...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, September 18, 2009

Day 3183: Mysteries of Doctor Who #20: How Do the Macra Evolve?


One thing that everyone knows about the Macra: the First Rule of Macra Club is that there is no such thing as Macra Club.

Dr Woo meets the Macra twice (or is it MORE than twice…?): the first time is when he is Mr Dr Pat and he and his friends Polly and Ben and Jamie visit "the Colony"; and the last time is when he is Mr Dr David and he and his friend Martha visit the New Earth.

So what exactly ARE these creepy-crawly creatures, emblematic of Sixties mind-control paranoia and Noughties nostalgia, that definitely don't exist?

We'll start at the end. Literally, the End: The End of the World.

Of all the silly things in Mr Tat and Mr Larry's "About Time", the idea that a special effect achieved in 1966 not being the same as a special effect achieved in 2005 is a GOOD reason for saying that the End of the World in "The Ark" is faked and not the same as the End of the World in "The End of the World" is… certainly one.

Let's look at the STORY: in "The Ark", the Earth gets exploded and the humans take all their stuff (and their chums the Monoids) and move to the distant planet Refusis to set up a new Earth; in "The End of the World" the Earth gets exploded and in "New Earth" the humans have taken all their stuff (and their chums the cat people) and moved to a distant planet which they call New Earth. Hmmm, could this be the SAME story?

But there's MORE. Travelling down to the planet Refusis, Mr Dr Billy finds that it is already inhabited by the disembodied voices of the Refusians. Meanwhile, in "Gridlock", travelling down into the depths of New Earth, Mr Dr David discovers that the planet is already inhabited by giant crab monsters, the hideous insect-arthropods called Macra, that he first met when he was Mr Dr Pat in "The Macra Terror" (unsurprisingly).

Almost everyone describes them as CRAB-LIKE. I mean have you SEEN them! (Answer: no, obviously not, see Rule One.)

Not that Doctor Who is SHY of playing with GIANT CREEPY-CRAWLIES, whether they are butterflies and ants ("The Web Planet"), maggots and flies ("The Green Death"), spiders ("Planet of the…well take a guess"), woodlice ("Frontios"), slugs ("The Twin Dilemma"), termites ("Valhalla") or wasps ("The Unicorn and the… oh, you got it").

So if you DID see Macra it might not be THAT surprising. (Please report yourself for mental de-processing afterwards, though.)

They tend to appear for CLIFF-HANGERS, usually putting the peril on a companion in New Zealand censor trims, though you get a better look through the car-fumes in "Gridlock". They have large crabby claws and big glowey eyes on stalks; they look like they've got tough shells too, in a single rounded section on the Macra's back, like a crab's, and not segmented like a lobster, but – when they DO move – they tend to lumber forwards and backwards, rather than sideways or crabwise. So maybe they're like some other sort of crustaceans, like a prawn maybe… hold onto that thought!

THESE Macra in "Gridlock", though, are all huge and mindless, whereas Dr David says they used to be SMART. (So presumably the Macra in "The Macra Terror" WERE smart… but we'll discuss that later!)

On the other fluffy foot, the Refusians are ALL smarts and no body. Do you see where I'm going here?

No? Well how about some more evidence: in "The Ark" the Refusian voice is portrayed by Mr Richard Beale; in "The Macra Terror" the Macra's propaganda voice is portrayed by, yes, Mr Richard Beale.

Could this plumy voice be what the Macra actually SOUND like? Perhaps their translator device comes from Hollywood and is pre-programmed with "the Evil voice".

So, if that's the case, could the voice on Refusis actually BE a Macra or, more accurately, an EVOLVED Macra that has left its big crabby body behind? And if the Macra DID evolve into Star Trek aliens with ways too mysterious to understand™, did they LITERALLY leave their big crabby bodies behind to feed on passing traffic and get enormous?

The idea that the Macra's intelligence does not ENTIRELY reside inside their lumbering carapaces might seem a bit RECHERCHÉ but it's not COMPLETELY out of keeping with their first appearance, where they exercise a Control over humans that seems entirely at odds with their monstrous forms, and entirely too delicate for their Big Claws.

