Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Space Museum

Previous viewings - one

There are two ideas in The Space Museum I like, the destination being a space museum for one, and the 'time track' business for another. It's about time (no pun intended) something was done with the time travel aspect of the show beyond different periods being visited. The story has a fair go at these two concepts, with varying levels of success, but curiously despite being far more interesting than yet another revolution by oppressed Thal-esque natives, they fade into the background to allow that to eat up most of the screentime.

The Space Museum is built on a fascinating premise; a fault in the TARDIS results in the Doctor and his companions arriving at their destination before they've arrived, and getting a glimpse of the future, where they end up as museum exhibits. The rest of the story then sees them trying to find out how they end up like that so they can avoid it. The first episode is the pre-arrival one, with weird timey-wimey stuff happening, and it's the only episode of the story that doesn't seem run-of-the-mill.

In the TARDIS, the travellers' clothes change suddenly and Vicki's spilled drink unspills itself. Clearly the story can't wait to get started, and I'm certainly intrigued early on. I'm also thrilled to see the group stays together for the duration of the episode, and we get to see some general exploration of surroundings with no cast except the regulars, as so happened often in the first season but has been lacking since Vicki joined. However, this new group doesn't work as well as with Susan, though it's nothing to do with Vicki - Ian and Barbara have pretty much completed their character arcs; they're seasoned travellers, the fact that they are cut off from their home is rarely addressed, they get on well with the Doctor who has softened into the bumbling grandfather figure. Without that edge that made the original team so engaging, the new group is only as interesting as the things it encounters.

Fortunately, the best is yet to come. Into the space museum, and the weird events continue. The museum itself quite disappointingly doesn't have much on show, except an empty Dalek casing (which later gives us the best moment of the story when the Doctor hides inside it), but it's eventually revealed to be a military museum so I guess that's forgiveable (but still a shame). We see the travellers ignored by the Xerons and they can walk through objects - just when we think we're in store for a same old, same old "ghost person" story (unless it was novel in 1965) that element of the story is almost immediately shut down and the travellers see themselves as exhibits, along with the TARDIS, then the past catches up with them as they can now be seen and their footprints suddenly appear outside. This puts the lid on one of the best Episode 1's yet, and certainly the best sci-fi one besides The Daleks. Of course, after that the story does go all same old, same old but that's beside the point.

So then the troubles begin, as there are three episodes left and as the Doctor quickly explains all the mystery that has been built up, and all that was interesting. We have yet to find out how the future they glimpsed will happen of course, but aside from that this is now just another story.

What really lets The Space Museum down is that after a promising start it develops into a typical revolutionary story we've already seen several times, and does nothing new with it. It's not quite so boring as the one in The Web Planet, and thankfully is half the length, but it's way too easy. After being separated from the others, Vicki meets a few Xerons, native to Xeros, which has been taken over by the militaristic Moroks. A few conversations is all Vicki needs to assess the situation and come up with a plan to break into the Moroks' armoury and use their own weapons against them. I know Doctor Who is a low budget show and often tries big ideas with few resources and few people, but they should at least try to be realistic. The Xerons may be wimps, but Vicki's plan is naive and it shouldn't work, yet it does, and very easily.

Elsewhere, the Doctor is captured by the Moroks and tricks their mind reading computer in one of the story's best scenes. It shows off the Doctor's funny side and his dismissal of the narrow-minded military, but it still leads to his imprisonment for a whole episode because of one of William Hartnell's many holidays. Ian and Barbara get little to do either and might as well not be there.

The final part of the story does improve, because we're getting closer to the point where the Doctor and company might or might not be made into exhibits, and the revolution is in full swing so there's plenty of action. Soon, all four are captured, and all seems lost, but they have already set into motion the Xeron revolt which sees the Moroks off. It's a good episode to the story because despite the implausibilities in the plot it manages to build some momentum and excitement, which had been lost for a few episodes. The Daleks suddenly showing up in the last minute, giving chase to the departed TARDIS, is a great moment, and I think it would have been better if the explanation for the TARDIS jumping a time track was tied in with the Daleks. However, it's the first time for a while I've wanted to start watching the next story right away.

The Space Museum is a good argument for the length of seasons in the 1960s being too long - it feels like filler and retreads story ideas that have already been done. The writers would have been well holding back the premise set down by the great first episode until they could integrate it with a story that would continue its good work.

Horror quotient - Not that kind of story.
Comedy quotient - Once again, the Doctor is the comedy highlight. Season 2 was defintely the comedy Doctor season. The Doctor hiding in the Dalek casing and fooling the thought computer by thinking about an old bicycle are the standout moments. Why is the rest of the story so uninspired when these bits are so good?
Drama quotient - I get the feeling the Xeron revolt is supposed to be dramatic, but they don't convince as real people, partly because of an awful makeup job done on them, with their weird high eyebrows.

The Space Museum promises so much, but delivers so little. Not a total disaster, but it could have been a lot more.


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