Saturday 29 May 2021


(NB Not a review of the recently animated version. We’re being strictly old-school here.)
First broadcast March/April 1967
Written by Ian Stuart Black
Yep, plot spoilers!

“This is your Controller speaking. There is no need for alarm.Your may continue your work and play confident the best is being done for you.”

Gulags With Jingles

Much like Ian Stuart Black’s first ’Who’ story ‘The Savages’, his third takes place in an apparent abundant utopia where All is Not As It Seems. Where the Doctor seems quietly clued up to the goings-on from the get-go, and where another character struggles between two natures.

But there’s significant differences. In ‘The Savages’ the Elders hide their guilty secret from the travellers, directing them down different corridors. Here they don’t even want to admit it to themselves. The Controller rages “No-one on the Colony believes in Macra! There is no such thing as Macra! Macra do not exist! There are no Macra!” You half-expect him to add “I don’t even know that the Macra are called the Macra, that’s how little I know about the Macra.”

Medok’s plot-instigating role is to fail to understand the other Colonists are refusing rather than failing to see them, so becoming like that guy who brings facts and information to an internet message board.

And as the above might suggest, this is more Swiftian satire than space opera. There’s some genuinely funny moments. (“Our patrols have orders to shoot on sight. Happy sleep time!”) There’s a fudging of ranks with personal names, with one official called Officia. The Colony is called the Colony, another nudge to see this allegorically not as somewhere in its own right. Even in ‘Power of the Daleks’, the place got a name!

Not unsurprisingly for the guy who wrote ‘The War Machines’, there’s comparisons aplenty to ‘Quatermass II’, and while we’re on Nigel Kneale we might also mention his adaptation of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.

But let’s focus on the widely recognised similarities to ‘The Prisoner’. The Doctor takes on the Number 6 role of the obstinately square peg, insisting he’s “perfectly alright as I am, thank you”. While the Controller and the Pilot match Numbers 1 and 2, with the Pilot’s office (revealed to contain a panopticon) as their Green Dome. The story often advances via bizarre juxtapositions, such as Jamie escaping from a mineshaft into a gaggle of cheerleaders. Both appeared the same year, ‘The Prisoner’ debuting that September, suggesting something zeitgeisty is striking.

There’s the holiday camp setting and atmosphere, with its peer-pressure jollity and saccharine jingles. (And holiday camps do seem to have been as regimented as the factory jobs they supposedly offered a break from, gulags with jingles.) Though crucially the Colony’s also presented as luxurious, while the working class break of holiday camps would have been much more basic.

But more, in both the luxury is less a cover for the conformism than a constituent part of it, manicures and mind control working together. Society has become mollycoddling and infantalising, literally putting you to bed at night to protect you from the dark. The hypnotising voice-in-the-ear is liked to “a sort of sweet perfume”, a culture of the soporific.

So modern lad Ben is most taken in, likening it to being “at anchor in the Med”. He seems to quickly revert to his Navy days, admonishing the Doctor “you’ll find yourself on a charge” and insisting “I had to do my duty.” While rough Highlander Jamie is distrustful from the start, picking up on the voice as “an evil that spoke so gently”. (This distinction smartly finds fruit in their differences, wile they’re more commonly clashing over their similarities.)

And this consumer abundance scepticism is indeed very late Sixties, reminiscent of the (slightly later) John Lennon line “they keep you doped with religion and sex and TV.” The poison is always in the sugar coating.

Getting (Rid Of) The Crabs

So the mid-point twist isn’t that the Macra exist, which was telegraphed from the start. It’s that, despite their seeming to hang menacingly at the periphery of things, and unlike the Cybermen last time they’re really running the show. ’The Savages’ was about a split society resembling a dissociated mind, which needed to be reassembled for the situation to heal. Here we’re dealing with a foreign foe, just one that’s already within.

The Macra props were risible even by the standards of the day, openly ridiculed by the production team. Anneke Wills, playing Polly, has recalled her heavy-duty screaming was her figuring something was needed to sell this.

And when you hear they were originally intended to be spiders, then insects, before settling on crabs, then find they’re still carelessly called insects in the dialogue, that the story repeatedly stresses them coming up from the underground just like crabs don’t, it’s tempting to conclude “generic monster on Doctor Who” and move on.

But before we’re quite that quick, remember the image that foreshadowed all of this. The one at the end of the previous story (despite them ostensibly having stopped the inter-story cliffhangers) - the claw. For the mistake was allowing them to rear their ugly heads, even if crabs don’t really have heads.

Firstly, guys, when your budget doesn’t stretch to showing a credible monster - just don’t show the monster! Shove that crap crab into the shadows! We should only have seen the claws, plus a whole lot of contradictory babbling speculation about what that appendage might be appended to. (See also the creature’s tentacle in ‘The Daleks’.) And for the longest time, this is what we did. As said in Wood and Miles’ ’About Time’ guide, once the episodes were wiped we had one photoshoot to go on (below), and so “fandom went for years without any photos of the Macra except for a single shot of a big menacing claw.”

