Science Fiction is the perfect genre for disguised social commentary. Subjects deemed too sensitive, or politically charged, to examine in mainstream drama can be critiqued in Science Fiction beneath the cloak of fantasy. Doctor Who in the 21st Century has been the vehicle for political exploration, particularly in respect of same sex marriage. Whilst the Eleventh Doctor’s companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams, conformed to the Judeo-Christian tradition of being legally married (even if the Doctor, in his naivety, thought single bunk beds were fun), same sex marriage has been displayed between Madame Vastra, a warrior Silurian and her Victorian maid, and subsequent wife, Jenny Flint. Hence, whilst seemingly supporting the status quo for present day human companions, Doctor Who radically offers an alternate agenda in which same sex marriage is in itself uncontroversial when between an alien and a human.
The Series Three story, Gridlock, features an elderly human same sex couple, Alice and May Cassini, who have been trapped on the motorway for 23 years. Their relationship, whilst millions of years away in the far future, is disguised under the humour of a cat, Thomas Kincade Brannigan, who is married to a human, Valerie. Notwithstanding his own less than conventional marriage, Brannigan is nonetheless unable to wrap his mind around the concept of two women being married to each other. He continues to refer to the couple as the “Cassini Sisters”. More about Gridlock, and its relationship to The Macra Terror¸ later in this review.
Whilst seemingly a story about giant killer crabs, The Macra Terror, is actually a biting social commentary on British working class recreation and totalitarian regimes. The third and final Doctor Who script written by Ian Stuart Black, The Macra Terror is a continuation of Black’s concerns surrounding colonialism which were raised in his first Who penned serial, The Savages. Black’s second serial, The War Machines, examined amongst other things, mind control which is another of the concerns of The Macra Terror.
The Macra Terror is set on an unnamed planet far in the future. Colonized by Earth at some time in the past, this planet is the natural home of the Macra, giant crabs that are reliant up gases toxic to humans for their survival. Perhaps because humans had changed the above ground atmosphere of the planet, the Macra now reside underground, except at night when they visit the planet’s surface. The Macra have enslaved the human population and compels them to work mines to produce the toxic gas so essential for their survival. The human residents, however, are ignorant of the Macra’s control of their colony and blissfully unaware that they have become enslaved through mind control. Believing themselves to reside in a utopian society, the human colony bears an uncanny resemblance to mid 20th Century British Holiday Camps. Life is regimented, happiness compulsory and dissent considered a mental illness requiring treatment.
A reasonable familiarity of the British holiday camp culture is required to understand the biting commentary of The Macra Terror. As an Australian I found the story’s references to holiday camps oblique and the holiday camp atmosphere more akin to a prison. Whilst that was certainly one of Black’s messages, British residents would have been a great deal more conversant with commercialized leisure culture that holiday camps were a part of. These holiday camps were usually in seaside areas and were an immensely popular annual holiday for working class families. Having suffered from the restrictions and rationing of the Second World War, the British were keen to escape from their work day drudgery into a world of organized leisure for a week or two a year. Suitably priced for low income earners, the holiday camps offered affordable accommodation in acceptable, but rudimentary, accommodation and communal meals. Activities for all the family were offered with these centring upon the communal nature of the holiday experience. Competitions would be run for the best “Knobbly Knees” or the most “Glamorous Grannies”, for example, and holidayers would be conscripted into performing on stage. Swimming pools, ballrooms, tennis courts, bars and funfairs could be found at these establishments. Crèches provided child care for children, thereby allowing their parents the opportunity for valuable down time together.
These holiday camps, however, had an aura of regimentation around them. Many of the camps had been resumed by the military during the war and still retained ghosts of soldiers’ past. Public announcements were made through public address systems and some establishments, such as Butlins which was the UK’s largest holiday camp provider, awoke campers at the same time every morning with muzak. Undoubtedly because of wartime austerity and regimentation, the average punter holidaying at these camps would have found such scheduling of their leisure unsurprising. An intriguing pictorial history of British Holiday camps can be accessed here.
Cinema release commercial for Butlins Holiday Camps
The music you’d be woken up to each day at Butlins, together with postcards from the 1960s.
The Macra Terror opens with drum majorettes performing to a colony tune. The Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie have found themselves on the planet and unwittingly captured an escaped patient of enforced conformity, Medok. They are welcomed to the colony like honoured guests and afforded the services of the Refreshing Department. A complete choice of all treatments is offered including steam baths, beauty treatments, massages, clothes cleaning, sunlight treatment, moonlight treatment, and sparkling and effervescent sprays. Whilst Polly gleefully accepts a shampoo, the Doctor is put into a clothes reviver where both his body and his clothes are cleaned and he emerges immaculately groomed. Although Polly thinks he looks gorgeous, the Doctor has other ideas. Discovering the” rough and tumble machine” for the toning of muscles, the Doctor jumps in and emerges as his usual dishevelled self. If only all four episodes of this serial weren’t lost, because this would be an incredible scene to see.
Paul Android, Colonial Dance, The Macra Terror. The uploader describes himself as a hardcore Whovian who loves everything Doctor Who. On his YouTube Channel he has over 100 piano arrangements of themes for Doctor Who. Bless him!
The Doctor is quick to discover that all is not peachy in the colony. The public address system announcements willing people to happiness have a sinister air about them. Whilst the humans are sleeping at night the Macra pump subliminal messages into their heads however the Doctor is able to awaken both Polly and Jamie before they come under its effects. Ben is not so lucky and is successfully brainwashed. This indoctrination ensures that all humans are compliant and are effectively in denial as to the Macra’s existence. This indoctrination makes Ben turn against his friends and interestingly, loose his Cockney accent. All is resolved at the end, however, when Ben saves the day by destroying the gas pumping equipment. In doing so the Macra are killed and the colony again has its freedom. Notwithstanding all the colony has been through, it appears to be happy to continue with its traditions of holiday camp style, enforced happiness. When it’s suggested that the Doctor might become the Colony’s next Pilot (leader), the Tardis Crew is quick to decamp but not before Jamie does the Highland Fling as they exit through the door. Now that’s another scene I’d love to have been able to see.
The enforced happiness that is an essential element of the Macra controlled colony, is a theme that is taken up 21 years later in the Seventh Doctor story, The Happiness Patrol. Another biting political saga in disguise, The Happiness Patrol is scathingly critical of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Macra, however, would not be seen in Doctor Who for another 40 years and currently hold the record for the second longest gap in appearances of any Who monster or character. They made their return in the 2007 story, Gridlock, which bears some similarities with The Macra Terror. The character with the longest interval between appearances is The Great Intelligence, with 44 years between outings. In Gridlock the Macra have infiltrated the city of New New York in New Earth, whereas in The Macra Terror it is humans that have colonized the Macra’s planet. In both instances the Macra are reliant upon noxious gas, with the Gridlock variety thriving on the toxic fumes of motor vehicles. The Tenth Doctor states that the Macra have devolved since last he met them, and again in Gridlock they appear to be doomed as the roof to the motorway opens, thereby allowing the gas on which they are reliant to escape.
The Macra Terror is unfortunately Ben and Polly’s penultimate Doctor Who serial. Join me at Gatwick Airport for The Faceless Ones as we sadly bid them farewell.
©Vivien Fleming, 2013.