I’m just back from a press screening of the BBC’s new animation of The Macra Terror and can report that it is utterly charming – and surprisingly engrossing for a Doctor Who production clawed back from oblivion after 52 years.
Many fans will already know that this is one of the lost classics of 1960s Doctor Who. It sees the second Doctor and his companions Polly, Ben and Jamie arrive on a colony world where all is ostensibly jolly on the surface, but the society is overseen by a Big Brother-like Controller and overrun at night by giant crab-like Macra.
“Classic” might be stretching it a bit, but The Macra Terror was one of the early gems featuring Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. This four-part serial was shown only once in the UK in 1967 (with subsequent airings across the world) but the BBC wiped its master-tapes a very long time ago, and so far no film copies made for overseas sales have been recovered.
What has survived is a magnificent soundtrack, home-made audio recordings of those original transmissions. “We thank the super fans,” said the project’s exec producer Paul Hembury at the screening, referring to Graham Strong, who hard-wired his TV set in 1967 to record the episodes, and audio whizz Mark Ayres, who’s restored Strong’s tapes so they sound like they were made yesterday. The timbre of the voices rings clear. Dudley Simpson’s warbling synthesised score and Brian Hodgson’s ambient Radiophonic effects still sound avant-garde and unnerving.
The animation team (among them director/producer Charles Norton, character designer Martin Geraghty and artist Adrian Salmon) have worked wonders, creating a lustrous piece that stands on its own. In some respects, it’s faithful to the 1967 production (costume and set design) and in others it takes liberties. The animation is in colour and widescreen, whereas the original was monochrome and in the boxy 4:3 ratio. It was also made on a restricted budget in small studios at Lime Grove. Here, they’ve allowed more space, more sheen, establishing shots of the colony buildings and planet surface. I particularly appreciated the shifting focus and depth of field within certain frames.
The crumpled, expressive Troughton is a gift to animators, as is Gertan Klauber who played Ola, the colony’s lardy chief of police (below). They’ve captured the essence of Frazer Hines as Jamie but Polly and Ben’s defining features remain elusive. I think Anneke Wills and Michael Craze were just too beautiful to be easily rendered in cartoon form.
The monstrous crustacean Macra was risible in 1967 but gets a full makeover here. As Anneke Wills recalled at the screening: “It was huge and clunky with claws made of papier-maché. We had to pretend being sucked up into it. Pat [Troughton] said we’ll have to cover this up with a lot of Polly’s blood-curdling screams.” The animation retains elements of the 67 version (lamp-like eyes, the gaping maw) but wisely improves its movement and menace.
A few cuts have been made, too, where some on-screen action couldn’t be determined after five decades or was simply too tricky to render in animation. Purists may fume, but a complete version of the serial is included on the DVD/Blu-ray set via a photographic/telesnap reconstruction made by my talented old pal Derek Handley.
This project has been a year in the making, Charles Norton revealed today. How was this story chosen? They wanted something completely missing from the archive. It was a toss-up between this and The Highlanders, Troughton’s second serial, but that would have challenged the team with too much tartan and too many cast members. For similar reasons, the first Doctor’s historical adventures such as Marco Polo and The Crusade would be problematic. However, it sounds like further lost serials from the 60s are on their way…
Doctor Who: The Macra Terror will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 25 March.
Read Mark Braxton’s appreciation of The Macra Terror in the Radio Times Doctor Who Story Guide