Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Prologue

(If you’re wondering where the write-up for the last chapter of Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is…well, there isn’t going to be one.  There’s a couple of reasons why, but first and foremost is that even with the potentially infinite potential of human language I ran out of ways to say “Shut up about Tim liking chocolate” and “God, Dracula is a lame villain.” I’m sure all nine of my readers are disappointed.)  

Novelizations of movies are funny things, and to be honest I never really “got” them.  On one hand, they’re a hopeful sign that literature can and will endure despite the proliferation of audiovisual media, and can offer interesting perspectives on movies especially since novelizations tend to be based on earlier drafts of scripts or at least cover scenes that got chopped from the film itself.  On the other hand, they’re practically acknowledged by everyone to be cheap cash-ins of the most blatant kind, existing basically just to give fans of a particular movie a (allegedly) more immersing experience.  After all, you’d heard of great movies based on books, but what about great novelizations of movies?  Sure, I bet they’re out there even if they don’t get talked about, but the point is nobody expects them to be more than just braincandy.

But what I’m really interested in is what happens when a decent writer gets commissioned to write a novelization of a bad movie. That’s why I actually tracked down the official novelization of Batman & Robin by Michael Jan Friedman.

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Friedman has the cred, especially for this kind of assignment.  He’s a multiple New York Times list bestseller and has written dozens of novels and comics, mostly for the Star Trek franchise and DC Comics.  So can even he spin gold out of shi – I mean, straw?

Well, as much as I pretty much despised, loathed, and didn’t care at all for Batman Forever, the great and prolific Peter David wrote a pretty decent novelization of Batman Forever.  Granted even he couldn’t do anything to stitch the badly butchered Two-Face back together again, and there wasn’t much to be done to soften the blow of the awful dialogue, but it honestly wasn’t bad.  He gave the Riddler a childhood backstory that actually added depth to his obsession with Bruce Wayne, pretty much made the Riddler’s homoerotic fixation on Bruce Wayne more blatant in an interesting way, and even addressed the fact that in the movie continuity Batman used to kill.  Can Friedman at least make something out of one of the worst superhero scripts to ever come out of a word processor?  Let’s find out.

A storm was coming.  Eight year-old Bruce Wayne could feel it in the biting coldness of the air as he and his parents emerged from the movie theater.  He could feel it in the way the hair prickled on the back of his neck.

So we get a rehash of Batman’s origin story, with young Bruce leaving a screening of a film adaptation of “Zorro” with his parents.  Well, we get the Tim Burton movie’s version of it, anyway, except it sleets while it happens, because I guess it has to be connected to the story’s villain some way.  I guess it’s better than foreshadowing Poison Ivy by having Jack Napier wear a gaudy rose lapel.

But the weather isn’t the only irony.

“It’s all right,”  said Bruce’s mother, though she frowned a little  as she watched the sleet catch the light from the streetlamps.  “Honestly, Thomas.  A little weather hurt anyone.” […] Bruce felt a hand on his shoulder, strong but gentle – his fath”er’s hand.  The boy smiled at the sense of assurance it gave him.  With a hand like that on his shoulder, he could do anything.  Take any risk, no matter how great. […] Looking up, Bruce saw a stone figure with the face and wings of an eagle sticking out from a third-floor cornice.  The figure seemed to leer at him, to grin like the Devil as the sleet grew heavier.

It wasn’t the trauma of seeing his parents murdered that turned Bruce Wayne into Batman;  it was a dangerously high concentration of irony.

Next we flash-forward to Alfred talking with a child psychologist about Bruce and “the incident.”  I rather like this scene, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that it’s one that was never in the script, since it actually gives some depth to the Bruce Wayne/Batman-Alfred relationship.

“Forgive me, but Mr. Wayne once described your employment here as temporary.  He mentioned that your first love is the theater – and that you hope to return to it once day.”

“It had occurred to me,” Alfred conceded.

The stout man’s [psychiatrist’s] brow furrowed.  “Normally, it would be none of my business – but I ask out of concern for young Bruce.  He’s already lost the two most important people in the world to him.  I don’t know how close you and he have become, but right now you’re the only real constant in his life.”

