From the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon. Slightly expanded.
Some people say that ‘The Macra Terror’ is about holiday camps, but I think there’s more to it than that. The Colony is obsessed with work. It organises communal entertainment, but this seems to consist of revues about how great it is to be worker. The aim is to make people “happy to work”. These people are not on holiday.
The surveillance and brainwashing suggests totalitarianism, but the area where Barney provides makeovers looks less like Russia and more like a health spa or a salon on a Western high street. Polly is told she’ll win a competition that sounds like Miss World (which the U.S.S.R. disdained until 1989). The Pilot sits at a desk attended by a secretary, looking like a sitcom businessman. Ola’s guards look like the kind of American or British riot police who were, by this time, often being seen on the news, clashing with demonstrators.
.The key to understanding this strange tale is the fact that, by 1967, a lot of people saw tyranny on both sides of the iron curtain. In the 60s, Western society was largely prosperous but also lived in the shadow of the bomb, of Vietnam, of racial and sexual discrimination. There was inequality, protest and repression. In 1967, the turbulence was just about to peak. The media might have presented Western culture as happy, free, even ‘swinging’, but the counter-culture began to critique mass advertising and P.R. as methods of thought control. Trendy theorists like Herbert Marcuse identified totalitarian currents within capitalism and saw consumerism as creating alienation. (It’s interesting, in light of this, how often Doctor Who – a product of the 60s after all – combines its strongest hints at a critique of capitalism with the aesthetics of totalitarianism, i.e. ‘The Sun Makers’, ‘The Happiness Patrol’. This is also interesting in light of the analysis of Stalinism which sees it as a bureaucratic form of state capitalism.)
‘The Macra Terror’ is perhaps Doctor Who’s earliest attempt to engage with the radical 60s. The Colony is mainstream Britain in denial. The Colony media seems very ‘ITV matey’ but also quite ‘BBC formal’. Both the commercial and state style conspire to keep the drones chirpy. The main work is gas mining. In 1967, Britain was switching over to North Sea gas. It was all part of Britain’s prosperous future, if everyone would just pull together, work hard and keep smiling. The protestors and hippies were just spoiling things.
The big problem with Medok is that he isn’t happy. He talks about the Macra. They represent the repressed knowledge that something is very wrong with society. They’re everywhere but are unseen. Nobody believes in them but everyone knows their name. People who talk about them are silenced with telling desperation. When the Colonists do see them, they remain uncertain whether they are insects or bacteria… interestingly, the only suggestion nobody makes is that they are crabs. The Doctor calls them germs in the brain of society. They are the unease beneath the fixed smile.
The Macra are the reason why the humans mine gas they don’t need. The implication is that totalitarianism and capitalism not only use similar methods of thought control, but both demand that people work, happily, not for their own benefit but for monstrous, hidden, incomprehensible… possibly even insane reasons. Even the establishment (and the British government in 1967 was Labour) works for them, without realising it.
In the end though, despite the Doctor’s gleeful anarchism, the Colony without Macra seems indistinguishable from the Colony with Macra. The repressed knowledge is faced, the hidden exploiters are defeated, and society remains the same. We can’t help feeling that the colonists will go on obeying rules and whistling while they work. You have to wonder if maybe the Macra weren’t the cause of the problem but just took advantage of it. If they were germs, they thrived in a social wound that was already festering. However, the end of the story seems to endorse the Colony. The wrong people (if we can call them that) were in Control, that’s all.
As the decade progressed, later stories would imply even more radical critiques of Western society, but they’d all come to similar diffident conclusions.
1. There is also a view of ‘The Macra Terror’ which sees it as an apologia for colonialism. The Doctor unquestioningly uses lethal force to protect a colony from natives. I find this unconvincing because, of all the valences the Macra take on, race seems a very muted one… although I don’t dispute that the story reflects British unease about the dissolution of its empire in the post-war period. If the Macra are the disposessed natives, the story has a paranoid view of how settler-colonial states work that is borderline terrifying in its lack of relation to reality.