Thursday, August 29, 2013

"The Macra Terror"

Aired Mar 11 – Apr 1, 1967

4 Episodes

Story 34

Written by Ian Stuart Black

Directed by John Davies


Synopsis

The TARDIS crew visits a human colony that appears to be a happy place run along the lines of an enormous holiday camp. In fact, this seemingly ideal society has been infiltrated and taken over by a race of giant crab-like creatures called the Macra.


The brainwashed inhabitants are forced to mine a gas toxic to themselves but vital for the Macras’ survival. Ben falls under the Macra's malign influence and turns against his friends. He eventually regains his senses, however, and under the Doctor's guidance destroys the gas pumping equipment, thus killing the Macra and restoring freedom to the colonists.


Now free from the influence of the Macra, life in the colony returns to normal, with the community heaping honours on the TARDIS crew. During the celebrations, the travelers dance their way back to the TARDIS.  

Analysis

Sometimes you come across a Doctor Who story that you wind up loving even though you know it's not actually very good. You know there's flaws there, you can see them, but something about the story connects with you, so you ignore those flaws and love the story anyway.

The Macra Terror is one of those stories for me. Yes, I know there are flaws, but the things I love about this story, I love so much that it papers over any cracks in the foundation.


Black's scripts depict a society that is on the surface a happy, idyllic place filled with good natured people. The ever-present jingles and cheers and announcements are silly and dopey, but when placed within the context of a Doctor Who story, they take on a creepily sinister fake-ness that immediately puts the viewer on edge. Davies' direction of Black's scenes of colonial life (which easily could have been excised) is similarly brilliant. There's an hysteria lurking just underneath all the good vibes put forward by the colonists which is exemplified in the wonderful scene where a group of cheerleaders rehearse their routine. The glee seems totally unhinged, and it contributes wonderfully to the atmosphere.

Then there's story itself. While it's clearly influenced by the work of Huxley and Orwell (and probably countless other dystopian stories) it rejects the typical version of showing a repressive society and instead shows us a society controlled not through bleak repression but through good humoured conformity, through joining in the fun! And that is somehow far more chilling to me than the alternative.

Thrown into this is the character of Medok, who in his warnings uses the creepiest imagery possible to ratchet up the atmosphere. Lines like this: All right! Have fun while you can, before they crawl all over you!

They hold off on showing the Macra clearly for as long as possible (likely because the props provided by Shawcraft were so immobile that it resulted in the company being fired from Doctor Who) but that limitation helps build up the tension and makes the Macra seem more imposing than they ultimately are.

This story also, to my mind, marks the first time I think the production team directly attempted to mine horror films directly. Before this, there were definitely touches of horror tropes throughout the series, but the stories were still structured like science fiction or adventure stories. The Macra Terror is structured far more like a horror story than science fiction, and it works amazingly well, its mash-up of horror and sci-fi producing a formula that would give much of subsequent Doctor Who its unique flavour.

The cast is all excellent throughout, with Troughton delivering a performance that totally cements all of his Doctor's characteristics, perhaps for the first time. Pretty much gone is the recorder and the obsession with hats and costumes, and he feels totally solidified as a brilliant, anarchic, anti-authoritarian trouble-maker who gets involved because he just can't help himself and who always sides with the underdog. When he delivers the line, Bad laws were made to be broken, it's a simple but perfect summing up of the Second Doctor. From here on out, Troughton owns this role and is rarely anything less than absolutely compelling.

Frazer Hines comes to the fore as Jamie for the first time here, displaying the steadfast loyalty and simple moral courage that will come to define his character and position him as one of the great companions. Again, I'm finding myself really enjoying Polly much more than I thought I would. Anneke Wills brings a lot of charm to the role of "girl assistant", giving her more backbone and quirkiness than I thought she would. As for poor old Michael Craze, he really got pushed to one side once Jamie arrived. But The Macra Terror was a rare example of a writer giving all the companions some solid things to do, and Craze makes the most of Ben's emotional mental anguish here.

As for the flaws, yes the Macra in actuality aren't all that effective, and the scene where they needlessly expose themselves in showing the aged Controller doesn't really make sense, but those are minor things in my opinion. It may not make any one's top ten list, but to me, The Macra Terror is one of the best stories of the season and underrated overall.

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