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Classic Who: The Chase

This is quite a mad story, with a crazy central plot-line and a lot of content obviously played for laughs. But that doesn't mean it should be dismissed as merely silly. Doctor Who was so new at this time that each story was still helping to define and develop the format of the programme, and this is very much true here too. Several of what appear to be passing fancies in this patchwork of short scenarios can be seen in retrospect as early experiments in ideas and formats which went on to become staples of the show. Also, a lot of the comic content in it actually springs from meta-references to the nature of Doctor Who as a TV drama - something which had begun to emerge in the previous two stories, and which I always enjoy. It speaks of self-confidence and self-awareness on the part of the production crew; a sense that they have got well enough into their stride to start playing around a bit.

The biggest meta-reference, obviously, is the Time-Space Visualiser - a device which allows the TARDIS crew to view events from across space and time on an enormous television, just like the audience watching along at home! (Indeed, Barbara directly describes it as 'a sort of time television'). One might well ask why they would want or need such a thing, given that they have a functioning time machine and can actually go anywhere in time and space anyway. The obvious answer to that is that they don't, and it is a gimmicky idea that also serves as a plot device to keep track of the progress of the Daleks through the rest of the story, as well as allowing the Doctor and Vicki to witness Barbara and Ian's safe return to Earth at the end. But, while it is there, the Time-Space Visualiser does give me more fodder for my investigations into the programme's treatment of history.

For a start, it allows our travellers to select the historical events which they view with greater accuracy than the TARDIS provides, but not to become directly involved in them. This puts them in something much closer to the position of an ordinary historian, accessing selected events from the past through texts and artefacts, but without the knowledge of the people who created them, and unable to ask questions or otherwise affect the one-way flow of information. The testimony of the Time-Space Visualiser also differs from the information available to the historian in that it is an entirely accurate direct replay of past events (within the terms of the story, anyway), and thus undistorted by source issues. Meanwhile, it differs from travel in the TARDIS in that the events it records cannot be influenced by the direct involvement of the TARDIS crew. And yet even the Time-Space Visualiser to some extent replicates the distorting gaze of the historian. In displaying events on a two-dimensional screen, it cannot help but have a camera viewpoint - and indeed, this focuses in on particular events and characters at the expense of others. Although the TARDIS crew do not seem to be influencing this once each scene has started, they do select the events which they wish to view using a selection of metal plates, and thus pre-determine their own experiences of the past.

Ian's selection is at face value rather boring - he chooses to see the delivery of the Gettysburg address, which is anyway recorded in written texts, so seems a bit of a waste of the machine's capabilities. But starting off with something verifiable is actually quite a clever move, since it means that we then trust the machine's testimony when Barbara moves on to a scene that is not recorded in written documents. What's more, since the Gettysburg address was delivered on November 19th 1863 (a date which is explicitly mentioned in the script), it comes very close to pre-dating the first broadcast of Doctor Who (on November 23rd 1963) by exactly one century - so may have been selected to serve as another meta-reference to the programme.

Barbara (in something of a gender stereotype) chooses to move away from pure politics to the world of the arts, by viewing conversations between Elizabeth I, Shakespeare and Francis Bacon. These do what Whovian historicals usually do in this period - namely, purport to show us the 'real' truth of events which in real life are subject to debate. In this case, we 'learn' where Shakespeare gets his ideas from: the story of Hamlet is suggested by Francis Bacon, while Queen Elizabeth I requests 'a play of Falstaff in love!'. She also reports that a certain Sir John Oldcastle is concerned, because he believes that Falstaff is based on him. This shouldn't actually be possible, since the real John Oldcastle lived during the reign of Henry IV, not Elizabeth I, and it was a descendent of a completely different name who allegedly objected. But the fundamental claim which Doctor Who makes about itself is that its characters have privileged access to historical truth. So if caught out on details like this, the writers can always just say that it is us poor non-time travellers who are mistaken - as long as they don't push our credulity too far, of course.

