The Mire Beasts, tentacled octopoid monstrosities tucked away in Episode One (“The Executioners”) and Episode Two (“The Death of Time”) of the 1965 Doctor Who story The Chase, are among the least exposed, least celebrated monsters in the Who pantheon. Indeed The Chase marks their sole appearance in the series, and thanks to the (some would say) questionable quality of the story in which they reside, little has been written about them.
This is a shame, because, as the The Chase’s excellent 2010 DVD transfer reveals, they are remarkably eerie and impressive. Even aside from the sterling efforts of the Doctor Who Restoration Team, who worked wonders on the DVD transfer, it should be said that the inherent graininess of the image, resulting from a combination of low studio lighting, black and white recording, and deteriorated film elements, bestows upon the Mire Beasts a mystery and magic that bright studio lighting and crystal clear video technology would only dispel.
In Episode One of The Chase, the TARDIS lands in a vast desert wilderness. Two of the Doctor’s companions, Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) head off across the rolling dunes to explore. After a long climb up a steep gradient they find an ancient trap door hidden beneath the sand. Entering the shadowy space below they are menaced by a dimly seen tentacled creature. In Episode Two they are saved by a pair of fish-like humanoid creatures. They are Aridians; the time travellers have landed on the planet Aridius, which was once covered in giant oceans. When the twin suns of the planet began to grow in intensity the oceans boiled away and the amphibious Aridians were driven underground, where they now reside in vast catacombed cities … Meanwhile, the Doctor (William Hartnell) and fellow companion Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) get lost in a sandstorm whilst looking for their friends. The next morning, when the storm abates, the dunes look completely different and the TARDIS is lost beneath the sands. In addition, the Doctor’s mortal enemies the Daleks have tracked him to Aridius; keen to possess the TARDIS, they force a group of Aridians to dig it from the sand. Fleeing the Daleks, the Doctor and Barbara are reunited with Vicki and Ian in the catacombs. The Daleks demand that the Aridians hand over the time travellers, but before this can be done the Mire Beasts kill the Aridian responsible for the handover. The Doctor and his friends manage to evade a Dalek sentry, re-enter the TARDIS and make their escape into the Time Vortex, with the Daleks in hot pursuit.
We discover, during Episode Two, that the Mire Beasts are giant carnivorous octopi who originally lived in the slime at the bottom of Aridius’s oceans. When the planet began to dry up they evolved into a land-based form and began to invade the Aridians’ underground cities. One supposes that they eat Aridians, which is fair enough considering that the whole planet seems devoid of any sort of ecosystem except for the two races. The fact that the drippy Aridians are so quickly persuaded to hand over the TARDIS crew to the Daleks reduces their claim to our sympathy, and one therefore cannot help but wish the Mire Beasts every success in their efforts to winkle these whey-faced ninnies from their underground bolt-holes and gobble them up.
Any creature with tentacles and an amorphous, hard-to-delineate body shape cannot fail to remind horror fans of the eldritch monstrosities roaming the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and the Mire Beasts are no exception. Indeed the Lovecraftian deity Cthulhu himself is described as having octopoid characteristics. Likewise, swamps or mires are natural locations for horror: one is reminded of Lovecraft’s The Statement of Randolph Carter, in which an occultist disappears while exploring an underground crypt in Big Cypress Swamp. Were the Mire Beasts involved? Lovecraft himself refused to be drawn on what lurked beneath Big Cypress Swamp and there’s nothing in The Chase to disprove the theory.
Swamps are horrific because of a tendency in human thinking to regard anything wet and slimy as disgusting and abject; hence the Mire Beasts not only seem repugnant because they are gelatinous invertebrates but because they are associated, via their name, with mud, slime and goo. The word ‘mire’ comes from the old Norse mýrr, relating to moss, and the word moss itself can sometimes refer, in Scottish and Northern English, to a bog or swamp, which suggests that Mire Beasts may perhaps have brought the word ‘mire’ to Earth with them, along with their octopoid genes, when they crash-landed in the Northern lands. As Criswell so wisely put it in Ed Wood Jr.’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, “Can you prove that it didn’t happen?” (While there is no indication in The Chase that the Mire Beasts have a civilisation or a language, this may simply be an oversight on the part of the other characters, who do not seek to communicate with them but simply scream and run like idiots.)
The Chase was the fourth story written for Doctor Who by Terry Nation. Location filming for the long shots of Ian and Vicki exploring the planet Aridius was undertaken at the seaside resort of Camber Sands, East Sussex in April 1965. The story was transmitted over six weeks between 22nd May and 26th June 1965, and viewing figures hovered between nine and ten million throughout. The story was originally made on 405-line studio video with filmed inserts, but after the original videotapes were wiped the only surviving version was a 16mm film recording negative produced by BBC Enterprises for overseas sale.
The charm of low budget stories like The Chase is that they resemble a sort of (accidental) surrealist theatre production; the cramped sets and painted backcloths bear only a nodding resemblance to reality and instead seem like the products of Expressionist stage design or the early cinema of Georges Méliès. Of course, being a horror-scifi fantasy about alien worlds and mysterious monsters means that Doctor Who has a special dispensation to jettison realism in favour of flights of imagination. If the viewer is young enough not to care about failed trompe l’oeil, or generous enough with their frame of reference to find the shortfall between ambition and achievement aesthetically enjoyable in itself, stories like The Chase – along with others such as The Web Planet (1965) and The Underwater Menace (1967) – are awash with strange visual pleasures. It’s perhaps a sign that the series producers understood this that later stories introduced a more deliberate vein of surrealism, in stories such as The Celestial Toymaker (1966) and The Mind Robber (1968), both of which revel in artificiality and oblique visual constructions.
Note the recurrence in the script of writer Terry Nation’s penchant for nominative determinism, this time with an amusingly incoherent twist: a desert planet called Aridius (but of course) turns out to have been once a rich ocean world, which rather begs the question of why the natives named the planet as they did. Perhaps ‘arid’ is Aridian for ‘wet’, which would suit both the original climate and the characters of the Aridians themselves…
Stephen Thrower, moviesandmania
The Region 2 DVD cover