Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Serial 34: The Macra Terror

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Ben, and Polly

Written by: Ian Stuart Black
Directed by: John Howard Davies

Editor's Note: Hey, gang. This is just a friendly reminder that Cassandra's stepping in to write about "The Macra Terror" this week. It's a good 'un. Next week I'll be back for "Paradise Towers". Joy.

Background & Significance: I always have trouble finding things worthy of this section whenever I write a post here. And the same goes for "The Macra Terror" because, while awesome, there's not a ton of significance or background, but I shall try my best.

This serial is the last televised Doctor Who story by writer Ian Stuart Black, who wrote "The Savages" and "The War Machines" back in season three. I know both of those stories aren't necessarily the best, and I do have a few problems with this that I'll be discussing at length later, but "Macra Terror" is clearly the best out of Black's three contributions to Doctor Who history, and there's no better way to go out than with a bang like this one.

As far as directors go, this is John Howard Davies's only stint on Doctor Who and because it doesn't exist, we'll never know if he did a great job or not. Which is sad, but I like to think he did. Because there are some great sequences in here, but I'll get to those in a bit.

I think the biggest thing with this story is that this is the first serial that featured the new and revamped credits sequence with Troughton's face, which set the standard for how credit sequences were designed until the 2005 reboot (in which there are no face credits). So that's something. Also, Anneke Wills got a haircut?

But enough about all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

This is a fairly interesting and successful first episode, in my opinion.  Which is pretty good praise, especially considering the fact that this is a reconstruction and no footage of this episode exists.

In my mind, I think this is incredibly solid, and usually with reconstructed episodes something can be lacking, but surprisingly, this isn’t the case with this story, at least at the beginning. I feel like the story is effectively conveyed purely through the screencaps and audio (with the helping narration, which, why is Colin Baker narrating this?? Not that I mind. But still. Weird.) and I think it’s engaging and amusing and sows the seeds for future pay off effectively.  There’s a good mystery behind this colony that drives this episode (what does Medok know, and why are the police and government trying to get rid of him?), and coupled with the creepy crab claw from the future the TARDIS crew witnessed on the time scanner before landing at the colony, the little breadcrumbs leading us to the inevitable reveal of the Macra at the end of the episode are paid off.

I like that, all within the first episode, we get everything we need to know about this colony up front: it’s a seemingly happy, content place, almost utopic in nature, with everyone willing to work for the greater good.  There’s happy music and parades and dancing, but underneath all of that, there seems to be something much more sinister going on, which Medok represents, casting the shadow of doubt on all of the otherwise happy proceedings of the colony.  It’s an interesting touch, introducing Medok right up front, calling into question all of the colony’s practices and procedures, as well as having Medok be the first member of the colony the Doctor and his companions come into contact with.  This is good, because it lends credence as to why the Doctor would team up with and help Medok escape, and fuels his curiosity right up front to get to the bottom of what’s going on in the colony.

I like the tension between this seemingly utopian colony and the dystopian elements that creep up the more we get to know it through the eyes of the Doctor and his companions. It gives this sinister and slimy feel to everything, including the completely gratuitous yet absolutely glorious sequence where the Doctor and company pretty much get a spa treatment.  (I seriously love this scene.  I love how Jamie and the Doctor want no part in it at all, while Polly and Ben just go for it and try to coax their friends into getting a haircut and shit. It’s amazing.)  It immediately calls into question the various benign rules of the colony, and highlights all the weird things up front.

I also enjoy the pace of this episode; it doesn’t drag at all, and I’m not bored while watching/listening.  Instead of checking out and doing something else, I want to find out more about this colony, I want to learn what’s going on with Medok, and how these giant crab things fit in with everything.  And it’s extremely effective from a storytelling standpoint, because we’re finding things out along with the Doctor.  (It also helps that the Doctor and his companions get involved in the proceedings less than five minutes into the first story.)  

This world is well-established, it’s fleshed out and interesting, and I like being in it and learning about it and figuring out what’s going on.  In the height of the base-under-seige story, which I’ve seen so many times at this point, it really helps for there to be a strong mystery propelling the characters and the story as it moves along, and I would say that this definitely has a strong mystery at its core.  I’m roped in and ready to go deeper.

