All we have to do is wait here until we arrive!
It took fifteen stories for Doctor Who to finally tell a tale about time travelling rather than time travel. Glyn Jones’ “The Space Museum” (Story Production Code Q) begins the series’ occasional (and frequently contradictory) exploration of the intricacies and oddities of actually travelling across time lines as opposed to merely flitting between different times in search of adventures that can easily be filmed using the BBC’s props and costume warehouses.
When we first meet our travellers in this story, they all stand mesmerized before the TARDIS control console, wearing their kit from “The Crusade” along with blank stares; then, after the TARDIS materializes on a rocky world littered with spacecraft of all kinds, they stand in the same place, wearing their uniforms, their trademark cardigans and blazers and jumpers and knee socks. And the Doctor doesn’t seem to think there’s anything quite remarkable about these sartorial shenanigans, nor the fact that Vicki dropped a glass of water that promptly un-breaks itself.
Still, the Doctor’s curiosity is piqued by the collection of spacecraft from different worlds and eras outside, so a little exploration leads to the titular Space Museum, where our heroes leave no footprints and cannot interact with any of the objects on display nor any of the museum’s visitors or guards. After much wandering through the Space Museum’s labyrinthine corridors, all of which are jumbled with random assortments of gadgets, our travellers find the most interesting exhibit of all (yes, even more interesting than the Dalek shell with helpful notation: “Dalek—Planet Skaro”): they find themselves.
And how does our unflappable Doctor deal with this encounter? He becomes positively existential.
It would seem that the good Doctor has encountered time paradoxes before, because he peppers Ian and Barbara with questions about their very beingness: Are we here? Where are we? He sense of self remains unruffled as fully accepts that he is in two places—not at once but simultaneously. Vicki, who has a basic understanding of such paradoxes (apparently learned in the strenuous hour per week she had to study prior to being stranded on a barren planet with a murderer), provides the best explanation of their curious situation:
Time, like space, although a dimension in itself, also has dimensions of its own. . . . We really are in those cases, but we’re also standing here looking at ourselves from this dimension.
The TARDIS, the Doctor grandly asserts, has jumped a time track, as though this sort of thing happens every so often, like blowing a tire or running out of gas. The end result is that the TARDIS and its occupants are overlapping, briefly, with their own time line, seeing the future without being able to interact with it. Once the TARDIS works the kink out (and at the end of the story the Doctor finds a small metal rod somewhere in the TARDIS’ innards that apparently caused the problem), our time travellers go to the proper place on their time line, prior to their exhibitization in the Space Museum.
Even the Doctor notes that he’s “always found it extremely difficult to solve the fourth dimension,” so he’s unsure of how to prevent the future that they’ve seen. Are their choices pre-determined to lead to the exhibit cases, or do they have some measure of free will? The strain of the conundrum begins to take a toll on Ian and Barbara, particularly once the Doctor is kidnapped by the rebel Xerons (with their massive double eyebrows) and then captured by the occupying Moroks who have turned Xeros into a museum to their culture’s fading glory. Every turn, every choice seems to lead to the display case.
And then there’s lots of running around and everyone gets split up and the Doctor appears in an Edwardian bathing suit on a mind reading machine and Ian threatens to kill someone because it would be futile but enjoyable and then Vicki starts a revolution by reprogramming a computer. Oh, and the Doctor hides from his pursuers in the Dalek shell in one of the funniest moments in the series to date.
In a way, the plot doesn’t matter in “The Space Museum” because, as Ian despondently proclaims, what they themselves do doesn’t matter. They can’t change the future they’ve seen, but it can be changed for them, by the people they interact with. Only by bringing about a systemic, cultural change—as Vicki does by arming the rebellious Xeron teenagers and assisting their overthrow of the Morok occupiers—can their own future as dust-gathering dummies be averted. And so, just as they’re about to be killed, the Xerons rescue the Doctor and his companions. It’s the people around you who determine your future. Give teenagers ray guns with which to kill everyone not wearing a black turtleneck and rocking massive eyebrows and you might just save yourself.
