Airdate: September/October 1965
Written by: William Emms
Directed by: Derek Martinus
Novelization by: William Emms (April 1986)
The Story So Far: The TARDIS lands on a doomed planet, and the Doctor must decide which shipwrecked aliens he can rescue: the blonde female humanoid soldiers, or the ugly warthog-shaped philosophers…
We’ve reached Season 3, which is where Doctor Who gets difficult to watch. Only 11 episodes are currently thought to be missing from the first two seasons combined (all of Marco Polo, two episodes of The Reign of Terror, and half of The Crusade). However, beginning with Season 3, huge chunks of the series are lost. Up until 2004, the first 13 episodes of Season 3 were all gone, although two of those 13 have since been found. Any attempt to watch Doctor Who, in order, is bound to hit a wall when one reaches Season 3 and encounters these lengthy gaps.
Galaxy 4 was the last story to feature the TARDIS crew produced under Verity Lambert’s tenure (Mission to the Unknown, a single-episode story without any of the regulars, was filmed immediately afterwards, using the same director and two of the same actors). It’s the end of the second production block, and, thus, quite possibly, the last moment where William Hartnell was truly content playing the role of the Doctor. As an unofficial swan song — the beginning of Hartnell’s end — this would be an important story to experience in full. But we can’t do that.
There have been four stages to my relationship with Galaxy 4. Since I can only approach the story sideways, from different angles, my opinion of the story has changed depending on which approach I’ve taken over the years.
The Novelization: In the spring of 1986, a comic-book store opened up in Plainview, New York, in the same strip mall as the kosher deli where my family usually went to dinner on Saturday nights. The comic-book store had a big poster in the window advertising which comics they carried, and Doctor Who was one of the titles on the poster – Marvel Comics had a monthly Who issue for less than two years in the mid-’80s, featuring colorized reprints of the Doctor Who Monthly comic, along with a bunch of articles, editorials, and a letters page. I think I ran inside the store before my parents had even unbuckled their seat-belts. This is how I came to own the final three issues of the Marvel run. It’s where I also bought the Galaxy 4 novelization. The store was shuttered within less than a year, even though I faithfully bought all their Who stock, but the kosher deli is still going strong (hey, you don’t get two-and-a-half star reviews on Yelp for nothing).
At age 12 and a half, I positively loved the novelization. For one thing (and I freely admit now that this is the neckbeardiest possible reason to like a book), it was written in four chapters, one chapter per episode. There could be no mistaking where the cliffhangers were. This was an important point for me, because I liked to read the equivalent of one episode per night, complete with cliffhangers. Go on, try it that way – I defy you to read the novelization of Marco Polo and figure out on your own where the cliffhangers are in that one. It’s impossible. For another reason, the book was perfectly suited to my age level. Emms, re-approaching his own story about 20 years later, slyly worked in a couple of hints about the Doctor’s looming regeneration. Apart from that, though, he told the story in straightforward fashion, with no experimental bits, no subplots, no added distractions. So, for at least 10 years after finishing the novelization, I held Galaxy 4 as one of my favorite missing episodes.
The Internet Era: I joined the Internet as a college freshman in the spring of 1992. This was back before American college students were assigned e-mail addresses with .edu domains along with their acceptance letters; back then, you had to go into the basement of the administration building and fill out a bunch of forms. My username was DOCTOR8, because, um, I wasn’t cool in 1992.
Within a few short years, you could use the Internet to learn more about the missing episodes than ever before. I found on-line transcripts of the stories, and learned how to mail away for telesnap reconstructions, and could engage in debates with fans who had Nth-generation copies of the off-air audio recordings. This is how I eventually came to learn that Galaxy 4 was not considered the jewel in the crown of 1960s Doctor Who. The dialogue was story’s dialogue was strictly functional, and without actors like Hartnell and Stephanie Bidmead to bring it to life, kind of flat when read on a computer monitor. The audio soundtrack was really nothing special either, and when I finally got to watch the six minutes of live footage that still exist from Episode 1, I didn’t detect the presence of greatness.
The Novelization (Reprise): In late 2010, shortly before I conceived of the first incarnation of this blog (the original, you might say), I decided to go back and reread the novelizations. I had completed my set in the mid-’90s, and stored them all in a flat plastic container under my bed, even moving them cross-country twice, but hadn’t tried to read them in years. I started again in no particular order (beginning with Revenge of the Cybermen, which is kind of like beginning a James Bond movie marathon with Quantum of Solace), but reached Galaxy 4 pretty quickly.
To say “disappointed” would have been an understatement.
