Friday, March 16, 2007
Doctor Who – The Macra Terror
After delving into just why it’s more difficult than you’d think to see much of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in action (and don’t forget to watch his The Web of Fear on BBC4 on Sunday night), it’s time to look more closely – or as closely as a Reconstruction allows – at a story from 1967, and marvel at just how very 1967 it all is. So exactly why is it that giant crab-monsters running an Orwellian holiday camp should result in one of the most uncompromisingly Liberal messages ever heard in a Doctor Who story? And is it any good?
“This is an emergency. Control must be believed and obeyed! No one on the Colony believes in Macra! There is no such thing as Macra! Macra do not exist! There are no Macra!”
The Doctor and His Friends…
There’s something that feels simply ‘right’ for me about the Doctor, unable to steer his TARDIS, arriving somewhere random with his friends – in this case, a planet somewhere, in the future sometime, with a human settlement run like a gigantic holiday camp with a curious intolerance of those who claim to witness giant crab-like creatures crawling about at night – exploring, investigating, sorting out its great big alien problem, then slipping away before anyone can ask awkward questions. Their avoidance of awkward questions may be ironic in The Macra Terror, but it still fits the blueprint that I suspect was drummed into me from the earliest books I read of the Doctor’s travels in time and space, telling of the Second Doctor as played by Patrick Troughton. The first book I ever read was a Pat Doctor Who story, and ever since then I’ve had a fondness for him. He even developed into my favourite Doctor, from something like the mid-’80s to just a few years ago. When he’s at his best, he has a gentle power that quite beats any other Doctor’s performance for me; he was only overtaken by William Hartnell when, three or four years ago, Richard and I watched the whole of their stories in order. Billy’s unwavering dedication to the part won me over, while I found to my surprise that when Pat was good, he was very, very good, but when he was bad he was hammy. Watching his stories, you can see that for the first few he’s a little unsure of himself, taking over an established role and almost completely changing the character, so he does a lot of goofing and only occasionally lets his gravitas show through. He then hits his stride with a series of extraordinary performances that neatly balance comedy and seriousness, but towards the end it becomes very obvious which scripts he doesn’t think much of, and several stories see him fling his arms in the air, cry “Oh, my word!” and ham it up because he doesn’t think the lines worth playing for real. When he thought it mattered, Pat was absolute magic. But Billy never had a moment when he didn’t think it mattered.
Fortunately, The Macra Terror is one of the earliest in that consistent run of stories where Pat has found his feet as the Doctor but not yet got tired of the role. It’s the first where his anti-authority style really pays off, one of just two or three stories with such vividly anti-establishment messages that they really establish his Doctor’s fine balance between encouraging you to ‘free your mind’ and uncompromising ‘destroy all monsters’. The First Doctor would often have stand-up shouting matches with those in authority, but his age and bearing meant that he could often be taken as a figure of authority himself, all the better to undermine them. The Second Doctor is small, shabby and much more retiring, and is more likely to be thought a tramp than a toff. Here, he gets a script perfectly tailored to his character, instantly siding with the underdog, more likely to give events a gentle nudge than openly take charge (at least until the crisis point), and rebelling against neatness and conformity, whether physical or mental. Patrick Troughton was such a physical actor, with such an expressive face, that it’s a terrible shame so few of his stories ‘survive’. It’s great to see his reactions captured once in a while in the Recon, such as the huge, mischievous grin as he puts one over on the official in charge of the Colony’s gas supply. He has a marvellous voice, too, often using a nervous, apologetic tone that encourages his opponents to underestimate his dangerous intelligence, and a rarer deep, gentle, compelling timbre that means he’s being very serious; it makes him sound very gentle, as if this inveterate bluffer is finally taking you into his confidence, but it’s also the tone he uses to talk about life and death.
