March 22nd, 2020

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The Macra Terror, animation, recon and novel; and Gridlock

I got the new animated reconstruction of The Macra Terror (the last complete Doctor Who story shown before I was born, all of whose episodes have been lost) a few weeks ago, and finally got around to watching it last weekend - our last weekend before the lockdown, as it turned out. I prepared for it the weekend before by listening to the audio version, with Colin Baker's narration as scripted by John Nathan Turner, which I put on in the car as I drove to and from visiting B in her home - which looks like it will be the last time I see her for a while. When I first listened to the audio in 2007, I wrote:
The Macra Terror ... sounds absolutely glorious (even if fan lore has it that the evil crustaceans themselves looked rather crap), indeed I almost felt it would have fitted comfortably in to 1980s Who rather than 1960s Who. While the idea of aliens controlling an apparently happy and contented human society did eventually become a cliche, here it was all brand new - I think the only previous Who story to feature the concept was the second episode of The Keys of Marinus (though I haven't checked, and if I'm wrong someone will point it out). The "happy campers" sound exhorting the colonists to enjoyment as well as slave labour is genuinely chilling; I'm not surprised to learn that writer Ian Stuart Black had input into The Prisoner, which started its broadcast run a few months later. And ... I'll put a good word in for Michael Craze as Ben, victim of brainwashing by the evil crustacean overlords, whose character transformations are entirely convincing.

Unfortunately I can't say the same for Colin Baker's narration. I don't blame Baker (much) for this. For some reason the narration is entirely in the past tense, rather than in the present tense used by most Doctor Who audio releases; it also curiously fails to set the scene very well - take, for example, the very first lines: "The entrance to the colony was decidedly futuristic. A crowd of workers was watching a drum majorette performing to the accompaniment of a band. The whole place had the aura of a holiday camp. Everyone was smiling and enjoying the performance." Not only does it not really convey anything very coherent, it also completely misses the real start of the story as seen by the 1967 viewers, of a man looking on in terror. I think this story would benefit well from re-dubbing with a new narrative script (and possibly a new narrator).
I later observed:
Colin Baker's narration of The Macra Terror is terrible not because Colin Baker is reading it but because John Nathan Turner wrote it
Listening to it again, after another thirteen years' experience of listening to audios, it sounds even less impressive as a narration, and the kindest thing that can be said is that it was one of the BBC's earliest efforts.

After watching the recon by Loose Cannon, which uses black and white stills from the original TV showing of the story, I wrote this:
I have seriously upgraded my opinion of The Macra Terror as a result of watching the recon, one of the rare cases where the BBC audio book version is rather poor (due to John Nathan-Turner writing the linking narrative). The holiday camp atmosphere is delightfully bonkers, especially when it turns out that all the colonists are in fact the unwitting slaves of, as the Pilot puts is, "grotesque insects" who thrive on pollution and corrupt the minds of their victims. The soundscape - incidental music and various sound effects - is remarkably good even by the generally high standards of this period of the programme's history, which is just as well considering the visuals are lost. Even Michael Craze actually gets something interesting to do when Ben gets brainwashed (which interestingly means his accent slips into standard RP). The scenes of the Doctor and Polly working out what to do with the pipes in the last episode are an early version of numerous Third Doctor / Jo Grant exchanges to come. And while I feel sorry for the Australian viewers who missed out on the many shots of Polly screaming deleted by the censors, fortunately the result is that we can now watch Anneke Wills at full lung power. (Though I have a suspicion that the loss of the Macra in their first incarnation may not be such a shame.)

It's also Jamie's first proper story as a companion (though this comes about because of the narrative space opened up by Ben's being brainwashed). The Macra Terror has leapt up in my estimation; it is my favourite Second Doctor story so far. Only five episodes survive from Troughton's first season; I would swap any of them for one of these four. (And think how rapidly the programme has changed - The Savages, by the same writer as The Macra Terror, was broadcast barely a year before, with Hartnell's Doctor, Steven and Dodo; now we have Troughton's Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie. A huge shift.)

Well. The new two-DVD production of The Macra Terror has a new animation in colour on the first disc, and the same thing again in black and white on the second, plus also the Loose Cannon recon, with or without Anneke Wills narrating, split across the two discs, and even also the Colin Baker/John Nathan Turner audio version on the second disc. And a few extras but they are not terribly exciting. It's an impressive artistic effort. Here is the trailer:






I have to say that watching the new animation on my TV, cross-referencing with the Loose Cannon reconstruction on the iPad, I felt that in general the Loose Cannon reconstruction still wins. There's a much more in-depth analysis here, but in general the scenes with the human characters are just a bit trickier in the animated version - the motion is too jerky to be naturalistic, and the group scenes less dynamic - I begin to appreciate how important it is for TV drama in general, and early Who in particular, to capture everyone within the view of a single camera, which means the actors and their charactes gain energy from each others' proximity. The biggest exception, oddly enough, is the Macra themselves, originally wrotten as insects but realised as crabs on the screen, which are much more dynamic and credible in the animated version than they were in the original show, as far as we can tell. Poor Polly is actually dangled upside-down in the Macra's claws in Episode 2.

