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Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Terror of the Autons originally aired in 1971.

That jackanapes! All he ever does is cause trouble!

– nice to see the Doctor taking the Master seriously

I think you can make a fairly credible argument that Jon Pertwee’s first season of Doctor Who stands out as one of the best years the show ever produced. Facing the challenge of migrating from black-and-white to colour, and forced to tell stories entirely set on present-day Earth, the writers and producers managed to craft a season of television that I think stands quite well when measured against the very best of vintage BBC science-fiction. Sure, there may have been walking shop-front dummies, lizard people, animal men and haunted space suits, but the stories were surprisingly mature and relatively clever. The writers used the framework of Doctor Who to tell four very good and very philosophical stories exploring both bold science-fiction high-concepts (alternate universes) and also moral quandaries (how humanity relates to the unknown).

Terror of the Autons is the first story in Jon Pertwee’s second season. I’m actually quite fond of it, and it’s packed to the brim with iconic imagery, so it’s very difficult to be too critical of it. After all, any adventure that left so large an impression on the public imagination must have something to recommend it. However, there’s a very clear sense of regression here. It seems, from this first serial of Pertwee’s second year, that the agenda has changed somewhat.

Terror of the Autons is arguably more indicative of Pertwee’s time in the lead role than any of those stories from his first year. It’s exciting, it’s fast-paced, it has a decidedly man-of-mystery feeling to it, but it also feels somewhat light and a little insubstantial. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it just feels like a definite regression.

Master of the Whoniverse?

Master of the Whoniverse?

As I noted above, I can’t really be too harsh about Terror of the Autons. It accomplishes what it sets out to do remarkably well. It is certainly the most uncomfortable and unnerving Doctor Who story this side of the Philip Hinchcliffe era, and it’s easy to imagine an entire generation of fans hiding behind the sofa as the Autons make their power play. Like Spearhead from Space, the story features the plastic Autons plotting to take over the world. Also like Spearhead from Space, it’s written by the fantastic Robert Holmes.

There’s a reason that Holmes is considered one of the best writers ever to work on Doctor Who. Indeed, Russell T. Davies, the producer who resurrected the show, argues that Holmes is among the finest writers ever to work on British television. According to the biography T is for Television, apparently Holmes is the only classic Doctor Who writer that Davies would have wanted to contribute to the relaunch. Unfortunately, of course, Holmes passed away in 1986.

"It looks like a recycled plot device..."

“It looks like a recycled plot device…”

Remarkably similar to Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons is memorable for the controversy it generated at the time. Indeed, Holmes himself noted with some amusement (and, it seems, no small amount of pride) the impression that Terror of the Autons made, to the point where the BBC were still talking about it several years after the fact:

I was sitting opposite Ronnie Marsh, the then Head of Serials, across acre of polished maple. He started telling me about the guidelines he felt the programme should follow. ‘Two or three seasons ago,’ he said, ‘we had some clot who wrote the most dreadful script. It had faceless policemen in it and plastic armchairs that went about swallowing people. I might tell you, there were questions in the House. Mrs. Whitehouse said we were turning the nation’s children into bed-wetters.’ Could it be that he was referring to my Terror of the Autons? ‘Tut, tut’, I muttered, feeling the job slipping away. ‘How awfully irresponsible’.

Certainly, Terror of the Autons makes quite an impression, collecting all manner of fears and phobias, and somehow massaging them into a Doctor Who plot.

"I'm melting, melting! Oh, what a world!"

“I’m melting, melting! Oh, what a world!”

You could make a case that Terror of the Autons really exemplifies that “everything is trying to kill you” mindset that persists in Doctor Who to this very day. Holmes had a talent for making the mundane terrifying, and Terror of the Autons seems to be based around the theory that virtually anything in anybody’s house could potentially turn out to be an alien assassin. We have a man swallowed by his own chair, a killer toy doll, plastic daffodils that will cover your mouth in plastic and smother you. Add to that the policemen without faces, and you’ve got one heck of a nightmare cocktail.

It doesn’t help that Terror of the Autons goes into a great deal of depth about how exactly these things are going to kill you. It’s not ridiculously graphic or anything like that, but we discover that several of the victims of these sinister invaders died from heart attacks. They were literally scared to death. In a way, that’s more terrifying than being shot or stabbed or punched, because it means that the Autons didn’t even have to touch their victims. “Death is always more frightening when it strikes invisibly,” the Master states, and I think he’s on to something.

Stop and smell the flowers...