The distinctive way the Doctor approaches the turning points in this story is uniquely Pat’s. His attitude when one of his companions falls under the control of the Colony seems much more tolerant if also more guarded than that any of the other Doctors would be, but when he makes up his mind about the Macra he becomes morally absolute. He seems kindly, yet ruthless. Right from the start, his determination to hang on to his rumpled appearance when all his companions are kitted out in neat Colony tunics indicates that he sees the danger in a system that wants you forcibly ‘tidied up’ even if ‘tidying’ something changes its nature and ruins it, realising the mental conformity the Colony will demand as part of that: thrust into a machine that straightens his hair and polishes his clothes, he’s congratulated on how spruce he looks, but jumps into a massaging machine to scruff himself up again after witheringly observing,
“Who wants to see their face in a pair of suede shoes?”Though there are points where the Doctor can’t help himself and protests at things he sees as wrong, he repeatedly retreats to the background, observing and deducing before he acts and often making use of his companions to ask questions and draw attention away from him. There’s an outstanding pair of scenes in which, having worked out that everything in the Colony comes back to the gas which they throw everything into mining – no-one knows what it does, it’s poisonous to humans, and yet it’s prized above all else – he insinuates himself into the gas supply centre and first works out how it all works, then puts that knowledge into action. He gets so wrapped up in scrawling calculations across the walls that, having deduced the key formula from the readings coming in and given himself ten out of ten, he doesn’t spot the Colony’s chief administrator, its Pilot, coming in behind him until he’s accused of stealing the secret:
“…you’re not asking me to believe that in a few moments you have been able to work out a formula which it has taken our combined computers years to perfect?”At which point he awards himself eleven out of ten, before being made to scrub the wall clear. The formula is, of course, still in his head, and once the Pilot’s gone on his way, the Doctor is able to bamboozle the jobsworth in charge of the gas station with a stream of mathematical nonsense while pretending to help, all the time worming the last bits of information out of him and reversing the settings as he does. With the supervisor – unsubtly named ‘Officia’ – completely unable to deal with a dissident who is devious rather than loudly resisting, all he can do is protest that the Doctor doesn’t know what he’s doing. He does, of course, boasting as he finishes his work that “I can stand an operation on its head quicker than anyone,” and that he’s “revolutionised the entire gas flow of the Colony.” The ‘revolution’ motif slipped in isn’t the only double meaning in the script, and it’s only after the Doctor finally shows his cards with this sabotage that Officia finally realises he’s dangerous. By this time, of course, the underrated Doctor has been allowed to pick up enough information that he can run rings round the regime.
“It does seem rather a tall order,” observes the Doctor, chuckling delightedly.
“Well, you must have seen the document. That’s the exact computation.”
“Really?” he laughs again, very pleased with himself. “Well, in that case…”
The Doctor’s also particularly well-complemented by his companions here. I said the first book I ever read was a Second Doctor story, and it featured the same crew. Highlander Jamie (Frazer Hines, later in Emmerdale for many years) is still relatively new, but already well-defined, and there’s great chemistry between sailor Ben and socialite Polly. They’d been around for a year or so, and they’re both blond and beautiful in a way that previous companions hadn’t been – ‘something for the dads’, and for those of us unlikely to be dads. It’s one of my favourite line-ups, though an unlucky one: most of their episodes are ‘missing’, and few of their stories manage to give good parts to all of them. This is probably the best story for the team, though Polly draws a bit of a short straw compared to the young men, with a lot of the story revolving around rivalry between Ben and Jamie after Ben ‘switches sides’. Early on, we see each of the Doctor’s young friends drawn to and repelled by different aspects of the Colony, so it’s not obvious which one might ‘turn’; yes, Ben is delighted to relax topless (damn those video-burning barbarians at the Beeb!) while Jamie fidgets nervously, but it’s Jamie who enjoys the all-pervasive music of the jingles and Ben who distrusts the message in them linking happiness to work. Polly, given rather a fab short haircut by her ‘treatment’, is told how beautiful she is and that she’s “sure to be elected our next beauty president”; you’re distracted by the updated version of ‘beauty queen’, of course, but the disturbing assumption beneath it is that there’s no question they’ll stay. There’s an outstanding sequence for all three companions in the second episode, when the Colony’s Big Brother-like voice of ‘Control’ declares that, after having been welcomed in and neatened up, our heroes are “to be given the advantage of high powered adaption at once” so they’ll “think like members of the Colony.” It’s deeply disturbing to see Ben, Jamie and Polly asleep while a mellifluous, insidious voice coos brainwashing propaganda over them, persuading them to relax, believe the Colony knows what is best, and obey without question. As far as you can tell from the telesnaps, we don’t see the Doctor’s room or witness him doing anything as human as sleeping, but perhaps he’s already heard and overcome the voice, alerting him to what’s happening to the others; he creeps into Polly’s room – a bit dodgy, you might think – to check the walls, and finds a wire like an artificial nerve hidden there, which he fuses with a groovy little explosion (visible on the new Recon). She wakes, and he tells her she’s had some very bad advice, suggesting a classically Liberal homily instead:
“Now Polly, I want you to forget everything that you’ve been dreaming.”It’s a little too late when he and Polly dash in on Ben and Jamie, though. Jamie has already woken, disturbed by the voice, but when he rouses Ben, his friend just wants to get back to sleep because “We’ve got a hard day’s work ahead of us tomorrow.” Jamie’s taken aback at Ben, usually cockily resistant to authority, and when the Doctor arrives to fuse their nerve filaments, Ben wakes again and starts heckling him, telling him to stop before he does any damage. The Doctor prefers some damage to loss of will power, but Ben no longer understands: “It’s against the law!”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well it’s just possible that you’ve been given a series of orders while you’ve been asleep. You know – ‘do this’, ‘do that’, ‘do the other thing’… My advice to you is: don’t do anything of the sort. Don’t just be obedient. Always make up your own mind.”
