Tag Archives: second doctor

Mind control, mine controls and The Macra Terror (1967)

macra1

“Don’t just be obedient,” the Doctor tells companion Polly during The Macra Terror. “Always make up your own mind.” Good advice, and particularly Troughtony advice, if you ask me. This era of the program is all about the personal freedom to be different.

Think of the second Doctor’s most familiar adversaries, the soulless Cybermen (God knows I have recently, having randomed both The Wheel in Space  and The Invasion). They are an emphatic expression of uniform conformity, and what mankind might look like with all its quirks and peccadilloes removed. Think of The Faceless Ones, where the threat is that humankind might be taken over by the identity-less Chameleons. Think of The Web of Fear or Fury From the Deep where big, intangible bad guys zombify humans and delete their personalities. Think even of off-the-wall bedtime story The Mind Robber, where the ultimate threat is that a computer with ideas above its station that wants to enslave the minds of Earth. “Sausages!” the Doctor says on that occasion. “Man will just become like a string of sausages, all the same!”

The Macra Terror has a slightly different take on the loss of personal freedom, though. It’s not so much freedom of expression that its enslaved human population lacks (there’s too much music and dancing for that), but the lack of free will. Not so much a string of identical sausages as the right to be a sausage in the first place, I suppose.

In this story, the human inhabitants of a futuristic colony mine gas to feed their overlords, a race of giant crabs, the Macra. The humans don’t rebel because the Macra brainwash them as they sleep, and condition them into lives of toil alternated with a series of jolly, holiday camp activities. They sing and chant and hold dance competitions.

(Even for Doctor Who, the combination of threat and jollity is an odd juxtaposition. And it’s signposted in the first few minutes. The story opens with an extreme close up of a desperate man’s eyes and the thump of a heart beat, like some French new wave film. Then we cut to a marching band complete with an eye-watering electronic fanfare. It’s bizarre, arresting stuff.)

So successful is the Macras’ brainwashing that the humans never think to ask why they mine the gas, or why they never see their Controller in person (he always appears to them in a static, Big Brother style photo). They’ve been made passive, unquestioning slaves, spurred on by shrill motivational jingles piped in like musak. (This, combined with one of Dudley Simpson’s harshest electronic scores makes this story a listening experience to put your teeth on edge.)

And people being hypnotised into passivity is a theme that runs through all three of Ian Stuart Black’s Who stories, so it seems that the loss of free will was a prime concern of his. In The Savages one class of people sucked the life force out of another, leaving the victims passive nobodies. In The War Machines, a mad computer hypnotised people over the phone and forced them to make killer robots.

And although the terrible Macra have a similar modus operandi, they remain a mystery to the audience. We see their big crabby carapaces in the dark, and through portals, always obscured (or so it seems from the telesnaps). Their origins are similarly vague. Are they native to this planet or did they travel here? Why the elaborate scheme to oppress the humans? Surely any species clever enough to concoct and operate such a set up can mine its own gas. Or is it as prosaic a reason as that the Macra can’t operate the precise machinery required with those nasty old claws?

But we should never let plausibility get in the way of a Doctor Who story. I think the story’s concerns about brainwashing are more interesting. Because Who doesn’t do brainwashing. Mind control, yes. But the subliminal feeding of information to influence your behaviour and make you work against your allies? The Macra Terror’s certainly the only story that addresses it explicitly (although we can nod in the direction of The Keys of Marinus: The Velvet Web, and a couple of Malcolm Hulke stories). Here we hear the voices infiltrating the sleep of our heroes and see the results of it when companion Ben (played with consistent earnestness by Michael Craze) turns against his friends.

My limited reading about brainwashing indicates that it gained potency as an idea post the Korean War, with the notion that Korea and China both practiced brainwashing on US prisoners of war. So it makes sense that Ben, the TARDIS crew’s military man, is the one who succumbs here (also, Polly had her mind taken over in Ian Stuart Black’s last script, so it was probably time to mix it up).   The method used here is whispering instructions to the subject during sleep. It works a treat on Ben, but our other heroes – notably Jamie – avoid it.

