Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A Faded Future

Over at the SFX Forum people have embarked on a plan to rewatch one story from each of the previous Doctors whilst we wait impatiently for Malcolm Tucker to start spitting in Dalek's eyestalks.  The twist here is that each Doctor's story is being chosen by two votes - who his best companion was, and what was his/her best story.

After some deliberation, the decision was made that Hartnell's finest travelling companion was Vicki (narrowly beating Barbara, and it'd be a difficult job to argue against those as the top two), which pretty much means the "Space Museum", for her glorious services to anti-imperial revolution.

As it happens, I think that story gets a bad rep.  And, since I've been explaining why at the forum (episode by episode, since living with my not-we girlfriend which limits viewing time), I figured I'd put my thoughts up here.  I'll put them below the fold for space-saving reasons; I can't believe there can be many people in the world desperate to avoid spoilers for mid '60s Who.

The Space Museum

In a lot of ways, this is probably my favourite Hartnell episode. I wonder if part of the reason this story has a poor reputation is because the following three episodes can't match up to how interesting this is. I mean, a ghost's-eye-view of a haunted house surrounded by space rockets, all caused by time-travel? It doesn't get more bonkers than that.

The setting is great, too. One of the cliches in science-fiction I find most tiresome is the way stories set in the future always summon up the writer's present when talking about their past. How many sci-fi TV shows spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the 20th Century? It's from the same stable as having acharacter list historical examples of something, and it's always the third that's from our "future". Irritating!

Here, though, we have the detritus of our own future lying around as artifacts of the past [1]. This would have been interesting enough upon transmission, but it's made cooler in retrospect. Back when this was first broadcast, the space age was still in full swing; the moon was something we were reaching for, rather than abandoning. Jones is writing about how the dreams of the age will eventually fade into the past, just as every dream does, but we're seeing instead the dusty remains of the path not taken; a future we shelved. Adding to the weird effects of the gap between transmission and now is the fact that Hartnell's era is now in effect a museum piece in itself. The difference between our heroes inside and outside of their transparent cases isn't actually all that different. It means that whilst plenty of the Hartnell era becomes harder to identify with as time goes on and we traipse further into the 21st Century, this episode always works, because it's explicitly about the idea that sooner or later, everything gets left behind.

(Oh, and Vicki saying the Daleks look friendly? Love it every single time.)

[1] Thinking about it, a great deal of my favourite sci-fi deals with this idea that there exists vast tracts of time between now and the future that can no longer be recalled. Dune is a good example, as is Gene Wolfe's New Sun books. You can add in the Warhammer 40K universe as well, which manages to be a pretty unusual combination of epic historical scope and lowbrow Boy's Own schlock.

The Dimensions of Time

Aside from that name still giving me the shakes, what can we say here? This episode is all about the potential energy. The energy we contain before we move, the thoughts stored in our mind before we give them voice. Also, the potential uses of a cardigan - even the very best ones - to get you out of a fix.

The Moroks are stacked with energy, obviously. They've failed to move for so long they're not even charging up anymore, like how the light on your rechargeable battery pack goes off when they've capped out, and are just waiting for you to do something with them. Last time I watched this I made some snarky remark about how even scenes meant to represent boredom shouldn't inspire it, but this time round I realised the point of the scene; it's that the Moroks are so bored and so amoral that they lament their fates in exactly the same tone of voice as they discuss wiping out local sentients. Not so much the banality of evil as the awful dullness of it.

Our heroes have a different problem; they know they have to act but they've no idea what action to take. Any choice they make could be the one that lands them in the tubes. The Doctor suggests they'd be no better off tossing a coin. This is incorrect. They would be much better off tossing a coin. There is an old game theory example about Sherlock Holmes boarding a train as he attempts to flee the UK and Moriarty's pursuit. He can get off at one of two ports on the route, and jump a ferry. He knows Moriarty will be waiting at one of the two ports, and if Holmes picks that one, he's dead. What should he do?

Game theory concerns itself with possible outcomes based on player choices. If Moriarty and Holmes choose the same port, Holmes is toast. And it doesn't matter how much effort Holmes puts into reasoning which port Moriarty might choose; there's still the chance Moriarty will ape his thinking and catch Holmes out. In this situation, you should toss a coin. If you try and reason your way out, a superior opponent will beat you more often than not. Rely entirely on chance, and you can never have less than a 50% chance of winning.

