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2x08. The Chase
Writer: Terry Nation
Director: Richard Martin
Script Editor: Dennis Spooner
Producer: Verity Lambert

Synopsis: The Doctor discovers, by use of the Time-Space Visualizer from Xeros, that the Daleks have built their own time machine and are pursuing the TARDIS. A series of confrontations ensue, taking place first on the planet Aridius, then on top of the Empire State Building, on board the Mary Celeste, inside a haunted house exhibition, and finally on the planet Mechanus where the Daleks and the native Mechanoids, a robotic race, destroy each other. With the Daleks' time machine at their disposal, Ian and Barbara use it to return to Britain in 1965.

Review: "This started out as a perfectly reasonable premise about mutant aliens inside giant pepperpots. Now, it's just got silly." (With apologies to Graham Chapman.)

Perhaps "The Chase" is a reflection of the origins of Doctor Who as a children's program, or perhaps the Daleks' potential for camp would have inevitably proven too tempting to the writers in any scenario, but either way, the result is a serial in which the series' trademark villains (a status they'd achieved even at this early date) come off looking like inept buffoons. Some might argue that it's unwise to take the Daleks too seriously under any circumstances, and it's easy to treat them as a joke given their cheap design and shrill voices. But the background to their seemingly senseless aggresion proved intriguing in "The Daleks," and they were an effective menace in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth."

One might expect them to be even more dangerous now that they've built their own time machine, but for most of "The Chase," they're about as threatening as the Three Stooges, as they variously get sand up their plungers (one of them appears to be coughing or clearing its throat after a sandstorm), dive into the water after fleeing Mary Celeste crewmembers, and fight losing battles with animatronic zombies and vampires. They're also way over the top with their repetitive proclamations of total destruction for just about everybody (in addition to "exterminate," they've now added "eradicate," "obliterate," "annihilate," and "Attack! Attack! Attack!" to their vocabulary), and their most MST3K-able moment comes when one of them announces that they're going to destroy the TARDIS, prompting the others to break out into a chorus of "TARDIS! TARDIS! TARDIS! TARDIS!"

Writer Terry Nation has returned to his "Keys of Marinus" formula of continually shifting the action to new locations, and he runs into the same problem that he did with that serial: the little vignettes tend to be rather superficial and perfunctory. The Aridians and the Mire Beasts are thoroughly uninteresting creations, and the "siege" situation in which the Aridians are forced to surrender the time travelers to the Daleks is just standard capture-and-escape formula with no new twists. The Empire State Building and Mary Celeste sequences serve entirely as extended jokes, which might be okay if they offered some actual effective comedy. But the stereotypical Alabama tourist of the former segment is just a dull caricature, and the humor of the latter segment seems bizarrely (and I suspect unintentionally) grim when one considers that the crew members who leap overboard to escape the Daleks are all going to drown, including Captain Briggs' wife and their young child.

The haunted house sequence is a little more palatable, in that the cast and crew are clearly having fun with the B-movie horror atmosphere, but the Daleks' incompetence is perhaps at its most startling when they appear unable to distinguish between real life forms and the facsimiles of Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. The Doctor also seems way out of character here: he's supposedly a man of science, but he insists that the TARDIS has materialized inside some sort of collective unconscious of human fears, prompting Ian to react with understandable skepticism. The last two episodes, which take place on the planet Mechanus, are at least somewhat suspenseful, and the the Daleks' duplicate Doctor actually turns out to be a clever and humorous concept when it addresses the Daleks with the same crotchetiness and whimsical condescension that we're used to seeing from the genuine article. Still, the attacking giant mushrooms have to rank among the series' worst monsters ever: they add nothing to the proceedings, and they look unbelievably ridiculous. I realize that the series was on a low budget, but why include something like this at all when it's so pointless and irrelevant? There's also an ill-advised scene in which Barbara imagines shooting at Daleks and makes "Pkkhh! Pkkhh! Pkkhh!" noises -- I could understand this sort of silly behavior from Vicki, perhaps, but for Barbara it's just embarrassing.

It's clear that Terry Nation intends all this to be taken as little more than light comedy, but one must ask, is it really the right time for light comedy when the Daleks, having been established as capable of the conquest of Earth and the nuclear devastation of their home planet, have actually built their own time machine? Full-blown comedy episodes of otherwise dramatic series are a tricky thing to pull off, and they usually work best when they avoid important recurring plot and character threads. (The only exception I can think of is the X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," and even there, the humorous take on the alien conspiracy was filtered through unreliable, skewed points of view.) If Nation had created a new alien race to serve as the bumbling villains, "The Chase" might have turned out at least somewhat better. As it is, we're left to wonder how it is that the previously-threatening Daleks can achieve time travel and the robotic replica of the Doctor, but can't hold their own in battle against fairground attractions and are dumb enough to jump into the ocean.

That's not to say that "The Chase" is all bad. Despite the occasional out-of-character moment, the quartet of the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki remain an engaging bunch. The scene at the beginning when they use the Time-Space Visualizer to look in on the life of Shakespeare and a Beatles concert may not be essential to the plot, but it achieves the fun, upbeat tone that much of the episode attempted and failed to establish, and the bit on the Mary Celeste when Vicki accidentally knocks Ian out is well-timed physical comedy. And, of course, the episode wraps up with one of the most significant character moments of the series to date: Ian and Barbara, given what might be their one chance to return to their own time, decide to take it. While it's unfortunate that we didn't get a parting scene per se (the Doctor eventually agrees to their plan, and in the very next scene they're arriving back on Earth), Nation gets the Doctor's reaction exactly right. He reacts at first with anger and skepticism, insisting that the plan will fail, refusing to get sentimental, and relenting only when Vicki convinces him that he should allow them to do as they choose. Not until after they've left, when he and Vicki watch their return home on the Visualizer, does he finally drop his guard and admit that he will miss them. I'd wager he's in good company with plenty of Who fans on that point: Ian and Barbara were well-written characters and valuable allies for the Doctor, who not only provided a human point of view to which the audience could easily relate, but brought their own skills and intelligence to the table rather than falling into the obvious "What's that, Doctor?" formula.

Unfortunately, the bad ultimately outweighs the good in "The Chase." It provides some minimal entertainment value and it gives Ian and Barbara a nice send-off, but both they and the Daleks deserved a better story than this ill-conceived attempt at comedy that too often verges on self-parody.

Other notes:

- At one point, the Doctor warns Ian and Barbara that if something goes wrong with the Daleks' time machine, they'll end up "floating around like cinders in Spain." Can anyone explain just what that could possibly mean? Or, if it was a case of Hartnell blowing his line, as has been suggested elsewhere, what the line was supposed to be? I'm afraid I'm puzzled either way.

- The robotic nature of the Mechanoids might have been an interesting idea to explore if the writers had decided to bring them back again later, particularly with their odd manners of expression. If I'm not mistaken, one of them issued a refusal to a Dalek demand with the word "Zero."

Rating: *1/2 (out of four)

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