Galaxy 4: Air LockBookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 March 2013 - Reviewed by Tim Robins

Galaxy 4: Air Lock
Written by William Emms
Directed by Derek Martinus
Originally broadcast 25 Sep 1965
Released as part of The Aztecs SE (R2)
I believe Galaxy 4 to be the oldest Doctor Who story that I can remember from when the programme was first broadcast. I can tell that I have a true memory of the story because of the inaccuracies. I recall William Hartnell hitting a Dalek with his cane and the Dalek sort of unfolding. The Doctor chuckled, "It's asleep!" I got lots wrong. It was Jeremy Bentham, former historian of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, who pointed out that it must have been a 'Chumbly', the Doctor's companion Vicki's ridiculous nickname for the robots that serve the hideously ugly, ammonia-breathing Rills. I nearly fell off my chair when episode three opened with the Doctor saying these words, although the robot did not semi-wake up as I remembered. In a long-distant past, I saw the the climax of Westworld at the cinema as a child but recalled the scarred gun fighter as a witch, falling back into a cauldron (which is in the scene). The police have long realised what psychologists have not, that truth and accuracy are two separate things (witnesses recalling events in exactly the same way and with the same words are likely to have conspired with each other).

Episode Three of Galaxy 4 is startlingly good. The story involves the Doctor, Vicki and spaceman-of-the-future Steven Taylor (played by Peter Purves in an ill-advised mismatched ensemble comprising a woolly cardigan, slacks and hush puppies) arriving on a soon-to-blow-apart-world where two races, the all-female Drahvins and the Jabba the Huttish-looking Rills, have crashed and are engaged in a grim battle of survival as they attempt to escape the doomed planet. When the planet does blow apart, you can be sure it's the villains who are left behind, victims of their pre-programmed hatred of others.

The high concepts in the story are that attractive-looking characters can be evil and ugly characters good - a concept that entirely escaped children's animation such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The second twist is that the main antagonists are a race of women, the Drahvins, cloned or bred to fit particular social roles - in this case soldiers. The moral here being that military personnel are (contrary to Star Trek) not the best people to make first contact.

All of this preaching gives the episode the feel of a US TV series such as Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or One Step Beyond. The Doctor and his companions seem thrown into an entirely different TV series. This is emphasised by the way the Doctor misunderstands the entire situation and busies himself trying to kill the 'Evil' Rills until Vicki stops him. He also, in one brilliant scene, abandons his companion to the tender mercies of what he believes to be menacing robots. Classic Hartnell. Not since he tried to kill a caveman with a rock just so he could escape Earth's prehistoric past has the Doctor seemed more calculating.

Of course the production is wonky in places. Vicki is trapped behind a fairly flimsy door. But even the Chumblies - imagine three upturned pudding bowls wobbling along at waist height - have more appeal than the Mechanoids, their big brothers, or the Quarks who are, alas, rubbish on screen. The planet itself is realised by a paint-and-paper landscape that looks bogus even by the standards of Doctor Who at the time. However, it is worth remembering that the team who have lovingly restored this episode have made the picture far clearer and sharper than anyone viewing TV in the Sixties would have seen - woe betide anyone watching an old Doctor Who DVD on a Blu-ray player because the image is automatically upgraded to make the image look worse than any VHS copy. And, for me, the tatty set underlined the experience of Galaxy 4 as a US TV episode, specifically Classic Star Trek with its garishly-lit skylines, glam rocks and randomly-placed twigs.

One thing that lifts Galaxy 4 above rather too much Hartnell 'Doctor Who' is that the supporting acting is tremendous. The Drahvin leader Maaga, played by Stephanie Bidmead, has some brilliant moments of angst in which she curses being given soldiers on her mission to explore space. The direction reminds me of how startling it was to revisit the Sixties' series when given the chance by Jeremy in the late-Seventies. By then Doctor Who's actual direction rarely departed from a linear narrative and a limited range of set-ups. But Galaxy 4 has a great piece to camera and a soliloquy and a flashback. At an art house screening of episode three, media scholars and professionals talked excitedly about it as the first use of a flashback in Doctor Who. Not so, of course. The first-ever episode, An Unearthly Child, is replete with flashbacks.

Sadly, I do find it increasingly hard to enjoy the early seasons of classic Doctor Who. Alas, the audacious The Web Planet - once beloved by me - becomes unbearably embarrassing as the story progresses. But this episode of Galaxy 4 leaves me hoping that the full story might actually be lying in the bottom of someone's cupboard. Who knows?