Doctor Who - Terror of the Autons

Doctor Who Terror of the Autons

Continuing his journey through classic Doctor Who whilst he waits for the new series, Steve Hendry watches Terror of the Autons...

It’s amazing! It’s fantastic! Conquer the Earth with living plastic! (Taken from the album “You will obey”, by Colonel Masters and The Nestenes)

In the style of the earliest Doctor Who BBC Video releases in the late 1980s, cult-friendly channel Horror has been screening feature-length versions of some of the classic serials it has been (re)introducing to television viewers in recent weeks, on weekend afternoons. This style of presentation never actually bothered me, as only the opening and closing titles, bar those from the first and final episodes were omitted, with a complete story credit at the end. At some stage, fairly early in the sequence of regular releases if I remember correctly, BBC Video felt compelled to include all credits after complaints from certain types of fans. DVD releases of The Curse of Fenric and Day of the Daleks have included enhanced feature-length versions alongside the original, and I find them more enjoyable. Steven Moffat has scoffed at the use of the recaps at the start of classic Who episodes before now and I agree with him when he questions what the point of them ever was.

One recently broadcast serial that has had the Saturday matinee treatment is Terror of the Autons, the first of Robert Holmes’ masterpiece-grade stories. The demands placed on Holmes here were manifold - introduce a new companion and a new regular enemy, re-introduce the Autons, and most challenging of all, follow the astonishingly brilliant Inferno. Of course, Holmes meets every one of these challenges and delivers perhaps the best season opener until The Eleventh Hour in the show’s first fifty years. So let’s get the big stinker out of the way, and it’s no fault of the script writer - the departure of Liz Shaw. With the exception of Sam Tyler’s off-screen death in Ashes to Ashes, I have yet to witness a leading character being written out of a television series in such an unsatisfactory fashion. Pregnancy hastened Caroline John’s departure from the show between seasons, yet surely her exit could have been better served than asking Holmes to explain it away with a single line from the Brigadier. Rumours that Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts did not favour a strong minded, intelligent female companion leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth, and John herself was on record as claiming all the directors wanted was “a sexy piece”. If they had no plans to renew her contract for season eight, a dignified departure for both character and actor in Inferno would have been preferable.

Regardless of the manner of Caroline John’s departure, an opportunity presented itself for Letts and Dicks to introduce a new companion. In Josephine Grant I am presented with a rare problem, and one that isn’t especially good for an opinion piece writer to have - I don’t know whether I like her or not. Katy Manning herself is lovely, and has been a great ambassador for Doctor Who over the years, so I find it difficult to blame her for my indecision. Yet I wasn’t affected by Jo’s eventual departure in The Green Death, as many fans are, and couldn’t have cared less if she’d stuck around as the king’s beard in The Curse of Peladon. But she is unquestionably brave, as displayed in this story when rescuing the Doctor from Luigi Rossini and going off alone to Farrell Plastics when there was clearly something dodgy going on. I can’t help thinking her character sits oddly in terms of the two companions that came either side of her though. Liz and Sarah-Jane are smart career women, terrific role models for adolescents watching the show, whereas Jo seems entirely reliant on daddy’s bank account and has about as much going on upstairs as Craig Owen’s loft after the Silent craft has taken off. 

Doctor Who Terror of the Autons

I have no such issue of indecision around my opinion of the other incoming regular star in this serial though. Roger Delgado’s Master is imperious from the first second he appears on screen, and I cannot recall another second wasted by him between this debut and Colony in Space. A single click of the fingers is more effective from Delgado than ten pages of words from other actors. I like Jon Pertwee, but he’s often been accused of ‘phoning in’ some performances during his tenure, and it is worth noting that he always raised his game considerably when acting opposite Delgado. They spend little time on screen together here, due in no small part to Robert Holmes being aware that he would be a recurring character and the time for big showdowns would come later. Yet we see early signs that the two renegades have a grudging respect for each other, at the story’s end especially. There is a terrific piece of dialogue in The End of Time when The Master has The Doctor strapped up, Hannibal Lecter-style, and the two old enemies wonder what they’d be without each other. Here in The Master’s case, and not for the last time, the answer would be-almost certainly dead. Delgado is the perfect psychopath throughout, and it is to Russell T Davies’ credit that absolutely nothing is lost from his performances from imagining the rhythm of four drumbeats pulsating in his head.

Full marks again to Holmes for bringing something fresh to the Nestenes and Autons, a lazy rehash of Spearhead from Space would have been enough for many writers. Who’s master of the macabre instead has glorious fun with them, asphyxiating unsuspecting punters with free plastic daffodils, crushing others with inflatable armchairs and wrapping a telephone cord around the neck of a gurning Doctor. The most memorable set piece in a story crammed full of them though, is the gruesome doll strangling Farrell Senior, an image that will no doubt have had Mary Whitehouse and her ilk wringing their hands and wondering what the children would think. With this in mind, I sat my sons (aged 7 and 9) down to enjoy Terror of the Autons and, as I expected, they both insisted I replayed this scene several times.

A third Time Lord is added briefly to the mix, warning The Doctor of The Master’s presence on Earth. Not for the last time, Robert Holmes writes some intriguing Gallifreyan facts into the show’s canon, with the unnamed Time Lord revealing Earth to be 29,000 light years from The Doctor’s home planet. We learn of the Tribunal and find they are somehow monitoring our hero’s Earth-bound adventures during his exile. The “unimaginative plodder”, as Number Three dismissively refers to him, is in fact a couple of steps ahead of The Doctor by the end. His bus driving skills are to be admired; obtaining a PSV licence as well as a higher class degree in cosmic science than The Doctor’s before leaving Gallifrey shows great forward planning.

Autons

The Autons are ultimately defeated the same way as they usually are, and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang apart, this is perhaps why they’ve only been used as a background threat in a story that has broader aims, these being the introduction of a new Doctor, regular villain or companion (This story, Spearhead from Space and Rose all juggled two of these, of course). As an adversary, they lend themselves better to impressive and memorable visuals than most in the show’s history. 

Unfortunately for them however, if you interrupt the Nestenes’ signal to them, they’re all instantly beaten. All that changes is the method of that interruption from story to story, and with Moffat’s incredibly effective Rory trick unlikely to be repeated, we may have seen the last of them, for a long while at least. Nonetheless, they are responsible for some of the show’s best body horror scenes (Auton Mickey’s head in the restaurant being my personal favourite) and deserve their place at the top table of Doctor Who monsters, not to mention being the honour of being the first villain to greet visitors to the Doctor Who Experience when it was in its Earls Court home (see pic above, from 2008). Very often I see new Who fans on social media asking what stories they should watch first in order to get some background knowledge on the series’ lore, Terror of the Autons ought surely to be near the top of any such list.

Image - BBC.