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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror

Serial Title: The Macra Terror

Series: 4

Episodes: 4

Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), Polly Wright (Anneke Wills), Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines)

On ‘an Earth colony’ on ‘an earth-like planet’ in ‘the future’ (bloody vague settings!), the TARDIS lands just in time to run into Medok, a crazed fugitive who attacks the crew and is subdued by Ben and Jamie. Guards hot on his trail arrive and take him away, and their leader, Ola, welcomes the TARDIS crew and takes them back to the Utopian colony. (Which must be either evil, or disaster-bound, as no Utopian place can survive long in sci-fi…)

The group are introduced to the Pilot, the colony’s leader. They are given a whirlwind tour of the colony’s luxuries- its happy workers and musical jingles... they also find out that Medok was considered mentally ill, having claimed to see “Macra,” giant crab-like aliens- in the colony at night. The Doctor and the group, rightly recognizing that any fugitive encountered by a traveling sci-fi or fantasy group as they first enter a new area is correct and destined to become an ally in overthrowing the status quo of his or her pursuers, are somewhat suspicious, and begin to investigate- the Doctor going down to speak with Medok… and accidentally releasing Medok from his cell in the process.

The Doctor pursues him, as the others learn about the colony's chief labor project- mining a gas which is poisonous to humans down in the pits. Though they insist that the gas is vital to the colony, no one will elaborate on what it is used for.

The Doctor catches up with Medok at a construction site- where Medok tells him that others have seen the Macra, too- but all who do are sent to a mental hospital for 'correction.' The Doctor sees one, too- the monstrous crustacean/insect emerging to roam the colony at night- but both are found by Ola's guards. Medok sacrifices his chance at corroboration (more likely to have the Doctor committed alongside him) by claiming that the Doctor was searching for him and trying to convince him to return to correct the earlier mistake of freeing him. The Controller, the ever-present Orwellian big-brother picture-with-a-voice projected on colony view-screens, urgently- almost fanatically- insists that "There are no such things as Macra!"

The Doctor is released to his sleeping chamber... where hypnotic brainwashing fields attempt to turn his companions into willing colony-members and Macra denialists. The Doctor frees Jamie and Polly in time... but Ben is turned, becoming one of 'them'- and reporting the Doctor for sabotaging the other hypnosis machines. Polly runs, and Ben gives chase- both stumbling into another Macra, which they barely escape from in the dark. After fighting it off, Ben denies having seen anything.

The Doctor demands to see the Controller himself, not just a picture of the man- and after a moment, a frail version of the man in the picture, decade older, appears live onscreen, captive in his own office. He begins to shout a warning, but is strangled by a Macra claw from off-screen... the Macra are the mind-controlling masters of the colony. The Pilot is ordered to forget, and the group is sent to the pit to mine. (What is it with Jamie and co. being sent to the mines?)

The pit is the source of the poisonous gas production, and a dangerous place. The group is assigned under Medok, who was deemed a hopeless mental case and banished to the pit as well. He arranges for the Doctor to stay behind as 'shift supervisor' as the others descend to mine. Ben, the traitor, monitors them distrustfully.

Jamie manages to slip away into a new, reinforced door by stealing the keys, but the others are unable to join him- as they labor away in the dangerous gas-filled mines, Jamie enters a strange tunnel leading gradually downward. Medok manages to slip away after him... and is attacked and killed by a Macra in the tunnel. Jamie finds his body, and the Macra- strangely motionless and inert. Under orders from the Controller, stored gas is pumped into the tunnel- suffocating Jamie and reviving the Macra. Jamie, choking, conceals himself, but won't be able to hide- or breathe- for long.

The Doctor tricks and outwits the Pit overseer, locking him in his office, and reverses the gas flow, pumping in oxygen which causes the Macra to slump listlessly and gives Jamie the advantage again. He escapes back into the colony via a vent grating- but is betrayed and given up by turncoat Ben, who is coming out of his trance, but not nearly enough yet.

The Doctor and Polly flee from the alerted guards and find themselves outside the Controller's chamber- in which an albino Macra controls the colony; the Doctor intuits that the Macra breathe the gas, and are using the humans as mind-controlled labor to prepare a takeover of their own colony. The Doctor and Polly risk going to the Pilot, rejoining the captured Jamie- but rather than taking them into custody, the Pilot, having witnessed the Macra killing the real Controller, and beginning to question 'Big Brother,' decides to aid them... while Ben is finally coming out of his temporary brainwashing. Confused and disoriented, he wanders off.

The pilot is led to see the Albino Macra for himself, as the Albino directs all guards in the colony, under the more obedient party-line Ola, to stop them. The guards, under orders, lock them in a pipe room just outside the Controller's room, and leave- while the Doctor, Jamie, Polly, and the Pilot, in full view of the Albino, begin to suffocate as it floods their room with the gas- intent on coming out and finishing them itself once levels are breathable.

