Sunday, 15 March 2015

Galaxy Four

William Emms Galaxy Four (1985)
Having discovered that roughly two years worth of grumbling indigestion has turned out to be a condition know as diverticulitis, I find myself bedridden, limited to a clear liquid diet of chicken broth, apple juice, and not much else, and smashed out of my box on such dosages of codeine as to render me ill-equipped to cope with Simon Bucher-Jones' translation and reconstruction of Thomas de Castigne's The King in Yellow. I have an Enid Blyton book on my to-be-read heap, which is about the right level but I'm just not in the mood for it. Then I recalled someone - quite possibly Nick Campbell - mentioning this on facebook, and the pleasant memories were accordingly stirred.

Galaxy Four for those lucky souls who didn't already have a ton of this crap rattling around inside their heads, was a four-part Doctor Who serial starring William Hartnell, one that has particular resonance for me, quite aside from the fact that I was born on the day before they broadcast the second episode. I was ten in 1976 when I discovered the existence of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society; and immediately joined up, receiving membership in return for my postal order along with the July issue of TARDIS, a fanzine which seemed to have been run off on a duplicator and as such belonged to an age when it actually required elbow grease to produce a fanzine. The thing which really struck me about TARDIS issue eight, aside from it signifying the existence of others who shared my interest, and others of such obsessive devotion as to yield essays about Sontaran biology, were the poor quality stills from Galaxy Four reproduced on the back cover, images of Chumblies and Drahvins which made me appreciate how the 1973 Doctor Who Radio Times Special - which I had come to regard as being at least as important as the Bible - revealed but a tiny portion of a much larger picture. So in my thoughts Galaxy Four became foremost representative of the mysterious black and white prehistory of Doctor Who, that which I had been too young to watch as it was broadcast. Years later someone lent me a privately made video reconstruction of Galaxy Four - still photographs accompanying the soundtrack because the BBC had set fire to the original tapes - and whilst it was ponderously slow and low on incident, it didn't disappoint me in any respect, which I suppose means I'm hardcore by some definition.

Anyway, if anything has been written on the literary influences of Doctor Who - and I'm sure it must have been somewhere - then I've not seen it, and I suspect that during those formative years, back when the show was watchable, there may have been at least some influence from the supposed pulp science-fiction writers of the forties and fifties - at least providing we acknowledge there having been an age when television referenced sources other than itself. Galaxy Four utilises what has become a fairly standard trope inverting the traditional association of beauty with virtue - the repulsive aliens are benign whilst the conventionally beautiful Drahvins are complete cunts. With this in mind I find myself thinking of Murray Leinster, but truthfully you would probably have a tough time finding a science-fiction writer who hadn't used this particular twist at one point or another; and if you squint, the Rill could almost be distant cousins to the multiple limbed reptiles of A.E. van Vogt's The War Against the Rull. Additionally, Galaxy Four makes use of the ruthless, militaristic culture based on logical principles, of which there seems to have been some fear during the fifties and sixties, I suppose either in the wake of the second world war or in response to Stalin's version of Communism. Here we have the lettuce-scoffing matriarchal Drahvins, although I assume their gender is no more significant here than their vegetarianism, it being a last minute change made to Emms' original script, presumably made in the name of giving either dad or Aunt Susan something to look at.

By the way, if anyone has any particular interest in this line of enquiry, you really need to take a look at Simak's Time and Again and They Walked Like Men in which the development of the Jon Pertwee version of the character and those first two Auton stories are foreshadowed to the point of absurdity.

Anyway, William Emms' novel seems to have been based partially on his own script, partially on how his script was developed for television, and to a lesser extent the broader mythology of the show which came a little later. It's a children's book, just as it's a children's show, frequently reclassified as being intended for all ages so that a few kidults don't have to feel self-conscious. This isn't necessarily to denigrate anything or anyone, but sometimes a children's programme is simply a children's programme, and it can seem almost insulting to have to elevate it - to Uncle Tom it - as is so often done with Doctor Who, logically implying that anything aimed exclusively at children must be necessarily dumb and poorly conceived. Although I can't recall whether such references occurred in the televised version, the Galaxy Four novel mentions both Plato and Bertrand Russell in passing, with some level of discussion; and not because this is Spiderman quoting Schopenhauer as he beats up the Green Goblin, but through its being produced during an age when it was assumed that children could cope with intelligent dialogue, and that they were learning at least something at school, and it was okay to expect people to keep up rather than talk down to them or sweeten the pill with sentiment or novelty beyond the story already involving aliens and an extrasolar planet. Galaxy Four may be slow and obvious by contemporary television standards, but there's no pandering, plenty of charm, and even wit:

'There's nothing to do now but wait.'

'I wish there were,' Steven said. 'This sort of situation makes me restless.'

'Stand still and think of your mother,' Vicki suggested.

Steven gave her a withering smile. 'What a great idea. Did anyone ever tell you you have a marvellous sense of humour?'

'Several people,' she answered brightly.

'They lied.'

I'm loathe to invoke the contemporary reverse-bowdlerisation of this show, but compare the above with today's wearisome jokes about blow jobs and girl-on-girl action.

Doctor Who has never been as good - or as always brilliant if you really must - as its most violently stupid advocates claim, not even with its own history as the only context within which such claims are usually made, but it once did absolutely everything claimed for it on the tin, and it had a hell of a lot of charm. Not only has Galaxy Four been a pleasant reminder of this fact, but it got me through a pretty rough day,  although the pair of dinner ladies painted on the cover bring me no closer to discovering the mystery of the appeal of Andrew Skilleter.

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