Airdates: March/April 1967 (4 episodes)
Written by: Ian Stuart Black
Directed by: John Davies
The Story So Far: Super-intelligent crabs enslave and exploit an outer-space Earth colony by means of recreation and leisure.
Novelization by: Ian Stuart Black (July 1987)
As with The Smugglers, my abiding memory of The Macra Terror involves listening to the audio soundtrack during my second year of law school, as a means of clearing my head from a semester’s worth of lessons about Trusts and Estates, Secured Transactions, and other burdensome courses that have had absolutely nothing to do with my subsequent career. My local Who contact loaned me a dub of the then-official BBC release of this story (narrated by Colin Baker, for some reason, with a load of bizarre double entendres about Jamie “tossing restlessly”, etc.), and the actual official BBC cassettes of The Evil of the Daleks, narrated by Tom Baker, who must have been very confused in the recording booth (“I say, I don’t remember this story at all… did I ever sound like that?!)’.
I don’t think I ever returned the Macra audiotape to its source, and I know for a fact that I never returned Evil, because a few days ago, while searching for tapes of vintage New York Mets radio broadcasts, I came across the actual BBC cassette for the latter episodes of that story, with the tape snapped clean in half. Sorry about that, Admiral.
What I remember best about Macra are the catchy jingles used to exhort the colonists to work harder and faster; I could still sing these from memory, even though 15 years passed between my last listen to the tapes, and my recent viewing of this story. At some point, though, the story fell into that part of my head marked “irrelevant trifles”, and I could hardly remember anything else.
The reason I bring this up is because of Gridlock, the David Tennant adventure from 2007. I was living in Los Angeles by then, so the episode spoke to me because of its portrayal of the traffic jams in which I lived daily, and because of its nostalgic longings for New (New New) York City, from which I’d recently moved. This is one of the few New Series episodes that hadn’t been completely spoiled for me in advance, so I was shocked when it turned out that the alien menace responsible for the gridlock — exploiting and enslaving the colonists while numbing their minds with repetitive media broadcasts — were actually the Macra, their first appearance (including the licensed books and audios) in 40 years. And my initial reaction was not one of joy (as it would probably be today), but, rather, a massive eye-roll and head-shake.
The funny thing is, the original Macra Terror would make an air-tight New Series story. It’s tremendously funny in spots, and teetering on the brink of the type of social satire and anarchic plot structures at which the New Series excels; Matt Smith and Karen Gillan would have had a blast with this material. Although the Macra in Gridlock are said to be a “devolved” version of the species, the ones from 1967 are downright chatty (and lent a plummy voice, at times, by Richard Beale, who also did memorable voice-acting work in The Ark). The gilded cage in which they enslave the humans is loaded with potentially funny characters, and, of course, those 1940s-sounding Andrews Sisters-y jingles.
As it is, though, The Macra Terror is a bit atonal, with conflicting mission statements. It’s never dull or actively bad, but it’s a bit hard to figure out where the production team was trying to go. Of course, you could (and I did) also say the same things of The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace, but this story is the most muted of the three, when arguably it’s the one most deserving of a completely over-the-top, no-holds-barred, presentation. I think the main reason for this disconnect is that we’ve reached Patrick Troughton’s maturation point. Coming off of The Moonbase, it’s no longer possible for him to go back to the hijinks of his earlier stories. But that’s what the story seems to be crying out for; you can’t use subtletly in a story about giant crabs.
Troughton’s performance here is quite funny, as he acts at sharp right angles to the script. The jingles and song-and-dance numbers and bland platitudes about hard work that make up most of Episode 1, are a dead-on prediction of The Happiness Patrol, but here’s Troughton being his newer subtle and more Sherlock Holmes-ian self. The guards have ludicrous costumes (they wear opaque glasses with pinholes for sight), but the Doctor’s line about wishing he could wear a helmet in the mine was cut before production (although it’s still in the novelization). Fresh off the cliffhanger to Episode 4of The Moonbase, where he’s seen a claw on the TARDIS’s “Time Scanner”, he quietly winds up colony officials with words like “crawling”. And although colony management wants to hail him as a hero (calling back to Ian Stuart Black’s previous view of The Doctor from The Savages), he’d rather spend his time with Medoc, the colony madman who sees things. The Doctor flouts rules and instinctively distrusts authority, but very subtly in the early scenes. But such subtlety is offset by the very loud and insistent Dudley Simpson incidental score, which adds a distorted funhouse flavor to the rest of the story.
