The Space Museum is actually a very interesting concept, and one which is pivotal to Doctor Who in general. Whilst the idea of interfering in the natural progression of time is one which has briefly been referenced in a number of other serials – notably the historicals, and particularly The Aztecs – it has always been the history of others, their past or future, which have been messed with; in sci-fi serials it is the status quo for the team to meddle and interfere, but in this, it is essential that they do, as it is their own fate which is at risk.
This serial is regularly criticised by much of fandom, and for some valid reason – it is a little slow, and a little messy, and a little... well, boring, in parts. But that is sort of the point. It is precisely for this reason that the serial works at all – that, and a corking first episode, of course.
From the creepy cliffhanger at the end of The Crusade, this serial kicks off with a number of bizarre incidents similar to those of The Edge of Destruction – strange noises and camera angles create a tense environment where water glasses can jump back into your hands complete after smashing on the floor, and the crew end up redressed by invisible forces. Throughout, the Doctor is rather non-committal about it all, and the use of stock music fits well with the jarring incidents. The direction on episode 1 is particularly good, using abstract angles and sweeping movements to disorientate.
The central premise of this first instalment is fascinating – having somehow jumped a timetrack, the crew are invisible to the environment in which they find themselves, leaving no footprints, and unable to interact with anything (sort of – but more on that later!) The model work on the Space Museum itself is magnificent – and the painting of the set flats to create a disjointed, abstract look is equally brilliant, although the effect is diminished somewhat by the shadows of the actors proving that it is only a one-dimensional flat painted to look 3D.
As the crew make their way through endless corridors, looking at strange exhibitions and avoiding the Moroks trooping the place, there is a strange sense of déjà vu – each room looks identical, simply with different artefacts and exhibits on show. The scene in which they pass through the TARDIS is genuinely shocking and rather haunting – the staple idea of cutting the crew off from the ship to force them to participate in events is a cliché now, but here it is reused to great effect; they cannot interact with anything, let alone something as secure and known as the ship. Sadly, there is a lack of consistency to this too – when Barbara hides behind a mannequin, the whole thing wobbles tremendously, showing that they can interact with some things, just not the ones which are input via technical skill!
The cliffhanger is brilliant too – when the crew discover themselves, frozen in exhibit cases, embalmed and left there forever to be gawked at by aliens, it is terrifically unnerving, although quite why it takes them so long to spot them is beyond me. As they gradually catch up with themselves, and the exhibits fade, and footprints appear, the look on Hartnell’s face is wonderful – “we’ve arrived!”
Episode 2 is where the story begins to lose its way, though – once we have been introduced to the Moroks, and later the Xerons, it is difficult to remain engaged. The Moroks are a bunch of petty administrators and curators, running the museum as a way of proving their ability as leaders, but bored of the monotony of it all. The Xerons are even worse, though – they are too ineffective to do anything, referred to as “rebels” despite their inaction, and not even deemed worth oppressing properly by the Moroks. Both races are seen as ineffective, pointless. One side gloats over past victories, while the other sit around, not doing anything. It is boring – yet that is precisely the point. The serial works as a satire, to some extent, of totalitarian regime, and what happens once that regime has forced itself upon others. The staleness, and the monotony, are integral to the plot. There are some rather basic costume decisions, which are frankly slapdash, which do not help to engage the audience – it is a simple case of white versus black (albeit inverted) which is even commented on by the Xerons. The dialogue in the opening scene with Lobos, the governor of Xeros, feels rather stilted and uninspired – he moans about boredom, forcing information into his exposition for the audience’s sake, is dreadfully dull.
There is an interesting moment in episode 2 which baffles me. Ian stands by, goading Barbara and Vicki as they lift a heavy glass case up from around a gun. Quite why the women are doing the heavy lifting is not discussed. It seems like an odd directorial decision to have made – just one of the many, of course.
The scene in which the Xerons capture the Doctor – before promptly losing him again – is another oddity, and one which doesn’t seem to sit right with me either. The way in which the Doctor hides inside the Dalek casing seems tasteless, somehow. Whilst Ian did the same thing in The Daleks back when the series was first finding its feet, for the Doctor to do the same thing, after the Daleks had been established as recurring foes seems strange.