Finally, Vicki links the story directly to the audience's present-day experience by tuning in to the Beatles playing 'Ticket to Ride' on BBC1 (and affording us the marvellous spectacle of Ian singing and dancing along to it in the process!). This had been a number 1 single for three weeks just a month before the episode was broadcast, so is about as downright contemporary as Doctor Who had been since its first episode (and definitely more so than Planet of Giants). Again, it might seem that this is a waste of the machine's capabilities, or as though this scene was chosen purely for comic / meta-referential effect. But given that the story ends with Ian and Barbara being returned to contemporary Earth - and, more specifically, to a very Swinging Sixties London - it is also a rather neat idea in plot terms to remind the audience that the story has been taking place all along within their own Universe.

There are multiple other meta-reference besides the Time-Space Visualiser, too. I think Ian's exasperated exclamation to Vicki, "Don't just stand there and scream you little fool - run!" comes under that heading - and three cheers that she gets to retort with "Don’t just stand there gaping, you nit!" moments later. In episode four, Ian's comment in the House of Horrors that it is a good place to fight Daleks because "Daleks don’t like stairs" shows that this classic joke had already passed into the popular consciousness after less than two years, and was being owned right up to by the programme. And indeed when the haunted house turns out to be an exhibition at the 'Festival of Ghana, 1996', that would be meta-commentary too, since it means that what had looked like terribly stagy, fake scenery turned out to be 'really' a set after all.

There is more historical content, too, when first the TARDIS and then the Dalek time capsule land on the Mary Celeste in episode 3. Like the historical stories so far, and like the scenes on the Time-Space Visualiser, this essentially takes a known historical event (the desertion of the ship), and purports to present the 'true' explanation - that everyone was scared overboard by the Daleks. BUT of course there is an important difference here in that aliens other than the Doctor and his fellow-travellers are now involved. In other words, this little comic sequence is technically the first appearance of what would later become the pseudo-historical format.

Indeed, the House of Horrors sequence in episode 4 gives much the same kind of foretaste of Who's later interest in Gothic horror. In fact, it constitutes the closest the programme has got so far towards using settings drawn from literary fiction (rather than straightforward history or sci-fi) for its stories, when the characters find themselves in a place where Dracula and Frankenstein's monster appear to be 'real' - or at least, as the Doctor suggests, made real by the power of human belief. In this particular case, the viewer (but not the characters) learn that this is not so when the camera pans back to reveal the 'Festival of Ghana' poster at the entrance. But this is bold and challenging in itself. We are being asked to think about the issues which such stories raise about the fictional nature of the whole show, and about what degrees of fiction we are and aren't prepared to accept at the very moment when they are first being invented. Awesome!

As if that's not enough, this story also introduces for the first time the idea that anyone else other than the Doctor is capable of travelling in time - an idea which will of course come to full fruition in the next story, The Time Meddler. Indeed, it appears rather as though this is the first time the Doctor has directly encountered other time-travellers, too. As the Daleks pursue the TARDIS and its crew through time and space, it triggers a 'time path detector' on the TARDIS console, which he says has never gone off before. The Dalek ship also appears to share some technological features with the Doctor's - it is certainly bigger on the inside, although if it has a chameleon circuit (or 'camouflage unit', as the Meddling Monk calls it in the next story), it appears to be broken.

Finally, there are several snippets from this story which have later resonances in New Who - as there are bound to be, really, in a plot this wide-ranging. These are the ones I noticed:
  • Scenes with Queen Elizabeth I = The Shakespeare Code, and of course now that naughty little reference in The End of Time part 1.
  • The name of the Mary Celeste being revealed after the characters have left the ship = the name of the space-ship in The Girl in the Fireplace.
  • Daleks on the Empire State building = Daleks in Manhattan.
  • The entire chase through time and space = an early battle in the Time War? The Daleks don't seem to know yet about the rest of the Time Lords, but from their perspective the events of Genesis of the Daleks have obviously already happened, and they have every reason to want revenge on the Doctor for that, never mind their recent encounters with William Hartnell.


And there is the sad fact that this is the last story to feature the two teachers from Coal Hill School with whom this whole adventure began. I do like Ian, with his simple scepticism and his gung-ho practical attitude. But, as I have said repeatedly in pretty much every review I have written for the past several months, I absolutely LOVE Barbara. This is not her absolute best story, as the focus is rather too much on action and comedy to bring out what she really has to offer. But even here we get a lovely sense of Barbara's range and complexity when we see her making a dress for Vicki in episode 1, settling down with great enthusiasm to fight against both Daleks and fungoids in episode 5, and finally taking the lead in persuading the Doctor to help her and Ian use the Dalek time machine to get home.

