Rather like Galaxy 4, The Macra Terror is something of a forgotten gem, a well-written little story that tends to be forgotten amongst the extant stories, or the missing stories featuring classic monsters such as the Daleks and the Cybermen. Since I first got the soundtrack when it was released on cassette during the early nineties, Ive come to appreciate it more and more, but on listening to it again as part of the series as a whole Ive just decided that it is in fact a work of genius and a truly marvellous Doctor Who story.
The Macra Terror has several things going for it. First of all, the basic plot is approached in a suitably novel way; the Macra have infiltrated and enslaved a human colony, but in such a way that most of the colonists are largely under the impression that the colony is perfect and that life couldnt get any better. The entire indoctrination and propaganda subplot works to great effect from the start; when the Doctor and his friends arrive they are treated as honoured guests and invited to enjoy the holiday camp atmosphere of the colony to its fullest, offered massages, hair care, and general luxury. However, it soon becomes clear to the viewer that this warm and fuzzy surface has more sinister undercurrents; Ola mentions that anyone who breaks the colony curfew and ventures outside at night will be killed, which is rather at odds with the general air of relaxation and happiness, and the vacuous and nauseating happy to work broadcasts from Control become increasingly insistent and gradually more intimidating, hinting that anyone who refuses to work for the benefit of the colony as a whole (or as it transpires, the Macra) will not merely be prevented from reaping the rewards this seemingly cooperative society offers, but will actively be punished. And this is all just in episode one. It soon becomes evident of course that the colonists are being brainwashed and are indeed happy to work because they are effectively being drugged and hypnotized whilst they sleep every night. Even more disturbingly, some of them are vaguely aware of what is really going on, but do not resist. The Pilot seems unsurprised by the Doctors revelation that his quarters contain the brainwashing equipment (although he does seem to be in denial), and continually refuses to believe the Doctor, Polly or Medoks claims about the monsters at large amongst them until he actually sees the Macra in Control in episode four. Ola is even more willing to obey Control despite being seemingly aware of the Macra from at least the beginning of episode two, since he has power within the current status quo. But they clearly know about the Macra, as the scene in which Control hysterically screams There are no such things as Macra! makes clear significantly, it is only when Control denies the existence of the creatures that we even learn what they are called. The entire metaphorical sugarcoated pill of the colonys true nature is superbly conveyed. Even in the mines, where unhappy colonists are literally worked to death, the supervisors and the Pilot manage to convince themselves that the workers deserve their fate. Part of the success of this story is due to the acting of the guest cast, who are uniformly excellent, especially the ever-reliable Peter Jeffrey as the Pilot, Gertan Klauber as Ola, and Terence Lodge as Medok. The Pilot and Ola work well because they show different facets of authority; both work for a totalitarian regime, but whilst the Pilot seems to genuinely care for the well-being of the colonists, and eventually rebels against Control when he discovers that giant crabs are actually in charge, Ola is instead on a power trip and enjoys his position because he gets to enforce the rules. He takes obvious malicious glee in dealing with first Medok and later the Doctor and his companions. Medok, the sole voice of dissent in the colony (at least as far as the viewer is concerned, although it is made clear that he had predecessors), is excellently portrayed and is Lodge acts with maximum intensity from the start; his cry of have fun while you can before they crawl all over you! manages to be genuinely disturbing rather than daft and over-the-top, and Medok maintains this frantic edge throughout. He knows perfectly well that he isnt mad, but eventually changes from desperately trying to convince the other colonists that monsters roam at night to bitterly accepting that they dont want to know after Ola captures him and the Doctor at the start of episode two.
