This was a nice thing to do. Tom and Peter at DWM felt the magazine was missing the weighty reviews of old episodes now the DVD releases had stopped (or so it seemed – then cameth The Underwater Menace, of which more another time). Hence the notion of starting an occasional series getting to grips with mostly missing stories that were never going to get a commercial release. Although, let’s see if the upcoming BBC Shop has any impact upon that…
I picked The Macra Terror to start the segment off for two reasons; I didn’t know the story and thought I’d like it. It’s only four episodes, and the deadline was tight. Sometimes, that’s what it comes down to. So, from DWM #491.
The over-riding orthodoxy in a good magazine is timeliness. There must be a pertinent reason for the inclusion of each item. Within The DWM Review that couldn’t be more obvious – here’s a something, which is now available to buy.
But, the Morphoton-like brains who steer this organ have recently thought a big thought. ‘Isn’t it a shame those Doctor Who stories that don’t look like they’re going to get a release on DVD – consequence of the unhappy fact they’re mostly missing from the BBC archives – will never have a proper going-over in our reviewing shop?’
Thus, readers, welcome to a new initiative! It’s the missing, in action! For no other motivation than sheer love, today DWM commences on an assignment to give those errant entries the full treatment. They may not be popping up on Amazon this month, but we won’t let that stop us.
And so we begin with The Macra Terror from 1967. If you really want timeliness, we can accommodate that. The four-parter written by Ian Stuart Black (his last for the series) and directed by John Davies (his only) features the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie arriving at an unnamed outer-space human colony which may appear the epitome of gaiety, but has in fact been secretly taken over by a race of evil giant crabs. However, ask anyone in charge, and they’ll tell you: “There are no Macra!”
It’s a deception perpetrated by the state, a theme so evergreen that as I write, the internet is having terrific fun with the revelation the Department for Work and Pensions used fictional claimants in its literature. “I’m really pleased with how my CV looks,” said an imaginary Sarah on one pamphlet. “It’s going to help me when I’m ready to go back to work.” Switch to our story, and a brainwashed Ben’s coming out with equally fabricated enthusiasm: “Well, we’ve got to do something to help in the colony. We can’t just eat their nosh without helping out.”
I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that when watching old Doctor Who, sometimes one has to acclimatise, not just to different production standards of the day or the pace of the drama, but to a kind of naivety too. But The Macra Terror is rarely that. It’s a nuanced, furtive satire, which reveals how a silly kind of showmanship can be used to disguise something far more sinister.
This is a world that’s allowing itself to be distracted by pageants and dancing girls, while simultaneously poisoning its populace. In 1997, producer and director James Gatward – who’d worked on several films in the 1970s with Ian Stuart Black – penned his obituary for The Independent. “Black’s view of life was Darwinian,” he wrote in his final summation, and you can identify that trait in this adventure. Not just in the fundamental struggle between species who require inimical conditions for life (the Macra have the colony folk mine a gas which is deadly to humans while invigorating for the giant crustaceans), but also in the representation of a regime that’s trodden on the weak to prosper.
There’s something in the air – and it’s not just toxins. The ideas Black was exploring persist today. In interview Mark Gatiss recently revealed he’d been toying with creating an enemy species for Doctor Who called the ‘They’. This would be the ‘They’ whom people credit for making those decisions about what happens in public life. The ‘They’ who will take charge in a crisis. The ‘They’ who don’t want us to know things which might undermine the status quo.
The Macra (“Macra do not exist!”) are the ‘They’, the unseen mandarins who hide behind the throne or, more accurately, a portrait of the colony’s Controller. And what a piece of good fortune that the first ever episode of Doctor Who to feature our hero’s face in the title sequence should commence its story with another striking photograph, that of the aforementioned (literal) figurehead. The contrast between the two offers almost everything you need to know about the different ideologies at play. The latter is blandly pleasant, or as Polly says, “smashing”. The former, sleepy, a little battered but full of character and infinitely interesting. When he’s forced into a machine that launders his clothes, it’s instructive that the Doctor immediately subjects himself to the ‘rough and tumble’ device, to reinstate the wrinkles.
It’s been said before, but I’m going to say it again, The Macra Terror is the point where Patrick Troughton’s time traveller comes into his own. He’s less frenetic than before, comfortable enough to now start letting the gimmicks slip. The recorder barely gets a toot – thank God – and there’s only one incident of headwear-acquisition, and it’s a really charming bit, with the Doctor being given a majorette’s hat at the end of the tale, before he and the gang literally dance off the scene.
Yes, they end as a high-kicking troupe, but before that, this Doctor is never more lonesome. He stalks through much of the adventure unattended and often at night. When he is in company, he mostly keeps his concerns to himself, allowing the occasional seemingly mild, but devastatingly acute, question to pass his lips. “Why do you want everyone to be the same?” he asks the colony’s Pilot. Better yet is his exchange with the dissident Medok, who tells him, “I don’t know you. You don’t belong here.” The Doctor replies, so softly, “Do you belong here?”
Sixth Doctor actor Colin Baker once spoke of the character’s “essential belief in the rightness of things,” and that, “if things aren’t right he feels compelled to do something about it… right doesn’t always necessarily mean beautiful or happy or pretty, but right.” The second incarnation has precisely that compulsion, and seems a restless soul, agitating his way towards resolution.
