Skip to main content

Creatures, infesting this camp at night!


Doctor Who
The Macra Terror: Episode One

Doesn’t he look smashing?

After the B-movie antics of The Moonbase, on the surface The Macra Terror looks to be delivering more of the same (Attack of the Crab Monsters?). The title is as crudely attention-grabbing as a Roger Corman flick, and the “monster first” approach seems to be evidence of the dumbing down that the series would be accused of during the Troughton era. It’s up for debate whether the story is using a monster hook on which to drape a commentary on social conformity and acceptance of totalitarianism, or it’s one with started out with such themes and then got diluted into a more standard monster format. Apparently Lloyd and Davis went to Ian Stuart Black with a suggestion of spiders as the monsters (original title was The Spidermen), eventually becoming crabs. Whatever the core idea, it’s totally Kafkaesque.

Parallels have been drawn with The Prisoner, and it’s easy to see why. The exaggerated jollity of the Colony is not so far removed from The Village. Both broadcast music/jingles and messages/instructions to a populace that is only at liberty if it observes complete obedience and does nothing to question its masters. Both have an apparently friendly, welcoming No.2 and an inaccessible No.1. But the apparently benevolent society built upon a dreadful secret was also the core of Black’s previous story, The Savages. And the mechanisms of the plot feel more indebted to 1984 (via Butlins) than presaging its contemporaries. There’s also the Quatermass II connection, with mind-controlling, gas-breathing aliens gaining control of a society.

Mind control is an increasingly prevalent theme in the series from the Troughton era onwards, and featured significantly in Black’s The War Machines. It makes sense as a reflection of the atmosphere of protest and dissent that gathered steam as the 1960s progressed, although it’s questionable whether these stories paid more than lip service to such ideas. Still, the identification of the loss of the freedom of the mind (or worse, as we will see in The Faceless Ones, the Yeti stories, Fury from the Deep), and the controlling power of groupthink, is a highly significant thematic box for the series to open up. Albeit somewhat reduced by the Doctor’s continued simplistic identification of what he faces as “evil”.


Episode One has that feel of inspired surface details masking a very traditional core plotline. But it makes for an enjoyable and intriguing 25 minutes, and sees a return to the playfulness of tone and willingness to indulge in digressions that looked to have been forsaken with The Moonbase.

The first thing that strikes you is the nauseatingly upbeat holiday camp music, which would drive any sane person at the colony nuts within minutes. This story has such good sound design that the Dudley score is virtually redundant, and at times intrusive.  The cheerfulness of Peter Jeffrey’s Pilot has a very Prisoneresque quality, and I like that his title goes unexplained. Presumably it is an echo of the spaceship that brought the Earth colonists here. Jeffrey’s not quite as disarming as he is in The Androids of Tara, but it’s a shame we don’t have sight of his performance and interplay with Troughton.


 Including the pursuit of Medok (Terence Lodge, Moss in Planet of the Spiders) in the first scene possibly announces all is not well too quickly, a feeling that is reinforced later in the episode when he spells out the threat. But that’s part and parcel of the uneasy alliance between the cerebral and “cheap seats” impulses in the story.

Kill the hippy!

On the positive side, this means that no time is wasted in exposing the Doctor and his companions to the story proper. After Medok attacks Jamie (dislike of men in skirts? Scots?) and the two male companions overpower him, Chief of Police Ola takes custody of the beardy-weirdy unmutual. Medok’s unkempt status appears to be a signifier of his non-conformity, a notion emphasised by the superficial beauty treatments that the TARDIS crew are deluged with in the next few scenes. Gertan Klauber plays Ola with barely concealed malevolence (he was also in The Romans and played a waiter in an episode of The Prisoner).

Ola: Medok is one of our patients in the Colony. We’ve done our best for him but he gets worse day by day… I wasn’t informed you were travelling across our territory.

As in The Moonbase, the Doctor is not greeted with instant suspicion. The unspecified regionalisation of the planet put me in mind of The Ribos Operation, where the Doctor can pass without suspicion by announcing that he’s from the North.

The Doctor: Well, according to my calculations we’re – um – in the future and on a planet very like Earth.
Jamie: How do you know?
The Doctor: I don’t know. I’m guessing.

