Decadent, Degenerate, and Rotten to the Core (The Space Museum)


The first appearance of the hideous mutant creatures
inside the Daleks.
It's April 24, 1965. The Beatles have number one again, with Ticket to Ride. Those of you who are obsessive Doctor Who fans will glean the particular significance of tat. The more normal folks will want to remember this fact on Wednesday. (The really really obsessive fans now know exactly what book I'm talking about on Monday. If you are one of those fans, congratulations.) In the fourth week of the Space Museum it will be unseated by Roger Miller's "King of the Road" in what is very possibly the single most jarring transition on the charts until "Do The Bartman" unseats The KLF in 1991. I will not say much about Roger Miller, because, well, he's Roger Miller. I will, however, point out his future #1 hit in his native US, "England Swings."

It is easy, at this point, to think that the world is coming unstuck. Protests in Yereven, Armenia begin to bring the horror of the Armenian Genocide to light. Protests in Berkeley, California involve torching draft cards. The ball that started rolling with the Kennedy assassination has gathered something like critical mass.   While the most powerful man in the world was a dashing young technocrat, there was something resembling stability. When the most powerful man in the world is a drawling Texan career politician, even though he's probably a better champion of liberal causes than Kennedy, things come unstuck. The youth get uppity. They evolve. They rebel.

At the center of all of this, however, quite bizarrely, is London. Never mind that the UK has missed a rather epic series of beats and gone from world-spanning empire to fallen power in a generation. None of that matters. The UK has the Beatles. The UK has Carnaby Street. The UK has the miniskirt. The UK, in short, is mod. And the world is starting to recognize that. As the youth rebels and starts to change the world, the coolest place in the world is London.

This story is where Doctor Who picks a side. It should be no surprise, given the last four stories, what side it's going to pick. Its newest character is a futuristic star-child with a scouse accent. Its old man lead has turned into a giggling anarchist. The show has adopted a wild theatrical style that lets it look and feel like nothing else on TV. Is it going to side with the mod youth or the entrenched establishment? Take a guess.

No. Whats surprising about The Space Museum is not it's successful execution of a host of mod cliches. It's that it's doing it in what are still the early days of the mod fad. And, more to the point, it's that its doing it well and more complexly than it has any right to, going beyond mod culture before mod culture even has a chance to arrive on the scene.

The usual brief on The Space Museum is this: The first episode is almost universally recognized as being completely brilliant. The other three episodes are considered to rank somewhere between "disaster" and "hidden gem" with most descriptions using the word "disappointing" in some fashion or another.

Frankly, this is due more to the high quality of the first episode than the low quality of the back three. The first episode is indeed stunning and complex, and almost deserves an entry on its own.

Back with The Crusade we talked about cliffhangers, and how the story took advantage of a ludicrously fast start. The Space Museum takes this in a different direction. The story opens with the lights going out in the TARDIS, then coming back on. From there on out, strange things begin to happen - Vicki drops a glass of water, and it jumps back up into her hand. The TARDIS crew does not leave footsteps, and seems invisible to everybody else on the planet. The mood alternates between the first episode of The Daleks and The Edge of Destruction, veering from lonely and scared exploration to a looming sense that something weird and terrifying is going on. It's not until about 3/4 of the way through the story that we finally include the cliffhanger that leads in from The Crusade, with the TARDIS crew in their clothes from that episode "jumping a time track" and landing on Xeros. Which is just wonderful playing with the show's structure, again - putting the actual resumption from last episode's cliffhanger in the wrong part of the episode.

But underneath and alongside it is a completely different story. There are reports that the writer of this one, Glynn Jones, was displeased with Dennis Spooner's rewrites to his script. Ironically, Spooner removed most of the jokes, then substituted ostensibly less funny ones. Perhaps, but the episode is still hilarious. Notably, it's a flagrant parody of Doctor Who. Jokes are made about how the crew shouldn't split up. The TARDIS crew rounds a corner and a suspenseful music cue mounts as we discover a Dalek in the Space Museum. And then it turns out to be an empty museum exhibit of a Dalek, and the musical cue deflates into comedy, with Vicki lampshading the Daleks by saying they don't particularly look scary. (Ian reassures her that they're unlikely to encounter one. This will be funny in a few paragraphs.)

