‘Doctor Who: Galaxy 4’ at the BFI

Rob Fairclough reports back from the BFI Southbank premiere of the first William Hartnell story to be animated in colour.

Galaxy 4 is a strange story. The first serial written by a fan, Australian William Emms, it suggests a naivety about, or unfamiliarity with, Doctor Who’s format, putting you more in mind of a story from one of the series’ annuals: a pulp sci-fi tale of space age warrior women, the Drahvins, in a ‘don’t judge by appearances’ parable, which would have had Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry, a man fond of morals writ large, screaming “FFS, THIS IS TOO OBVIOUS!” For a series that had been remarkably accomplished in terms of visual storytelling up to this point, Galaxy 4 has a lot of dull ‘radio’ speech, in which the small cast of characters discuss what they might or might not do, or what’s happening, what might happen and what has happened. Even by 1960s TV standards, it’s slow and static.

“The thing about Galaxy 4,” observed Gary Russell, executive producer of the animated version of Galaxy 4, during the first guest panel of the day,is that a great deal of it is Chumbleys going ‘woo-woo’!” A lot of the time, the cuddly little robots do it at half-speed too.

‘Doctor Who: Galaxy 4’ at the BFI main screen (Photo: Robert Fairclough)

Galaxy 4’s best idea is that the lower rank Drahvins are clones, grown in test tubes and dominated by the naturally-born officer class (thank you, Aldous Huxley). With the chance to recreate the serial from scratch, Russell and his team have taken the opportunity to – as he put it – “play with the Drahvins” (and yes, I’m sorry to say there was some discreet tittering in the audience). Appropriately, the test tube Drahvins are now all the same height, all physically identical and have synchronised movements, something that, for obvious reasons, would have been difficult to achieve in 1965. Their footwear has also benefited from a makeover, with their baseball boots swapped for classic 1960s’ knee-length ‘go-go boots’. Interviewer Justin Johnson couldn’t resist suggesting to Gary that the change “reflected your personal taste” (and this time there was a lot of audible laughter.)

Explaining his conception of the story further, Gary said, “We took our inspiration from a very, very good episode of original Star Trek called Spectre of the Gun (1968), which is set on this weird planet… and everything is red – the sky is red, the ground is red… If they’d made [Galaxy 4] on the budget of Star Trek the original series, that’s probably what it would have looked a lot more like.” Concept designer Ioan Morris elaborated further on the team’s aesthetic choices, feeling that the story’s treatment “reflected more the big screen sci-fi of the time” and that, as a result, they’d made “a pop art Doctor Who story.”

Which is precisely what they have done. This is the first William Hartnell story to be animated in colour and, fittingly, its lurid colour palette is comparable with the first Doctor Who to be made in colour, the feature film Dr Who and the Daleks which premiered a few weeks before Galaxy 4.

Sound archivist Mark Ayres, concept designer Ioan Morris and producer Gary Russell (Photo: Robert Fairclough)

Russell and co. see it as their remit to “not slavishly recreate something to look as cheap and cheerful as it did in 1965, but to make it in 2021 [and] take those 1965 elements and give them a bit of spit and polish.” As a result, the unnamed planet in Galaxy 4 now has a vast desert landscape akin to Mars, the Chumbleys have electronic tentacles that end in claws, and the ship of the Rills – the Drahvins’ opponents – is a massive triangular structure (rather than a polythene tent). The likenesses of the regulars is spot on, with the Doctor’s companions Steven (Peter Purves) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien, who supplied a touching introductory video message) particularly well realised as animated avatars.

In fact, Galaxy 4 is the reverse of this animation team’s Fury from the Deep. The latter was a complex story that, for me, in its animated form moved too far away the source material; by contrast, Galaxy 4 is a simple story that’s been very much improved by its translation to animation.

One of the guilty pleasures of the William Hartnell era is the lead actor’s predilection for “Billy Fluffs”, i.e. getting his lines wrong. Galaxy 4 is a particularly vintage example, so you can be delighted/confused by dialogue such as “Madam, do I begin by walking through this?”, “long deserved, undeserved” and “I can’t move it, it’s immovable!”

“Doctor Who royalty” Peter Purves with the BFI’s Justin Johnson. (Photo: Robert Fairclough)

Welcomed to the stage after the screening of the last episode The Exploding Planet was “Doctor Who royalty” Peter Purves. While he said that he and Maureen O’Brien would often hold their breath on set in anticipation of what words Hartnell would come out with, Hartnell himself knew his memory was failing and would become angry with himself when he made mistakes. The fact that Purves got the job of Steven at all, he revealed, was down to Maureen suggesting to Hartnell “What about this boy?”, as they got on so well during rehearsals for The Chase. Although having Purves on board took some of the pressure off the leading man, memorable Billy Fluffs still surfaced: in The Myth Makers, instead of saying “I am not a god”, the Doctor delivers the immortal line, “I am not a dog… god!”

Peter Purves, William Hartnell and Maureen O’Brien (Image: BBC)

All this humorous reminiscing was good natured, as Purves clearly respected and liked Hartnell. At 82, his detailed memories of the technical problems involved in filming Galaxy 4 were quite remarkable. Although it sounded like director Derek Martinus had a tough time of it, he must have done something right, as Purves later employed him to work for his own production company.

If Steven Taylor himself says the Galaxy 4 animation is “absolutely wonderful”, then you know your work here is done. Gary Russell, Ioan Morris, sound archivist Mark Ayres, together with everyone else involved, can be congratulated on a minor triumph.

‘DOCTOR WHO: GALAXY 4’ Special Features:

Remastered Surviving Original Episode 3
Remastered Surviving Clip from Episode 1
Telesnap Reconstructions of Episodes 1,2 and 4.
Audio Commentaries
Making Of Documentary
Finding Galaxy 4 Documentary
Photo Gallery
Production Subtitles

‘Doctor Who: Galaxy 4’ (DVD/Blu-Ray) due for release on 15th November 2021 via BBC Studios, available to order from Amazon and other retailers.

 Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on robmay1964@outlook.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk

❉ ‘Doctor Who: Galaxy 4’ premiere took place at BFI Southbank, Sunday 7 November, 2021.

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