Prior stories have certainly raised certain issues of time travel, most notably when Barbara wants to change Aztec history; and again Ian and the Doctor encounter the Daleks again in London and Ian expresses confusion about how the Daleks could be on Earth after they had already been wiped out. And the Doctor’s insistence on the inviolability of certain historical events, particularly in the historical dramas, where the Doctor is seen as the proximate cause of such events as Nero’s burning of Rome and the overthrow of Robespierre, stands as canon already in a young series still trying to establish constants. But “The Space Museum” is the first story to really look at time travel on a broader level, and for that reason alone, despite the rather lackluster resolution of the time track jump, it feels far more modern than many other stories of its era. Hell, it even has Daleks.
All the killing (or so we assume) in the story doesn’t ruffle the Doctor’s feathers very much, though he does make a grandiloquent speech about how he’d like to freeze the Morok governor like he was frozen in preparation for the display case but won’t because of his conscience. Right before he’s captured again, of course. Strangely, the Doctor has never been in a Space Museum of any kind before, though he knows of their existence; later in the series’ run, such an opportunity to name drop newly invented locales would scarcely be passed up. He rocks a monocle in this story and knew James Watt, he of the steam engine. And at the end of the story, he brings a Time and Space Visualizer onboard the TARDIS, a rather fortuitous bit of gear for forthcoming episodes, as it turns out.
Ian jumps between rage, dismay, and cold-bloodedness in this story, holding guns on Moroks for most of the third and fourth episodes, though notably never shooting anyone. Towards the end of the story, he waxes rather nostalgically about “getting your own planet back;” while his and Barbara’s impending exits are not telegraphed at all in “The Space Museum,” there’s a sense in William Russell’s mannerisms that suggests he’s ready to get his own planet back, so to speak.
Barbara occupies a curious space in this story, strong and yet frantic. She practically drags a Xeron whom she’s just met out of the gas-filled Space Museum to save his life, and yet when confronted by herself in the exhibit, she melts down. It’s almost as though Jacqueline Hill is filling the traditional roles of both Barbara—who has become a keen planner under pressure—and Susan—who was quite ill-used in her run as a companion as a screaming plot device by the writers with the notable exception of “The Sensorites.”
This story finally gives Maureen O’Brien a chance to shine as Vicki, who single-handedly re-programs a computer to gain access to an armory and rouses the rabble to rebellion in order to change future history sufficiently to escape the exhibit tubes. While certainly human, she’s a future-human, much closer to the Doctor’s level than Ian and Barbara (and arguably Susan as well). She understands time travel (or at least time paradoxes, as her era does not have functioning time travel devices) and acts deliberately and decisively to effect a change in a way that both Ian and Barbara do not. A scant few episodes into the future, she will be the “senior” companion on the TARDIS, and this story gives us a glimpse of her potential.
Thankfully, Glyn Jones specifically uses the term “companion” for the Doctor’s tag-along-gang twice in two different scenes:
Lobos (to Doctor): Where are your companions?
Tor (to Vicki): First of all we must find your companions.
This phrase, used for the second story running, has not yet become the accepted term of art; story bibles at the BBC in the 1960s were perhaps not so all-encompassing as the ones that later became the norm for science fiction television shows.
In the final analysis, one can’t help but wonder if contemporary viewers were dissuaded from thinking much about the existential temporal dilemmas raised by “The Space Museum,” not because it’s all sort of hand-waved away by a bolt that got stuck in the TARDIS somewhere but because the final episode of the story ends with a Dalek, and not the one on display. This one is rather much more occupied.
Yes, the Daleks are returning, and this time, they have a time machine and have been tracking their “greatest enemies,” also known as the Doctor and his companions. I guess they got upset that he wiped out all the Daleks on Skaro and then foiled their plot to turn Earth into an intergalactic pinball. They’re touchy like that, and so they give chase . . .
(Previous Episode: The Crusade)
(Next Episode: The Chase)
Post 15 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project