I single out Jamie, because as I noted when randoming The Highlanders, Ben is on the way out and this is his last full story. Jamie gets the heroic young lead storyline, Ben gets the siding with the bad guys one. To me, it looks like a way of trialling what a Doctor-Polly-Jamie line up would look like, and sadly the answer for Ben is, just fine. It wasn’t meant to be as both Polly and Ben jump ship next story, but that line up is one of Doctor Who’s roads untravelled.

Ben’s brainwashing puts me in mind of The Manchurian Candidate, more often attributed as an influence on The Deadly Assassin. Specifically the 1962 film, where a young man is conditioned to commit treason and murder. It doesn’t go so far here, because the story demands that Ben break free of his conditioning and help save the day.  But still, Doctor Who at this time was often about the potential dangers presented by the modern world; it makes monsters out of limb replacement and threats out of holidays abroad. In this context, The Macra Terror seems to be suggesting that brainwashing of citizens is a plausible scenario: it could happen to you.

It may be going too far to suggest the Macras are a stand-in for communism, but then again… the loss of individuality, the loss of free will, the duped populace and a mind control technique allegedly practiced by communist governments and cribbing from The Manchurian Candidate… Put these things together and there’s certainly a reading to be made along those lines. If that’s too long a bow to draw we can at least say that The Macra Terror is rife with Cold War concerns.

But don’t take my word for it. As the Doctor says, always make up your own mind.

LINK to The Invasion. Both Troughtons of course, but both also feature underground threats and, you guessed it, mind control.

NEXT TIME… Santa’s a robot! We walk down the aisle with The Runaway Bride.

 

Advertisements

Sanity, sleeptime and The Wheel in Space (1968)

wheel1

Hello from the future! Oh look at you back in 2015. Did you enjoy Peter Capaldi’s first season? Wait until he’s rejoined by Amy and Jamie and the TARDIS implodes from the utter Scottishness of it all. And when he gets to the planet Delphon where they communicate with their eyebrows. He does himself a serious injury and is forced to regenerate… Oops, sorry. Spoilers.

But, inhabitants of the past, I have brilliant news. The omnirumour turned out to be true! Every missing episode returned! And you lot thought you were well off when The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear came home from their extended Nigerian holiday. Well here in the future, we have ’em all. Except Time-Flight. We lost that one deliberately.

So what do you want to hear about first? The delights of Marco Polo? The thrills of The Power of the Daleks? Of course not, you’re desperate to hear all about The Wheel in Space aren’t you?

Well, I’m not sure you’re going to be overjoyed with Episode 1, let’s get that out of the way first. For the most part it’s a two hander between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. And while that sounds brilliant on paper, this is also a kind of one episode filler before the main action starts.

So the Doctor and Jamie land on an abandoned rocket. They’re forced out of the TARDIS. So they have a look round. There’s a silent plodding robot. Then Jamie settles down for a nap. Honestly, when one of your two characters decides to sleep in the middle of an episode, you’re on shaky ground.

And this is filler written by former script editor David Whitaker, so this gives him scope for taking up time with some of his pet subjects. The TARDIS trying to communicate with its crew via pictures on the scanner. Lots of faffing around with a food machine. Mercury. All his greatest hits. Hmm, maybe Jamie’s onto something with that snooze.

Late in the episode (just enough to get paid) the crew of the Space Station W3 turn up and prepare to blast the mysterious rocket out of the sky. The Space Wheel is familiar territory to anyone who’s paid at least passing attention to Season 5. There’s a mixed group of personnel in spacy costumes led by an autocratic male commander. But specifically, this is a multinational crew, so what this really feels like is The Moonbase, which in turn really felt like The Tenth Planet. So innovative, this series.

