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The Macra Terror – Giant Claws and Unspeakable Jingles

April 3, 2016

Ben and Polly

Even by the standards of adventures that don’t exist any more, this story is fragmentary.  In the reconstruction I saw – even the still photos seemed rather grainy and few and far between.  You can see what the sets were like, and you have a faint I dear of how silly the Macra actually looked, but really, you’re judging a soundtrack.

But then, perhaps it really doesn’t matter what the Macra look like, because the whole adventure is about whether or not you’ve really seen them.

If you do want to really see them – they show up again as the ultimate bottom-feeders in Gridlock.

The Second Doctor’s early crowded Tardis (Jamie, Ben and Polly) lands on a colony and the crew accidentally prevent a dissident from escaping.  The Strangers (as they are christened) are celebrated by the colonists and treated to amusing spa treatments, reminiscent of the way Dorothy and her friends are treated in the City of Oz.

As dystopias go, this one is more Brave New World than 1984, a drugged yet infantilised world of constant broadcast jingles, a prison policed by drum majorettes and cheerleaders.

It’s like living inside a motivational cat poster.

The public information sing-song jingles are actually the scariest thing in this adventure – although they are complimented by some strong performances – notably by the incomparable Peter Jeffrey as The Pilot.  For more than three decades, Peter Jeffrey was the go-to man for patronising patrician reassurance.  If you wanted someone with a plummy voice to tell you to go home, nothing to see, everything’s in hand etc. etc. etc. – then you really wanted Peter Jeffrey.  Victory is won when Peter Jeffrey is converted to a sense of urgency.  If you can convince Peter Jeffrey, then turning the tables on a few crabs is comparatively easy.

Gases are piped into sleeping quarters along with soft-spoken propaganda in order to condition the colonists to work ever harder to secure the precious gasses for the Macra.   The Doctor rescues Polly before the gas can take proper effect, but Ben is brainwashed, losing his cockney accent in the process.  Jamie is a tougher nut to crack.  There must be something about being Scottish, or an eighteenth-century Jacobite, that makes you more resistant to giant crustacean mind control.

At night, the Macra roam free in the colony, which is why a strict curfew is enforced.  Anyone who sees the Macra is sent for reconditioning – and if that fails – you’re put on Really Really Dangerous Mining Duty, which will kill you before you have a chance to influence too many other people.

Perhaps the most painful moment comes when Jamie, having escaped from the mines, is forced to pretend to join a motivational dance troop and must Highland fling for his freedom.  In the end, Ben’s brainwashing turns out to be a blessing, since the conditioning is eventually broken while he still enjoys the trust of the Macra, and he’s still on the right side of a particular door and is able to reverse the flow of certain gasses – killing all the crabs.

This is a very very sixties adventure.  Although it’s part Wizard of Oz in its sense of a grinning utopia based on deception, it’s even more like The Prisoner in its sense of suffocation and its chilling portrayal of a cult of conformity.

Ian Stuart Black, who penned this tale,  also wrote The Savages (another utopia based on a grisly premise) as well as The War Machines (another adventure based on mind control).   The Macra themselves are not really the antagonists here.  What Black is really interested in is the capacity of humans to internalise and police their own repression – the scariest form of subjugation there is.

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