Still, it's very nice to have all of the versions of the story - the Baker/Nathan Turner audio, the Loose Cannon recon and the new animation - all collected on a single DVD release. That's all of the versions focussed on audio, of course - a photonovel version is still available on the BBC website.

I went back to Ian Stuart Black's novelisation of his own story as well, to refresh my memory. I had read it before, and wrote then:

I enjoyed this more than I had expected to, chiefly because of [Ian Stuart] Black's characterisation of the Doctor, which seems to me to capture Troughton's performance better than any of the novels I have read so far. We do, of course, miss out on the superb soundscape of the original (alas, the video is no longer available), and poor Polly ends up screaming a lot. But it's a worthy attempt.
The second paragraph of Chpater 3 is:
‘They’ve got him!’ the shout went up.
Rereading it this time, I felt that it possibly gets us closer to the spirit of the original production than any of the efforts at reconstruction have managed, working from a twenty-year-old script and Black's own intuition of what he had wanted to convey. There is a key scene in the first episode, fundamental to our understanding of the colony planet and its society, which I think comes across much better on the page than on any of the versions we have - I link it here with the TV script:
Script Novelisation
(An alarm sounds. Two workers stagger in through a glass door from the pit-head. The colonists rush forward to help.)
OLA: Emergency! Quick, give me that! Come on!
(He helps the injured men.)
ALVIS: (Into intercom.) Accident! Stand by, oxygen supply. (To OLA.) Take them away. Any other losses?
OLA: Two with gas sickness. Come on.
(He leads the injured men away.)
BEN: What happened?
ALVIS: Their work. It can't be helped. The work must be done.
[Ola] broke off as a metal panel on one of the walls slid back.
Beyond was another world, and out of it staggered two young men, one of them holding the other upright. They were both covered with black stains, dirt, dust, and were giddy with exhaustion.
There was no panic in the Centre. It was as though a well-rehearsed process clicked into gear.
‘Stand by for oxygen,’ Alvis broadcast over the sound system. A team of young men and women were helping the two, adjusting breathing masks over their heads as they led them away. It was done with speed and proficiency.
‘Any other losses?’ asked Alvis.
Ola pressed a button on the instrument before them and read off the signal. ‘Two more with gas sickness,’ he said.
‘What happened?’ asked Ben, suddenly sobered. This was another side to the bright picture around them.
Alvis shrugged. ‘It is their work. It can’t be helped. An accident from time to time... But, as you have heard, it is essential. The work must go on.’

Oddly enough the BBC photonovel version does make a decent attempt to get this scene with flashing alarm light which you can't see in this picture), whereas the others more or less muff it.
Anyway, I think this is still more for enthusiasts and completists than for a general audience, but it's all nice to have. You can get the DVD here and the novelisation here.

I then went to rewatch Gridlock, the New Who episode that brought the Macra back. On first showing I wrote this:
I have to say that of all old-school Doctor Who monsters to return, I really didn't expect the Macra!

I loved this. The traffic jam was neatly claustrophobic, the use of hymn tunes tremendously evocative, and the Doctor having to tell the truth about why he lied to Martha.

Sure, not a lot was made of the Macra other than some impressive CGI imagery, but I suspect they did better this time round than last time.
Rewatching a few years later, I wrote:
The Ceann Comhairle is the Speaker of the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish Parliament. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is the highest official of the established religion north of the Tweed. In Gridlock the son of the then Ceann Comhairle plays a giant cat and the star of the show is the son of a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

This is an episode where the core narrative is perfectly decent if a little implausible, and a fannish box is unexpectedly ticked by bringing back the Macra (now much larger than in 1967), but the most important bits are actually the development of the story arc for the season and for the Doctor's mythos. The Face of Boe's peculiar statement is obviously a set-up for future stories; but the brilliant bit is the Doctor finally telling Martha about Gallifrey, a conversation he never had with Rose as far as we know. New Who is gradually getting more comfortable about looking back. In the first season, continuity was basically Daleks, Autons and the Tardis; the second season brought back Sarah Jane Smith, Cybermen, and referred at least to UNIT; and now the Doctor is not just a lonely hero coming out of nowhere, but someone with a rich personal history only gradually being unveiled.
As I said last week, it was striking that here, as in this year's series, it is the Face of Boe/Jack Harkness who reveals new and important facts about the Doctor's relationship with the Time Lords. It was very interesting to be immersed again in the Tenth Doctor era, but also to feel the consistency with the latest developments. The Macra are a bit irrelevant. It's a great episode for the wonderful Freema Agyeman as Martha.
I had forgotten that the big revelation is that almost all of the population had been wiped out by a mutated virus. Perhaps I could have done without that right now.

You can get the new DVD here, the novelisation here, and Gridlock as part of this DVD set.