Plus Alfred and the psychologist mention Bruce’s uncle Philip, a character introduced in the ’60s who was forgotten after DC’s continuity was rebooted with Crisis on Infinite Earths and only revived in recent continuity.  Who was Philip?  Well, if you ever asked, what are the odds that a butler would be entrusted with the care of his deceased employers’ child, DC’s past writers were ahead of you.  In DC’s “Silver Age,” Philip, Bruce’s nearest living kin, was the one who took in Bruce, a rare instance of DC’s Silver Age stories being more realistic than most of the modern versions.

Sure, it doesn’t add to anything, nor does one line that mentions that Bruce Wayne trained with a “Ducard” in France, but at least they’re references that show that Michael Jan Friendman does care, at least more than He Who Shall Not Be Named.

In the third part of the prologue, we meet Victor Fries (pronounced “free-ze”).  Now in probably one of the worst examples of big-name casting in all of Hollywood history, Arnold Schwarzenegger was picked to play Mr. Freeze, and the sheer bad juju radiating from that casting has leaked out over the book.  So here pre-supervillain Victor Fries is not only a brilliant scientist in the making, but an Olympic athlete who the teenage Bruce Wayne learns how to high jump from.  Now maybe this is nitpicking, but one of the linchpins that make Batman’s rogues gallery the best in comics is that, even for all of their sociopathic and violent habits, they are at their core shattered beings who have been in their own ways chewed up and spat out by an apathetic and rotten society, not unlike Bruce Wayne himself.  I know Friedman is just trying hard to make a Mr. Freeze who actually matches up with his Schwarzeneggerized incarnation, but…

Incidentally, did you know that Patrick Stewart at one point was considered for the role of Mr. Freeze?  I mean, I don’t think even the good Sir Stewart could have helped Batman & Robin become anything than the latter-day b-movie disasterpiece it became (although certainly Scharzenegger did contribute some of its essential charm), but maybe somewhere in the multiverse a decent version of Batman & Robin exists with a Mr. Freeze who, you know, actually acts like his popular animated series incarnation.

Anyway, the prologue is decent enough that it gives me a little hope, but then I realize that with chapter one we’re entering Akiva Goldsman-territory.  Well, at least maybe we’ll get a decent explanation as to how Alfred could whip up a computer with Artificial Intelligence…

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Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Review: The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)

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I know, this one’s been out for a few years, but I let this movie fall under my radar for far too long and I want to do what I can to make up for that.

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society landed itself on just about every H.P. Lovecraft lover’s map by making a deliciously ambitious silent film adaptation of Lovecraft’s foundational short story, “The Call of Cthulhu.”  The idea was to present a world – an alternate timeline, if you will – where Lovecraft, instead of dying a virtually unknown writer, had the cred in his lifetime that his name earned after his death, so much so that big-budget Hollywood adaptations of his stories existed.  With that concept in mind, HPLHS’s The Call of Cthulhu was as much a period piece as it was a Lovecraft adaptation.  Naturally, the HPLHS followed up with an adaptation of Lovecraft’s later story, “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but, since it was written in 1930, this adaptation would be a talkie.

ImageH.P. Lovecraft has been deemed unadaptable, a judgment borne out more or less by the many adaptations we have seen, from 1963’s famously lackluster The Haunted Palace (which at least deserves some distinction for being a Lovecraft adaptation thinly disguised as an Edgar Allen Poe adaptation for legal reasons) to 2001’s fun but pretty un-Lovecraftian Dagon.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s work can accurately guess why;  in short, Lovecraft was better known – infinitely so – for his ideas and bizarre descriptions than for his plots or characters.  Nearly all adaptations get around it, either by just using the source material piecemeal and slapping it on to a more run-of-the-mill horror story, expanding the story to include far more characters (especially women) and action, or just trying to capture the feel of Lovecraft’s bleak, merciless, and “science-gothic” vision of the universe within a story that really isn’t based on anything Lovecraft actually wrote. It probably says a lot that one of the best Lovecraft “adaptations” out there, John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness, isn’t even technically  a Lovecraft adaptation.

