'THE SPACE MUSEUM / THE CHASE' DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD2809) RELEASED IN MARCH 2010.
The tardis lands on xeros,
where a vast museum houses relics from the conquests of the mighty morok
empire. Whilst they are exploring, the doctor and his three companions
make a disturbing discovery: their future selves are preserved in the
museum as exhibits in a display case!
The Space Museum
24TH APRIL 1965 - 15TH MAY 1965
1. THE SPACE MUSEUM 2. THE DIMENSIONS OF TIME
3. THE SEARCH 4. THE FINAL PHASE
To say that it has such a dire reputation, I’ve never found The Space Museum to be all that offensive. Built upon an intriguing predestination paradox, Glyn Jones’ story was the first Doctor Who adventure to explore the fourth dimension with any real ambition. The peculiar first episode stands out as being truly exceptional for its time, as the Doctor and his companions come face to face with their near-future selves who have all become no more than museum exhibits in glass cases, and thus find themselves desperately trying to change their fate. But in trying to avoid their destinies, are they ensuring them? Or is it their inaction that will lead to their entombment? The questions that this serial’s first episode begged are some of the most stimulating to arise from the series’ first two seasons.
Sadly though, The Space Museum is marred by some awful supporting performances and some even less inspiring sets. Worse still, after the fascinating first episode matters soon descend into one of the most asinine runarounds that the series has ever churned out. What could have been portrayed as a chilling contest with Time herself instead became a vehicle for fluffs and frolics; what could have been an utterly enthralling exploration of both the physical and moral laws of time instead became one of the series’ greatest embarrassments.
However, in marked contrast to the Timelash DVD release - which supplemented a widely unpopular serial with a documentary exploring what went so terribly wrong with it - here the Restoration Team have allowed writer Robert Shearman to champion the poor old Space Museum’s cause. The ten-minute Defending the Museum featurette may not be quite the “robust defence” that it’s billed to be, Shearman conceding within moments that the serial has three major problems – the last three episodes! – nevertheless the acclaimed author’s eloquent representations gave me food for thought, leaving me open to the possibility that The Space Museum might in fact be a relatively high-brow, misunderstood piece of cruel lampoonery.
Peter Purves soon brought me back to reality, however. Though his character, Steven, wouldn’t make his debut until the subsequent serial, on this DVD Purves serves as unofficial moderator of the commentary, and unlike the kindly Mr Shearman, Purves really doesn’t pull his punches. Though he does admit that The Space Museum is, in principle, “a very subtle, very clever piece,” the erstwhile Blue Peter presenter’s observations generally highlight the serial’s infamously “irritating” and “insulting” qualities. William Russell (Ian) and Maureen O’Brien (Vicki) are equally scathing of the four episodes that the DVD’s producers evidently forced them to suffer, O’Brien even labelling it “slow to the point of static.”
What I found most interesting about this DVD though was the chance that it offered to hear from the story’s writer. Listening to Glyn Jones defend his script against Purves, O’Brien and Russell’s forthright criticisms is a fascinating experience as it reveals all the unfathomable amendments and omissions that then-script editor Dennis Spooner must have made to it. What’s more, it soon becomes clear that Shearman might actually have a point, and that there really might be more to this unloved and unwanted four-parter than meets the eye. As I watched the serial again, it suddenly seemed obvious that the Moroks had indeed been written as morons. Had the actors playing them been able to do so without constantly fluffing their lines, then Jones’s amusing idea might well have shone through without prompting, but it’s difficult to see moronic characters when they’re masked by clumsy performances.
Similarly, I began to see that the young Boba Fett - doing his very own Time Warp with his hands always on his hips - and his rebels were held back not by complicated socio-political reasons, but by their hilarious inability to open the armoury door. What’s more, aided and abetted by the disc’s production subtitles, I was able to spot each of The Space Museum’s parodies of previous adventures. Most mockingly of all though, I realised that the grand old Space Museum itself is not an exciting, monster-strewn spectacle but a decadent, sterile hall that nobody wants to visit; a monument to a dull and dreary empire that no-one really cares about anymore.
