Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Serial 15: The Space Museum

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companion: Barbara, Ian, Vicki

Written by: Glyn Jones
Directed by: Mervyn Pinfield

Background & Significance: I find that watching these old serials can be a bit of a crap shoot at times. What's weird about it is that the mentality of "Will this one be good or will it be bad" (which is, by itself very surprising in places) is only part of the puzzle. Sometimes, a story will be really good for the first two and a half parts and then COMPLETELY jump the rails and randomly become something different. What was surprisingly good can suddenly turn awful and vice-versa. The best example of this that we've already talked about is "The Stones of Blood", which is good for the first... two and a half episodes? And then the little judgment lights come on and it becomes something different and not so interesting.

"The Space Museum" is a perfect example of such a phenomenon.

Hartnell's era itself is pretty middling in my opinion. There are plenty of classics ("The Daleks", "The Aztecs", "The Dalek Invasion of Earth"), but none of Hartnell's stories (at least, as many as I've seen) ever strike me as sheer genius on par with the rest of the show. Even "The Daleks" has three and a half episodes of greatness (The Dalek City stuff) followed by three and a half episodes of boring mediocrity (The Wilderness stuff). It's not even that I hate the Hartnell era (I don't), I just find it insanely average with few stories I out and out despise (the only one that I can think of that was actually not good was "The Chase", which we'll talk about in a couple months) and even the ones that haven't aged well or I find tremendously below average ("The War Machines") I can excuse because they're both tremendously silly and tremendously zeitgeisty.

But what does this have to do with "The Space Museum"?

"The Space Museum" is a bit of an odd creature. It's only four parts (a blessing for Pre-Tom Baker stories) and the first part has little to nothing to do with the next three. In fact, the first part is nothing short of incredible, breath-taking, excellent science fiction and the next three episodes are nothing but a complete and total let down, especially because you're set up to expect one thing and you get something that's totally and disappointingly different. The why of all this we'll go into once we hit it (it's about five minutes in part two that the story becomes something I'm just not interested in: a standard rebel-vs-establishment runaround), but it's just terribly disappointing, and what once had nothing but promise and memorability suddenly drops away and becomes nothing but apathetic un-memorableness and a huge letdown. Ah well. Crap shoot. It happens.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Despite knowing how weak the next three episodes are, I can’t help but still feel the thrall of adventure and mystery that comes from this first episode.

Structurally, this episode sets us up for a truly epic and fantastic story. It’s rare for Doctor Who (especially the classic series) do something interesting or unique with time. The only other story I can think of that really uses temporality as a crux of the story is “Mawdryn Undead” (and after twenty seasons I’d say such a story was long, long overdue), and yet here we are after less than two seasons in telling a story about a temporal paradox.

But what is this temporal paradox exactly? I’ll get to that in just a minute.

There’s something to say about the gripping nature of this episode. From minute one it captures my imagination. We start with the TARDIS crew in their Crusade clothes (and be honest: how fantastic do they all look?) and then something… changes and all of a sudden everyone is dressed in their normal garb. And then Vicki drops a glass and it reforms back into her hand. Also, it totally freaks her out and I love the look on her face as she stares at the water The Doctor drinks. Which is a fair assumption. It’s not like Hartnell is the youngest of chaps. One poor drink and it could really be all over for him. (Sorry. That was mean.)

But even then, you have the complete strangeness of our TARDIS crew moving through this world but completely unable to interact with their surroundings. They don't leave footprints. No one hears Vicki sneeze... it's just creepy.

And yet, there’s something really awesome about all this. The first time I went through it, I didn’t realize the difference between the two groups of people moving about the Space Museum itself. We learn about this later, but I love that there’s a very clear difference between the Moroks and the Xerons right away. Most specifically, I’m left wondering what it is those black sweater wearing college student revolutionary folk are left doing and saying because we can’t hear a word that they’re saying. I also love Vicki’s almost infatuation with them, foreshadowing that which is to come. And then there’s a Dalek, which has been put on display in this museum, an ominous thing to be sure.

This all, of course, dances around the main thrust of what makes this episode nothing short of positively genius: the ending. Which I have youtubed. Because it is awesome.

I really don’t think I can say enough about the final five minutes of this part, but I’m sure I will.

There's a lot to love. The big sci-fi idea of "jumping a time track". Them looking at their future selves... Everyone in cases...They must stop this...