Part 2

Now comes the point in the story where I really wish it still existed.

This actually comes as something of a surprise, because I wasn’t really expecting to like it this time around. I couldn’t really remember my impressions of it when I first saw it last year, and I was expecting generic Troughton base-under-siege story with the scary iconic monsters that are pretty hyped up by the fandom and thus prove disappointing.

Now, I know we’re only halfway through with the story, but I can safely say that I was wrong.  And, again, I really wish this story still existed as transmitted, and not just as an audio track with screencaps.  It legitimately makes me sad, more so than other (worse) Troughton stories, and here’s why...

So far, this story manages to take a concept (dystopian society) and make it interesting, with a compelling mystery and intriguing characters driving it forward, as I talked about at length in the previous part.  What this part adds to that premise is a horror element.  And it is glorious.

I mean, this story is called “The Macra Terror” for a reason, and it’s here in part two that we get a taste of it.  And it’s legitimately scary.

Luckily, thanks to other stations that censored the scary bits from the main tape, we have a few surviving clips from this episode, mostly consisting of Macra claws reaching out and grabbing people from out of the dark.  Which contributes greatly to my wishing the whole thing still survived, because my god.  Those clips are fantastic greatness.  It’s genuinely unsettling, and I think this story makes a great use out of the horror elements of these scenes.  The introduction of the Macra finished up the last episode, so in this, they are free to terrorize and grab characters for a longer extent; they teased us in the last episode, but now we’re seeing just how creepy these Macra are and can be.

It’s great, and, as we find out at the end of this episode, the Macra aren’t just giant creepy crawlies, but have a much more involved and perhaps more sinister part in all of this.

I really enjoy how much this story builds on itself so far.  In part one, we were introduced to all the main players, concepts, and questions that we need to sustain the rest of the story.  In part two, not only do we explore more, discovering just how deep all of these dystopian elements go, but we’re given another reason to be scared of the Macra: not only are they freaky as fuck, but they’re also running the government.

That’s a really great touch, I think, and plays with multiple aspects of the horror in this.  The Macra are typical jump-out-of-the-dark-at-you scary, but then they throw in a layer of psychological horror, too.  The Macra are pulling the strings of the colony, and have been brainwashing everyone, so what else are they capable of?  How far does their reach go?  And for what nefarious purpose have they enslaved this colony of humans?  It’s just a great reveal to pay off everything that’s been set up in this part, and it’s early enough to keep the story rocketing on.

This story reminds me a lot of an original Star Trek episode called “The Return of the Archons,” which basically has a bunch of these same elements, but not as awesome and in a Star Trek context instead of Doctor Who (hellooooo, Kirk and Spock).  Which is actually pretty interesting, considering “The Macra Terror” was first transmitted a month and a couple days after said Star Trek episode.  I’m not sure if Ian Stuart Black was at all directly inspired by “Archons,” but the two are rather similar, so it’s worth pointing out, and it’s incredibly tempting to say that Black saw (or at least, heard about) this episode of Star Trek and went on to improve it with this Doctor Who story.  But, again, that’s just me spitballing theories.  (Realistically, the idea of a sci-fi dystopia was a common trope explored during this time (and still is), so it’s probably a coincidence that the idea was explored so similarly on the two big sci-fi programs of the era.)

But seriously, how great would that be.

Part 3

I love how this just… escalates.  It’s glorious.

Now, I think this part drags a little bit, as most part threes are wont to do.  It’s a difficult thing, trying to keep the story interesting and ramping up for the inevitable conclusion, while at the same time putting off that very conclusion for the next episode.  And I think Black attempts valiantly to do all of these things.  I don’t think he succeeds at everything, but he tries, and so gets points for that.

Regardless of it dragging a little in the middle, this story has a tendency to keep building and building and building on itself as it moves along, which I think is fantastic.  Take, for example, the cliffhanger to this part.  The part three cliffhanger should be the ultimate “oh shit” moment, and I think this achieves that.  Part one, we get a glimpse of the Macra for the first time; in part two, we find out that the Macra are controlling the colony; and in part three, we have Jamie trapped between two Macra, down in a shaft that is being pumped full of gas.  See what I mean?  It’s urgent, it’s scary, and although we have a hunch Jamie will probably be getting out of it, I still think it works.

