So far the second season of Doctor Who has shrunk the Doctor and his companions, taken them to Dalek-occupied London, dumped the Doctor’s granddaughter and picked up a girl from the future who has become his best friend and changed his character almost entirely to the point where they are going around the universe together being anarchists and having a ball, shown them causing the Great Fire of Rome, landed them on the most bizarre alien world imaginable, populated by giant insects, and most recently landed them inside a Shakespeare play. Things can’t get any weirder, right?
Actually, it turns out they can get a lot weirder, in the first episode of The Space Museum, the most exciting and fascinating individual episode of Doctor Who since the Daleks first waved a plunger at the camera. The Web Planet aimed for disturbing, and did that very effectively by making the TARDIS no longer a safe haven, and showing us an utterly alien landscape, complete with the surprisingly successful technique of smearing vaseline on the camera lens. The Space Museum aims for disturbing in a more fundamental way, by removing everything that can be relied on in any way, even the laws of physics. Everything is unfamiliar, from the glass reforming, to the invisibility and inaudability, to the lack of footprints, to the shocking sight of the Doctor and his companions, presumably dead or in some kind of suspended animation, displayed as exhibits in a museum. Even the Dalek is made disturbing, not because it is a Dalek, but because it is a distortion of a Dalek, an empty shell the Doctor can climb into. This last one of course doubles up as a fabulous double bluff.
Pretty much none of this gets any kind of rational explanation. Why don’t the time travellers leave any footprints? How do their clothes change while they are frozen? Why does the broken glass reform? And why is Vicki dressed like Alice in Wonderland? None of this lessens the impact of the episode, but it doesn’t help the largely pedestrian remaining three episodes, which feel like they have deviated into a completely different story when they should be tackling the mysteries that have been set up in more detail.
So we basically start again from scratch with a three-parter. Oddly, the second episode still behaves like it is a second episode when it should be doing what the second episode of The Mind Robber will later do, and be another Episode One. Instead it tries to pack all the episode one stuff into the start of the second episode with a bewildering exposition dump, complicated further by dumping a lot of exposition on us that is unnecessary anyway. It would have taken some amazing acting performances to make that work, but instead we get clunky dialogue performed as if it were a menu being read in a restaurant by a particularly bored waiter.
When the story finally gets going it’s quite an interesting one. The Doctor isn’t involved much because it was William Hartnell’s turn for a holiday, but he does get a great moment where he outwits a mind-reading machine, showing how far the character has come down the road to giggling rebel in an old man’s body. But this one is Vicki’s story. She basically becomes the Doctor for this story in plot terms. She is a time traveller from the future who shows up in a world where an underclass are being oppressed by a bunch of boring old establishment figures, and sets about helping them to stage a revolution. All three of them. She is the embodiment of youthful independence, in a way that bizarrely the Doctor is also becoming, with her help.
But the most interesting thing about The Space Museum, and the one thing that never gets mentioned, is the way it crosses genres. Doctor Who can be all sorts of things: theatre, horror, soap opera, crime drama, but here is something truly unique. In that one, sublime, finger-under-the-nose-to-stop-a-sneeze moment, Doctor Who embraces the narrative techniques of a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Never mind. The Daleks are on their way… RP
The view from across the pond:
If one were to look at the big names in science fiction from the mid-60s, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and Doctor Who all still have name recognition. The first two were anthologies; they presented a different cast and different story each week. Star Trek may as well have been because, short of the cast remaining largely the same (Chekov came on in season 2), nothing really ever carried over. Kirk losing the love of his life would be rapidly forgotten by the next story. Either he made Shallow Hal look deep, or we were not privy to the amount of time that went by between stories. (Or Spock made it a habit of mind melding, ending on “Forget” as he did in one story!) But there was no weight to the episodes in that nothing ever mattered that carried over. Doctor Who is unique in that because it was serialized. The TARDIS crew talk about the events of An Unearthly Child and The Daleks during the events of The Edge of Destruction, for instance. Linking narrative would often occur between stories as we saw at the end of The Crusade linking it to The Space Museum (and The Space Museum to The Chase). But then, because those stories could vary in length, they would carry out over several parts like mini-seasons. There is as little as a 1-part adventure and as many as a 14-part by the end of the classic series. Typically the best format was a tighter one; the 2 part stories held up very well and the 4 part ones, which were the most common, generally worked the best. That allowed sets to be made and actually used for more than just 2 weeks and still get a story together with a decent pace. Most of the longer ones get a bit monotonous and rarely do they flow with anything like the pace a modern viewer could tolerate.
There were some odd exceptions to the rule though. Now and then, Doctor Who took those “mini-seasons” and gave them a different type of complexity. Inferno, a 7-part story, never feels drawn out, but that is probably because we are being shown a story that basically takes place in 2 locations at once. Seeds of Doom also gives us a 6 part story that plays far more like a 2-part and a 4-part with a linking element between them. In the very early days, The Ark gave us a 4 part story broken into two parts of 2; a “before” and “after” of what happens on a distant space ark. An Unearthly Child, the very first story, truly proved how well this could work. Another early example of this odd but ingenious pacing can be found in The Space Museum.
The Space Museum opens with a sudden change of clothes for the TARDIS crew and a mystery that captures the imagination instantly. The crew seem to exist as ghosts – they cannot touch anything, they cannot be seen and they cannot hear the inhabitants. The Doctor surmises that they “jumped a time track”, whatever that means! The entire first episode is dedicated to them being in this semi-real state until they stumble upon themselves in glass display cases. Realizing this is their future, the Doctor says that all they can do is wait for time to click back into place and accept their eventual incarceration. The display versions suddenly vanish and the Doctor realizes that somehow the disjointed time has caught up with real time. Never have the words “We have arrived” seemed so ominous. (As a man with kids, these words are typically the cue that the long drive has ended!)
Very much like the original story, the first part is very different from the latter parts. The remainder of the story has Ian, Barbara, Vicki and the Doctor trying to avoid the fate that they encountered when they first arrived. This approach works remarkably well. The idea of giving greater variety even within the single story is ingenious. To do it too frequently would be a mistake, but to use it sparingly increases its effectiveness exponentially. The Moroks are bureaucrats who run the museum. What makes them frightening is that they have hairdressers that think the classic Werewolf of London had a nice do…
You’ll never get this image out of your heads! I think the two pictures work really well together because it looks like they are both surprised by the others hair! “Is that my haircut?”
The point is, while not the best episode of the classic series, it holds up well because the first part is utterly engrossing and the latter 3 parts don’t have enough time to overstay their welcome. It’s a typical adventure from episode 2 with a lot of lucky saves, but that was typical for the show. The cast is brilliant and Hartnell hiding inside a Dalek casing is classic. If that alone is what people remember from this, it’s a great image!
I tend to be more forgiving of the original era of the show because they were doing a lot of unique things. This is just another example of how the show managed to keep people interested for 50 years.
Forgive me, my barber is ready to give me a were-morok. It should be perfect for a family get-together…. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Chase