Friday, 5 September 2014

The Space Museum written by Glyn Jones and directed by Mervyn Pinfield

This story in a nutshell: How important is it that Ian has lost a button?

Hmm: He might head off for a week in Skegness halfway through the story but that doesn't dismiss the fact that Hartnell responds extremely well to a script that, when the Doctor is present, characterises him extremely well. The Doctor is entirely unconcerned that a quirk of inexplicable insanity seems to have performed the trick of putting their crusading clothes in the wardrobe and decked them out in their usual garb. As long as it saves them some time that they can use getting on with the next adventure. He doesn't have a clue what has happened and passes it off as a quirk of time and relativity, whatever that might mean. The eye rolling lack of conviction in the Doctor's statement that he believes Vicki when she starts talking about smashes glasses reforming in her hand suggests that he thinks she may have gone a little potty. He's wonderfully grumpy with her in the museum in a way that only Hartnell can, treating Vicki very much like Susan and scolding her for not doing as she is told. Being the wily old codger that he is the Doctor soon starts to figure out how this world works, ordering the crew to stay in sight of the locals to test whether they can be seen or not. Hartnell practically has a stroke in episode two whilst trying to remember a line but as ever is warmly supported by Russell and Hill. You'll see Hartnell at his best during the interrogation scene with Lobos, running rings around his examiner, producing quirky images on his mind scanner and taking the situation deadly seriously when it is clear his mockery has led him to his place in the museum. The first thing he wants to do when he is de-iced is shove the Governor into the machine and subject him to the same process...but his conscience objects. Shame. The Doctor is terribly excited about the prospect of getting a time and space visualiser working again...but he wont let anybody know what it is at this stage.

Schoolteachers in Love: I could watch this bunch wandering around corridors ad nauseum because they are so enjoyable to spend time with...which is fortunate because that is pretty much what does happen for the first two episodes of this story.  Barbara and Ian have been at this lark for long enough now that a display of spaceships around a museum is something to be greeted with excitement rather than fear. Barbara pointing out that the readings don't always tell them everything is just about the most succinct thing any character says throughout the sixties, as almost as though the TARDIS deliberately withholds vital information about what is outside the main doors to provide a little excitement on their adventures. Ian remains a man of action in season two, practically tackling the entire Morok Army throughout this adventure (a battalion so ineffective they would have to fight with relatively little effort to fail to duff up). William Russell is working overtime in episode three to convince that William Hartnell is present at the end of the episode when it is clearly not the case. Ian is pretty rough towards the Moroks anyway (they deserve it) but he gets positively animalistic when it becomes clear that they have abused the Doctor so appallingly. I don't care for the fact that Ian accepts the Doctor's worthless explanation about how they got into this mess in the first place. Somebody should looked at the audience and gone 'really?'

Alien Orphan: Vicki is such an odd character in season two, veering between being a Susan replacement (screaming, being generally useless) and a mature young lady from the future (The Time Meddler sees her as a seasoned traveller, guiding Steven through his first adventure). The scripts can't really decide which of these two people Vicki is. The Space Museum gives Maureen O'Brien some of her strongest material of her run, allowing Vicki to stand on her own two feet, join up with a group of useless rebels and overthrow the government in a day. She's shown to be capable, resourceful, intelligent and observant (even if she is one of those characters that sneezes at inopportune moments). Wonderfully Vicki cuts through all the ineptitude of this bunch of rebels and informs that sometimes you have to stop saying you are going to do something and just get on with it. It seems to me that whenever Vicki is cut away from Ian and Barbara's apron strings she behaves like an adult but when she is safe within their shadow she reverts back to a child. It takes Vicki about two minutes to tinker with the computer at the armoury and bamboozle the interrogation questions, which either means she is a genius or the Xerons are a hopeless bunch for not thinking of something similar before. Probable a little of both.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Doctor we've got our clothes on!' 'Well I should hope so, dear boy!' - this is the first exchange of the story and one which proves Jones' original intention was to write a comedy. Whilst the tone of the piece is generally serious, the script often points to moments of farce and wit as it progresses.

