Doctor Who Reviews: The Macra Terror

1984. Hell of a year. The Space Shuttle Discovery begins its voyage. Orville and Bean strike for gold with the Bolero routine at the Winter Olympics. Peter Davison becomes Colin Baker.

Oh, and the book’s pretty good too. The George Orwell classic became a favourite of mine after it came back to haunt me in my English studies over the years. Creating a nightmarish utopia in which everyone is forced to conform in both behaviour and thoughts, George Orwell couldn’t have known how ahead of his time he was. The only downer was that the idea of Big Brother would feature in the loathsome ‘reality’ (oh yeah?) TV show, which, like the turd that you just cannot flush, continues to annoy on Channel 5. Thanks for that.

Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a lot of influence on subsequent books, films and TV programmes. Doctor Who has, in its time, paid homage to this classic in stories such as Vengeance On Varos and the oft-forgotten Macra Terror. The latter doesn’t tend to crop up on many people’s desert Island Who - scarcely surprising, since all that remains of the story are a couple of lost censor clips and stills.

The idea of setting The Macra Terror in a futuristic, overly grinning holiday camp is an inspired one, and lends the story a sinister edge. The inhabitants walk about with terrifyingly blank fixed grins - you know the sort of expression I mean: just look at the average audience of a Michael McIntyre TV show. They are all in thrall to an apparently calm, collected Controller, a Brylcreemed leader who’s all smiles and charm. Even the creepy Muzak that plays throughout adds to the feeling that something’s not adding up in this colony.

It takes a beardy protester called Medok to highlight the inherent problems in this mini-society. He protests that he’s seen crab-like creatures - naturally he’s labelled an outsider and paraded in front of the newly arrived Doctor and his companions, and the colonists like some kind of circus show freak. Seems that the price of thinking for yourself and using your own judgement is to become an outcast from society. Hmmm, sound familiar?

There are some strong ideas at work in The Macra Terror, and for the most part, they are developed well. The only problem is that the Macra aren’t the most convincing of brainwashers. They seem way too bulky and inflexible - the still of a Macra in the Controller’s chair looks laughable rather than credible, which isn’t the result that the production team had in mind, I bet. Similarly, when Ben and Polly are threatened by the crabs in the exorcised surviving footage, it’s not the scariest of scenes. The jury’s out on whether the cliffhanger to Episode 3 fares any better, when Jamie is attacked. Still photos don’t exactly make for a foregone conclusion.

Luckily, the drama played out among The Doctor and his friends makes for much more satisfactory viewing. The Doctor instantly takes a dislike to his smart appearance after he’s been put in the human equivalent of a trouser press. Already, he’s rebelling against the status quo after he chooses to revert back to his crumpled form. Ben, Polly and Jamie are settling in much more cosily by contrast, enjoying massages and other relaxing treatments.

However, the brainwashing techniques threaten to control the trio, but surprisingly, it’s Ben who’s the most affected. Up until now, Ben has been a feisty Jack-The-Lad who’s always tended not to play by the rules. Making Ben the conformer was actually a stroke of genius, since it confounds the expectations of who’s controlled easily and who isn’t out of the companions. In a sense, it's a logical step, given Ben's quick judgement of the regenerated Second Doctor being a fraud. Maybe it's that close-mindedness that makes him an easy target for brainwashing But it’s jarring to see Ben sell the others out to the colonists, and Michael Craze does a great job here, especially in the scenes where he’s struggling to return to his old persona.

In fact, this is a good story for all the regulars. It’s nice to see Jamie become more involved in the action. Actually, it’s a crying shame that the story doesn’t exist, since the scenes of him ’dancing’ would have been a real hoot. That said, I can’t imagine Jamie taking to the dance floor on past-its-sell-by-date smugfest Strictly Come Dancing.

Patrick Troughton, again, does a sterling job as The Doctor. If ever there was a story tailor-made for the Second Doctor’s anarchic, anti-authoritarian stance, then it’s The Macra Terror. Again, this Doctor tackles the problem in a quietly unassuming manner, bringing down the establishment by surprise, and Troughton sells the scenes when he confronts the Pilot over the state of affairs in the colony.

The guest cast are generally good, with plaudits going to Peter Jeffrey as the Pilot and Terence Lodge as Medok. Graham Leaman also does a good job as the two faces of the Controller, and the climax to the second episode is a memorable one. However, there must be some state-of-the-art treatments in residence at the colony, since Chicki magically changes her face between episodes. Unless she happens to be an undercover Time Lord. Or unless the original actress just couldn’t make it for the last episode. Hmmm, what do we think?

Overall, The Macra Terror is a successful take on the totalitarian themes that were rife in 1984. The message of thinking for yourself may not be particularly subtle, but it’s still potent enough to have an effect. The production looks competent enough - special mention should go to Dudley Simpson for those sinister colony jingles, which totally sum up the eerie facelessness and also to designer Kenneth Sharp for some memorably eye-catching set designs. Oh, and if that’s not enough, the new titles are great. The fast-moving swirling current represents the psychedelic trends of the time very well, even if Troughton’s looming face looks a bit like a sea creature swimming up to a submarine porthole.

It’s a shame that The Macra Terror isn’t more widely known. The monsters may not be the most successful that Doctor Who’s ever had, although they’d prove to make a comeback in the recent Gridlock episode. The lumbering crabs aside, this is a highly effective tale that contains a worthwhile message at its heart. Rediscovery of episodes soon, please.

* Meanwhile, rediscover the golden years of Doctor Who, with my 1970s 3 ebook guides!