The Macra Terror (AudioBook)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 11 September 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Ian Stuart Black,
Read by Anneke Wills,

First published by Target Books in 1987,
Released by BBC Audio - 4 August 2016.
Running time: 3 hours,  5 mins

In the 24th Century, a human colony enjoy a truly enviable lifestyle in their domain, which in many ways resembles a holiday camp from yester-century. Conformity and contentment go hand in hand, as everyone serves the interests of a society that runs like clockwork and never shows anything other than a positive demeanour.

But one of their own, a bearded and fidgety man called Medok suddenly insinuates that foul creatures are taking over control. No-one wants to believe his rather alarmist claims though, at least that is until a crew of four strangers arrive out of the blue...

 

This story has grown steadily in my affections over the years as a fan of Doctor Who, and also someone interested in social science and philosophy in general. I first encountered it when it came out at the same time as The Evil Of The Daleks on dual audio cassette in 1992. 

As a child back then I would devoutly replay these releases on my portable Sony 'Walkman' when travelling somewhere new, yet I would only fully engage with David Whitaker's epic.

Macra was just a curiosity. Not even a solitary episode existed, and having the Sixth Doctor / Colin Baker as the narrator somehow felt more opaque than the definitive (especially back then) Fourth Doctor/ Tom Baker.

But over time I have realised how the Season Four finale does suffer slightly from its seven episodes, and multiple locations, even if it remains great escapism. Macra is however concise, ascends in its suspense and feeling of high stakes, and makes the most of its overall premise.

 

As of today, only The Power Of The Daleks stands head and shoulders higher over this tale, as the marquee story of a season of Doctor Who, that said 'goodbye' to one talented actor in the lead, and 'hello' to an arguably more skilful thespian. Of course now we have the news that the debut Troughton story will make a comeback of sorts in the coming months, in the form of an exciting and newly envisioned animation.

For a great story to exist in the first place, it invariably needs a very strong and confident writer. Ian Stuart Black is one of the perhaps more under-rated scribes in Who lore and should be thanked for giving the show a vital shot in the arm when it began to falter in the latter half of Season Three. Today, we only have The War Machines (essentially intact), whilst Black's other two efforts - The Savages, and this story - are lost almost entirely. All three do however deserve to be remembered fondly.

I do think Macra is the cleverest and boldest of Black's three televisual serials. The novelization here accomplishes admirably efficient world building whilst maintaining the pace of the 'snappy' four parter structure.

 

The story has much to make the readership ponder themes and philosophy. One of the more overt is the need to be sceptical and questioning over what a person is told, and how they should invariably conform. If there is not enough of this independent thought, then the individual is in danger of losing their array of senses, and to be effectively brainwashed. Each chapter has something to say about the subliminal techniques used by the story's antagonists to wield power, and this manipulation is effective primarily due to the victim' sense of being euphoric and having the perfect life.

By making Ben Jackson the most susceptible of the TARDIS crew, when normally he is the most argumentative and dominant in nature, the original TV story managed to take viewers at the time on a journey where they questioned if what they thought they knew about the show's heroes was perhaps more superficial than first thought.

There is also a very strong amount of in-depth exploration on the nature of what is acceptable in society, and what is 'eccentric' or 'insane'. The various references to insanity and to hospitalisation/medication that controls said malady are as relevant to today's social confines, where the idea of normal is so strongly prioritised, they were in the 'swinging' Sixties, when this story was conceived (and had its regrettably one-off UK transmission).

The fate of one of the key guest characters of the story is also altered. Whereas in the transmitted story this person seemed to meet an abrupt end, in this version the author was allowed to present an alternative fate, as he held the full reins as the writer of the novelization. Consequently this key player in proceedings is allowed a fully formed arc and a sense of vindication.

 

And as an audio book, this stands up rather well too. Anneke Wills does a very respectable job in showing her range of skills, as the sole member of a one person cast. Many guest actors in the original show were strong, not least Peter Jeffrey (as the 'Pilot'), who later went on to have an even better role as the more villainous Count Grendel in the Tom Baker Era. But Wills uses the rich text of the book to narrate events and characters vividly, and switches personas for the various members of the colony distinctly and with full attention to detail.

The only niggling issue I have is that whilst her Second Doctor portrayal has much of the core mercurial spirit of Patrick Troughton, the actual voice - in terms of pitch - is more akin to William Hartnell. But I must admit, this is one area that is rather easy to criticise, much like Maureen O'Brien could only gamely attempt to portray her Doctor in The Space Museum, released earlier this year. Sometimes the sheer star quality of the main man in this sci-fi/fantasy phenomenon can be a double edged sword...