The Good:

* Given its poor reputation The Space Museum is one of the few sixties Doctor Who stories that is immediately gripping, opening with a potent image of the time travellers staring transfixed at the console and apparently locked in a moment of time. What could have possibly happened to trap them like flies in amber? Back in the day the show was split into two main types of adventures, futuristic/SF (in seasons one and two these included The Daleks, The Sensorites, The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Web Planet) and the historicals (Marco Polo, The Aztecs, The Crusade) with a third genre cropping up every now and again to shake things up - the side step. Stories like The Edge of Destruction (set entirely within the TARDIS), Planet of the Giants (featuring the miniaturised TARDIS crew) and The Space Museum (which for its first episode seems to defy description as it stacks up a number of conceptual mysteries). This was a time when you genuinely did not know what the series was going to throw at you from one story to the next.
* Whilst it clearly is modelwork and the scaling is a little out of kilter you have to appreciate the effort that has been made to create the museum and the exhibits of spaceships that surround it. It is the sort of thing that producers these days might go boggle eyed at the expense of creating these days but back in the sixties their ambition knew no bounds. I was impressed by the visual effects shot of the Doctor walking through the opaque TARDIS, not an easy thing to achieve when there was no time for special effects and yet looking convincing on screen.
* Moments of random weirdness that stack up throughout episode one that need explaining by the end of the story; Vicki dropping the glass which leaps back into her hand with the water inside, the TARDIS magically exchanging the crews clothes for something more appropriate to the next adventure, failing to leave any footprints in the dust on this planet, people that they encounter on Xeros don't seem to be able to see or hear them, their uncanny ability to walk right through the exhibits and finally the chilling notion that they are themselves going to wind up as displays in the Space Museum. Any one of these mysteries would have been strong enough to base an episode around but as they start to stack up so dramatically it points to there being something fundamentally wrong with this particular adventure, offering a riveting opening gambit. It leads to the fascinating notion that whilst it appears to be contrary to what we have witnessed, the TARDIS crew have not arrived on Xeros yet and this is all some frightening portent of their future. One day they will land on this planet and wind up frozen in time as exhibits for clients of the museum to gawp at. It's a horrific concept to try and get your head around, both the idea that you can walk as a ghost in your own future and the anxiety that one day your life will stop and you will be put on display for the entertainment of the masses. Facing the waxy living corpses of their own bodies staring out at them is one of the most chilling moments of 60s Who, offering a moment of ghastly incomprehension.
* What this leads to is the fascinating notion of having a glimpse into the future and whether or not you can change it. Is there a way of preventing themselves from becoming exhibits in the museum or will everything they do ultimately lead them to the same fate. It's a treatise on pre-determinism and is introducing the children watching to some pretty weighty concepts in an easy to explain way. The horror of the situation is presented well, the only thing that is lacking is the drama of what leads up to this foregone conclusion. Some of the conversation about the nature of fate is intriguing (Ian suggest they are invulnerable because they are going to end up in the cases) and some of it isn't (losing buttons is hardly the most enthralling way of exploring the idea).
* Finding a Dalek in the museum is a perfectly handled shock because their appearance had not been signposted in any way. For the audiences at the time, still reeling from their invasion of Earth earlier in the season this must have been the most exciting of twists.
* The culmination to episode one brings one of the most satisfying episodes of 60s Who to an exciting and climactic conclusion with the travellers arriving and suddenly having to tread very carefully to avoid the chilling fate they have witnessed. The clothes change, the glass smashes, the TARDIS is visible, their footprints appear and the cases disappear. In one episode Jones has managed to pose several intriguing mysteries, answer them and propel us forwards into the story with some interest. After practically forgetting about the theme in episode three it re-emerges in the final instalment with all the regulars drawn back together and in a position to become the exhibits they are all so frightened of. Jones even has them all pondering on how each other them might be responsible, suggesting that this thread has been weaving along and guiding them all here all along. Because the Doctor and company have stirred this lethargic bunch on Xeros into actually doing something, once they are all in a position to be frozen and exhibited an unexpected diversion from Xerons (who otherwise wouldn't have been able to do a thing such was their ineptitude) saves them. That's a pretty neat solution.
* Nuggets of comedy that survived the humour cull of the script are; the corridor wandering and the regulars discussing which angle to come at their escape from  exposes the mockery of the on of the more tedious elements of SF, Hartnell playing about inside a Dalek and having a fit of giggles, 'The Minotaur!' 'Where?', the Doctor's cheeky imagery on the mind scanner (especially Hartnell in his bathing costume), the guard who is so rubbish he is frightened of Ian sneaking up on him, 'Have any arms fallen into Xeron hands?' (that has to be a gag, surely?), What really makes me laugh is Ivor Salter trying his best to make something meaty out of his role, a part so ill considered that he doesn't even have a name (he is billed simply as The Morok Commander).