Nonetheless, pulling off a good Lovecraft adaptation seems to be the Eldritch Grail for filmmakers.  Besides Roger Corman and John Carpenter, there’s Stuart Gordon, who has basically made an entire career out of trying.  Although I’d be the last one to question Gordon’s chops, his Lovecraft adaptations still try to throw way too many foreign ingredients into the pot.  His best known film, Reanimator, based on Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator”, is a fantastic gory horror-comedy in its own right, but doesn’t really have much by way of Lovecraft’s essence.  Likewise Dagon does feature some of the atmosphere from Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, but unfortunately at a certain point almost turns into Die Hard, which isn’t exactly conducive to Lovecraftian dread.

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Just judging from the film, Sean Branney and Andrew Leman seem conscious of the pitfalls awaiting anyone trying to bring Lovecraft to the screen.  While they do expand on the story and add a third act after the ending of the original story takes place, they stick closely to the source material, but not slavishly so.  A professor specializing in New England folklore, Dr. Wilmarth (Matt Foyer), becomes interested in but remains skeptical of reports from a rural Vermont county of strange crablike beings, reports that echo local Native American tales of a creature they knew as the Mi-go.  Wilmarth enters a strange correspondence with an old farmer from the county, Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), who relates increasingly strange and paranoid accounts of discovering unusual carved stones in the mountains and of his farmhouse being increasingly visited by the Mi-go.  One day Wilmarth receives a letter from Akeley claiming that he no longer fears that the Mi-go are hostile and urging Wilmarth to come visit him personally.  Needless to say, the curious Wilmarth is being lured into a trap, set not only by a cult collaborating with the Mi-go led by a man named Noyes (Daniel Kaeman), but by the inhuman visitors themselves, who have an…interesting proposal to extend to select humans.

Like The Call of Cthulhu, this is an impressive effort, especially given the budget.  The acting is professional-grade and the setting, filmed in authentic Vermont country, will invoke Lovecraft for any fan.  The CGI (which at least is used sparingly) might ruin the period effect for some, but not overly so.  It’s also obvious throughout that Branney and Leman love the source material and know it forwards and backwards.  While like other adapters they add a few new elements (although there is only one new character, Hannah, the daughter of one of the cultists), the spirit of Lovecraft is obvious throughout.  In fact, it does seem like the filmmakers are having a bit of fun with audience expectations.  There’s a few moments where the movie seems ready to veer off into more traditional, safer directions, only for the audience to be rudely reminded that, yes, this is Lovecraft Country in just about every sense of the word.

The Whisperer in Darkness comes strongly recommended, not just to even casual fans of Lovecraft but for anyone willing to give an indie black-and-white horror movie based on a classic a chance.  Even though this film unfortunately didn’t seem to make as many waves as The Call of Cthulhu did, I will personally say a prayer to the Black Goat with a Thousand Young that we’ll be seeing more cinematic efforts from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

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History vs. Hollywood

History vs. Hollywood – Solomon and Sheba (1959)

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[I do history as my dayjob, so even though it doesn’t quite match the theme of Trash Culture, I thought I’d import the “History vs. Hollywood” reviews, where I compare Hollywood historical epics up against the historical facts they purport to cover, that I wrote for a website.  I might do new ones as well in the future.  Enjoy!]

Although they haven’t entirely gone, DeMille-esque historical epics can be something of an acquired taste, thanks to the melodramatic, stylized acting, paper-thin characterization, emphasis on atmosphere over substance, and characters spouting twentieth century ideas with abandon. 1959′s Solomon and Sheba is a blueprint guideline for making a film of this genre, right down to the gloriously decadent sets and the promise of pagan orgies alongside austere visuals of God’s wrath.