What this episode does well, thanks to Jones’ writing, is discusses one of the key themes of the series – the concept of time travel and the repercussions of it. Whilst they are endeavouring to do all that they can to prevent the future happening, it questions whether they could change it anyway. The conversation in episode 4 is striking for this very reason. There is a sense of predestination throughout, although an eagle eyed viewer – such as myself, and no doubt many of you reading this – would notice very quickly that the future has been changed from the very outset anyway. Whilst the 4 bodies in the museum were on screen, it was quite obvious that Ian had all of the buttons on his jacket. In episode 2, when he loses a button, it is surely a sign that they are no longer predestined for the same thing. Likewise, and even more glaringly, the idea to use Barbara’s cardigan to leave a trail also proves that the future has been changed – the display case-Barbara had her cardigan on, yet here Ian iis chewing his way through it to create a loose thread.
Episode 3 suffers mildly from Hartnell’s absence – after being carted off for ‘treatment’ at the end of episode 2, he is away on holiday here, only appearing in the episode reprise at the beginning, framed with wonderfully atmospheric lighting. Where the episode is great, though, is in the relationship between Ian and his unwilling Morok assistant, played by Peter Diamond. Diamond had a similarly wonderful relationship with Ian in The Romans, where he appeared as the faithful Delos, assisting Ian in his efforts to recapture Barbara from Nero. Here, though, the relationship is taken in a different way; this cowardly Morok guard seems to genuinely revel in assisting Ian, subtly, and one gets the impression that it is because he is, for once, being proactive and doing something, even if it is the opposite of his orders!
Also fantastic about this serial is Vicki’s role in everything that occurs – never before has Maureen O’Brien been able to showcase herself so much, always having to play second fiddle to Hartnell, or giggling awkwardly with Barbara. Here, though, she is the principle cause for events to have changed so dramatically. Once captured by the Xerons, she leads them to become genuine revolutionaries, as opposed to the ‘rebels’ with a cause but without action we saw earlier on. The scene in which she tricks the computer is so ridiculous that I can’t help but love it – but it does, once more, reinforce the uselessness of the Xerons.
Along with the wonderful lighting in Lobos’ office with Hartnell in the recap, there is also the lovely scene in which Barbara hides from her pursuers in a room, where she is framed by mannequins. Also effective is the slow-fade to black, before cross-fading back up to show the passage of time – this wasn’t a recording break, which are usually signposted by these blackouts. Rather, it is a clever directorial decision, which allows Jacqueline Hill the time to slump further down and mess her hair up a bit. It is a lovely, tense scene – until it is ruined for us at home when we see the colour of the uniform of the searcher, whereby proving that Barbara is in no genuine danger. For someone with such an eye for creepy shadows and abstract lighting decisions, Pinfield fails miserably at ratcheting up any kind of tension. Indeed, when the Xeron finds Barbara, he says “you can see we’re nothing like them” – and again, it is such a simple statement; they wear black, but the Moroks wear white. It is similar in tone to the episode in The Sensorites where they all ‘look the same’.
Once again, though, a bug-bear I have with this serial is that it is, once again, a retread of the storyline which we have seen since the second serial, The Daleks. Oppressors being overthrown by the oppressed, an alien race being led to rebellion by the TARDIS crew. It is becoming a little staid and clichéd now.
Episode 4 starts with a reshoot of the cliffhanger from episode 3 – and again, this loses a great deal of the tension. Whereas before, Ian was staring almost directly into the camera, shocked at what is off-screen (the Doctor, treated), on the second take, even William Russell can’t seem to create any real drama in his tone of voice. Most of the acting in this fourth episode is rather uninspired, a little ‘acting-by-numbers’, as we wind up to the predictable conclusion that the crew will be fine, that they save the day and escape. What this serial does different to others, which is rather refreshing, although not realistic considering their allies, is that the crew do end up captured, but it is the Xerons who save them. Whilst the crew have been proactively trying to change history, and by doing so avoid becoming exhibits, they have actually played right into the cases – every step they took to change their fate has inexorably led to their capture. It is Vicki, however, who has saved them – by pushing the Xerons to do something – anything – it has meant that the Moroks are overthrown and the crew can escape. There is a sense of predestination throughout which is lovely – although, as I said earlier, the change in costume for Ian and Barbara proved that history had changed anyhow.
All in all, whilst this is slow-paced and averagely performed, there are some wonderful things to enjoy. If we take the entire serial as a satirical look at the boredom which comes from totalitarian regimes, it works. If you look at it as an exploration of the ramifications of time travel, it works. If, however, you’re looking for it to be a fast-paced action adventure... well, you know...