Friday, 1 January 2010

Ten Stories #1: "We're trying to beat the Daleks, not start a jumble sale!"


As someone who came to Doctor Who when it was off-air, I’ve never really differentiated between eras, and always watched the series piecemeal, as almost standalone stories. Perhaps because of this, I find the relationship between Doctor Who’s diverse periods completely fascinating, something that’s been emphasised by the new series’ more rigorously consecutive season structure.

This, then, is an attempt to watch one of each of the ten Doctors’ stories, preferably from as unbiased a mindset as possible – that is, ones that are new or at least unfamiliar to me. I don’t have any great goal in mind, simply to try to view the series’ various eras as a complete whole.

Obviously, Doctor Who has always operated in the same fundamental ways, but, aside from the fact that we’re fans and so appreciate the progression and links, it’s hard to see what really connects The Aztecs or Mawdryn Undead (as a random example) to, say, Midnight. That’s part of the show’s brilliance, obviously, but it does throw me sometimes. This, then, is my daring voyage through Doctor Who’s distinct eras...

Written by Terry Nation, directed by Richard Martin, 1965

Whenever I watch sixties stories, much as I love the era, I can’t help but find it bizarre that there’s any relationship between them and the twenty-first century version. But then, The Chase is such an ostentatious mess that it’s not a whole lot removed from, say, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. In fact, there’s an OTT lack of restraint here that actually makes Davies’ magnum opus seem a clear successor to this story.

The Chase is very much an ‘adventure’ – it’s ridiculous, but unselfconsciously, so it doesn’t matter – operating under a spectacle-over-story crowd-pleasing mentality: snippets of famous historical events! Daleks! Dalekmania-milking robots! A horror genre parody! New York! An evil double! The whole thing’s an absolute treat, with about ten times the usual amount of madness. Even the plunking piano music makes me imagine some crazed cartoon pianist hammering away, shirt collar askew, sweat flying…

The inclusion of the historical scenes shown on the visualiser alone are joyfully random – especially with a rare classic series acknowledgement of pop culture thrown in, in the form of the Beatles footage (which is so unprecedented that it feels wrong, but nevertheless fits into this chaotic story). Given its bad reputation, I was amazed by how charmingly funny it is too (and not in a piss-take way); Terry Nation brings a genuine comic sensibility to proceedings, even in small details like the Doctor’s extended mumbling and gesticulating with a screwdriver at the beginning, and peeping from behind the time-space visualiser; Ian’s deadpanned, “It’s a bit far-fetched” about his Monsters from Outer Space book; the whole crew variously kicking the visualiser. There’s a tiny moment which I find almost unfeasibly funny, too, where Barbara asks Vicki what flavour space-bar the TARDIS food machine has dispensed, which Vicki answers with a nonchalant, "Guava" – which I imagine must have been impossibly exotic in 1965…

• Ian’s, “Get with it, Barbara, get with it!”
• The trail in the sand: “Probably blood” “Oh yes, it’s bound to be!”
• The Doctor sunbathing and singing: “What’s that awful noise?!” “Awful noise? I could charm the nightingales out of the trees!”
• “I have the directional instincts of a homing pigeon!”

I love seeing this (arguably, best-characterised) TARDIS crew really having fun and enjoying each other’s company; Vicki’s interaction with Ian (the ring in the sand and the story about the castle) is charming and almost unexpectedly natural (“Excalibur!”), and miles away from many companions who literally don’t do anything more than expound the plot.

Visually however, this is a particularly shoddy sixties story (compare and contrast with the following, rather beautiful Time Meddler, with its almost stylised forced-perspective sets and back-projected clouds, or the later War Machines), but still includes some unexpectedly creative visual devices (the Doctor operating the TARDIS’ controls to camera; Ian and Babs’ photomontage farewell; the comic-strip additions to the Dalek/Mechanoid battle – which actually looks quite stunning, with its frenetic cuts, close-ups, zooms, canted angles, and overlaid images).

The Daleks are actually lovingly shot from a variety of angles, and frequently framed so as to show only certain parts of them, with the focus switching between eyestalks and plungers – but nevertheless, this story is enormously hokey, with its literally 2D sets and the poorly-dubbed ‘double’. But, it just doesn’t matter. I won’t say poor effects are an intrinsic part of Doctor Who’s appeal, but the lower the budget, the less televisual it becomes and the more like a filmed play – and so its effectiveness comes down to suspension of belief. And, as Doctor Who is fundamentally ridiculous, effects just don’t matter; it’s all about believing in it.

I get the feeling the poncy interpretative-dance-schooled Aridians represent exactly what Russell T Davies has been trying to avoid with his reluctance to show alien cultures, and Mechanus (especially the Fungoids) might be a bit Mighty Boosh – but most of the story’s dodginess has more to do with the technical limitations of the camerawork and (turgid) editing than anything. (Even the painted Aridian backdrops are perfectly acceptable, and the addition of the calcified rock shapes on the sand on location is strangely effective.)

What I found most notable about this story though, was to do with the Doctor. The First Doctor is great – Hartnell is a brilliant actor, and arguably the ultimate expression of the Doctor as an unconventional hero; I love the idea of an old, Edwardian gentleman saving the world every week. However, I do appreciate that he is relatively difficult to appreciate (as opposed to, say, the more immediate Troughton), but here he does have that immediacy. He’s crotchety, yes, but also a mix of charming, funny, in control and regretful, playing much of this material surprisingly straight.

It really does feel like the end of an era here – and it’s rather a glorious send-off (despite – given the story’s reputation – evidently not being to everyone’s taste). The Doctor’s outrage at Ian and Babs’ decision to leave, and his refusal to help, is touchingly telling, and shows why I like the character of the (First) Doctor so much – he’s not always all sweetness and light and can be difficult, rather than being a perfect hero, fully and selflessly in control of his emotions.

That there isn’t an actual goodbye for Ian and Barbara (key original cast members, no less!) is interestingly effective (the very early companion departures were often a lot cleverer than people tend to give them credit for; cf Vicki’s and Victoria’s) – and probably a good thing, as it could have become mawkish and overplayed (it certainly would be now). Ian’s determination for normality makes him seem very three-dimensional, even within this pulpy story, and it’s great and surprising to see Ian and Babs on their own in London, post-Doctor (a privilege few companions are afforded; there’s also a lovely, satisfying symmetry to the Doctor and Vicki using the visualiser to watch their return). The La Jetée-style photomontage is also glorious – not least because of how charming and unprecedented a stylistic departure it is within Doctor Who, considering even basic devices like flashbacks or non-chronological plot progression weren’t used pre-2005.

The Chase – it’s a tacky piece of B-movie fluff – and yet, and yet… I actually loved this story. No other era would, could, or did produce a story as bizarrely, brazenly varied as this. I should hate its crowd-pleasing simplicity, but the Doctor Who-as-comic-strip approach is actually hugely entertaining – for one night only, at least.

"Success! Paramount success!"

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