The Space Museum features two of the most clever story concepts Doctor Who has ever come up with, both in the same serial, and yet the end result is a serial that nobody loves. In Doctor Who Magazine‘s 2009 ranking of every serial from top to bottom, 1 through 200, this one checked in at 190 – even lower than The Sensorites! (You can find the complete list here). What’s up with that?
To be fair to the haters for a moment, The Space Museum is not particularly well-made TV. It has two great concepts at its heart, and two of the funniest sequences the show would ever have to offer. And for all that, it’s considered to be almost as bad as The Twin Dilemma – which doesn’t have any great concepts at its heart, and has exactly zero funny moments to add to the 50-year highlight reel.
So, why is this serial so poorly regarded?
What little praise there is for The Space Museum is usually reserved for its eponymous first episode. The TARDIS jumps a time track, and lands on the planet Xeros, with its occupants rendered invisible and ghost-like. The Doctor and crew discover a museum and are able to wander through the galleries, but are have become incorporeal: they’re physically unable to touch anything, and the museum’s occupants can’t see or hear them. Eventually they are confronted with themselves – or rather, their four mounted corpses, preserved in glass exhibit cases, along with the TARDIS. The Doctor realizes that at some point in the future, the TARDIS will actually land on Xeros, and its occupants will be murdered and placed on display by the museum administrators.
In terms of production, directing chores here fell to Mervyn Pinfield, the show’s associate producer, and the guy usually tasked with helming episodes noted for their technical trickery (Planet of Giants being his previous venture). Pinfield makes Episode 1 impressive in several ways: a mounting succession of escalating visual oddities (a broken glass returning unharmed to its owner; hands reaching through solid objects) until we reach the deadly exhibits in the final moments.
However, in in spite of the brilliance of the central concept, Episode 1 is still kind of dull. Especially coming so soon after the soaring speeches in The Crusade, the dialogue here is spare and functional, with only William Hartnell getting off a characteristically risque zinger:
[The TARDIS crew lapse into a trance dressed as Crusaders, only to regain consciousness in their civvies]
Ian: Doctor, we’ve got our clothes on.
The Doctor: Well, I should hope so, dear boy. I should hope so.
Otherwise, all the dialogue is strictly expository. Also, the general atmosphere is one of silence; apart from a musical sting played at the exact moment the travelers realizing that they are not leaving footprints, and the swell of Bartok on the soundtrack when the TARDIS materializes for real at the cliffhanger, this is a silent episode, and silence generally equals dullness (which explains why in the revived series, Murray Gold never stops playing). While there is at least a rational plot explanation for the dullness – our travelers have temporarily become ghosts and can’t be heard by anyone – that doesn’t make the incessant silence any more interesting.
The story switches gears rapidly starting with Episode 2, at which point even the defenders of the Episode 1 typically turn on the rest of the scripts. But, to look at things another way, the plot twist is quite clever. The planet Xeros has been conquered by the Moroks, who have erected the museum as a monument to their reign of destruction. But by this point in Morok history, they are bored with their conquest: drowning in paperwork, and complaining about the length of their museum tour. Later on, we actually see a Morok guard yawning on duty; that’s intentional, not a blooper. Scriptwriter Glyn Jones (who’s complained that all the best jokes were removed from his script during production) evidently tried to deliver a bitingly funny satire about worn-out invaders living in bureaucratic hell. But, with the rest of the production seeming so lifeless, something has clearly been lost in translation.
William Hartell is on vacation for Episode 3, which also doesn’t help keeping audience interest up. But Episode 2 might have been Hartnell’s strongest single-episode performance to date. Funny sequence #1: He attacks and ties up one of the teenage Xeron rebels, hides from the other Xerons inside of a Dalek shell (see above photo), then mimics a Dalek as soon as the coast is clear… and laughs so loudly at his triumph that he’s promptly captured by a Morok patrol. Funny sequence #2: When he’s being interrogated by the prison governor, Lobos (Richard Shaw, of whom more in a moment), the Doctor mocks his captor and answers the questions by projecting onto the “thought monitor” device, images of a pod of walruses, a pennyfarthing bicycle, and a pinup shot of himself in a striped one-piece Edwardian bathing suit. Coupled with his performance in The Romans, Hartnell here in Season 2 has birthed the whimsical, anarchic Doctor that the rest of us spend so much of our daily lives quoting and emulating.
