Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Macra Terror

Previous viewings - none

I like it when the marathon throws up unexpected delights like this. Weird, because The Macra Terror is very formulaic - a hidden menace behind a perfect society, the Doctor exposing the truth and fighting some memorable monsters, but this has the distinction of being vintage Troughton and the scariest Doctor Who story yet. Ian Stuart Black has already proved himself to be one of the better Doctor Who writers, and this story brings back some memories of The Savages, a story that was played more as a morality tale, with the horrifying truth being slowly unearthed and the Doctor showing his disapproval all the way. Here, the perfect society is brought about by a secret alien invasion.

The fact that everything's not so perfect is a badly kept secret, given the TARDISeers have just got a big look at the Macra on the time scanner, and the first person they meet outside, Medok, is crazed and warning everyone about creatures. We're on an Earth colony in the future (again), a holiday camp this time, and everyone is happy. The Pilot welcomes the Doctor and his companions, and invites them to enjoy the luxuries of the holiday camp. The colony itself looks like a slightly darker version of Vulcan from The Power of the Daleks; this coupled with what we've already means none of the colonists' cheery behaviour rings true. In fact, with the happy music which plays on the speakers, and the voice of the Controller giving orders but always sounding pleasant, comes off as downright creepy given this foreknowledge. Nice scene setting.

There are a few noteworthy tidbits from the funny scene where the TARDISeers get a makeover. Newcomer Jamie is nervous, saying he's scared of the girls (aww), while veterans Ben and Polly lap it up. The Doctor seems to like his disshevelled appearance enough to instantly change back to it when given his makeover. Patrick Troughton seems to be through his transitional period of settling into the role and is now recognisibly the Second Doctor as we know him. It's the way he handles humour; Troughton plays the role straight, but the Doctor's absentmindedness leads to humour at his expense. The best way to describe his performances up until now is... erratic. Always good, but without nailing it the way he would go on to do. Similarly, Jamie is a point of interest by virtue of being awake and getting lines that weren't originally for Ben. Two growing characters against Ben and Polly, the established characters, and it's the newbies who are more interesting and entertaining.

Onto the plot. The Doctor frees Medok from his cell and sees a giant crab for himself, while the companions are subjected to a bit of brainwashing and propaganda as they sleep. Jamie resists and the Doctor wakes Polly up so only Ben is affected. Ben is now a loyal citizen of the colony and reports the Doctor for tampering with the hypnosis equipment. Finally, a Ben storyline! And one that involves some internal conflict, too. Michael Craze makes the most of what he's given, playing bad Ben well but I was hoping he would make the familiar Ben recognisable beneath the mind conditioning, which he didn't really do. At least it splits up the regulars by a way other than one or two of them being captured.

With the audio CD, it's sometimes hard to tell what's going on. It's worse than usual here, with the narration sometimes not giving enough visual description of what's happening (plus I'm not quite sure why they got Colin Baker was to read the narration rather than Frazer or Anneke), and at moments like the various attacks by the Macra and the dark mine scenes I was making an extra effort to combine the audio with the limited visual material either described or shown in the surviving clips to build up a picture of what it all looked like in my head. The Macra stay hidden for most of the story, generally only showing up for cliffhangers, but one of their prominent early moments is the attack on Ben and Polly in Episode 2, and while they look silly, they quite wisely stay in the darkness, thus managing to salvage their credibility and they're even scary when combined with the oddball music. This is behind-the-sofa material of the highest order when you take the more forgiving kids into account.

As Episode 2 finishes, we find out that the Controller is an old man and the Macra are the ones giving the orders. The colonists however are in denial about this and insist on sending the Doctor, Jamie and Polly to the mines with the Danger Gang to extract gases which will kill them. It's a predictable cliffhanger if you know Doctor Who story structure inside out, but is a definite shock moment otherwise. I love plot twist cliffhangers.

The Doctor is assigned to the control room of the mine, where he is very pleased with himself as he works out some sums and writes a formula on the wall, much to the horror of the Pilot who reveals that it's a closely guarded secret. I want to say it's my favourite Troughton scene so far, but already there is a lot of competition, so I'll just say it's a great one... 11/10 I should say .

The gas is lethal to humans but sustains the Macra, who live down in the mines, the Macra having obviously set up a situation where the entire purpose of the holiday camp is to sustain a colony of Macra, with the human lives expendible (which begs the question of how the human population are sustained with such a high mortality rate, but I'll shrug that aside as it only just occurred to me now, two days after finishing the story). Medok is quite gruesomely killed by one of the Macra, while Jamie is saved only because the Macra who menaces him is growing weak from the lack of gas, the Doctor having supplied oxygen to them instead of their gas.

The conclusion is something of a disappointment, coming across on audio as something that is really meant to be seen, and not just because of Jamie's highland fling. The Doctor and Polly show the Pilot the Macra for himself, converting him to their side as he can no longer deny that they exist. Control responds by ordering that the Pilot no longer has any authority and must die along with the TARDISeers. Ben however manages to break through his conditioning, with his subplot merely fizzling out rather than coming to a climax, all so it happens at the key moment so he can reverse the inflow and outflow switches, killing the Macra. It's one of the more frantic conclusions, but as I enjoy it I'm doing so in a more looking through a window sort of way.

The ending is quite New Series-esque. With the Macra dead, the good guys can live their lives as normal, but the TARDISeers don't get away without a crowd of well-wishers telling them they'll remember and honour the visit of the strangers.

The Macra Terror is a sign of things to come. The Doctor and Jamie are now fully the Doctor and Jamie as they will be at their peak in Seasons 5-6. The horror quotient is turned up to maximum, and monsters turn out to be more than meets the eye. With its echoes of 1984, I can imagine it coming out of the Hinchcliffe era. By later standards, it's a typical story, but it deviates enough from the base-under-siege formula to qualify as atypical Troughton and it's enormously atmospheric. Like I said earlier though, a lot of this might be down to my overactive imagination filling in the blanks, and with such a visual story there are a lot of blanks. I'm starting to think the Troughton era doesn't transfer as well to audio as Hartnell's typically more dialogue-heavy era.

Horror quotient - The audio implies a scary story, but implication can be misleading.
Comedy quotient - Some Doctor moments, some Jamie moments, I've already mentioned the best ones.
Drama quotient - A bit, but there could have been more. The Doctor dismisses the threat of the colonists themselves, pitting himself against the Macra who barely show themselves. I was most curious about Polly's reaction to Ben's hypnosis, but she shows the least. Polly is a bit of screamer here, but this time at least she has reason.

Regarded as either a classic or a clunker depending on who you talk to, The Macra Terror's success depends on how scary it is. Even if it's not, there's lots to like here.


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