The first part of this year has been good for Doctor Who fans, with no less than four new home media releases in the first three months of 2019. The latest of these hit the shelves on Monday and is a brand-new version of the four-part 1967 serial “The Macra Terror”.
It’s the latest in the BBC’s series of animated reconstructions of ‘lost’ stories, where the original broadcast episodes were wiped by the BBC shortly after transmission and only the soundtrack remains thanks to a fan’s off-air recording at the time. The first of these recovery projects was “The Power of the Daleks” which I reviewed back in 2016 when it originally came out. Since then there’s also been a new version of 1979’s “Shada” in which similar animation was used in place of scenes never actually filmed at the time due to industrial action, meaning that the story was never completed or broadcast. Again, you can catch up with a detailed review of the end result that I wrote a year ago: to be honest, I found the back-and-forth between new line art sequences and the surviving original filmed footage rather jarring.
These are expensive projects and I’d wondered if the sales had been sufficient to justify any more of these reconstructions. But it appears they were, and hence this month Who fans got a brand new release to add to their doubtless already groaning collection of merchandise. However, I confess that I initially wasn’t wildly excited by the prospect of “The Macra Terror”, never having been particularly eager to see the story in question which to me had always sounded rather humdrum in synopsis.
It starts with the Doctor (in his second incarnation portrayed by Patrick Troughton) landing the Tardis on an unnamed human colony world, accompanied by his companions Ben (Michael Craze), Polly (Anneke Wills) and Jamie (Frazer Hines). They receive a cheerful welcome from the happy, smiling workers at a gas processing plant, which is run with the demented upbeat jollity of a holiday camp with an unceasing diet of motivational speeches, mottos and infuriatingly upbeat jingles utilised to keep everyone busy. The Doctor suspects something is truly rotten at the heart of this world and decides to go looking under the surface – and duly uncovers the crab-like Macra at the controls.
Even from that short description you can probably detect an Orwellian feel to the story. The colony is presided over by The Controller who appears Big Brother-style as a still photograph on a TV screen. Overall the fake gaiety of the facility is rather like The Village in which Number Six found himself incarcerated in The Prisoner. The sense of counter-culture resistance to propaganda and mind control techniques could hardly be more quintessentially Sixties, which is perhaps why I’d always dismissed “The Macra Terror” as a rather dated, insignificant story in the classic Doctor Who canon.
Despite my initial scepticism about whether this was a good story to justify investing in a full animated reconstruction, I confess that I was soon largely won over once I actually sat down to watch it for the first time. Ian Stuart Black’s intelligent script paints an interestingly nuanced picture of the personalities and psychopathies involved in maintaining the smooth running of a murderous autocracy, which is hugely helped by some strong casting. The man in day to day control of operations is The Pilot, played by Peter Jeffrey as a very reasonable, polite and good-natured man who consigns dissidents to certain death working in the gas mines with great reluctance. John Harvey’s Officia is the quintessential middle manager, just concerned with doing what he’s told and not stopping to think for a minute about the effects of pumping poison gas into inhabited areas. And then there’s chief of security Ola, played by Gertan Klauber as getting a definite joyful relish from his enforcement duties far beyond the simple sense of duty we get from the others.
It’s also a very good story for Ben, the Cockney sailor who joined the regular line-up near the end of William Hartnell’s time as the Doctor only to find himself increasingly muscled aside by the introduction of Jamie in Troughton’s second story. In fact this would be Ben’s last full appearance, with both he and Polly summarily dropped in the next story. It’s a shame, because Craze does an outstanding job as the ‘conditioned’ Ben who betrays his friends: instead of the usual characterless automaton portrayal of someone under post-hypnotic suggestion, this Ben is just like the old one – except his values and judgements have been tweaked to set him against the Doctor. The result is a rather unnerving one and it’s a real relief when he starts to recover his old self.
But the real star of the show is undoubtedly Troughton himself, who flourishes into a true anti-authoritarian anarchist in this instalment. He cheerfully releases dangerous political prisoners from the cells, goes outside during the strictly enforced curfew, and wilfully wrecks and dismantles the mind-processing equipment wherever he comes across it. He’s just itching to find a way to blow the whole place sky high, literally as well as metaphorically, and so it’s no surprise when that comes to pass in episode four. A stark contrast to Hartnell’s much haughtier, pro-establishment portrayal. It’s easy to draw a straight line from the Second Doctor’s actions in this story to pretty much the whole of Tom Baker’s period in office in the 1970s.
Troughton always had one of the most amazingly expressive faces of any actor of his day, and this reconstruction of “The Macra Terror” benefits hugely from more time and resources to allow the animators to do a much better job with the Doctor’s avatar. The animation is similar in style to that of “The Power of the Daleks” but whereas that first effort seemed to rely on only half a dozen or so interchangeable faces to convey the characterisation, this latest endeavour is able to use many more ‘micro expressions’ to ensure that the principals are always performing and not left to stare blankly from the screen for any length of time – part of the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ effect.