In Episode 1, the Doctor hit his head and so he spends Episode 2 unconscious, while Troughton takes a holiday. Focus shifts to the Wheel and Jamie has to carry the episode, which also introduces us to new brainiac companion Zoe Herriot (perky Wendy Padbury). Now, this will be familiar to you folk back in 2015, because The Web of Fear had its Doctorless episode 2 returned as well. The good news is that Wheel in Space covers his absence better, with all the introductory stuff about the Wheel – stuff you’d ordinarily expect to find in Episode 1 – being played out. Still it’s always a like a bit less of a party when the Doctor doesn’t show up. So this is another episode which might disappoint when you finally get to se it.

Episode 3, of course, you know and love. But watched in isolation, you may not realise that this is the episode when the Cybermen finally turn up. That’s one third of a monster story without its monster. That’s some delayed gratification. It’s also unusual because the Doctor spends the whole episode in bed. Luckily people keep bringing him plot points to discuss, so he doesn’t have to move much.

He doesn’t actually get out of bed until half way through Episode 4, so he’s well and truly rested. He tries to convince this week’s grizzled base commander that the Cybermen are on the Wheel and are a menace. But Jarvis Bennett (Michael Turner) is having nothing of it.  ‘He’s a strange man to be in a position like this’, says the Doctor and he’s spot on, and not just because his accent wavers from South African to American and back again.

Jarvis dislikes his 2IC Gemma Corwyn’s (Ann Ridler) habit of playing armchair psychologist (in fact the script takes a few jabs at psychology in general, which a number of characters treat with disdain), but the irony is he’s gradually going crackers, and maybe a psych assessment would help. Plus his lines are all delivered with a kind of halting mania, so that when it’s his turn to take a nap mid episode (Seriously! Stay awake through the whole story please!) it’s a blessed relief for the other characters and the audience.

But the most, um, astonishing performance is Episode 4 is that of Peter Laird, who plays Chang. I don’t know anything of Mr Laird’s background, but I’m willing to bet he isn’t/wasn’t Chinese. This, in the worst yellow face tradition, doesn’t stop him putting on an oriental accent. His delivery of the line ‘I’m on my way’ is particularly cringeworthy. If the performances in The Talons of Weng-Chiang make you feel a little queasy, this one’s even worse.

In Episode 5, something approaching tension builds when the Cybermen attack the Wheel and kill Gemma. You feel genuinely sad when this happens. She’s the only character in the whole thing who seems to have her head screwed on right, and one of the few who’s not putting on an outrageous accent. Although she’s very quick to suggest electric shock therapy for Jarvis. You can’t trust those psychologists. Still, it might just be time to attach those electrodes, as Jarvis finally checks out, once Zoe stuffs a dead Cybermat under his nose. ‘Not true, not true!’ he mumbles, despite the tinny, googly eyed evidence in front of him.

And because the story only has two Cybermen at its disposal, much fuss is made about their ability to control humans and thus these walking zombies become surrogate monsters. There’s some fun to be had when two of the Cyber contolled humans (Laleham and Vallance, who sound like a snobby manchester store) take on gruff Irish crewmember Flanagan (James Mellor). Turns out the Irishman is itching for a stoush. ‘If it’s a fight you’re after, I’m your man!’ he roars. ‘You need a few lessons in the noble and manly arts, me bucko!’ No wonder that when Flanagan himself is zombified and turns into a quietly spoken rather passive fellow, the Doctor immediately spots something’s up.

And by then we’re on to Episode 6, which again you know all about and which finally brings the Doctor face to face with the Cybermen. There’s a scene where the Doctor lures them into a room and electrocutes them (Is this the ECT machine Gemma was keen to break out? Were those Cybermen depressed?) and while Troughton enlivens it where he can, it’s all very contrived and stagey. Which is true of the whole story really, a longer, flabbier retelling of other Cybertales.

I hope I haven’t disappointed you too much, history dwellers. But not every returned story can do an Enemy and turn out better than its reputation. But until the whole story is returned to the archives it might comfort you to think that you already have the story’s two best episodes on hand.

LINK to The Ribos Operation. Both introduce clever new companions.

NEXT TIME… I can’t see the point of Paris. So let’s home share with The Lodger for a while.