And it’s powerful. Nay, damn powerful. There’s something about the slow realization to which everyone comes to this, and just in time too. No sooner have they figured out that they’re about to arrive than they actually do, and it’s a fantastic moment. Their footprints appear, the glass of water breaks, their future selves disappear from the display cases, it’s slow in the way the Classic series is slow but it definitely brings in the ominous that makes this story so powerful… The TARDIS crew stands still as they catch up with themselves and finally land for realsies in this space museum.

The final two lines of this part really highlight that, I think. Barbara’s explanation of “They’ve gone” and The Doctor’s response of “Yes, my dear. And we’ve arrived” is just so well delivered on the part of Hartnell. You can tell he’s scared out of his mind, but trying his best not to show it. And I don’t think it’s working. The Doctor isn’t looking forward to what’s happening next. He has to fight against the future which is usually (in many ways) his to control (he is a Time Lord, after all). But now it’s his enemy. And he must fight against the clock to delay the seeming inevitable.

All in all, it’s a killer opening. Killer. The surreality of it all is off the charts and it feels like something we haven’t seen before. I just love it, so imagine my disappointment when we get to the next part and get… well… Let’s just say it jumps a track of a different nature. (Oh my god that was awful. I’m sorry for any pain reading that last bit might have caused. But no matter, I guess. Damage done. ONWARD!)

Part 2:

Before going into the rest of this, I would like to preface by saying if any of my discussion of the final three parts crosses over with Robert Shearman’s perspective, that’s because he influenced what I’m about to say.

Before going into this (while procrastinating tons and tons as I inevitably always do) I stumbled upon a small extra on "The Space Museum" DVD, which featured Robert Shearman talking about how "The Space Museum" isn’t as bad as everyone says it is. Shearman (for those who don’t know) is a British writer perhaps most famous for doing the new series episode “Dalek”, but before that he did some Big Finish audioplays, all of which I have loved at least “a lot”.

Shearman’s perspective, therefore, is something I’m always interested in because he has such a unique view on story and narratives. The prospect of listening to him defend a story almost universally reviled is… must-do, to say the least. In the extra (and I urge everyone to go watch it), Shearman highlights the fact that "The Space Museum" is actually more of a satire than anything else. After almost two full seasons of The TARDIS crew sparking revolutions up and down the cosmos, "The Space Museum offers a twist on that standard thing, satirizing the constant back and forth nature of a typical (especially in this era) Doctor Who story.

And I don’t think he’s wrong. At all, really. There’s the lead Morok (Lothos) who’s nothing but a huge bore and full of exposition that’s almost designed to be boring. And he and the rest of his folk are all dressed in white and they’re squaring off against the Xerons who are clad all in black and do nothing but stand around talking and arguing about how they would totally have a badass revolution if only they just had some guns. Also, their leader (Dako? Honestly I don’t care that much because they’re still mad boring) CANNOT STOP PUTTING HIS HANDS ON HIS HIPS.

Where all this humour fails, however (and it is humourous) is in the execution. It feels like director Mervyn Pinfield was treating this story like a serious Doctor Who drama rather than a more lighter and comedic episode (a la The Romans).

And yet, I can’t help but love a ton of the concepts and mythology that goes into this story. The fact that the Moroks have conquered everything and now they’re really bored is really amusing. The fact that it’s a museum full of fantastic wonder and it’s been dead for years and years and years (despite once being a popular attraction) is really good satire. Then there’s the student revolutionaries who can’t seem to do a damn thing besides sit around and plan a revolution they don’t even know how to execute, which is really funny. Couple that in with the constant paralyzation of the entire TARDIS crew to be able to do anything and it’s actually got some really interesting stuff.

I mean, at the end of episode one, the TARDIS crew learns of their fate and now they need to change it. That’s compelling.

Add that in with the fact that the debate about action is one that I personally enjoy and it’s… it’s quite interesting. There’s the question of whether or not anyone can do anything to change their future, but also the question of whether or not the crew is propagating their own demise by their own attempts to end it is bendy no matter how you possibly think about it. And yet, there’s already the indication early in the episode that they’re changing things because Ian is missing a button and it wasn’t in the display case. It’s little touches like that that make this story really funny.

