Friday, 17 July 2009

Galaxy 4

Previous viewings - none

When I say no previous viewings, it's because in my last marathon I read the transscript, this time I have the BBC audio release on hand. I quite liked it then.

Galaxy 4 is built on a simple premise - a planet that is about to explode, and on which two aliens races battle to leave before it's too late. I'd argue that of the non-Dalek sci-fi stories so far, this premise has the most potential to result in a good story, with some added layers of complexity to fill up four episodes. For the most part, the aliens are interesting, if cliched - the all-women Drahvins, led by Maaga, seemingly the only one capable of thinking for herself, are supposed to be the good guys, while the hideous Rills, unwilling to show themselves, are the bad guys. The Rills are more technologically advanced and have the only ship capable of taking off, which the Drahvins are intending to seize from them.

The plot has a sense of inevitability about it, because all the key plot elements are laid out in the first episode: Maaga's attitude towards the Doctor and his companions, and her own troops, makes it clear before she makes the first hostile move that they're really the aggressors. Which means the Rills are the heroes. After that there's a bit of going to and fro between the Drahvin ship and the Rill ship between the Doctor and Vicki, as they learn more about the Rills, and eventually help them escape. Of course we know the Doctor will help the good guys and leave in every story, but in Galaxy 4 the viewer has sussed the entire plot, every twist and turn, by the end of the first episode, and the viewer constantly being a few steps ahead of the story leads to it all seeming flat.

Thats not to say Galaxy 4 is bad. There's some interesting stuff to see along the way - it is relieved of the burden of depicting two entire alien cultures by taking place on a planet neither of them are native to, and does well with the Drahvins. Stephanie Bidmead's performance as the single-minded and dominating Maaga is a highlight, and though the viewers never sympathise with her, Maaga's scenes which show her interacting with Steven are almost the only ones which don't follow in the pattern of the linear plot, and she's entertaining. It would have been cool if the clone Drahvins either killed her or were able to escape without her.

The Rills were the worst culprit of predictability, because they're too much the sort of textbook superior race good guys speaking with a mysterious voice that was seen all the time in Star Trek. They value the lives of the travellers and the Drahvins above their own, but they are given no reason to do so, given the Drahvins fired the first shot. The only interesting thing about them is that they leave viewers wondering what they look like until the end, and even that's a disappointment because they're no uglier than most Doctor Who monsters. Ultimately even the Chumblies felt more real than the Rills.

Ah, the Chumblies. The story's token robots are quite absurb in design, because they're totally impractical - they're blind and too cute to be threatening, but so retro that I can't help but love them.

The regulars don't get to do much except slowly find out what the viewer realised twenty minutes ago. Vicki is becoming more and more the veteran traveller, and has shown more character development than Susan did, and I feel she is also breaking away from being the granddaughter figure replacement she started out as. Steven is largely left in the Drahvin spaceship and is a few steps behind the plot even compared with the Doctor. He gets a great cliffhanger - trapped in an airlock losing air - marred by the fact that we know he is reluctant to leave and face the Chumblie we know won't hurt him. He is treated as an interchangeable character here - he questions the Drahvins and tries to learn more about how their society works, but if Vicki was there she would have asked the same questions, so without that sense that Steven is his own character in this is disappointing considering the development he showed in The Time Meddler. William Hartnell is on top form in this story without much to work with - he gets a few character moments, mostly during the few moments he is alone with his companions, but the rest of the time he is just having the plot explained to him. Despite being at the centre of the action, he feels like a spare part.

As the time left before the planet explodes ticks away, one would think the tension would mount, but disappointngly there is no actual confrontation between Maaga and the Rills. The Drahvin attack only gets as far as the Chumblies and by this point it's long become frustrating that the Drahvins hate the Rills so much, with so little reason to do so, that they don't resort to making peace. The Drahvins had been sitting in their ship for so long a better action setpiece was definitely needed for a satisfying resolution. Come on, the planet is about to explode! Admittedly, my perception of the finale might be affected by my only having heard it.

Galaxy 4 is often noted as a morality story, although it's unclear what the moral is. That looks don't tell you anything about character is fair enough, but it's not so clearcut. The Drahvins all die for Maaga's determination to destroy the Rills. The Rills are too perfect to be believable, their vanity being the only flaw presented. If it is a morality story, it's told in a one-dimensional manner, and as the first story of the third season, a curious one for the producer to think will bring viewers back for a new year of the show. I'd argue that the earlier comparison with Star Trek fits the whole story - it also occasionally tried moral stories that ended up doing it so poorly they ended up being about nothing at all, it just means it's more boring than usual. Sadly, this also applies to Galaxy 4.

Horror quotient - The big reveal of the Rills could have been scary, there's no way to know without actually seeing the episodes.
Comedy quotient - It's generally a lighthearted story but without any jokes, certainly more lighthearted than the rest of the first half of the season.
Drama quotient - It has good cliffhangers, I'll give it that. Some cracking ones, actually.

A frustrating Doctor Who story. On the whole I liked it, but the way the story is told is flawed and doesn't set out to surprise the viewer at all. Thank goodness it isn't six episodes!


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