Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Macra Terror

24 May 2004, 12:11 am

The Macra Terror 1:

Well, it's nostalgia time for me. As a tight-arsed and strapped for cash Whovian, I've never quite got the urge to update my old cassette copy of this. The new cd might have better mastering, but the narration's the same so somehow I can't justify it to myself in the same vein as I did with the Daleks box.

So I've dragged my old ghetto blaster out of mothballs. Sat it on my table. Dialled bbci and pulled up my telesnaps. It's not a story I'm particularly familiar with this one, so I've been rather looking forward to it.

So far, it's rather nice. I've always been a sucker for juxtaposition, where a jolly surface contrasts with a darkness believe (best example I can think of is the cheery music that plays over the end credits of the Evil Dead). This is quite a good example of that, with the sunny atmosphere never quite seeming real. It's an elevator colony, if you like. We know there's a falseness to it, and as a result there must be something nasty underneath.

There's also a good attempt to keep an air of menace tripping over. The occasional heartbeat motif in the music adds to the sense of darkness, oppresion, tension.

As a result, whilst this episode is essentially a series of fairly light set pieces, a darkness runs through it, mainly in the form of Medok, making it seem worthwhile. The continual escape/meeting/capture/escape cycle is a little wearying, to be honest, and betrays weaknesses in the structure. But it's a minor detail. The efforts to convince that the colony is terribly light and fluffy do nothing more than convince us otherwise. I've been a little critical of Ian Stuart Black previously for his determination to lay every single card on the table as soon as possible. There's a very real degree of that here, it must be said. As soon as Medok starts to explain what he believes is going on, we know he's right. We know monsters are crawling around. But ultimately, there are enough details left unsaid to keep us intrigued. It was always going to be monsters, the questions are what do they want? How are they connected to the colony?

So all in all, a nice little episode. Doesn't have much for the regulars to actually do (Jamie once more gets nothing, Ben about the same - Polly manages to get the least flattering haircut she's had) Only the Doctor gets a lion's share of the script, driving the story and having a nice comic sequence. And plotwise, it doesn't really go anywhere vastly surprising, but it is full of nice detail and bothers to explore the world and it's ideas and remains intresting. Quite fun. No classic, but enjoyable enough.

Otherwise, the show gets a new title sequence (not much use to me yet), and the theme music seems to be a hell of a lot faster... I'm not sure if that's me or the tape though.

And the phrase 'Day by Day' appears in the dialogue! How could I not like it!

25 May 2004, 12:36 am --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Macra Terror 2:

This is sort of like the Jaws of Dr Who. A slightly rubbish looking monster is introduced - but essentially sidelined in its own story, confined to shadows to disguise its inadequacies, and improving the story no end.

I'm rather liking this. It's dark and creepy. ISB has definitely improved his structuring. Whilst the reality of the situation is never in doubt, the context is all important. The Macra appear at the end of part one, so we know they're the underlying menace, but they then basically vanish. We know they're there but that's the whole point. The theme's of the story are emerging, the supression and ignorance that allows things to flourish. The cards aren't completely on the table yet - we don't know how the crabs fit into the colony (though we do have a pretty strong implication in the cliffhanger). And we're more interested in how the colonists (and Ben) react. Bug eyed monsters are pretty much old hat - they're the MacGuffin that drives the story, rather than the story itself.

This is manifest in most of the creepiest elements of the story - the slow ranting hysteria of the 'there are no Macra' announcement, the whispering voices trying to hypnotise everyone into believing everything is ok. The fear is derived not from the presence of nasty creatures - but of the wilful ignoring of them. It's scary because we know it's wrong. That everyone is living a lie.

And as a result we seem to come to the story's theme. Ignorance. This is a story about, rather like I think the Savages was, capitalism. This is about the happiness that conceals a darker core. Ignorance in the sense of wilful blindness. Prefering not to deal with the nasty underside if it means you have a happier life. The colonists prefer to live in ignorance. (OK, so I don't think it's their choice, but for the sake of the metaphor we need some leeway). The Macra Terror is essentially saying that in your happy life there is always a darkness you're ignoring. And that's quite scary. The story is our nightmares made manifest (especially in the cliffhanger - the hallucinogenic, potentially imaginery feel of the Macra is upturned as they essentially break through from our dreams into our reality. Up til now they could still have been collective hallucination or an abstract connection. But as the terrific cliffhanger ticks over, they truly connect with an interact with the surface world in a way they hadn't before - they're not under your life. They're in it).

Performance wise it's fun. I'm still a little disappointed Peter Jeffrey doesn't have more to do, but Terence Lodge is good. This is a really good episode for Ben, his betrayal and - perhaps more importantly - disbelief of the Doctor are genuinely shocking and upsetting moments. Not since the Massacre have we had the Doctor so distrusted by his friends (even in Power they warmed to him quickly). And even then, and in the earlier examples of season 1, there was at least some justification. You could see the companions point of view (noticeable that these incidents have only previously occured in stories where Hartnell wasn't demonstrably the sole lead). Here, with us used to the Doctor as a cuddly good doer, and with Ben so loyal and true, it just feels wrong. Likewise, his spiritual distrust of Polly, his twin companion is affecting to. His hunting of her through the streets reminds me of the Orbit episode of Blake's 7. Both are nasty little sequences with one person we care about betraying and hurting another.

So no wonder there's an air of menace. This script is more about primal truth's than monsters.