If there’s another thing I can point out (while I’m gushing and trying to find good things to say), Hartnell is killing this. Really. Maybe it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve analyzed Hartnell, but the guy totally knows how to do comedy while being The Doctor. I mean, I think of all The Doctors who are out there, I don't really dislike any of them (which is really saying something), but Hartnell is probably my least favourite out of all of them. And that's not a slam against the actor, it's more that I'm just not crazy about his interpretation. And yet Hartnell is killing it here. He's great at the comedy and the slightly more Doctor bits, but also the comedy, especially the bit with the button or when he’s captured by Lobos and Lobos reads his mind and all he can think of is seals. Really, there’s a ton of funny in here, but it’s mired amidst…. Well…

If there’s an issue I take with this story, it’s that despite the concepts and the satire, it’s still played completely straight. As such, the whole thing comes off as trite and unoriginal and boring. The way it’s shot and paced makes it feel like a traditional Doctor Who story that’s just… been done before, and better, too. I don’t care about these people because all the actors are saying and doing is boring and their characters are boring and it’s just…. No. I mean, love the concepts and the writing in theory, but the final execution of it all is just so… weak that it doesn’t make up for anything.

Also, apparently the Space Museum has no alarms because Ian, Barbara, and Vicki all remove that case with NOTHING happening. And there’s a weapon in that case.

Part 3:

Part three, in a lot of ways, is very similar to part two, although… with less of what made part two either fun and silly or watchable.

Within the first few minutes everyone is separated from each other. Vicki joins the revolutionaries, Ian somehow hangs out at the TARDIS, and Barbara gets locked in room, puts on her crazy hair, and then gets gassed. Oh, and then she gets joined by one of the Xerons. But he dies. So whatever. I very much doubt she liked him all that much anyways. But everyone is split up and that really takes away the threat of like... Banding together to fight the future. Now it just feels trite and like that's been discarded.

There’s a lot to love in part three. The satire continues and is never funnier than it is with the Vicki/Xeron team up. I love how friggin bored she is in all this. She’s just like… gimme a break. And it’s one of those things where like… Vicki is mostly useless most of the time (especially before this story), but here she’s actually leading the revolution and helping the Xerons open the door to the armory (literally the only thing that’s keeping them from getting guns and getting this revolution started—WHICH IS ACTUALLY QUITE FUNNY). It’s quite refreshing and I enjoy her in this. Quite a lot, really. Once again, give a character something to do and it doesn't feel like you're wasting an inch of space.

And then there’s Ian who’s running around like a total badass mofo holding folk at gunpoint and flipping dudes and getting into scrapes. And Barbara’s hair is still crazy… There’s just a lot to love.

But then we get to the part where this story is actually still failing. All that stuff is buried in there, but it’s just mired with boringness. That which has made the story so interesting (the question of action vs. inaction) has almost completely left the story and we’re left with a bunch of people sitting around trying to decide what to do. Nothing really happens in this story (I just watched it and I can’t remember what happened besides some boring exposition and some sitting around waiting for things to happen).

The worst part about all this is there’s still a great story in here. We’re still dealing with a giant space museum (which is akin to a giant space library Steven Moffat style) and some really interesting concepts, but it’s just so… boring. All the humour that comes from the funny things is made serious and uninteresting and all the serious thematic questions are discarded in the face of… what? Boredom? Really. I mean, come on now. That’s just boring. This whole thing is boring.

Sigh. And it shouldn’t be.

Part 4:

As we’ve discussed previously, if there’s a problem with “The Space Museum”, it’s that the whole thing suffers from being terribly boring.

It’s not even that this final episode is bad. It’s just not very good. All the really fantastic satire stuff that went on in the last two episodes is completely gone now in light of the revolution actually going down. There’s really no more satirizing the Doctor Who format because the revolution totally works and it manages to save the lives of the TARDIS crew at the last moment and the museum is dismantled and the future is effectively prevented.

But how it’s done is so… standard. There’s some capturing and gun fighting and a storming of the castle as it were… It’s just… ugh.

Even going back I can’t think of anything in this episode I particularly enjoyed or even anything that’s particularly memorable. The closest I can come is in the bits when the revolution has started and Lobos plans his getaway. It’s just typical “I have a chopper that’s taking off in four minutes!” and then he’s shoving paperwork into his briefcase (tax reports. Bane of his existence) as he hurries to make his way to his escape. That’s… I dunno, I like that. It’s probably my favourite part of the episode.

I also can’t stand how formidable the Moroks are portrayed as being. And yet everyone in this story is able to take them out with no problem. The Xeron revolution happens with little to no outside help (just lots of guns) and these fierce, galactic conquereors just go down and easily.