Occasionally, however, he does slip into didactics (“Don’t just be obedient. Always make up your own mind!”), but Troughton’s performance – a silly, puffed up indignation – ensures we never feel hectored. He leans in and out of the material, making the most lethal line of all one where the Doctor critiques a jingle that promotes the importance of a solid work ethic. “Dreadful! Did you hear that rhyme? The man who wrote that ought to be sent to the Danger Gang, not us!”
Nonetheless, Black’s script doesn’t just play this sweet and characterful chap against a uniformly evil totalitarian state. In fact, Peter Jeffrey’s Pilot could be said to be a principled person who’s nonetheless allowed his sense of idealism to blind him from the injustices he now presides over – and the truth about who’s really running the colony. The publicity photo taken by the Radio Times captures something of that, the man shrinking back while his strong-arm, security chief Ola (Gertan Klauber) raises a stick at something off-picture. In all of his interactions with “the strangers” – the TARDIS crew – Pilot is conciliatory. When Medok pretends the Doctor had nothing to do with his escape from custody, Pilot is relieved to bundle up this unpleasantness. “Well, I’m extremely sorry about it… and of course you’re free to go.” He genuinely believes in the morality of his administration; that if demonstrated the self-evident rightness of his dogma will prevail. “Our ancestors believed in the virtues of healthy happiness and we have tried to keep their ideals alive,” he says later on in the story. Healthy happiness – it’s got a ring to it. How could anyone object? It’s like, say, The Big Society.
Make no mistake, Jeffrey’s performance is marvellous, but this isn’t just a case of a gifted actor bringing out such sympathies. I’d say it’s all there in Black’s writing. A case in point is the creation of yes-man Questa, about whom the script says, ‘a sympathetic, very genuine fellow’. In fact Black, who read Philosophy at Manchester, presides over almost everyone with a calm benevolence. True, Ola is pretty much as ‘hench’ as a henchman can get, but it’s only the Macra (“It is forbidden to say that!”) who merit his unadulterated derision. By the end they seem panicked and – well – utterly useless, really. Now that the humans have been galvanised by the Doctor into shutting down operations, the crustaceans can do nothing but cry. And they can’t even do that; their proxy, the Controller (or whomever it actually is who possesses that voice) wailing pathetically.
Alas, they invite derision from us too. As you know, there’s little moving visual material left from this serial, but the giant crabs – created by Shawcraft Models – do look very much like a let-down. With all the apparent mobility of a caravanette reversing out of a lock-up, they force actors into those horrible contortions whereby they have to place their own necks inside the clutches of notionally grasping pincers. Certainly this, and problems with the subsequent story, The Faceless Ones, prompted producer Innes Lloyd to look into using the BBC Visual Effects Department for future episodes. Which is a top fact, but we should also note that at this point in its life, Doctor Who was entering the studio about a week before the end results were screened on BBC1. It’s madness! That the programme would mess about with a Dormobile-sized monster on such a tight turn-around… and without any post-production facilities. The Macra may be a failure of carpentry, but they’re still a triumph in ambition.
I’ve made some effort to find the parts in The Macra Terror that have resonance today (and let’s not forget Ben’s response when he’s told the Controller brings the colony encouragement – “Oh, he’s not a politician then!”), but of course it’s also very much a product of its time. The surface-level indolence of the place, and its obsession with the organised fun of beauty competitions and “dance festivals” makes you think of the prevalence of Butlin’s and the like, plus the rise of the package holiday. Meanwhile, the crews forced to work in the pits calls to mind labour camps – a concept still redolent for a generation (including Ian Stuart Black) who would perhaps be watching along with the kids – but also rests upon what would have then felt like the stable assertion that this kind of industry was to continue as a part of British life for decades to come. It’s not an assumption specific to just this story, though. Pipelines would weave their way through Doctor Who for a good few years yet.
I also think this parable taps into the televisualisation of British politics. The then Prime Minister Harold Wilson was the first to be quite at home on TV and, having studied videotapes of John F Kennedy, was savvy in shaping his demeanour to suit the form. It lent him an impression of modernity, but also an omnipresence useful for anyone in high office. In The Macra Terror, the Controller enjoys a similar kind of power through screens. Sure, he’s presented as a static shot, but in a way, that makes the point even more forcefully; that a still, manufactured and utterly controllable image is all that’s required as an icon of authority. It does, however, make it all the more shocking – and perhaps baffling – when the creatures consent to let the real McCoy go in front of the camera at the end of Episode 2. Revealed as a bedraggled, frightened old man, who’s basically been taken hostage, it flushes away any power he may have commanded. Something of an omnishambles for the monsters, and one from which they never quite recover.
It’s an enduring sadness that so many Doctor Who stories are no longer available for us to watch. The weird aspect in all of this is, if The Macra Terror tapes hadn’t been wiped, it would remain in my own past-tense today as a tale I’d long ago caught on VHS and then again on DVD. However, up until writing this review, I’d never really experienced the story in any form at all.
A week’s a long time in politics, and that last episode even more so for those horrors, whose turnabout is absolute. However the 48 years that distance us from the production seem less so. Granted, it does only persist as a remnant of what it was – a Macra shell, if you like – but it’s still enough to reveal its brilliance. Okay, it’s no consolation to anyone for the sorry state it’s in, but right now this is the ‘newest’ bit of Doctor Who in my life.
Macra do exist!