Saturday, 20 June 2020


First broadcast April/May 1965
Written by Glyn Jones

“Exhibits in a forgotten museum… is this how we’re going to end up?”
- Ian

Not Making Yourself an Exhibition

‘The Space Museum’ has the ignominious role of bottoming out the Hartnell era in polls, ranking below even maligned moments ‘The Sensorites’ and ‘Planet of Giants’. Yet with the curios complication of everyone liking the first episode…

‘The Daleks’ had made much of the planet they land on first seeming empty and desolate, the better to introduce the adversaries. It’s a neat enough trick, also used in the first episode of ‘The Prisoner’. Yet by now they’d already re-used it more than once. However, instead of breaking the pattern this story plays into it…

So the travellers arrive on the new planet, Xeros, but this time they’ve got ahead of themselves. Unable to make contact with anyone their phantom forms wander (and wonder) about the titular Space Museum for a bit, before they run into their own selves, displayed in glass cabinets, effectively stuffed and mounted.

Now, you may be surprised to hear this makes little sense. They can’t touch the exhibits, but neither can they pass through doors. And it seems they can lean against walls. They’ve jumped forward in time, but when Vicki drops and breaks a glass it doesn’t hover mid-air, it (for some reason) reverses.

Nor do intra-story explanations help much. The Doctor tells everyone “the Tardis jumped a time track and ended up here in this fourth dimension.” Vicki adds "time, like space, although a dimension in itself, also has dimensions of its own”. Yeah, thanks, Vicki. And the whole thing is resolved by exactly the same get-out they used in ‘Edge of Destruction’, a faulty instrument on the Tardis. (By this point wouldn’t it be easier just to tell us when it was working?)

But of course all that’s really just beside the point. What it’s supposed to be is spookily atmospheric, which it most definitely is. The whole episode through I was exulting in the spacey soundtrack, only to read later this was just assembled from stock recordings. But it works so well here because it so fits the setting.

The Tardis Index files sees this as “the first story to deal with the dimensions of time as well as space and the first to feature alternate timelines." But of course such science fiction notions have nothing to do with it, this is a weird tale wrapped up in SF clothing.

Barbara is much more on the mark when she comments its “so quiet, it could be a graveyard.” It’s not just tonally similar to the classic 1962 film ‘Carnival Of Souls’, it has several points of comparison - the world you can see around you but can’t connect to, the lack of footprints.

Of course both echo the folk tale of being made aware of your own death. You know the one, the man who saw Death hanging around outside his semi in Milton Keynes, so booked a Virgin train all the way to Hemel Hempstead to skip out on him. Only for old cowl head to show up there, saying “that's funny, I wondered why you were over that way when I’d be meeting you here.” (The precise details can vary across cultures, I hear.)

Except being exhibits is for our friends literally a fate worse than death. They are at root travellers. (The idea Ian and Barbara are desperate to get back to Coal Hill School so they can mark more homework, that long since slipped out of view.) Taking their freedom of movement away would be the cruellest thing of all.

But there’s a bigger difference. You might wriggle, but those folk tales always ended up with Death winning. Now plot spoilers, but they don’t get stuck in those glass cabinets and no more ‘Doctor Who’ was made after 1965. Except here victory doesn’t come from cheating Death but by changing the future. As is quite explicitly stated.

Now the story immediately before this, ‘The Crusades’, was all about time having to run its course. As we’ve grown used to, the science fiction episodes having entirely different ground rules to the historicals they alternate with. But it’s more than just that sharp juxtaposition. Previously, if historicals emphasised their rules the science fiction stories saw no need to. After all, we implicitly knew Napoleon was real and the planet Xeros is just made up. Now suddenly, the future being unwritten is proclaimed and placed dead centre.

Try This at Home Kids (Space Youth in Revolt)

After the first episode, their phantom status ends and the travellers can talk to the locals. Which is described in Wood and Miles’ Discontinuity Guide as “like channel-hopping between a Jean-Paul Sartre play and a Cliff Richard musical.” And tonally this is true.

But conceptually a link is found between the travellers’ mission and the local Xerons’. One needs to break the intractability of time, the other stage a political revolution. As if the will of fate and the hold of custom are linked. It’s the sort of endearingly bonkers notion that only ’Who’ can come up with.

It’s reminiscent of the great Atari Teenage Riot line - “let’s change the future starting here.” In fact it’s almost a cliche to point out that revolutions often devise new clocks and calendars. (The next Herbert who tries to tell you revolution never achieved anything, ask them where they think the metric system came from.)

And, just like changing the future was never brought up before in a science fiction story, this is the first time revolution is mentioned. But how come? Anti-colonial struggles can be called revolutions, as in the American revolution. Yet in, say, ‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’ the word is only used when Barbara’s trying to throw the pepperpots off the scent. So why does it come up now?

