Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Serial 18: Galaxy 4

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Vicki, Steven

Written by: William Emms
Directed by: Derek Martinus & Mervyn Pinfield

Background & Significance: Season three of Doctor Who might be the most peculiar and experimental the show ever got. It featured a standalone, Doctor-less, companionless one part story, a twelve episode Dalek epic, a companion-centric, Doctor-lite story, a four-part story that jumps seven centuries into the future halfway through, and a western that's also kind of a musical. It's a weird ass season, full of experimentation for the show.

But season three started somewhat more auspiciously.

By the time "Galaxy 4" rolled around, Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert was on her way out the door. This story and "Mission to the Unknown" were produced in the same production block as season two, but held over for the start of season three as the show tended to do back in the day. We've already talked about "Mission to the Unknown" and how good that was, but this is the last time Lambert got to produce a fully actualized story in the traditional classic, Doctor Who mold. Unfortunately, because there's a transition aspect to each producer taking over the show (producers typically shadowed their predecessor before assuming the reins in full) Wiles was apparently partially responsible for the production of this episode. And apparently it was not all peaches and cream, Wiles going so far at one point that he was reportedly thinking about firing Hartnell (which set the tone for his producership more than anything, I'd say).

But yes. "Galaxy 4". Written by one-time Doctor Who writer William Emms (who had written for Z-Cars and other contemporaneous ilk) and directed by first-time Doctor Who director Derek Martinus (who directed this only because Mervyn Pinfield backed out at the last moment) who would go on to direct some terrific stories across the rest of the 60s, it really is the quiet end to the Lambert era on Doctor Who. That's not to say Lambert went out without some great hits, but honestly it feels like she was building to "The Chase" or "The Time Meddler" (take your pick) and this story becomes one of the real forgotten stories of Doctor Who. That's probably because it's shoved in an easily looked-over place in the Doctor Who canon. Or because it's got a rubbish title. Or because it's entirely missing. I mean, why talk about "Galaxy 4" being missing when you can talk about "Marco Polo" or "The Massacre" missing. Those are the bonified classics.

Now that'll change, I'm sure, once the recently recovered third episode hits mass distribution, but until then we're still relegated to a story that's largely forgotten and widely dismissed and I have to wonder if that's deserved or not. And of course, me and my wonderings is why I do this blog. Or something. I don't know. Maybe I'll figure that out some day.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

There’s a quiet elegance to this episode. Not a whole hell of a lot happens, but it does seem to fly by. I mean, basically, you have The Doctor and Vicki and Steven in the TARDIS. They see what later becomes known as a “Chumbley” (so named by Vicki and hereafter adopted by everyone for some reason). They are chased. They are rescued by Drahvins and there follows a six minute sequence that’s actually managed to survive this long in which The Doctor and the Drahvins suss out what’s going on and the Drahvins reveal that the planet will only survive for fourteen more sunrises after which it will explode. The Doctor and Steven return to the TARDIS to see if that’s really true and The Doctor realizes that not only WILL the planet explode, but they actually only have two days before it does. Which is a twist! Cliffhanger! Oh no!

What I love about it is the way that it plays on established Lambert tropes and standards that you see in her other sci-fi stories. I mean, isn’t this just a retread of “The Daleks” but with a different plot? You have mysterious, cute looking mechani-bots who seem to be menacing and invulnerable and unstoppable. So Daleks. And then you have the paragon of human existence: beautiful blondes who are fighting the evil mechanical baddies and speak of a higher power they will fight. So Thals, basically. And yet, there’s a subversion to this that is only going to get more. See, I don’t remember the Thals ever needing to take anyone prisoner or captive?

That’s a big tipoff, isn’t it? Because good guys would trust, wouldn’t they? Good begets good. And yet…

But isn’t that all we’re doing with this story? I mean, it opens with a haircut. And what is a haircut? It’s a way of making yourself look presentable by cleaning up the excesses and entropy of time and sprucing yourself up to look more presentable? And yet you still look the same. You’re the same person. Your face hasn’t changed. But you at least look new. And isn’t that just what Lambert did in her sci-fi episodes? The tropes established in this episode are not so different from tropes used previously. But there’s a twist on them. They feel fresh and new in a new way. But really…? Beautiful sect of a community enmeshed in some civil conflict with “ugly people”? Isn’t that just Doctor Who to a t?

