Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Macra Terror written by Ian Stuart Black and directed by John Davies

This story in a nutshell: There is an evil force at the heart of a colony which the Doctor roots out in a well earned holiday…

Oh My Giddy Aunt: This is the point where the second Doctor that we all recognise comes to life. Like the colony what you see and what you get are two very different things and whilst he puts on a naughty schoolboy exterior there is a brilliant mind at work behind that smokescreen. He very much sympathises with the underdog and will go out of his way to cause trouble for authority figures, doing one seems to directly result in the other but I don't think he sets out to annoy anybody. That cheeky, oh-so innocent smile might suggest otherwise. Troughton never gave a poor performance but he was capable of an uncertain one, where he tried to various hats (everything from sombre to out and out farce) but not it is clear that he has found a direction (all sparkly eyes, wicked smile and mischievous dealings in the darkness) and he is excited by the prospect. The Doctor looks hilarious with his head sticking out the clothes reviver and brilliantly jumps straight into the rough and tumble machine to crumple up his clothes again. This is a man who doesn't want to look respectable. Like Hartnell there is a sense of curiosity that is insatiable and the feeling that he will leave no stone unturned in order to solve a mystery. His ability to sniff out injustice mirrors Hartnell's stoic first Doctor too, but he's far more naughty in how he handles the perpetrators. ‘Why do you want everybody to be the same?’ he asks defiantly and it almost sums up the Doctor’s attitude to life, provoking his friends induvidual strengths. I love the Doctor giving himself eleven out of ten as he works out his sums, cheekily singing his own praises. When asked where they are the Doctor answers‘it looks rather like a cupboard with a lot of pipes,' ever one for stating the obvious when Polly asks where they are. The Pilot says he doesn’t know why he trusts the Doctor and he responds that its because he has an honest face. he relies on that fact, using his innocent facade in order to gain trust and to start to manipulate. As soon as he hears that they want to make him the next Pilot he is out of there quicker than a rabbit in headlights and he adopts Jamie’s exit approach by dancing a little jig towards the door. In my opinion this is one the better examples of the second Doctor because it highlights his sinister and anarchic qualities first and a by-product is his more farcicial nature. As time went on the former would be sacrificed in favour of the latter and whilst I will always love this incarnation I prefer it when I can see that brilliant and devious mind at work behind all the slapstick.

Lovely Lashes & Able Seaman: Probably the most responsible use of Polly and Ben since they helped to smooth over the transition between the first and second Doctors. Polly was introduced as a gorgeous, with-it sixties girl but somewhere along the line she has slipped into the role of generic companion, always fairly engaging thanks to Anneke Wills performance but losing the sense of where she comes from. The Macra Terror recaptures that and then some, revealing a side to her character that likes to be pampered and preened and complimented. I could imagine Polly at the salon of a Friday night getting glammed up for a weekend on the town. In Barney's effervescent treatments she plumps for a shampoo and an elfin cut and walks away looking more gorgeous than ever. Whilst Wills and Craze have always played up the chemistry between their characters, since Jamie turned up their barely had a chance to be alone together. It has been clear from their first adventure that there is something very special between Polly and Ben and she is absolutely appalled that he is seen to turn on his friends. She is so used to turning to him for comfort that it is a genuine shock to react to him behaving in such a ugly, terrorizing fashion. She looks absolutely petrified as Ben pursues her through the construction site at night and for the kids watching at home it must have been discomforting to see their heroes turn on each other like this.

The Macra Terror affords Ben his most interesting development since Power of Daleks and it draws upon the same sort of suspicion and aggression that he displayed in the new Doctor’s debut story. Hypnotism stories were ten a penny in the sixties (their first story was a great example) but this story takes an interesting approach by choosing Ben because he always has been rather hot tempered and violent and proves to be quite a frightening menace once he turns on his friends. I certainly wouldn't want to wind up on the wrong side of his fists and his violent stubbornness to refuse to accept that there is something evil festering at the heart of the colony is brilliantly played by Michael Craze. There's something dangerous about him, in a way that I don't usually feel when companions turn bad. He's grabbing hold of the chance to have more to do and running with it. After betraying the Doctor, turning violent with Jamie and refusing to listen to Polly’s objections you get the feeling there is no redemption they could offer the character. In a time when fun adventuring takes priority over nuanced characterisation, this forced betrayal is something of a compelling anomaly.Watching Ben trying to cope with his mind control and rationalise what he has been told cannot exist is fascinating to witness, he screams that there is nothing evil or harmful in the colony whilst at that very moment a creature is lunging at them out of the darkness. Ultimately he cannot fight the evidence of his own eyes but there is a nagging feeling that Ben holds out longer than necessary against his friends. There has always been a feeling that he hasn't quite trusted this new Doctor and it is quite telling that on their next destination Polly and Ben are summarily ignored and dismissed. It is made to look like their decision but it is a hell of a co-incidence that Ben is seen to betray the Doctor so completely and then dumped. Perhaps it was all part of the producers plan (who wanted rid of Ben, at least) to turn the audience against him before shoving him out of the TARDIS door.

Sexy Scot: It's a shame that the sunny trio of Polly, Ben and Jamie are split up just at the point where the writers were figuring ways to give them all a decent share of the action. Whilst Polly and Ben are happy to enjoy a little pampering, Jamie is highly suspicious of getting something for nothing and amusingly (especially given his mad flirtation when he becomes a more seasoned traveller) he is terrified of the ladies pawing at him. Jamie enjoys some of the more amusing scenes in the story when he trips out of the mines and interrupts a marching band practising their dance moves to some horrendous jingles. They think he is one of the background dances and ask him to provide something gay and cheerful (oo-er!). He demonstrates the Highland Fling to try and escape. Whilst dancing doesn't seem to be his forte, it is at least preferable to dicing with giant crabs in the smoky mines.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Well this is gay!’
‘Have fun while you can…before they crawl all over you!’
‘Macra…they’re in control!
‘Confusion is best left to the experts!’
‘Bad laws were made to be broken.’