What breaks the film out of pure extravagant mundaneness is the gorgeous Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida’s turn as the Queen of Sheba, who goes at a rather shallow role with real bite. Unfortunately, Yul Brenner, perhaps much better known for his roles as King Mongkut of Siam in The King and I and the Gunslinger in Westworld and Futureworld – certainly looks the part of a grim, haunted Solomon, but often looks as though he’s not so much King Solomon than a Yul Brenner vaguely irritated at the proceedings. Perhaps this was because the role of Solomon was originally meant for Tyrone Power, who was already well-known for playing the handsome leading man in historical epics like The Black Swan and The Prince of Foxes, and in fact he had almost finished filming when he died from a heart attack. The role was then given to Brenner with the scenes featuring Solomon refilmed. Nonetheless, Tyrone Power can still be spotted in certain shots, even in the middle of the climactic duel with Adonijah.

Beyond the macabre note and being Tyrone Power’s last film (sort of), there is not much else exceptional about Solomon and Sheba. I wish I could say something more in the film’s favor, since it really does deserve some leeway at least for tackling one of the more interesting and complex personas from the Hebrew Bible and trying to forge a historical epic and a romance from a brief episode recorded in Kings and Chronicles. Unfortunately, the most that can be said is that the film, for all its grandiose sense of style, is a C effort.

History vs. Solomon and Sheba

So was there ever actually a Queen of Sheba?

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The dull answer has to be, “No one knows for sure,” although there is more certainty about her homeland. The “Sheba” spoken of in Kings definitely existed, but its exact location has been under debate. It existed either in Ethiopia (in the modern day region of Shewa), Yemen (where an Arabic people called the “Sabaeans” lived in the 1st millennium BC), or both, since the two regions could have easily been influenced by the same culture or ruled by the same people. Persia, Somalia, Zanzibar, and Sudan have also been proposed as candidates for the site of Sheba, but Ethiopia and/or Yemen are by far the most likely.

Of course, this doesn’t quite answer the question of whether the Queen of Sheba, named “Nikaule” by a Hebrew legend outside the Hebrew Bible that was cited by the first century AD Jewish historian Josephus, is a historical or mythical persona. In my humble opinion, the strength and persistence of the legends about her and the fact that many figures in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible have been proven to have existed indicate a “yes.” At the very least, though, the Hebrew Bible’s account of Solomon and Sheba can be taken as historical evidence of a friendly relationship between Solomon’s Israel and the rulers of Sheba, whoever they were.

Who’s this Adonijah jerk?

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A half-brother of Solomon’s who was supported by Joab, David’s general, and was considered heir-apparent to David since he had become the eldest son after the deaths of his brothers Absalom and Amnon. As the film relates, Adonijah declared himself the next king as David was dying, but David, prompted by Solomon’s mother Bethsheba and the influential prophet Nathan, declared Solomon his successor. Almost everything else about the Adonijah here – even the scene where he tries to start an alliance with the Queen of Sheba and is whipped in the face for his trouble – is complete fiction or speculation, including his ultra-militant stance and rampant assholery.

David says something about how God decreed that only as long as there is peace, not strife, Israel will prosper.

Here’s our first big example example of the film’s rather skewed take on ancient Israel. Like pretty much every major tribal group, kingdom, or state that has ever existed in recorded history, Israel indulged in expansionism, especially by the time of Solomon’s ascension. King David had led the push to seize Jerusalem away from the Canaanites and invaded territories in Syria and Palestine. The kingdom of Israel at its apogee was as much an imperialist power, interested in subduing its neighbors and gaining lands and resources, as its neighbors the Assyrians, the Hittites, the Babylonians, or the Egyptians. I suppose the film can be forgiven, given its naked idealization of biblical history, but this quote is especially clumsy since the Hebrew Bible never blinks at detailing the brutal military campaigns the ancient Israelites launched against the Philistines and the Canaanite city-states.

And, honestly, as anyone who has read or studied Joshua, Numbers, and Judges can tell you, the God of the Torah was not exactly an advocate for peace even on His “good days.”

Just after becoming king, Solomon prays for wisdom and God, happy that Solomon asked for something that will benefit his people, grants it.

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This is an accurate recreation of the famous scene from Kings 3:1-15, which is meant to convey Solomon’s benevolent concern for the Jews as much as the origin of Solomon’s exceptional and legendary wisdom. If only contemporary rulers were as dedicated to self-improvement…

They constantly refer to God as “Jehovah.”