I mean… Everyone knows Daleks are felled by stairs. Not mesh nets.

But Emms lays enough clues here to provide real doubt. And even beyond that, the inclusion of the planet’s imminent explosion is a great way to raise the stakes. It’s a great cliffhanger out moment because it really locks in the last piece of the puzzle of this story. We’re going to be dealing with the Drahvins and the Chumblies clearly. And the Rill apparently, but we haven’t met them. That’s okay, though because they sound scary (say the crazy lying blonde ladies) because we’ll meet them later. No. The time bomb is the final piece necessary to this story because now we have a reason to come back. The Doctor is on a planet that’s about to explode and it’s obvious that he’s under the control of the Drahvins.

It’s a great place to be and isn’t a left turn because, well, we didn’t know it yet. But two days and the planet will explode? Words cannot express the love I have for that cliffhanger. It’s so simple and elegant and yet… well… oh shit.

Part 2:

See, I already remember what people complain about when it comes to this story. It’s boring, right?

Well, not exactly. Sure, I can see how you’d argue it’s boring. I mean, the pacing is excruciating even for a Hartnell story. Not a whole hell of a lot happened in the first episode and not a whole hell of a lot happens in this episode. I mean, the Chumblies attempt to break into the TARDIS some more by wiring it with explosives (although the why of this is sketchy; from the outside, the TARDIS isn’t that big and wouldn’t a big explosion risk demolishing the whole thing?) and then The Doctor and Steven return to the Drahvins and relay their findings that yes, the planet will explode. It’s then up to The Doctor and Vicki to go to the Rill spaceship (the Rills being the Drahvins’ enemies and ostensible bad guys of the story) to try to take out the Rill, fix up the spaceship, and then get all the Drahvins aboard so they can all escape.

It’s very basic, but what Emms introduces in here is a bunch of great character stuff that defies explanations.

Take The Doctor for instance. Part of the key plot for The Doctor in this involves him lying to the Drahvins about his findings in the TARDIS. Yes, the planet will explode, but The Doctor discovered (as we discussed previously) that the planet will not explode in the fourteen dawns like the Drahvins suspect, but rather in two dawns. And yes, it’s a twist, but what’s twistier is that The Doctor elects not to tell them of the accelerated timetable. This, more than anything, tells us of The Doctor’s thoughts in this. He clearly doesn’t trust them with the information and attempts to hold that knowledge-power over them. It doesn’t work, but it tells us a lot about the Drahvins and how we clearly shouldn’t trust them. We trust The Doctor, perhaps we shouldn’t trust the Drahvins.

This doesn’t work, though. The Drahvins threaten Vicki (which is what good guys do, totally) and The Doctor instantly folds despite the fact that he could easily lie to them and get out of the whole situation because there’s no way of proving anything.

We also get some great Vicki stuff, as she proves her mettle as a companion. I love the way she follows The Doctor’s obervation method to figure out that the Chumblies have a blind spot that they can utilize to get into the Rill spaceship. It really shows a companion being smart and useful (always laudable), especially because it cuts down on the time they spend sitting around deciding what to do next. And! It leads to what can only be at least a little exciting, what with them sneaking into the spaceship by circumventing Chumblies left and right.

And even Steven isn’t too bad. I love his sewing rebellion amongst the Drahvins one at a time.

But perhaps the best thing about this story is the setting because it’s so… different. This planet that the TARDIS has landed on is not actually the indigenous home for either the Drahvins or the Rill. And yeah, I know that’s obvious. And yeah, I know that the background used for the recon is based on the bleakness of the publicity photos. But man oh man. There’s nothing like watching The Doctor and Vicki walk around a vast, barren wasteland of a planet on the verge of explosion. The context is really exciting and new and paints a really bleak picture. This planet doesn’t seem to be able to sustain life at all, does it? So it really is just about the Drahvins and the Rill and nothing else. There’s nothing on this planet that’s a threat.

Except perhaps the planet itself.

Oh and that random cliffhanger. About which more in a second.