However, rescue comes in the form of Ben, still outside, who is able, under the Doctor's verbal instructions, to reverse the flow, flooding the Macra with 'lethal' oxygen all throughout their tunnels and chambers in a terrific explosion.

In the aftermath, the Colony celebrates, the Pilot officially and publicly thanks the heroes, and announces their intention to make the Doctor the next Pilot... to which the Doctor and companions wave goodbye and close out a running gag of the serial by dancing their way through the crowd and out the door.

Did you know that the first ‘Big Brother/Mind Control’ sci-fi story was written by famed author Joel Ben-Micah- who decided to take up writing shortly after his corpse was tossed into Elisha’s tomb and re-animated by his bones- in 790 B.C.? True story. And the ‘Big Brother/brainwashing’ storyline has been an integral part of sci-fi ever since.

Yes, once again, Doctor Who tackles on a sci-fi cliché nearly as old as writing itself. So, how does it fair?

Pretty well, actually- owing in part to the fact that the Big-Brother/Mind-Control element is only half the story. That’s something that Old Who does best- taking a sci-fi cliché and turning it into a setting in which to play out a story rather than a story itself (the same thing, post-Highlanders, that they do with history, unfortunately- still, a worthwhile trade-off.)

This episode had some good humor, yet again- the Second Doctor’s reputation as a clown is not ill-deserved- as represented in the opening Emerald-City-esque montage of the group being treated to the amenities of the Colony- the Doctor is cleaned up too much for his liking, and ‘accidentally’ enters a muscle-toning machine to get himself properly re-rumpled. Even in stills (this is another reconstruction, folks- blah!) the humor comes through.

I was really looking forward to this one due to New Series 3’s “Gridlock,” in which the Macra return (40 years later- how cool is that?) ; I was looking forward to seeing their original story. Sadly, due to the dark, smudgy, non-Loose-Canon reconstruction… I couldn’t make out a single Macra clearly on-screen… half the time (like the apparently white Macra in the control room?) I couldn’t even tell what I was supposed to be seeing.

Interestingly, the Macra themselves were large, ungainly things, developed by Shawcraft, an outside contractor that had been doing Doctor Who effects work since The Daleks- and had been doing unacceptably poor work since the original city miniature for The Daleks. They delivered a single Macra prop, which was large, heavy, ponderous, and took a flatbed pickup truck to actually move- rendering them mostly immobile, and a pain to reposition for new shots- severely limiting what could be done with them (despite being extremely expensive). So perhaps there wasn’t much to see…

The Doctor is not particularly subtle in this one- as is the Doctor’s way- even though playing along for a bit could save him a good deal of trouble. Rather, Medok is surprisingly the clever one, thinking up the obvious and helpful explanation for the Doctor’s actions and leaving him in a position where he can do something good- something the Doctor himself doesn’t seem to have thought of. Meanwhile, the Doctor is a good deal more blood-thirsty than usual, seemingly having no problem annihilating the Macra- far from the “Come with me, I’ll take you to another planet where you can live in peace… No? Okay, NOW I’ll annihilate you!” attitude of the New series.

Polly is a screamer here, but also pretty proactive for the small story role she’s given. Not much to say either way.

Likewise for Jamie, who shows a great moral fortitude in resisting the brainwashing on his own, and gets a nice creepy showdown with in-the-flesh Macra, but not much else. His irritation at Ben mirrors the audience’s.

It’s also an aggravating episode due to this factor. Even though Ben is suffering from brainwashing, turncoat-Ben becomes of paramount annoyance very quickly, and only manages to redeem himself by saving the day in the oddly-truncated (but stylistically acceptable) ending. Too bad this was only in stills- it would have been funny to see everyone dance themselves out at the end.

Still, there are some nice creepy moments- the real controller, a puppet of an old man, being killed by the Macra claw, for instance. There are also some funny ones, such as the Doctor’s ‘equation’ bits, and his clever outmaneuvering of the pressure-pipes caretaker.

Also of note is the fact that, after the Celestial Toymaker, this serial is the second time in which the TARDIS crew dances themselves to safety.

This serial has some disappointments that keep it from its true potential- but I suspect it would reach much closer to it if the video were intact. This serial also debuted the new opening title sequence, incorporating the Doctor’s face (which would become a tradition for the remainder of the classic series).

The reconstruction was not Loose Canon, which, as this blog has ably demonstrated, means it sucks. This one was worse than usually- dark, muddy, exceedingly unclear, worse so than any before it… I wish we’d seen it as LC the first time, as I’m sure that would have been a far superior presentation that would have improved its standing immensely.

Great moments:
The ending with the explosion is nicely done. The dance-related humor. The Doctor disabling the mind-control for each companion… but reaching Ben too late.

The Macra Terror registers a solid 3 out of 5 Deadman’s Keys, with the belief that a video version might have scored an additional .5 or even 1 on the scale. The recreation gets 0 out of 5 for fail-Fail-FAILING miserably!!!

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