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.
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.