TV reviews

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror – DVD Review‪

Doctor Who in a thrillmaking adventure where he fights off a dose of crabs.

Perhaps the major hardship of being a fan of classic TV from the pre-home video era is the fact that whacking great chunks are missing from the archives – huge swathes of our cultural heritage from the mid and latter part of the Twentieth Century gone up in (sometimes figurative, sometimes literal) smoke.

Thankfully, there has been a significant amount of material recovered since the purges took place, plugging many gaps, and giving us the chance to see material which was – in many cases – only ever shown just once or twice. Most recently, we had two missing Morecambe and Wise shows from 1968 being broadcast over Christmas, having been found gathering dust for decades in a cinema in Sierra Leone. In other cases, we’ve not been so lucky, which has led to examples like UKTV’s Gold channel doing a remount with a brand new cast of three missing episodes of Dad’s Army, which will be shown later this year.

In worst case scenarios, all that’s been left is just scripts of wiped programming, and nothing more. However, more popular or mainstream series have benefitted from having a dedicated fanbase from back in the day, where the audio was recorded by home viewers, and then – against all odds – retained over the years and used to help give some of these absent programmes a whole new lease of life. The very best that some could hope for was being released commercially on either cassette or CD, so we could at least listen to shows for which the pictures no longer existed.

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However, never underestimate the sheer dedication of fans to see moving pictures move once again, and Doctor Who‘s seen a number of standalone instalments and entire stories recreated through marrying restored off-air audio recordings with brand new animation. An early example of this saw Cosgrove Hall – the makers of Dangermouse and Count Duckula – give new life to missing material, and since then a number of different studios and animators have recreated over a dozen more episodes, using a variety of styles and techniques, to varying effect, but all welcome additions to the archives.

2016 saw BBC Studios bringing back the first Patrick Troughton tale, ‘The Power Of The Daleks’, and the same team went on to plug the gaps in unfinished Tom Baker adventure ‘Shada’ in 2017. After a hiatus, they’ve now turned to another completely missing adventure, ‘The Macra Terror’, a four-part story which is represented by a few clips which were excised by censors in Australia back in the late ’60s, as well as some short excerpts filmed by a cine camera pointed at a TV screen when the episodes were broadcast.

BBC Studios

The only other reference material which exists are a set of professionally-taken off-screen photos – or ‘Telesnaps’ – covering all four episodes, which were originally sold to actors and directors as a record of their work in an age before home taping existed; and a few on set pictures. In fact, ‘The Macra Terror’ is one of the most poorly represented of all the Doctor Who stories in terms of official photographs taken during production by the BBC, with only a handful of such images known to exist.

The huge benefit of this, however, is that it’s given the animators free rein to take a fresh approach. Their previous missing Troughton adventure – ‘The Power Of The Daleks’ – tried to recreate the original as much as possible, using shots and angles which reflected the Telesnaps, giving as faithful a rendition as possible, making it the next best thing to being able to see the actual programme. In this case, however, they’ve decided to go for a more dynamic and cinematic approach, making sure not to be constrained by what would’ve been possible in a ’60s multi-camera TV studio setup. As such, it’s not quite as authentic, but it’s immensely watchable.

There are lots of changes which benefit the finished product, such as the TARDIS interior being seen through the Police Box doors – a common enough sight nowadays but something technically impossible to have achieved back in the day. Similarly, the Macra of the title have gone through a redesign, making them far more nimble and menacing than the cumbersome and unwieldy fibreglass props used during the making of the original production. It also manages to make the action sequences look must less stagy and ‘am-dram’ than it must have appeared when it was shot on an ‘as live’ basis in a tidy studio with basic editing and facilities.

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It’s being sold as an interpretation rather than a recreation, and opens with a pre-credits sequence which wasn’t a part of the original broadcast version, setting the scene by recapping the teaser shown at the end of the previous week’s tale, ‘The Moonbase’, where viewers got their first brief glimpse of the Macra. The opening shot of the TARDIS floating in space, with a swooping camera move which takes us into the roof lamp before fading into the Console Room, is simply beautiful, and it demonstrates early on the overall look of the finished product. It’s also a very nice touch to do this sequence in black & white before bursting into a colourised, HD and widescreen version of the title sequence.