The anarchic streak of the second Doctor finds its ideal vehicle here. This is a corrupt regime for him to react against with gleeful disrespect, and almost everything he does here undermines it in some way. Even the “Er, not too tight. It’s bad for the blood pressure”, in response to the restraints Medok is put under, tells us he is not taking anything at face value and that his sympathies do not lie with those imposing order.

The Doctor: Well, this is gay! Why all the music?
Pilot: Oh, we regulate our day by music.

The pebbles in the eyes treatment.

Jamie is instantly suspicious at this Stepford Wives fakery (“They’re a weird sort of folk. I don’t know that I understand them”) and the beauty treatment only pronounces his discomfort (and, shockingly given that this is Frazer Hines, his insecurity around lassies – Ben has no such qualms). They are offered steam baths, beauty treatments, massage, sunlight treatment, moonlight treatment, sparkling and effervescent massage. Polly’s at her most superficial, getting a haircut and ogling the Controller (“Hey. Who’s that? He looks smashing”).

She so pretty!

Barney: Very nice. Very nice indeed. You are most certainly the most beautiful young lady in our colony and are quite sure to be elected out next Beauty President.


It’s that Salamander hair.

But the highlight (mostly lost in audio form, a couple of reaction shot telesnaps aside) is Trout yet again being mistaken for a smelly old tramp (“You sir, of course, would like your clothes cleaned”). So he enters the Clothes Reviver (Polly is impressed; “Oh Doctor! You look gorgeous!”) and is so disgusted by the result that he immediately enters the Rough and Tumble Machine (for toning up muscles) to revert to his preferred tatty state.  There also seems to be a bit of business where Polly sees Jamie and tells him he too looks smashing (“like a prince”) with the once-more unkempt Doctor initially thinks she is referring to him.

Medok: I’m not the one suffering from delusions! It’s you, all of you. You don’t know what’s happening in this colony… Creatures, infesting this camp at night!... Alright! Have fun while you can. Before they crawl all over you!

It’s a bit OTT, the last line descending into unintended hilarity rather than provoking fear. But the Doctor’s motivation in this episode is to discover what the unnerved Medok has seen, and this involves him repeatedly flouting the rules of the Colony. Like any good Doctor should. He picks the lock on Medok’s cell and interrogates him in a fairly unsubtle fashion (“Do they, for instance, crawl along the ground?”). When Medok pegs it, the Doctor is the focus of recriminations. Overbearing Ola wants to send him to the pit, the punishment for breaking rules. Does this mean that only rule breakers work there?


The Pilot’s charming reasonability contrasts pointedly with Ola’s sadistic streak, and it’s a pleasure to hear the Doctor winding up the Chief of Police.

Pilot: Send your patrol after him. He can’t have got far.
The Doctor: He can run, you know. He’s got legs. He doesn’t have to crawl over the ground.
Ola: Why’d you say that?
The Doctor: No reason. No reason at all.
Ola: Anyone who spreads that kind of rumour in this colony will find himself in the Hospital for Correction.

Ben is marked out as cynical here, which is interesting given his brainwashing in later episodes. Told that the Controller brings encouragement, he responds “Oh, like a politician then.” Hearing a “Happy to work” jingle, he expresses disdainful sentiments.

Jamie: That’s a nice wee tune.
Ben: Yeah. If you happen to like work.
Ola: It’s a privilege to work for the Colony.


Ola’s vague answer to the need for tapping and refining of gas (it is used for many things) provides another clue that all is not well.

Ola: It’s dangerous to go off on your own after dark.
The Doctor: I’m used to the dark. I like it.
Ola: Anyone who wanders around the Colony at night may be killed.

A rather curious comment, since it doesn’t specify how. Perhaps he’ll encounter a large white ball floating about after curfew. Breaking the rules again, the Doctor goes off to find Medok while Ola and his guards are searching for the deviant.

And so we get the cliffhanger of big glowing crabby eyes in the dark. Only serving up what the title promised audiences, but nevertheless disappointingly run-of-the-mill.

OMFG!


I doubt that it will maintain this level of quality, and underneath its fresh trappings it looks as if there is a fairly traditional story lurking, but this is a vital and engaging first episode. Fine guest performances, Troughton in his element and there’s a mystery yet to be fully answered. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.