Doctor Who (Classic): S04E07 “The Macra Terror”

Season 4
Directed by John Davies
Written by Innes Lloyd

After two straight serials where we had at least half the episodes remaining, we must return to another completely missing one for the debut of the Macra. On a positive note, this is the last completely missing one until late Season 5. On a less positive note, only 3 of the next 13 episodes exist after this one.

The serial wastes no time as it throws us confusingly right into the story after last time. Set on a future Earth colony, there is a Big Brother-y vibe straight off with the escaped mental patient (in sci-fi, mental patients are never actually crazy), the overly cheerful music and voice that they use to regulate their days, and the face of the controller that pops up on screens all over the place. The parallels are furthered by the reveal that the controller is actually an old man, clearly under duress (even before he is savaged by a Macra). Happy is made to be the norm but it sounds like a painfully forced happiness and the leaders use subliminal voices on its citizens (and eventually the Doctor’s companions) to convince them everything is alright. They lock up anyone who this fails on and who claims they can see the monsters. Of the companions, this only works on Ben who turns against them and sides with the ruling party.

The big end of serial cliffhanger from last time undercuts what little suspense there is over whether he’s crazy since he is being told he’s crazy for seeing the very monsters we saw in that. Thankfully the serial doesn’t even bother trying to play it up by having the Doctor believe him but that doesn’t stop it from tediously having people deny it even as they are looking at one. It’s almost a Monty Python sketch at times and while I get what they are going for, the execution is far too silly. I guess my biggest problem with it is that it takes subliminal messages to work when history and current affairs have proven that part isn’t necessary.

The “reveal” of the Macra is done in the typical Doctor Who way of showing them at the end of an episode (often the first) but they just aren’t intimidating enough for it to be effective. Not that the claw was all that scary but it was far more effective than seeing the whole thing straight on. It’s also far more effective when you don’t use that same cliffhanger repeatedly. I get it, cliffhangers are hard and the original use in “The Daleks” was awesome, but at least don’t make basically the same one the cliffhanger twice in a row and then again at the end of the third episode.

The Macra are secondary villains for most of the run anyway and exist merely as a plot device to show the level of indoctrination these people suffer from. It’s not until the final act that they are revealed to be intelligent creatures manipulating the humans which is a welcome twist from the typical “humans are the real monsters” message of so much of the show as well as the typical monstrous creatures are dumb of so much of sci-fi. They have managed to trick the humans into working for them and maintain their existence pumping in the gas they need to live, while no one who knows they exist is able to keep their freedom. The show may fall into patterns but they vary things up enough to keep things interesting and make up for shortcomings in extant material and special effects.

Grade: C+

Stray Observations
– The Macra would return in the Tenth Doctor serial “Gridlock” forty years later, a gap beaten only by The Great Intelligence’s forty-four-year gap. I’m sure someone will eventually top them both and dredge up the Voord and the Sensorites for some episode.
– New title sequence! The biggest difference is the addition of Patrick Troughton’s face but it still feels appropriate that he finally gets and intro of his own. I’ll confess the face in the title sequence has always looked a bit goofy to me and while it isn’t quite the negative change that the 80’s brought upon it (visually and sonically), it leaves the original Who and NuWho openings as my favorites.

– Peter Jeffrey of the two great Dr. Phibes films plays the Pilot
– The score for this episode is truly dreadful. It’s as if someone tried to record a classic gothic score on a cheap keyboard or at its worst sounding like a low budget NES game. The early electronic work on Doctor Who can be impressive at times or at least unique for the period, but it is isn’t always that great.
– Again, we turn Polly into someone who shrieks at the sight of a danger and doesn’t do much in the way of solving anything. It would be nice if they could settle on a tone for her instead of bouncing between being perhaps the bravest and smartest of the companions to the type of role that would be normally filled by Susan. As much as I like Jamie, it’s as if he stole a lot of the former opportunities from her while allowing Ben to slide into a more palatable version of the Ian type role.
– The Doctor gets to show off his intelligence again as he is able to work out the super-secret formula in a matter of minutes and in an ingenious way (working backwards based on readings) while once again solving the big mystery of the place. I continue to quite like the Second Doctor as the man the First Doctor thought he was and that the most overt quirks seem to have been ironed out.
– It may be one giant 1984 riff, but in keeping everyone happy, it is able to offer some chilly, dissonant images such as all the cheerleaders in the final episode giving a cheer worthy of a high school football game as armed guards look silently on.
– The worst part of this serial being missing is the fact that it deprives us of an opportunity to see Jamie dancing.
– The serial being missing also renders the ending celebration set to cheerful music and still images creepy as hell and incredibly surreal.
– Of course the big news for today is Peter Capaldi is leaving the show this year. It’s always sad to see a great Doctor leave but three series is plenty and quickly turning into the standard for NuWho. I just want to take the time though to honor just how great Capaldi has been thus far with Series 9 being perhaps my favorite to date. More than anyone else, he reinvigorated the show after the weakest modern series to date (7), and has been able to handle anything the show throws at him from comedy to drama. I have no clue what I who I want the next Doctor to be (okay Helen Mirren, Hayley Atwell, Olivia Colman, or Richard Ayoade would all me alright by me), but they will have big shoes to fill and I’m excited for Series 10.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Nothing to see here

Next Up: Doctor Who returns Monday as we say goodbye to the last bits of the First Doctor’s era with the departure of Ben and Polly in “The Faceless Ones”. I’ll try to get up Star Trek: TOS earlier in the day on Friday with “The Naked Time” and “Charlie X” but I’ve said similar things to myself before with mixed results.