All We Do Is Stand Around

William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Maureen O'Brien and William Hartnell in Doctor Who - The Space Museum (BBC1, 1965).

At some indeterminate point late in 1965, Donovan recorded a song called Museum. In a sudden and surprising change of direction for the Dylan-‘inspired’ cap-sporting harmonica-toting folkie who only weeks earlier was more likely to be found on The Billy Cotton Band Show politely deedle-eedling his way through folk songs with a capital ‘f’ that seemed to be predominantly concerned with the weather, this was part of a new batch of songs experimenting with the crazy new psychedelic sounds that hadn’t even really found their way onto the London club scene yet, mixing World Music influences with jazzy bass and percussion, harpsichord, raga-tinged melodies and lyrics depicting hazy hallucinogenic vignettes, in this case a date with a girl in an astrakhan coat who insisted on meeting him under the whale at the Natural History Museum. Then he got caught up in contractual headaches and the new tracks were shelved for the best part of a year, during which time Museum got re-recorded as a slower saunter-along with less exciting guitar effects and a hoedown-friendly string accompaniment nobody asked for, but which at least wouldn’t have had anyone watching The Billy Cotton Band Show turning over to Thank Your Lucky Stars in fright.

Slightly earlier in 1965, Doctor Who had taken a trip to The Space Museum. In a not remotely sudden and hardly surprising in any way whatsoever lack of change of direction for The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki who only weeks earlier had been indulging in historically inaccurate gags with blacked-up extras in Crusades-era Palestine, this was part of a second run of episodes that saw several changes to the main cast and indulged in a few interesting experiments but more or less did pretty much the same as the massively successful first run, in this case some spooky and atmospheric business with them realising they’d arrived at the museum at a point before they got captured as exhibits followed by three episodes of wandering around reading out stage directions. It came and went and plenty of people watched it but nobody really noticed, after which they were straight off back into a battle of wits with The Daleks in a bid to prevent any more viewers turning over to Sugarfoot. Whatever that was exactly.

You’d be hard pushed to find very much in the way of active and engaged discussion about The Space Museum, but unlike The Sensorites, it could never really be classed as a forgotten or ignored story. If there is one detail about The Space Museum that more or less everyone is agreed on, it’s that the first episode is an eerie, unsettling and visually disorientating highpoint of the entire black and white era, full of imaginatively realised setpieces involving a ‘ghost’ Tardis and the Food Machine acting the goat and a genuinely shocking cliffhanger, and that the other three are seventy five minutes of barely distinguishable characters meandering along corridors and half-heartedly re-enacting the Tony and ‘Control’ sketches from A Bit Of Fry And Laurie.

William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Maureen O'Brien and William Hartnell in Doctor Who - The Space Museum (BBC1, 1965).

No matter how edgy and controversy-baiting you may be feeling like being, there’s absolutely no point in trying to set out to ‘reclaim’ Episodes Two to Four of The Space Museum. Nor indeed to search for reasons why they are actually better than Episode One, not worse like you and the interviewees on The Doctor’s Strange Love thought. The dip in quality is quantifiable and even arguably scientific fact, and there’s just no getting away from that. You may as well try claiming that Four Sail by Love is better than Love, Da Capo and Forever Changes combined. There are those, though, who will argue that for a massively inferior album marking a huge drop-off in musical and lyrical quality, Four Sail has its positive points, and even I will grudgingly accept that the flawed but dramatic August could at least hold its own in a fight with anything from the first three albums before being booted off by the seat of its pants, so could the same possibly be true of the other three episodes of The Space Museum? While this might not exactly be saying much, are they amongst the ‘stronger’ examples of the many, many dialogue-heavy, action-deficient, plot development-free episodes of original Doctor Who that they made while the kettle was on? Why do they apparently induce such intense levels of stultifying boredom even amongst those who can ordinarily think of nothing better than sixties studio-bound drama with too little action and too many lines, some of whom may even hope that, should an episode of long lost sci-fi/political drama R.3 ever turn up, it will turn out to be composed of precisely that? Well there’s only one way to find out, and it’s definitely not asking the sodding Moroks for answers…