The Good: The direction of the opening scenes creates an intense atmosphere from the off, a chilling heartbeat sound plays over a close up of Medok's terrified eyes as he dashes through the rocky landscape on the run. Terrance Lodge can be found playing memorable roles in a number of Doctor Who stories but this is probably his best performance, imbuing Medok with a sense of absolute fury at the way he has been rejected by his friends and horror at the nasties that are manipulating them. In contrast, the scenes in the colony are bright, cheerful and inviting, the use of groovy jingles proving particularly hypnotic. Some of the treatments that the ultra camp Barney mentions sound wonderful; sunlight treatment, moonlight treatment and sparkling effervescence. Sign me up to visit this colony ASAP, please. Doctor Who always does a good job of presenting a setting and peeling away layers to reveal something very sinister going on underneath (The Pirate Planet and Revelation of the Daleks are great examples). There is something particularly sinister about the way that is handled in The Macra Terror because the smiley facade of the colony is so insidious and addictive and it feels like the ideal place for the Doctor and his friends to put their feet up for a while. The very simple idea of a bright holiday camp by day turning into a Orwellian nightmare as soon as the sun goes down is achieved very effectively. At night all those happy go lucky workers are locked in and the creatures that are running things can scuttle and creep about in the darkness. The use of sound in this story is exceptional, listen out for those creepy sucking, slurping, screaming noises that pervade the night time sequences. Doctor Who is plundering 1984 as it gleefully presents the figure of the Controller, the photograph of a handsome man who speaks as a figurehead for the colony whilst the monsters that have created him brainwash its inhabitants. I am very keen on the first cliffhanger and even though I cannot watch it in its entirety. the idea of Macra claws snapping out of the misty darkness is pretty disturbing. Clearly these creatures never thought that anybody would ever see through their smokescreen and the Controller screams with confident rage 'where are you Macra?' Dudley Simpson is clearly having a whale of a time on this adventure, it is one of his more psychedelic soundtracks and gleefully melodramatic in places. More than anybody he is working hard to boost the gay atmosphere of the colony (oh settle down) to be able to highlight the danger the travellers are in more effectively. There's a beautifully executed cobweb strewn mine, disguised with mist and moodily lit for Jamie to get lost in during episode three where he is menaced by the Macra. For once the nasties of the story have a reasonable motive for their actions, they need the gas in order to survive so it makes perfect sense for them to emerge from the depths of the planet and manipulate the humanoid population into pumping out a steady supply for them. I love the running gag at the end of Troughton stories that sees the travellers attempting to escape before the effusive praise begins and they start offering the Doctor the highest post in the land for his efforts. This is a particularly cute example, the Doctor leading his friends in a little jig out the door. Whilst it is far more fun when he plays the bad guy (the delicious Count Grendel in The Androids of Tara), you certainly couldn't point at any part of Peter Jeffrey's performance in The Macra Terror and say it is ineffective. Gertan Klauber provides a memorable nasty in Ola, sinister and sadistic and enjoying his chance to push people around.

The Bad: There is so much effective work done building the creatures up that this is one of those occasions where it would have been better to keep them unseen because the costumes are extremely cumbersome. It's during the danger gang sequences in episode three that the story starts to lack focus, down in the mines at the mercy of the vicious Macra and treading water until the climax. The Macra remain something of a mystery to this day. How they managed to achieve their take over so successfully is never really dwelt upon or where they got their masterful hypnosis powers from. It is never explained how a race of sentient giant crabs came to be in the first place, and certainly not ones that speak so eloquently. Whether in 1966 or 2006, it would seem that the thrill of the unusual visual of a menacing giant crab is enough to paper over any questions.

The Shallow Bit: Ben is truly in his element with so many hot majorettes around to ogle. After driving me to distraction in The Smugglers by getting his kit off, Michael Craze is at again in this story. Doctor Who shouldn't sport horny companions of this nature because it really is quite distracting from the storytelling. In that respect it is probably good that we can only listen to this adventure.

Result: An effective chiller with oodles of atmosphere, The Macra Terror sees season four gain sudden focus after running on the spot since The Power of the Daleks. The Highlanders, The Underwater Menace and The Moonbase are all above average in my book but none are the best example of their genre (historical, oddball and base under siege respectively) and this is the first time since Troughton's introductory story that the show feels like it is kicking out and trying something new. There is plenty of good material for all four regulars without any of them feeling sidelined; Jamie gets to come into his own and provide some effective action and laughs and Polly and Ben enjoy some chilling tension as the latter comes under the influence of the Macra and menaces his other half. But it’s the Doctor who impresses the most with the dark schoolboy finally emerging and rubbing his hands together with glee as he brings down these insidious parasites. There is some padding down the mines in episode three but that aside the pace rarely lets up and director John Davies aces the stifling feeling that Big Brother is watching you in this idyllic colony.  What’s clear even from the telesnaps is how moody the lighting is in this adventure and merged with the chilling sound effects it creates a tense and foreboding atmosphere. It’s a shame that this seems to be a forgotten adventure because the result is a highly engaging piece that genuinely deserves to have some of the highest ratings of the era. Doctor Who was riding high on the success of the Troughton transition and this is one of the most confident stories yet and certainly the one that the main man feels most comfortable in: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/

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