The Macra Terror also benefits from the fact that it is the only television Doctor Who story to make effective use of this TARDIS crew. For the first and last time, good use is made of both Ben and Jamie in the same story, in addition to Polly and the Doctor. Because Ben succumbs to the colonys brainwashing, he betrays his friends for what he briefly sees as the good of the many, allowing Jamie to take over the main action role. But Ben benefits from this himself, as he finds himself torn between his indoctrinated need to obey the rules of the colony without question, and his loyalty to his friends. This comes to the fore in episode two, when he risks his life to save Polly from the Macra, but later vehemently denies the existence of such creatures, accepting the colony line that there are no such things as Macra! in spite of the evidence of his own eyes. Ultimately of course his true nature reasserts itself and it is Ben who finally destroys the insidious threat of the Macra. Jamie meanwhile takes over Bens usual role with aplomb, and is the subject of episode threes cliffhanger as he finds himself caught between two Macra. Rather than panicking, he demonstrates his resourcefulness and courage to the greatest effect thus since The Highlanders and determinedly tries to escape. Later, when he finds himself confronted by dancers, he quickly assesses the situation and accepts the unwittingly offered cover story of being a dancer, demonstrating his ability to think on his feet, which he hasnt any opportunity to do until this point. Polly too is used effectively; the established pairing of her and Ben allows her to challenge her friends newly enforced beliefs about the colony without the antagonism that this produces in Jamie. She also gets to scream Macra! Theyre in Control!! rather effectively at the end of episode two. But it is Troughton who really steals the show.
For the first time since The Power of the Daleks (in which he seemingly knew that he would encounter Daleks on Vulcan), the Second Doctor gets proactive. Armed with foreknowledge of giant clawed monsters thanks to the rather gimmicky use of the time scanner at the end of The Moonbase, the Doctor sets about searching for the hidden menace that lurks within the colony from the outset and clearly takes delight in doing so. I noted when I reviewed The Highlanders that having been presented with the problem of rescuing his friends, he seemed to be enjoying himself, and I also get that impression from The Macra Terror. Throughout the story, he searches for the truth, but more than that he tries to encourage others to do the same. When he says bad laws were made to be broken, I dont think that hes advocating anarchy per se (as some have suggested), but rather hes railing against blind obedience of rules and advocating independent thought. In fact he says as much to Polly whilst checking to see if he has been too late to prevent her brainwashing. The Doctor is basically at his best throughout The Macra Terror, whether hes proudly confessing to having sabotaged the conditioning apparatus in his companions rooms, or deducing the formula for controlling the gas flow so well that he smugly gives himself 10 marks out of 10 only to change this score to 11 out of 10 when the Pilot is visibly stunned by his mental agility.
Finally, the Macra themselves are monsters in the traditional Doctor Who vein. The single Macra prop looks merely okay in the main surviving photograph, but in the surviving censor clips recently recovered, it is clearly used to rather splendid effect thanks to good lighting and direction. The concept of the Macra also works well, and although Control is essentially the chief Macra (which is white according to The Television Companion) and therefore presumably the booming voice heard throughout, no Macra is ever explicitly seen to speak; this is quite effective, since whenever anyone is menaced by one of the creatures, rather than having them gloating or explaining their plans, they are a silent menace. Clearly they are intelligent (exactly how they took over the colony in the first place is unclear, although the Doctor surmises that they came to the surface of the planet and found the colony there, implying that they are native to the planet and originally dwelt underground, which would make sense given their dependence on the gas found beneath the colony), but by keeping them largely silent, their intelligence seems more alien than it perhaps would if they directly spoke to anyone.
In summary, The Macra Terror is, at least in my opinion, a truly underrated classic and one deserving of a much greater reputation than it currently enjoys.
Filters: Television Second Doctor Series 4
Written by Ian Stuart Black,
Read by Anneke Wills,
First published by Target Books in 1987,
Released by BBC Audio - 4 August 2016.
Running time: 3 hours, 5 mins
In the 24th Century, a human colony enjoy a truly enviable lifestyle in their domain, which in many ways resembles a holiday camp from yester-century. Conformity and contentment go hand in hand, as everyone serves the interests of a society that runs like clockwork and never shows anything other than a positive demeanour.
But one of their own, a bearded and fidgety man called Medok suddenly insinuates that foul creatures are taking over control. No-one wants to believe his rather alarmist claims though, at least that is until a crew of four strangers arrive out of the blue...
This story has grown steadily in my affections over the years as a fan of Doctor Who, and also someone interested in social science and philosophy in general. I first encountered it when it came out at the same time as The Evil Of The Daleks on dual audio cassette in 1992.
As a child back then I would devoutly replay these releases on my portable Sony 'Walkman' when travelling somewhere new, yet I would only fully engage with David Whitaker's epic.