(Of course, in the Morok's museum, the Doctor and co. are trying to defeat the future, which cheats with all that "causality" nonsense. What a turdbungalow.)

The Xerons are the only people who are both able to do something and know what it should be, but apparently that doesn't matter in the face of the fear of failure (better than the face of permanent astonishment they seem to be wearing, you would think, but perhaps not). While the Doctor has to move and doesn't know which direction, the Xeron's have only one move to make but keep refusing to do it. Eventually the two problems will become entangled.

First though, the Doctor has an appointment to keep in the Preparation Room...

(Headscratchers for the day. Why do identical corridors matter when you're in a museum filled with unique artifacts? Why does Ian think you can't be captured unless your all together? Why can't the Moroks tell the difference between amphibians and amphibious? And what exactly did Barbara's cardie taste like?)

The Search

I like to think Glyn Jones gave his third episode that name because he couldn't get away with "Fuck Kipling".

To the extent to which this story deserves its reputation as a sedate run-around (so more of a stroll-around, I guess), I think Episode 3 is a big part of why. Losing Hartnell for an episode means stretching the other three characters' roles out, which harms the pace, especially when poor old Barbara gets a plot that can be best be summed up as failing to escape some gas. The discussion at the start about the paralysis of their position is frustrating as well; Ian's constant counsel to just wait and see is grating. It seems his assumption is that when any direction could lead to the same direction the best course is the laziest one. Me, I say the best course is the one that makes you look least stupid if you get it wrong. That makes refusing to fight in the hope that saves you a terrible plan.

Which the Xerons are starting to learn for themselves. Or are they? Once Ian gives up on his placid approach (which, to be fair, he does pretty quickly), he gets to have a bit of fun strutting around and waving his new raygun. And of course that's doing exactly what the Xerons say can't work: taking one weapon and using it to issue demands. Between Ian's actions and Vicki's, it seems increasingly clear that the Xeron's failures are just as much explained by will as they are resources.

This might be a problem, actually. Consider the times. Always consider the times. The Moroks are deeply chilling here once more - a small but potent dose of the banality of evil - as they alternately treat the Xerons as pesky children (shooing them away from the TARDIS is exasperation) and witless creatures to be exterminated when convenient. This is the ugliest aspects of the British Empire (still not yet fully crumbled when this was transmitted) in all its violent unpleasantness. The natives are just children for us to guide and educate (read Kipling's "The White Man's Burden" for more, but make sure you do it in range of a shower and some industrial-strength cleaner). Unless they object to that, in which case we'd best massacre them until they realise how much better things have gotten since we showed up.

Putting this on screen in the mid '60s is certainly worthy of praise. But it's not an unalloyed success, because really Vicki - herself a product of an expansionary Britain - is falling into the same trap; taking the natives in hand and explaining why they're going wrong. I think given the explicitly anti-imperial message of the story as a whole, the good clearly outweighs the bad, but it's still worth noting that telling other cultures how they should go about resisting invaders isn't qualitatively different from telling them how to go about accepting them.

The Final Phase

There isn't really a great deal to say about much of the last episode.  With the plot now kicking into what a low-budget '60s BBC show was pleased to call "high gear", themes and asides get swept away by a middling number of people firing toy guns at each other and falling slowly to the sound-stage floor.  The Moroks are still villainous, of course - shooting people dead even as they're ordering them to surrender, carrying away their own dead whilst leaving fallen Xeron to rot - but with war having broken out, the wonderful combination of extreme callousness and extreme boredom is lost.  Ironically, removing the sense of boredom clinging to the Morlocks makes them less interesting.

There is one idea here to love as we wait for the Daleks to show up and knock over the game-board, though.  After two episodes featuring various degrees of agonising about how one can act directly to change one's future, it finally occurs to our heroes - starting with Vicki, naturally - that they're better off interacting with others and changing their destiny with the returning ripples.  We improve our lives not by focusing myopically on how to improve them, but by being decent people to those around us and enjoying the resulting rewards.

Which works as well as anything as a summary of the Doctor's philosophy, I suppose. Sure, he's often terrible at applying it in practice, at least in his earliest iteration, but then that's what his companions are for.

That's what Vicki is for.

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