Now, I haven’t really given myself the chance to talk about our main characters much so far, but since this part highlights them so well, especially, the Doctor, it’s fitting I talk about them here, isn’t it?

One of the other reasons I really wish this story exists is because I love seeing Patrick Troughton act.  He’s so damn good at it.  And he sounds pretty on form here, from what I can tell, in this part especially.  From him taking a crack at the terrible rhyme scheme of the happy work jingle, to solving math equations all over the walls and winning at life, he’s just so jubilant and devious and I love it.  I love him teaming up with Medok to figure out what’s going on, I love him questioning the authority of the Pilot, destroying the deep-sleep hardware in the walls with tiny explosions, and most of all, I love him constantly urging and challenging his companions to question everything, to take nothing for granted, and to not just stand down and blindly follow orders.  It’s such a great expression of the Doctor’s own mantra as he journeys throughout the universe, and I really love that he tries to instill these values in his friends.  I love that he’s committed to ridding the universe of evil—in this case, the oppression of this colony by the Macra—but at the same time, he’s tolerant and understanding of mistakes and weakness; even though brainwashed Ben is a complete asshole, the Doctor understands that it’s not Ben’s fault he fell under the power of the deep sleep mechanism, and he continues to encourage him to fight it.  It’s really inspiring, and all that I want out of my Doctor.

I really like Ben and Polly in this too.  While not my favorite companions ever, I think they’re pretty cool, and they add an interesting dynamic to the team, I think.  And they’re good in this; I like the moment they have when Polly is getting attacked by the Macra and Ben rescues her, even though he’s all brainwashed.  I think it really speaks to their relationship, and how much Ben cares for her, even though his mind has been temporarily taken over.

But I like Jamie more.  I love how fiercely loyal he is to the Doctor, even this early into his run as a Companion.  And he’s just… He’s so cool.  He just steals the keys off this guy and then goes off and explores a scary mining shaft with crazy cobwebs and stuff all by himself.  I just really dig his initiative.  And the fact that he is completely adorable.  And Scottish.  That helps too.

Anyway, it’s also funny to me how much Medok is a narrative tool to help move things along.  I talked about it a little in the first part, but think about it.  He shows up to bring the mystery to the Doctor, it’s through him the Doctor first finds out about the Macra, etc.  Basically, because the Doctor teams up with Medok, he gets dragged into all this stuff with the colony, talking with the Pilot, encountering Ola, everything.  And then Medok is taken away, we don’t see him except for this brief scene where he’s hanging upside down, and then he’s magically there to explain to us all about mining for gas.  How convenient, no?  And then, after all that exposition, he gets taken out by a Macra while chasing after Jamie.  (Which is hilarious to me.)  And let’s face it, Medok doesn’t really have much of a character other than he is generic dissident who is good at escaping, but he does have a sizeable part to play, as far as moving the story along.

In other news, “THE DANGER GANG” is going to be my new band name.

Part 4

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this last part. I mean, it gets the job done. But it’s not mind-blowingly awesome or anything.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it, because I do. But as far as last parts go, I think this is a middling one.  It wraps up everything (rather hurriedly? The end is a bit confusing and rushed, I think, but that might just be me) and it ramps up nicely, and I like that we end back where we started, it gives the whole thing a full circle sort of feeling (no, not the serial).  But there’s something… I don’t quite have my finger on it, perhaps as I write this part it’ll sort itself out in my brain.

So let’s move on to something else.  Something positive!  And I did like a lot of this, despite my slight non-committal bitching just now.

I was gushing about Troughton in the previous part, and this opening bit with him and Polly in the lab with all the pipes, just gleefully sabotaging everything—that is the stuff I’m talking about. Stuff like that just makes me adore Troughton’s Doctor even more whenever I see it.  He’s just having so much fun and it’s palpable, even with just an audio track to listen to and screencaps to look at.  If that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.