 

Sound effects and musical cues are well up to the usual standard for these BBC Audio releases. Such is the strength of the core text, and the dedicated, whole-hearted presence of Anneke Wills, these supporting elements act as a nice bit of icing on the cake, rather than something to break up a potential monologue. Whether you are clued-up on classic Who like myself, or someone who has only glimpsed the Macra in the Tenth Doctor belter Gridlock, this is a great addition to your audio collection. This late summer release lives up to the legacy of the sadly missing black and white BBC production.





Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment (audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 11 August 2016 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Doctor Who and The Sontaran Experiment (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Ian Marter
Read by Jon Culshaw
Released by BBC Audio on 7 July 2016
First published by W.H. Allen & Co. Ltd in 1978
Running time: 3 hours approx.

The Sontaran Experiment was the first two-part story to be novelized. Ian Marter’s text provided a model for others to follow, selectively expanding scenes or reimagining situations and sections of the plot in such a way that the book didn’t seem to have stretched its source material too thin in order to fill the 128 page count standard for Target in 1978. Not all his examples were followed by others, but Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment remains one of the most readable Target books. It’s now one of the most listenable too.

The success of Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment as an audiobook owes much, of course, to its reader. Jon Culshaw is a versatile and sensitive performer and shows his familiarity with the television source material. His Styr (as Marter renames Styre, slightly Germanically) has a lot of Kevin Lindsay’s bored colonial officer about it, but with an added note of cruelty to the hoarse voice in keeping with Marter’s reinterpretation of the character. The Galsec crew members turn up with South African accents present and correct, all distinctive and all from Culshaw. Sarah Jane Smith is Culshaw talking slightly more lightly and gently, and Harry Sullivan not too different from Culshaw’s narrator’s voice, respecting the relationship between the authorial voice and Harry’s viewpoint in Marter’s first two novelizations.

A good number of listeners will be curious to know how far Jon Culshaw’s fourth Doctor reflects his Tom Baker impersonation from Dead Ringers. Culshaw’s Doctor is realized more sensitively and subtly here than it was in his comedy persona, though there are still more than flashes of it every time Culshaw has to talk in pseudoscientific jargon or reminisce about constellations visited. He enjoys the dialogue which Marter adds, creating a fourth Doctor a little closer to the Tom Baker whom Ian Marter knew, crossing over fiction and reality. The Doctor’s rugby ball metaphor might have appeared on television, but certainly not his carrying around a flask of Glenlivet. We are assured, though not in precisely these words, that Styr would not have survived a night in the Colony Room with Tom and his Soho friends.

One of the great strengths of Ian Marter’s writing, at least where his first two books were concerned, was that he took the sets and locations of the television stories and created something extraordinary from them while keeping faith with his source. The Dartmoor locations of The Sontaran Experiment on television become the foundation for a gnarled postapocalyptic landscape, full of monstrous ochre reeds and brittle, black ferns atop deep ravines and cavernous labyrinths. As mentioned above Styr is developed into a dedicated sadist by Marter, who writes of how Styr enjoys putting his subjects – particularly Sarah Jane Smith – through tortures far more horrible than anything realized on television. In contrast he Styre written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin is someone who can easily be read, in the words of one of my favourite reviews, as ‘a harassed Biology student trying to complete his practical on time.’ Marter’s Styr, though, is a complex creation, a cyborg entity whose flesh is likened to plastic, seaweed, rubber and steel wool, and viewed by different characters in different ways. To Sarah, he’s a noxious reptile and a bloated, snorting pig; to Harry he’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and the Golem of Jewish folklore, as if spontaneously generated from the devastated Earth, though Culshaw’s short vowels will make listeners think of Tolkien’s Gollum.

There’s a lot to intrigue in the writing, particularly the hallucinating Harry’s successive threatening visions of Sarah. Perhaps Marter viewed Harry as jealous of Sarah’s relationship with the Doctor, depicted as intense and trusting with Harry too often a third wheel. However, one of the more spectacular expansions is Harry’s exploration of the Sontaran ship, a more complex vessel in the book than suggested on television, which not only allows Harry to be heroic but is read with a careful urgency by Culshaw.

Simon Power’s sound design is appropriate throughout, especially in the torture scenes which are given suitably visceral cues. At about 180 minutes this audiobook isn’t too long and writer and reader are good companions for a few hours. It’s a small but determined sidestep into a reimagined fourth Doctor era, of interest to old and new audiences and an early indication of the elasticity of Doctor Who.

 








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