Day 43 — February 12th 2021
Air Lock and The Exploding Planet
Air Lock (Galaxy 4 — Episode Three)
The most brilliant thing about missing episodes of Doctor Who coming back isn’t that they’re back, or that we’ve not got fewer gaps in the narrative, but it’s the opportunity to reevaluate what we think we know about stories. It happened when The Enemy of the World showed up in 2013. Everyone was desperate to see The Web of Fear — recovered at the same time — because it was one of those ‘holy grail’ stories that everyone sort of knew was brilliant. But the surprise was that Enemy of the World was, if anything, possibly better. It’s certainly a nice break in a repeated formula in that season, but we’ll discuss all that in a couple of months, I’m sure.
The surprise for me today is that Air Lock is brilliant. Genuinely, actually, properly brilliant. I stuck this one on via BritBox, and stood the iPad up on the windowsill to watch while I did the washing up, but quickly found that I’d abandoned the dishes to sit down at the table and just watch it, because I was hooked. I think I’ve made more notes about today’s episode than almost any other so far in this marathon.
So where to start? Well, let’s go with the sets. They’re fantastic. I sort of knew what the setting looked like anyway, from half-remembered images from the last marathon, and photos taken during the story’s production, but I’d either forgotten or never appreciated just how great they look. The Rill’s ship, with the perspex panels that almost-but-don’t-quite obscure other parts of the ship is a really unique design, and the Dhravins’ ship looks like something straight out of Season One, which is a surefire winner for me. It reminds me of the human ship in The Sensorites — lots of controls that make it look truly functional. That sort of realism has been missing from the futuristic stories in Season Two, largely because they’re required to tie in with the design of Dalek technology, to be organic on Vortis, or plain and dull in The Space Museum.
The alien planet itself is a bit of a disappointment by comparison, but not as much as I’d expected based on the photographs. Indeed, late in the episode when Doctor Who makes his way across the surface with a pair of Chumbleys it even looks quite good! It’s clearly something which works better in motion than in static images, which makes me keen to see the other episodes recovered.
That brings me neatly to the next thing I want to praise about this episode; the direction. Season Three is something of a Dark Ages for Doctor Who — the production team had dispensed with the purchase of Tele-Snaps by this point, so when an episode is missing, we’ve got very little visual record of how it looked. I complained yesterday about lengthy scenes of characters standing around talking to each other, but then today we get a long scene of Maaga ranting to her soldiers… and it’s shot in an inventive way, with the camera training in on Stephanie Bidmead, who delivers her speech directly down the camera.
Until the episode turned up, we’d have never known how brilliant this looked — or how effective it was, either. The Camera Script notes for this sequence that ‘Maaga comes towards camera for close up’, but gives no indication of just how direct it was.
It was so brilliant that I actually went back to watch the surviving five minutes from Episode One because although I skipped them yesterday, I wanted to see if they held up as well as this. They’re nice, though perhaps not as powerful. Also on the Lost in Time DVD, though, are the 8mm home video clips, which include an opening shot from Galaxy 4, as the camera moves from a lovely close up of the TARDIS Console, round and up to frame Vicki and Steven in the background while Doctor Who operates the ship. It rather gives the impression that this story was visually interesting throughout, and it’s really rocketed up my list of most wanted recoveries.
This story is the directorial debut of Derek Martinus, who’ll be popping up for several more stories between now and Spearhead From Space, and I’m looking forward to actually seeing more of his work.
Although the direction of Maaga’s speech goes a long way towards making it work so well, the speech itself is also a lovely piece of writing;
‘You will obey orders. It may be that we shall kill neither the Rills nor the Earth creatures. Not with our own hands, that is. It may be better for us to escape in the Rills’ spaceship and leave them here. And then, when we are out in space, we can look back. We will see a vast, white, exploding planet and know that they have died with it.’
I feel like I often praise the writing in the historical serials as being nicely crafted, and it’s true that those stories are often a lot less expositional than the futuristic ones, but this is every bit as lovely as anything we got in The Crusade, and I’m also fond of her earlier line, lamenting her predicament;
‘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.’
Being able to see this episode doesn’t work for everything, though. I knew full well what the Chumbleys looked like, and haven’t been imagining them as anything different for the first two episodes, but nothing can prepare you for just how wobbly they are. They’re certainly the weakest part of Galaxy 4, although the idea of them works nicely enough. These definitely were expected to be popular with the viewers, as they were included in a special photoshoot by BBC Enterprises to take reference pictures for licensees, alongside the Daleks and the Mechanoids. Not many manufacturers took the BBC up on them, but I’d happily whip up a set from Eaglemoss featuring Vicki, Steven, and a pair of Chumblies…
I surprise myself when I say that this episode is a 9/10.
The Exploding Planet (Galaxy 4 — Episode Four)
I mentioned this story being — as far as I can recall — the first time that the TARDIS is presented as brilliantly indestructible, but I think this must also be the first time that it’s used as a vital component of a story’s resolution. Until now, the ship has usually been the target to which our heroes are trying to return, and the adventure is just things that prevent them from reaching it. Here, though, the TARDIS is used to power up the Rill’s spaceship and allow them to escape. It feels, once again, like the series is evolving. Moving away from the programme it was in those first two years while Ian and Barbara — and more importantly Verity — were around, and becoming more like the show we’ll be watching for the rest of the year.
This isn’t Verity Lambert’s final story — that’s tomorrow — but this is her last ‘real’ story. Certainly the last story to feature the regular cast, and the TARDIS. We’re into a totally new era before long, so it’s nice to see the series changing and adapting even at the very end of her tenure. Verity’s main input to Galaxy 4 is suggesting that the Dhravins be changed from all-male (as originally envisioned) to all-female, and it’s a change which works well. If nothing else, it means we get Stephanie Bidmead, who’s quickly become one of my favourite villains so far.
I’ve not really spoken much about the Dhravins, but I’ve found them interesting. I’d forgotten that only Maaga was ‘intelligent’ and that the rest were just clones, but it’s an idea which could stand to be explored a little more I think. Have the Dhravins ever come back anywhere? I know they get a namecheck in The Pandorica Opens, but I’d love to see them given a whole new story. Maybe something with the Second Doctor Who? I reckon you could have lots of fun with Jamie being smitten!
I knew that this story ended with the planet exploding, and I’d been all geared up to say that it’s a good job the episode is missing as I’m not sure how the effect would have looked… but based on the revelation that was Episode Three, I rather wish I could see how they achieved it now! I suspect that you didn’t see all that much, and certainly there’s a neat bit of writing to avoid having to show the planet’s demise from space; when Steven asks Doctor Who if they can watch it on the TARDIS scanner, the old man replies simply ‘no’!
I’d been expecting Galaxy 4 to be the final hurdle of Season Two (it was recorded as the penultimate story of that season and held back for broadcast) before diving into a new era of the programme, but actually I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Here’s hoping that we get another couple of episodes — or even some for other lesser-thought-of stories so they can all be rediscovered like this!
We’re leaving The Exploding Planet with a solid 7/10.