Emms was in his mid-50s when he wrote the novelization, and wrote several scripts for a variety of different series during his career, but the subtleties of writing prose seem to have escaped him even by that late date. This is not an easy novelization to read. He added a few interesting points from the script, some good (an extra sequence in which the Doctor and Steven fall into a Chumbley pit trap) and some bad (the Doctor wondering if the suns revolve around the planet), but, on the whole, Remembrance of the Daleks this is not.
Air Lock: And then, in December 2011, it was announced that Episode 3 of Galaxy 4 had been recovered. It took a while for the common fan to see it in full – in the case of the United States, not until the March 2013 DVD release of the special edition of The Aztecs – but if you ever want to justify the use of the cliches “worth the wait” or “pleasant surprise” (or disprove the adage “it is better to travel hopefully than arrive”), just watch Air Lock.
The rest of Galaxy 4 is really just a fair to middling story. Vicki gets some good material, but as a morality play it’s really about as sophisticated as something from early Star Trek: The Next Generation. It moves slowly and, deprived of actors’ interpretations and directorial flourishes, you have to challenge yourself to pay attention. Episode 2 is particularly static in this regard.
But Air Lock is an unexpected gem in the middle of an otherwise unmemorable story. This was the Who debut for director Derek Martinus, one of the more highly regarded directors to work for the series during its original run. He elevates the material in a way that you wouldn’t have expected from reading the transcript alone.
The two most noteworthy elements, in no particular order, are Stephanie Bidmead’s turn as Maaga, the story’s villain, and the flashback sequence. Who hadn’t used a flashback since the first episode, but the one here is pretty stunning. As the Rill narrates its version of their first fateful encounter with the Drahvins, shortly after both their ships were wrecked on the planet, we see a bloodied Drahvin crawling across the set — the first time we’ve seen blood on this show, after nearly two full years. I don’t think anyone would have expected this level of realism from the novelization, off-air audio, or transcript.
The other revelation is Stephanie Bidmead as Maaga. This should have been a campy role, the evil warrior queen from outer space. While the scene that she dominates in the middle of Episode 3 is pure padding when read on paper, Bidmead and Martinus make it something special on videotape. Maaga’s musings on leadership and intelligence, and her verbally daydreaming about how the TARDIS crew will die when the planet blows apart, become mesmerizing, as Bidmead stalks and stares down the studio camera lens. This is a combination of remarkably confident acting and direction. We know now that talking to the camera was standard fare for Doctor Who in those days, but this is surely one of the best examples of that approach.
Other nice things: the Chumblies, the Rills’ pint-sized robot helpers, are more interesting than you would have guessed from still pictures. Their headpieces, borrowed from the Mechonoids, wobble around as they move, and they have internal lights which show through their outer shell — things we really didn’t know about them before this episode was returned. Hartnell and O’Brien are both great here, with Hartnell feebly replying “Oh yes, quite so,” after being told by the Rill that a Chumbley is going to repair his own bit of sabotage (another presumably scripted line that sounds like a genius ad-lib); Vicki, playing a scene against just a Chumbley prop (one of whom was operated by the immortally-named Pepi Poupee) and a Rill costume, makes acting look very effortless indeed — and, later she wins a fistfight with a Drahvin soldier. Steven does not fare so well; his hair is nuts and his role in the script is thankless, but remember that his lines in the script were originally intended for Barbara.
The Episode 3 cliffhanger is also an early example of complexity in visual effects. Steven is trapped in the airlock of the Drahvin spaceship, with Maaga inside hoping to kill him, and a Chumbley (harmless, but Steven doesn’t know that yet) lurking outside, as Maaga slowly drains the air from the chamber. Martinus instructs his vision mixer to combine the output of two studio cameras, so we see the pressure gauge dropping steadily downwards, superimposed over Purves’ frantic face and Sargasso Sea of hair. Neat, very neat.
There’s one final grace note to this story that I would love to have seen, but which would have been unthinkable in 1965. The Rills and Chumblies are realized by Robert Cartland, who has a booming and dignified voice. The Rills, in spite of their appearance, are philosophical good guys, who survive the story and also help the Doctor and crew escape a vengeful Maaga seconds before the planet blows up (and wouldn’t we like the story even better if we knew how Martinus had realized that effect?). Now, the very next story, Mission to the Unknown, is also directed by Martinus, and retains Cartland as the voice of Malpha, a Dalek ally.
So, just the week after the Doctor sided with them over the Drahvins, and helped them escape the planet… and given that the man who ordered their costume and the man who voiced them, were both still on hand in the studio… wouldn’t it have been an awesome twist if it was a Rill on that war council of the Daleks, rather than just a generic alien played by Cartland? Joss Whedon would totally have done something like this…