The Doctor realises what’s happened, but doesn’t react as explosively as his other selves would. While Jamie erupts at Ben, the Doctor becomes rather cold and calculating, drawing back to observe while Ben calls the guards to order him away (“I take orders from no one but the Doctor,” shouts Jamie, ironically). For most of the rest of the story, Ben is transformed from his usual easygoing self to a stiff Colony apparatchik with high collar and steely manner, but the Doctor never directly ‘deprogrammes’ him, instead choosing his moments to nudge him in the direction of fighting the control off himself, guarded, mildly chastising, and encouraging his doubts in a similar way to how Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor would operate. Michael Craze steals the show as Ben, normally so straightforward and suddenly tortured, with spasms of sounding like the Daily Mail (it’s unsettling for him to suddenly join the herd and yell for the ‘outsider’ Doctor to be ‘corrected’, pretty much ‘string ’em up’), and his becoming a ‘normal’, law-abiding member of the Colony gives the story real oomph, with his throwing off the baleful influence of Control appropriately essential to the climax.
The biggest test for Ben is in reconciling his feelings for Polly with his new loyalty to the Colony. Anneke Wills’ Polly is a bit of a spare part for much of the story (and none of the many other women appearing here have major roles, making it one of the few ’60s Who stories that really does tend to follow the general ’60s style and reduce them to ‘dolly birds’, even if it is a sign of the Colony’s vacuity), often ending up just someone for the Doctor to talk to and hand bits of equipment to and at one point even nervously wanting to stay put instead of showing her usual assertiveness, but there are real sparks when she literally leads Ben into temptation. She makes a break for forbidden ground, daring Ben to report her, and he can’t help following, torn between obeying orders and protecting her. Naturally, she runs straight into a giant crab, rather awkwardly a creature that the Colony insists does not exist. There can rarely have been a more visibly enacted ideological crisis as when Ben batters at a creature he has to believe isn’t there, and though he rescues her – both looking extremely fetching in the short clips, her struggling in short bob and tunic and him in very skimpy shorts, then both hugging and screaming in a terribly endearing way as if on a ghost train ride – when he makes his report, he struggles to remember what happened, eventually asserting despite his bruises and scratches that “there are no such things as Macra!” before openly questioning what to do in a very ’60s, trippy way:
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I… Got these voices in my head – sometimes I just think I’m just having a bad dream…”With Ben and Polly the ‘companions in danger’ towards the end of Episode 2, the following week it’s Jamie’s turn, escaping the Danger Gang in the mines (after complaining in a very sexist but protective way about Polly being forced down there) only to run into more Macra. And he’s in a t-shirt, gloves and apparently a silver apron while doing it, which isn’t his best look. Fortunately, when the Doctor’s sabotage allows Jamie to escape, he gets a splendid little scene where he runs into a group of cheerleaders practicing their “We all know Control is right, and we must obey!” inspirational chants. Taken for a dancer, he makes his exit with a terrific gag:
“Why do you call it the Highland Fling?”
“Because we finish the dance by flinging ourselves out the door!”
Free Will and Utopia
Regular readers will know I’m deeply suspicious of utopias and ‘perfect societies’ that claim to know best for everyone, because everyone’s idea of ‘best’ is different. To maintain its own ideal of ‘perfection’, a utopia always has to crush free thought, creativity and difference, all of which would spoil the pre-planned pattern. As Margaret Atwood said in last year’s documentary The Martians and Us – Trouble in Paradise:
“In a dystopia, you don’t have choice and free will, because conditions are imposed upon you. And in a utopia, you don’t need choice and free will, because what would you need them for? Everything’s perfect.”Doctor Who, unsurprisingly, has a similar scepticism towards utopianism; the two may not be unrelated, as readers of either the ‘Liberal’ version in Liberator 293 or the ‘Doctor Who’ version of my article How Doctor Who Made Me a Liberal will know. Although I only became familiar with the detail of The Macra Terror and its ideological soulmate The Evil of the Daleks once I was already an active Liberal Democrat, I immediately recognised and cheered on the stance they take. These stories make perhaps the most explicit statements of the anti-establishment ethos that the series’ original producer Verity Lambert saw as the core of its appeal to children, as well as to adults still thinking for themselves. He repeatedly speaks for freedom from ignorance and conformity, the Colony’s two founding principles, as when he confronts the Pilot over plans to take Medok to the hospital for more “correction”:
“He’ll be given another course of treatment. And when he returns to the Colony, Medok will be a changed man. He will co-operate and he will obey orders. He’ll be just like the rest of us.”For me, the Doctor’s caring individualism seems inescapably Liberal – a curious traveller in time and space, by definition unbound by rules and by instinct dismissive of authority, to a petty bureaucrat in the story between The Macra Terror and The Evil of the Daleks “the most subversive and anarchic figure of his entire career, a shabbily dressed little man known as the Doctor,” (from The Faceless Ones, though I don’t entirely recommend its exceptionally daft B-Movie villains who the Doctor deals with by talking to them sternly and making them stand in the corner). It’s because he’s an individual and not an enforcer that he always feels Liberal even in less freewheeling stories, someone who looks after the little people against bullies and isn’t upholding the law, the military or any ‘one size fits all’ utopian solution. Here, he announces “Bad laws are made to be broken” and changes the world to get rid of them. It’s politically inspirational, and one of the Doctor’s best-known lines championing freedom; often quoted to suggest the Doctor’s an anarchist, I wouldn’t go quite that far, or at least not on that evidence. Though there’s no doubt of a libertarian direction, wouldn’t the corollary be that ‘Good laws are made to be obeyed’?
