By JEFF SZPIRGLAS
Television’s Doctor Who is that odd beast with a format so flexible that it can change its lead character into either man or woman, and can flirt with pretty much any genre – costume historical, far-flung sci-fi, or terrifying chiller – and sometimes all combined.
We still don’t have a complete visual record of first two Doctors William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, whose 1960s-era runs were partially wiped back when there was no concept of a home video re-release market. So while some stories were archived for posterity in the BBC archives, many were literally junked. Over the years, various 16mm prints of missing stories have been found in the hands of collectors or in the vaults of foreign broadcasters. Nevertheless, we’re still without a complete record of the show’s early history, with some 97 episodes missing to date.
One such complete story missing is the 1967 monster tale, “The Macra Terror,” recently given re-release as an animated reconstruction in the UK, and clawing its way onto DVD in North America on November 19. Although Macra Terror isn’t the first complete story reconstruction (Troughton’s premiere story, Power of the Daleks, received similar treatment for its 50th anniversary in 2016; and Troughton serials “The Faceless Ones” and “Fury From the Deep” are slated next for animated re-release), it’s representative of the show’s spooky “monster” years, in which the stories veered further away from historical-era stories and further into base-under-siege tales with week after week of rampaging monsters as the baddies.
Renowned mathematician, and author of several non-fiction Doctor Who books – and influential paper “Mathematical Modelling of Zombies” – Robert Smith? (yup, question mark is part of his surname) weighed in on the horrifying impact of the story: “It’s the sheer chutzpah of The Macra Terror that’s most terrifying. It brainwashes one of the regular cast but in a way that only heightens his existing personality. It dismisses the impish, childlike lead character as an old man. And it simply denies that there’s anything wrong.”
Smith? also highlights the story’s continued relevance in our day and age, citing the theme of brainwashing through mind-controlling media. “That’s basically Donald Trump crying ‘Fake news!’ whenever confronted with an inconvenient fact. But The Macra Terror got there fifty years earlier, showing us just how effective a technique it is for sowing confusion and blanket denials in the face of logic and reason, thus allowing the state to perpetuate its subjugation of its citizens. Now that’s scary.”
For the upcoming DVD release, animation director Charles Norton also spoke to Rue Morgue about how the project came together:
How/why was Macra Terror chosen as an animated reconstruction from other missing stories?
Prosaically, it was only four episodes long and had a fairly modest number of speaking characters and sets. That’s why we chose it. Most of the other lost Troughton stories are much longer (around 6 episodes apiece). Knowing what resources and timescale we’d have to work with, it was important that we chose a story that met a number of very specific criteria. The criteria were, firstly: is it any good, as a story? Secondly: Is it doable within the scope of our relatively modest resources? Thirdly: is it going to fit in within the rest of the range we already have? The Macra Terror was literally the only story to tick all of those boxes at that time. It was as simple as that. We wanted a four-part Troughton story. That narrowed down the choice to either The Macra Terror or The Highlanders. We also wanted a story that wasn’t too ambitious in terms of the scale of its cast and setting. That knocks out The Highlanders. What you’re left with is The Macra Terror. There aren’t really any other candidates.
How closely did you work from the telesnaps [off-air photographs of the serial] and existing clips to recreate the story, and the Macra itself?
We didn’t really. It was always treated as a new production. We retained most of the costume designs and we worked to a mostly locked off soundtrack, so we had to fit around the existing material to that extent. However, there was no attempt to really emulate the specific blocking and staging of any of the shots from the 1967 production. We’re working in a completely different medium and format, with completely different strengths and weaknesses to live action. We had to play to that, not against it. It was never really intended to be a ‘recreation’ of what had gone before. We did make a more literal reconstruction of the 1967 production, using all the surviving film frames and fragments of footage. However, that was an entirely separate presentation made for the DVD special features (and produced by Derek Handley). The animated production was always going to be a new take on the story. Just as the original director did in 1967, I started with a clean script and started scribbling on it what shots we’d do to tell the story as best we could. There was no attempt to copy what had gone before visually. Although, having said that, I was very grateful of the support of the 1967 production’s original director [John Davies] who was very kind to us all during production.
Did the animation provide an attempt to make the Macra even bigger, scarier, and more menacing? Did you deviate from telesnaps to make the Macra scenes scarier?
Well, yes. We completely redesigned them from scratch, based on what the script described. None of the original production team were happy with the way the Macra props were realised back in 1967. It wasn’t what the director and writer had envisaged at all. It didn’t reflect their original intentions for the production in any way. So, we all felt quite comfortable in starting that part of the design process all over again. A good case in point is that the script (and the finished audio) makes a lot of references to them scurrying about with these twitching crab-like legs – crawling over people. And yet, in 1967, the prop-builders failed to actually give the prop any legs at all! So, that was one thing we were able to fix. The final design hopefully better resembles what is described in the dialogue and better fits with what the actors are meant to be reacting too. We also weren’t bound by quite the same practical limitations that restricted the 1967 production. To be fair to the original prop builders, trying to create a full size giant crab puppet on a Doctor Who budget in the late 1960s, was always going to be stupidly difficult. Even today, you’d need a massive amount of money and time to do something like that to an even vaguely convincing standard.