with the Daleks arriving after the Doctor leaves and exterminating Morton Dill. And, let’s be honest, it would have been a better ending. Its absence when a modern audience can see clearly that it’s “supposed” to be there is probably the thing that makes this sequence the hardest. But you can still see what they’re trying to do here.
A quick side comment, incidentally, about the completely nutso Dalek ship that is being used – named by fans as the DARDIS. The inside of it feels like an Austin Powers movie, with tons of big spirally things swirling about in mod/psychedelic patterns. It’s another thing that makes clear the underlying tension. The show has, over the last few episodes, explicitly allied itself with youthful culture. But the Daleks are part of that culture too. This is why they’re more than just monsters – they’re fundamental threats to the narrative structure.
After a quick meet-up with Steven (played again by Peter Purves), a marooned pilot with a stuffed panda he keeps at all times, we go into another burst of plot. The Doctor sets the Daleks up the bomb, leading to what is easily the best Dalek moment we have ever seen, beating out even the crowdsurfing of Dalek Invasion of Earth, as a Dalek spins around the room for an extended period of time shouting “AM EXTERMINATED! AM EXTERMINATED!” Meanwhile, Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor have to blindfold and tie up a screaming and protesting Vicki to lower her down a rope out of the Mechanoid city, providing what I am sure is some very disgusting fanboy’s dream.
Meanwhile, in the Mechanoid city, the director, Richard Martin, serves up a truly amazing fight scene. The direction is often flagged as the weak point of this story, and it’s a fair cop – Martin picks some truly terrible camera angles throughout, and does feel a bit over his head. But the final fight between the Mechanoids and the Daleks is fantastic. Starting with a montage, the sequence cuts faster and faster, and then begins overlaying multiple scenes until it is no longer able to be parsed by the viewer and is just a blur of fire and ray gun effects. And this is telling. In the end, narrative resolution comes when the TARDIS crew decides “the hell with this” and runs off, leaving the Daleks to fight the ill-conceived Mechanoids. The TARDIS crew has nothing to do with defeating the Daleks. They just waited around until another monster arrived and slipped out the back while the narrative restabilized itself. And in the end, it’s nothing to do with Doctor Who that saves the narrative, but rather with the Daleks who, despite being terrifying conquerers of the universe, ultimately are just another silly robot.
But here’s the thing – which is crucial about narrative collapse storylines like this. The narrative can be restored. That’s the whole point of Doctor Who in these narrative collapse stories – that ultimately there is no such thing as threatening the fundamental narrative logic of Doctor Who because, eventually, it just shrugs its shoulders and does something random to get out of it.
But there’s a flip side. The narrative restoration always comes at a price. The Doctor can get out of anything, but the flip side is that he is always going to be alone. The Doctor’s fundamental move – the first trick we ever saw him do – was to fall out of the world. To escape. But when you escape, you are, in the end, alone.
And so, in a sickening collapse, we go from the TARDIS crew joking around (including Ian pretending to be a Dalek) to Ian and Barbara realizing they can use the DARDIS to get home. And it’s clear, under a careful reading, that this is, ultimately, because of the Daleks destabilizing of the narrative. Because on the Empire State Building, they were there in their own time – closer to home than they’d ever been – and they made no effort to get out of the TARDIS and go home. But now, as soon as they see the DARDIS, they realize that they want to go home.
Now, as I’ve said, I’m not confident in my reading up to this point. The story really might just be a silly mess. But from here on out, I’m rock solid confident. Because Ian and Barbara’s departure is brilliant. The only question is whether it’s a brilliant scene at the end of a rubbish story, or a brilliant culmination of a brilliant story.
As soon as Ian and Barbara mention wanting to go home, the Doctor loses it. He reverts to the sort of childish anger we haven’t seen from him in ages – the raw crankiness of the Doctor who might bash someone’s head in, and who sabotages his ship to force his companions to explore. He screams at them. He rails at them.
And here we see what a great TARDIS crew we’ve had for the past six stories. Barbara sells it. Flattering the Doctor and begging him at once, as she was always the best at doing, she tells him openly and honestly how much traveling with him has meant to her. But also that, unlike him, they have a home to go to, and they want to go there. And it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful scene.
