|There’s a dirty joke to be made about getting crabs at a|
holiday camp, but we’re above that. Except when we’re not.
It’s March 11, 1967. In the charts, Engelbert Humperdinck is edging out The Beatles’ first single from the Sergeant Pepper sessions, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever. Improbably, he will do so for the entire run of this story, and The Beatles will fail to make number one with that single. In real news, the psychedelic movement spreads from San Francisco when a copy of the Human Be-In takes place in Central Park, and Pope Paul VI releases his encyclical Populorum progressio, affirming the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice – a striking commitment to make in the larger context of the 1960s.
While on television, we get The Macra Terror. As with a lot of Season 4, this is one history screws us up on. The problem is the same problem we ran into with The War Machines – also by Ian Stuart Black, as it happens. This looks a lot like stuff that came after it, and so we view it as a “normal” story. Trouble is, it looks very different from the stuff that came before it, and so at the time was anything but a normal story.
This may seem like a surprising statement. After all, at its heart The Macra Terror looks pretty standard. The Doctor shows up somewhere monsters are doing bad things and stops the monsters. We did, in fact, just see this. And in terms of that basic plot summary, it’s actually the fourth one this season, and that’s discounting the subtle variation where a mad scientist is doing bad things instead of a monster. On paper this is a straightforward development of the standard theme of the show lately.
But even using history, there’s something a bit odd here. Seven monsters make their debut over the Troughton era – the Macra, the Chameleons, the Ice Warriors, the Yeti, the weed creature, the Quarks, and the Krotons. Of those, two – the Ice Warriors and the Yeti – appear again in the classic series. But one appears in the new series – the Macra. There is surely something worth remarking on when a monster is brought back after forty years – not just as a name check, but as an actual on-screen appearance as a story’s primary monster.
Admittedly part of it is pure whimsy on Russell T. Davies’s part – he’s said that he really just wanted to bring back an obscure and abandoned monster. And another part of it comes down to the specifics of what he is dong in Gridlock, which is to say, comes down to things we’ll deal with much, much later in the blog. But there is something about The Macra Terror that made it the pick of the litter of long-abandoned monsters.
The answer comes down to one of those great divides between people who come at the story from the novelization era of fandom, where it was “that Patrick Troughton story with the crabs” (A 1987 novelization, for those keeping track at home). A 1992 release of the audio turned it around a bit – it was one of the first two missing stories to make it out on audio, and Loose Cannon opened the bidding on reconstructions in 1998. And so the importance of this story comes down roughly to when in Doctor Who history you formed your impressions of old stories.
Those who have encountered the story can readily vouch for how uniquely weird it is. For one thing, it is the story where the new credit sequence debuts. This may sound like a minor, fannish detail, but credit sequences are important. They’re what tells you what sort of show you’re watching. We stressed the bizarre, mysterious tone of Delia Derbyshire’s theme music and the initial opening credits when we first saw them, and how ahead of their time they appeared. So what has changed? Two things. Where the original opening credits started with a single bright white line slowly creeping around the screen, the new credits begin with a full screen design of shimmering lines of light that dissolve not into the logo as the old credits did, but into Patrick Troughton’s face, then the logo. This indicates two things. First, it indicates a greater level of comfort with the basic visual imagery of the credits. The old credits started with a basically recognizable shape and distorted it. The new ones just start with full psychedelia. Second, it confirms what we’ve seen over the last few blog entries – this is a star-driven show now in which Troughton’s charisma is one of the big selling points.
But even more telling than the new credits is what happens immediately after them. The episode opens with a musical number – a bizarrely chirpy number. This sort of music continues throughout the story – happy, cheery numbers about working away in the mines. It’s like nothing seen on Doctor Who before. And watching it in 2011, it’s easy not to know what it is. Especially because, in 2011, the more traditional parts of this episode are the visible ones. In particular, the episode features an oppressive regime that uses brainwashing to crush all dissent. This is such a standard trope of 60s television, and of Doctor Who, for that matter, that seeing it, it’s easy to ignore the weird chirpy singing and latch on to the intelligible bits.