“Why do you want everyone to be the same?”
Though most of the monsters Pat faces in his next two years as the Doctor are still symbols of conformity, mind control and dehumanisation, the rhetoric is rarely so nakedly Liberal as it is at this point, when the Doctor urges people to think for themselves and question authority every two minutes. Afterwards that side of things becomes more implicit, as if they decided that, having set out their stall, ‘we’ve done the free will, now let’s just kill the monsters’. A few years ago, SFX Magazine published an unflattering set of pen-portraits of the Doctors, of which the Second Doctor’s was the only one that really hit the mark:
“You have a childlike approach to life, and don’t worry about dressing smart, making a good impression or coming first. You seem really relaxed and vague and trustworthy. But if anybody even slightly irritates you, you build a machine and you destroy them.”Enjoy the Doctor opposing not just soulless, identity-sapping monsters but the soulless identity-sapping in an everyday wash-and-brush-up when it appears here, then. The early clue that the ‘welcoming’ Colony want the Doctor to be neat and tidy and he resists on principle reminds me of another of my great heroes, Conrad Russell. He was told on taking the Liberal Democrat whip in the Lords that he should still rebel against the party whip on at least one point of principle before long, or he wasn’t a proper Liberal. Not only was Conrad told this by the Lib Dem peers’ deputy leader, but he later took rebelling to such a happy extreme he was nearly expelled, while also becoming the party’s intellectual guru. Though the Doctor is never party political, he has a similar urge to tell authority where to put itself. Shopped by Ben for fusing the brainwashing circuits in his companions’ rooms, he’s taken before the Pilot, who like a stern, concerned headmaster can’t begin to understand why this individual should be so unruly.
“You have destroyed three nerve circuits, Doctor. You have burned them out. What have you to say?”Although he prefers to act stealthily in the background to get away with more before he’s caught, this Doctor abruptly stops dissembling and takes pride in his interference when eventually confronted; he does it again in almost exactly the same words when finally put on trial by his own people for mixing it. And in a sudden switch of mood, when the Doctor notices a mind-control circuit in the Pilot’s office as well, he immediately stops standing up to him and turns sympathetic, fusing the Pilot’s circuit, too (though it takes him a long time for him to say thank you). It’s at this point that the Doctor’s attention focuses on what’s behind the Big Brother-style picture of an assured, confident leader in Control, and what it conceals is the not wholly unexpected main twist in the story… As it gradually becomes plain that the gas to which everything in the Colony is geared to produce is purely to support the crab-like Macra who can’t live in our air, it’s plainer still that more toxic to the Macra than oxygen is ‘asking questions’. In the end, it’s assault by constant questions that drives the voice of Control into such hysteria that even the calm, conservative Pilot at last questions his orders. Of course, before things reach that crisis, turning up in what appears to be a happy utopia and making a bee-line for the only (surviving) dissident isn’t calculated to endear him to the Colony, so he encounters the problem that people don’t necessarily want to be free if they think they’re having a good time. He’s still right that happiness isn’t enough if you can’t choose it for yourself, but it won a particularly barbed spoof ‘Moral’ for this story in Doctor Who Magazine:
“Rather neat, don’t you think? And so simple. I did it with this.”
(He holds up a little pin or piece of wire)
“You admit it?”
“I’m proud of it.”
“Don’t wander uninvited into someone else’s party and turn on the lights.
It won’t make you popular.”
I Feel Like I’ve Been Here Before…
With Control a very deliberate echo of 1984’s Big Brother and ‘giant insects’ (as the crab-like Macra are repeatedly described) in a story of a system itself gone mad echoing Kafka, there are obvious literary homages in the story. Then stir in a touch of Quatermass II, with workers conned by conformity and normality into making deadly gas for aliens to breathe, and the likes of The Ipcress File for the psychedelic interrogation / ‘correction’. And Butlin’s, obviously. Perhaps more crucial to the story’s development are influences from other Doctor Who and from politics of the real world, though in each case The Macra Terror finds as many later echoes as existing ideas that it picks up. Author Ian Stuart Black had previously written two other Doctor Who stories for William Hartnell, and though this is the most interesting and most lively of the three, it draws themes and other elements from the other two. The Savages is a particularly forgotten story even for Doctor Who’s largely forgotten third year, a long-destroyed prototype ‘typical’ Doctor Who plot without even a monster to remember it by. There’s not a lot to it; there’s a ‘who are the real Savages?’ moral – like The Macra Terror, a utopian society is revealed as based on exploitation with the scary people outside / scary ‘nutter’ proved more in the right, and the Doctor is first welcomed then persecuted for asking awkward questions – but though I might nod at its message, the only two ‘twists’ are both done by half-way through and the rest is running about with very little plot. The Macra Terror adds not just monsters but rather more layers and a lot of wit, as well as something of Ian Stuart Black’s second story, The War Machines. The clunkiest computer technology you’ll ever see can’t disguise that this was remarkably ahead of its time for 1966; with a giant computer (they all were) inventing the Internet thirty years early – TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD! – this is the one that should have been called ‘The Web of Fear’. Well, all right, the melodramatic threat to free will doesn’t quite anticipate the Internet’s explosion of different opinions, but it got ‘everything happening by signals over the ’phone’ right. Its modern-day, army-versus-monsters feel means it anticipates much early ’70s Who as well, but as far as similarities with The Macra Terror go, here we have huge, hulking monsters, Terry Nation-style mind control (The Macra Terror’s delusional utopia resembles the earlier, cheesier The Keys of Marinus even more strongly) and one of the Doctor’s companions distressed as another comes under the influence. That time it was Polly who was brainwashed but still unable to give Ben away, rather than the other way round, but they’re terrific together in both. That story even opened with the Doctor having a mysterious sensation of evil to warn him to keep an eye out, in its own way as contrived as the ‘Look! A giant claw will appear next week!’ teaser for the Macra.
