The Doctor finds himself caught up in the struggle between two shipwrecked and ideologically different alien space crews on a planet facing imminent disintegration (presumably somewhere in a galaxy numbered ‘four’…).
As the opening story of one of Doctor Who’s most experimental and intriguing – some might say ‘turbulent’ – seasons, Galaxy 4 begins in an amusing if low key fashion, with Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) giving Steven (Peter Purves) a haircut in the TARDIS console room. Appropriately then, what follows is a story that is neither radical nor ground-breaking, but well told and entertaining.
That said, it does appear to have been made on a relatively small budget, certainly in terms of the incidental music which is the same as that used in The Web Planet (albeit with some previously unused passages). The planet itself is realised in studio, mostly through use of painted backcloths, the vistas of which are sometimes a little wrinkled, but still offer a decent impression of vast, parched plains. There are odd-looking plants too with flowers that are ‘not quite roses, but almost’; and a caption shot of three suns to groove things up a bit. Richard Hunt’s designs are not poor by any standard but generally they are workmanlike and functional, leaving little impression for the long-term.
One does wonder if the Doctor’s dismissal of the Drahvin ship as ‘trash’ is an apology for the (adequate if a little, well, room-shaped) interior set, and a set-up for the particularly un-ship-like construction that is the Rill ship. Or perhaps – given the references to The Space Museum – we are meant to imagine Drahva as a tired empire along the lines of Morok. After all, it is over-populated, its ‘human born’ female elite rule a population of women-products grown in test tubes to fight and kill, while men are kept as slaves…
The Rill ship is intriguing and elegant – but not much of a ship; more like an art installation. Devoid of anything remotely resembling efficient bulkheads, it must have a hell of a force-field arrangement going on, but then the Doctor does describe it as highly advanced. However, its ability to convince is put to the test when Vicki becomes trapped behind its main door in ‘Trap of Steel’. The door is described as ‘immovable’ and it might well be, but it’s a foot off the ground and it’s got holes in it.
The Rill robots – better known as Chumbleys – resemble tiered, robotic crustaceans or optimistically redesigned woodlice. They have vestigial arms (like their more successful but equally also-ran – or not-even-ran – predecessors the Mechonoids), light-beam guns and are effectively blind. More importantly, though, one of them is played by Angelo Muscat, the ubiquitous butler in ITC’s The Prisoner.
The Chumbleys are the Rills’ robotic avatars, as the Rills themselves are confined to a spaceship ‘compartment’ due to a biological aversion to the planet’s atmosphere. They cannot speak, communicating only by thought (‘60s sci-fi short-hand for wisdom and advancement), and their translated communication via the robots is inspired and brilliantly executed, decoding language from Vicki’s protests.
Even so, Robert Cartland’s pontificating Rill Voice (surely a misnomer) is perhaps just a little too fruity (far better if Maureen O’Brien could have done them). The creatures themselves – whose image had all but eluded Who historians until recent years – are realised by Daphne Dare through costume; boldly designed but clumsily built, these part-walrus/part-Mr Potato Head beings are very big, but unwieldy and inanimate-looking. One assumes they are judiciously obscured by smoke effects (‘ammonia gas’) for more than simple plot reasons (much as the Macra will be…). We are told there were originally 12 of them, but eight died in the crash – so it’s possible (although perhaps unlikely) that four actual costumes were made for this story.
The Drahvins have great costumes with a lovely ‘60s white trim, and are white-heat bouffant blondes, all Bingo hall chic with futuristic Bjork-style eyebrows. Not so much ‘beautiful’ (like the Thals if you squint) as ‘attractive’. Idiots, mind – like killer cattle – and terrified of Maaga, their commander. For vegetarians, they are surprisingly bloodthirsty and sadistic. Believing themselves perfect, they view the world from a dogmatic humanoid paradigm, interpreting physical lumpiness, say, and walrus-like attributes as ‘evil’. Worse, their whole societal philosophy seems to stem from a kind of inverted of utilitarianism – illustrated by Maaga’s willingness to sacrifice one of her own to start a war.
