Following a truly wondrous adventure in Palestine at the time of the Crusades, the four time travellers, who have little idea where their destination is next, are caught in bizarre trap of cause-and-effect. Once they establish that their next moves are critical to their future, they realise they are potential saviour of an oppressed race known as the Xerons, who are being treated as no more than mere nuisances. This results from the Morok Empire seeking to turn a given planet and culture from notable achievements and culture into simply another functional collection of exhibits. Each move the Doctor, Vicki, Barbara and Ian make next could result in either another victory, or a final end as preserved specimens next to a barely descriptive plaque..
Oh, the poor, barely lamented Space Museum. Despite surviving the archive purge of the 1970s, this unremarkable story is often forgotten by general viewers and Who aficionados alike, as if it had indeed gone missing. The main superficial presentation and image of the story was off to a bad start from early on, due to the showrunners' budgeting decisions. (One can enjoy The Chase thanks to its reasonable production values and knowing humour, but it cost its predecessor dear). So, even more so than normal, the set designs were weak, making proceedings feel rather hollow and meaningless.
This made an already talky story into one that looked especially cheap, even by BBC 1960s standards. William Hartnell is also absent for much of the final two episodes, having been in decent enough form to help bolster the intermittently promising opening sections. Also for me, Mervyn Pinfield was a stage director in essence more than a TV one. Although he undoubtedly helped Verity Lambert in producing a then-ambitious 'tea time show for the family' he himself seemed to be just a step or two behind the actual pioneering entertainment format of television.
There is a pretty good central hook which explores causality and choice in a way rarely done in general. The main threat of becoming lifeless exhibits is a great premise but like so many mediocre stories that followed in decades since, the latter half of the story is a missed opportunity, and seemingly forgets the considerable prospects in favour of a very tired 'overthrow oppressors' finale. The problem is compounded by Barbara and Ian not being given anything memorable to do. Consequently the story is 'seen it all before', which certainly was unlike early Doctor Who at the same, and when it comes to ranking the story in its particular season, most would agree it was the low point. (Although some revile the rather over-ambitious The Web Planet).
It does however act as a fine exhibit - if I may borrow the term from the dastardly Moroks - of the full potential of Vicki, and this is magnified in the way author Glyn Jones has embellished and filled out the entire later half of the story to portray something a little more urgent and meaningful, rather than just a few badly dressed. actors of little experience and/or renown at the time. (Star Wars fans may well know that Jeremy Bulloch had an early role onscreen here, before becoming the rather charismatic Boba Fett).
This novelisation does have the unexpected depth of building up to Vicki's farewell story. Perhaps it is my sense of irony, that the Trojan Horse reference that briefly pops up, also can be used as a link to the fine The Myth Makers. Vicki is clearly attracted to one of the Xerons, and is now fully becoming a woman with some agency and self-respect. A far cry then from her very first appearance in the show, which was rather child-like, but no less likable for it. A maze needing to be solved is also part of Glyn Jones's efforts to make this more than just another B-movie-esque effort,
And in all honesty, the novelisation text is well above average when it comes to using vocabulary and original sentences. It thus manages to stylishly convey character motivations and perspectives. However the overall plot and element of surprise and drama is still not that impressive when comparing this book to the better novelisations of yesteryear. Therefore some of the urgency of the story, that the author surely hoped for, does not reach out.
The death/defeat of the Moroks is done in dismissive way, just as on TV, but with some added dark humour that ties in with an earlier sequence concerning Governor Lobos' love for chess. Unusually for Doctor Who, a humanoid race is granted annihilation and presented as a mere trifle. It may be one thing common to historicals for major deaths and massacres, but does stand out like a sore thumb for an escapade set far, far away in space.
Some fans will always have a soft spot for the Doctor's flesh and blood granddaughter Susan. I personally have always been more engaged by Vicki. In many ways she filled the role of a surrogate Susan, but was also clearly first and foremost an Earth girl, from somewhere in the not too distant future.
Appropriately enough the actress who played Vicki is the stalwart solo vocal contributor to this 5 disc release by BBC Audio. Maureen O'Brien is certainly not the first person that springs to mind when mentioning a person that waxes lyrical about their Who connection, and has been to conventions galore. But she is still someone that appreciates the show's importance, and once very frankly told an interviewer she needed the fan base of the show to give her book sales a significant boost.
Her takes on the regulars are all pleasant and authentic, with her 'as then' Vicki being excellent. Other voices are more mixed. The Moroks mostly are over done in being shown to be alien and cold. Some Xerons are pretty good, but undone by the source material's troubles with certain minor characters tending to blur after a while.
Music occasionally grabs hold during the auditory experience and sends a chill or two down one's spine. But the crucial opening CD barely has a note of sound other than the narration and a few effects. This does seem an odd way to do things.
Overall, this release is not to be dismissed and is worth a listen at least the once or twice. Yet it is not something to begin a relative newcomer's journey into either the First Doctor era, or indeed black-and-white tales of decades past. The inimitable Hartnell was the original version's primary saving grace, and rarely feels present here, such were his many visual acting gifts that were conveyed on-screen.
Taken as an attempt to improve on the many shortcomings of the original story, this is a partially successful attempt. If half-decent characterisation and some (often predictable) throwaway humour is of interest to a given listener, then this is quite worthy of recommendation.