Later Doctor Who stories have more than a few similarities to The Macra Terror, too, as do The Prisoner and The Year of the Sex Olympics, both of which came soon after. Day of the Daleks, for example, has a work-heavy dystopian future where humans obey a few monsters in real control, and where the Doctor persuades the chief administrator to turn against the monsters only for them to replace him with his sadistic police chief. And I’ve written about the varied attacks on utopias in, for example, The Green Death and The Keeper of Traken. You could say it’s been almost remade – Sylvester McCoy’s story The Happiness Patrol similarly has a Colony with enforced happiness, though the aliens under the floor are another layer of victims rather than the exploiters. The Doctor uses the crooked, smiling logic of that colony against it too, giving himself up so he can’t be arrested in both stories (and both of them even have an edible monster); the association of these two stories in my head was so strong that I was actually quite taken aback when I saw a Recon of The Macra Terror for the first time. I’d always imagined it would be like the 1988 story, shot entirely within the studio, so it was a marvellous shock to see 1967 one starting off with location filming. Then, if you’ve been watching the new series… Well, just look at the Empress of the Racnoss, for one: a great big ‘practical monster’, actually there in the studio and a bit spidery in the script, but with the slight drawback of not being able to move about much.
As to the political sources of the story… Though I’m in little doubt of the Liberal messages peppering The Macra Terror, not everyone agrees. Before I’d ever heard the whole thing, I remember being told it was a Marxist fable, with the workers in a state of false consciousness, being exploited by a system set up entirely for the benefit of a separate class of parasites. Well, the shape of that may fit and there’s certainly a point in the ‘false consciousness’, but I’ve never read a Marxist who argues that individual freedom and asking questions are the most important things in life. Besides, when I did at last hear The Macra Terror, its main satirical target – other than holiday camps – struck me as quite the opposite. With dissidents being taken to hospital for ‘correction’ or sent to mine mineral salts from which gas can be produced, it wasn’t a very big jump to recognise the Soviet definition of opponents as psychiatric patients or the notion of exiling others to the Siberian salt mines. When we hear that “Medok is one of our last patients in the colony,” the real life examples make us wonder whether the brainwashing is getting more effective, or if the other patients have just been ‘disappeared’, rather than thinking ‘Oh, good, they’re cured’. Add the whiff of Berlin Wall in the curfew and the Chief of Police’s ambiguous warning that “Anyone who wanders round the Colony at night may be killed,” and the story doesn’t come across as entirely taken with Marxist states. I suspect the author was in fact having a laugh, but whatever his politics, there’s a passionately anti-totalitarian, pro-free will critique that might come from Liberals or anarchists against any political system that decides it’s in the business of telling its citizens it knows best.
Forty years later and well after the collapse of Soviet communism, it’s striking how easily the story’s barbs hit home on modern politics for any system that stifles criticism and compels conformity. Marvel at just how much Macra propaganda is used by New Labour:
“Our ancestors believed in the virtues of ‘healthy happiness’, and we have tried to keep their ideals alive. Sometimes, alas, it is necessary to use force.”No, it’s not Tony Blair talking about hard-working families and control orders, but I’m sure I’ve heard him say “We cannot have criticisms from these strangers,” and repeated assertions that “There are no such thing as Macra” are every bit as convincing as “There are such things as WMD in Iraq”. The ever-present loudspeakers and viewing machines to keep an eye on everyone in the Colony smack not just of telescreens, but CCTV. The attitude towards Medok, who’s says he’s seen something disturbing and, unable to be exhorted to be happy with platitudes, has refused ‘treatment’ despite being told by the Pilot that “It’s for your own good,” is redolent of the government’s desire to lock up people who might be mentally ill because, you know, they might some day do something, and besides, they scare people – or, as Chief of Police Dr John Ola puts it,
“The Colony will be petrified when they know he’s out there in the night.”The Doctor marks himself as potentially dangerous by showing concern for Medok, then (rather than just letting him be locked away for his anti-social behaviour) trying to talk to him in order to ask questions, with the Pilot giving away the whole way in which the Colony is ruled:
“What were you doing with Medok? You know he’s a dangerous man.”Similarly, when the Doctor and his friends expose the reality of Control, the reaction is to blame them for challenging the Colony’s accepted beliefs rather than deal with the evidence. The Pilot reflexively orders them condemned to the pits, where no-one but other dissidents can hear them, and Control feeds his prejudices by announcing that “We will not tolerate the evil of such strangers”; yes, whatever the actual evidence, everything is blamed on the immigrants and people of questionable mental health. Good job that couldn’t happen here…
“I’m not so sure, Pilot.”
