Thursday, 11 March 2010

DVD Review: Dr Who - The Space Museum/The Chase

I've not seen either 'The Space Museum' or 'The Chase', the latest 'classic' Dr Who yarns spruced up and boxed up by 2 Entertain for DVD release, for a few years now. I mean, I've seen them, obviously...and, having seen them, why would I want to see them again?? But watching them now in their scrubbed-up, vidfired, remastered form on shiny disc is pretty much irresistible. And what's remarkable about both these stories, first screened in 1965, is the terrible realisation of how bad Dr Who became so quickly. Here, at the tail end of only the show's second series, inspiration and energy are as in as short a supply as the budget; never the most overfunded of TV shows at the best of times, at least the first series benefitted from a real sense of creativity and adventure in a string of well-written, engaging and intelligent stories which belied the meagre finances available to bring them to the screen. Series one still manages to seem fresh and daring and different; but after two years of nearly all-year production, Dr Who seems tired and slapdash and is already using the Daleks, its most popular creations, as a crutch. It's hard not to watch these two stories - full of shonky acting, well dodgy special effects and an increasingly-exhausted looking William Hartnell stumbing around fluffing every other line, without marvelling that the show survived into a third season let alone its forthcoming thirty-first.

The truth, in retrospect, is that Dr Who had a tendency towards the tatty right back in the first series. Rubbing shoulders alongside such classics as 'The Daleks', 'Marco Polo' and 'The Aztecs' is the shoddy and over-ambitious 'Keys of Marinus' (another Terry Nation effort) and 'The Sensorites', sometimes known as Mankind's best cure for insomnia. But season two, in pushing the show's creative boundaries and flexing its narrative muscles, tripped over itself a bit too often and rolled out below par stuff like 'The Rescue', 'The Web Planet' and, towards the end of the run, both 'The Space Museum' and 'The Chase.' But both stories, and others from the same season can, if nothing else, be held up as prime examples of Dr Who reaching for the stars and ending up in the gutter, trying to do things and tell stories way beyond its tiny BBC budget.

'The Space Museum' starts off with a thrilling first episode as the Doctor and his chums - Ian, Barbara, Vicki - find themselves landing next to the tabletop titular Space Museum on the planet Xeros. inside the Museum the quartet find a rather unusual exhibit - themselves, frozen in time and on display for curious visitors. Part one is as good as it gets for the story, though. This intriguing and rather disturbing conceit - based on the core idea that in the future the Doctor and his companions are doomed to die - is thrown away,replaced by a drab, cheap runaround
with a handful of teenage rebels dressed in black sweaters and trousers fighting a bunch of less-than-ferocious middle-aged men with swept back hair. 'The Space Museum' goes nowhere fast and sitting through the remaining three episodes is about as big a struggle as watching Dr Who has ever been. Visually uninteresting, flatly-written, it's a real relief when the credits roll on part four.

'The Chase', Terry Nation's third Dalek serial, is frankly little better. Having established the Daleks in their first two serials as vicious, Nazi-like psycopaths, Nation's lightweight scripts here reinvent them as comic bumblers, coughing and spluttering, barking dialogue over one another, bumping into the set and coming apart at the seams. There's no real story as such, just a succession of episodic vignettes as the Daleks chase the TARDIS across Time and Space. From the desert world of Aridius, the Empire State Building, a haunted house fairground exhibition in the future (possibly Dr Who's worst ever episode), the Marie Celeste and finally the jungle world Mechanus with its stilted city inahbited by rasping voiced Mechonoid robots, 'The Chase' is a story which has no sense of direction, no real sense of drama and far too much absurd comedy (most of it undoubtedly the work of script editor Dennis Spooner adding the best flesh he could to the bones of Nation's thin, underdeveloped scripts). But it has the odd worthwhile moment; some of the comedy in episode one works quite well - the image of Ian Dad-dancing to the Beatles on the Time-Space Visualiser in the TARDIS will live with me forever - and the battle between the Daleks and the Mechonoids (Nation's next Robotic Big Thing that Never Was) is suprisinmgly well-realised. Perhaps the best moment is at the end of the episode six where Ian and Barbara (William Russell and Jacqueline Hill) finally find their way back home to Earth via an abandoned Dalek time machine. It's a rare moment of emotion as the Doctor says farewell to his "silly old fusspots" and there's a real sense of joy in the photo montage of Ian and Barbara reacquainting themselves with the sights and sounds of London.

1960s Dr Who is always worth a look but it's a truth that many of the Hartnell serials just haven't stood the test of time. 'The Space Museum' and 'The Chase' are creaky, unsubtle things, a slog to get through and shot through with the desperation which almost certainly powered their making. Yet, despite their faults - and God knows there are so many faults! - they're fun in their own way and if watched in the right frame of mind, safe in the knowledge that Dr Who was generally a Hell of a lot better than this and rarely, until the dark days of the 1980s, as bad.

The discs: The BBC Restoration Team have done their usual stirling job cleaning up the episodes which sadly only serves to underline some of its production faults. Contraversially the team have tidied up a few of the dodgier shots - one daybright scene set at night has been darkened - but in all honesty these episodes need all the help they can get to make them watchable. As usual the real raison de purchase lies in the bonus material and here 2 Entertain have assembled a superb and absorbing bunch of featurettes and documentaries. 'The Space Museum' boasts just a couple of bits; new series writer Robert 'Dalek' Shearman mounts a spirited defence of the story but his face bears the look of a man who knows he's fighting a losing battle. Elsewhere Jessica Carney, Hartnell's Granddaughter, provides a retrospective on the life and times of her famous Grandad (and track down a copy of her long out-of-print biography of Hartnell if you can). 'The Chase' boasts the lion's share of the good stuff with the episodes on the first disc and a fine raft of bits'n'bobs on disc two. The Dalek phenomenon is covered with grace and good humour in 'Daleks Conquer and Destroy' and 'Daleks Beyond the Screen', the impact of Ian and Barbara is discussed in 'Last Stop White City', 1960s prop makers Shawcroft come under the spotlight in 'Follow the Dalek' and director Richard Martin reocunts the making of an epic adventure across Space and Time with virtually no money to play with 'n 'The Thrill of The Chase'. Perhaps best of all is the feature tucked away on disc one of 'The Chase' where Dalek designer Raymond Cusick who, let's face it, clearly remains bitter about not receiving adequate (or indeed, any) substantial remuneration for designing one of the great icons of the TV age, taking a trip around the Cardiff studios of the new Dr Who series and remaining distinctly underwhelmed by the modern Dalek design and the "dog's dinner" TARDIS set. Priceless. Commentaries and trailers finish off the usual generous selection of extras.


Sunshine Superman said...

How can you review The Chase without mentioning the George W Bush precursor, Morton Dill? Or without mentioning the unlookalike double of Hartnell for the robot Doctor? Though this at least set up a tradition of unlookalikes for the first Doctor that JNT continued in The Five Doctors...

Paul Mount said...

Ha! The trouble is if a review mentions every naff element of 'The Chase' the review would end up being just a summary of every scene! I didn't actually hate the story as much as the review suggests, really, but it is unrelentingly naff but the Daleks..well, they're always watchable no matter how stupid they're being!

Sunshine Superman said...

The Chase and The Space Museum are both incredibly naff, but I have a fondness for them. Am I right in thinking that Glyn Jones is the only person apart from Mark Gatiss to write a story and to act in another?

Paul Mount said...

Sounds about right. I have a vague recollection of Victor Pemberton appearing in 'The Moonbase' and then writing ' Fury From the Deep# but I'd have to look into that!!