Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Space Museum

Chapter The 46th, where the author can't resist suggesting that Doctor Who has been grabbed by the Moroks. And it's painful.

Something goes wrong with the TARDIS causing it to  'jump a time track'. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki sort-of arrive (and sort of don't) in a space museum on the planet Xeros. They don't leave any footprints, no one can hear or see them, and they can pass through solid objects. Turning a corner, they are faced with an exhibit of their own embalmed selves, lined up in a display case, staring back at them. Time catches up, the cases vanish, and they can suddenly be seen and heard again. After that, they all spend an interminable time discussing what they should do to avoid this seemingly predestined fate. It turns out that they just need to do the usual: wander some corridors, get split up, and free the oppressed natives from some invading overlords, the Moroks. The twist is that the bad guys are so rubbish they're quite endearing; and the good guys are even worse. At the end, the Doctor explains that what happened to crack the space time continuum like an egg and scare the bejesus out of everyone was that a component of the TARDIS  incorrectly acted like a dimmer switch. Really, he does; that's the explanation. Go and look, if you don't believe me.

This one was surprisingly popular with the two youngest members of the family (boy of 7, girl of 4) who watched the DVD with me and the Better Half over four consecutive evenings. They got bored by The Deadly Assassin, one of the well-thought-of 'classics', but this - supposedly one of the all time duffers, at least for three quarters of its running time - they adored. They are hard to predict.

First-time round:
Sometimes it seems like the BBC lost all the great stories, and kept all the rubbish ones. Not true, of course, and more to do with familiarity breeding contempt: the ones we can't see seem better than the ones that we can, in all their trying-their best-but-can-only-really-have-one-take-per-scene, line fluffing, dodgy camerawork glory. If the visuals for The Space Museum didn't exist it may well have been better appreciated. Even now, a lot of people think that the first episode is one of the all time best (I'm not so sure, but more on that anon). The popular reading being that episode 1 is an original, weird and atmospheric creep-out, followed by three humdrum episodes of cheap bare sets where some actors with funny stick-on eyebrows fight one another.

The story proceeding it, The Crusade, for a long time had only one surviving episode in the archives, and has always been loved more. In the late 1990s another episode turned up, and they rushed out both these two quarters of The Crusade on VHS in July 1999. With half the story missing, including the ending, BBC Worldwide obviously worried they'd need to throw in a sweetener or two. So, as part of the package they gave us punters a keyring, and all four episodes of The Space Museum: possibly, some of the buyers appreciated the keyring most out of these two extras.

Deep breath, and I'll say my first heresy: episode 1 isn't that great. Second deep breath, and second heresy: episodes 2-4 aren't that bad. The introduction is original and weird, particularly towards the end of the episode where there is an unsettling montage of which Eisenstein would be proud. It struggles to be atmospheric, though. The regulars wander round the same cheap bare sets used in the rest of the story (incidentally, why don't the Moroks put any directions or exit signs in their museum, the crazy fools?). These sets echo and clunk in the silence necessitated by the story decision that there'll be no background noise, which sucks the energy out of everything. There's not much drama either: it's hard to depict a struggle with an abstract idea like predestination. Whereas, as inept as the Moroks are, when they 'arrive' it suddenly opens up the story possibilities of interpersonal dialogue and conflict, and they consequently lift proceedings. The Doctor's sparring with Lobos in particular is a joy, and there are other wonderful moments scattered throughout.

The Doctor and Lobos aren't in the same scene until a good chunk of episode two is over, admittedly, and before that there is some terrible material where Lobos vomits exposition over everything. Ostensibly talking to a minion, he's really filling in the audience on everything from the political background to his personal ennui to the length of a Xeron day in Morok time. It's so bad, it seems deliberate: at least one commentator has previously posited that The Space Museum is intended as a comedy pastiche of science fiction, but if that's the case the director didn't realise. It's not unintentional that the Moroks are rubbish, that is clearly stated in the script: this is a once mighty warrior race that now has given up even dwelling nostalgically on its past victories (including a defeat of the Daleks, if we can believe one of their exhibits). There's also a prominent reference to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As such, the rebels rising up against oppressors plot is given just as original a twist as the flashier sci-fi gubbins, if only it had been treated a little bit more sympathetically by the makers.