Quibble alert: the Jews in the film should be saying “Yahweh” instead of “Jehovah”, since most scholars now agree that “Yahweh” is the most accurate English rendering of the Hebrew God’s name, the Tetragrammaton or YHWH (although one can argue that, for full accuracy, Solomon and the other Jews in the film should be saying “Hashem”, “the Lord”, or “the Name”). “Jehovah” is a very old-fashioned translation of the Tetragrammaton and has fallen out of favor in biblical scholarship, but persists elsewhere. Of course, this might be a really unfair criticism since I’m not sure if Yahweh had become broadly accepted by the time this film was made or not.

Solomon builds the Temple and, while praising God, says, “There is none else.” Nothing historically inaccurate there, right?

Actually…Solomon and most of his subjects may not have been what we would today call monotheists. Instead the early Jews, including Moses and the first person (or people) to write down the oral traditions that would make up the Torah (which is believed to have happened during Solomon’s reign), seem to have been henotheists (worshipers of only one god while believing in a cosmology that still allowed for other gods). Yahweh was indeed the one god of the Hebrew people, their sole benefactor and protector, and they believed that he was the creator of the world, but they most likely believed that the other peoples too had their deities. After all, the First Commandment only states, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” without denying that these other gods may be actual beings. It’s a bit too involved an argument to make here (and for me to do justice), but the idea of there being only one, existing God was something that crystalized over time with help from the later prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the religious reforms of King Josiah of Judah (r. 640 – 609 BC), and developments during the Diaspora under the Babylonian Empire. There are, though, theories that “true” monotheism was a feature of Judaism as early as the Judges or Moses or that the Jews took the idea of one God from the cult of Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten, the twelfth century pharaoh who declared that the sun-god Amun was the one true God. In fact, the Egyptologist Ahmed Osman has written a number of books claiming that Akhenaten and Moses were really the same person! However, there are also strong arguments based on historical and biblical knowledge against these theories. As far as Solomon is concerned, he and David and Saul before him certainly tolerated the worship of Canaanite or West Semitic deities within Israel – a careful reader of Kings may even notice that several of Saul’s sons have “Baal” honored in their names – hence we have the hostility of later, more “purely” monotheistic writers of the Hebrew Bible toward Solomon and the old Israeli monarchy itself.

Before I blather on further, I’ll stop and recommend Mark S. Smith’s The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, which is definitely not for the casual reader, but provides a very comprehensive summary of the arguments and theories over the development of monotheism in ancient Israel. Not nearly as in-depth on the subject, but more reader-friendly, is Michael Grant’s The History of Ancient Israel, which I recommend below.

All that aside, the movie is absolutely accurate in depicting the construction of the First Temple being completed under Solomon after being begun by David. Solomon’s prayer of dedication is also as recorded in Kings and Chronicles.

The Queen of Sheba is invited to a conference of Middle Eastern monarchs, hosted by the Pharaoh of Egypt. The topic is that everyone’s worried about the bad influence Israel is having on their own subjects. Sheba calls out the root of the problem, Yahweh, “a God that teaches all men are equal and none are slaves.”  Uh, wait, let me get that copy of Leviticus…

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While you do that, I’ll go ahead and point out something about Egypt, which is painted here as the looming superpower, eager and willing for an opportunity to annex all of Solomon’s Israel. At the time of Solomon’s reign, Egypt was passing through one of the low points in its long history, the Third Intermediate Period. There was a power struggle between the high priests of Thebes and the pharaohs, who were then based in the northern Egyptian city of Tanis, that divided Egypt. Although the pharaoh in this film is never explicitly named, he is clearly based on the Twenty-Second Dynasty pharaoh Shishaq, who made a nasty impression on the writers of the Hebrew Bible by being the first foreign enemy to plunder the Temple. However, he did this a few years after Solomon’s death and after the kingdom of Israel had split. Also the stability he imposed on Egypt was very fragile, as shown by the fact that it shattered not long after his death. All that to say is that Shishaq and the other pharaohs at the time had much more to worry about than whether or not Israel was spreading pesky anachronistic ideas about human liberty.