Stop and smell the flowers…

And then there’s the suffocating. “The human body has a basic weakness,” the Master explains. “One that I which I shall exploit to assist in the destruction of humanity.” It turns out that our reliance on oxygen is that “basic weakness” and the Master and the Autons are keen to exploit it. The Master might have a handy cigar-shaped shrinking ray, but he doesn’t need fancy science to commit genocide. He plans to make you suffocate.

Indeed, the notion of being smothered by a plastic chair is terrifying, but there’s something far more visceral about the way that the Doctor tries to pull the plastic coating off Jo as she slowly runs out of air. It’s downright terrifying, and I can understand why a great many children didn’t sleep well after watching Terror of the Autons. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that Terror of the Autons is even more iconic than Spearhead from Space, though it certainly lacks a lot of the ingenuity or originality.

Boxed in...

Boxed in…

In fact, as director and producer Barry Letts concedes, the horror of Terror of the Autons led the show to self-censor a bit, fearing the media backlash that might come if they maintained this level of violence and horror:

When we made Terror of the Autons, there were big leading articles in several newspapers complaining bitterly about what we’d done. We even had a letter from Scotland Yard about the policemen who turned out to be Autons, saying ‘Don’t do it again’. I think we did go over the top, but when you think of it, the most terrifying things are ordinary things that can’t be trusted. If it’s a monster, it’s a monster, you know where you are. But if a toy comes to life and tries to kill you, it’s not so funny. They kept a very close eye on us after that, and we made sure we didn’t do that sort of thing again, although things like The Daemons came close to it.

Indeed, this self-censorship was probably a good idea. After all, the Pertwee era remained fairly consistent, while complaints about violence and horror led Philip Hinchcliffe to depart the show during Tom Baker’s tenure, creating to some really strange tonal shifts during Baker’s last years in the role. Similarly, the show ran into a great deal of trouble to do with violence and horror in the eighties. While it might have been better to see more of the horror of Terror of the Autons in Pertwee’s later adventures, their decision to pull back a bit was probably better in the long-term.

Thumbs up, eh?

Thumbs up, eh?

However, as noted above, there is a fairly obvious problem with Terror of the Autons. It isn’t very original. In fact, it feels like a conscious retread of a story that had been told at the start of the previous season. While the previous season had been a bit bolder and a bit more ambitious, Terror of the Autons set the tone for the year to come. It was fun and fast-paced, but it also lacked a bit of the depth and nuance that had made Pertwee’s first year so invigorating.

That said, Terror of the Autons feels a lot more indicative of the Pertwee era than anything that came before. The show really channelled The Avengers a great deal, and similar action-adventure shows. Watching Terror of the Autons in one sitting, one can’t help but wonder if the master got a bulk discount on bombs, as it seems that there’s a damn explosion waiting to occur about once every fifteen minutes.

Plastic explosives...

Plastic explosives…

Appropriately enough, Terror of the Autons begins at a circus. We get a scene where the Doctor is interrogated by a corrupt circus operator and the resident strong man. We get lots of shots of characters dynamically running up and down stairs. When a Timelord shows up to advise the Doctor that the Master has arrived on Earth, he carries an umbrella and wears a bowler hat, like the hero of a certain other show.

Terror of the Autons also suffers from what some would argue is the bane of the Pertwee era. It looks like the crew just discovered colour-seperation overlay, and are eagerly showing off their new toy. Special effects in classic Doctor Who were never that special, but I’d prefer a cardboard set to a dodgy CSO shot. However, while I can understand its use at some points (involving the doll), there’s no reason why we needed a CSO kitchen.

Master of fashion...

Master of fashion…

You could argue that it’s a stylistic decision, lending Pertwee’s Doctor Who an almost ethereal atmosphere, transforming it into something approaching a live action cartoon. As the ever-insightful Paul Cornell argued, “Indeed, the show becomes a comic strip visually at the same time as it does in dramatic terms.” It’s a valid point, and one with which I can’t bring myself to disagree.

It sounds like I’m complaining, and I probably am, but I’ll concede that Pertwee’s Doctor worked quite well on those terms. With his cape and his frills and his “Venusian aikido”, Pertwee’s Doctor seemed especially like the hero from an especially camp pantomime. And, of course, I say “especially camp” as if Doctor Who has always been entirely straight-faced and serious. I’ll concede that I prefer the thoughtful stories of the earlier season, but that doesn’t mean that I must dislike this style of story.

It's a bit Auton there, innit?

It’s a bit Auton there, innit?