Of course, you can’t really talk about the strengths and weaknesses of Episodes Two to Four of The Space Museum – that’s if there are any strengths to talk about at all, of course – without briefly looking at the first episode and taking into account just how sharp and rapid that descent from being exceptionally good really is. So that’ll be twenty five minutes of unsettling intrigue with the Tardis crew suddenly changing from their Crusades-era gear into their regular clothes without being aware of it, glasses of water smashing and then reassembling, the lack of footprints and Vicki’s inaudible sneeze, the confrontation with an inactive Dalek that’s somehow ended up as a museum exhibit, and the shock cliffhanger when they realise that they’ve arrived at a time immediately before they themselves become exhibits, and all of it backed by weird early electronic ‘music’ and judicious – rather than inadvertent – use of silence. If all of that wasn’t disorientating enough, the episode hurtles to a halt with a creepy montage of stills showing the glass finally smashing and the footprints mysteriously appearing like some German Expressionist re-imagining of the opening of Bagpuss, with The Doctor’s deeply concerned “either that, or we’re not really here” still echoing in the viewer’s ears. Not quite what you would have got on Quick Before They Catch Us, it’s fair to say.

Episode Two promptly capitalises on this surreal sense of excitement by opening with two lengthy scenes made up of near-identical characters we haven’t seen before droning on and on for seventeen million years about shift patterns and shoddy workmanship, delivering lines like “this will indeed be a red letter day for the Xeros calendar” with all of the enthusiasm of the talking Al Gore doll from The Simpsons being made to do the washing up because nobody else can be bothered. Meanwhile The Doctor and company busy themselves with arguments about whether they took a left turn and then a right turn followed by a left turn or whatever it is, with The Doctor handily shrugging off their lack of any tangible plan by scoffing that “spinning a coin would be just as appropriate”. It has the look of an episode of Out Of The Unknown, and the sound of an episode of The Newcomers, without the pace or the imagination of either. When The Doctor remarks to the Morok Governor that “from my observation it seems to arouse very little interest”, you have to admit that it almost feels like they’re waiting to see which audience member can come up with the best punchline. Admittedly William Hartnell appears to be genuinely enjoying himself in the scene where he hides inside the dormant Dalek, and indeed when he wreaks havoc with the Moroks’ attempts to telepathically interrogate him by imagining a Penny Farthing and other such bureaucracy-baffling whimsy, but they stand out precisely because the rest of the episode is so dull; and, the case of the latter, precisely because everything else about the rest of the scene is so dull.

William Hartnell hiding in a Dalek in Doctor Who - The Space Museum (BBC1, 1965).

The dullness is hardly exactly eradicated in Episode Three, with its endless rehashing of the same tired aimless conversations about nothing only with ever-increasing pauses between lines and confusingly limitless procession of overlong fight and chase and capture sequences in upwards of one character group combination, and the fact that The Moroks and The Xerons both essentially all look the exact same as each other makes it a joy and a pleasure to watch. Episode Four, unfortunately, is more or less exactly the same, though this should hardly be surprising with a story where it’s difficult to even tell most of the characters on screen apart. In fairness, the regular cast do get some good scenes, which are nice and brief and snappy even if the dialogue (“my brain was working with the speed of a mechanical computer”) does test the limits of linguistic acceptability at times, and there’s plenty of screen time for Barbara which is always welcome, but about which we shall say no more. She and indeed they are obliged to spend much of this time attempting to spur characters into action who just can’t be bothered, though, (“If that means just wandering around the exhibition aimlessly then we may as well”) and that’s really the essence of the problem with The Space Museum – the regular cast are doing their absolute best but working with supporting characters that might as well not exist and a script that seems to stretch on into infinity without even the vaguest hint of anything ever really happening. “All we do is stand around saying this whole thing is becoming a nightmare”, asks Barbara in desperation at one point, “why don’t we do something?”. It’s a question that the audience were probably asking too.