Another significant difference is that ‘The Power Of The Daleks’ was commissioned originally as a black & white animation, with a very late decision being taken in the production process to have a colour version released – this meant taking the completed animation, and then having it colourised afterwards. This time round, ‘The Macra Terror’ was always intended to be made in colour, so it seems that the team have used a much richer palate to bring this tale to life. Whereas ‘The Power Of The Daleks’ at times looked as though it had been coloured in using crayons, with lots of rather garish, primary hues, ‘The Macra Terror’ is beautifully subtle in its use of colour, shading and tone.

BBC Studios

The animation team has had a significant advantage in having not only a far larger budget than ‘The Power Of The Daleks’, as well as more facilities, in the form of Sun & Moon, a Bristol-based animation studio which has done most of the heavy lifting. The core team of Martin Geraghty, Adrian Salmon and director Charles Norton have done a great job in giving the story a fresh new visual style, and used Sun & Moon’s talents to make the whole enterprise look far more polished and accomplished – it seems lessons were learnt from the Dalek story, as movements are more fluid and naturalistic, with characters no longer walking jerkily as if they’re in South Park or Captain Pugwash. Patrick Troughton’s expressive face also seems an animator’s dream, and is used to great effect here.

Even with all the extra effort, the creative team has needed to cut some corners, and dropped one sequence altogether, on the grounds of not having enough time to be able to complete it before the deadline – as a result, we lose the ‘refreshment centre’ scene from the first part. It doesn’t really add anything to proceedings, and if you don’t know they’ve actually left it out, you wouldn’t miss it. However, it’ll no doubt make hardcore fans’ teeth itch, knowing the animation is incomplete, and it seems a shame that BBC Studios didn’t give the team an extension to finish the work fully, rather than trying to get it released for an arbitrary date. We’ve waited 52 years to see ‘The Macra Terror’ again – a few more months would’ve been just a drop in the ocean.

For the purists, however, as well as there being an alternate black & white version of the full animation on disc 2, there’s also a recreation of all four episodes, using a combination of the off-air recordings with the Telesnaps and other images mocked up by using Photoshop (or similar), with captions used to explain the action which we can’t see from just static images alone. The makers have at least done their best to try and suggest some of what we would have seen on screen originally, showing the TARDIS materialising, for example, as well as having picture overlays of moving smoke and showing the eyes of the Macra glowing. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to being able to watch the actual episodes (short of copies turning up), and lets us contrast with the approach taken by the animation team.

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‘The Macra Terror’ itself is remarkably unexceptional as a story – it’s rather a mid-table entry, and won’t ever win any fan polls for being a classic adventure. The four-parter only seems to have been picked for animation as it comes from a period of the show which was renowned for its monsters, so is therefore visually more enticing (not to mention far easier to draw) than one of the historical tales. While it’s nice to have available to watch, it isn’t likely to trigger the kind of root and branch reappraisal which accompanied the release of previously-missing story ‘The Enemy Of The World’ back in 2013, with its reputation having gone through a complete rehabilitation as a result.

The writing only seems to go so far, as it seems to skimp on some things that we might expect – for example, we don’t even get a name for the planet on which these events all take place. In addition, while we’re told about a number of colonists on the planet having seen the Macra, only to end up being committed to the colony’s Hospital for Correction, we actually end up seeing none of the first, and only a brief glimpse of the other. Instead, what we do get is rather a routine runaround, which manages to somehow feel overlong even at just four episodes.

That’s not to say there’s nothing really of note about ‘The Macra Terror’, as we get Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in full anti-authoritarian mode, gleefully smashing up equipment which is being used to try and keep the inhabitants docile, as well as telling people to think for themselves and fight the system. It’s all very much of the zeitgeist, and is ahead of the curve with the whole ‘Summer of Love’ of 1967, with all of its themes of non-comformity and being an individual, rather than just part of a huge metaphorical machine.

