There was quite a fuss at the time of the original broadcast of Terror of the Autons, which contained some of the most frightening images ever presented in the series. It is precisely these scary moments that make it such an enjoyable viewing experience. Who could forget the troll doll, the killer chair, or the Auton policemen? Everyday items become the enemy, from a daffodil to a telephone cable. And yet the direction is not gratuitous, even shirking away from showing the Doctor dissecting the killer doll although it is made of solid plastic. A lot of reviewers have poked fun at that over the years, but it is actually something a child could try to copy with a toy, so is cut away from with good reason.
One scene stands head and shoulders above the rest, a wonderful piece of stunt work where an Auton policeman is knocked down a steep incline, tumbles to the bottom, and then immediately gets up and starts climbing back towards its target victims; this illustrates perfectly how unstoppable the Autons are. It is actually more impressive than it should have been, as the stunt went wrong and was more dramatic than planned, so at the point the Auton gets back up the stuntman is injured and soldiering bravely on anyway.
As if the return of the Autons were not enough, we are also introduced to a new kind of villain, a Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes; the classic series Master is never better than in his debut story, intelligent and suave, yet totally merciless and evil. He seems to relish the challenge that the Doctor poses to his plans, and the feeling is clearly mutual, as the Doctor is looking forward to their next meeting at the end of Episode Four.
Katy Manning also makes a successful first appearance as Jo, succeeding at being a much better audience identification character than Liz without going completely down the airhead route. Yes, she is a failure academically but this is an opportunity for Doctor Who to show us that it doesn’t matter in life. She is brave and resourceful throughout, while simultaneously being endearingly ditzy. I don’t see this as a backward step, as much as probably the first shining example of Doctor Who taking an ordinary human and showing her learning to be magnificent despite not being born with any natural gifts that might mark her out as a suitable companion for the Doctor (e.g. hyper-intelligence).
Terror of the Autons is not without its faults, but they are generally minor concerns: there is an over-reliance on CSO, so if you are the kind of viewer who is bothered by dodgy special effects then you might find this story frustrating. The Master swaps sides at the end after a couple of words of warning from the Doctor, but I don’t buy this as a problem with the story. It is made perfectly clear that his main aim is to annoy the Doctor, and this is just his way of choosing the side that he finds the most fun once his wind-up attempts have run their course.
The only area where I really have to take issue with the story is in the characterisation of the Doctor. It seems that Pertwee took every one of the few dodgy lines in the script and made them dodgier. I would love to get hold of a copy of the original script so I could see if there are any indications from Holmes about how to play that horrendous “Tubby Rowlands” stuff (not that a lack of them excuses the interpretation). A simple direction such as “hesitantly” would confirm my suspicions that Pertwee was supposed to be playing this as the Doctor bluffing, rather than placing his Doctor firmly in the gentleman’s club scene, quaffing port and smoking cigars with MPs. But that is the Doctor he tries to sell us, along with an opening scene with his new companion where he behaves like a pig. Fortunately the relationship between the two actors clearly develops so rapidly that this is overridden pretty quickly by a developing fondness between Doctor and companion.
So this is a story that is not without its moments that make you wince, but that’s only one percent of the viewing experience. The other 99% is sublime. RP
The view from across the pond:
After encountering the Autons for the first time in Spearhead from Space, the Doctor finds they have a little life left in them in Terror of the Autons.
Terror is another 4 part story, which still seems to work better than many of Pertwee’s longer stories. They allowed for a more concise story to flow without having so much filler that predominated those longer tales. It worked well for his first season opener and it works well again for the second season opener.
Terror of the Autons marks a bunch of firsts. It’s our first meeting with Mike Yates of UNIT fame. I always preferred Benton, but Yates is a good second to the Brigadier and he’s one heck of a marksman, as indicated by his attack on a (pre-Chucky) Nestene doll. It’s our first meeting with Jo Grant, as a replacement assistant to Liz. Writers seemed to have a problem writing girls who could think so Jo is depicted as an abject bungler who sets the Doctor back months after just 5 seconds on screen. It’s also the first encounter with the Tissue Compression Eliminator or TCE for short: a device the Master uses to miniaturize and kill his enemies. I guess it’s a weapon that makes cleanup easier: after a battle, just go around with a Hefty trash bag and a few dozen can fit… Well, one has to wonder about the idea behind these things! And it’s our first meeting with the amazing Roger Delgado as the Master.
Delgado’s Master might have been the best because he was the first, but I’d argue that it was the on-screen chemistry with Pertwee that made him unbeatable. He was the Moriarty to Holmes in the Doctor Who universe. Never has the Master been depicted quite so well again. The relationship was like watching two skilled swordsmen parry with one another; there was a dance-like quality to their interactions that made this pairing marvelous and seeing their first meeting makes this episode worthy of watching in its own right. The viewer can’t help but be happy that the Master is trapped on earth at the end of the episode! There can be more sparring in future stories!
But that’s not the only thing that gives this episode multi-viewing capacity. The creative ways to use plastic to kill is genius. A telephone cord that can strangle, a plastic daffodil that can spray a cover over mouth and nose, suffocating the life out of anyone it hits, a chair that smothers and a little demon doll that can choke… seems the key idea was to stop the victim from breathing! But they are all clever and each unsettling in their own ways. The doll is disturbing to look at with its unblinking eyes and weird little fangs. The daffodil is terrifying because, what could one do? And then there are the Autons themselves in those big, oversized clown-head masks. It’s the distorted human visage that creates disquiet in us – a sense of the known with the “wrong” that chills to the core. The doll and the masks get hold and don’t let go.
As for the regular cast, the Doctor does what I found least appealing about this incarnation: he’s chauvinistic and superior. He wants to fire Jo upon his first meeting but he wants someone else to do it for him. When confronted with her, he can’t do it! Later, when she rescues him from the circus strongman, his initial reaction is to be upset that she disobeyed him. (He does acquiesce that she did help him, but a bit “too little, too late” if you ask me!) Jo Grant is not given a particularly strong opening, although she is skilled at escapology. For me, this begs the question: how does one become good in this field? I mean, can you sign up for classes where someone kidnaps you and you have to escape? Did she have a strange family upbringing involving sleeping in cupboards under the stairs? Handcuffs? All I’m saying is that it’s just an odd choice to say one is skilled in escapology…
And then there’s that Time Lord who comes to warn the Doctor about the Master. Ok, isn’t the Third Doctor in exile on earth for interfering? So what does this Time Lord do? Shows up to tell the Doctor: “hey, your old schoolmate is here to try to kill you and wipe out humanity and has rigged this door to kill you too, by the way, so I’m here to interfere and make sure you’re alright because of how much we Time Lords secretly value you! Oh, and I can’t even materialize on the ground…” It’s as if the writer, Robert Holmes, couldn’t come up with a better scenario. Maybe that would have been worked in better in part 1 if this were a 7 part story. It is very “deus ex machina” as a solution but it takes up such a small portion of the story, we can turn a blind eye to it. Or laugh at it…
Overall, this is another of the stronger stories in Pertwee’s series. The Autons make for a great villain; it’s a shame we won’t see them again for over 30 years! At least the Master is around to turn Doctor Who into a Scooby Doo spinoff.
My mask must be slipping because people are looking at me oddly… I’d better go find a scapegoat to keep typing these for me… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Mind of Evil