As for the “none are slaves” bit, well, while slavery in ancient Israel or in fact most pre-industrial societies was not as ruthless or dehumanizing a system as it was on the plantations of the modern era, it was still a facet of ancient Hebrew society, neatly regulated by the Torah. To be fair, the screenwriters may have meant to write about “slaves” in a more abstract sense, but even then it just comes across as the blunt hammering in of twentieth century Western and Christian ideals.

Hey, there’s that wacky Solomon, threatening to cut a baby in two!

This is a nice visualization of by far the most well-known anecdote about Solomon, down to his lavish court and Sheba watching from his side.

The relationship with the Queen of Sheba has become scandalous and then she goes and convinces him to allow her to publicly worship her gods.

One of the bad spots on Solomon’s reputation in the Hebrew Bible is his love for foreign women, who lead him into heresy. However, as far as I know, the Queen of Sheba is never explicitly named as one of these mystery women. Also, as pointed out before, Solomon did allow the open worship of gods other than Yahweh.

God gets ticked at the sight of the Queen’s midnight revels with her fellow followers and blows up the Temple.

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Now the film is really taking its liberties. The First Temple was not destroyed until 586 BC, centuries after Solomon’s death, and not by an act of God, but by an act of Babylonians.

The prophet Nathan sneers at Solomon, “Because of you, the nation is torn asunder.”

It’s implied that all the tribes of Israel simultaneously just get up and abandon Solomon, which is a strange plot twist, to say the least. To be charitable, I suppose it’s a reference to the division of Israel into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, but that doesn’t take place until after Solomon’s death and, besides, in the film he reunifies the tribes under his kingship.

Solomon’s prick of a half-brother, who had been banished, sets out to invade Israel with the Pharoah’s blessing.

Here Adonijah is being conflated with Jeroboam, who fled to Egypt after he was discovered raising support to have himself declared king. The real Adonijah had already been put to death for treason by this time. Unlike the film’s Adonijah, Jeroboam remained in Egypt until after Solomon’s demise and never invaded Israel with the help of Egyptian troops, but rather was invited back by those Israelites who rejected Solomon’s son and heir, Rehoboam. Nor was he defeated after a long, dramatic duel, but went on to become the first king of a new kingdom of Israel, comprised of the northern portion of the old Israeli kingdom.

Sheba prays and promises to “convert her people” to Judaism if God saves Solomon from Adonijah and the Pharaoh’s army. God agrees and then Adonijah has her stoned just for the hell of it, but, after Solomon fights Adonijah to the death, God restores the Queen to full health. Oh, and then we find out she’s pregnant with a son.

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This might seem like the screenwriters stretching history out of shape again, but this is actually a friendly little nod to the founding legend of the Emperors of Ethiopia, of all things. See, according to Ethiopian legend Sheba and Solomon did have a son, who became King Menelik I, the legendary first monarch of the Ethiopian monarchy. Even the claim that she would convert her people is not at odds with Ethiopian legend and history; there is some evidence of Judaic worship taking place in ancient Ethiopia.

Recommended Reading

Michael Grant. History of Ancient Israel.

It provides both a good overview of the history of ancient Israel and historical contexts for the Hebrew Bible. It’s useful even for those who shun all memory of childhood Sunday school.

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Macra Terror (1967)

macraterrorIn a human extraterrestrial colony a band is happily practicing while a few officials oversee them.  The preparations are interrupted by a panicked man named Medok, who is trying to escape the colony.  Hiding from the colony’s guards on the planet’s (of course) rocky landscape, Medok notices the TARDIS materialize and attacks the Doctor and the others when they emerge, ranting about the beings who have taken over.  The guards, led by the security chief Ola, capture Medok, calling him “one of their last patients.” Ola offers to introduce the Doctor and the others to “the Pilot” of the colony, who will give them thanks personally for helping capture Medok.  When Jamie asks where they are, the Doctor says they’re in the future on a planet much like Earth, but admits that he’s “only guessing.”

