|Quick. Guess which of the two species in this photo is|
the monster name-checked in The Pandorica Opens.
It’s September 11th, 1965. The Rolling Stones are at number one with a more Rolling Stonesy recording than they’ve charted with previously, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” They’ll give way to some less interesting stuff, namely The Walker Brothers for one week and Ken Dodd for a staggering five weeks with a song I have never heard of. A quick listen suggests I was not missing anything. In fact, hearing it, I think I might be missing the blissful unawareness I had before. (But we’ll give Ken Dodd a slight break for appearing in Delta and the Bannermen in 1987.)
Meanwhile, Doctor Who is starting up its third season with Galaxy 4. It also is, from a more historical perspective, starting the third longest stretch of missing episodes in the series, with all episodes of this, the next two stories, and the first episode of the one after that missing from the archives.
Let’s start there, actually. Because much as I favor treating Doctor Who as an evolving narrative, it’s still an evolving narrative I’m telling in 2011. Just as there’s no reason to pretend that these stories are anything other than 1960s science fiction (a problem that many attempts to work out a Doctor Who canon fail miserably afoul of, creating readings of the episodes that are obviously incompatible with the episodes as transmitted), there is no reason to pretend this blog is anything other than a Doctor Who blog written in 2011.
The nature of the lost episodes, then, is complex – and it’s not going to be until the Season 4 premiere that we finally finish most of their implications. First of all, they are among the least seen episodes of Doctor Who. Not just for the obvious reasons. The soundtrack of every episode of Doctor Who exists, and a group called Loose Cannon
have done superlative reconstructions based on the soundtracks and photographic evidence of the stories. For most of the missing stories, this is made easier by the existence of Telesnaps – a service provided by a man named John Cura where he would point a camera at the television screen and take photos throughout an episode in case the production team wanted a handy visual record. Unfortunately, Galaxy 4 is not among the stories Cura did this for, meaning the visual evidence is particularly thin. Thus Loose Cannon have had to make up the slack via photoshopping existing photos together to make decent guesses at what the scenes looked like, and, in the case of Galaxy 4, building their own version of the monsters to recreate scenes of the monsters from scratch.
The problem is, Loose Cannon’s policy is that they will only ever put their reconstructions out on VHS. In practice this has been circumvented via the usual means, but it does mean that these excellent reconstructions are going the same way as the episodes themselves, stuck on a dead medium (Yes, VHS is officially dead now. It was used as a dead medium in MIT Mystery Hunt
). There are more modern attempts, including numerous attempts at digital animation to replace missing episodes, but nothing with the organized quality of Loose Cannon, making their VHS-only policy a massive tragedy. (Yes, this is me overtly lobbying Loose Cannon to formally offer the reconstructions in a non-obsolete medium of some sort.)
So the stories are available, and in versions that give an extremely good sense of the missing episodes, given the obvious limitations. It’s just that they’re obscure in a way that the stuff the BBC formally releases on DVD isn’t, making these stories less seen than others. But even among those who have seen them, there’s an oddness to them. The reconstructions have an overt artificiality to them, with Loose Cannon having an understandable but idiosyncratic tendency to favor managing to get motion into a shot whenever possible. The result is a lot of obviously spliced together footage of robots gliding along photo backdrops with no shadows and things like that, while the nuances of acting performances get understandably swallowed. One cannot pretend that one is watching Galaxy 4, but rather a memory of Galaxy 4.
Thats oddly fitting for Galaxy 4, however, given that it is by far the most phoned-in story we’ve seen yet in Doctor Who. It is, in many ways, less a Doctor Who story than a stitched together remake of half-remembered bits of Doctor Who stories. That does not mean it is the worst story to date – I’d watch this again before I sat down for Keys of Marinus
any day. But it is the first time that Doctor Who has really felt like it’s just doing the Doctor Who thing by default instead of trying to push itself. Eventually this will become more normal, if only because eventually Doctor Who will have pushed itself in so many directions that there are more types of retread to be done. But this, to be honest, is the first time Doctor Who has just decided to do a story that plays it totally safe and feels like Doctor Who is “expected” to feel. And for the most part, it’s a thinly veiled redress of The Daleks and The Sensorites, with a dash of Space Museum. You’ve even got overt references to Space Museum and The Web Planet (featuring the unexpected return of the Astral Map). But perhaps the most obvious “Doctor Who By Numbers” moment is the latest attempt at creating the next Daleks, the Rills’ robotic servants, named by Vicki in her last act of cute naming as “Chumblies” (a name that, inexplicably, everyone including the Rills immediately adopts).