Of course, it's not impossible that they're supposed to be some sort of titanic LOUSE, bloodsuckers preying on the underbelly of the Colony, which would be a different sort of "crabs" (EWWWW!!!!)

So are the Macra CRABS or INSECTS? Well, in "The Macra Terror", escaped LOONY / last sane-person in the Colony Mr Medok is the first to describe them (episode 1 scene 14):
"They move at night, in the dark. And look horrible. giant insects."
Best friend Polly gets to scream at one in episode two, but then has to try and describe it to brainwashed Ben who is ever so much in denial (episode 2, scene 8):
"I saw it! A huge face, like an insect, or a giant crab. It was horrible and it was looking at us and... and... and it had claws!"
By the conclusion, Mr the Pilot, Chief Red-Coat in the Holiday Camp-like Colony's hierarchy, also gets an eyeful of Macra when Dr Woo shows him who is in Control – and who is IN control – leading him to utter the infamous cry of:
"The Colony is in the hands of grotesque insects!"
Even though even if they ARE insects they certainly don't have HANDS!

Which begs the question: how exactly ARE the Macra in Control, anyway? They never really seem to DO anything other than gulp their special GAS and menace people with their Big Claws. Are they even intelligent?

(And as an aside, Mr Larry and Mr Tat also offer up the possibility that they are the NATIVES of the Colony planet, and that it is the humans who have driven them underground, making it even meaner that they get blown up at the end!)

However, Mr Russell sweeps these objections aside with a single line of Retcon in "Gridlock" when Mr Dr David describes them as a "scourge of this galaxy" and having an empire "built on human slaves".

So the Macra definitely ARE smart, and they definitely ARE behind the Colony's enslavement. Probably they have HYPNOTIC mind powers™ with which to take over gullible humans and control them into installing fiddly, not-very-claw-friendly things like nerve-circuits.

Mind Powers would, of course, tie in with an ability to evolve onto a new and non-corporeal plane, given two or three billion years of not-being-exploded-by-the-Doctor in which to do it.

But what sort of Holiday Camp would have a nasty infestation of insects? Certainly not this one, where all the clothes are laundered every day, and everyone gets a brainwashing every night.

Maybe they are another sort of BUG altogether. Dr Woo also describes them as like GERMS (episode 4, scene 16) and Mr the Pilot too asks if they are some form of monstrous BACTERIA (episode 4, scene 20) but then in the same line he thinks that they might be insects, again.

Isn't Dr Woo being METAPHORICAL about this, though? In a characteristically brief piece, er, pieces, Daddy Alex diagnoses the Macra condition:
"The Doctor treats them as if they are the Colony’s psychosis made manifest, and in that way they remain effective. Though they’re not able to do much except by insinuation – ironic, as they’re probably the physically largest monsters in the series to that point – that’s the whole point of the story, as they’re aided by the Colony not wanting their ideas or comfortable way of life challenged. The Macra are an idea: they’re the personification of the Colony’s problems, which is why there really are no such things as Macra."
So, the Macra are a DISEASE that is also an IDEA, but at the same time they are also great big monsters with CLAWS that breathe a special GAS.

That's completely PREPOSTEROUS… and also the premise of "The Invisible Enemy". I told you to hold onto that Prawn thought!

"The Invisible Enemy" would have been the MOST embarrassing story ever for Mr Dr Tom, if they hadn't broadcast "Underworld" three months later. It is, on the other fluffy foot, also the story that brings together the IRONIC… I mean ICONIC team of (as Daddy Alex puts it) "man in scarf, woman in leather bikini, and tin dog". But that's not important right now.

The POINT is that in "The Invisible Enemy", Dr Woo runs into a NOETIC (meaning made of ideas) virus called the Virus. First it gets into the TARDIS and then it infects Dr Woo's brain. (And at this point it is interesting to note that Macra mind-control is reinforced, while the Colony sleeps, by means of "nerve-circuits", suggesting something that is a MIX of technological and ORGANIC.)