Of course, these new performances are now in the hands of the animators and not the original cast, since nothing survives of the serial to base them on other than the aforementioned off-air recording and some blurry telesnaps (photographs taken from a TV screen during transmission). We’ll never know how truthful or close to the original performances they are. But they align nicely with the audio, and bring the story alive again in a way that previously hadn’t been possible.
In fact, authenticity to the original production seems to be less of a concern this time round than it was with “The Power of the Daleks”, where everything possible was done to ensure that it was a faithful reproduction, with the exception of a welcome decision to frame the action in widescreen. This time around, the increased freedom is signalled by the fact that the default presentation on the new DVD and Blu-ray is in period-anachronistic colour, with the monochrome version provided as an ‘alternative’ presentation on the second disk. With “The Power of the Daleks” only the latter had been on the original DVD release; you needed to upgrade to the Blu-ray to get the option of colour. It’s a small detail but a significant one, showing that the animation team for “The Macra Terror” has been given greater latitude to enhance the entertainment for modern audiences rather than slavishly pandering to die-hard middle-aged purists (among whom I count myself) even where it means diverging from the 1967 serial.
In many cases this is to be welcomed and is a huge success, with the Macra themselves looking larger, deadlier and moving much faster than the expensive but dreadfully cumbersome studio prop that the production team had at their disposal at the time. But other alterations seem unfortunate: a sequence in which the Tardis crew are smartened up by the plant’s automated beauty machines (which the Doctor immediately reacts against by throwing himself into a tumble dryer in order to revert to his old scruffy self again) is completely excised, as is the ending where our heroes ‘dance’ their way through a crowd to make their exit and get back to the Tardis. Instead we get a slow pan up to view the sun rising outside the gas processing plant, a curiously flat ending to the serial. The change can only be down to available budget, and there are other more subtle signs of this such as when Jamie is fumbling with a bunch of keys to get through a locked door. Presumably in the original version he tries a number of keys in turn, but here he just spends a full minute trying to fit the same one into the lock, as though he is a dim-witted child who hasn’t fully got to grips with how keys actually work.
But that’s nitpicking, and no one who grew up in the 70s watching the likes of Scooby-Doo, Captain Caveman, Hong Kong Phooey or the cheaply animated versions of Star Trek and Tarzan from Filmation can really complain about the superior quality of the end product here. And as for making the story itself more accessible and appealing to a mainstream audience – well, top marks for that, too. It got me to watch, like and even admire a story that I’d not cared about one jot in fifty years, so I have a lot to be thankful to it for. Let’s hope that sales of “The Macra Terror” justify another animated outing down memory lane in 2020.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Macra Terror is available in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray and in a special steelbook edition. Special features include an audio commentary, previous reconstructions using the audio recording and telesnaps, animatics and animation tests, a gallery, surviving footage and contemporary behind the scenes footage.
As well as the previously cited DVD and Blu-ray, there is also a special steelbook release of “The Macra Terror” featuring specially commissioned artwork and a third disk containing the 2007 David Tennant episode “Gridlocked”, together with the audio commentary and contemporaneous behind-the-scenes featurette that accompanied its release in the Complete Series 3 boxset.
The reason for its inclusion is that “Gridlocked” is the only other appearance made by the Macra in Doctor Who. Then-showrunner Russell T Davies has always been a renowned über-fan of the show, and when he found that he had a hole in one of his scripts for a fearsome creature that lives on noxious fumes his subconscious naturally suggested to a cameo appearance for the Macra, even though almost no one else remembered them from their original outing forty years previously. Fortunately the modern viewer doesn’t need to know anything about Macra for them to be an effective ‘sting’ toward the end of the story.
I rewatched “Gridlocked” for the first time in years in preparation for viewing “The Macra Terror” and was reminded just how good it was. I mean really, really good. It hails from a time when Doctor Who‘s return to the screens had become a bone fide big success, and the show is brimming with total confidence. It shows on the screen, in the quality of the writing, and the calibre of the performances. Drawing on inspirations such as the 2000AD science fiction comic (the Judge Dredd stories set in Mega City One in particular), it takes a story that could be dark and depressing (thousands of people trapped in an endless motorway tailback for years and decades) and succeeds in making it uplifting and inspirational. The guest characters have real personalities – even ones glimpsed for only a few seconds – and there’s also time spent fleshing out the emotional dynamics between the Tenth Doctor and his recently acquired new companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman). It’s the way that Davies effortlessly weaves and blends plots, themes and moods together to provide an end result that flows seamlessly into a richer, deeper and more vibrant whole that is most impressive – and something that was all too often missing from the most recent run of the show, where you could practically hear the gears crunching as it tried to navigate the simplest of lane changes.