But where does one really begin with Stephanie Bidmead’s Maaga? She is precise and clinical; crisply attractive, but fervent and fanatical; a vicious bureaucrat. She perceives friendliness, sacrifice, alliance and honour as alien, almost mythical things to be snarled at and avoided. To Maaga, Galaxy 4 is all about ‘a fight to the death for existence itself’, and after playing her opening moments with her back to us, she goes on to regularly display her unabashed mania directly to camera. Her evil and icy speech in ‘Air Lock’, as she sadistically anticipates the joy she will derive from knowing the Rills have been obliterated, is a revelation. Maaga utterly savours the fear, the horror, the suffering and the death to which she will condemn her foes. The whole piece is played as some Shakespearean soliloquy, with Bidmead moving from camera to camera and boldly staring directly into the viewers’ eyes in stark and seductive close-up. Maaga has been overlooked, Whovians. Maaga is a wonderful, wonderful Doctor Who villain and we should put her in our Top Ten. Oh, and she immediately knows when the Doctor is lying…
The regular cast is on top form, and let’s not forget that this is the first season to open without Ian, Barbara and Susan (this is also the last story with the Doctor in it to be produced by inaugural visionary Verity Lambert). William Hartnell’s Doctor is as authoritative and charming as ever, but we discover very little that’s new here, other than that he’s personally equipped the TARDIS with a force barrier resistant to Rill firepower and can use the TARDIS to jump-start a spaceship. Oh, and that he’s not keen on bathing…
This might well be true, but one cannot help asking whether some of his material wasn’t also intended for Ian.
This last suggestion is made by Vicki who, feisty as ever, challenges Maaga with the beautifully delivered line: ‘You want to kill us, don’t you? You want to.’ She is also plucky enough to choose herself as the Drahvins’ hostage/bargaining chip when the Doctor and Steven must return to the TARDIS. She even gets a crack at an early version of the ‘bung a rock at it’ gag, later used to better effect by Patrick Troughton in The Abominable Snowmen. It is, of course, she who names the robots ‘Chumbleys’ after their ‘chumbling’ motion (she has form here; remember ‘Sandy’ the Sand Beast and ‘Zombo’ the Zarbi?).
Peter Purves, only three stories in, is already wonderful. He has often remarked that his character fails to emerge in this story because most of his lines were apparently written for former companion Barbara (who left two stories earlier). This might well be true, but one cannot help asking whether some of his material wasn’t also intended for Ian. Certainly, the lusty and horribly sexist comments he makes about the Drahvin soldiers in ‘Four Hundred Dawns’ don’t represent the Steven we’re going to one day love, but neither would they appear to belong to his predecessors. As evidence for his grievance, Purves’ cites the scene in which Steven is overpowered by a woman. But why shouldn’t he be bested by the commanding officer of a warrior race that has subjugated all its males? Sadly, until we are again able to see how Derek Martinus directs that sequence, we’ll never know if Purves’ objections are justified. But I would suggest that Steven has much to do here, often displaying glimpses of the brilliant, honest and direct character that will soon become the solid big brother of Season Three. Mind you, he should get a t-shirt printed for the line: ‘I’d rather face the Chumbleys than you any day’.
A lot of reviews dwell on Galaxy 4’s apparently thinly-veiled discourse on racial intolerance or its re-iteration of themes perhaps more effectively discussed in The Daleks, but the nice thing about Galaxy 4 is that for over three episodes what it’s really about is the confidence to trust. The Drahvins describe the Rills as ‘things’ that crawl and murder, but they’re so evidently bigoted that we just don’t believe it. So, when the Rills actually do turn out to be ‘things’, we are surprised and – in spite of our best liberal intentions – required to pause and check our belief that they might not actually be a threat. For much of the story, they are so oblique and mysterious that there is nothing to certify that they are any less heartless than the Drahvins. But then comes the flashback sequence.
It’s not unique in this period of the series (see An Unearthly Child), but it’s certainly a rarity, and is shot ‘as live’ in another part of the studio during the Rill explanation of events leading to the space-crash and the following conflict which paints Maaga as the prime villain. Note that Maaga does not get a flashback when describing her version of events – blaming the Rills – and I think the technique is employed to help convince the viewer of the Rills’ verisimilitude. Pressing the point further is Steven’s ‘trilemma’ at the end of ‘Air Lock’ and the lynchpin scene (in ‘The Exploding Planet’) in which he challenges the Rill agenda (see – Purves has loads to do!). It’s only here that we genuinely realise the Rills are in fact the opposite of the Drahvins. They are willing to die if it means the Doctor will survive: ‘The Doctor must go, he travels further than we can; and everything … he stands for is what we believe in. So it is better that he goes.’ All of which is very Season Three. And then when all the nice, friendly, good-hearted people have helped each other escape the destruction; the horrible people are left to suffer the consequences of their nastiness.
All in all, a better story than most would have you believe; it won’t make any lists because there’s other Doctor Who that works much harder and is much better, but really all this story lacks is a few more natural, planetary expressions of the impending oblivion to sell the stakes. An earthquake or a rock-fall wouldn’t have gone amiss. But it has a great segue into ‘Mission to the Unknown’, with a proper Doctor Who jungle that reeks of Terry Nation and Brian Hodgson; and look, there’s that assassin bloke from The Romans saying ‘Must kill … must kill…’