Thursday, March 15, 2007


Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who: Now You See It…

With no Avengers on BBC4 tonight, I’m about to watch a New Avengers episode in celebration of Gareth Hunt, who died yesterday; and I’ve been enjoying some Doctor Who first transmitted forty years ago this week. The Macra Terror stars Patrick Troughton as the Doctor in a satirical tale mixing giant crabs, holiday camps and 1984, and though it’s long-since been burnt for gas to feed the BBC Board of Governors, there’s still an ‘underground’ way to watch it. You can watch Pat’s Doctor in the Underground this Sunday on BBC4, too, with The Web of Fear showing at 8.35 in the evening. ‘Fear’ and ‘Terror’, you ask? Yes, this was indeed the first period in which Doctor Who saw its main task as scaring the kiddies, which may explain why I’m so fond of it. Though The Web of Fear is often hailed as one of the best of the series, for me The Macra Terror is more interesting – perhaps because this dark dystopia gets just about the best balance between the two sides of Pat’s Doctor, the ‘let-it-all-hang-out’ freethinker and the uncompromising monster-killer…
“Well, according to my calculations, we’re, ah, certainly in the future, and… er… on a planet very like the Earth.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know. I’m guessing.”
The Web of Fear

Before the ‘main feature’ on The Macra Terror, there’s something I want to tell you about the Doctor Who episode being shown on Sunday night, in which you can see Patrick Troughton in action in the London Underground as part of BBC4’s Tube Night, alongside John Betjeman’s slightly less scary Metro-Land. When they start out on this adventure, the Doctor and his friends Jamie and Victoria meet some old enemies – the Yeti – and this time they’re just a little bit more frightening than the last time. It’s so well-done that it became one of the best-remembered stories of the ’60s, and the ‘alien threat invading London foiled by butch soldiers and crabby scientists’ was repeated for endless ’70s stories under Jon Pertwee. This one’s an expressionist nightmare of robot Yeti lurking in the horrible, smothering mist that’s made the Underground deadly to linger in; an early scene has our heroes discover a nastily cobwebbed news vendor lying dead under his ‘LONDONERS FLEE! MENACE SPREADS’ placard. Reading the book as a boy, it always made the Tube seem rather exciting to me, so there are some stations that still have a certain romance to them as a result even after living a dozen years in London, and on seeing this brilliantly directed episode I can understand why people found it all so scary. It mixes claustrophobic horror with a whodunit and a wartime feel, as well as echoing the terrible night in 1952 that London smog killed thousands en masse (a much later Doctor Who book, Amorality Tale, ‘fictionalises’ the same event and so misses the point). Oddly, the only scene that doesn’t work is the cliffhanger, which blows its threat. It’s not humourless, though, with many amusing moments for the regular cast and some rather well-drawn guest characters: the old scientist who bites everyone’s heads off and at one stage gives an interview so offensive that all of you who do TV appearances will wish you could copy him; his scientist daughter (unflatteringly depicted as having a big moustache on the CD release’s cover), putting up with him but putting down the army officer who tries it on; and, best of the lot, a one-time Avengers man as a slimy, unbearable David Frost pastiche.

The main downside to the story is that the first, terrific episode is all you can see of it, unless you watch the tantalising ‘censored’ fragments available on the Lost in Time DVD or go for a Reconstruction (of which more later). Fortunately, as with all the Doctor Who stories the BBC destroyed, enough people had made home copies on audio tape that this has been released on BBC CD, so by all means pick that up. The rest of it suffers from the lack of pictures; though the cast are great and the use of ‘off the shelf’ music from composers such as Béla Bartók is surprisingly effective, it goes on a bit, and the ‘siege’ of the army’s underground fortress breaking through into it three separate times breeds a feeling of anti-climax (for me, the earlier Yeti story The Abominable Snowmen is a better script, though this sequel is much more excitingly done). On the upside, one guest character who turns up as a ‘suspect’ on the CD is Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, later promoted to Brigadier and a regular with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, but who still gets just about his greatest scene here, practically losing his mind in shell-shock after his men are massacred by robotic horrors. The big problem with the CD, though, is the overly intrusive narration. Of course there are scenes where we need to be told what’s going on – it wasn’t designed for radio – but when it interrupts the show with things we can easily work out, or describes sounds, it’s going a bit far. Narrator: “Their bullets have no effect on the creatures.” Soldier: “Will nothing stop them?” is irritating, as is “Shoot the pyramid!” (sound of gunfire) Narrator: “The pyramid shatters.” “You shot it! It doesn’t work!” The section that most jars for me is when “Back at Goodge Street, Jamie and Victoria are still talking to Staff Sergeant Arnold,” which you can tell by just listening to it, followed surreally by talking over lines in order to paraphrase them: “Come on, let us out!” and a sound of banging renders superfluous the narrator’s “Locked in the Common Room, Jamie and Victoria are trying to attract some attention,” a line that ironically speaks over the whole of “Let us out!” “It’s no good, Jamie, they can’t hear…

