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A Shellfish Society: The Macra Terror

“The Macra Terror” is a perfect bridge between the stories of the Hartnell era and what became the typical Troughton story.  The stories of the Hartnell era tended to focus on dystopian societies or people rebelling against an oppressive system.  Ian Stuart Black wrote “The Macra Terror.”  He had previously written two other stories for Doctor Who: “The War Machines” and the best non-historical story of the Hartnell era, “The Savages,”   “The Macra Terror” continues the themes that are present throughout his work for Doctor Who, but also adds a new aspect; he combines his familiar dystopian themes with a “monstrous” alien race.  Black mixes a dystopian society, a base under siege story, and a monster of the week and somehow manages to come up with a cohesive narrative.

A giant, menacing Macra (the only actual sized model they made)

A giant, menacing Macra (the only actual sized model they made)

The TARDIS lands after the travelers have seen that a large claw lies in their near future.   They are in an earth colony of the future.  They arrive just as the police are chasing a disturbed colonist through the area.  Medok, the colonist, attacks the travelers and they end up helping to capture him.  Their help is greatly appreciated, and they welcomed as visitors to the colony (where everyone is abnormally happy) and invited to meet with the leader.  The leader’s title, in a reference back to the days when they arrived on the planet by ship, is the Pilot.  There is also the mysterious Controller (who has the ultimate authority), whose voice is heard everywhere, but is only seen as a photo.

The travelers receive a warm welcome from the leader, who suggests that they visit the Refreshing Department to get, well, refreshed a bit, but the Doctor is wary of the colony.  He senses that something is wrong; everyone is a little too happy.  He soon finds a way to talk to Medok again and learns that Medok was once a happy member of the colony, but is now accused of seeing things.  Medok claims that he has seen large, ugly creatures that roam around the colony at night.  The Doctor feels that there must be something to Medok’s story, since those in charge are so eager to suppress it,  and allows Medok to escape, getting himself into trouble in the process.

Of course Medok is not crazy and, eventually, the Doctor and his companions each have their moment coming face to face with a Macra, the giant crab-like creatures that Medok saw.  The Doctor eventually learns that the reason that everyone is so happy in the colony: the citizens have been brainwashed into obeying the controller.   They are also programed to deny the existence of the Macra, even when they have seen one.  The Doctor realizes a bit too late that this technique will be used on him and his companions.  He manages to save Polly and Jamie from the effects of the brainwashing, but Ben has fallen victim to their suggestions.  The Doctor then needs to find a way to defeat the Macra, who are now in charge of the colony, and figure out how to get the old Ben back.

The Doctor gets another new hat.

The Doctor gets another new hat.

I thought “The Macra Terror” had a clever premise, even if it’s not perfectly realized.  The characters are interesting and it makes good use of the themes that Black used in his earlier stories.  It continues his interest in the idea that societies need to brainwash their members to keep everyone happy and/or under control, as well as the importance of thinking for one’s self.  This, like “The Savages,” is another example of a dystopian society.  Everyone has been brainwashed into believing that they are happy, so they don’t want to disobey their controller, who they think is responsible for their happiness.  Of course, the controller is looking out for the interests of the Macra and not the humans, but the members of the colony don’t see that because the Macra have conditioned them not to question the controller.

However, as in “The Savages,” the story stops short of really examining this society.  This isn’t a huge complaint, since I do understand that at this point Doctor Who is very much a children’s show, but I was left with a lot of questions.  How will this society function, now that the Doctor exposed the controller as a fraud?  I can’t help but wonder if the colonists were trained to obey the controller unquestioningly before the Macra took over, or if it was the gas and hypnotic suggestions that allowed the Macra to take over without anybody noticing.   The colonists choose the Doctor to become the new Pilot, but he runs away (as the Doctor generally does from anything that would tie him down), leaving to society to find a new path on its own and there’s no Steven to leave in charge here.

I also would have liked to have learned a bit more about the Macra.  They are the weakest part of the story.  It was implied that they came from deep within the planet, but why did they decide to take over the colony?  What exactly was their plan, besides getting the humans to harvest the gas they needed to breathe?  Could all of the Macra speak, or just the leader (and why was the leader the only white Macra?)? Other than being the “monsters” of the piece, they aren’t given much purpose

Speaking of the Macra, it would be interesting to see more than just a few seconds of the Macra.  The idea of having giant, sentient crabs as an alien race is an unusual one, and the story does need the Macra to be menacing, if it’s to be believable.  Since all four episodes are lost, we only have tiny clips.  It’s difficult to tell from the few seconds of footage just how effective the Macra were, but I tend to suspect that they are better in my mind than they actually were onscreen.  The clip that exists of the Macra attacking Polly reminds me a bit of Bela Lugosi thrashing around with the fake octopus in Bride of the Monster.  And, given what I know of the production values on the show at this point, I do wonder if actually seeing the monsters in this case might detract from the story. However, since I am pretty willing to accept whatever monsters they create, even if they look like people in rubber suits (and yes Voords, I’m thinking of you in particular), I’d still have rather seen more of the story.

