Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, July 31, 2017

"All They Can Do is Kill": Galaxy Four

I'm abandoning for this post my convention of using individual episode titles, because Galaxy Four is a mess, and unloved, and a little less respected than it deserves. As of today, it's number 261 out of 289, and in the Hartnell era only scores higher than (from top to bottom), The Gunfighters, The Sensorites, The Space Museum, and The Web Planet. In other words, fans put this story as the fifth worse Hartnell story. (I'm not signing on to the the low rankings for the others, by the bye--though The Space Museum does fritter away a great first episode with a pretty disappointing rest of the tale). Weird though it is, the inspired Victorian lunacy of The Web Planet deserves better, and The Sensorites has more to be said for it, too. As for The Gunfighters--we'll get to that in time.

But even my esteemed Phil Sandifer is dismissive of Galaxy Four. After noting that it is mostly lost, and so we can only catch a memory of it, he notes:
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).


***

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.
And that's largely true. Largely.

Except, and here's the thing, I think is being lost in this: The Chumblies are clearly not the next Daleks, and never could be. They're not frightening at all, they don't achieve much until they are protecting the Doctor and Vickie later in the story, and they are blank robots, who obey the Rills (hideous to us, but nice-natured beings who need ammonia to breathe--and whose the Doctor nearly mass-slaghters, thinking he's protecting Vicki.

No, the next Daleks are the Drahvins. Even the names are similar, and they, like the Daleks are not fully human--the Drahvins are clones: "And these are not what you would call human. They are cultivated in test tubes. We have very good scientists. I am a living being. They are products, and inferior products. Grown for a purpose and capable of nothing more," their leader Maaga says. Capable only of killing, the Drahvins are helpless in situations to which overt, obvious violence is not the answer.

Stephanie Bidmead's strong performance, particularly in the rediscovered third episode, Air Lock, makes the Drahvins far more comprehensible.

What little we know about the Drahvins is that their society is ruthless, but that it because it is starving. Maaga offers Vicki food, in an effort to put her at ease, and is confused when the "Very good" food (leaves) is not to Vicki's liking.

Later, Stephanie Bidmead grabs her one shot at giving Maaga some depth:
Nervously, Drahvin 2 approaches Maaga.)
DRAHVIN 2: Maaga, shall we go?
MAAGA: Where?
DRAHVIN 2: To patrol.
MAAGA: I see no need.
DRAHVIN 2: To see what the other two are doing.
MAAGA: No.
DRAHVIN 2: But, Maaga
MAAGA: Can you hear me?
DRAHVIN 2: We always go out on patrol at this time.
MAAGA: Yes, but not now. Soldier Drahvins, you can't understand anything that's different, can you? You are made unintelligent, and you remain that way for the rest of your lives. I told them soldiers were no good for space work. All they can do is kill. But they wouldn't listen. If you are to conquer space, they said, you will need soldiers. So here I am confronted with danger, and the only one able to think. Very well. I am your commanding officer. I am your controller, am I not?
DRAHVIN 2: Yes, Maaga.
MAAGA: And you obey my orders?
DRAHVIN 2: Yes, Maaga.
MAAGA: Why?
DRAHVIN 2: Because you are our leader.
MAAGA: And?
DRAHVIN 2: You think.
MAAGA: And you don't know what that means. But because I think, I order that there'll be no patrol now. We have a prisoner. In order to save him, the other two must help us.
DRAHVIN 1: I do not understand why they would want to help a friend.
MAAGA: I know you don't.
DRAHVIN 1: We would not. We would leave him here.
MAAGA: Yes, we would. But I have heard of creatures like these. They help one another.
DRAHVIN 3: Why, Maaga?
MAAGA: I don't know. I have heard that on occasions, they even die for one another.
DRAHVIN 3: Die? For their friends?
MAAGA: There are many strange things in the universe.
Maaga is trying to understand the universe--and failing. But she has no guidance, no companions, just inferior simulacra of herself, unable to help her understand the Rills or the TARDIS team. She is able to think, she boasts, but has no guideposts for thought.

Sandifer's gibe about wanting to drink and read about feminist theory is funny, and spot on, because the trope of the evil matriarchy has been done to death, or, rather, we wish it had been, and here it is again. But there's something to Maaga's grappling with feelings, when she herself cannot experience them, when she is surrounded by distorted, dependent versions of herself. Like Javert in Les Miserables, Maaga knows thatches' getting her sums wrong, an is missing something critically important. Unlike him, she never solves the problem.

She dies because she is too much like a Dalek. She can't accept help; that would be to accept other beings as beings-in-themselves--a concept she can't even apply to her crew. And yet she grasps one piece of the puzzle: "I told them soldiers were no good for space work. All they can do is kill." At some level, Maaga knows she is failing, and Bidmead conveys her confusion as well as her ruthlessness.

So, yes, it's a failure. Yes, the trope creaks and is no way to mark the farewell arc of Verity Lambert, the show's pioneering producer. But there's a sort of reflectiveness to the portrayal of Maaga that ameliorates this one for me. She's afraid, isolated, left without proper training or equipment, and her insight--that killers were not enough to go explore the universe with--was ignored. She's cruel because she's afraid, and doesn't know anything else.

Just like a Dalek. Or even their creator....

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