Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 161: The Macra Terror, Episode Two
I said yesterday that - giant crabs notwithstanding - the plot of this story could be transplanted into virtually any 1960s TV programme, and it would work just as well. Heck, in some seasons of The Avengers, you'd probably even get away with the giant crabs. Today's episode has only really served to strengthen my thoughts on this. Put simply, this isn't Doctor Who. This is better than Doctor Who!
Some of you will know that when I listen to the missing episodes as audio soundtracks, I tend to do so while doing other things. My mind wanders too easily with an audio, so if I'm sat in front of a computer, for example, every five minutes or so I realise I've not been paying attention and I don't have a clue what's happening. I've usually been distracted by pictures of cats. Today's episode was listed to in a format that often serves me well - while doing the washing up (with frantic drying of hands every time I want to make a note).
It's a good sign of the quality of this episode, then, that I found myself simply stood in the kitchen for most of it. Not washing up, not drying, not cleaning anything, just standing in the middle of the kitchen listening to the story.
I think that owes a lot simply to how dramatic this episode is. Yesterday, I was praising the story for being quite comical, featuring scenes of the Doctor getting spruced up and then tumbling back into the 'cosmic hobo' style, and laughing with his friends, while something sinister played out in the background. Today, that humour has almost completely been abandoned in favour of something dark, tense, and pacy. It's signposted right from the off, with the cliff-hanger (a Macra approaching the Doctor and Medok) being resolved in an unusual way. The two men don't try to run, or fight the monster. They don't get captured by it and taken away.
It's not resolved in any of the ways that you might come to expect from Doctor Who at this stage in its life. Instead, the creature leaves, and it's Medock screaming and shouting about how he's vindicated, since the Doctor has seen a Macra too, that alerts the guards to them and sets them off for the rest of the episode. My notes for these first few minutes simply say 'unusual resolution to cliffhanger', as though it were a sign of the things to come.
The whole thing from there on feels like you're watching a completely different drama. The Doctor and his friends happen to be there, and they're on fine form as usual for this season, but they just don't feel like they're making a Doctor Who story.
As I seem to be saying a lot recently, I think there's a chance that this story is greatly helped by the lack of visuals. I've seen images of the Macra before, so I know that they don't look quite as good as I might like them to, but with the soundtrack and Anneke Wills' narration, it's easier to imagine them looking far more mobile, like real crabs scuttling about. There's a moment where we're told that Ben and Polly are surrounded by the creatures in the construction site, and they come scuttling out of every doorway. In my head, that scene looks terrifying. Specifically, Ive got THIS image in mind, which was created a couple of years ago by the fantastically talented Jay Gunn.
Quite apart from the giant crabs scuttling about in the shadows, you've got Ben being turned into a traitor. It feels like it's the main focus of today's episode, and it's set up early on with the polite announcing that the Doctor's friends will need 'deep sleep and thought control'. It's great to see Jamie being the one who resists it, and the scene between him and Ben is fantastic. Hines and Craze play it beautifully, and it's written with such subtlety ('Go to sleep. We've got a long day's work tomorrow') that you can't fail to marvel at it.
Once the suggestion is out of the way, and the Doctor has smashed up the control equipment, Ben is used to great effect in the rest of the episode. Everything he's asked to do by the script is filled with menace, and a kind of threat that we've never seen in Doctor Who. He calls for the guards to take the Doctor away, adding that 'he should be in that hospital of yours', and he mocks Jamie for trying to support his friend. Later, he stalks Polly through the darkened streets of the colony, cooing her and teasing her to come out.
By the time they report to the pilot to announce that they've both seen the Macra, I thought that we might be done with the whole 'evil Ben' plot, but then there's a great twist when he repeats the instructions given earlier in the episode - there are no such thing as Macra! The last time we saw a companion taken over this way was in Ian Stuart Black's last script for the series, The War Machines, in which Dodo and Polly were controlled by Wotan. This feels different, though. There, they were asked to look blank and do the work of the mad computer. Here, Ben is required to turn sinister and actively oppose his friends. It's all very unsettling and comes from right out of left-field. It's brilliant, though.
I've complained in the past that people are often too eager to hand out '1' or '10' to stories that they either hate or love, but I tend to keep my scores much more measured. I reserve the polar extremes for the episodes that really send me in one direction or the other. We've had a couple of '9' scores in The 50 Year Diary up to now, but I think this episode has been more enjoyable than some of those, which leaves me with only one way to go…