In scene after scene, the Doctor defies the expectations of all the other characters. Ben gets brainwashed by the Macra voices and betrays the TARDIS crew? The Doctor forgives him with measured, somewhat deliberately patronizing tones; Tom Baker would have just hypnotized Ben out of it. Two colony officials (Ola and the Pilot) get into a fight over who’s responsible for losing the imprisoned Doctor? The Doctor politely waltzes in and genially mediates their differences (go on, try to picture Colin Baker, audiobook narrator to the stars, doing that). And, of course, the Doctor not only reverse-engineers the chemical formula to the Macra gas, but grades his results as well (10/10)… and gives himself an extra point when told that he’s done in a few minutes what the colony computers “took years to perfect”.
Mixed into all this are several of what I call “Lime Grove D scenes”. You couldn’t film a true action-adventure serial in that tiny little studio, and we were still, in 1967, years away from the sort of CGI trickery that enabled Gridlock. So, several minutes of each episode are consumed with static, talky scenes, often between tertiary characters. This is not a problem per se — this era of the show is filled with such scenes — and mostly the dialogue tends to be witty or at least rapid-fire. It’s just that they’re more noticeable in a story like this, which in so many other respects trends toward the bizarre. In Episode 2 we’re given a backstory for the colony’s existence, but it’s vague, and lacking the well-thought-out detail of The Moonbase. The Episode 3 bit where the Doctor grades his own formula is, as noted above, clever and funny, but the rest of that scene goes on a lot longer than you’d think — a mix of joyous characterization with obvious padding.
There are lots of experimental or innovative features to this story, some of which work better than others. This is the debut of the new opening titles, with Doctor Who spelled out in a new font (serif!), although the revised version of the theme tune won’t follow until the next serial.
We also get the Who debut of two character actors, who’ll regularly show up in smaller supporting roles through the ’70s: Ian Fairbairn, who’s in a single scene here as Questa, a fun-loving colonist, and, more importantly, Terence Lodge, as Medok. Medok’s a tremendously important figure; he’s the first colonist on whom the brainwashing fails, who knows the colony’s been overrun by sinister giant crabs, but who literally goes nuts trying to convince everyone of the truth. Lodge is particularly intense and over-the-top here; this might seem like laughably bad acting in another context (imagine him working his way through The Aztecs, loudly decrying human sacrifice…) but in this story it just about works. Take the too-short scene where he’s being re-brainwashed in the “Hospital for Correction”; the few surviving telesnaps, and the soundtrack, hint at how insanely trippy this bit must have been…
The problem with Medok is that the script runs out a role for him by the middle of Episode 3. After we’ve been following him around, believing him to be a slightly deranged but inherently noble secondary hero, he suddenly gets selfish and unchivalrous. While shepherding Polly through a dangerous gas mine, he spots an escape hatch, and runs, leaving Polly all alone. He’s then promptly killed by a Macra on the other side of the door. That’s only halfway through Episode 3, but his name is never mentioned again. Ian Stuart Black’s novelization fixes this by having Medok survive to live free, but that wouldn’t come out for another 20 years.
As I said before, given this mix of outrageous satire and larger-than-life guest turns, and Troughton’s more cerebral take on the Doctor, you can’t really convey subtlety in a story about giant crabs. I could dig deeper for some sort of hidden message about the Macra representing the gods of consumerism run amok, or some sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-ish metaphor about a literal representation of venereal disease threatening the Free Love crowd (this is 1967, remember). But… no. They’re only… Giant. Crabs.
During production, the Macra proved just about impossible to realize. The responsibility for making the props was subcontracted out to Shawcraft Models, the series’ go-to builders in those days (they physically built the first Dalek models, for example). But Shawcraft had a little less ingenuity this time around. The Macra prop (singular) was big and immobile. One of the few surviving bits of footage from the story involves Anneke Wills trying to manually lock herself into the monster’s claws. And, when the Episode 3 cliffhanger required two Macra to threaten Jamie, director John Davies had to film the same prop twice, from different angles.