Because Mr Dr Tom's brain is WEIRD, the Virus is able to cross the "mind-brain interface" and achieve a kind of prawny physical existence. And then, by hijacking the Doctor's Relative Dimensional Plot Hole Stabiliser, it gets itself blown up to enormous size. Before Leela* blows it up to even more enormous, but somewhat more diffuse, size thanks to an explosive combination of its preferred atmosphere mixed well with oxygen and run!

(*Actually Dr Woo does this, but it WAS Leela's idea, no matter what HE might say!)

But what if, what IF, not all of the giant-sized virus eggs get scrambled in the explosion?

And one other piece of evidence: paying a spot visit to the inside of his own head, Dr Woo ends up debating against the Virus for his very life. Like you do. He protests that it has no right to carry out its plans, not just because it is an evil invader but because it is acting against the natural order of things.

The Virus's proper place, argues the Doctor, is in the microscopic universe of bacteria, but it wants to invade the macroscopic universe too – the Macra-universe, you might say.

Is this going to get our TIMING in a knot, though? When fixing a date for "The Macra Terror", people tend to put it in the "Earth colonies" era, between the Dalek Invasion of Earth and the Earth Empire. So that's basically the Twenty-Third and Twenty-Fourth Centuries, along with stories like "The Space Pirates", "The Androids of Tara", "Vengeance on Varos" and, um, "Colony in Space" (well sort of).

But if the Macra in "The Macra Terror" are descended from the Virus, then the Colony would have to exist after the year Five Thousand, when Dr Woo definitively dates "The Invisible Enemy" to be set.

Yet surely this isn't a problem. Leela herself comes from a "lost colony" in the far future, and Dr Woo describes the year Five Thousand as "the time of your ancestors". And Mr the Pilot says that the Colony was "…settled from the Earth planet many CENTURIES ago". MANY centuries. "Many" sounds like more than a Millennium rather than less. Is eight centuries "many"? Could be; is "two"? Almost certainly not.

Dr Woo ALSO describes 5000 AD as "the year of the Great Break-out, when humanity went leapfrogging across the solar system on their way to the stars… ". A NEW wave of human colonialism is about to break across the galaxy, in spite of – or maybe BECAUSE of – the fact that there's supposed to be an Ice Age ("The Ice Warriors") and a scientific Dark Age ("The Talons of Weng Chiang") going on back home. Actually, the Kilbracken Cloning technique and the Zygma time experiments are all of a piece with an era where grotesque and ridiculous experiments trade real science for the carnival tent. Under those circumstances, the SMARTEST people on the planet will be looking to get OFF on any ship going, leaving the Earth to descend into its frozen neo-feudalism. Perhaps the Colony is founded by people leaving the Earth in the Break-out.

And, because it DOES all tie in – no REALLY! – if you were a super-evolved disease that feeds on INTELLIGENCE, you'd definitely want to be on those rocket ships with 'em.

The Doctor says that people in the year Fiver Thousand are “…waiting to spread across the galaxy like a tidal wave… or a disease.”

That's clearly an in-story reference, flagging up presence of the Virus, but it's also a more general point as well saying that humans carry their diseases WITH THEM. So you might think that some of those Colony ships that end up refuelling on Titan could pick up one or two surviving Macra and carry them out to the stars to infect new planets with them.

Therefore, is it completely unreasonable to think that "The Invisible Enemy" is an unwitting PREQUEL to "The Macra Terror"?

"The Invisible Enemy" has its own (deniable for copyright reasons) prequel as well, of course: "Fear Itself", the actually-surprisingly-good last adventure for Mr Dr Paul in the BBC Books range, actually a Past Doctor Adventure set in a gap in their own Eighth Doctor Adventures range. Obviously this was WAY past the point where the spin-off books desperately needed a new television series, though fortunately also after the point when Mr Russell was already writing one!