The answer may be, to quote Thunderclap Newman, “there’s something in the air”. We’ve already asked what the first Sixties story was in ’Who’, as in the first one to reflect the decade as we now think of it. Now it’s time to move onto what’s the most Sixties. And this would be a strong contender. ‘The Daleks’, ‘The Reign of Terror’, ’The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ and ‘The Web Planet’ all essentially still fought the Second World War. While ‘The Sensorites’ had shown us how old hierarchies had to be maintained against dangerous individualists.

This time we’re clearly dealing with The Kids against The Man. And we’re on the side of The Kids.

The Xerons are young, excitable and dress in black with modish haircuts. It’s not clear whether they spend their evenings playing bongo drums and smoking foreign cigarettes, but it seems likely. While the Moroks wear bulky white uniforms, and live a rather jaded existence within a rigid hierarchy.

And the most noticeable thing about the way the story shows their revolution is that it’s just that - the show of revolution. After this moment of mad insight where political revolution is compared to changing a fixed future, revolution is rendered as a cliche. We’re told explicitly that seizing the guns “is revolution”. And this emphasis on guns seems strangely un-’Who’, even at this early stage.

At one point the Doctor gently chides Ian for picking one up, but that’s it for the anti-gun message. ’The Sensorites’ got round the problem by having weapons which didn’t look like weapons. These are classic ray guns, they look like they were bought from a nearby toy shop. And so revolution is waged like it’s a Boy’s Own Adventure.

But are a bunch of boys running round with pop guns really going to overturn one social relation, and replace it with another?

Bizarrely, the answer we’re given is yes.

To probe into this, let’s ask the Xerons the classic Marlon Brando question - “what you rebelling against?” One of them explains “Only the children were spared, to work. We are a slave race”. But their slaving duties seem light. They spend most of their time hanging about in a state of funk. But then they couldn’t seize control of the means of production if they wanted, as there doesn’t even seem to even be one. All there is… well, there’s just the Museum. Which they decide to smash up.

And the Moroks… In my day, demonstrators were wont to chant at the cops “you’re crap and you know you are”. God knows what they’d have made of the Moroks. The rules of drama would seem to require intimidating antagonists. Or at least mildly capable ones. Here a Morok chief complains “I’m supposed to have at my command trained soldiers, not a feeble bunch of half witted amateurs.” But them’s the breaks. When one’s left on guard duty and the camera stays on him, you half wonder if he’ll sneak off for a crafty fag.

It would be tempting to see their sheer crapness as reverse-written into the story, a way of dealing with the quality of Morok acting they’d been given to work with. But the labyrinthine Museum is clearly there to represent their moribund, stagnant society, the dead weight of their own history upon them. (Of course that would mean the museum should just hold Morok wares, a taunting reminder of past glories, rather than Daleks. But never mind…) In a nice touch Moroks never visit the place unless they’ve been ‘volunteered’ to guard it, just knowing it’s there is burdensome enough.

While their other main weapon, apart from turning people into exhibits, is paralysing gas. It was round about now Bob Dylan famously said “it’s not the bomb that’s got to go, man, it’s the museums.” But then I’ve called this whole series ‘The Museum of Forgotten Futures’, so it’s scarcely a surprise a Space Museum would appeal to me.

In short revolution is seen as a purely cultural war to be fought by purely insurrectional means. A kind of double category error. It would be like realising too many venerate the British Empire, so now we need to set up some roadblocks. But then that’s pretty much the way I saw revolution when I was of Xeron age, a bit of excited running about with your mates, after which everything would suddenly be fine. And that may be telling of more people than me…

Using aliens as a metaphor for racism makes some sort of sense. Arguably you’re just scaling up, from seas to space, from nations to planets,. Age might sound a different matter. But this was the era where generation gap became almost social rift. So it’s turned into a conflict between two cultures, one trapped beneath a stifling past and the other young and breathing. As Rob Young wrote of the times: “The British were faced with the stark choice, innovate or stagnate. Move on from the greyness of post-war Britain, or become irrevocably mired in self-pity and memories of vanished glories.” (’Electric Eden’, Faber & Faber)

My default position on the politics of ’Who’ is that it marks the limits of liberalism. So if it tries to conceive of something revolutionary the best it can muster is cartoon revolution. It’s like if I tried to dance to Grime. It wouldn’t be very convincing to anyone, but least of all to those who can actually dance to Grime.

But what if this works the other way up? What if this is a truthful portrait, depicting something which was a caricature of itself in the first place? Those barricade-building radical youths of the day may have had more Xeron in them than we might like to think.

These days our choices seem between neoliberalism and fascism. (And arguably even that’s a false choice, which we dither over while we’re really getting increased doses of both.) So it becomes tempting to look back longingly to the days when revolution was so in the air it even blew into TV studios. But we need to take a sharper look.

