On a couple of lovely summer evenings in Nineteen-ninety-something I read the script of Galaxy 4, published by Titan Books. This was my first experience of the story, and it was an immediate favourite of mine. I still love the story and that nostalgic association it has won’t ever go away, but there are certain Doctor Who stories that one can love despite the obvious faults, and this is one of those. However, the problems with Galaxy 4 are not necessarily the things it gets criticised for the most.
Firstly, I am not bothered by dodgy visuals. Unless something strongly detracts from a story (and even the flimsy Rill spaceship doesn’t really do that) then it doesn’t matter unless you are forgetting this is a piece of 1960s television or trying to take an immersive approach to viewing or something flawed like that. Secondly, the Chumblies are absolutely brilliant. In one of Peter Capaldi’s first interviews when he was chosen to play the Doctor he was asked his favourite monster and said Chumblies. Whether he was being serious or not, I would say the same thing because they are so fun and cute, and actually a really clever bit of design with the three tiers that collapse together. They are also a masterpiece of sound design. They get criticised for failing to be something they are never trying to be – an effective Dalek-like monster, which misses the point. They are established as the good guys, robots created by an entirely benign alien race.
No, where the story does deserve some criticism is in its borderline sexism and veiled racism. The former is much more overt but the less troublesome of the two. Verity Lambert was departing as producer at this point and was presumably taking her eye off the ball, or perhaps there was only so much she could achieve, because she made William Emms rewrite the Drahvins as female and then allowed him to subvert that in a most cynical way. It’s hard not to view the Drahvins as a retaliatory gesture towards Lambert.
The idea of a female-dominated society is not new and in itself is not feminist, especially when you show the society to be a fascist travesty. Like the Greeks’ use of Amazonian women in their myths, the Drahvins are used as a bit of propaganda for how a female society doesn’t work, and it’s pretty nasty. Maaga is not only irredeemably villainous, but villainous for its own sake and incredibly stupid. She is offered the chance of being helped off the planet by the Rills but is too single-minded to accept it. This does not flow logically from a society built on military lines. She also completely ignores the possibility of taking over the Doctor’s ship instead, and her troops are quite deliberately portrayed as brainless bimbos. So we have a script about an all-female society with just one woman who has anything approaching intelligence, and she is a psychopath.
But this isn’t the worst thing about the Drahvins, because the similarity of that name to Brahmins, the highest tier of the Varna Indian caste system, surely cannot be a coincidence when the loss of the British Raj was relatively fresh in the mind. Note how strictly the Drahvins work within a caste system, even giving the lower caste troops inferior weapons and food. The story is a critical parallel for the caste system, and it’s pretty mean-spirited.
So the reason I love this story basically boils down to just one thing: Chumblies. I would love them to be seen again in Doctor Who one day, and also the Rills, which were actually in the script to teach a valuable lesson about not judging by appearances, which is lovely.
But it’s hard to get past that bitter taste of xenophobia and sexism. Tellingly, both William Hartnell and Maureen O’Brien, who were highly intelligent judges of script quality, hated this so much that they made a massive fuss about the scripts. In the male-dominated new regime that was taking over, with Lambert’s departure imminent, incoming producer John Wiles simply sacked Maureen O’Brien because of this (Hartnell just got threatened with sacking). And so, in just one more story, ended the reign of probably the most significant and cleverly-acted companion of them all, the one who shaped the Doctor’s character into what we know it to be today, by association. In fact, all three regulars are brilliant here, helping to elevate what should have been a mediocre story to something that manages to be entertaining despite being rotten to the core. The TARDIS team are stronger than ever, but that is all about to be undermined and dismantled, behind the scenes. Verity Lambert is leaving, and Doctor Who is facing its first major crisis. RP
The view from across the pond:
Random Drahvin: Die? For their friends?
Drahvin leader: There are many strange things in the universe…
And this story is one of those things!
Doctor Who typically resides in the realm of action/adventure. That’s its wheelhouse. But now and then it ventures into other realms, like allegory. There’s something to be said about allegory being able to tell a story without having to be blatant about a subject, masking it behind a good tale. It’s an art form. One of the most basic examples of allegory is one we teach our children from young: never judge a book by its cover. In other words, don’t judge by appearances; they can be very deceiving. Even when that appearance is a scaly creature that looks like it had been kicked out of the deepest depths of the ocean. Those “ugly” creatures might just be a heck of a lot more humane than the pretty sorority girls intent on killing everyone. And that’s at the heart of the story Galaxy 4.
Look up the episode and you’ll find good deals on the Samsung Galaxy 4 and almost nothing related to the Doctor Who episode. Sadly, that’s because this isn’t just a lost story; even still photos barely exist for this one. At the time, the cast had problems with it, Peter Purves (Steven) didn’t like the way his character was written because it was a part originally written for Barbara. Maureen O’Brien (Vicki) and William Hartnell both had issues with it. And it seems the universe hated Galaxy 4 so much, it wiped it out like the planet they were stranded on. …Until part 3 was found.
As bad as a thing is, it still bears going back to for the sake of history and nostalgia. Look at Plan 9 from Outer Space; it is utterly unwatchable. I can’t even fathom that ever being the case with Doctor Who; there is always something redeeming about it. Even Hell Bent has its moments (although it probably pays to watch after copious amounts of food so one can be tired and too groggy to be angry about it.) So it’s a tragic loss that we can’t see more of the Rills, whose one picture is so excessively strange even for Doctor Who or the Drahvin who may have been a bunch of galactic cheerleaders angry at missing a game. (Maybe they were going to The Game of Rassilon…)
And after viewing episode 3, Airlock, it’s evident that there is something unusual about it, but not terrible, proving that even this much-maligned story is still no Plan 9! Maaga, the Drahvin leader, has a dreamy scene talking directly to the camera; it’s strange and wonderful. The Rills are not actually seen as they live behind glass and speak through their robot servants, nicknamed Chumblies. There’s something wonderful in the Chumblies too, being another non-humanoid entity which is so common on Doctor Who. (My son noticed, one of the Chumblies is credited as Pepe Poupee; a name we will never forget because it’s just such fun to say… Pepe, if you’re out there, thank you!) Like the Maaga said… many strange things in the universe!
And among those oddities is that the Doctor eventually leaves the Drahvin to die on the exploding planet. It seems extremely atypical of him knowing there’s usually a way to save everyone. Maybe that was one of the problems with it. Maybe it was just a way of saying that there isn’t always a solution. Maybe we will never know because the episode is gone, lost in time…
It’s a tragic loss even for an episode that doesn’t offer a whole lot of “different”, but we can remind ourselves: never to judge a book by its cover! Or an episode by its title. (What did the story have to do with Galaxy 4 anyway? That’s where it took place; ok so Pertwee’s entire run should have been called “Earth” or “Milky Way”!) ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Mission to the Unknown