At the Pilot’s headquarters, the Doctor notices that music is constantly played throughout the colony and the Pilot explains it’s how the day is regulated at the colony.  The Pilot leads the visitors to the Refreshment Department, which offers a wealth of spa activities. While the TARDIS crew enjoy themselves, Medok is interrogated and insists that he’s seen strange beings all over the colony. Concerned about Medok, the Doctor leaves the others to check on him just as he’s being imprisoned.  The Doctor sneaks into Medok’s cell and asks Medok if the things he sees crawl on the ground.  Medok is shocked at the Doctor’s question, but still pushes the Doctor aside and flees from his cell.  Ola wants to arrest the Doctor and send him into “the Pits” for hard labor, but the Pilot stops him.  However, the Pilot becomes hostile when the Doctor mentions Medok’s comment about things crawling on the ground, and warns that comments like that could get a person in the hospital for correction.  Ben notices monitors across the colony broadcast a message from a man titled the Controller, who tells the people to “return to their work and play with fresh heart and renewed energy.”  Ben asks one of the colonists if the Controller is a politician.  The colonist replies that the Controller brings the people encouragement.  Ben quips, “He’s not a politician then!”  The Doctor asks the colonist what exactly the other colonists who are busy at various consoles do, and the colonist explains that they channel refined gas, but doesn’t say why.

Later the Doctor finds Medok and finally gets Medok to trust him a little.  Reluctantly Medok explains that the creatures, whom he calls Macra, he sees move at night and look like giant insects with claws.  Other people in the colony have seen the creatures, but claiming to have done so earns people a one-way trip to the hospital.  The Doctor leaves Medok to hide in a construction site and learns that the colony has a strict night curfew when Ola escorts him and his companions to their sleeping quarters, but of course the Doctor takes advantage of the fact that all the guards are looking for Medok in order to sneak away to explore the colony at night.  The Doctor rejoins Medok and while hiding from Ola and a patrol of guards they’re approached by a Macra in the flesh.  In an excited outburst, Medok reveals himself to Ola and says that the Doctor can finally confirm that they spotted the monster.  However, Ola is nonplussed and sends the Doctor to be tried by the Pilot.  Before the Doctor can try to verify Medok’s story, Medok makes a statement to Ola that the Doctor was trying to get him to surrender to the authorities, which the Doctor reluctantly agrees with. After the Doctor leaves, the image of the Controller comes on and orders that the Doctor and the visitors “be turned” since there “cannot be criticism of the colony.”   The Pilot orders that the Doctor and the others be exposed to subliminal messages in their sleep.  Besides the Doctor, only Jamie resists the subliminal programming and, when he tries to wake up Ben, finds that Ben is already looking forward to working for the colony.  Meanwhile the Doctor wakes up Polly and tries to deprogram her, urging, “Don’t do anything of the sort!  Don’t just be obedient!  Always make up your mind!”  Unfortunately, even though the Doctor destroys some of the equipment, it’s too late to save Ben from being brainwashed, and he turns the others in to the authorities.

The Doctor is sent to the Pilot, while at the hospital Medok has been deemed a helpless case and is going to be sent to the Pits.  Ben and Polly fight at the construction site where the Macra appear.  Ben can only repeat like a mantra, “There is nothing harmful or evil in this colony,” while Polly is grabbed by a Macra.  Ben momentarily snaps out of their brainwashing and helps Polly, only to find they’re being pursued by the Macra.  At the Pilot’s office, the Doctor not only pleads guilty to destroying the brainwashing equipment, but admits, “I’m proud of it!”  Ben and Polly are taken to the Pilot’s office too, where Polly insists on their attack by the Macra, but Ben, whose brainwashing has kicked back in, insists that there were no such beings.  The Doctor theorizes that the Pilot and all the colony’s leaders have also been brainwashed all their lives.  Jamie raises the possibility that the Controller is just a face on a monitor and the Pilot pleads with the Controller to prove that he’s an actual person.  Suddenly a nervous old man in a uniform appears on the monitor.  An outside voice commands him to restore order, but the old man just bursts into tears and is attacked by a claw.  Despite the extremely blatant evidence, the Pilot barks that the Doctor and the companions be taken to the Pits.  The old image of the Controller returns and confirms the Pilot’s orders regarding “the strangers.”