The Youth International Party, more commonly known as the Yippies, made their mission statement to “shout theatre in a crowded fire”. And much from this time turned out to be no more than the theatre of revolution. In his monumental film essay ‘A Grin Without a Cat’ (1977), Chris Marker summed up the era as “a grin without a cat, a spearhead without a spear”. Sound and fury which didn’t necessarily signify much. The first Angry Brigade ‘action’ wasn’t till 1970. But they matched Marker’s description to a tee.

Also, if this still seems to side too easily with The Kids, we should take care not to squash the Sixties together in our minds. The Grosvenor Square riots, semi-insurrection across the water in France… these things are still three years away. In 1965 revolution could still be presented as youthful exuberance, an evening’s entertainment.

Vicki is the Vanguard

El Sandifer says with some excitement “this is where ‘Doctor Who’ picks a side.” Yet if ’Doctor Who’ does the Doctor doesn’t follow suit. Like Ian and Barbara, he’s mostly concerned with not being made an exhibit. The Xerons get to him first, but fail to make any contact with him.

Instead, as Susan did in ‘The Sensorites’, Vicki gets her moment, Last time the poor li’l orphan girl was clinging to the Doctor, worrying he’d leave her behind. Now she’s with her own age group she instantly becomes a revolutionary. And if it seems a strange jump in character, this Vicki is so much more fun to be around you’re tempted to say it’s all the other Vickis who were wrong.

And her high point is when she overcomes the Morok’s “electronic brain” to get the Xerons their guns. This we’re told has a kind of double security lock, both checking password information and working as a lie detector. The Xerons have come to regard it as impregnable. So Vicki simply reprograms it to ask different questions. Asked “for what purpose are the arms needed?” she brightly replies “revolution”, and the guns get served up.

It’s the one workable analogy in the whole story. Revolution doesn’t mean negotiating with the machine or destroying it but reprogramming it, rejecting the perspective you’ve been given and creating your own. There’s the classic quote from Jose Ortega Y Gasset: “Revolution is not the rising up against the pre-existing order, but the setting up of a new order, contradictory to the traditional one.” Jack Graham made this one of his top fifty moments from ‘Who’ history, arguing (rightly) that beating the machine is a more revolutionary act than getting the guns.

Yet the weakness of the Vicki plotline lies there as well. Back in ‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’ we looked at the notion ‘Doctor Who’ was vanguardist. The travellers’ role is to effect change, you and me are just the supporting cast who wait for them to show up. And this, the most explicitly revolutionary story, is also the most overtly vanguardist. The implications is that had she never arrived, the Xerons would still be frustratedly furrowing their double eyebrows.

Inherent to the concept of the vanguard is being positioned outside. While most of us are mired in our social and historical context, amid too many trees to see the wood, their all-seeing eye floats above such obstacles. Their perspective transcends history, a bit like… well, like time travellers. And, in line with the story’s gun fixation, the term originated in the military.

And this at the height of the Cold War, when everyone’s default example of a revolution was Russia. And everyone knew that revolution had fallen under control of a vanguard, and soon become nothing but a dictatorship plus noble platitudes. Reactionaries would insist this proved the foolishness of the whole endeavour. While revolutionaries… yer actual, genuine revolutionaries would insist that revolutions and vanguards were not synonymous but in fact antithetical.

And Sixties youth movements, tending towards libertarianism, were inherently distrustful of being told what to do by anyone. Another famous Dylan line was “Don’t follow leaders and watch the parking meters.” In 'If....' (1968), the young rebel hero decorates his room with photos from the then-contemporary Prague Spring. Youth sided with youth, wherever Iron Curtains fell. The whole Vicki plotline sails past that central debate like it doesn’t even see it.

‘The Space Museum’ often itself feels like something the Moroks might have made. A repository of SF cliches, delivered up with risibly expositional dialogue. Yet alongside those terrible cliches are moments of deranged imagination, in a way that seems almost unique to ’Who’.

Even ‘The Web Planet’ was consciously trying to do something different, and so not entirely succeeding. Whereas ‘The Space Museum’ shifts between ray guns and Space Museums, between insights into revolution and absurd caricatures, not like it needs the furniture of one to tell its tale but like it genuinely can’t tell the difference between the two.

Ask not “is it any good?” Of course it’s not! It was made quickly, on a shoestring, designed to briefly entertain a one-off audience and be done with. Costumes are silly, performances flat and dialogue clunky. But things can be well-made and accomplished, and remain utterly unmemorable. Ask instead “is it mad, and possibly even slightly visionary?” That’s what we want ‘Doctor Who’ for. It’s not enough for it to be about the strange, it has to be strange.

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