There was clearly something in the air back in 1967. Predating The Prisoner by several months, The Macra Terror – an everyday tale of brainwashing and control set in a seemingly idyllic paradise – certainly seemed to be tapping into the general sense of unease that Patrick McGoohan was also feeling.
In a way, it’s easy to see certain parallels with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, although The Macra Terror swops grime and despair for a glossy utopia where drum majorettes are always in action, meaningless platitudes (“Nothing succeeds like success. If at first you don’t succeed – try, try, try again!”) are endlessly trotted out and everyone wanders around with a smile on their face. Which of course, feels deeply disturbing.
At first, Ben and Polly see nothing wrong with this – they dive into the world of the Colony with enthusiasm, so it’s left to Jamie and the Doctor to be more cautious. It’s easy to understand why the Doctor, given his experience, isn’t prepared to accept anything at face value but Jamie’s a different matter. This is a good move though, as it helps to flesh out his character (which in the preceding three stories has only been lightly sketched).
A number of familiar faces guest star. Peter Jeffrey as the Pilot is, as you’d expect, first rate as the man who looks after the day-to-day running of the Colony. If Jeffrey’s Pilot has the practiced slick skill of a politician, then Gertan Klauber’s Ola (the Chief of Police) is his diametric opposite – he’s the one who has to catch any miscreants and ensure they have the treatment they need.
One such miscreant is Medok (Terence Lodge) whom the Doctor and his friends meet at the beginning of episode one. Later the Pilot tells the Doctor what Medok’s fate will be.
PILOT: Oh, well, he’ll be taken back to the hospital for correction. He’ll be given another course of treatment. And when he returns to the Colony, Medok will be a changed man. He will cooperate and he will obey orders. He’ll be just like the rest of us.
DOCTOR: Why do you want everyone to be the same?
PILOT: Doctor, this Colony was founded many centuries ago by our ancestors who came from the Earth planet, like your young friends. Our ancestors believed in the virtues of healthy happiness and we have tried to keep their ideals alive. Sometimes, alas, it is necessary to use force.
The parallels with The Prisoner are obvious, and whilst it’s plain that, given the timescale, there’s no way that The Prisoner could have been directly influenced by The Macra Terror, it’s still interesting that both are pushing very similar buttons (but no doubt if one were to dig through the film and television archives of this era you’d find similar, earlier, examples of the same thing).
As seen in the dialogue quote above, the Doctor, even more than usual, is positioned as an individual – resisting any attempt to make him conform. This is expressed in the script in both humorous ways (in the first episode he reacts with horror when a machine tidies up his clothes and hair) and more dramatic ones (in episode two he tells Polly that “it’s just possible that you’ve been given a series of orders while you’ve been asleep. You know, do this, do that, do the other thing. My advice to you is don’t do anything of the sort. Don’t just be obedient. Always make up your own mind”).
Ben, Polly and Jamie are all subjected to deep sleep adjustment. A calming voice (“the sleeper must relax and believe. Everything in the Colony is good and beautiful. You must accept it without question. You must obey orders”) is piped through to their quarters but Ben is the only one to succumb. This allows Michael Craze to act evil for a change (and gives him something more to do than usual – with three companions all jockeying for position there have been times recently when one or more has ended up quite redundant).
The monsters of the tale – crab-like baddies called Macra – tend to lurk in the shadows. This is understandable since they must have been incredibly unwieldy (anyone who wants to escape from them just has to walk away at a moderate pace). Once again we have to thank the Australian censors whose squeamishness has preserved several short clips for us to enjoy. They show the Macra in all their slow moving glory (though to be honest it’s hard to imagine them giving that many people sleepless nights – unless they have a crab phobia).
Medok’s role in the story is an interesting one. As the only Colony member who seems to know the truth about the Macra, you’d assume that he would play a key role in overcoming them. But this isn’t the case – he’s rather casually killed off in episode three and no-one seems to notice or care that much.
By this point, Jamie’s lost in the mines and tangling with the Macra (in scenes that tend to go on a little), Ben’s beginning to fight against his processing (some more good work from Craze here) whilst the Doctor and Polly team up at the gas refinery to cause as much confusion as possible. Troughton and Wills bounce off each other very agreeably in these scenes, indeed it’s at this point that you realise they haven’t really shared that many scenes together and since Polly’s time is nearly up, they won’t do so again ….
Ian Stuart Black delights in giving Troughton a number of lines that perfectly sum up his Doctor (“Confusion is best left to the experts” and “I can stand an operation on its head quicker than anyone” to name but two).
Also of interest is the moment when the Pilot confronts the Doctor, who has been entertaining himself by scrawling an impossibly complex series of calculations on the wall. “You’re not asking me to believe that in a few moments you have been able to work out a formula which it has taken our combined computers years to perfect?”
The Doctor has, of course, done just that and it serves as a reminder that – erratic as he may appear – he still possesses a keen scientific brain.
When the Doctor later shows the Pilot that the Macra are the ones in control he’s shocked and stunned. This raises an intriguing point – is it only the rank and file workers who undergo mind control? Since the Pilot immediately agrees to join forces with the Doctor to destroy the Macra, I would assume so. Ola probably also has free will – he continues to toe the party line but presumably only because he’s a sadist who sees nothing wrong with the status quo.
All in all this is a story that’s rich in incidental detail, even if the main plot is quite straightforward and (to be honest) not that interesting. With the Macra only able to provide the occasional scare, the actors – both regulars and guest cast – are required to keep things ticking along, which they do nicely.
Troughton especially is on great form and Peter Jeffrey doesn’t disappoint, although it’s a shame that the Pilot only has a handful of scenes in the second half of the story. John Harvey (as Officia), returning for his second Ian Stuart Black story, is another dependable performer who has a little more to do here than in The War Machines.
A bit of a run around then, but it rates a healthy 3.5 TARDISes out of 5.