However, despite my enlightenment, one insurmountable problem still reared its head: The Space Museum is dull, and is even more so by today’s standards. Teeming with fascinating ideas it may be, but their execution is so very poor that the final three episodes struggled to hold my interest, just as they have done every time that I’ve ever watched them. The tedium is occasionally broken with a flash of subtle brilliance as the Doctor notices a missing button on Ian’s jacket, and reasons that they’ve altered their fate already, or Ian brazenly tries to talk down an armed man, confident that he can’t be killed because he’s seen his frozen future. Unfortunately though, such moments are few and far between, and no amount of articulate half-praise can change that.
Beyond the commentary’s prosecution and Shearman’s defence, the release boasts two further noteworthy special features: My Grandfather, the Doctor featuring William Hartnell’s granddaughter, Jessica Carney; and A Holiday for the Doctor, starring Christopher Green. The latter is a painful affair; so much so, in fact, that I couldn’t bear to finish it. Whilst no DVD release these days would be complete without some measure of silliness, every once in a while the burlesque humour passes me by completely. My Grandfather, the Doctor is much more entertaining, however. As somebody who knows little about Hartnell outside of Who, listening to his granddaughter discuss his fatherless childhood and gradual rise to fame is a fascinating experience. I even found myself mulling over her “best is yet to come” anecdote, imagining a time-travelling TV historian from the future popping back to the 1960s to tell an old actor about his wonderful legacy, Vincent and the Doctor-style.
Ultimately The Space Museum is an interesting release. I dare say it will be sat on far more shelves than it would have done had it not been released in a box set together with a 1960s Dalek story (albeit a most contentious one), but no doubt the increased exposure will do the serial’s reputation more good than harm, supported as it is by Rob Shearman’s testimonial. In the future, I’d love to see Shearman have a go at adapting The Space Museum, perhaps as one of Big Finish’s Unbound audio dramas. He could set it in a universe where actors learn their lines, script editors aren’t too heavy-handed, budgets are reasonable, and pigs can fly.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work
You can usually split Doctor Who stories up into those that you like and those that you don’t. The thing about the really good stories and the really bad ones is that they are both equally memorable for very different reasons. However, it is the stories that are simply forgotten that I feel most sorry for… lost into obscurity. For a lost story such as Galaxy 4 this is almost understandable, given the lost visuals, but when it comes to a story like The Space Museum, you can sit and watch all four episodes and still want to try and tuck it away in that black hole that K-9 is guarding in The Sarah Jane Adventures. I find that disheartening. The Space Museum may have more problems than most, but I still rather enjoy it.
I can’t tell whether The Space Museum is a parody of a particularly bad Doctor Who serial or just a bad Doctor Who serial. There are so many clichés prevalent here that would occur throughout the series that you could almost believe that somebody was deliberately pointing out that this wasn’t the way for the show to go. It’s practically corridor-wandering porno, with lots of scenes of our heroes lost in exactly the same piece of corridor and spending massive chunks of the story discussing how lost they are. This is an enemy versus rebels tale where one of the Doctor’s assistants helps to overthrow the government by short-circuiting a talking computer. And, just for a change, one of Barbara’s cardigans is instrumental in an escape plan.
Both sides of this conflict are presented in just about the most rubbish way possible. Lobos, the governor of the Museum, is one of the dullest characters imaginable and you can just see the Morok government sending him off to the moribund outpost so that he can bark at guards and feel as if he’s someone important. The rebels are all kids dressed up in black jumpsuits hanging out in their secret hideout. To show just how much of a battle of wills this story is, the two leaders - Lobos and Tor - don’t even meet during the course of it! Both of them prefer to strut their stuff rather than try to take each other on.
Furthermore, some of the dialogue here is abysmal. “I’m just a simple soldier!” screams a guard who wears his lack of character as a badge of honour. One of the rebels cries “the revolution has already started!”, just to remind the audience of what is so underwhelmingly playing out before our eyes. And, even worse, one of the guards rather listlessly comments towards the end of the last episode “Has there been any grey-illa action against us?” (sic) I think he means guerrilla action, but it comes to something when we are in the throes of the dénouement and two guards are casually asking each other if anything is happening! Still, whilst the majority of the dialogue here is banal, there is some amusing interplay amongst the regulars: “Doctor, we’ve got our clothes on!” screams Ian. “Well I should hope so dear boy!”, the Doctor quips.