Indeed, at a first glance, the chirpy singing seems part of the story’s general tendency towards slightly comedic bits. Case in point, look at the Doctor’s comedic sequences figuring out the formula for the gas, and joking around as he erases it, and compare to any of the exposition in the Hartnell era. There’s another delightful sequence in the first episode where the TARDIS crew are cleaned up by machines in the colony, and the Doctor, in protest, jumps into a “rough and tumble” machine to get nice and disheveled again – a sequence that wins my vote for three minutes of Doctor Who I’d love to see back from the archives. (The idea of a spick-and-span Troughton is too comedic to pass up) The sequence also gives us an excuse for Anneke Wills new bob haircut, which is gorgeous, and gives me an opportunity to make it up to the commenter who criticized me for saying that Polly was only “fairly attractive.” Quite right, commenter. With the bob, she’s stunning.
But this ignores the fact that there’s a real darkness to the story as well. One of its major plot points is that Ben is brainwashed by the colony into obedience, and betrays the Doctor. The Doctor has had companions mind controlled before – most obviously in Ian Stuart Black’s previous offering, The War Machines. But whereas Dodo and Polly were, in that story, visibly altered by the control, what is striking about Ben is that he remains in character even as he betrays the Doctor. There’s no flat monotone of obedience here. Instead, Ben lays into the Doctor, accusing him of thinking he knows best all the time. What’s particularly striking about this is that Ben isn’t just criticizing the Doctor, he’s twisting the Doctor’s best attributes into a criticism. In fact, as Shearman and Hadoke point out, it ties in nicely with the refocused credit sequence. The Doctor is more of a take charge know-it-all now, prancing about the universe with cold moral certainty that he’s one of the good guys. This make’s Ben’s turn far more gripping – including a section where we’re led to believe that Ben might have recovered, since he saves Polly, followed by him suddenly denying the evidence of his senses and turning on his friends again.
What’s more interesting than Ben’s turn, however, is how Troughton treats Ben for it – with a sort of paternal tut-tutting that mostly sounds like the Doctor is disappointed in him for succumbing. Notably Jamie and Polly both avoid the brainwashing, despite being exposed, so this does suggest a level of failure on Ben’s part. But the Doctor tips into overt condescension towards Ben, warning him that Jamie will be less forgiving than he is, and seemingly, in doing so, tacitly approving of whatever Jamie might do to Ben if left alone with him. And it’s here that the nature of the chirpy singing becomes crucial. Because there is, in the story, a reason why Ben is the one who succumbs to the brainwashing. The brainwashing is, in fact, expressly tailored to Ben more than the rest of the TARDIS crew. Why? Because Ben is explicitly working class.
Ah, I’ve lost you, haven’t I? Here’s the thing. The chirpy singing? Would have, in 1967, been immediately recognizable to anyone watching. The colony, you see, is obviously a holiday camp. What? That doesn’t make it completely clear? You don’t know what a holiday camp is? Do you people learn nothing about 1950s British working class culture anymore? Oy.
OK. So holiday camps. Basically, take a stretch of land, perhaps near a beach, and set up a bunch of housing there. Then take people for week long stays, provide room and board, and give them a sort of slightly grown up summer camp experience. Lots of extreme cheeriness, random singing, mandatory fun, communal meals, and, of course, legendary anti-snogging patrols with vaguely fascistic undertones. In a somewhat struggling post-war economy, these were the holidays that were available to people. Once air travel and package tours (more Friday) became available, the holiday camp declined to where there’s now something vaguely sad and pathetically dated about it, but for a significant time, they were the mainstream British vacation – pile a bunch of families into a colorful resort town and start line dancing and holding strange competitions. Everybody laughs, social norms are overturned, and then back to work after a week.
So when it’s Ben that succumbs to the brainwashing, it’s because the brainwashing closely parallels his own working class background. He’s the one character of the four regulars who probably went to a holiday camp in the 1950s. (Polly might have, but is mostly a bit too posh for it. If she did, she didn’t enjoy it. Ben did.) So it’s not surprising that he’s the one that succumbs to the brainwashing.
