Our culture is obsessed with preservation, especially now as it seems we’re getting farther and farther away from the origins of the things we most hold dear. There’s a sense of desperation in the hoarding and cataloging of the everyday things of art and ideas that define our world. Box sets and DVDs of television programs preserve what was once ephemeral. Shows were broadcast and, if we were lucky, eventually rerun again. Otherwise, they just disappeared.
There are 108 William Hartnell-era Doctor Who episodes gone, erased from tapes in the vaults of the BBC in the ‘70s because that’s just how things were done. It was believed no one would be interested in black and white television since color had become the standard. Practices like this failed to act on the preservative nature in society, but the failure of business executives was supplanted by the power of fans. Audio recordings and still photographs of many of those lost episodes survive thankfully. The shows themselves may be gone, but at least their artifacts remain.
“The Space Museum”, then is something of a treat. It’s a fully intact story from the final year of Hartnell’s run as the first Doctor. However, Robert Shearman, a writer for the current Doctor Who and expert on all things Who, notes in the bonus feature “Defending the Museum” that of all the stories to survive, this isn’t likely one anyone would pick. He says it’s a “cheap relic” of Hartnell’s run, and that the villains are “rubbish”. Still, he says, it’s full of ideas, fun bits of time travel arcana and commentary on the ignoring the future only to remember the glory of the past. His point is striking because it seems to sum up what’s best about this or any other Doctor Who story. Even the rubbish seems to be about at least trying something.
When the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions Vicki (Maureen O’Brien), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian (William Russell) land on a desolate planet they discover what appears to be a museum filled with thousands of artifacts and no visitors. They soon encounter some familiar exhibits, including a deactivated Dalek and, packaged like collectible action figures, themselves. As the Doctor explains it, the TARDIS has jumped a time track, and the travelers are looking into their future. They must then second guess every move they make, hoping they take the necessary steps to avoid the potentially deadly future. Along the way they ignite a revolution amongst the native Xerons against their oppressive rulers the Moraks.
The story is heavy on dialogue and spare on action, the characters standing around wondering if every step they take will lead to their deaths. There’s little in the way of costumes or sets, and the scenes of the Moraks plotting to put down the Xeron resistance are little more than clunky talking points that move us to the next scene.
Better are the Doctor and his companions. Despite its almost infinite floor space, the TARDIS feels crowded with four people inside, but there’s a real family dynamic at work among them. The Doctor is a grandfather figure for the three young time travelers, but in the face of danger he comes alive. He knows his physical limits when facing opponents, but keeps pushing himself, always looking as if he knows something no one else does.
The museum of the title is a collection of artifacts memorializing the Moraks’ triumphs, but they’re all mementos of the past. Like our own culture the Moraks struggled to hold onto the bright spots of the past, but in the process they lose hope of any kind of future. This story recognizes the mistake of always looking backward as just that. It’s a point reinforced by the story’s ending. The Daleks have located the TARDIS and are on the hunt for the Doctor, leading directly into “The Chase”.
The TARDIS next lands on the planet Aridius, a desert world that’s lost its vast ocean to the increasing power of its twin suns. There are the usual brushes with death—Vicki and Ian face off against the Mire Beast, a tentacled monster with a bulbous body that haunts the formerly underwater tunnels of the Aridians. The Doctor and Barbara meet up with two Aridians, portrayed by actors whose faces are painted metallic and their heads are covered in ill-fitting swim caps with fins. When the Daleks arrive the Aridians are forced to turn over their new friends or face extermination.
All this plays out at a quick pace. Aridius is a planet whose desolate surface beats with a dull throbbing sound punctuated by the whine of wind passing over its vast expanses. These are moody scenes, particularly when Vicki and Ian go exploring and disappear into the distance, their voices quiet, their bodies just specks on the horizon. These early scenes are ominous and weird, made even more so by the appearance of the Aridians. They speak as if hypnotized and move with the fluid motion of creatures that belong underwater. Even the unlikely appearance of the Daleks in the desert has a jarring, menacing effect.
Of course the Doctor and his companions escape, and it’s here the story ought to end. This being “The Chase”, however, the TARDIS is pursued “through all eternity” by the Daleks. What follows is a series of vignettes of the TARDIS landing on the top of the Empire State Building in 1966, the deck of the doomed ship the Mary Celeste and an animatronic house of horrors. These scenes feel like half-formed ideas which couldn’t be integrated into their own feature-length stories and were instead thrown in to pad this one.
The Empire State Building scene is playful, particularly in its over-the-top depiction of an Alabaman tourist who wonders if he’s stumbled onto a movie set after he sees the TARDIS arrive out of thin air. The Doctor eventually decides to make a stand on the planet Mechanus where he and his companions face a Dalek-made duplicate of the Doctor.
“The Chase” is giant-sized, cramming in about as many strange aliens, period set pieces and caricatures of southern Americans as on TV show can take. In this story the thrill isn’t in the chase. Things only get going when the action is confined to one place.
This three-disc set boasts a number of special features, including Shearman’s reevaluation of “The Space Museum” and a remembrance of William Hartnell by his granddaughter. Two documentaries on the Daleks, including one on the merchandising boom surrounding the ridiculous but nonetheless nasty robots, are particularly fun as they explore the worlds of other Dalek-centric stories and show how pervasive these strange creatures are in British popular culture. All those toys and games and models remind us that even the best items in a collection should be taken down off the shelf once in a while.