However, before you pick up the CD or a Recon, do tune in on Sunday night. Patrick Troughton gives a great performance here, and it’ll grip you from the opening scene of an orgy on the TARDIS floor (no, it wasn’t Doctor Who’s belated contribution to the Summer of Love: the previous story had finished with the villain being sucked out of the TARDIS to drift horribly in the space-time vortex, so our heroes are in fact trying not to be dragged after him) and the following scary night in a museum…

There Is No Such Thing As Macra!

When I mentioned burning and an underground way to watch these stories, it was all down to the fact that the BBC’s archiving policy with many pieces of great television from the 1960s was to toss them into a skip and burn them. Seriously. Film was thrown away or torched, while video was wiped over. That means that about one in seven of all Doctor Who episodes – including nearly half of those made in the ’60s, and more than half of those starring Patrick Troughton – are euphemistically described by the BBC as ‘missing’. The series is still better-off than much BBC drama, because viewers captivated by Doctor Who from the first recorded all the ‘missing episodes’ on audio tape, so they’ve all now been released on CD. I’d encourage you to buy The Macra Terror on CD, as the script and sound propel the story along very well; I first heard it on a BBC cassette in the early ’90s, and it immediately grabbed me. Richard, however, found the sound on that too muffled – so it’s a relief that a lot of work was done to sharpen it before the CD release, which is a massive improvement. There’s a serviceable rather than inspired narration, which is a little prosaic (“The crab-like creature was hideous”) but tells you everything you need to know to understand what’s happening without being intrusive. I much prefer this minimalist approach, with only the occasional superfluous note such as “Weird noises of the night pervaded the air” – yes, Mr Narrator, we can hear that! The cover, though, is rubbish: a giant crab not being sufficiently exciting for the ‘artist’, they’ve drawn on an hilarious set of giant gnashers.
“Don’t just be obedient. Always make up your own mind.”
The story works surprisingly well on audio only, with a lot of very distinctive sound: a threatening, rasping ‘heartbeat’ as an escapee is chased at the start; disturbing electronic sounds as the Doctor creeps about at night; and, of course, a huge number of ‘jingles’ for the huge holiday camp-like Colony, all backed by cheesy organ music of the type now only favoured by the Inspiral Carpets – a subliminal image of a Dalek appears in more than one of the band’s videos, you know. Moo! Incidentally, while watching all this over the last week I’ve been struck by how many other Lib Dem Bloggers went to see the Inspirals last weekend; I didn’t and am jealous, but what’s the political connection? Do we all play Please Be Cruel on election nights? Anyway, I mentioned watching this story, and alert readers will have spotted something strange about that. Well, although the tapes were burnt, some images survive. There are many ‘telesnaps’, photos snapped by a camera from the TV; there are a few very short clips recorded by people who pointed wind-up cine-cameras at their tellies to capture a few seconds; and, ironically, some of the ‘scarier’ bits survive because the censors in New Zealand cut them out before stories were transmitted over there, but being good bureaucrats, carefully stored the ‘unsuitable’ bits. So all we now have are the bits they didn’t want us to see.

Put all these images together with the soundtrack, and you get the labour of love known as a ‘Reconstruction’. So, if the CD gives you a yearning for what it might have looked like, you can get hold of a rough approximation ‘reconstructed’ on video, and for free (don’t under any circumstances let anyone charge you for them; just supply a video tape and postage). And, yes, video is old and clunky, but as long as they don’t compete with the BBC’s digital quality, the BBC generally turn a blind eye to this ‘underground’ circulation. I have two different Reconstructions of The Macra Terror, and have to say that – with the exception of the ambitious CGI recreation of The Daleks’ Master Plan, and the extraordinary full-colour version of Marco Polo – it’s the story I’ve most enjoyed watching that way. The first Recon is by a group called Joint Venture, and it’s very good, making strong use of the various little clips available, cutting between the different still photos to help you follow the story. Its two unique advantages are that it starts off with the full, legible Radio Times article introducing the original broadcast, and then follows it with the end of the previous story: in a bit of a gimmick, the Doctor had operated a bit of the TARDIS’ scanner that shows clips of the future (these days called ‘NEXT TIME…’), and he and his friends had glimpsed a giant claw. Oooh! It’s not a gimmick the series uses again, unsurprisingly, but as it was in effect a trailer built into the previous story, it’s nice to have it prefacing this one.