And then there's the... I don't want to say unintentional humor, but at least idiosyncratic humor. I'm getting a bit ahead of myself in terms of the development of the series, but there's a strain of thought about the show that posits a significant gay subtext to it. Just, you know, something to keep in mind. Completely unrelatedly, here's the opening dialogue of The Space Museum.

Ian: Doctor, we've got our clothes on!
Doctor: Well I should hope so my dear boy, I should hope so.

Barbara: No, Doctor, our regular clothes.

So that's funny too.

But in amidst that humor is some real creepiness. The Doctor and companions wandering invisibly around a museum trying to figure out what has gone wrong and where they are is scary. The characters remark on how they don't seem to belong here, and on the unnerving silence. Given that the episode uses minimal incidental music (due mostly to being done on the cheap and recycling music from of episodes), this comment about the unnerving silence works well. Especially because even the recycled music features the harsh electronic sound characteristic of Doctor Who, so when it flares up at the end as the wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff happens it's still scary and alien in a way that nothing else on television is yet. Perhaps the best moment of the episode - a fair contender for one of the best moments of the series to date, really - is when the TARDIS finally catches up with its crew and their world is, for the first time, rocked by the TARDIS arriving into it. For the first time since An Unearthly Child the TARDIS is made to seem completely unnerving and alien.

The flip side is that the episode is dense with technobabble. Which William Hartnell is as good as ever at delivering, which is to say, terrible. This is actually one of the major virtues of bringing Vicki on board as a companion - her futuristic ways mean that the show can safely dump technobabble off on her, where she'll handle it with a surprisingly satisfying to-camera address.

And then, in most people's view, the whole thing goes off the rails. And look, I understand why. I do. The first five minutes or so of the second episode are absolutely brutal to watch - one of the worst exposition dumps this series or any other have ever belched onto a television screen. Thrill to such gripping scenes as "I've got two more minims before I can go home. Yes, I say it often enough, but it's still two thousand Xeron days." (A bit of dialogue that is impressive because it is horribly awkward and yet still completely meaningless for the audience) And the equally naturalist "I'm the governor of this planet, you're supposed to show some respect." The dialogue clatters along at roughly this level of quality, including one of the classic bad lines of the series, "Have any arms fallen into Xeron hands?"

So fine. The exposition is a train wreck. Of course, much of this is down to the artificiality of the structure. Because the first episode goes with the isolated TARDIS crew for cost reasons, when the second one picks up we're 25 minutes behind where we want to be on exposition. So we get the exposition dump. Even a few minutes of folding this into the previous episode - having the characters who walk by the TARDIS crew talk, or something - would have helped tremendously.

But let's look at what else is going on in the episode. You've got Barbara in "criminally underused" mode, yes, but the show has never managed to use all four regulars well through an entire story, and until it manages to pare the cast down to three and, finally, two this is just what happens. Ian, on the other hand, is oddly compelling. The episode finally gives William Russell's tendency towards stunned fascination/terror something it can work with. Ian is played as having just completely snapped, as though fighting to change the future so he does not become a museum exhibit is, finally, too much for him. (Rewatching the last episode of The Web Planet makes one wonder why this is the straw that broke the camel's back, but oh well.) When he picks up a gun and mimes firing blindly around a room seemingly for his own amusement, it takes the character, for the first time, to an actual new place. Of course, it's also flagging his imminent departure, but hey.

The Doctor is in low form - spending Episode 3 out of the picture and most of episode 4 recovering from being out of the picture. But he has the scene of the episode in episode 2. And it's not even when he hides in a Dalek! No, it's when he's sat down in a chair that reads his mind and shows his thoughts on TV. Which he promptly foils by just thinking about whatever he wants to instead of what the interrogator wants him to think about. First he bluffs with a penny farthing, in a strange nod to The Prisoner two years before it's created. But then comes the high point. The Morok interrogator demands to know where he comes from. The Doctor says to look at the monitor...