Part 3:

Toby Hadoke talks about this in “Running Through Corridors”, but it’s a realization that I’ve come to as well: when you first dig into the history of Doctor Who and learn about the missing episodes and that there are some that are totally incomplete and some that are missing only one or two or a few episodes your gut reaction is almost inevitably “oh man. I wish we could find those two episodes of 'The IceWarriors' so it would be complete.”  It’s a selfish notion really (and yeah I’m talking about selfishness, but go with me for a minute) because that’s just a way of wishing for whole stories so you won’t have to resort to a reconstruction in any way shape or form.

And yeah. I’m guilty of harboring this sentiment. Was a time early on when I didn’t want to watch stories that had missing episodes. This does, of course, leave out huge swaths of stories that are excellent. But it’s still a sentiment I had.

Now, though, I’m of the mindset Hadoke talks about when he says he’d rather have just one episode from stories that are missing entirely. And that’s better, I think. Sure, the first episode of “The Web of Fear” is not its best episode by any stretch of the imagination, but it gives us a flavor for what that story is like. And it’s a flavor that isn’t extrapolated. It’s tangible. It’s understandable. And that’s the thing about “Galaxy 4”, which, like “The Massacre” is somewhat screwed when it comes to discerning a flavor or tone. “The Massacre” (like “Galaxy 4”) had no screencaps to speak of, so everything we’re getting off of it is all down to script. And “The Massacre” is one of the best scripts of The Hartnell era of Doctor Who, so it gets by on almost all that.

“Galaxy 4” doesn’t have that luxury. No. Its script, while not bad, is certainly not one of the best scripts of its season, much less of the Hartnell era.

But I think “Air Lock” would go a long way to helping us appreciate “Galaxy 4” more. When “Air Lock” was found, it was screened before an audience to show a lucky few what it looked like, and from preliminary reports, it was well-received. There was talk of Martinus’s shooting style being very dynamic and varied, talking about high shots and sweeping shots. These things are completely lost in the reconstruction, which is slip shod and does a fine job with what its given. Then again, it’s not given much and spinning straw into gold is only a fairy tale after all.

And after watching it this time I really wanna watch it.

It’s not because I find this episode terribly exciting or terribly engaging. It’s not. It’s about the quality of the previous two episodes, but there’s a promise of seeing exciting things here that are lost in the recon. The Rill, for one, are something of a master stroke. And if that’s a bit overselling it, then I’ll say that it’s remarkably clever. They specifically limit the number of Rills to what they can afford (four, because the rest were killed in the spaceship crash) and what they do have they put behind a heavy door and only show through a pane of glass. It’s an extremely clever way to obscure a monster and show it but leave a lot of it to the imagination, where you can fill in the gaps with whatever you like.

It’s also a great way of explaining how the Chumblies are useful to the Rill and gives them a job beyond “weird robot things”. They’re the avatars of the Rill in the real world. Which is great.

Finally, I love the discussion Maaga has with her Drahvin underlings about the glory of imagination and the power of that. It provides a nice layer about Drahvin culture (Maaga is the smartest and only one who is allowed to think; the other Drahvins do not think) and also is a wonderful little speech about the dynamics of knowledge and power. The Drahvins might be evil, but the ability to think creates a power dynamic and hierarchy that is unquestioned. Why would it be? Dumb people wouldn’t question orders because it would never occur to them. But it makes a lovely point about the nature of power and such. And god. Maaga’s discussion of what it’s like to imagine The Doctor and Steven and Vicki disintegrating on an exploding planet is tremendously engaging and says a lot about how she views the world and what she values.

See? There’s good stuff in here. And yeah, I guess I didn’t need the episode, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be selfish and greedy.

Part 4:

At the end of episode one we got the revelation that the planet was going to explode in two dawn’s time. It gives us a great, dynamic, stakes-driven storyline around which they construct the structure of the narrative. And... well… they don’t do much with it, do they?

This episode, I think, is the one most worthy of the scorn people might rain down upon this story. And why not? I mean, night falls and we find out we have four hours until sunrise. And then The Doctor is filling up the Rill spaceship to charge and power it. And then there’s an hour to go. And then it’s time. They send the Rill on their way and then The Doctor and Vicki and Steven run back to the TARDIS but they have a half hour and they depart just as the planet starts to explode, leaving the Drahvins behind to roast and burn and atom-scatter, only they all get to see it, not imagine it.