The Bad:

* Shadows on what are supposed to backdrops of desert vistas are pretty inexcusable, especially when all you need to do is move the actors at little further away from the walls.
* It often astonishes me what the designers managed to concoct on next to no money during the classic series, especially in the black and white days where there was barely two hapenny's to rub together. However in The Space Museum this is one area that is severely lacking, the corridors and exhibits that the crew wander about are about as functional and as drab as you can imagine. It makes the visual experience quite a dreary one and whilst that ties into the impression that the writer is trying to generate that this is the most tedious outpost in the galaxy, it hardly makes this a visual feast for the eyes. Pinfield doesn't have the opportunity to shoot these stock sets in an imaginative way, simply choosing to point and shoot because that is the only real option open to him. It is when the lights come down that he does his best work, capturing the long shadows of the Doctor's interrogation scene or the dramatic silhouette of Barbara being gassed in the storage areas.
* If the worst thing these rebels are seen to be doing is wearing tracksuits and plimsolls then you can imagine what a nefarious threat they are to the Moroks. And when they begin to fight back all Lobos does is push buttons in his office and wait for reports, even when it is clear that the revolution has begun. Perhaps everybody on this planet has been so stultified by the dullness of the place they have surrendered to indolence and cannot bring themselves to act unless pushed by an outside force. Or perhaps this take over is written and directed without urgency. All it takes to overthrow the Moroks are a handful of unsophisticated rebels and a few ray guns and they have the museum dismantled in record time. Shows the basic foundations of what this story is made out of that it can be put back in its box quite so neatly and so quickly.
* Beyond Russell and O'Brien, I don't think there is a single actor that doesn't fluff at least one line. Even Jacqueline Hill buggers up a line in episode four.
* A spring? A bloody spring? That beautifully crafted first episode explained away with the most laziest of DIY explanations? Words fail me.
* The worst thing in this story? The computer voice for the armoury. It sounds as though it has atrophied like everything else in this story, suffered a nervous breakdown as a result and is plodding away through life in as vegetable on the verge of a coma.

The Shallow Bit: Watch in horror as Barbara's fabulous bouffant is demolished as she tries to tackle a locked door that will not open.

Result: 'They've gone!' 'Yes my dear...and we've arrived!' Popular wisdom is that The Space Museum has a terrific first episode and then dive bombs in quality from episode two onwards. Whilst I agree that the first episode is much more intriguing in structure and concept, I do think the remaining episodes have much more merit than their reputation suggest (mostly down to this set of regulars who I would happily watch corridor wandering) but that doesn't stop them from providing a remarkably schizophrenic experience. Rob Shearman presents a very convincing argument on the DVD extras that the original intention of The Space Museum was to present it as a comedy. It's a passionate defence of a story that has long been considered one of the weaker examples of 60s Who. It almost feels as though the script editor and the writer are coming to the story at completely different angles, the former wanting this to be a gripping SF scenario and exciting rebels vs. the oppressive government adventure the latter wanting to make a witty comment on the many (easily mocked) elements of science fiction. So you have what is supposed to be a Vicar of Dibley style character, an intelligent, sane person surrounded by the utter incompetancy of his peers. If Jones had had his way he would probably have had Lobos staring straight to camera during moments where his men fail to perform even the simplest of tasks adequately. His bitter enemies are a bunch of ineffective post-pubescent kids wandering around in black tracksuits, without weapons, having secret meetings about a rebellion that somehow never come to fruition. The whole presentation is absurd as a drama, far too placid and unconvincing, but when looked at as a comedy with the Commander the unwilling straight man to all the humiliation going on around him it just about works. The trouble is nobody told Richard Shaw that he is playing the Arthur Lowe/Captain Mainwaring character and so none of the comedy shines through. Shaw tries to give a credible, serious performance without a single wink at the audience. Any hopes that we might have laughed at this parody of science fiction are lost as a result because the Commander is as boring as everything else on display. Jones' attempts to highlight the comedy still peek through though - with a race of aliens whose name sounds like morons and a Commander whose name points out that he has suffered something akin to a lobotomy being posted in this tedious outpost. The director has something substantial to bring to life in the first episode, a genuine mystery. When the focus is on Lobos and his merry men he tries to stage it as a drama with relatively space for the hilarity to shine through. As a result this comes across solely as a plodding science fiction tale of corridor wandering and teenage rebellion rather than the potentially cutting comment on science fiction tropes ('Soon we shall rise against them and drive them from Xeros!'). What a shame, what this needed was the script editors of Are You Being Served to give the script the once over, highlighting the more outrageous elements and stressing the Commander's nightmare. It surprises me to see Dennis Spooner, one of the shows greatest comedy writers, shying away from the humour. As I mentioned though the regulars just about manage to hold this story up with Maureen O'Brien in particular proving a revelation in the latter episodes. I always come to The Space Museum expecting it to be the worst story of the Hartnell era and with those low expectations I come away rather impressed at how entertaining the whole thing has been. Make of that what you will: 5/10

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