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You know, I don’t mind admitting, I’ve always found it extremely difficult to solve the fourth dimension.

Doctor Who
The Space Museum

I might not be fully on board with his takes on The X-Files, but Rob Shearman does have a point with his defence of The Space Museum. It has a lot more going for it than its frequently lethargic realisation inclines one to assume. It’s also… Well, I wouldn’t exactly label it dynamic, especially given some the torporous supporting characters and performances thereof, but director Mervyn Pinfield gives it far more welly than Richard “When’s-lunch?” Martin in the season’s three big-budget prestige stories.

Pinfield may also be partly to blame for its failings, though. Shearman astutely describes the story as “a comedy directed as if it isn’t”. Which is exactly my response to the scene he cites, in which Richard Shaw’s Morok leader Lobos delivers exposition-heavy chapter and verse on his time on Xeros in the most redundant manner:

Lobos: Well, I've got two more mimmians before I can go home. Yes, I say it often enough, but it's still two thousand Xeron days and it sounds more in days. Yeah, I know, I volunteered, you were ordered. If the truth were known, I was just as bored on Morok. Still, it was home, and youth never appreciates what it has. Oh, I don't know what I'm going to do now. Still, let's get on with it, shall we? I have to sign these reports. I don't know.

It sounds like parody and is delivered in a resigned drawl. Apparently, Glyn Jones’ novelisation of his script underlines this, with Lobos’ men looking in boredom at the ceiling when he speaks. Later, the overweight Commander (Ivor Salter) bemoans how he always gets a raw deal, as if this were something from the pen – or Mac – of Douglas Adams:

Commander: You know what Lobos will say about that, soldier. He will blame me. Everything that goes wrong on this wretched planet is my fault. Think yourselves lucky that you have me between you and our illustrious Governor. A scapegoat, and for what? For this rank and a meagre pittance of extra pay. Oh, what's the use.

Now, it should be stressed that this layer of self-consciousness doesn’t make The Space Museum suddenly good, and it’s doubly the case that the subplot concerning the entirely anaemic Xeron chinless youth rebels with their doubled-up eyebrows, led by Jeremy Bulloch (RIP, the joint best Boba Fett, with Jason Wingreen), tends to drag The Space Museum into less than zesty territory. However, the key to appreciating the story is a willingness to endure these elements, because there are frequent golden nuggets to be found en route.

Most prolific is, of course, the first episode (The Space Museum). It isn’t quite as extraordinarily ground-breaking as The Mind Robber Part One, say, but it justifiably occupies the status of an inspired set up that subsequently goes south (see also Underworld and, to some extent, The Android Invasion). Shearman attests that the rest of the story is “a parody of a William Hartnell Doctor Who story at this stage”. I’m not sure it’s quite that, but script editor Dennis Spooner’s playful approach, in contrast to predecessor David Whittaker, is very noticeable in Jones’ episodes (the writer had reputedly never even seen the series).

Ian: Right, we’re invisible. That settles it.
The Doctor: Does it, my boy? Does it? Either that, or we’re not really here.

The explanation, when it comes, for the travellers “jumping a time track” is as lazy as it gets (a “little thing” in the TARDIS “got stuck”) but the consequences of this mishap are interesting even beyond the opener. In which, we experience the crew suddenly changing outfits (“Well, I must say, it’s going to save us a lot of bother changing” observes the Doctor, entirely nonchalantly), a dropped glass of water rebounding into Vicki’s hand, a lack of footprints on the surface of Xeros, and an inability to be heard by its inhabitants or touch objects. All leading to the stunning reveal of the quartet in glass cases, exhibits themselves.

Hartnell is one of the keys to the story sustaining interest beyond that first part. And that’s even with his hardly appearing in the third (The Search). He gets captured by Xerons in the second (The Dimensions of Time) – “One minute was silence and the next a whirlwind hit me” – disguises himself as a Dalek (“I fooled them all! I am the master!”, and tops it off when he’s interrogated by Lobos (“Perhaps if you reduced the price of admission?” is his response to learning that the museum receives few visitors). The Doctor proceeds to run mental rings round his captor, foiling the thought selection questioning technique (asked how he got there, the Doctor projects an image of a penny farthing) and suggesting he is an amphibian, like a walrus (but in an Edwardian bathing costume and boater).

When he returns in Episode Four (The Final Phase) the Doctor is wielding some Super Tom type powers, even allowing for “a bad attack of rheumatism”. That’s still pretty resilient for someone who has been stored several hundred degrees below freezing, during which “My brain was working with the speed of a mechanical computer”. He’s also pretty witty when Lobos suggests his brain could have been adversely affected by the process (“The best thing for you, Governor Lobos, is to put you in there. Then you’ll have all the proof you needed”).

Barbara: Well, what do we do now? Which is the way into those cases? Staying here, going back, or still trying to find our way out?
Ian: Oh, Barbara, asking a lot of questions is not going to change our future.
Barbara: Well, if we don't find a few answers, we won't have a future.

Apart from scoffing, giggling, and being put on ice, and then de-iced, the Doctor has very little influence on proceedings. Nor does Barbara, who spends much of her time getting gassed. Ian has some spirited fights(Pinfield’s choreography of the action is more than solid, from laser zap to Ian’s gutsy fisticuffs). There are also several intelligent debates about causality, and whether they will end up in the museum cases no matter what they do to prevent it. Mostly, though, the proactive main character is Vicki, falling in with the dull Xerons and inciting them to revolution.

Tor: It is unpleasant to admit but our opposition is weak and unarmed. Well, a very small army can easily keep control.
Vicki: But you're supposed to be planning a revolution!

She doesn’t think of much of the their get up and go (“… sitting here planning and dreaming of a revolution isn’t going to win your planet back”) and, in spiritedly bloodthirsty fashion, leads them in an assault on the armoury. On the basis that “I’ve as many reasons as you, perhaps more, for wanting to see the future changed”. And it appears she achieves exactly that. It’s particularly amusing that she fixes the computer so she only has to tell the truth rather than give an appropriate answer (so the response to why she wants the arms, namely “Revolution” grants her access). I’m not sure there’s anything actually really clever going on with regard to the revolutionaries themselves, or their persecutors, although one could read things into their mutually blithe lethargy if one so wished (you know, that the idea itself is tired and artificial).

Besides the slightly arch approach to traditional tropes, it’s notable too, as others have identified, how the Dalek has already become a prop. We’ve already seen a really stupid one in their second appearance, making an ass of itself by interrogating a shop dummy. Here, Hartnell hides in one, and rather in the vein of nu-Who, they manage to appear in three of the four episodes without in any way making The Space Museum a Dalek story. Albeit, there’s the promise of an exciting adventure proper with the Daleks to follow.

As we all know, The Space Museum follows The Edge of Destruction and Planet of Giants as the “last of the sideways serials”. In DWM’s The Complete First Doctor, Alan Barnes suggested it might have had potential, but “it’s a premise, a promise unfulfilled” and guilty of being “children’s annual bilge, unworthy of any serious contemplation”. I don’t think it’s that. The Space Museum is probably equal parts inane and interesting, such that it’s too easy to side with the sense of inertia rather than the positives. It is after all, easy to forget that it finishes with the proposal that “The future doesn’t look too bad after all, does it?” Now, wouldn’t that be something?






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