It’s always exciting to head down to the BFI Southbank to attend one of their regular Doctor Who screenings, particularly with these animated features – if nothing else, it’s a chance to see brand-new Doctor Who, or at least Who that hasn’t been seen in nearly sixty years. Preceded by the eagerly-awaited The Evil of the Daleks and released during the six-week run of Doctor Who: Flux (you can read Matt’s review blog here), Galaxy 4 feels almost as though it hasn’t been given nearly as much attention as it perhaps deserves. The last time we saw a First Doctor story animated was in 2013, with the DVD release of The Tenth Planet. Galaxy 4 is the first full serial starring William Hartnell to be animated – and hopefully not the last.
Beginning Doctor Who‘s third season, Galaxy 4 sees the Doctor, Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) and Steven (Peter Purves) arrive on an eerily silent world, only to encounter the adorable Chumbleys and the menacing Drahvins – a race of warrior women from Galaxy 4. The Drahvins explain that the Chumbleys have been sent by the Rills – sinister, horrifying creatures intent on destroying them all – and that they intend to capture the Rills’ spaceship and escape the planet before its imminent destruction. Can the TARDIS team trust the Drahvins? It’s a race against time to find out…
William Emms‘ scripts for Galaxy 4 – compromised of four episodes: Four Hundred Dawns, Trap of Steel, Air Lock and The Exploding Planet – make for an entertaining sci-fi adventure, if perhaps a little over-simplified (even for a show like Doctor Who). The moral conflict is hardly challenging, with the ultimate message of “don’t judge a book by its cover”. It doesn’t help that the rather simplified scripts, matched with the limitations of a BBC budget mean that the story is stretched a little thin; one can easily imagine a more entertaining two-part version of the serial, more akin to The Rescue. One issue – highlighted often by actor Peter Purves – was that the script was written for the Season 2 TARDIS team of the Doctor, Vicki, Ian and Barbara, with Barbara’s role adjusted to fit new companion Steve quite late in the day. As such, moments such as Steven being confused as to how an air lock works (he’s supposed to be an astronaut) seem a bit out-of-character.
The new animation comes from Big Finish Creative, executive produced by Gary Russell and directed by Chloe Grech, and adheres to a similar visual style to the team’s production of Fury From the Deep last year. It’s a very colourful animation, with a pop art 60’s aesthetic that fits the time the episodes were made in (and matches the rather 60’s costumes). The desolate world is much larger and more expansive than it ever looked in the cramped sets at the BBC Television Centre, while the Drahvins ship is filled with some great texturing and details. A curious decision has been made to redesign the Rills’ ship; the original may not have looked great, but the new design isn’t – at least in my opinion – a huge improvement. Perhaps it was designed to look as though it were made in 1965? It’s a strange decision, given how different the planet looks.
The new audio restoration from Mark Ayres is very impressive, especially when considering the quality of the recordings being worked from. One – perhaps controversial – critique I do have is the decision to leave the audio track unedited. There are a fair few pauses in which little is happening, and cutting these out would have improved the pacing of the episodes. If the intention from BBC Studios is to continue animating lost Doctor Who serials, stories like The Wheel in Space and The Space Pirates could really benefit from some cutting down, partly to lessen the workload on the animators, but partly to improve the pacing. I’m sure that Doctor Who purists would dislike this, but part of the reason The Macra Terror animation works so well is because of the creative liberties taken, and the focus on making the story work in a new medium. Another rather unfortunate issue – although through no fault of anybody involved – is that the characters are clearly walking on flat, concrete studio floors rather than the sandy desert seen on screen, which can be a little jarring.
Overall though, the new animated iteration of Galaxy 4 is a very strong production from the team at Big Finish Creative, and a refreshing change of pace after so many Patrick Troughton-era releases. The story may be a little too simple, but there’s plenty of fun to be had – especially when it looks this good.
The BFI screening featured a lovely introduction from actor Maureen O’Brien, and was also accompanied by two Q&As: the first with executive producer Gary Russell, concept designer Ioan Morris and audio remastering maestro Mark Ayres, which detailed some of the intricacies behind making this new animated version of Galaxy 4, while the second was focused on actor (and former Blue Peter presenter) Peter Purves, filled with some lovely anecdotes and behind the scenes insights; his enthusiasm for the programme is clear, 55 years on. As for which of his stories he’d like to see animated? The Massacre, no less. Quite how any animation team would approach that particular serial, I have no idea!
The upcoming DVD and Blu-ray release of Galaxy 4 is set to include a making of documentary from Chris Chapman, a Finding Galaxy 4 documentary, audio commentaries, a new remaster of the surviving Episode 3: Air Lock, six minutes of surviving footage from Episode 1: Four Hundred Dawns, telesnap reconstructions for the missing episodes, a photo gallery and production subtitles. The animation itself will be presented in two versions: a full colour widescreen presentation, and a 4:3 black and white version, to match with the surviving material.