‘Doctor Who: The Macra Terror’ at the BFI

❉ We report back from the BFI Southbank launch event for the animated DVD.

“No one on the colony believes in Macra! There is no such thing as Macra! MACRA DO NOT EXIST!”

In 2019, thanks to the magic of animation, the monsters from the 1967 Doctor Who story ‘The Macra Terror’, not only crawl, but scuttle, drip viscous fluid and dangle tiny humans from their gigantic claws. It’s something of an improvement on the original prop, which, although it was the size of a small car, had about as much manoeuvrability and menace as a kitchen cupboard.

Two years on from the BBC’s last animated release, ‘The Power of the Daleks’, the DVD-range-within-a-DVD-range of animated recreations of Doctor Who stories, produced because visual recordings no longer exist, are beginning to spread their wings. An impressively cinematic sweep to sequences in the Dalek capsule in ‘Power’ hinted at what was possible, potential which has been fully realised with ‘The Macra Terror’ (complete with added crawling and scuttling).

The animators’ ambition was particularly apparent on the big screen of NFT1 at the BFI Southbank launch event for the DVD. The adventure starts with a stylish pre-credits sequence of the TARDIS in space orbiting a planet. The camera then tracks into the lamp on top of the police box and through it, looking down on a spacious TARDIS control room with the Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Polly (Anneke Wills), Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Ben (Michael Craze) clustered around the central console. The dialogue coming out of the characters’ mouths is from the final scene at the end of the preceding serial, ‘The Moonbase’, which trailed ‘The Macra Terror’, but is repurposed here as an effective prologue. It’s an inventive statement of intent, indicating that this is a reinterpretation of the story rather than a slavish recreation.

That’s certainly true of the opportunity afforded the animators to go on location outside the confines of Studio D at Lime Grove where the story was made. Never seen in the original (as far as we know), the exterior of the human colony on the Macra planet now resembles a futuristic oil refinery, situated on a world of desert sands and high cliffs. Once inside, the artists have emphasised the Orwellian theme of control with a huge main hall dominated by a large screen with the Controller’s Big Brother-style face. All this before you get to the first Macra looming out of the dark at the end of episode one, now – fittingly – the size of an articulated lorry rather than a small car. A nice visual touch has the cavernous entry hatch to the colony matching the size and shape of the Macra creatures, hinting at their hidden grip on the humans.

The major innovation of this version of ‘The Macra Terror’ is having a black and white story rendered in colour. That suits its distinctly psychedelic, mid-1960s trippy theme of an affluent consumer society being brainwashed and controlled by hidden forces. And saddled with a crowded TARDIS, writer Ian Stuart Black makes the most of the set-up by turning Ben into a traitor. That didn’t happen often in the 1960s, and it works unsettlingly well here as, once under the Macra’s control, Ben dresses in a colony uniform and loses his cockney accent. It’s also a nicely ambiguous touch that the nature of the monstrous enemy isn’t definitely explained, beyond being, perhaps, a form of bacteria in the body of the colony. It’s an idea reinforced by the unnerving, thumping ‘heart beat’ sound heard at the beginning of the story.

Caveats? I think the Macra should have had a new, appropriately disgusting sound effect – it seems odd that such large creatures don’t make any noise when they move – and it seems it’s still hard to make characters run convincingly. This is more than made up for in the accurate, expressive renderings of the cast’s faces, notably Frazer Hines, Peter Jeffrey (the Pilot), Gertan Klauber (Ola) and the great Patrick Troughton. If ever there was a man who had a face made for an animated avatar, it was him.

Never an organisation to stint on guests, for the return of the Macra the BFI fielded no less than six guests. First up was the director John Davies. Although he couldn’t remember a lot – “it was 52 years ago” – he was flattered that one of his first productions had been reconstructed and was in good humour. “I remember Innes Lloyd, the producer, putting his face round my door and saying ‘Make it frightening, old boy!’,” he remembered. “I said I’d do my best, and it wasn’t until later that I was told off because it was too frightening… So they put me on to Z Cars instead, which was far more [terrifying].”

Between episodes three and four, the core animation team of Adrian Salmon, Martin Geraghty and director Charles Norton took the stage for a quarter of an hour chat with the BFI’s TV historian, Dick Fiddy. Talking through the production process, they revealed that it was primarily built on the audio soundtrack and, in the places where there was no visual reference, a create leap of faith was required (such as the beginning scene of episode one, which isn’t in the camera script).

The extent of their research was both staggering and admirable, extending to sourcing clips of the actors from a variety of other productions and, in the instance of Roger Jerome (the Cheerleader), Charles making an unusual request: “He only did two TV shows in his whole career. It actually ended up with me tracking him down to America, phoning him up and saying ‘Can you send us some photos of yourself from 1967?’” (He did). The panel finished with a warm tribute to the late Graham Strong, whose archive of soundtrack recordings of 1960s episodes made the clarity of the DVD audio possible.

After the last episode concluded – to both applause and cheers – Anneke Wills, the three-dimensional embodiment of companion Polly, was interviewed by Justin Johnson. It’s always a pleasure to see the “wilful” Anneke: now in her 70s (and not looking it), she remains endearingly delighted and, you suspect, invigorated by the continued interest in her tenure in Doctor Who.

She’s also at the age where she can be very candid, criticising Frazer Hines for taking the credit for devising Troughton’s Beatle hairstyle (it was her) and revealing that the dynamic between herself, Hines and Craze wasn’t always comfortable. “Mike and I had such a good relationship with the Doctor – we were having such a good time – and all of a sudden Frazer came in, and he was like a bumptious kind of spaniel. He was full of jokes and full of himself and Mike had a bad time, because now we had to share a lot of lines with him… Mike was always good and he was always polite, but he kept it in and I know that he was threatened by Frazer coming in. So at the end, when they said ‘We’re going to keep Frazer on and gonna let go of Mike, do you want to stay on with Frazer?’ I said ‘No’ out of loyalty.” Mischievously – as she often is – Anneke added, “and [Frazer] was always getting it on with everyone he possibly could.” Well, it was the 1960s.

Her mixture of wit, honesty and insight was topped with the surprise appearance of Maureen Lane, who played the Drum Majorette. Such is the nature of television that when ‘The Macra Terror’ was made, Anneke and Maureen never met – her sequence was recorded separately – so there was something incredibly heart-warming about seeing the two actresses finally united on stage. Although, again, she couldn’t remember much, the lively pensioner immediately won the audience over by saying self deprecatingly “everyone wants to go to lunch, not listen to me” and, later, when attempting the define the appeal of Doctor Who, “everyone wants to go back in time… especially now.”

After that, Anneke took her gratefully received bottle of wine off to a singing of ‘The Macra Terror’ DVD, which all the attendees received a copy of. At the same time, people drifted off to the various bars around the BFI to chat, gossip and reflect on what a good day it had been. The consensus was that when it comes to Doctor Who, the BFI always goes the extra mile. Personally speaking, I’ve never seen a disappointing Doctor Who event there.

Believe – Macra do exist.

❉ Doctor Who: The Macra Terror will be released on digital download, DVD (RRP £20.42), Blu-ray (RRP £25.52) and special edition Steelbook (RRP £40.84) on 18th March 2019. Pre-order from  Amazon (all SKUs) and HMV: DVDBlu-raySteelbook. Special features for the DVD and Blu-ray release include: Animation Gallery, Behind the Scenes Film and Audio Commentary. 

Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

❉ BFI Photos: Paul Ducker. Production images © BBC Studios.

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