Review: Doctor Who – Galaxy 4 (BBC Audio)

(Originally posted on Amazon 3/9/2003)

dw galaxy 4

Galaxy Four is one of those reasons I periodically curse the BBC.

I first heard the audio track of this story back in the late 80’s, when audios of the missing stories first started surfacing in fan circles. The Galaxy Four copy I managed to get was rather hard to listen to and prone to distortion, as much due to the poor general quality of the recording as the fact that it was an nth generation copy from the original. The story was difficult to follow; there were large spaces devoid of conversation (with only the odd sound and the even odder strange electronic noise to punctuate it), and even with conversations there was only so much one could understand without having to resort to visual representation of some kind. Yet, somehow, through all the hissing, static, and ambiguity, it became obvious that a fairly interesting and quick-paced story was there lurking frustratingly just out of reach. Listening to the soundtrack alone was giving it inadequate justice.

Now, more than ten years later and some thirty-five years since its initial broadcast (and twenty-three years after it was wiped from the Archives), the BBC Radio Collection has issued a two CD set of the audio portion of this story, complete with linking material by Peter Purves (who played Steven Taylor in the original). Aside from the tantalizing snippet from episode one that has come down to us, this is likely to be the closest any of us will ever come to the original story in all its glory.
Galaxy Four is one of those tales that is actually pretty simple and straight-forward, unfettered with needless subplots and complications. So much so, as a matter of fact, that I suspect in a later era it would have been a three- or even two-parter. The Doctor and company (in this case, Steven Taylor and Vicki) land on a planet that is evidently about to explode. On the planet are two crashed spaceships, one manned by the humanoid Drahvins, the other by the mysterious Rills. Neither ship can leave due to the damage each has inflicted on the other. The Doctor must try to navigate a treacherous path between the two, and hopefully find a way to get each side to help the other to escape.

This is a story of appearances and first impressions. The Drahvin, a race of beautiful women (evidently cloned, which means that this is one of the earliest SF stories of any kind to deal with this concept), may not be as peaceable and helpless as they seem, nor the Rill as malevolent and evil as the Dravhins claim. Appearances can be deceptive, and just because someone carries a pretty face does not mean they are your friend, nor does repulsive alieness automatically denote an enemy. It is a person’s actions, not their mien, that count. What is on the inside is much more important than the out.

William Hartnell is as cantankerous as ever as the Doctor; you can’t help but like him, even when he’s being condescending towards you. Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki is adequate as the traditional female companion in semi-distress; no great character revelations here, but at least she only has to scream once. Peter Purves’ Steven Taylor, on the other hand, plays a major role in the events of the story, at one point acting almost as the decisive man of action. Steven Taylor is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked companions ever (exacerbated by the fact that large swathes of his tenure no longer survive), and it is nice to see that he is at last starting to get some of his due. Stephanie Bidmead is good as the ambiguous Maaga, leader of the Drahvin; one does wish that this character or her cloned sister had made another appearance in the series, but alas that was not to be the case. William Emms script is crisp and fast-paced and keeps the listener wanting to hear more, although there are one or two minor points that I thought ill-conceived or not thought-out properly (why is Maaga still obsessed with using the Rill spaceship to escape, when she finds that the Doctor and friends have a spaceship of their own? I can think of a few reasons, but none are adequately explained in the story). The acting itself is all around decent and only slightly campy.

As for the linking material provided in Peter Purves’ narration, it does serve to hold the story together, much more satisfying than the unnarrated cassette tape I remember listening to in my car. But make no mistake, this is not a Big Finish production; this story was originally produced as a visual presentation, and this fact is constantly apparent as you listen. There are a couple of points that probably could have used additional narration, and when we finally do get to the Rills practically no description of any kind is provided for them — their robotic Chumley servants actually get more description than their masters — and in my opinion, this is probably the single greatest problem with this edition. But these are minor complaints at best. Overall, the story is presented well, and is a fun if nostalgic trip back to the early years of the series.
Highly recommended.

5 Stars out of 5 Stars