But as Jack Graham points out, there’s an upside to this. Even if not intended, some of this still exists in the story: “They are categorically indeterminate, crab/non-crab, insect/spider/ bacteria things that people have trouble perceiving clearly even - especially - when they see them.”

Added to which… we’ve seen before how the clash-of-values conversation is such a show staple. Yet nothing of the kind happens here, no-one speaks to for directly from the Macra. Even when their not-so-subtle subterfuge is busted they stay in character, speaking as the Controller.

I’m generally not keen on sticking political labels on pieces of popular culture. It feels hopelessly reductive, a shoehorning in order to get in some terminology namedropping. (“The Master running out of regenerations demonstrates the decadence within the capitalist system. How’s my Marxism?”) But here… well, let’s creep up on it Macra-like…

The Gothic is often used as the antithesis and nemesis of modernity. It’s tropes - the ruin, the phantom, the hidden room - all suggest a past forgotten but not gone, and therefore never truly forgotten, a past which stubbornly refuses to lie down as you try to close the lid on it. ‘The Rescue’ was full of this, even if the avenging Indians doubled as the rescuing Seventh Cavalry.

But, two things. We've seen how the Troughton era is fast becoming more Gothic than Hartnell’s. As one instance, count the claws. They appeared, passingly in ‘Power of The Daleks’ but more so in ‘The Moonbase.’ But this story adds the uncanny to the mix. In fact a kind of uncanny capitalism, where ostensibly normal aspects of our modern lives are projected back at us as unfamiliar and even undiscernible.

Check out how that paranoiac indeterminacy isn’t just directly to do with the Macra but spread everywhere. The Pilot has a hypnotising voice placed in his own wall. And Control himself is clearly not in control, as even country lad Jamie soon spots. Nominally, as is common, there’s a nerve centre, but no-one ever gains access to it. The Macra are indeterminate, outside and within, seen and not seen, there and not.

Perception being inherently subjective, wherever you are will always feel to you like here. Go over there, and there will suddenly become the new here. But power works the opposite way - it always seems elsewhere, remote from you even as it holds you, ungraspably contrapedal to wherever you are. You are in the pincers here, while the controlling brain lies elsewhere. And this is a symptom of alienation.

As Guy Debord once wrote: “The more powerful the class, the more it claims not to exist, and its power is employed above all to enforce this claim.... Though its existence is everywhere in evidence, the bureaucracy must be invisible as a class. As a result, all social life becomes insane.”

And note how work, so normally conspicuous by its absence (including in ‘The Savages’), shows up here. Not so much with the mines, which frequently appear and are always associated with slave labour. Including here, where they’re a punishment detail. The more significant moment is the briefer “labour centre” scene (where work seems to consist of playing modernist checkers, but baby steps), and the endless tannoy jingles selling the virtues of hard work.

So let's take the claw not as just a suggestion of a greater creature, but an image in itself? When Polly sees one she instantly exclaims “they’re in control!” Hands are parsed as possessive instruments, just as claws signify the foreign. So here the grasping claw morphs into something like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, where the market is held to work for our mutual benefit precisely because it’s outside of our control. Or as Marx more accurately put it: “The capitalist is only a function of capital, the labourer a function of labour power.”

The gas which vitalises the Macra is toxic for humans, associated in the dialogue with “plus and minus” pipes. It could be seen as a from of surplus value, the part of any commodity which benefits not the workers who mine for or create it, but their bosses. It’s of no direct use and in fact of great harm to those who extract it, but empowering to the masters. As the Doctor says “they’ve used this colony for their own ends, destroying you to live themselves.”

All’s Unwell That Ends Too Well

Alas all good things come to a close. And unfortunately they do it here before the story’s ended. The reason it ends so badly, in one sense, is that in another it ends too well. It even ends on pretty much the same point, a cheery marching band. Life without the Macra seems strangely similar to life with the Macra. Things, alas, just get back to normal. The Colony, it seems, can overthrow the Macra more easily than the story can escape its genre conventions.

Medok is re-introduced, briefly raising his agent’s hopes, only to be sidelined all over again. Instead we have the sudden switch of their appealing to the Pilot, which would make scant story sense even if it wasn’t just more of what he saw with the first cliffhanger. And it leads to exactly the same situation as ‘Power Of the Daleks’, so bringing exactly the same problems. The Pilot versus Ola is Quinn versus Bragan all over again, the order-takers trying to usurp the natural role of the order-givers.

Okay, endings can be a general problem with ’Who’. Which runs more on quirkiness, crazy concepts and off-kilter images than cunningly crafted plots. The ending is often little more than a calling of time. ‘The Savages’ had a less-than-satisfying ending too.

…but there it was still suggested that society had changed as a result of events. Here the whole rationale of the Macra, that they’re simultaneously a thing without and within, lurking at the periphery yet right at the core of things, is simply struck out. They were bug eyed monsters, after all, and they went away. ‘Quatermass II’, more than a decade earlier, involved a much more radical ending.

Further reading! At Love & Liberty, Alex Wilcox asks - what if it were all in your head? “The Macra are an idea; they’re the personification of the Colony’s problems, which is why there really are no such things as Macra.” (You can probably guess what I think about his elision between Marx and the Soviet Empire. But you should read this anyway.)

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