So as well as “The Macra Terror”, I do very much recommend tracking down “Gridlocked” and reminding yourself of a whole different era of the show. That might make the steelbook release the one for you to purchase, but to be honest you’re better off getting the whole of the Series 3 boxset if you haven’t already added it to your collection. It’s a great watch.
Doctor Who: The Complete Third Series is available from online stores in both DVD and Blu-ray format; the latter is an unscaled version of the original standard definition material.
Doctor Who: The Complete Collection Season 18 and Doctor Who: The Complete Collection Season 19 (Limited Edition Packaging) [Blu-ray]
And finally, a brief mention of two more Doctor Who home media releases in the last few months.
The BBC’s first all-new limited edition Blu-ray season boxset came out in July 2018 and comprised the first run of Tom Baker stories from 1974-75 also known retrospectively as season 12, of which I did a detailed review of at the time. It was clearly a success, selling out even before the official release date and now you’ll be lucky to pick up a second hand copy for less than two or three hundred pounds.
It was followed last December by the release of Peter Davison’s first series in the role from 1982 a.k.a season 19, and now this month by the preceding season 18 which was correspondingly Baker’s last as the Doctor. It seems peculiar to ‘bunch’ the releases like this and not go for a more varied line-up, but presumably it makes sense to film all the new extras and featurettes with the same available cast members at once rather than switch back to a Jon Pertwee season or forward to Sylvester McCoy.
Anyway, I was happy with the BBC’s strategy in this case as it made available two more seasons that I had already decided I would buy if they ever came along. The ‘rebooted’ season 18 was controversial at the time and remains something of an acquired Marmite taste today, since new producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Christopher H Bidmead came in determined to do away with the ‘undergraduate humour and messing around’ of their predecessors Graham Williams and Douglas Adams and bring in a more serious, hard-science approach. I for one really liked the new style, but Baker himself didn’t like the change and he was also quite seriously unwell for most of the filming. As a result he provides a strangely subdued, sombre presence throughout season 18 – almost as though deliberately foreshadowing his ‘death’ and regeneration in the final story.
After seven years of Baker, I found Davison a breath of fresh air as the Fifth Doctor and I loved almost the whole of season 19 (the less said about “Time-Flight” the better, obviously.) Together it was these two seasons of the show that reinstated me as a regular Doctor Who fan after several years on hiatus watching ITV’s Space: 1999, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century instead. It means I’m very sentimentally attached to the 14 stories presented here, and therefore as far as I’m concerned a Blu-ray upgrade is justified – even if the HD picture quality is a barely marginally improvement given the limitations of the 16mm film and standard definition video tape sources.
The two boxsets continue to try and add value and not just rely on fans double dipping for the same old material. Where ‘making of’ documentaries were omitted from the original DVD releases, here they have been produced to a high standard along with new ‘Gogglebox’-type outings in which key cast members watch the episodes, and additional features such as “A Weekend with Waterhouse” which is a Louis Theroux-style documentary on actor Matthew Waterhouse who played short-lived companion Adric in both season 18 and season 19. Very pleasingly, the season 18 boxset also includes the first Doctor Who spin-off entitled K9 and Company starring the ever-wonderful Elisabeth Sladen which despite strong ratings at the time was never ordered to series – an early sign that the 1980s BBC management was already souring on one of its most successful and enduring franchises.
The boxsets seem to have dropped the notion of establishing the context of the original broadcasts by showing the news and other TV series from the period in question, which is a bit of a shame (although I won’t miss the airsickness-inducing swooping and panning overkill of the version on the season 12 set.) Nor does either boxset have the type of ‘must have’ killer content such as the long-unseen omnibus versino of “Genesis of the Daleks” that made the first set such a must-have as far as I was concerned. The season 18 release comes closest with an ambitious upgrading of the visual effects of the climactic episode of “Logopolis” which is surely the highlight of the edition.
Once again, whether you pick up these new boxsets will depend on personal preference. I don’t think there’s anything quite as ‘must-have’ about the two new sets, and at £40 they’re not cheap. They don’t seem to have sold out in the way that the first boxset did – either demand is not as high or the print run was upped after fans complained about not being able to buy season 12. Even so, be warned: if you do decide to pass on them now, there’s every chance that there might not be a cheap way of picking them up again in the future. It’s very much the sort of thing you could easily come to regret missing out on.
Doctor Who – The Collection – Season 18 was released on Blu-ray on March 18 and is still available for sale online at around £39.99. Doctor Who – The Collection – Season 19 was released on December 10 and is now starting to show signs of being out of stock at many outlets.