On the next planet the TARDIS lands on, the Doctor is curious to find that this planet is hospitable to life yet completely silent. Setting out, they encounter a robot that senses its way by touch and sound, and which Vicki christens a “Chumbley.” They assume the Chumbley is harmless, but while exploring another Chumbley threatens them with a gun and forces them to follow it. Suddenly a group of human-looking women calling themselves Drahvins damage the Chumbley and claim that they were sent by their leader, Maaga, to rescue them – and bring them to her. Maaga tells them that they crashlanded on the planet along with the crew from another planet, who are from a “disgusting” species named the Rills, and that the planet, located in Galaxy 4, will explode in a matter of days. The Drahvins’ ship is badly damaged, enough that they need the Rills’ ship to have a chance of escaping, and Maaga adds that the Rills had caused their own ship to crash in the first place. Maaga explains that the Drahvins are a matriarchal civilization that grows a small number of men in labs for the sake of breeding and fighting. Even though the Doctor and the others figure out quickly that their society is militaristic, Maaga insists she and her crew were on a peaceful exploration mission.
Learning more from Maaga, the Doctor and Stephen suspect that the Rills are not actually aggressive, but may have actually offered Maaga their help. The Doctor and Steven head back to the TARDIS so the Doctor can use his equipment to determine if the Rills were lying about the eminent apocalypse. Maaga refuses to let them all leave, for the sake of “safety”, and Vicki volunteers to stay behind, where she watches as Maaga viciously berates her crew for failing against the Chumbleys. At the TARDIS the Doctor confirms the Rills’ diagnosis and are distracted when one of the Chumbleys apparently tries to blast its way into the TARDIS. After returning, the Doctor refuses to help the Drahvins unless they try to negotiate with the Rills and leave together. A furious Maaga holds Steven hostage and orders them to steal the Rills’ ship for them. Considering the circumstances, the Doctor reasons that the Rills must not be hostile. Vicki and the Doctor break into the Rill ship and Vicki is apparently captured. She is horrified by what little she sees of the appearance of the Rills, but calms down when the Rills communicate with her telepathically.
The Rills tell Vicki that they never attacked the Drahvins; instead the Drahvins attacked first and the Rills retaliated, causing both ships to crash, and the Rills offered to take the Drahvins with them once their ship was repaired. The Rills then explain that their ship has been repaired but it’s out of fuel and there’s not enough time to gather enough to leave the planet, so the Doctor charges the Rills’ ship by tapping their ships’ engines into the TARDIS’ power source. The grateful Rills send the Chumbleys to rescue Steven, who was nearly suffocated in an air lock while trying to escape. Maaga engineers a last ditch campaign to capture the Rills’ ship, but fails and is left behind with her soldiers on the exploding planet as the Rills and the TARDIS escape.
Maybe it was still fresh in 1965, but the first thing even people who are not sci-fi devotees would notice is the appearance of the “hideous aliens are actually benevolent, the familiar-looking if not beautiful aliens are actually pure evil” cliche. What I do know was already a hoary cliche in 1965 was – and this is one of my own personal favorite ’50s and ’60s sci-fi motifs – the cruel, emotionless Amazonians. It’s not quite as grating as it might have been – for one thing, unlike in, say, Queen of Outer Space or Cat-Women from the Moon (told you I really was familiar with this particular sci-fi cliche) Steven actually doesn’t seduce one of the Drahvins and introduces her to the glory of emotions – but the usual sense that the audience is supposed to find it all so cleverly ironic since it’s supposed to be women acting contrary to their “nature” is there.
To be fair, though, it’s actually the characterization of Maaga that adds the spice to the episode. She’s not a sympathetic villain by any stretch, but at the same time there’s a method to her fascism, and both her portrayer’s sincere performance and her character’s frustration at being stranded with soldiers conditioned to be all-but-mindless drones are quite well fleshed-out. On the same note, the idea of a society whose members are all bio-engineered for specific tasks might not have been original even at the time this episode aired, but it’s given some depth here. Unfortunately, there’s so little else that makes this episode special or that’s even worth commenting on. The Rills are notable only as perhaps the most cheaply portrayed alien species we’ve seen yet; the “big reveal” of the Rills’ appearance turns out to be a close-up image of a spider superimposed on the screen. The plot itself gives the game away almost at the very beginning. When they try to make it seem that the Rills could still turn out to be hostile well into the middle act, it becomes pretty much insulting. From the first episode on, the whole story just treads water until reaching a conclusion that only a person who has never seen any work of genre fiction before could not predict.
Fellow classic “Who” reviewer David the Wavid compared this serial to a “Star Trek” episode, and I think that’s a dead-on comparison. Tied in with the twist is an idealistic moral, in this instance “Don’t judge a book by its cover”; said moral, apparently for the slow kids, is shoehorned in with a heavy-handed monologue or two; and there’s even an extremely advanced to the point of near omnipotence and perfectly friendly alien species thrown in. The only difference, I think, is that “Star Trek” was usually much better about its mysteries than the way the one in this serial is presented.
I will say that by this point in the serial I like how the companions have shaped up. Vicki does nicely as the veteran companion while still maintaining a youthful personality. It’s much more interesting than her just being Susan’s replacement. And already I like Steven. It seems like he’s already becoming what Ian and Barbara were supposed to have been originally: someone who constantly challenges the Doctor.