Which is showing a huge number of walruses rolling around on an iceberg. Walruses. Not Gallifrey. Not the constellation of Kasterborous. No. Walruses.

And then there's Vicki. Right. Let's tie this entry together a bit more. See, the main plot of the episode is that the Moroks - who are fat middle aged men - cruelly dominating the Xerons, who are young beatniks. And Vicki gets the heavy lifting on this pot, running around talking about revolution with a giddy joy that makes her pyromaniacal adventures with The Doctor in The Romans look positively low key. Vicki clearly wants nothing more than to overthrow civilizations and give hot young men guns. She gets the charismatic clever person plot - the one usually reserved for the Doctor these days - and shows the kids how to overthrow the government.

OK. So here's the thing where this episode settles into oddly brilliant. Historically speaking, as we go along, here's what's going to happen. Right now we've got the rise of the mods. But the mods, with their bright, colorful styles, are easily co-opted. The mods look good, and so they can be sold. Eventually less family-friendly counterculture like psychedelia, punk, and new wave will come along and have their huge influences on Doctor Who. (Well, most of them. Doctor Who is not punk. Sadly.) But right now, it's the mods' day. Right?

Except look at what's in this episode as a whole. Yeah, you've got your mod rebellion. But it's over the backdrop of a massive existential dilemma with all the characters walking around trying to figure out how you make a choice in the face of an apparently proscribed future, and having all sorts of debates about free will. The mod rebellion is only an incidental step in resolving the larger existential crisis. In other words, this story, which ostensibly glorifies the mods, is also stepping beyond the mods and hinting that there's something more than just a smiling Scouse lass calling for revolution.

As if to remind us that the episode has actually been kind of brilliant all along, it ends with a long pull-back. For a good twenty seconds or so, the viewer is left trying to figure out where they've jumped to and what's going on. Then the answer comes into shot. The fake-out of the Daleks earlier in the episode is, in fact, a fake fake-out. That Dalek may not be real... but the Daleks in general have learned how to travel in time, and have decided to hunt and kill their greatest enemy.

Which, ooh. The Doctor is now formally the Daleks' greatest enemy. Ever since he last faced them, frankly, it's been building to this. They were the fascistic force that left London in ruins. So the Doctor went and got the embodiment of youth culture and has taken her around the universe. The show has embraced a wild, theatrical style. The Doctor, secretly a young man (there's a throwaway line about how the Doctor has always assumed there must be a museum in space, but he's never seen one. Fans of the Matt Smith era will grin), is first and foremost a force for the impishly mad. So now it's time for another round with the Daleks - the ultimate force of control and power for its own sake.

Oh boy.

Do you own The Space Museum on DVD yet? If not, consider buying it from Amazon via this link. If you do, I'll make money!


Carey 9 years, 7 months ago

"See, the main plot of the episode is that the Moroks - who are fat middle aged men - cruelly dominating the Xerons, who are young beatniks. And Vicki gets the heavy lifting on this pot."

I know "Vicki gets the heavy lifting on this pot" is a typo, but it does seem wonderfully fitting in the context of both your essay and the previous sentence.

"Eventually less family-friendly counterculture like psychedelia, punk, and new wave will come along and have their huge influences on Doctor Who. (Well, most of them. Doctor Who is not punk. Sadly.)"

Oh, I don't know about this: Graham Williams view of the Doctor was incredibly punk, with the greatest example being the Sunmakers (very much a the punk stepchild of the Mod Space Museum). In that story you really do get the feeling that the Doctor destroys the status quo simply because it's a Thursday and he's nothing better to do.

The Sunmakers is one of my favourite stories, and while it'll be a while until you get their, I can't wait to read your views on it. In the meantime, I've never seen the Space Museum, but after reading your review I'm very tempted to do so.

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encyclops 7 years, 11 months ago

I just watched this story for the very first time, and I think you absolutely nailed it with this entry. I really enjoyed it despite its weaknesses (maybe more so because I've only seen a handful of Hartnells so far). I had a feeling some of the things that jumped out at me would have jumped out at you too. Nicely done.

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