I think – as an example of the form – there’s a lot to recommend Terror of the Autons. There’s a deliberate and conscious shift in focus here, but the shift is well-handled. Future stories involving Pertwee would suffer because that they couldn’t maintain the quality of this adventure. As I noted above, Terror of the Autons is really a stronger representation (for better or worse) of the Pertwee era than anything in his first year, and I think it’s a perfect example of a very good archetypal Pertwee story.

Indeed, you can tell that Terror of the Autons ushers in a new era of the programme because it introduces us to the Master. Even if he didn’t appear in every single story over the following season, the character almost appears like a pantomime villain with his obviously evil black ensemble, his obviously evil goatee and his obviously evil cigar-shaped weapon of choice. I love the Master. In particular, I love the Roger Delgado interpretation of the character. However, he’s not the most sophisticated of foes.

Explosive drama!

Explosive drama!

As introduced here, the Master is a small step away from a Bond villain. Obviously his attempts to kill the Doctor can’t succeed, and so – to avoid making him seem incompetent – the serial explains that the Master intended his attempts to fail. “You see, the bomb was by way of being a greetings card, a small little gallantry on the eve of battle,” he explains. “The car will lure the Doctor to the circus, and there, I shall destroy him.” Delgado plays it entirely sincerely too, which adds to the charm.

In fact, the Master seems to take the failure of his minions quite magnanimously. A smart henchman with half a brain would worry about reporting failure to the Daleks or Cybermen, but the Master is remarkably calm in the face of his goons’ incompetence:

Colonel? Colonel, the Autons that were sent to recover the bodies of the Doctor and the girl…

… have returned without them? I know.

And you’re not angry…?

… because the Doctor’s escaped again? No. He’s an interesting adversary. I admire him in many ways.

But you still intend to destroy him?

Of course and the more he struggles to postpone the moment, the greater the ultimate satisfaction.

I like the idea that the Master is basically a co-dependent comic book supervillain brought to life, another aspect of the “comic strip” mentality mentioned above.

His pride's on the line...

His pride’s on the line…

While he talks a good game, I am quite fond of the interpretation that suggests the Master needs the Doctor. At the very least, he subconsciously seeks the Doctor’s approval. That’s why he never seems to make a genuine long-term effort to kill the Doctor, for all his gloating and scheming. The Master really just wants the Doctor to recognise and validate his brilliance. That’s why the schemes are so intricate and so inefficient; he wants the Doctor to marvel at their sophistication and complexity, to acknowledge the skill involved.

It’s a nice touch from both Holmes’ script and Delgado’s performance, though, that the Master is really only pretending to be civil and magnanimous. He likes the fine suits, the boasting, the witty exchanges, but he also hates losing. When the tables begin to turn at the end of the episode, Delgado skilfully sheds the charming persona, and the Master becomes a whole lot more aggressive, petulant and vindictive. He throws a man to his death because he got in his way, and he even tries to run the Doctor over in his van in a fit of pique.

Arresting character development!

Arresting character development!

That said, the Master does seem like a bit of an idiot. The Doctor convinces him to switch sides with two lines dialogue. “If we’re finished, then you’re finished too,” the Doctor states. Of course, the Master objects, “Nonsense! I helped them to come here.” The Doctor retorts, “Do you really think that that thing will distinguish between you and us?” Given that the Master is meant to be a ruthless villain in his own right, the fact that he was blinded by betrayal in his first appearance (and then was convinced so easily) feels a little convenient. I get that the Master is a raving ego-maniac, but it’s a bit much.

Similarly, given he is supposed to be a foe recurring throughout this entire season, it seems a little early for an episode to play the old “two enemies teaming up for the greater good” cliché. It seems especially ridiculous as this isn’t even the last time that it happens this year. I know that the show was a long way from managing its season-long arcs, but it still feels like a bit of an oversight when it comes to plotting out the year ahead.

Grant me patience...

Grant me patience…

The other major change in Terror of the Autons is the arrival of Jo Grant, replacing Liz Shaw. I loved Liz Shaw. She was a character way ahead of her time, and I think that teaming the Doctor up with both the Brigadier and Liz Shaw gave the show an entirely unique dynamic. Sadly, good things don’t last, and we get Jo Grant. Again, I probably sound like I’m being unduly harsh. Katy Manning is fun, and Jo is a reasonable (if less than progressive) companion, and I understand that she holds a very important place in the hearts of a certain generation of fan. However, she feels like a step backwards.