Macra was just a curiosity. Not even a solitary episode existed, and having the Sixth Doctor / Colin Baker as the narrator somehow felt more opaque than the definitive (especially back then) Fourth Doctor/ Tom Baker.
But over time I have realised how the Season Four finale does suffer slightly from its seven episodes, and multiple locations, even if it remains great escapism. Macra is however concise, ascends in its suspense and feeling of high stakes, and makes the most of its overall premise.
As of today, only The Power Of The Daleks stands head and shoulders higher over this tale, as the marquee story of a season of Doctor Who, that said 'goodbye' to one talented actor in the lead, and 'hello' to an arguably more skilful thespian. Of course now we have the news that the debut Troughton story will make a comeback of sorts in the coming months, in the form of an exciting and newly envisioned animation.
For a great story to exist in the first place, it invariably needs a very strong and confident writer. Ian Stuart Black is one of the perhaps more under-rated scribes in Who lore and should be thanked for giving the show a vital shot in the arm when it began to falter in the latter half of Season Three. Today, we only have The War Machines (essentially intact), whilst Black's other two efforts - The Savages, and this story - are lost almost entirely. All three do however deserve to be remembered fondly.
I do think Macra is the cleverest and boldest of Black's three televisual serials. The novelization here accomplishes admirably efficient world building whilst maintaining the pace of the 'snappy' four parter structure.
The story has much to make the readership ponder themes and philosophy. One of the more overt is the need to be sceptical and questioning over what a person is told, and how they should invariably conform. If there is not enough of this independent thought, then the individual is in danger of losing their array of senses, and to be effectively brainwashed. Each chapter has something to say about the subliminal techniques used by the story's antagonists to wield power, and this manipulation is effective primarily due to the victim' sense of being euphoric and having the perfect life.
By making Ben Jackson the most susceptible of the TARDIS crew, when normally he is the most argumentative and dominant in nature, the original TV story managed to take viewers at the time on a journey where they questioned if what they thought they knew about the show's heroes was perhaps more superficial than first thought.
There is also a very strong amount of in-depth exploration on the nature of what is acceptable in society, and what is 'eccentric' or 'insane'. The various references to insanity and to hospitalisation/medication that controls said malady are as relevant to today's social confines, where the idea of normal is so strongly prioritised, they were in the 'swinging' Sixties, when this story was conceived (and had its regrettably one-off UK transmission).
The fate of one of the key guest characters of the story is also altered. Whereas in the transmitted story this person seemed to meet an abrupt end, in this version the author was allowed to present an alternative fate, as he held the full reins as the writer of the novelization. Consequently this key player in proceedings is allowed a fully formed arc and a sense of vindication.
And as an audio book, this stands up rather well too. Anneke Wills does a very respectable job in showing her range of skills, as the sole member of a one person cast. Many guest actors in the original show were strong, not least Peter Jeffrey (as the 'Pilot'), who later went on to have an even better role as the more villainous Count Grendel in the Tom Baker Era. But Wills uses the rich text of the book to narrate events and characters vividly, and switches personas for the various members of the colony distinctly and with full attention to detail.
The only niggling issue I have is that whilst her Second Doctor portrayal has much of the core mercurial spirit of Patrick Troughton, the actual voice - in terms of pitch - is more akin to William Hartnell. But I must admit, this is one area that is rather easy to criticise, much like Maureen O'Brien could only gamely attempt to portray her Doctor in The Space Museum, released earlier this year. Sometimes the sheer star quality of the main man in this sci-fi/fantasy phenomenon can be a double edged sword...
Sound effects and musical cues are well up to the usual standard for these BBC Audio releases. Such is the strength of the core text, and the dedicated, whole-hearted presence of Anneke Wills, these supporting elements act as a nice bit of icing on the cake, rather than something to break up a potential monologue. Whether you are clued-up on classic Who like myself, or someone who has only glimpsed the Macra in the Tenth Doctor belter Gridlock, this is a great addition to your audio collection. This late summer release lives up to the legacy of the sadly missing black and white BBC production.
Filters: SECOND DOCTOR TARGET BOOKS BBC AUDIO Audio