The problem as I see it is a lack of time-crossover if that make sense. You notice it when you watch a lot of Star Trek. People go for “accuracy” and “realism” when it comes to the internal chronometer of the story despite the fact that non-diegetically the episode takes place over significantly less time than actually passes in the episode. What is four episodes (a hundred minutes) here is actually some fiftyish hours in story time. And illustrating that timespan dramatically is difficult, especially when this episode has to cover some fourish hours and make it seem urgent and exciting and fast paced. And it’s difficult to have Data say to Picard “It’ll take us four hours to get there”, Picard says “make it so”, and then we get “Captain’s Log! We have arrived there!” because to us it’s been ten seconds and those four hours are never felt because as far as the characters and we are concerned it just happened between shots.

And this story really falls prey to that. The Drahvins supposedly siege the Rill spaceship for hours and hours and hours but that time is never felt because the Drahvins are apparently rubbish at sieging.

Because of that… poor structuring, this episode falls apart and isn’t exciting, engaging, or… anything really. It just happens. There’s a rather lovely scene where the Rill bring The Doctor into their chambers to see what they look like, and bless their souls they’re insecure about how they look and must appear to those who are “more beautiful than them”. And yet The Doctor cares about them and is compassionate and understanding in a way only The Doctor could be. But it’s like everyone who’s around has all the time in the world to sit and chat and no one cares that the planet is on the verge of exploding.

There’s good stuff, though. The stuff with the Rill is both respectful and insightful. There’s a promise and not to them that really kinda sticks with me. When the head Rill says to Vicki that he will probably not see them again, there’s a majesty and wonder to Doctor Who that I haven’t really felt since “The Web Planet”. It really spells out the universe as this big place, a place so vast and diverse that the chances of coming across the same species more than once are long shots to say the least and that the Rill can go off and have an existence and never appear in Doctor Who again (which I think is for the best for this exchange to mean the most) really gets to the heart of Doctor Who as a show about exploration. It really is about the possibilities of “life out there” and what the means for everyone else.

Because really, what are the chances of a blue box, evil blondes, Rill all descending on a particular planet at the same time shortly before that planet is wiped from existence? Possibility, it seems, is all around us at once.

Final Thoughts?: "Galaxy 4" is a story that will never win any awards in Doctor Who, but as a piece of quaint science fiction it actually does a pretty great job.

Yes, it's imperfect. The final episode is a listing, lazy, stakesless wasted opportunity. What should be exciting and thrilling and nonstop ends up flat and dull. Yes, The Doctor leaving the Drahvins on the planet as it explodes is morally questionable.

But past those things we're left with an exceedingly average Doctor Who story that has glimpses of greatness that speak to larger themes. The subversion of the monstrous Rill being kindly and wise when compared to the beautiful blonde, yet cold and bloodthirsty Drahvins can't be understated and is a really clever move by Lambert for her last story. Especially clever is the use of windows by Martinus, as the first time we see the Rill are looking at The Doctor and Vicki through a porthole. So too, do the Drahvins look at Steven through a porthole as he's suffocating in the air lock.

And there's the promise of the future. Verity Lambert's stories always transport the viewer to far off places. But because she had no budget for it, she did the best she could and left the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps. And that was a conceit that runs through the rest of Doctor Who. But here is one of those stories that really relies on it. Sure, that's mostly because it doesn't frakkin exist, but the point stands. It's up to us to fill in the gaps about the Rill and the Drahvins and this planet that's about to cease to be, and Emms and Martinus work to paint a rich tapestry in which our imaginations can play. And it's one of the things that sorta tapers off after this. Sure "The Ark" kinda gets it right and "The Moonbase" is all about the promise of the future. And yeah. "Ark in Space". But there's a blase, ho-hum quality to those stories that don't quite capture the innocence of youth you get with the Lambert stories. I'm sorry, it's just not the same.

The title says it all. "Galaxy 4". That's not a big number, but by gum, that's three away from where we are. And that's damn far. You can accept the title, embrace the conceit, and look past the failings, or you can dismiss it.

Me? I go for the former because that's what Lambert was going for and as far as I'm concerned I'm quite sure she very much succeeded.

Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! Big Creepy Heads! Sinewy Freaky Flowers! Evil Telephone Cords! The Introduction of The Master, Jo, and Yates! And ever so much more! Cassandra is BACK to talk about "Terror of the Autons"! Coming Next Tuesday!

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