For reasons that have nothing to do with the plot, Liz is already gone by the time the season opens, depriving her of even a farewell scene. Although, to be fair to Holmes, at least the script is honest enough to point at its own flaws. “Liz was a highly qualified scientist,” the Doctor protests to the Brigadier. “I want someone with the same qualifications.” The Brigadier retorts, “Nonsense. What you need, Doctor, as Miss Shaw herself so often remarked, is someone to pass you your test tubes and to tell you how brilliant you are. Miss Grant will fulfil that function admirably.” It’s nice bit of meta-commentary on what the expected role of a female companion was at this point in the series, and also explains why Liz was so unique.

Be a doll...

Be a doll…

Jo is, for better or worse, a far more conventional companion. She mainly exists to be patronised. She brings out the father figure in Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. Jo Grant allows Pertwee’s Doctor to be compassionate and tender towards her, things that he could never be towards Liz. Unfortunately, that also means that he spends a great deal of time condescending to her. “I took general science at A-Level,” she explains. “Yes,” the Doctor responds, trying not to seem too rude, “I’m sure you did, but, even so.”

Of course, with qualifications like that, you might wonder what she’s doing here. You’re not alone. “UNIT’s no place for trainees,” the Doctor objects. The Brigadier acknowledges that point, “No, I couldn’t agree more, Doctor, but Miss Grant was very keen to join us and she happens to have relatives in high places.” It’s hardly the best start – telling us that Jo only got the job because of somebody’s patronage. Although perhaps it foreshadows the fact that the Doctor would be a father-figure to her. Unfortunately, it also suggests that there were lots of more talented and qualified applicants who got turned down because they didn’t have “relatives in high places.”

A gun AND hot chocolate... what more could you want?

A gun AND hot chocolate… what more could you want?

To be fair, Terror of the Autons does try to deal with this. It gives Jo a small character arc in which she refuses to be condescended to or patronised by any male authority figures who like to pretend that they know what is best for her.

I’ve really got off to a terrific start, haven’t I? I find the man everybody’s looking for, I forget where he is and I end up by trying to blow you all sky high!

No-one’s blaming you.

Oh no! You all just tell me to keep out of the way. I’m not a child, you know.

Well, you’re acting like one.

Sorry… but if only I could show them.

Don’t try. Just do as the Brigadier says.

Yes, of course, you’re quite right.

– Jo and Yates

The problem is that Jo’s character arc doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s not really a problem with Terror of the Autons, but the problems with Jo are quite clear even from this first episode. She’s not a strong female character like the two companions either side of her. Again, it’s not necessarily a problem – it’s easy enough to excuse as a product of the show’s time – but it’s another example of how this year marks a step backwards.

Dial D for Doctor!

Dial D for Doctor!

I do feel like I’m being a little harsh. A lot of the problems with Terror of the Autons are ideas that are executed reasonably well here, but represent regression from the previous season, and wouldn’t always be handled as well as they are here. There are lots of nice touches. Pertwee isn’t the strongest actor to ever play the Doctor, but he has a lot of comedic charm. It’s always fun to hear him curse the Brigadier and the stupid humans only to realise he isn’t quite as smart as he likes to think he is.

At the same time, despite his bluster, it’s clear that the relationship between the Doctor and the Brigadier is built on mutual respect. When the none-too-subtly named bureaucrat “Brownrose” comes around to start stepping on the Brigadier’s toes, the Doctor is the first to leap to the defence of his colleague. “The Brigadier has a great deal on his plate. You cannot expect his exclusive attention for your petty concerns.” He’d never admit it, but the Doctor is fond of his human supporting cast. He’s putting down roots.

I think the Master would call that a good day's work...

I think the Master would call that a good day’s work…

The script itself is pretty solid Robert Holmes stuff. In particular, it features a wonderfully developed supporting cast outside our regular players. Holmes had a knack for crafting believable one-shot characters, and it’s a testament to Terror of the Autons that most of the human supporting cast have fairly reasonable development and motivation. I especially like how Holmes deals with Farrel’s daddy issues. It’s not too subtle, but he’s a supporting cast member in a show about miller daffodils. It’s really a testament to Holmes’ skill.

Terror of the Autons is good fun. It’s light, it’s iconic, it’s well-constructed and it zips along. I’ll readily admit that it breezes by in comparison to some of the longer episodes of the previous year. A lot of the problems with Terror of the Autons aren’t really evident yet, and would develop a great deal over the coming season. Doctor Who went through a radical change with Spearhead from Space. The shift to Terror of the Autons might not be quite so significant, but it’s still sizeable.

You might be interested in our reviews of the eighth season of the classic television show:

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