Richard Shaw, by the way, is an interesting case study. A film and TV actor with a lengthy career who lived to age 90 yet still doesn’t have his own Wikipedia page, he would wind up with two more Doctor Who appearances, each time playing a similarly stuffy commander. Those stories were Frontier in Space (#113 in the DWM poll) and Underworld (#197). If you were to devise a mathematical formula, ranking every actor who had a speaking role in at least three different episodes, against those episodes’ respective DWM rank, surely the end calculation would reveal Richard Shaw as the biggest bad-luck charm in Doctor Who history.
Vicki is quite strong here, too. When Ian and Barbara, separated from the Doctor, are paralyzed with indecision by the recent glimpse into their futures, Vicki’s response is to laugh at them (incidentally, the DVD restoration is so crisp that you can even see William Russell’s hair turning gray in these scenes). Vicki then effortlessly stages a revolution amongst the Xeron youth (a seeming boy band fronted by Jeremy Bulloch, a future Boba Fett, and Peter Craze, brother of a future series regular), running circles around the Morok’s computer defenses, and presenting a nice contrast to Vicki having generally been cute but useless (if not outright harmful to the plot resolution) in her previous stories.
I also find it clever that the bad-guy Moroks wear white, while the heroic young Xeron rebel teens wear black. But Episodes 3 and 4 feature a lot more of the Morok’s banal villainy, which, while a clever idea, offsets the horror of the TARDIS crew’s supposed fate. The Morok guard commander loudly laments his job, until Lobos shows up and the commander has to comedically backtrack. Episode 4 features the first sustained gunfight in Doctor Who, with the third member of the Xeron boy band being shockingly killed, even while the Morok commander can’t properly pronounce the world “guerilla”. The budget has run out, so the Xeron force wins by destroying the Morok barracks conveniently off-screen. As a resolution, this is a bit less epic a finale than the Episode 1 build-up would have led you to believe.
After the Moroks are made aware of the Xeron rebellion, one of them utters the infamous line “Have any arms fallen into Xeron hands?”. I am convinced, by the way, that this was absolutely intended as a joke by Glyn Jones, and only when the rest of the script was defanged of its humor did this line go from clever wordplay to a clunky bit of seemingly inept writing. Jones’ novelization, which came out 20 years later and is plagued by really awful prose, does reinstate a lot of the humor, and I think makes clear that the infamous line was, indeed, deliberate.
In sum, you have one episode of Twilight Zone-quality science fiction, followed by three comedic episodes about the demise of a bored, inept empire. Each idea is wonderful by itself, but when fused together, and when realized by 1965 production values – with the cleverest parts of the original scripts stripped away – the end result is a little boring to watch, and, perhaps, tragically misunderstood.
So, interestingly, what everyone remembers best about this story, is the shock reveal of a Dalek in the closing moments, announcing its intention to pursue the TARDIS through space and time. And that brings us, rather neatly, to the next story, The Chase, DWM survey episode #157, and another story that, for my money, is probably ranked at least 75 spots too low …
It’s a bummer that Beatnik Boba and his gang fighting the Man wasn’t made more interesting with, you know, action. “The Space Museum” is a tough one to love, certainly, but it has a few moments that, as you point out, are the result of Hartnell’s performance. Completely agree with you about “The Chase” being underrated, too. I’ll be interested to see what you have to say about that one.
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I think this story is underrated, for many of the reasons you mention here. It’s not one of the best episodes, but it has a lot of things going for it. It think a lot of people miss out on the humorous/satirical aspects of the story; the idea of the conquering warriors now having to deal with the bureaucracy of a large empire is actually a clever one.
I’m curious to read your take on the “The Chase,” since that was not a story that I particularly enjoyed. Maybe you’ll be able to change my mind about it.
I will say in general that Hartnell in Season 2 just wowed me, elevating almost everything he was in (except for “Web Planet” where he seemed to have either given up, or to have just been lost in the first place). It’s a pity he couldn’t keep that up through Season 3…
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