Rather like ‘Galaxy 4’, ‘The Macra Terror’ is something of a forgotten gem, a well-written little story that tends to be forgotten amongst the extant stories, or the missing stories featuring classic monsters such as the Daleks and the Cybermen. Since I first got the soundtrack when it was released on cassette during the early nineties, I’ve come to appreciate it more and more, but on listening to it again as part of the series as a whole I’ve just decided that it is in fact a work of genius and a truly marvellous Doctor Who story.
‘The Macra Terror’ has several things going for it. First of all, the basic plot is approached in a suitably novel way; the Macra have infiltrated and enslaved a human colony, but in such a way that most of the colonists are largely under the impression that the colony is perfect and that life couldn’t get any better. The entire indoctrination and propaganda subplot works to great effect from the start; when the Doctor and his friends arrive they are treated as honoured guests and invited to enjoy the holiday camp atmosphere of the colony to its fullest, offered massages, hair care, and general luxury. However, it soon becomes clear to the viewer that this warm and fuzzy surface has more sinister undercurrents; Ola mentions that anyone who breaks the colony curfew and ventures outside at night will be killed, which is rather at odds with the general air of relaxation and happiness, and the vacuous and nauseating “happy to work” broadcasts from Control become increasingly insistent and gradually more intimidating, hinting that anyone who refuses to work for the benefit of the colony as a whole (or as it transpires, the Macra) will not merely be prevented from reaping the rewards this seemingly cooperative society offers, but will actively be punished. And this is all just in episode one. It soon becomes evident of course that the colonists are being brainwashed and are indeed “happy to work” because they are effectively being drugged and hypnotized whilst they sleep every night. Even more disturbingly, some of them are vaguely aware of what is really going on, but do not resist. The Pilot seems unsurprised by the Doctor’s revelation that his quarters contain the brainwashing equipment (although he does seem to be in denial), and continually refuses to believe the Doctor, Polly or Medok’s claims about the monsters at large amongst them until he actually sees the Macra in Control in episode four. Ola is even more willing to obey Control despite being seemingly aware of the Macra from at least the beginning of episode two, since he has power within the current status quo. But they clearly know about the Macra, as the scene in which Control hysterically screams “There are no such things as Macra!” makes clear – significantly, it is only when Control denies the existence of the creatures that we even learn what they are called. The entire metaphorical sugarcoated pill of the colony’s true nature is superbly conveyed. Even in the mines, where “unhappy” colonists are literally worked to death, the supervisors and the Pilot manage to convince themselves that the workers deserve their fate. Part of the success of this story is due to the acting of the guest cast, who are uniformly excellent, especially the ever-reliable Peter Jeffrey as the Pilot, Gertan Klauber as Ola, and Terence Lodge as Medok. The Pilot and Ola work well because they show different facets of authority; both work for a totalitarian regime, but whilst the Pilot seems to genuinely care for the well-being of the colonists, and eventually rebels against Control when he discovers that giant crabs are actually in charge, Ola is instead on a power trip and enjoys his position because he gets to enforce the rules. He takes obvious malicious glee in dealing with first Medok and later the Doctor and his companions. Medok, the sole voice of dissent in the colony (at least as far as the viewer is concerned, although it is made clear that he had predecessors), is excellently portrayed and is Lodge acts with maximum intensity from the start; his cry of “have fun while you can before they crawl all over you!” manages to be genuinely disturbing rather than daft and over-the-top, and Medok maintains this frantic edge throughout. He knows perfectly well that he isn’t mad, but eventually changes from desperately trying to convince the other colonists that monsters roam at night to bitterly accepting that they don’t want to know after Ola captures him and the Doctor at the start of episode two.
‘The Macra Terror’ also benefits from the fact that it is the only television Doctor Who story to make effective use of this TARDIS crew. For the first and last time, good use is made of both Ben and Jamie in the same story, in addition to Polly and the Doctor. Because Ben succumbs to the colony’s brainwashing, he betrays his friends for what he briefly sees as the good of the many, allowing Jamie to take over the main action role. But Ben benefits from this himself, as he finds himself torn between his indoctrinated need to obey the rules of the colony without question, and his loyalty to his friends. This comes to the fore in episode two, when he risks his life to save Polly from the Macra, but later vehemently denies the existence of such creatures, accepting the colony line that “there are no such things as Macra!” in spite of the evidence of his own eyes. Ultimately of course his true nature reasserts itself and it is Ben who finally destroys the insidious threat of the Macra. Jamie meanwhile takes over Ben’s usual role with aplomb, and is the subject of episode three’s cliffhanger as he finds himself caught between two Macra. Rather than panicking, he demonstrates his resourcefulness and courage to the greatest effect thus since ‘The Highlanders’ and determinedly tries to escape. Later, when he finds himself confronted by dancers, he quickly assesses the situation and accepts the unwittingly offered cover story of being a dancer, demonstrating his ability to think on his feet, which he hasn’t any opportunity to do until this point. Polly too is used effectively; the established pairing of her and Ben allows her to challenge her friend’s newly enforced beliefs about the colony without the antagonism that this produces in Jamie. She also gets to scream “Macra! They’re in Control!!” rather effectively at the end of episode two. But it is Troughton who really steals the show.
For the first time since ‘The Power of the Daleks’ (in which he seemingly knew that he would encounter Daleks on Vulcan), the Second Doctor gets proactive. Armed with foreknowledge of giant clawed monsters thanks to the rather gimmicky use of the time scanner at the end of ‘The Moonbase’, the Doctor sets about searching for the hidden menace that lurks within the colony from the outset and clearly takes delight in doing so. I noted when I reviewed ‘The Highlanders’ that having been presented with the problem of rescuing his friends, he seemed to be enjoying himself, and I also get that impression from ‘The Macra Terror’. Throughout the story, he searches for the truth, but more than that he tries to encourage others to do the same. When he says “bad laws were made to be broken”, I don’t think that he’s advocating anarchy per se (as some have suggested), but rather he’s railing against blind obedience of rules and advocating independent thought. In fact he says as much to Polly whilst checking to see if he has been too late to prevent her brainwashing. The Doctor is basically at his best throughout ‘The Macra Terror’, whether he’s proudly confessing to having sabotaged the conditioning apparatus in his companions’ rooms, or deducing the formula for controlling the gas flow so well that he smugly gives himself 10 marks out of 10 only to change this score to 11 out of 10 when the Pilot is visibly stunned by his mental agility.
Finally, the Macra themselves are monsters in the traditional Doctor Who vein. The single Macra prop looks merely okay in the main surviving photograph, but in the surviving censor clips recently recovered, it is clearly used to rather splendid effect thanks to good lighting and direction. The concept of the Macra also works well, and although Control is essentially the chief Macra (which is white according to The Television Companion) and therefore presumably the booming voice heard throughout, no Macra is ever explicitly seen to speak; this is quite effective, since whenever anyone is menaced by one of the creatures, rather than having them gloating or explaining their plans, they are a silent menace. Clearly they are intelligent (exactly how they took over the colony in the first place is unclear, although the Doctor surmises that they came to the surface of the planet and found the colony there, implying that they are native to the planet and originally dwelt underground, which would make sense given their dependence on the gas found beneath the colony), but by keeping them largely silent, their intelligence seems more alien than it perhaps would if they directly spoke to anyone.
In summary, ‘The Macra Terror’ is, at least in my opinion, a truly underrated classic and one deserving of a much greater reputation than it currently enjoys.