Aside from a clunky back-reference to Xeros in Galaxy 4 three stories later – which in fairness may well have seemed exciting to followers of Doctor Who back in 1965 when the chances of seeing any past adventures again were perhaps best described as ‘slim’ – that was essentially that. One of the few First Doctor stories to have existed quite merrily and obliviously on the archive shelves all along, and possibly the only one never to have inspired any debate over its ‘correct’ story title, The Space Museum stood there like one of its own exhibits, never really causing anyone to have very much at all to say about it. It wasn’t until 1987 that original scriptwriter Glyn Jones got around to novelising The Space Museum for Target Books, which he gave that same sort of weirdly melancholic atmosphere combined with  weirdly emotional yet emotionless insights into the inner misery of the Tardis crew that most writers reached straight for when they were trying to jazz up a widely-ignored Hartnell-era story that had been left to towards the end of the range, despite that tone and approach being directly at odds with what viewers would have thrilled to on Saturday teatimes. Even if the use of the word ‘thrilled’ is very much on a relative scale in this case. The fact that the cover had to be based on unexciting and generic visual reference material – and it’s a fair bet that most people reading this can’t even remember what was included in the artwork without looking – can hardly have helped, and poor old The Space Museum ended up as one of the overlooked and disregarded tie-in novels too.

Vicki meets a couple of Xerons in Doctor Who - The Space Museum (BBC1, 1965).

In the extras on the DVD release – surely one of the least eagerly anticipated of the entire range, so much so that it had to be bundled with the very much eagerly anticipated Dalek-heavy thrills and spills of The Chase – Doctor Who scriptwriter Robert Shearman makes a strong attempt at a defence of The Space Museum, arguing that whatever its strengths and weaknesses, whether by accident or design it comes across almost as a parody of the more formulaic black and white-era stories and as such is worthy of more attention on that basis alone. It’s a compelling, convincing and well-argued line of thinking, and for sheer energy and chutzpah one of the very best Doctor Who DVD extras of all, but ultimately there’s just no getting away from that almighty drop in quality between the first instalment and the rest of the serial. Much like how you now can’t get the good film in a franchise without having to have the lacklustre sequels as well (“The complete collection is now yours to own!” – “but I onl-” – “YOURS TO OWN!”), The Space Museum comes with the other three episodes whether you like it or not. Put your fingers in your ears and go ‘la la la I can’t hear The Morok Messenger’ if you want, but you’ll be a bit confused when they start Beatling around with the Space-Time Visualiser at the start of The Chase.

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, you can slot that original version of Museum by Donovan – alongside the similarly superior first attempt at much-censored putative single Superlungs (My Supergirl) – into whatever interpretation of the hardly exactly rigorously assembled in the first place Sunshine Superman album takes your fancy. The Space Museum, however, is what it is. There are no existing studio tapes to cobble together your own intended preferred edit from, and to be honest they probably hardly deviated from exactly what ended up on screen anyway. However, while it’s hardly likely that any right-swiper on Tinder will be arranging to meet you under the Barbara at The Moroks’ Space Museum – for, let’s face it, many, many reasons – it’s hardly worth skipping The Space Museum as readily as you would New Year’s Resolution (Donovan’s Celtic Jam). Episodes Two to Four aren’t actually bad, they’re just meandering and uneventful, and the sheer fantasticness of Episode One simply throws this into even sharper relief. They’re not exactly the most dynamic examples of television drama you’re ever likely to find, but neither were they supposed to be, and the fact that anyone is even slightly interested all this time later is a claim that can’t really be made of many of its contemporaries. And in any case, if you turned over now, you’d just get Ninja Warrior UK. Which is hardly likely to feature Donovan, going ‘deedle-eedle’ about the weather or otherwise.

Jacqueline Hill, William Hartnell and William Russell in Doctor Who - The Space Museum (BBC1, 1965).

Buy A Book!

You can find more of my thoughts on black and white Doctor Who in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Just watching it cool down would probably be more interesting than Episode Three of The Space Museum.

Further Reading

There’s Not An Ounce Of Curiosity In Me! is a feature on the similarly overlooked early Doctor Who story The Sensorites; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about why I think sixties Doctor Who‘s reputation for exhibiting a tendency towards adopting slightly less than politically correct standpoints is a complete and utter load of old claptrap on the politics and pop culture show The Zeitgeist Tapes here.

© Tim Worthington.
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