Thursday 8 December 2011

Skulltopus 3: Yes, We Have No Macra

If any monster in the history of Who was ever a gothic, hauntological thing embodying the 'return of the repressed', it was the Macra.

All the ostentatious happiness of the Colony is there to cover unease.  They know there’s something wrong, otherwise why deny it so desperately?  Why would the Colony go to such lengths to contain and silence Medok unless he was speaking the unspeakable truth that everybody else wants to deny?  The Macra haunt the Colony, scuttling around at night, hiding in the shadows, unseen then glimpsed and then disappearing.  They haunt the people, who all know about them (even down to having a name for them) but claim to disbelieve in them.  They represent repressed knowledge that is insisting upon being remembered.  This is pure gothic.

But... they’re also a bit Weird, in the sense of the ‘Weird fiction’ of early 20th century horror (something I've discussed in previous Skulltopus posts).  William Hope Hodgson, one of the greatest Weird writers, used giant crabs a lot in his peculiar and deeply unsettling maritime tales.  As previous noted, the author China Miéville has written that the Weird (at least classic, 'haute Weird' of the late 19th-early 20th century) was an attempt to express the meaningless and unrecognisable, and that it thus stands in "non-dialectical superposition" to the gothic (or  the ‘hauntological’), which is about the buried secret, the thing we recognise but refuse, that which we know but wish (need) to deny.  The tentacled thing is the quintessential Weird monster type… a type unprecedented in Western fantastic fiction before the Weird.  But Hodgson's tentacled things co-exist with giant crabs.  I'm not sure how precedented giant crabs were in the Western uncanny.  Certainly, people in the West had seen crabs before... but then, as Miéville acknowledges, they'd seen tentacled things too.  It's not about unfamiliarity so much as literary unprecedentedness, as an absence of semiotic baggage and any tradition of previous meanings.  In any case, whereas the haunting thing is frightening because we recognise it, and recognise that it means something, the Weird thing is frightening because it is something meaningless and incomprehensible, stalking us for no reason that we can ken.

The Macra are TV monsters from 1967... and this is very different to literary monsters in 1917... but that's a minefield I'll try to traverse in another post.  But, shunting that massive problem to one side just for now, the Macra genuinely do seem to me to be Weird, but also to be hauntological.  They haunt because, as noted, they are recognised and not recognised, seen and denied, fled from because of the repressed knowledge that they represent.  On the other hand, they are not spectral or phantasmic, for all their elusiveness.  They're giant crabs for heaven's sake.  Or are they?

Because here’s the really strange thing: the Macra don’t really seem to be giant crabs at all!  The original titles of this story were 'The Spidermen' and 'The Insect-Men'.  The characters in the story are uncertain what the Macra are, even – especially - when they see them.  They don’t call them crabs.  Nobody actually says the word “crab” during the story!  The characters ask: “are they insects?”  They ask: “are they some monstrous form of bacteria?”  The Doctor thinks they’re germs.  It’s unclear how literal he’s being.

Okay, they look like crabs in the few pictures we have left… which is perhaps why this story is, after all, better (or Weirder) heard but not seen: not because the monster props were bad (though, in all honesty…) but because they were too recognisably one type of thing.  Unseen, the Macra retain an indefinability, a categoric indeterminacy.  Mind you, seeing the giant crab while the characters don’t recognise it as crablike but instead suggest other descriptions… this might be even Weirder.  The giant crab may have precedents in classic weird fiction, but the giant quasi-crab or un-crab or ab-crab (it is both crab and not-crab) is even more in the style of the Weird.  The creature of unstable form and type, the creature that is overdescribed using incompatible terms (it’s an insect and a germ, it’s a bacterium and it’s huge, it’s a crab but it also isn’t), the creature that is indeterminate and protean and incomprehensible… that’s genuinely reminiscent of Lovecraft’s radically unrecognisable, incoherently over-described, unknowable ‘Old Ones’ and Shoggoths.

This effect is heightened by the experience of listening to the audio, having the crab image in your head from the CD case and the stills you've seen, but hearing the characters unable (or unwilling) to perceive what the bloody things are.  It's enough to make you hope they never find the footage.  It's certainly enough to make you abjure the recons (though I've never been a recon kind of guy anyway).  'The Macra Terror', by being unseen, becomes a bit more literary... or acquires something of the non-visual, descriptive, imaginational (yes, that is a word - I should know, I just invented it), hallucinogenic quality of literature that demands of us that we should visualise the fantastic and unreal.

Also, the Macra’s mentality and psychology is almost as opaque as their form.  They seem to be both rational and irrational.  They speak, as the voice of Control… but this seems like a ‘normal’ human voice.  It’s an untreated voice.  There’s no audio effect in use, no vocoder, not even after the voice has been revealed as the voice of the Macra.  We have to imagine that voice emanating from one of those Volkswagon-sized un-crabs, sitting behind a mic, skulking out of view around a corner.  The incongruity provokes derision and unease simultaneously.  The voice is plummy and pally, sometimes authoritative, sometimes sneaky… sometimes hilariously over-emphatic, evincing terror and irrational hysteria.  This chimes with their behaviour during the story.  They seem to be utilitarian, machiavellian, ruthless, exploitative, secretive, furtive… but also communicative, dependent, oddly reluctant to order killing, bad planners, bad improvisers, beneficiaries of an unnecessarily fragile set-up, etc.  And they are scared: of being discovered, of being defeated, but also of themselves, of their own existence, of being.  Oddness of oddnesses, the Control voice (the voice of the Macra) is at its most frantic, its most insanely frightened and irrational, its most screechingly emphatic, when it is denying the existence of the Macra.  It denies its own existence, again and again, in an escalatingly loud series of increasingly unhinged, pleonastic reiterations.  It sounds desperate to convince everyone, including itself, that it does not exist.

Of course, with the tapes junked, the Macra have achieved a kind of spectrality.  They don't exist anymore, except as a voice, as the incomprehension in the minds and voices of the characters who encounter them, as depthless CGI reincarnations in another story, and as moment when pulp kid's TV seems to have genuinely approached a belated and partial merging of the Weird and the gothic.

NOTE, 11/04/13:
It's been pointed out to me that the assertion made above that "Nobody actually says the word 'crab' during the story!" is incorrect.  Polly calls them "crabs"... though she does couple the word with "or insects", retaining the air of indeterminacy I was remarking upon.


  1. It’s the 45th anniversary of the final episode today, so I’ve just finished a weekly rewatching of the excellent Loose Cannon Recon, and came back to re-read your two Macra pieces; I particularly enjoyed this one, as I’ve been loving your Skulltopian analyses, and particularly the points about what the incompatible overdescription signifies. And it’s cheering to think, ‘It’s not just me, then,’ with ideas like your “They know there’s something wrong, otherwise why deny it so desperately?” and “They're giant crabs for heaven's sake. Or are they?” Back in my own in-depth review of The Macra Terrora few years ago I came up with the possibly OTT argument that there really are no such thing as Macra, and that they’re just a personification of the colony’s psychosis – which still isn’t cured at the end…

  2. I'm ashamed to say I hadn't read your review when I wrote the above. But you make a good case. I can admit this, because your reading isn't incompatible with mine. It's amazing how generous one can be when one's own theories are not threatened.

    Cheers for reading.

  3. Nothing to be ashamed of - until I went madder than usual last week, it was, I think, my longest single piece... And, yep, it's great to read excellent pieces that fit neatly alongside one's own, isn't it, and that in no way influences any view of their excellence. So, excellent piece above. Ahem.