“You have already been told!”
Monsters in Control?
There’s an impressive guest cast, in addition of course to the rather striking if not completely convincing appearance of the Macra themselves. Each of the four actors who best typify the different aspects of the Colony also appear in The Avengers, adding to the 1967-ness of it all and the feeling that the Colony is something normal, recognisable, but slightly off-kilter. Graham Armitage, playing the camp ‘Clothes Show’ organiser Barney, symbol of all that is apparently frothy and frivolous, had a good day on the 11th of March, 1967: not only did he get a significant guest spot in that evening’s first episode of this Doctor Who story, but another in The Avengers’ stylish The Correct Way to Kill the same night. At the other extreme of the conformists, Gertan Klauber’s Chief of Police Ola may be familiar to you from the odd Carry On film and as any number of ‘heavies’. Here, he signals something wrong from the start – for such a happy Colony, they have a lot of guards – and this sneering, sadistic bully is someone who clearly doesn’t care who’s in charge as long as he still gets to strut. He’s provides several of the key Kafka-esque moments, when Medok’s and even at last the Pilot’s proof that Macra exist doesn’t tick the right boxes for him, as he’s not interested in the truth, just the law, which orders that people who say there are Macra are by definition seeing things and should be locked up.
The Pilot and Medok are the most complex and interesting characters. The Pilot is played by the brilliant Peter Jeffrey, always hugely reliable though not really let off the leash here until almost the end. He’s initially a rather sniffy and distant bureaucrat, dictating memos and not liking to be interrupted, but contact with the Doctor gradually loosens his inflexibility. It’s difficult to tell how much of his headmasterly conviction that he’s doing everything for everyone’s own good and that “Control always acts for the best” is worn away by arguments and evidence, and how much simply by the Doctor short-circuiting the device controlling his own mind, but either way it’s interesting to see his unquestioning faith gradually falter. At one stage he’s able to ignore and completely forget evidence while still believing himself to be solicitous; when he claims “We’ve nothing to hide,” he believes it, but by the end of the story he no longer does. That’s why Polly comes up with the idea of showing him the creatures in Control towards the end, and the Doctor realises that the effect’s had enough time to wear off him that he might now be able to take in the truth, enabling the Doctor to use a top-down authoritarian system against itself. With the Doctor having already destabilised the system by proving himself able to come and go almost as he pleases, Ola assaults the Pilot’s authority, which may encourage the Pilot to assert himself as much as the Doctor’s arguments do… And the only way in which he can stand up to Ola, who is obeying Control, is by listening to the Doctor. So, in part, the Pilot is forced into rebellion by his desire to maintain his own authority. He still dithers as he’s swept along by the force of the Doctor’s argument, and by simply keeping up with the Doctor as Pat resolutely heads towards Control:
“But Doctor, this is forbidden territory.”Ironically, given that dissidents are accused by the Pilot of being insane for saying they’ve seen Macra, the sight of them really existing is such a shock to his worldview that it almost tips him over the edge. Because they look horrible, he gibbers that “it is they who must be destroyed,” and his despairing cry is almost indistinguishable from Medok’s earlier warning that he condemned:
“Yes, and you’ll soon see why.”
“Stop! Stop! You’re breaking the law!”
“Bad laws were made to be broken.”
“Ola, the Colony is in the hands of grotesque insects!”Medok is the only one of the locals we meet who’s dead against the Macra from the start, with a mood ranging from grim to hysterical in contrast to the general cheer, and it doesn’t do the poor chap a lot of good. The opening image of the story is a close-up on his eyes, to a threatening electronic heartbeat, before the shot and music change to the enforced jollity of the cheerleaders. The initial impression is that he’s a scary lunatic, violent and dangerous, that he’s the threat rather than the only one who can warn about it: that close-up of him watching at first makes him seem like a voyeur perhaps stalking the dancers, but soon it becomes clear that, instead, he’s seen things that no-one else will see because he’s the only one whose eyes are open. Terence Lodge gives an edgy performance, needled by the calm, regimented order that “It will be fun for all” into losing control and shouting about the crawling things as he’s restrained (well, more like extravagant!). Even he, though, needs the Doctor to break free entirely from his pattern of conformity; he keeps refusing to talk to the Doctor, mistrusting him because “You don’t belong here” until the Doctor makes him realise that neither does he, not any more. There’s a truncated but disturbing scene (even in still frames) in the correction hospital as they attempt to brainwash him. Strapped to a bed with voices telling him he’s seen nothing and “will work hard and happily” and lights flashing on and off, it’s very much of a piece with the disorientating psychedelic dramas of the time, and reflects both his roles in The Avengers: would you believe he’d played not only a lunatic who’s been broken by interrogation, but also ‘the Wringer’, a hip interrogator using the same sort of disorientating psychedelia to break Steed?