"Fear Itself", for the many millions of Doctor Who viewers who probably missed that one, reveals that for countless Millenniums the atmosphere of Jupiter was a battleground between two viruses, artificially engineered by aliens as weapons and nicknamed by the Doctor as "Fear" and "Loathing". Yes, it's Fear and Loathing in Los Atmosphere. Human scientists, studying Jupiter's weather, accidentally create a computer-virus version of the "Fear" virus and accelerate its evolution by millions of years to the point where it gets smart enough to join forces with its organic counterpart and try and take over. The Doctor manages to rescue everybody and leaves Fear and Loathing to take care of each other, but (like all true-hearted Macra stories) it ends with a great big explosion (don't mention "Gridlock", Daddy Alex!) and maybe, maybe some of the Fear virus gets blasted out of Jupiter's atmosphere to wind up in space on the way to what will one day be slightly off the beaten tracks of the Titan shuttle run…

…which is where the Virus gets picked up in "The Invisible Enemy".

So the Macra begin as a computer-simulation of a sentient idea based on an alien biological weapon. They evolve themselves into a virus, infect the Doctor, blow themselves up to Macro size, join the humans' Great Breakout, infest Colonies across the galaxy, crawl all over them, build an empire, lose an empire, and spend a billion years doing a little light gardening to make Rufusis all nice and tidy. And then they get an ark-ship-load of dress-wearing human refugees (and their elephants) land on top them just at the point where they've evolved BACK into ideas with superior mind-powers again.

This, as I am sure you know, is also the life cycle of a Liberal Democrat policy paper!

Welcome to Conference; Happy Seaside holidays, everybody!

Cue Dance of the Macra!



Nick Campbell said...

Loved that too. More, more! A book, a book!

I thought you were going to argue, at one point, that the Doc has it wrong and the Macra we see in Gridlock are the original beast, and the Refusians just came along and possessed them in their bid to conquer/punish Earth colonies. But I’m guessing the dates don’t match up…

Haven’t listed to TMT for years, actually…

Hope you’re well, and have fun in Bournemouth! There used to be an absolutely ace comics shop there called Wonder World, where I bought many copies of DWM back issues in 199something, and got one of them signed by Colin of Baker himself. I think it’s gone now, and in any case, you don’t need distractions…


Tat said...

One of the many silly things about volume 1 of 'About Time' is that any attempt I made to argue that 'The Ark' was real and 'The End of the World' was also real got lost because my co-author has trouble with ideas like Relativity and has a bee in his bonnet about how his 'generation' supposedly process images differently from grown-ups.
So how great 'Star Wars' was, his curious notion that people born after 1970 can jaunt using big belt-buckles and why 'readers' are evil got into print and my elegant exegesis on how the images being received by people in the 57th Segment of Time were somewhat delayed and that seven hundred years for them might be thousands of generations for people not on a fast-moving spaceship went the way of the sensible version of Dalek chronology.
I can't see anything wrong with your theory except the old aesthetic argument that trying to link up every single story diminishes the very huge universe of the series and leads to horrible Eric Saward-style logjams.
This sort of extreme Cartesian Dualism (I expect to see a series with that title on Discovery Turbo any day now)would, of course, be entirely in keeping with the whole Kafka thing of representing body-loathing with bugs - which is rather what Cho-Je suggests the Metebelis Spiders were. (I'm also thinking of 'Dark Crystal', as one does when unconvincing beetle-people attack - and that's going to be on the same channel immediately afterwards).
The comic shop I remember from Bournemouth was halfway to Poole and only seemed to appear when you weren't looking for it. Still, that was in 1991 and I doubt it's still there. (But if it is, how would you know unless you get lost looking for a chemists?)

Nick Campbell said...

Wonder World was nowhere near Poole, fortunately for me. It was in Boscombe, then it was at the head of the High Street near the Post Office, then it was two doors down from Smiths. You'd have to admire their persistence if they still existed.

I don't really think you can bring Kafka in to comment on The Macra Terror. The Sunmakers, more possibly.