They’re in control!
Though only four seasons in to Doctor Who‘s run, by the time of Ian Stuart Black’s “The Macra Terror” (Story Production Code JJ), one would be forgiven for thinking that the series has a limited number of stories to tell. The prior story, the Cybermen sophomore effort “The Moonbase,” plays as a virtual repeat of first Cybermen story, “The Tenth Planet,” with Kit Pedler writing both. Now we have Ian Stuart Black riffing on his favored theme, that of a hidden power secretly controlling people’s minds for some nefarious purpose, as last seen in “The War Machines.” Only this time, replace a self-aware computer in ’60s London with crab monsters in some future human colony, with a touch of the utopia hiding a deadly flaw (as seen in his “The Savages“) for good measure.
On the surface, it’s not a bad story idea to revisit, and the approach here differs from “The War Machines” in focusing on the dehumanizing force of brainwashing and subliminal messages rather than the dangers of technology run amok. Advertising jingles carry a strong propaganda message to the colony and play in the background even as the actors speak, suggesting that they are always playing, forcing happy thoughts into all of the colony’s inhabitants. As the leader of the colony states, they regulate their lives by music.
The Doctor and his companions arrive on this far-flung planet to inadvertently assist in the capture of a dissident from the unnamed colony, whose crime is twofold—he’s not happy, and he has seen something forbidden that he refuses to repudiate. The Doctor takes a liking to him immediately, while Ben and Polly just want to get the free shampoo and massage on offer as a reward for helping the colony capture this dangerous ne’er-do-well. Their glee at such services leads one to wonder if there’s a shower on board the TARDIS. But there’s a price to be paid for the spa treatment, as Polly soon finds out.
Yes, she’s seen the Monster-of-the-Week, the crab/insect creatures known as the Macra. Quite often, one mourns the loss of so much Second Doctor footage. Well, not so much here.
There’s nothing entirely wrong about the concept of the Macra, except that they’re horribly one-dimensional. Their manifestation as an effect seems competent enough, with glowing eye-stalks and menacing claws—the scene where Polly is grabbed by Macra stands out as fairly harrowing—but there’s no depth to them as foes for our time travellers.
The Doctor himself blithely dismisses them as parasites, as a disease that has infested the colony and that must be purged. And yet, for at least a generation, the Macra have infiltrated the highest level of the colony’s control structure and put into place a brainwashing system that pumps subliminal messages into people as they sleep, all in order to hide their presence. It transpires that they require a certain gas in order to live, and they force the colony to produce it. Heinous, to be sure, but at no point does the Doctor attempt to understand how they arrived at this state or whether the human colonists disrupted their way of life by arriving on this planet. So many interesting strands were left on the writing table, leaving us with easily duped arthropods who get quickly flustered and sound shrill over a loudspeaker when their plans are foiled.
The Macra communicate their orders to the colony’s Pilot (harkening back to the colony’s origin as a space mission from Earth) and to the colonists in general as the voice of the youthful Controller, whose unmoving picture appears on television wall screens (shades of Orwell). But when the Doctor and Jamie (who’s having none of this fake happiness) demand to actually see the Controller, the dunderheaded Dungeness put the real Controller on the screen, an older man who has been kept isolated from the colony for years. He predictably freaks out, and is dragged off the screen by a Macra claw. But then the Controller’s picture re-appears and the voice tells everyone to forget what they saw and, oh yeah, throw the Doctor and his companions into the gas pits.
All except for Ben, that is. He alone succumbs to the subliminal messages during their one night in the colony, and when they wake up, he’s loyal to the colony and to the Controller. Michael Craze has the best script for Ben since his debut in “The War Machines,” playing the sailor as a duty-bound automaton who slowly fights off the brainwashing as he sees his friends in danger. For once, Ben has a bigger, or at least more interesting, role to play than Jamie, who spends much of the final half of the four episode story hitting Macra with a stick. Ben, believed to be controlled, is left alone in the all-important gas pipeline control room at the end of the story, and he finally breaks free of his conditioning just in time to follow the Doctor’s instructions, overloading a gas pipeline and destroying the Macra. And, ostensibly, the original Controller, but no one seems to note that detail.
This breezy speed seems like the future for the show. Minor plot details like, oh, the Doctor and his three companions just appearing in an isolated area in a blue box, get glossed over more and more frequently, as in the last story. They’re referred to as “strangers” constantly, but how often do strangers appear in a colony that is, by all accounts, completely self-contained and without any outside connections? Too, the Macra are portrayed as a monster to be destroyed, not a problem to be reckoned with, explored, and solved. They slow down without access to a gas, which is poisonous to humans, except when the story needs them to be active on the surface, menacing Ben and Polly. Then they can roam about at will. And the story ends with the Doctor and companions disappearing before anyone can ask any real questions or ruminate on the situation the Doctor is leaving behind.
“The Macra Terror” is a competent four-episode romp, but it could have been more. The layering of the audio, with the jingles running in the background and the constant interruptions by the voice of the Controller, works a treat, helping to create the first real dystopia on Doctor Who—”The Savages” and “The Ark” wind up as failed utopias rather than dystopias. The overt propaganda in this story, with the opening contrast of a group of “Work is Glorious!” cheerleaders being interrupted by a raving dissident, sells the dystopian experience for the viewer, to say nothing of the telescreens of the leader’s face, straight out of 1984.
Patrick Troughton seems very much in control of the Second Doctor’s character at this point, playing the impish genius to the hilt. He scribbles complex formulae on walls with chalk, can open locks with a penknife, still carries that blasted recorder, and is physically pained by poor off-rhymes. He also bristles when Jamie suggests that he’s old. And he uses a rapid-fire speaking method to overwhelm lesser intellects, giving us a possible motto for the Second Doctor:
Polly: Doctor, what are you doing?
Doctor: It’s all right, Polly. Confusion is best left to the experts!
In the end, though, as the Doctor and his three companions (soon to be one) dash away from the celebration being given in their honor, we feel like many a visitor to a seafood buffet, wishing there had been just a bit more meat in that claw.
(Previous Story: The Moonbase)
(Next Story: The Faceless Ones)
Post 35 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project