That said, some very clever things are done with what little Macra the production team had. The Episode 2 cliffhanger is brilliant: the TARDIS crew learns that the colony’s Controller, who up til then had only ever been seen as a still photograph, is actually a bedraggled and much-older man, who’s too terrified (or drugged) to speak on his own; when the man fails to respond to the travelers’ inquiries, a Macra claw reaches in from out of frame to kill him, while Anneke Wills repeatedly screams “They’re in control!” This prefigures Kang and Kodos, the clever-but-still-stupid aliens from The Simpsons, while milking great shock value from the reveal. If I hadn’t said enough about how Anneke Wills finds every chance to make Polly awesome up to this point… I must apologize, because I’m running out of chances.
Director Davies (one of several one-and-done directors from this season) does some good work here, at least per those few seconds of surviving footage, like that censored clip of Michael Craze and especially Anneke Wills (again!) looking really, really scared by a not-so-convincing prop. It’s a shame these two actors missed the green-screen era; they’d have been wonderful at it.
But the rest of it… just doesn’t work for me. As with The Savages, the Guard Captain (here, Ola, played by Gertan Klauber, who’d been a comedic slave-driver in The Romans) is utterly nasty and sardonic, quite at odds with the rest of the piece. Ben and Jamie are written particularly poorly, with Ben falling prey to the Macra brain-washing in about six seconds of screen time, and Jamie foolishly halting an escape attempt to batter a “sleeping” Macra prop into menacing wakefulness at the Episode 3 cliffhanger. These problems are not exactly smoothed out by Black’s novelization, either.
I touched on this with Medok’s hasty departure above, but other characters come and go with no real rhyme or reason. Chicki is only in Episodes 1 and 4; she says literally four words in the former and exactly none in the latter; no wonder the actress who played her (Sandra Bryant, who was great in a small part in The War Machines) quit between episodes and had to be replaced. John Harvey, who was also great in War Machines, here is only in Episode 3 and the first few minutes of Episode 4. Episode 1 sets up amusing roles for Barney and Questa but then drops them, while Jamie’s “Highland fling” dance number in Episode 4 is completely out of tune with the rest of the plot by that point in the story. And, as much as I love the Episode 2 cliffhanger, its resolution has no impact on the story; by the time the Doctor and Polly find the Macra inside Control toward the end of Episode 4, they appear to be shocked, shocked, to find illegal crabs running the establishment…
But, forgive the nitpicks. The Macra Terror is still great fun for its time. It’s ambitious, and the parts of it that could be realized in Lime Grove D work really well, even with bad props. The parts that fall flat are easily excused by the production circumstances plaguing Doctor Who in late Season 4. Troughton and Wills have enough brio to carry along anything, and let’s not forget Wills’ new Mia Farrow hairstyle, on display a whole year before Rosemary’s Baby.
And, as much as Troughton has found his subtle, whimsical, and slightly anarchic veins in the Second Doctor by now, there’s still that scene where the Colony’s beauticians clean him up and make him pristine (oh, curse you, John Cura, for not taking a telesnap at that precise moment), only for him to moan “Who wants to see their reflection in a pair of suede shoes?!”, and jump into the “Rough and Tumble” machine to make himself scruffy and disreputable-looking again. Even though Jamie’s not well-written, the Highland Fling scene is at least Frazer Hines’ first signature moment on the show, and it’s easy to see why they got rid of Ben in the very next story, in order to give Hines more to do.
So this finds the middle ground between The Highlanders and The Moonbase. Troughton’s new voice allows him to play a sneaky, unassuming, agent of chaos, and deliver two of his most defining lines:
Confusion is best left to the experts!
Bad laws were made to be broken!
The story closes with the Colony hailing the TARDIS crew for rescuing them from tyranny, and instituting an annual dance and “The Strangers’ Trophy” in their honor. Let’s come back to the colony in a hundred years and see what a mess they’ve managed to make of that, shall we? And then the travelers Highland-Fling themselves out the door, and into the next adventure…