As a song with the cheerfully sung lyrics, “We are all happy to work!” plays, the Doctor, Polly, and Jamie are rejoined by Medok, who explains that they’ll have to do work in the mines exposed to gas that will sooner or later kill them, even though no one knows what the gas is used for.  Given that his captors think he’s old (which is the only part of the situation that even annoys the Doctor), he’s forced to be a supervisor, spied on by a still brainwashed Ben.  When one of the supervisors is accidentally knocked unconscious by a gas leak, Jamie manages to steal his keys and uses them to get into a suspicious and seemingly abandoned yet heavily locked shaft, followed by Medok and triggering the mine’s alarms.  The Controller forbids the mine’s officials to send guards into the shaft.  In the shaft, Jamie finds that something has killed Medok;  that something, the Macra, is not far away either.  The Controller orders that the gas be poured into the shaft, but the Doctor realizes that there must be a motive other than trying to kill Jamie and deduces that the Macra need the gas to keep themselves alive.  Back in the mine’s control room, the Doctor pretends to help by meddling with different valves and gets information on what he needs to do from the supervisor’s pleas to stop interfering, saving Jamie and stunning the Macra threatening him by blasting oxygen into the shift.  Then the Doctor pickpockets the supervisor’s keys, locks him outside the control room, and he and Polly flee into a corridor filled with pipes.  Jamie escapes the shaft through a grate and ends up pretending to be a dancer practicing with a trope of the Happy Colony Finals, but is soon caught. The Doctor and Polly hear the Controller’s voice and follow it to a room where a Macra is operating a control panel.

While the Pilot and Ola argue over the fact of Jamie’s escape, the Doctor casually strolls in and asks why they are fighting in a happy colony.  While Polly tries to convince the Pilot, the increasingly shrill Controller demands that the strangers be rounded up and that all the colony’s leaders return to work.  The Pilot is persuaded enough to risk disobeying the Controller.  The Pilot frets over disobeying the law, but the Doctor points out, “Bad laws are meant to be broken” and leads the Pilot to the control room with the Macra, which finally breaks the last vestiges of control over the Pilot.  Under the Controller’s orders, Ola traps the Doctor, Polly, Jamie, and the Pilot in the pipe corridor, which is quickly filled with gas.  Ben, who has finally shaken off the Macra’s programming, follows the Doctor’s instructions and manipulates the mine’s controls to blow up the part of the mine where the Macra live.  In the middle of the Happy Colony Finals, the Pilot appears and rededicates the celebration in the Doctor’s honor.

Continuity Notes

More a production note, but this is the first time that the title screen changes.  The basic psychedelic patterns in the intro remain the same, but now the logo of the “Doctor Who” font has changed and is overlaid with Patrick Troughton’s face, setting a pattern of using the actor currently portraying the Doctor’s face that will last for the rest of the classic series.

Comments

So this is what happens when you cross ’60s Doctor Who with “1984” with a dash of They Live.   Despite having a really rushed conclusion that threatens to slam the story’s momentum against the brick wall, this is definitely a classic episode – which makes it a shame that only a few scattered minutes of footage survive of the entire serial.  Even if you just watch a fan reconstruction or listen to the BBC’s official audio release, it’s worth it.  Even without 99% of the visuals, the Doctor still comes across as a cheer-worthy anti-authoritarian champion and the construction of the colony’s society is conveyed as genuinely unsetling (especially when the old man is “revealed” as the fake Controller). The social commentary might be as on the nose as a fist to the face, but having a protagonist who explicitly urges people to break laws they think are immoral and to always question orders really isn’t as common as you might think.  Plus when you think about it a premise all about giant parasites who brainwash people into mindlessly working all the time for the sake of nothing but the parasites’ own survival in exchange for momentary pleasures and empty platitudes, while malcontents are labelled mentally ill, is pretty daring, and the sort of thing that today would spawn a hundred furious blog posts and a week’s worth of FOX News-generated outrage.  This is definitely on the top of my wish list for episodes to be rescued from oblivion.

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