However, if you look at all of this as some sort of parody of Doctor Who, it all sort of works. The trouble is that this serial is directed so seriously, I can’t help but wonder if this story is in fact a stab at something rather more meaningful. Surely this early in Doctor Who’s run they wouldn’t be taking the piss out of what they have achieved in two seasons? That would be suicide for any show, but remember, next up is The Chase (though at least there we are left in no doubt that we aren’t supposed to take it seriously). The Space Museum is presented as a drama but written as a spoof, and the resulting action is quite awkward to watch.
This is a real shame because the first episode promises so much. The idea of the travellers landing on a planet and jumping a time track so they haven’t actually arrived yet is devilishly clever and affords the writer the chance to play about with the usual clichés of landing on a planet and provide some lovely moments. Glasses are smashed and jump back into hands, clothes are changed, silence screams, nobody can see the regulars and they can’t touch a damned thing. It is twenty-fives minutes of fascinating mysteries, and had the story snipped an episode and continued in this manner we might have had a classic on our hands. Whilst the eponymous first episode presents the gorgeous idea of seeing your own personal future, subsequent episodes don’t have any narrative tricks up their sleeves; they merely discuss the implications of ending up in the museum and the plot instead pours its energies into the dull rebels versus government plot.
Nevertheless, the first cliffhanger in particular is good and really drives home the horror of the situation; the glass smashing, the footprints appearing, the building music as the cases disappear and the travellers realise that they have finally arrived and must fight the future that they have seen. The final episode tries to bring us back up to speed as our heroes are trapped within the preparation room waiting to be turned into exhibits, where they discuss how their actions have led them right to the very future that they have tried to avoid, but it just isn’t clever enough, and it hasn’t been worked into the last three episodes with any imagination. The story could do with some of the clever narrative trickery displayed in The Big Bang. Instead it just feels like four actors thrown into a room. What a shame.
Speaking of actors, the regulars are as sharp as ever here and still keep everything perfectly watchable. William Hartnell is full of both joy and bluster as, naturally, his character outfoxes both the rebels (hiding in the Dalek) and the Moroks (his gleeful use of the thought scanner). There are a number of delightful Billy fluffs, my favourite being where he totally fails to say “straight ahead” and William Russell and Jacqueline Hill can barely contain themselves. It’s affectionate and lovely how they come to his rescue. Ian gets to play the hero, and Russell gives what is probably his last best performance – I love the scene where he confronts the soldier (“No you’ll say… I shot them all.”). However, for a change it is Maureen O’Brien who gives the finest performance. I really like Vicki; I still think she’s Susan done properly with a suitable dose of enthusiasm and a healthy balance of maturity and childishness. And here O’Brien gets to take centre stage; she rouses rebels, foils the armoury lock and gets to buoy up the rest of the crew when they are resigned to their fate. She’s gorgeous too, no matter what O’Brien says about that frock. The show lost something vital when Vicki was married and that was a sense of wonder.
On a final note, the revelation that the cause of all the hypnotic wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff in the opening episode is down to a switch on the console that hasn’t clicked into place is so anti-climactic that it insults even the youngest members of the audience. I think I’ll leave it there before I start to swear. At least the return of the Daleks in one of the very best ‘next time’ trailers whets the viewer’s appetite for next week. A spoonful of sugar makes the deus ex machina go down...
All told, The Space Museum is a bizarre fusion of remarkably clever ideas and appalling clichés. The first episode is well worth watching, but what follows afterwards is only worth considering if you can view it as a Benny Hill sketch with turgid direction. It’s one of the few Doctor Who serials where you can so obviously see where everything went wrong and the potential for something so much greater than we got. This one is an interesting experiment that failed, but as ever with the Hartnell years, at least they tried.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
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