As for her other stories, she has consistently been shown displaying an astonishingly progressive blend of maturity, intelligence, sensitivity and courage, while still remaining a convincing character with ordinary human limits and weaknesses. I honestly don't think any other companion (that I have encountered) from the whole of the Whoniverse can stand up to her - not even Sarah Jane or Donna, both of whom I love very much. This is the woman who first worked out how to incapacitate a Dalek; who tried to save Aztec culture from being wiped out; who saw off a succession of lecherous male attackers; and who saved the entire planet of Vortis while the Doctor was lying unconscious on the floor. She owns her gender without being constrained by it; she does amazing things story after story without anyone around her thinking there is anything odd about that; and at the end of her travels with the Doctor she merely comments that it was 'probably' the most exciting part of her life.

It is lovely to see her getting a really good send-off here, and to know that she is happy, and back where she belongs, and ready to get on with the rest of her amazing, awesome, opportunity-filled life. But OH! I shall miss her. :-(


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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
strange_complex
Jan. 8th, 2010 10:13 pm (UTC)
Really? I'm a bit apprehensive about that, as I'm really loving the First Doctor, and given that it's his last story I'm assuming that I will find it very sad. :-( But it's nice to hear that it is a good story, all the same.
jekesta
Jan. 9th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
Oh, it is horrible that Barbara and Ian leave. I don't love Barbara as much as some people, but she was awesome, I think a lot of old who has women who are just awesome without it being considered amazing that they could be, and that really isn't the feeling I get from who nowadays. Although actually that might not be as gender split as I was thinking, it's like who has lost the ability to have anyone be awesome without pointing to it and putting sparkles around it and thinking it is INCREDIBLE and NOTEWORTHY, when really it should just be about people doing amazing things and then having a cup of tea. But not in a wanky way. I don't know. I stopped talking about old who then and started judging the new one. Sorry. But IT IS HORRID that Barbara and Ian leave, and it is the only reason I like Vicki, because she does look after the doctor really nicely for a minute or two. And it's when I just about start forgiving her for not being Susan. I wasn't very fair to Vicki generally.

The thing I love most about Barbara is when people immediately crown her as their princess and she goes 'yes, that seems reasonable, it is no more than I expect from life really'.

(And I absolutely adore the first doctor and it is really really sad that he leaves, but I did think that the tenth planet was a brilliant story all the same, yes. I was glad he went out in one that I really really enjoyed.)
strange_complex
Jan. 9th, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I agree that New Who sometimes rather overdoes the "OMG look - an ORDINARY PERSON with brains / courage / whatever! That is not normal!" Mind you, in Barbara's case, although I like it on balance that everyone just takes how awesome she is in her stride, I think they perhaps overdo that a little bit too, and it would be nice if just once, someone said, "Wow, Barbara, nice one!" I like to think that Ian probably said that to her quite a lot when they first met, but by the time the events of An Unearthly Child begin, she already knows he thinks that, and it's become an unspoken understanding between them.

I am afraid I like Vicki really quite a lot more than Susan, though. Sorry about that!
big_daz
Jan. 10th, 2010 08:40 pm (UTC)
I seem to remember reading somewhere (probably in Dr Who Magazine) that the original plan was for the Visualiser to film a scene for the show depicting the Beatles dressed as old men and the idea got as far as being run past Brian Epstein. He didn't like it though, so they opted for using a stock footage clip instead.

The Chase was also planned as the third Peter Cushing Dr Who movie, although I'm not sure how well it would have transferred to the Big Screen.
strange_complex
Jan. 10th, 2010 09:01 pm (UTC)
Ah, good point about the aged Beatles - I'd forgotten that. Slightly undermines my argument that the scene as broadcast was deliberately intended to point the way back to Sixties London to prepare for Ian and Barbara's departure, but never mind... It can still mean that if I want it to!

And I didn't know a third Cushing movie had been planned. Would definitely have been quite a weird one - I think you're right.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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