The fact that so much of Doctor Who’s early history is lost to time — 97 episodes seemingly gone forever, thanks to the BBC’s program of archive junking throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s — has made every chance to see it recovered a monumental event. But it also gives us some blinders when it comes to how we remember these missing tales.
While there are definitely iconic, brilliant stories among the missing and incomplete serials, not every story among those lost is necessarily an example of classic Doctor Who at its apex. For every “The Crusade” or “Marco Polo”, there’s a “The Space Pirates” or “Galaxy 4”. Stories that, while not outright bad, would probably be otherwise forgotten entirely if they weren’t memorialised by being lost to time.
“The Macra Terror,” given what we knew of it, seems like it fits that bill—a perfectly fine B-movie monster tale with some questionable giant crab puppets and a firebrand Patrick Troughton performance barely holding it together. But its recent animated resurrection — from Sun & Moon Studios, the same animation house responsible for bringing both “The Power of the Daleks” and “Shada” to life in recent times — has thrown another question into the ring: What if these animated revivals didn’t just painstakingly recreate what was lost to time, but used the opportunity a complete animated overhaul provides to—dare I say in a hushed, perhaps sacrilegious whisper — improve on the source material?
As a thesis, “The Macra Terror” works as a pretty fantastic bit of evidence in favour of doing just that.
“The Macra Terror,” broadcast for the first (and last) time in four parts across March and early April 1967, saw the Second Doctor and his companions Ben, Jamie, and Polly investigate an idyllic colony world in the far future. Pitched as a paradise planet-meets-holiday camp, the Doctor is almost immediately perturbed by the seeming perfection of the controlled, yet pleasurable life on the world — and sets about not just rebelling against the Colony Controller’s grip on the populace, but uncovering the grand conspiracy of the sinister Macra: gigantic crab monsters who skulk about the colony after night, brainwashing the humans into mining toxic gas for the Macra to feed on.
In many ways, it’s a classic Doctor Who monster romp. The Macra are a fascinating idea—there’s a reason they were brought back for a brief moment in 2007's “Gridlock.” Even in a less manipulative, more feral form, Doctor Who can’t resist an idea as compelling as a giant alien crab. And the Doctor gets to do what the Doctor does best, poking holes in grim authoritarianism and immediately setting about uplifting those around him to resist the system, even if that system appears perfect on the surface.
Even the companions all get things to do, from escaping the deadly toxic mines to facing being brainwashed to becoming as terrifyingly compliant as the rest of the colonists—save for poor Medok, driven to paranoia by having caught a glimpse of the Macra everyone around him insists don’t actually exist.
But there are grand ideas and there is grand execution—and it’s here where “The Macra Terror,” in its original form at least, falls into a more humdrum territory. The titular terror of the Macra is significantly blunted by the fact that, diplomatically speaking, the original rubber suits are distinctly unterrifying. The suits themselves are almost cute, which is not exactly what you want out of a creature your characters are meant to be explicitly menaced by to the point of mind-shattering fear.
And when the impracticality of the larger recreations forces many of the Macra attacks to be replicated by claws reaching from off-camera, the terror the entire story is built on is rather blunted, bringing the whole thing down. Patrick Troughton’s first season as the Doctor is defined by the creature feature, from the return of classic monsters like the Daleks (in both “Power” and “Evil of the Daleks” flavours) and the Cybermen (“The Moonbase”), and new ones in stories that worked (the Chameleons in “The Faceless Ones”) and ones that didn’t (the Fish people in “The Underwater Menace”) — and while the Macra might be one of the more interesting from an ideas standpoint, the execution leaves much to be desired. They’re perhaps an idea a little too ambitious for 1967.
And so it’s really here that “The Macra Terror” of 2019, completely animated, truly shines — because it’s not really a shot-for-shot remake of the original. It is an interpretation, one that uses the benefit of hindsight, modern cinematography, the benefit of colorization, and even perhaps slightly controversially, some minor cuts (a lone scene early on in episode one of the Doctor and his friends being gussied up at the planet’s refreshment center), to elevate the source material into something tighter, more dynamic, and far stronger.
From shots that would’ve been simply impossible in the ‘60s — like panning from outside the TARDIS directly into its spatial-defying interior, a trick the modern incarnation of the show has long been fond of—to using moments of silence in the original recorded audio tracks to give us lush, sweeping vistas of the alien world and its environs, the animated “Macra Terror” is surprisingly sumptuous. It gives the proceedings a sense of scale unlike anything the original could compare with.
Its animation, albeit on a BBC mandated budget, is significantly improved from the work seen in “Power of the Daleks” (made in a much shorter time, due to the fixed turnaround that it be released literally down to the minute 50 years after it first broadcast). It means that not only are characters much more subtly emotive, utilising deft little expressions to intuit and add things to the original audio, but that the things you do want to retain from the original—like Troughton’s playfully defiant and, I’m not sorry to joke, rather animated performance — still come through brightly.
It’s all just been given a slicker, more cinematic coat of paint, and nothing benefits more from that than the titular monsters themselves. The animated Macra finally get to appear in numbers (there was only one full Macra prop in the original), and scuttle about (they can actually move, in comparison to the practically immobile original!) in a truly frightening manner, shot and framed to present their larger-than-life scale as something imposing rather than clunky.
It only took 52 years, but at long last, the Macra are finally terrifying!
Is it as faithful to surviving telesnaps and footage as the animated version of “Power of the Daleks” was? No. But “Power” had a truly remarkable story and iconography to fall back on that “Macra” simply doesn’t have. Even in animated form, a 100 per cent faithful recreation of the serial would still be pretty average, if charmingly clunky. By leveraging the benefits of the medium and the modern eye, at last, “The Macra Terror” can truly become something more than the sum of its otherwise decent-but-forgettable parts.
And hey, if you are looking for something more faithful? The new release offers not just an alternate black-and-white version of the animation, but reconstructed alternate versions linking together the original recorded soundtrack, surviving photographs and clips, and in some cases narration, to provide an uncut and just about as unfiltered version of “Macra” as you’re likely to ever actually get, outside the miracle of its recovery.
But even while it caters to both purists and people looking for a quirky creature feature, the story’s animated rejuvenation represents something incredibly fascinating for the ongoing saga of Doctor Who’s missing history. There is plenty of space for faithful recreations of iconic, powerful Doctor Who moments lost to time by the BBC’s calamitous lack of foresight when it comes to television preservation; landmark stories like “Power of the Daleks” or the missing first regeneration sequence in the climax of “The Tenth Planet” are moments in time that should be preserved as best as they still can be.
But there is also space for more projects like “The Macra Terror” — remasters that add a visual lick of paint and some judicious changes to elevate material that would, at the end of the day, be the sort of Doctor Who tale that doesn’t exactly light up the highest entries on a fan’s ranking of best stories.
It represents the idea that there is space for interpretation on what these missing tales could have been, rather than simply remaking them as is. If that’s a lesson learned for Doctor Who’s animated approach to any more of these missing tales, then this re-imagination is a valuable one: it gives us the brightest hope we’ve had for the future of Doctor Who’s missing episodes than we’ve had in a while.
Doctor Who: The Macra Terror is available on Blu-ray and Digital in the UK now, and will arrive in Australia later this year.