“All right! Have fun while you can, before they crawl all over you!”
The most memorable guest performances in the story are not, however, the actors who we see interacting with everybody else but the sinisterly confident voices that pervade the Colony, led by the giant screen bearing the face of Control (reminiscent, as I’ve noted, of Big Brother) from which all the instructions for the Colony come. The rich, insidious tones of the brainwashing voice are also disturbing, but in some ways even more so are the more innocent and ever-present tools of repression, the jingles all with the general message of “Happy to work, happy to play…” Even the fun is tightly controlled, as Control’s instructions “to welcome joyfully the visitors” makes clear, instructing that they be made “happy and contented” but “Now, back to work, everyone,” in a brisk, monarchical pronouncement that permits no question. If the musical style and the face of Control recall the post-War years and everything stops for Control’s proclamations, though, the constant presence of the jingles is much more modern: with conversations cutting across them all the time, it doesn’t matter if you can’t hear some of them, as there’ll be another along shortly and the overall effect is almost subliminal. The constant announcements are a source of humour, too. There are the reactions they draw from the Doctor and his friends, for example when, in a ‘Good night children, everywhere’ tone of voice:
“It is now dark. No one will go outside into the Colony. A dangerous man is in hiding. Our patrols have orders to shoot on sight. Happy sleep time, everybody.”The announcements themselves can similarly invite an amused reaction from the listener at home, perhaps accidentally when “Stand by for action” booms through the massed loudspeakers, partly in their absurd devotion to activity and partly through ‘inappropriate’ juxtapositions:
“Same to you!”
“The Pilot is to be arrested! This is a happy Colony! All must obey!”This effect can also be chilling, as when the normally calm Control’s hysterical screams that “Macra do not exist!” give the lie to the words and display that, of course, they do. Though we never actually see a Macra speak – retaining some of their alien mystery, and not appearing a bit silly – it is evident that the Macra are in Control throughout. The revelation comes half-way through the story, as the once strong, handsome face of Control is revealed as now a terrified old man, menaced by a giant claw, providing a memorable cliffhanger, confirming the Doctor’s suspicions, and sparking a frenzy of shouted denials from the controlled humans and from Control itself. With Control of course using mind control to direct the Colony, the script has great fun with double meanings around the word, from Polly screaming “Macra! They’re in Control!” at the revelation to asking “they weren’t always in Control, were they?” and then Ben finally throwing off his conditioning as the voice breaks into panicked shouts for them all to be arrested: “That doesn’t sound like a man in Control.” And, of course, it isn’t: it’s eventually seen to no viewer’s surprise that what’s there, amid the groovy ’60s spiral patterns, is a hulking, pale Macra…
In true Doctor Who tradition, I’ve held back on the monster itself, but rather just given you occasional glimpses. In part, that’s because when revealed, they’re not the story’s most impressive aspect, despite three cliffhangers relying on them. The worst way to see the Macra is in the one detailed, outdoor publicity shot, where it looks like a sculpture someone’s abandoned; far better to watch the dark clips that survive, where at least you get a feel for how they lurked in the shadows and slithered about the ground – or not, as they don’t appear to be the most mobile of props. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in giant monster-movie-style creatures, and their big, glowing eyes are quite effective in moments when you can forget that they’re lamps, though admittedly people caught in their claws seem to have a struggle to stay there. The organ music accompanying their appearances also gets a bit much, especially in the extended final sequence of Episode 3, where Jamie’s trapped with a sleepy Macra (was it written that way before or after they knew how immobile it would be?) and the Doctor’s trying to work out how to divert the gas that will revive it. Especially without the full pictures, this sequence feels rather stretched out, as if they want to emphasise that the Doctor’s doing something clever and want to get their money’s worth out of the huge Macra. It’s the size of a car; it cost as much as a car; it moves as much as a snail.
