The Macra Terror

Written by:
Ian Stuart Black
Directed by: John Davies
Starring: Patrick Troughton
Year: 1967
Audio Availability: Try Amazon

Another completely missing story, I'd love for The Macra Terror to be discovered. Even the biggest supporters of the Patrick Troughton era wouldn't claim it was experimental, and it certainly became a more streamlined series from 1967-1969. Yet with Ian Stuart Black retooling some of his ideas from The Savages this is one of the most daring and innovative Patrick Troughton stories. I'll repeat the cliché of it being reminiscent of The Prisoner, which is coincidental, but true all the same. This is clearly a good thing, with it opening out satirically with melodic yet tacky and garish music. Naturally, they gave Dudley Simpson the job to score it, though the jingles are done by Wilford Johns.

Surprisingly for a series that dates back four decades, language in Who hasn't aged too badly. However, The Macra Terror might provide one or two childish sniggers as it uses the term "gay" three tunes in the old fashioned sense of the word. The same Jamie, who here asks, "would you call the ladies off? I'm frightened what they might do to me" considers being "gay and cheerful" in the fourth episode. For the record, then the other instance (Jamie's remark is repeating a phrase said to him) is the Doctor with "Now this is gay". Okay, okay, it's infantile, and now I've mentioned it I admit I feel ashamed. Happy now?

One of the most blatant political remarks ever voiced in the series comes from Ben in this story, with "They've got that bloke all over the place, like a blinkin' politician." "He's our controller. We always need to see him. He brings us encouragement." "Ha! He's not a politician then." This is quite a deceptively acerbic Doctor Who story, with bitingly sharp lines like "It is now dark. No one will go outside into the colony. A dangerous man is in hiding. Our patrols have orders to shoot on site. Happy sleep time everybody!"

I can't do a review of this story without mentioning the trivia that you already know of it introducing the new opening titles. Yet on a serious note, this has everything that a superb Doctor Who story requires - monsters that creep in the night and a brainwashed populace that are blissfully unaware of their presence. It's the stuff of nightmares - only you know what's really going on, but no one will believe you and you know they're out to get you. Some critics claim that it overuses the giant crabs (in fairness, they do appear in four cliffhangers, including that concluding The Moonbase), but if you made a crab model so big it had to be mounted on a lorry then wouldn't you use it? Maybe it's just the poor quality of the scant remaining clips, but I also think the Macra look quite well realised, and effectively lit.
* * * * *

Dudley Simpson's score really fits this story perfectly, because it's so full on and bonkers. Just listen to it go completely over the top after the "Macra do not exist!" line here, the distorted 60s electronica far more effective than his repetitive cymbal clashing of the 70s. The macho crap relationship between Ben and Jamie really starts to emerge here, and even though having Ben brainwashed gives the character something to do, it also effectively writes him out of much of the action. I feel sorry for Michael Craze, because it's obvious that Pat had a much better rapport with Frazer Hines, and this is reflected in the Doctor's dismissive attitude of Ben over Jamie. As we'll see in the following story, Ben and Polly don't so much leave the series as get ignored out of it.

Bearing in mind that this was made during the height of the 60s then the Doctor saying to a drugged Polly "Do you smell anything? A sort of ... sweet perfume?" could have a wider meaning. This also applies to Polly on the subject of the giant crabs in episode four: "they sound like a disease." Yet this aside, there's some slack in this episode, with running around and crabs for the kiddies, along with a mild drop in satirical intent. Still good though…
* * * * ½

Why does Ben being brainwashed make him lose his Cockney accent? Anyway, without the pictures, this was the first time I'd clocked Peter Jeffrey in the role of Pilot. It's a completely different pitch to his witty send-up in The Androids of Tara, and he commendably buys in to the situation of the story. Also worthy of much praise is Terence Lodge as Medok.

I don't know about you, but I really feel that Dudley's music sells the sinister aspect of the story, and helps make it frightening. Even though the shots of the Macra (existing due to censor cuts in overseas sales) are fleeting, they strike me as unnerving. Disappointingly though, I always feel that the story runs out of impetus a little in its second half. Suddenly the barbs at authority either go missing or repeated, and it stops developing, content to resolve itself as an "attack of the killer crabs" monster show. It's still brilliant, but it had the clear potential to be a classic. However, of this particular episode then the "11/10" scene does, in isolation, get elevated to the premier league.
* * * *

"You can't arrest us now we've given ourselves up ... that's against the rules." A classic line from The Mighty Trout there, wonderfully tapped in to the story's sense of subversion. I wonder if Black got the concept of the Macra from the gas they need to survive? Both are silent, unseen invaders that can kill without you being aware of it. Actually, I'm talking rubbish there, but it's a thought, isn't it?

I'd love to see this one found, cleaned up and slapped on a DVD disc. The still shots and sound of the Controller look marvellous, and it'd be great to see if the real thing stood up, I'm sure it wouldn't disappoint. Having said that, the increased empathise on comedy with the dance finals (Jamie uses the Highland Fling to fling himself out of the door) does seem misplaced when the drama should be coming to a head.

The climax, as with the similarly anti-climatic The Savages, sees a "smash the place up" resolution. It's not good enough for such an inspired concept as this, and often comes over as if Ian Stuart Black wrote the first episode as his submission then got bored when it was taken up. It holds up better than I recalled, but there's no new elements added to the plot from episodes 2-4.
* * * *

Probably one of the half-a-dozen best stories from the Patrick Troughton era, The Macra Terror still manages to disappoint because it had the potential to be one of the half-a-dozen best stories of all time. A work of brilliance that somehow missed out on becoming a work of genius.
* * * *