The Reconstruction of The Macra Terror I’d recommend, however, is a new one by Loose Cannon Productions, who I think have done more than anyone else, and may also be the only team still going. I’m very fond of this story, so I’d been planning for some time to review it for its fortieth anniversary, and checked out the Loose Cannon website to see if their version was still available. I was delighted to find that, though this was the first story they ever did, quite a few years later they’ve decided that it was a little primitive and had just released a new version. I got in touch with one of their volunteers, and so last Sunday we watched the whole thing, forty years to the day after the first episode was broadcast. Recreating these stories is enormously hard work, but this one looks terrific. It’s really helped by the seamless insertion of all the tiny clips, both the censored ones and the tiny shots of wind-up film peppering one of the episodes, but there’s also a lot of work with the still photos, such as slow zooms on some of them to give an impression of movement, or a striking close-up of Jamie’s eyes just before the last cliffhanger. Computer work is evident from the occasional ‘commentary’ subtitles to tell you what’s going on and the Photoshop-assembled chase sequence part-borrowed from The Caves of Androzani, to animation effects like the great ‘flicker’ put on all the shots of the telescreen through which ‘Control’ speaks, or the mist moving across the screen for gas leaks. My favourites are the little explosions whenever the Doctor fuses circuits, which make it much clearer what’s going on than the sound effect does.

This Recon also has a number of extra features, with actor Terence Lodge introducing it with his memories of the story, and particularly the location filming on a grey, rainy day and the brandy they all drank. Afterwards, he remembers working with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, then there’s an extended interview with Ian Fairbairn, who’s informative, self-deprecating, and occasionally slightly wistful about acting chances that very, very nearly came his way, talking about his other Doctor Who roles and parts in numerous other series. I have to confess, I was thrilled by a luridly coloured trailer for a CGI adaptation of the fabulous ’60s comic strip The Dalek Chronicles, a series that introduced the Dalek’s Golden Emperor and the style of Dalek saucer now seen in the Noughties Who TV series. With the Daleks as the anti-heroes and no Doctor, these strips were very thrilling, and just about the only non-Gerry Anderson strip in the comic TV21. And, coming soon, there’ll be a new Recon of the most magnificent of all Patrick Troughton’s stories, The Evil of the Daleks. Who could ask for more? Well, it’s churlish, I know, but (other than missing that ‘trailer’ of the giant claw), there is one element of this Recon that doesn’t impress me: whoever does all the titles chooses the tackiest zoom-outs and screen-wipes possible for switching between photos and credits. The titles for the story itself are worth slightly more attention: though the music wasn’t remixed (to what’s still my favourite version of the theme) until the following story, The Macra Terror introduced a new title sequence. The ‘new logo’ is just dreary Times New Roman, though at least the words dissolve interestingly, but the main thing to notice is that it’s the first story to show the Doctor’s face in the titles – something that stayed right up until the original series finished in 1989. So, get in touch with Loose Cannon for a copy of this if you can.

The Macra Terror’s an odd story for me. It seems to be one of the less-remembered ’60s adventures for most fans, yet I’ve always found it curiously fascinating. I know I loved it when it came out on cassette in the early ’90s, despite it having the most lacklustre narration (the others were basically Tom Baker hamming it up, which may not serve the story but is always listenable). I can see now that both this and The Evil of the Daleks, the other that captivated me, share an explicitly free-thinking ideology while the others were more concerned with duffing monsters up, but I’d been keen on it long before I knew the details. In fact, I don’t have a clue what first grabbed my interest about it, but I remember it’s the one from which I assembled the first sentence I ever wrote. Nowadays there are tons of reference works about Doctor Who in print and online, but back when I was at primary school the series’ sole ‘Bible’ was The Making of Doctor Who, providing behind-the-scenes information and the only brief details we had about unimaginably ancient stories like The Macra Terror (then from just ten years earlier, but several years before I was born and therefore beyond comprehension). I can vividly remember the class, having been taught their letters, being told to assemble a short sentence out of letters on square card, propped on a triangular plastic stand – imagine Scrabble letters leaning on a green Toblerone – which we were then to copy out by hand. I looked through The Making of Doctor Who and chose to borrow the start of the summary of this story. Everyone else went for something simple, in five or six words, that would fit on the stand. Always over-ambitious, I tried to pick out
“The Doctor and his friends find themselves in the distant future on a planet run like a gigantic holiday camp…”
Well, yes. I think I got as far as “The Doctor and his friends” before it was time to finish, and that of course set the pattern. Throughout my life, everything else I’ve started writing has been much too long, and taken much more time than anticipated. This review, which I’ve now had to split in two, is no exception…

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Great Post.
And especially thanks for reminding me of TV21 - I used to love that comic.
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