The Macra Terror: Episode Four
The Doctor’s measures to save Jamie involve him making a bit of a pun, at least I assume it’s intended.
Officia: Stop it! You’ve no idea what you’re doing.
The Doctor: Oh yes, I am. I can stand an operation on its head quicker than anyone. There. I think you’ll find I’ve revolutionised the entire gas flow of the colony.
His revolutionary activity seems basically to involve reversing the flow. During all this Polly is disappointingly whimpery. When they escape into what looks “rather like a cupboard with a lot of pipes”, Polly asks if they can stay there.
The Doctor: I’m not spending the rest of my life with a lot of old pipes.
Jamie is given an amusing interlude where he gets to do a Richard Hannay, blending in with a dance contest to avoid being arrested. The unnatural cheerfulness of everyone is unnerving (“Ra, ra , ra! Work well, ring the bell!”, “Let them know! Let them know!”); it’s probably in part the phoney American accent of the Cheerleader who leads the chorus.
Cheerleader: And don’t forget, you have to be very good to get into the happy colony finals. We want something gay and cheerful.
Jamie: Gay and cheerful? (He starts dancing)
Cheerleader: That’s very good! What do you call it?
Jamie: The Highland Fling.
Cheerleader: Why do you call it the Highland Fling?
Jamie: Because we finish the dance by flinging ourselves out the door.
The Doctor and Polly’s discussion of the Macra makes it clear that we’re not going to be given any clear answers as to their nature.
Polly: How long have they been here? I mean, they weren’t always in control, were they?
The Doctor: I couldn’t tell you when they were here in the first place, Polly. They’re like germs in the human body. They got into the body of this colony. They’re living as parasites.
Polly: You make it sound like a disease.
The Doctor: That’s what I think they are.
Polly: They’re in the Control Room. It must be like getting into the brain, mustn’t it?
The Doctor: Yes, very likely.
Later the Pilot will receive a similarly imprecise answer.
Pilot: What are they, Doctor? Some form of monstrous bacteria? Insects? Or what?
The Doctor: I don’t know. But we must fight them.
This kind of simplification echoes the Doctor’s speech in The Moonbase, and it’s a reasonable criticism of the era as it progresses that it avoids any pretensions towards depth or subtext. Here, given the attention paid to many of the themes, it feels like short shrift.
Ola’s attempt (successful momentarily) to usurp Pilot is a welcome added dimension to an episode that could have just devolved into “blow it up” from this point on. Gertan Klauber’s unbridled nastiness has been one of the highlights of the story, particularly as I had not really paid much attention to his character. It’s a bit of a shame that we don’t discover his fate, but at last sighting he was at least sticking to his guns.
Pilot: Ola, the Colony is in the hands of grotesque insects!
Ola: You know what happens to people who say that! Now we can deal with you all together.
At least we were spared having him revert to being a nice guy without the Macra’s influence.
Ola: Ever since these strangers have arrived here your authority in this Colony has gone to pieces. They come and go as they please and even now two of them are still missing.
Having the Doctor turning up disarmingly at this point is the sort of thing we expect more of Tom Baker (The Pirate Planet), and the strength of his character here makes it seem like a solid run from the start of his era, with just one blip (the previous story).
The Doctor: Good morning, good morning. Well, everyone is up bright and early. The last two strangers are not missing after all. Oh, come now. We can’t have bad temper and differences of opinion in this happy-type colony. Say you’re sorry, Ola. Say you’re sorry, Pilot.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Pilot comes through it all as a good guy, since the extra layer is possibly what attracted Peter Jeffrey to the part, but it is. A comparison might be the Governor in Vengeance on Varos, except he was essentially well-meaning but weak. Pilot is well-meaning but requires the scales to fall from his eyes. He refuses to have the Doctor and Polly arrested and instructs Ola to leave.
Ola: Report the Pilot. (Ola leaves)
The Doctor: That was a very brave thing to do.
Pilot: Or very foolish.
The climax does reduce matters to some very broad stroke motivations, unfortunately. But it gives Trout one of his defining lines.
Officia: Stop! You are breaking the law.
The Doctor: Bad laws were made to be broken.
The escalating hysteria of Control as it desperately intones the joys of the Colony is most amusing; and his/its rants put me back in mind of The Prisoner’s “I am in control. Obey me and be free!”
Control: The Pilot is to be arrested. This is a happy colony! All must obey!
When the Doctor shows him the crabby bastards, the previously moderate Pilot becomes fervent in his desire to be rid of the Macra by the most extreme method.
The Doctor: There you are. That’s what’s taken over this colony. You haven’t been in touch with Control but with these. They’ve used this colony for their own ends, destroying you to live themselves.
Pilot: Oh, they’re horrible! No, Doctor, it is they who must be destroyed. We must kill them! Grotesque insects!
It’s a little disappointing that his response is not more nuanced.
There’s another indication of the drive towards a “standard” resolution when Ben is positioned as the hero of the hour, redeeming himself for his earlier transgression. It might be Mark Strickson’s shifty performance, but I find the end of Enlightenment a more convincing turnabout. Another reference point might be Tegan’s possession by the Mara, where there was at least lip service to her suffering from post-traumatic stress. In the final scene here, there isn’t even a mention of his behaviour, which suggests that Ben may bury the experience only to become a violent alcoholic in later life. It also indicates that this crew doesn’t hold grudges. I liked his dismissive, “Oh, shut up!” in response to the endless intonations of Control.
The means of defeat appears to be by creating unbearable pressure through switching on both outflow and inflow and throwing a lever. About Time, which has in most cases rightly pointed out this incarnation’s extreme measures for dealing with his foes, suggests that the Doctor’s actions result in potential genocide of the Macra. Quite apart from RTD unnecessarily indicating to us that they are thriving, I don’t see that being likely. Unless there are hardly any of them and they’re all clustered in the vicinity of the Colony. It’s all too vague to make such an assertion.
Pilot: Now, my first duty is to thank the strangers for they have saved our colony. A dance festival will be held every year in their memory and the winners will be awarded The Strangers Trophy.
Ben informs the Doctor that the intention is to make him the next Pilot (“They can’t do that to me! We must get out of here!”) The dance-off to exit the celebrations is another amusing touch, in keeping with the heightened milieu. But the artificially-induced positivity of the Colony is a different kettle of fish to the broad, comic book sensibility of The Happiness Patrol. The Macra Terror keeps a firm foot in believability, only really stumbling with the creatures themselves.
A respectable conclusion, with the telegraphed (in Episode Three) defeat of the creatures enlivened by diversions involving Jamie and the antagonism of Ola towards the Pilot.
Overall: Without doubt superior in its first half, this traverses previously untested waters in its depiction of a renegade companion. We’ve had one go a bit loopy (Edge of Destruction) and one become entirely disgusted with the Doctor (The Massacre) but nothing approaching Ben’s all-too believable turn against his friends. And top marks for the realisation of the Colony. Unfortunately, the Macra, effective as an unseen presence (Control), are risible when anyone is called to fall into their “hands”.
(Episode rating below. Overall story rating is four stars.)