There is nothing inherently wrong with the Chumblies, though nothing is inherently right about them either – dumb visual design, excellent audio design. But there’s a bit of a trick to creating a recurring Doctor Who monster. Think of any David Tennant episode in which a monster returns. Most of them have a scene in which a companion or someone worriedly asks “Doctor, what is it?” And Tennant delivers the next line in a very set way – a sort of fearfully hateful spitting out of the monster’s name. You can quickly divide monsters into the reusable and not reusable categories by asking if this line delivery is going to work. Cybermen? Check. Sontarans? Check. Macra? Sure. Chumblies? No. It is impossible to imagine David Tennant spitting out the name “Chumblies” in a hushed mixture of fear and anger. Or, at least, it’s impossible to keep a straight face while doing so. And so we will never, ever see the Chumblies again.
The Chumblies pretty much sum up this serial. Not bad ideas that have been badly slapped together. Much of this is due to the fact that, for the first time, the series is in some real flux. Verity Lambert, about whom we’ll say more on Monday, had by this point decided to leave the role of producer, and was in any case spending more of her attention on the next story than this one, leaving the work on this story functionally to the incoming production team. The result is a story that feels a bit cobbled together. Steven is stuck spending the entire episode delivering lines originally written for Barbara, and Vicki, although she has a plot, apparently picked enough holes in the dialogue during rehearsals to drive incoming producer John Wiles to sack Maureen O’Brien after this story, resulting in her hastily being written out two stories later.
So, to recap, we have a pioneering female producer being replaced with a male producer whose first decision is to sack the female lead for being too uppity. Knowing that, it’s really hard to watch this story, in which the matriarchal society of the Drahvin is painted as uncritically and completely evil, without wanting to drink heavily and read feminist literary theory.
Which is the biggest problem with Galaxy 4. It’s not that it’s bad – it’s perfectly watchable. It’s just that it feels lazy and sloppy all at once, which is an awkward combination. It does have its gems – the Rills are, in the one picture of them that exists, a fantastically hideous monster, and other than the fact that it’s obviously telegraphed with a tediously overt sequence about the injustice of the egalitarian society of the Drahvin where the leader gets better food than everybody else, the twist that the hideous monsters are the good guys is clever. And it’s an amusing bit of trivia in that the Drahvin are by miles the most obscure monster to be mentioned as coming for the Doctor in The Pandorica Opens. (I have no idea why Moffat pulled the Drahvin out for that one other than a firm desire to pick the best-sounding utterly obscure villains in Doctor Who history.) And in an odd way, this is comforting. For two years the show has been moving at a breakneck pace trying to prove itself. The sense that it might have done so and that it is now confident enough to phone it in suggests that Doctor Who has now developed into something solid and established.
But mostly, this is the first case of something we’ll see throughout the show, only in the wrong order. Usually after a full change of production staff we get one or two episodes that are odd holdovers from the tone of the last regime. Here we have it in the other direction – an episode that feels like a greatest hits collection released too early in a band’s career – a handful of clever bits in a sea of meh. Mostly this feels like all the bits of the youth rebellion theme we’ve seen for episodes mashed up senselessly. Steven youthfully rebels against thinly veiled communism. Vicki youthfully rebels against whatever is put in front of her. Everything is very glam and mod and pretty much exactly what you’d expect. And there are Chumblies.
Where things become interesting is in the final moments of the last episode, in which Vicki, in rapid succession, sprains her ankle and wonders what’s happening on a random planet beneath them. The former sets up an odd parallel with the end of The Mythmakers, more about which Wednesday, while the latter is the direct lead-in for Mission to the Unknown, about which more Monday. But what we have here, in the dawn of a new regime, is something we’ve not actually seen on Doctor Who before. Starting with The Time Meddler, the show has been building inexorably towards something. It’s going to, with the next two stories, begin moving faster and faster towards the endpoint of that.
As inauspicious a start to a new regime as this is, things are getting very, very interesting.