From the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon. Slightly expanded.
Some people say that 'The Macra Terror' is about holiday camps, but I
think there’s more to it than that. The Colony is obsessed with work.
It organises communal entertainment, but this seems to consist of revues
about how great it is to be worker. The aim is to make people “happy
to work”. These people are not on holiday.
The surveillance and brainwashing suggests totalitarianism, but the area
where Barney provides makeovers looks less like Russia and more like a
health spa or a salon on a Western high street. Polly is told she’ll
win a competition that sounds like Miss World (which the U.S.S.R.
disdained until 1989). The Pilot sits at a desk attended by a
secretary, looking like a sitcom businessman. Ola’s guards look like
the kind of American or British riot police who were, by this time,
often being seen on the news, clashing with demonstrators.
.The key to understanding this strange tale is the fact that, by 1967, a
lot of people saw tyranny on both sides of the iron curtain. In the
60s, Western society was largely prosperous but also lived in the shadow
of the bomb, of Vietnam, of racial and sexual discrimination. There
was inequality, protest and repression. In 1967, the turbulence was
just about to peak. The media might have presented Western culture as
happy, free, even ‘swinging’, but the counter-culture began to critique
mass advertising and P.R. as methods of thought control. Trendy
theorists like Herbert Marcuse identified totalitarian currents within
capitalism and saw consumerism as creating alienation. (It's
interesting, in light of this, how often Doctor Who - a product
of the 60s after all - combines its strongest hints at a critique of
capitalism with the aesthetics of totalitarianism, i.e. 'The Sun
Makers', 'The Happiness Patrol'. This is also interesting in light of
the analysis of Stalinism which sees it as a bureaucratic form of state
'The Macra Terror' is perhaps Doctor Who’s earliest attempt to
engage with the radical 60s. The Colony is mainstream Britain in
denial. The Colony media seems very ‘ITV matey’ but also quite ‘BBC
formal’. Both the commercial and state style conspire to keep the
drones chirpy. The main work is gas mining. In 1967, Britain was
switching over to North Sea gas. It was all part of Britain’s
prosperous future, if everyone would just pull together, work hard and
keep smiling. The protestors and hippies were just spoiling things.
The big problem with Medok is that he isn’t happy. He talks about the
Macra. They represent the repressed knowledge that something is very
wrong with society. They’re everywhere but are unseen. Nobody believes
in them but everyone knows their name. People who talk about them are
silenced with telling desperation. When the Colonists do see them, they remain uncertain whether they are insects or bacteria… interestingly, the only suggestion nobody
makes is that they are crabs. The Doctor calls them germs in the
brain of society. They are the unease beneath the fixed smile.
The Macra are the reason why the humans mine gas they don’t need. The
implication is that totalitarianism and capitalism not only use similar
methods of thought control, but both demand that people work, happily,
not for their own benefit but for monstrous, hidden, incomprehensible…
possibly even insane reasons. Even the establishment (and the British
government in 1967 was Labour) works for them, without realising it.
In the end though, despite the Doctor’s gleeful anarchism, the Colony without Macra seems indistinguishable from the Colony with
Macra. The repressed knowledge is faced, the hidden exploiters are
defeated, and society remains the same. We can’t help feeling that the
colonists will go on obeying rules and whistling while they work. You
have to wonder if maybe the Macra weren’t the cause of the problem but
just took advantage of it. If they were germs, they thrived in a social
wound that was already festering. However, the end of the story seems
to endorse the Colony. The wrong people (if we can call them that) were
in Control, that’s all.
As the decade progressed, later stories would imply even more radical
critiques of Western society, but they’d all come to similar diffident
1. There is also a view of 'The Macra Terror' which sees it as an
apologia for colonialism. The Doctor unquestioningly uses lethal force
to protect a colony from natives. I find this unconvincing because,
of all the valences the Macra take on, race seems a very muted one...
although I don't dispute that the story reflects British unease about
the dissolution of its empire in the post-war period. If the Macra are
the disposessed natives, the story has a paranoid view of how
settler-colonial states work that is borderline terrifying in its lack
of relation to reality.
2. I've gone into the Macra in greater detail, with special reference to how they evoke the Gothic mode in a quasi-Weird way, here and here.