Though the threat of something horrible being behind Control is more effective than seeing the ‘something horrible’ itself and the story is as a result more ‘creepy’ than ‘scary’, it still works by being more about the ‘idea’ of Macra than having a pitched battle with the things. The author apparently started with the notion of what happens when you get different life forms with irreconcilable life cycles, but that’s not really how the story works. There’s no explanation for the Macra save that they’re there, in Control, and dependent on the gas. They’re crab-like, but variously described as like insects or bacteria, and we don’t know if they’re invaders, the original inhabitants of the planet usurped by humans and driven underground, or creatures that were always underground and parasitically using human technology to colonise the surface (we don’t even find out how their control started – do their boggly eyes have hypnotic powers?). None of that matters, as the Macra aren’t there as characters, or even as the usual sort of monsters: they’re there for the impact they have on the Colony, in jolly music, regimentation, repression, terror and madness. With their human opponents locked up as mental cases, the Doctor turns the metaphor inside out by comparing the Macra to a disease (handy for killing them all, you might add) of the brain, an infection to be surgically removed – albeit with a big bang – in the same way they prescribe for dissidents. The Doctor treats them as if they are the Colony’s psychosis made manifest, and in that way they remain effective. Though they’re not able to do much except insinuation – ironic, as they’re probably the physically largest monsters in the series to that point – that’s the whole point of the story, as they’re aided by the Colony not wanting their ideas or comfortable way of life challenged. The Macra are an idea; they’re the personification of the Colony’s problems, which is why there really are no such things as Macra.
So, Does It All End in an Explosion?
It only remains to look at the climax. Well, the story stumbles slightly as it builds up to the finale, with Control ordering that the entire Colony is to gather together while our heroes are locked in with the gas pipes; it turns out that this is just a rather over-the-top way for the Colony not to witness the Doctor and his friends being gassed and to handily get the guards out of the way so Ben, still on the loose as a theoretically loyal subject of Control, can decide which side he’s on and blow up the Macra with no-one to stop him. That seems a little contrived, even with Control in a panic – it had never worried about witnesses before, and for a few minutes gathering every controlled human together seems like the Macra may have decided they’re more trouble than they’re worth and to kill the lot. That threat never materialises, which gives a moment of anti-climax before Ben satisfyingly resolves his inner dilemma to get the story back on track, with Control implicitly at last admitting the existence of Macra in their final despairing cry that the pressure will be unbearable – “for human beings as well!”
While many stories fade away in an unconvincing outbreak of spontaneous goodness and light among former oppressors, The Macra Terror remains insidious to the last. The climactic explosion cuts to more of that bloody music, with the cheerleaders leading another big celebration. You may well wonder if anything has actually changed, with this rather suggestive of a Nazi rally to celebrate the fall of Berlin. Perhaps they’re just adjusting to life by pretending none of it happened, but if so, what lesson have they learned? The Pilot announces a festival with a ‘Strangers’ Trophy’ to be held in the Doctor and his friends’ honour every year, which again has an initial ‘awwhh, that’s nice’ moment before you realise that they still want to assimilate our heroes into their society. The point is driven home by Ben, strolling up to the Doctor – with giant crabs disposed of, this time he’s the one who’s fallen for the Colony’s charms, lazing about with a drum majorette’s hat on (another Inspiral Carpets link?) – to warn him that:
“I just heard it on the grapevine. They’re going to draft us as members of the Colony, and make you the next Pilot.”So, they dance their way to the Colony exit and leave without a word. This Doctor does tend to slip off without saying goodbye, but it’s difficult not to conclude that he’s doing it here in order to escape rather than to avoid a scene. The Colony may now have self-determination at last, but they’re still not as nice a bunch as they look: evidently, they still assume they know what’s best for everyone and should compel them to obey that model. While the Doctor may have sorted out their biggest problem, there is still the problem of ‘ordinary’ society: colonists with a taste for freedom still have work to do. In the end, the Macra ‘Terror’ is less about how terrifying the Macra themselves are and more about the terror of having to decide your life for yourself, when it’s easier to go with the (gas) flow.
“Oh, they can’t do that to me! Let’s get out of here.”
Far from being just another story of bug-eyed monsters, even though their eyes do indeed stick out on big stalks, The Macra Terror is a disturbingly satirical tale pulled off in style by a great cast. Funny, jolly, serious, intelligent and firing at authoritarian political targets of all kinds, it takes what even by 1967 was a very traditional Doctor Who outline and brings it to life in an original and entertaining way. It even beats The Prisoner to the punch by several months and in a considerably more coherent way, as well as resolving the contradictions in the character of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor: ‘free your mind’ and ‘destroy all monsters’ are part of the same message if you take the monsters less as exciting scary objects for the kids, but as metaphors of control for the adults (if Doctor Who does that these days, it’s called ‘borrowing from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’). There are few ‘missing’ stories I’d be keener to have restored to the BBC Archive, wishing I could see everything right from that sinister opening close-up of Medok’s eyes. In the meantime, get hold of the BBC CD and a Reconstruction, and enjoy.
Or, if you’re still not convinced that Doctor Who is the greatest fantasy series to come out of the ’60s, late tonight on BBC2 there’s Star Trek’s own immensely subtle dystopian story from 1967: The Apple, with a giant papier-maché snake (did you see what they did there?), David Soul in a ludicrous wig and ‘What is this Earth thing called love?’
Labels: Books, Conrad Russell, Doctor Who, In-Depth Doctor Who, Liberalism, Patrick Troughton, Peter Jeffrey, Recons, Reviews, The Macra Terror, Utopia
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