And then there is Ian. I’ve been down on Ian in the past, to the point where Simon Guerrier, who wrote The Time Travellers, has called me absurdly wrong on the point. I still think there are some major problems with Ian – most notably that he’s the exact sort of manly action hero that the show usually sends up a bit. Which is why you have him with ridiculous scenes dancing to the Beatles and pretending to be a Dalek – because he is faintly absurd, and the show knows it.
He’s also hampered by the fact that his character isn’t one we recognize in Doctor Who anymore. He’s the companion who least gets to react to the strangeness of the world around him, which leads to the sort of one-note acting I’ve previously complained about. He’s stoic in a way that Doctor Who avoids later. But there is one later companion that Ian is a clear inspiration for, in a weird way, and that character is the one that, I think, can give a clear lens on how to read Ian as a great character. And that’s Wilf.
It’s clear from a couple of points throughout his time on the TARDIS that Ian served in the military. If he’s the same age as William Russell, that would put him in World War II, and about the same age as Bernard Cribbins and thus Wilfred Mott. They are, in other words, characters with very similar origins. But where Wilf has stayed on Earth and been passed by, becoming a quiet, respectful patriot who looks at the stars, Ian got to go there. They are, essentially, the same character, and had Ian never traveled on the TARDIS, he’d have grown old to be Wilf. And if you can project that backwards and look at Ian that way, you can see the noble bearing and quiet dignity that was bottled up torturously in Wilf allowed out. When, years down the line, Wilf chokes back tears while begging the Doctor to take Donna with him, because “she was better with you” (in an episode whose structure owes more than it would like to admit to the reading of The Chase above), the subtext is that Wilf, too, would have been better with the Doctor. And in Ian, we can see exactly what he means. Ian is a better person for traveling on the TARDIS. He was always a good man, but the Doctor gave him the opportunity to be a great one, and one senses he will never go back.
And then there is Vicki, who is a few stories away from an unceremonious writing out largely because she allied with Hartnell against the new producer. Vicki, who in this scene, does what Susan never could. She stands up to him. She tells him to let them go. And she does so lovingly. Loving the Doctor as a man. Not in a creepy sexual way, but also not in the paternal way that Susan loved him. There are shades of Lewis Carol and Alice Liddell. Which is still an unnerving relationship. The Problem of Susan has not gone away. But that’s another story.
In the end, we are denied the actual goodbye between Ian and Barbara. Which is a beautiful decision. But instead, we get something better. Ian and Barbara ride off into the sunset, returning to beautiful, contemporary, swinging London. There’s a great bit where Ian is momentarily terrified by… a police box. Because they have returned to our world, full of joy and wonder. This is the completion of a story arc, done better than we will see it done for almost a decade.
And as the episode ends, we pull back and see the Doctor, now watching his friends on the Time-Space Visualizer. The natural order of things is restored. Now the Doctor watches us on television, just as we watch him. And as the episode ends, the Doctor at last, for the first time, admits that he will miss them.
This, I should note, is why one of the few continuity points I am a bit fascistic about is that there are basically no pre-Unearthly Child stories. I mean, you can give the Doctor one or two adventures, but there’s no real way to say that he traveled substantially before that. Because if you compare this Doctor, choking up with sorrow at losing his friends, to the one who, when caught in the Cave of Skulls in 100,000 BC, just gives up, it is clear that Ian and Barbara have changed the Doctor. Being with them has made him into a hero. And if you give him adventures before he meets them, you cheat them of that story role. I’m fine with retcons and contradictions in continuity, but I’m loathe to accept one that actively invalidates the emotional core of another story. And giving Ian and Barbara any position at all beyond the two people who taught the Doctor to be a hero cheapens them. Watching these first sixteen stories, it is clear that they are not just the first companions for the viewer, they are the first companions for the Doctor.
And he misses them.
He’ll miss others. This sense of loss is essential to the show. But to everyone who complains that they miss Rose, or Donna, or any other later companion, remember this:
It is June 26, 1965. The Hollies are at #1 with “I’m Alive.” And we miss Ian and Barbara. More even than Susan, whose absence was, ultimately, for her own good and the Doctor’s own good. This is the first departure to truly hurt. 46 years later, it still hurts. And if, in 2052, Doomsday turns out to have had the staying power of this last scene, maybe then we can talk about how much you miss Rose. Assuming that, 87 years later, we’ve stopped missing Ian and Barbara.
The Doctor certainly won’t have.