BBC Studios

The whole enforced ‘holiday camp’ style of the colony is also delightfully sinister, and is reminiscent of The Village, seen in ITV’s The Prisoner, which was to debut on British screens about six months later. The crab-like Macra are an interesting idea, but lazily written – we don’t get a proper explanation of where they hail from, just that they came to this planet centuries ago, and they took over control of the colony secretly in order to use the inhabitants to mine gas for the Macra to be able to survive. Again, it’s monsters doing Space Things for Space Reasons, but we do at least get something approaching proper motivations or reasons for doing so, albeit not quite enough to do the job convincingly or satisfyingly.

From the soundtrack alone, as well as the surviving Telesnaps and photographs, it would appear that the original production was reasonably competent, and there are some nice touches. For example, when one of the companions – Ben (Michael Craze) – is brainwashed, his performance changes subtly in order to reflect this, with his Cockney accent become much less pronounced, and his aitches not being dropped. It’s a little thing, but makes such a difference. However, overall ‘The Macra Terror’ isn’t particularly memorable, and it’s all the more surprising that we had a sequel in 2006’s ‘Gridlock’, with the Macra returning courtesy of Russell T. Davies, to face off against David Tennant.

For a serial which hasn’t been seen for over five decades, it’s truly astonishing just how much bonus material has been put together for the special features. We get to see a compilation of existing clips, all of which have been seen elsewhere before; however, these have been fully restored to look as clean and pristine as possible, and the off-screen excerpts have been motion smoothed to try and make the contrast with the surviving film clips less jarring than on previous releases of these orphaned snippets. They even go to the trouble of trying to reconstruct just how the cliffhanger of episode 2, where the Macra attack Ben and Polly (Anneke Wills), would have looked on broadcast in Australia, after the censor trimmed it in order to protect those tender ‪Antipodean sensitivities. Bless.

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The animated episodes have a specially recorded commentary track, moderated by comedian and actor (as well as long-time fan) Toby Hadoke, who always does a great job in coaxing dim and distant memories and anecdotes from a group of ageing thespians and production team members. The Telesnap reconstructions also have the option of a narration track read by Anneke Wills, and elsewhere on the disc we get the full 1992 BBC audio cassette release of ‘The Macra Terror’, complete with Sixth Doctor Colin Baker’s original narration. There’s more versions of the story than you could shake a giant claw at, it seems. Talk about a veritable embarrassment of riches.

The animated version also contributes its own fair share of bonus features, with an  animation gallery and animatics from the production process, along with a specially made teaser trailer which was put online in December 2018, in order to herald the forthcoming release. An odd bit of curios is a ten-minute animation of the opening episode of ‘The Wheel In Space’ – it’s nice to see, and shows how far the animation quality has come on, particularly with the movement of the Servo Robot; however, you can’t help but feel rather cheated this is all we’re getting, and makes you hungry for the rest to be done.

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There’s also a behind-the-scenes feature, showing mute home movie footage which was filmed on site at Shawcraft Models, who were responsible for building many of the special props, models and creatures seen in the early years of Doctor Who – including the original Daleks. Although we’ve seen this released previously, there is a valid reason for including it here, as it actually shows us – in full, glorious colour – the Macra. Even though there’s so much on here, it’s still disappointing we don’t have a ‘making of’ featurette, which does seem a rather curious oversight. Still, it does put releases of the modern series to shame, with such a plethora of content, rather than the bland, vapid offerings we get there.

There’s no such thing as Macra, the story tells us. Well, thanks to the sterling efforts of everyone involved in putting this DVD release together, it seems there’s actually such a thing as too much Macra, with all the different versions of the story for us to enjoy. In fact, it would almost be a shame if film prints of the story should turn up somewhere, given just how much toil and sweat has gone into making the Macra live to terrorise us once again. Or do I just sound a little crabby?

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 25 March 2019.

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