The lack of images is especially felt in some of the comical scenes.  For instance, when the travelers visit the Refreshing Department, I would have liked to have been able to see more of the machines (and the gag about the Doctor looking all neat and tidy before quickly finding a way to rumple himself up again).  I also would have loved to see Jamie and the others doing the Highland Fling to escape from the colonists.  That seems like the perfect exit for Troughton’s Doctor, to simply dance away.

Ben and Jamie during the brainwashing

Ben and Jamie during the brainwashing

I feel that “The Macra Terror” is the first time that we truly see Troughton’s Doctor.  Now that it is the second half of his first season, I feel like both Troughton and the writers have a clearer sense of who his Doctor is.  Troughton’s Doctor has been odd from the beginning, but in this story we really see him demonstrate a sense of humor.  Just as the constant happy music and singing in the background was starting to drive me crazy (I know, it serves a purpose because it shows how artificial the society is, but it does get a bit annoying), the Doctor makes a joke about how annoying it is.  This is a clear distinction from Hartnell’s Doctor, who had a sense of humor, but certainly would not be cracking a joke (he certainly had an opportunity with the never ending ballad of the Last Chance Saloon in “The Gunfighters).   Troughton also gets to show off how clever his Doctor is in this story, while still keeping his careless, haphazard approach to things.  For instance, he figures out the “secret” mathematical formula by scribbling on the walls with a piece of chalk.  When he learns that he has discovered the formula, he is obviously quite proud of himself, but he rather downplays the achievement.  This feeds into one of the hallmarks of Troughton’s Doctor: he is always the  smartest man in the room, but he doesn’t like to let people know that.

As for the companions, the story gives Ben a larger role than usual.  He is the only one of the group to be affected by the colony’s brainwashing, so much of the story shows Ben gradually regaining control of his thoughts.  He serves as an antagonist for part of the story before ultimately saving everyone in the end.  It’s the first story since “The War Machines,” the last story Black wrote for the series, to actually make Ben a central part of the plot.  Jamie also gets his personality developed a bit more as well.  He is clearly the most suspicious of the group and the only companion to question the society from the start.  He is also not very susceptible to the brainwashing, and I wondered if this might have been due in part to his unwavering loyalty to the Doctor.  Ben has his doubts about just how competent the Doctor is, but Jamie trusts him completely.  He is quick to turn on Ben when it becomes clear that Ben is now on the side of the Controller, because he sees him as being against the Doctor.  Everything is very black and white to Jamie.  However, he and Ben do share the trait of being quick to jump into action, although Jamie is a bit more impulsive, like the Doctor.  As for Polly in this story…well, she gets a haircut.

Polly doing what she does best (and showing off her new haircut)

Polly doing what she does best (and showing off her new haircut)

Overall, I enjoyed the story.  The ending feels a bit rushed, but other than that it’s a good story.  My main complaint would be the poor use of Polly.  It was a nice twist on “The War Machines” that it is Ben, not Polly who gets brainwashed in this story.  I worried that Polly would be the brainwashed one because women are the “weaker sex” or some other sexist nonsense, but the story did not fall into that trap.  However, I did notice that Polly needed Ben to rescue her in “The War Machines” while Ben is able to rescue himself from the brainwashing.  While Polly is nowhere near as helpless as Dodo (but really, who is?) and she doesn’t let the boys hold her back from any action, she is a very clever person and it would be nice to see the writers use her cleverness in the service of the story.  “The Highlanders” really shows when the writers gave Polly something to do, she was a very interesting character.  Unfortunately, most writers don’t seen to take much of an interest in her.  She seems to have been seen as the perfect victim and spends way too much time panicking or as a captive.  As a matter of fact, it amazes me the Anneke Wills could have much voice left after Polly’s constant screaming.  Maybe the production team on Doctor Who spent a lot of their budget on lozenges?

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3 responses to “A Shellfish Society: The Macra Terror

  1. This is one story that works great on audio, even without moving pictures, thanks to the snappy jingles in the first half and the resonant Control voices. The few surviving video clips are actually pretty compelling (including the footage from which the above Ben/Polly screen grab derives).

    I never did like the way Medok was kind of just cast aside as an afterthought halfway through the story, and Black actually altered the character’s fate in the novelization 20 years later, to give him a more dramatically satisfying exit.

    And then, 20 years after THAT… the Macra came back… and still only featured on screen for a few seconds or so… thanks, Russell T. Davies!

    • I had some memory of hearing that this story wasn’t particularly good, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I would have liked to have seen more of the Macra than just the tiny glimpse of them in Gridlock. You’d think giant crab aliens would be too hokey, but somehow they work.

      I agree about Medok though. He is an important part of the story and then he is suddenly gone.

  2. I see what you did there with the title of your blog post, “A Shellfish Society.” Good one!

    I’m going to see if I can locate a copy of the novelization on sale somewhere on line. And it would be nice to have the Macro make a full-fledged return, rather than just the cameo appearance from “Gridlock.” When the mysterious hidden monsters of that story were revealed to be them, I must have thought to myself “Wow, RTD is really going for the ultra-obscure, isn’t he?” Still, it was a nice nod to the show’s early years.

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