But wait a second. Now this story has gone weird on us. When it was just a fascistic futuristic brainwashing state run by crab monsters, that’s typical Doctor Who. We expect that. But now it’s a fascistic futuristic holiday camp run by crab monsters. Suddenly we’ve gone from science fiction as political commentary to science fiction as direct social commentary, with the social norms of the present day pastiched into a futuristic society.
In other words, this story has suddenly imported social realism into Doctor Who. Remember on Friday that we talked about how what social realism does is focus on the nature and texture of a society. The Macra Terror is miles from the intense social realism of Cathy Come Home. But it’s still doing the same basic thing – trying to get us to see this colony not as a bunch of oppressive lunatics, but as something that is recognizably part of the social order as we understand it – something that we can understanda s a coherent world, instead of as a sketch of a political ideology. Unlike in The Savages, where the future civilization is obviously a stand-in for colonialist ideology, The Macra Terror’s future is modeled off of ordinary lived experience form the audience’s lives. That is a massive shift in what Doctor Who does. Even when Doctor Who visited contemporary London, it sketched it in general iconic images.
What this means is that The Macra Terror is not a generic story about the dangers of conformity. The major sin of the colonists is not their conformity but the superficial nature of their society – the fact that they’re governed by a holiday camp. Look at the scene where the controller reiterates to the colonists that they should all be good little colonists, and there are no such thing as Macra. The controller is not working as a fascistic authority figure. He sounds terrified by the idea of Macra. The failure is not conformity here – it’s the ludicrous, superficial stiff upper lip attitude – the tendency to, if you will, keep calm and carry on. That’s what the Doctor is resisting, and the sorts of bad laws he insists should be broken.
In other words, the Doctor is not just espousing a general tendency of questioning authority. He’s engaging in a targeted anarchy. His enemies here are specifically those who blind themselves to the problems in front of them and try to keep everyone calm because whatever is wrong will surely soon blow over. What’s significant is that this makes the Doctor even more of an anarchist figure. He’s not just a force for chaos who subverts the norms. He has, in both this story and the one before it, a very clear idea of what evil looks like. He knows monster from man, and knows good government from bad. He is not the chaotic sort of anarchist. He’s the far more compellingly scary sort – the one who knows exactly what he’s doing, and exactly what it is he wants to tear down.
There is one gaping problem with this story, though. From the script, it sounds like the Macra are the native species of the planet, making the Doctor’s casual genocide of them a jarring bit of ethics on his part. That said, there’s some ambiguity here. The Macra are repeatedly described as parasites and insect-like. And, as Miles and Wood point out, it is hardly like the crucial gas controls were designed for creatures with gigantic claws in place of hands. This leads them to suspect that the original intent of the script was that the Macra are not actually entirely sentient, but are mental parasites. A different retcon is offered in Gridlock, where the Macra are viewed as infiltrating the colony.
One might expect me to end up pretty sour on this, given my sharp criticism of The Ark for its treatment of colonial ethics. But I can’t quite. The Macra are not portrayed as doing anything besides lurking in caves, killing people, and controlling minds. Everything says they’re “parasites” and “germs.” And, crucially, they’re completely inhuman, unlike the Monoids who had distinct culture and even individual personalities.
So I’m largely inclined – especially given that Ian Stuart Black is the writer of The Savages, a pretty expressly anti-colonialist tale – to give the script the benefit of the doubt here and believe that Black had something like one of the two retcons in mind, but it didn’t quite make it to screen. Especially because the story, broadly speaking, seems so progressive and socially engaged – especially considering the nature of the Doctor’s rebelliousness. There is a school of thought about Doctor Who – one I’m quite sympathetic to – that says that the show is, at its heart, fairly liberal, and at its best when this liberalism is engaged with. This story, more than perhaps any previous one (save maybe The Savages) is where that tendency really begins to crystalize. That alone, really, justifies the interest, even 40+ years on.