27 May 2004, 12:39 am


The Macra Terror 3:

Right for one reason or another, I want this season pretty much done by about the 9th of June. It's sort of doable, but I'll have to double up once or twice. Should make it okay. Would have helped if I hadn't left last night's far too late with too early a start.

Well, after the joys of the last two episodes, this one's a slight disappointment. It is the traditional episode three treading water episode. It doesn't really take the story anywhere new, doesn't really advance it. This doesn't entirely matter, as the episode is quite nicely tense and characterful as it is - it just has a faint air of something missing.

The 'episode three' feel is most clear in the fact that we're suddenly introduced to a whole new subplot. This mini-plot is slight enough to keep everyone occupied for an episode (just about) but nothing more. Notice how every other character we've grown to know in parts one and two are sidelined - even Medok, the only one to get anything approaching a major role in this episode, doesn't really fit with the character we've had established (would you let a dangerous man like him free? I doubt it). The Pilot and Ola get nothing at all, and the storyline doesn't really lead on from the previous episode - it moves sideways, it's not built on.

The episode keeps alive because the individual sequences are worthwhile. The gradual disintegration of Ben is nicely done, and reminds you that Ben can be quite interesting. There's never any doubt that he's going to be ok, but the sustained discomfort levels are great (possession usually only lasts an episode or two). It's good to see Jamie getting used properly for a change. Shame Polly get's substantially less to do than usual (in deed, given her hysteria at the beginning of the episode, she's remarkably quiet). The Doctor is pretty stuck too. But when they do get conversations and actions, we explore their personalities - the scene the Pilot has with the Doctor is particularly good in these terms.

It's a pity they bump off Medok so casually. He's one of the more interesting character's and his demise seems trite, soley there because he's a) no further use in the plot and b) because someone needs to die.

Generally the themes are in evidence here. The shock cliffhanger is dismissed casually and wonderfully. My criticism of ISB as playing his hand too early could almost work here too - but for the fact that really is the only point. The script could work as a slow exploration to find out what's behind the colony, but it doesn't, and this is what makes the story great. We know the answers, the difficulty is convincing other people. I'm not convinced this is planned, or just luck. Maybe ISB was doing his 'cards on the table' technique, and failing to realise that this added an extra dimension to the script (bear in mind that the story could work without us seeing the Macra at all, or even having any evidence. The creepiness is inherent in the difference between the reality - even in Telesnap form the cliffhanger to part two is really nasty - the monstrous grand guignol melodrama of it, and the jolly surface. You could play it all for mystery, cards in hand, and the story would still make sense - but we'd just have the surface. The horror beneath would be revealed eventually, but this way it permeates the story) Maybe ISB got lucky - or maybe he figured out how to use his style to his advantage.

A quiet, okayish sort of episode that doesn't really sustain the creepy momentum of the first (and less juxtaposition too, which doesn't help). Clearly marking time til the finale, but all right on it's own.


27 May 2004, 4:14 pm

The Macra Terror 4:

It strikes me that the title of this story is a bit of a misnomer. There's the implication of a rampage by the Macra. That they instil terror in everyone. They just don't. As horrific manipulators go they're quite benevolent, and slightly inept (ultimately, they're a little bit stuck, as demonstrated by their inability to save themselves from destruction by Ben).

The other thought that strikes me is that it's often fairly difficult to figure out what's going on for this particular episode, from the cassette. Too much that's left un-narrated and too much that's just hard to hear anyway. I'm left a little sure precisely how the Macra got defeated... seemed to be just Ben pulling a lever...

Enough grumbles, if they can qualify as that. It's weird, the second half of this story isn't quite as engaging as the first. It almost feels like a different plot. And it sort of is - there's a transfer of the location from the colony itself to the corridors of power and the mines, plus the introduction of the splendidly named Officia. Medok is written out of the story casually and rather poorly (having essentially turned into another character, and he's completely unreferenced the moment he dies - as if no one really cares). And this is why the story get's less interesting as it goes on. The contrasts and resultant creepiness of the first two episodes are mellowed into a standard alien possession story (the cheery front of the colony only really appears once in the last two episodes, and that's in a blatant bit of padding - fun padding, creepy padding, but padding). Effectively, the threat is reduced from metaphor to reality. And it goes from thought provoking parable to straightforward thriller.

That's not to say the last two episodes aren't enjoyable - they are. But it's in a more straightforward, simplistic us vs. the aliens way. So it's gone from being cerebral to visceral.

There does remain lots of nice images and moments. The increasingly hysterical disembodied voice of the Macra is quite scarily barking. And the Ben subplot, with his increasingly distraught behaviour is really rather nicely done - it beggars belief that they'd decided to dump him by this point, as this is a genuinely interesting journey for the companion across the story - rather unusual. It's a shame that there's no moment for him to regret his activities at the end, to tie the thread off. But the end is rather abrupt as it is. (Wasn't that a criticism I made of the earlier ISB stories? I think it was).

So, overall - a really interesting premise that doesn't quite stand up for the entire story, losing steam over parts three and four. Never less than enjoyable and enjoyable creepy though. Good use of all the companions for once - each gets their own little moment. And excellent characterisation for everyone else, particularly Medok. It's a real shame nothing of this exists as it's definitely Black's strongest script for the series and is easily the most interesting four parter in season four.

I should be back on line later with the Faceless Ones 1 if I've got any say in it...


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