As good as both of the two plots could be, they don't gel. At the end, in a forerunner of the approach taken in Christopher Eccleston's season, our heroes save the day not because of their direct action, but by their influence on the guest cast, the Xerons. Just when it all looks bleak, the future they've witnessed is averted because they've inspired the Xerons to rise up. But exactly what has the Morok / Xeron plot got to do thematically with avoiding predestination in a museum? Maybe the parallel is that the Xerons have taken action and avoided their terrible fate too, but if so it's easy to miss - this might have been the point the script should have got more heavy-handed to hammer it home. The other issue is that the Xerons are so wet that Vicki basically has to take control of them to get them to do anything productive; she's far more dictatorial to them than any Morok.

Honourable menshes go to the Doctor's Dalek impression, and his glee at outwitting his captors only to be immediately captured by someone else; Peter Diamond's dim guard; Barbara and Ian's comedy bitching about his proposal to unravel her good cardigan; Barbara and Ian generally (the characters are so doing it by this point); and, unless I'm mistaken, the first ever scene in Doctor Who where a character reprograms a troublesome computer, written by someone who doesn't really understand computers or programming (it would not be the last one of those). 

Both The Space Museum and The Deadly Assassin contain a glimpse of the future in episode 1 which the protagonist(s) then try to avert; there's a big fight in episode 3 of both stories (Ian getting handy, the Doctor in the Matrix), and both lamentably contain zero female guest cast members. Finally (and get this, Jan Vincent-Rudzki), The Space Musuem sets a perfect precedent for the doddery old Time Lords seen in the The Deadly Assassin, with Gallifrey's own Doctor Who complaining about his rheumatism.

Deeper Thoughts:
Revolution, Doctor Number 1. Whether intended as a parody or just a tired retread, The Space Museum's script for episodes 2 to 4 assumes the archetypal plot of a Doctor Who story is one where our heroes help some rebels to overthrow their cruel invading masters; but it's only the 15th Doctor Who story there ever was, and that type of plot's only been done once or twice before by this point. In 1965, every week was a new experiment. There was no need to get generic quite so quickly, but clearly habits were already forming that would harden into formulae in time. Maybe it's not just Doctor Who, but all science fiction adventure that's felt to conform to this template. The rebels all wear black like beatnik student existentialists - it's nothing if not a crude depiction. But is it possible to ever do a revolutionary plotline with any  kind of sophistication?

As we know from history, and as we know from the daily news, revolutions are messy: they very rarely fall into two acts, the only span likely to be afforded by a Doctor Who story. In act 1, the Doctor arrives into a world where a cruel regime has taken over; either this is an internal faction that's become morally bankrupt and oppressive (The Daleks and The Savages would be examples of this type) or more often, it's an invading force from without (The Dalek Invasion of Earth and dozens of other stories thereafter). In Act 2, the Doctor catalyses rebellion, the oppressors are overthrown; and the Doctor then leaves. Just when it's getting interesting. For we know from that history and that news, that Act 3 is the real killer: the overthrown can come back harder, and those doing the overthrowing can become oppressive themselves. Plus, the antagonists in these stories have to be cartoonishly simplistic bad guys to avoid the Doctor and his friend's actions seeming like, well, terrorism. In The Space Museum, Vicki sabotages public property, leads a raid on an ammunition store, and organises an armed attack. If that ain't terrorism, it's getting very close to it.

Doctor Who has only ever occasionally and lightly touched on the more complex aspects of insurrection. In Bad Wolf, in the still experimental Christopher Eccleston series, for example, the Doctor gets to visit the scene of a previous liberation 100 years on, only to find he's made things much worse. Perhaps the most interesting case was never a story at all, just an anecdote an actor often told: Peter Purves, who played Steven later in the still experimental William Hartnell era (in fact, debuting in the story immediately following The Space Museum), came to leave in the aforementioned The Savages, becoming the ruler and calming influence of a planet previously wracked by internecine strife. Purves often claimed he'd have like to have seen a story where the Doctor returns a few years later to find that Steven had become the most awful and ruthless dictator. Even though this was only a joke, or an attempt to secure himself a juicy future guest role, don't you wish they'd done it? 

In Summary:
It's still approximately one part excellent to three parts duff, but all mixed together throughout.

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