And even within that, I like the idea of firefights running through and around the museum as the place just falls under total siege. That’s good, and yet… I dunno, it’s just so boring. Even in the conversation during the revolution when The TARDIS crew (having been variously captured and detained together) discuss the big mystery of the story (Did they do enough to change the future) just feels… trite and uninteresting. It feels like we’ve been in so many directions that have gone away from that core concept (which was the out and out coolest thing in this story) just… didn’t matter. It really didn’t.

Which is a shame. Everyone around (especially the TARDIS crew) was firing on all cylinders. Ian was being as badass as he’s ever been. The Doctor (or, specifically, Hartnell) was on the top of his game in a way I haven’t seen in… well, a while. This is some of my favourite Hartnell of his entire run. You can tell he’s just having fun and at the top of his game. He’s still hanging with Ian and Barbara (who are probably the far and away best Hartnell companions) and Vicki isn’t entirely useless in this, although it actually left me wanting Susan and thinking about how Vicki comes close to filling that void but she never quite does.

All in all it’s a pretty standard final episode with a pretty strong final scene (that of a Dalek saying they’re coming after the TARDIS crew)… But that story is… well… It’s kind of a lot of a letdown too, isn’t it?

Final Thoughts: I'll never not think of "The Space Museum" as a fantastic first part followed up by three boring and mediocre ones.

And that's really why I can't hate it. The first part is so ridiculously good that everything after that is doomed to look not as good. I don't even think part two is actually that bad. Poorly executed, perhaps. A bit boring, definitely. But at the same time totally watchable. It's just that each subsequent part gets weaker and weaker until part four, which is so weak that I just don't have anything good or bad to say about it. Which is, perhaps the worst thing of all.

A lot of this story's weakness, I think, comes from a lack of follow through. It reminds me of modern James Bond films (before the awesomeness of Daniel Craig) where they'll have a really awesome concept for the beginning of the movie and then it just descends into your typical, standard James Bond fare for the back half of the movie. The specific example of Die Another Day comes to mind, where Bond is captured and tortured by the North Korean government in the opening teaser of the movie, and then goes on the run as a rogue agent on the trail of who sold him out. And then at a certain point he's brought back into MI-6 and then goes out to investigate a hotel made entirely out of ice. Which is stupid.

What I'm trying to say is this: If you come up with a really awesome concept for something, commit to and follow your concept and give it your all. More than anything, that's what this serial taught me. Don't just have a bendy first episode and then descend into satire for the rest of it. That's a huge waste of great concept. Compare the opening episode of this story with the first part of Robert Shearman's insanely awesome 8th Doctor story "The Chimes of Midnight". Both are similar in the construction and the strangeness, right down to the end of the first episode, in which the rules change and the story must go forward. I don't want to go into it too much (mainly because it's so awesome you need to listen to it right now if you haven't heard it (but also because this isn't the time or place)), but while "The Space Museum" sort of fizzles away the idea after the initial episode and just descends into another revolution which is satirical to start and then nothing but standard fare by the end and tons of mindless running around, "The Chimes of Midnight" takes the initial weirdness of episode one and it keeps up that level of surrealist, absurdist nightmare all the way through to the story's ultimate conclusion.

And it's better for it.

Imagine how it would have been if the crazy time-travel promise of the first episode of "The Space Museum" had been followed on for the next three episodes. If it was about the travelers trying to figure out their mistakes (and not a revolution) and somehow violating the first laws of time... Surely we can just start building paradoxes of time-crossing TARDIS crew using tech from this museum... It'd be.... Insane. Legendary. One of those rare gems of the Hartnell years. Possibly the best of the Hartnell years. A total classic and one that we can just go tell everyone to watch now that they love the New Series.

But in the end, I'm left sad and disappointed that it isn't.

Next Time!: 5th Doctor! The Master! NO TEGAN! Naked Peri? Naked Turlough (oh baby)! Gorgeous location shooting! And a great use of creepy robot! Cassandra's back next Tuesday to talk about "Planet of Fire"!


  1. I do like this story. I love the way the Moroks are so bored and incompetent.

    I am pretty sure Barbara is wearing pantyhose in episode 1, but is bare legged in episode three. Maybe she got hot in the museum and took her tights off.

  2. The last five minutes of episode one make this show for me. I love the series of still shots, ending with a shot of the Tardis which looks like another still - and then a Morok steps into the scene and you know it's game on!