Also. Can I just say. Jamie “dances” in this. He jigs. In front of a goddamn glee club. It is stupendous.  (And where does he get the flowers?  He stumbles out of the mine and into some flowers? Hahah.) That’s honestly one of the things I remembered about this, because I loved it so incredibly much. I was just waiting for it to happen, and then it did, and it was wonderful.  This story is so quirky, and it has so many great parts, great surprises that I just wasn’t expecting.

And I like that Ben gets a little redemption in this.  Ever since being brainwashed in part 2, he’s been a complete asshole, selling out his friends in favor of the colony, and now he gets his chance to come to the rescue.  It’s a good moment for him, I think.  It’s also great because the explosion element was set up in the last part in a throw-away line the Doctor says to the Pilot when he’s doing math all over the place. That’s great, that is.  I love it when shows do that, and I’m especially impressed whenever Doctor Who does it. Especially here, where it feels organic and not really contrived at all.  There was a set up, and now Ben’s here to pay it off with the Doctor’s help. I love that.

As I was watching this part, there’s a screencap of Jamie in the mine shaft, and it was a really cool shot where Jamie was in the far background, and there were all these grids in the foreground; it got me thinking about how sad and disappointing it was that, aside from the few-second clips and pictures, we’re never really have a sense of what this story really looked like and how it was directed.  Which is so sad, because there are some really cool shots like the one I mentioned above, and some great sequences in this that I would have loved to see. 

I think the reason I’m not entirely sold on the ending is because this part doesn’t really leave me with a lot to talk about.  It’s fairly straightforward, and what it comes down to is this: the Doctor finally manages to show the Pilot that the Macra are the ones running the show, the Macra try to stop him, and they are defeated by the very gas they’ve been making the colonists mine for years.  Everyone is happy again.  Hooray.

Now, I point this out is not necessarily for a bad reason.  There’s nothing this part does wrong; in fact, it does everything right.  It wraps everything up and it delivers a pretty exciting conclusion to this mystery and story they’ve been telling us for the past four episodes.  It’s a splendid time.  But I don’t find it particularly memorable.  This episode has a lot of good moments, but none of them have to do with the climax of this.  And I find that problematic, because that just makes this episode pretty standard, in my opinion.  This episode, and the episode before it, do their jobs admirably in delivering a good conclusion to a sweet Doctor Who story with memorable monsters (so memorable, in fact, they made a cameo in “Gridlock”), but I think the first two episodes are superior.  Which, again, not to say this episode is bad, it’s just… standard.  There’s not a lot to talk about with standard Doctor Who, and I tend to forget about it, generally speaking.  If it’s not stand-out good or stand-out awful, I feel like it gets lost in the shuffle, and it’s just disappointing that something as legitimately great as “The Macra Terror” gets sorted into the standard pile, if we’re judging purely by the conclusion.

Final Thoughts?: Of course, we’re not judging purely by the conclusion, hence this blog I just wrote.  I honestly think this is a great story.  It surprises me, it has some great moments of horror as well as good character moments; I think this is a stand-out story for Troughton’s Doctor, as far as him declaring his character’s personal mantras and beliefs, and it’s just the sort of Doctor I want to see. He’s funny, he’s witty, he’s determined, he’s gentle, and chaotic, and sly, and he solves problems.  It’s a joy to see him work in this.

I think because this story has so many stand-out moments, I was looking for a more stand-out ending, which is why the last part was a bit puzzling and disappointing for me, personally.  And possibly why I remembered very little of this story from the first viewing.  The bottom line is, I expect more from stories that deliver up front, so anything less than stellar is going to be disappointing in my mind.  Perhaps I’m being unfair, but really, why set the bar high if you can’t reach it again?

Bottom bottom line: “The Macra Terror” is great story that fizzles a little at the very end, but it still has excellent moments throughout and I’m super sad it no longer exists.

Next Time!: Seventh Doctor! Mel! Old apartment complexes! Swimming pools! Roving girl gangs! Robots! Guards! Wannabe macho men! And creepy old ladies! Matt's back next Tuesday with his look at "Paradise Towers"!

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