“Importance lies in the character and to what use you put this intelligence. We respect you as we respect all life” – The Doctor to the Rills
This story begins a spate of entirely missing serials of the show. Unlike many of the earlier episodes which have been recovered over the years, the majority of stories from this and the next few years of the show seem to be gone for good (excepting a few extraordinary finds). Fans like me have to get familiar with these episodes through other means like reading the novelizations, listening to recordings of the original broadcasts, and looking at telesnap photos.
This particular episode I had known previously from reading the book version of it and had not been a fan. Part of that comes from the novelization itself which adds several inaccurate aspects to the Doctor’s character, but not being able to see the action didn’t help too much for the enjoyment of the story either. I think it was primarily intended to be pushed by the visuals that hearken back to fifties sci-fi including futuristic women with ray guns, space monsters, and bumbling robots. However, just a few years back they somehow did recover the third episode of the four-parter which I just saw for the first time in the course of reviewing for this post. It’s still not the greatest story, but I slightly have to re-evaluate my distaste for it for two reasons: 1) the menace of central character Maaga definitely comes more to life when you see the performance given by the actress and 2) the episode made some good use of movie-style flashback (the scene of Maaga shooting the injured Dhravin) and other camera techniques that made the story-telling a little more dynamic. These are of course positive aspects to the story that can’t come across in reading.
While my enjoyment of the episode might thus increase a bit if I could see the whole serial, I can still say with some certainty that the overall story is still a bit dull— especially as a season opener. Each episode consists of long stretches of either watching or avoiding the ‘chumbley’ robots (partly because the producers had hoped these would catch on as toys) or back-and-forth arguments about Maaga letting our heroes go. The recovered episode bears out how much time is spent on these rather repetitive things versus action in the story. There’s also not quite as much enjoyable dialogue and interaction between our main characters as in earlier stories, so the whole thing feels a bit thin.
I think the primary aspect of the story that does stand out is how it is entirely built around a theme that now defines the show: don’t judge on appearances, i.e. don’t assume that the ‘ugly’ aliens are evil monster. This is one of the first stories that pointedly demonstrates this concept by turning our expectations upside down. The beautiful humanoid Dhravin pleading for assistance is actually a brutal dictator who has unjustly attacked the kindly and advanced Rills who just happen to look like nightmarish monsters. It’s such a standard idea for the Doctor Who now that it’s good to see it very early on in the show as well. There is an especially nice scene about this with Steven, the last to remain skeptical, when the Rills explain that they would even be willing to sacrifice themselves to let the Doctor escape because “if there is a choice, the Doctor must go. He travels further than we can. And everything he has shown he stands for, is what we believe in.” This contrasts markedly to the Dhravins who earlier in the story are mystified at even the concept of sacrificing for others (“Die? For their friends?” “There are many strange things in the universe.”)
Best unsettling moments:
Even in reading, Maaga’s berating of the simple slave Drahvins seems cruel and unnerving. It’s even more so when you hear the audio of them moaning and sobbing as she yells at them: “You want to be captured by those creeping, revolting, green monsters? You want their slimy claws to close about your necks?”
- First ‘don’t judge by appearances’ themed story
Though the theme of the story about not making assumptions based on looks is a good one, the message is slightly undercut by having the believability of the Drahvins be a little too suspect from the start; also Vicki and the Doctor spend very little time struggling in accepting the Rills. While that’s nice for the open-mindedness of the crew, it would have brought the point home a little bit more if they had struggled with that point a bit more. (Though Steven does as noted above.)