Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Terror of the Autons"

Aired Jan. 2 - Jan. 23, 1971

4 Episodes

Story 55

Written by Robert Holmes

Directed by Barry Letts


Working on an experiment at UNIT HQ, the Doctor meets his new assistant Jo Grant, a novice UNIT agent eager to prove her worth. Meanwhile, an evil renegade Time Lord called the Master arrives on Earth and steals a dormant Nestene energy unit left over from their previous invasion. He travels to a radio telescope facility, kills an employee, and uses the telescope to reactive the energy unit. 

When UNIT is called in to investigate the incident at the telescope, the Doctor is informed by the Time Lords that the Master has come to Earth. The Master uses his hypnotic abilities to take control of a small plastics firm in order to produce deadly Auton weapons in the form of dolls, chairs and daffodils.

Autons spread across the area, handing out plastic daffodils in a fake promotional campaign. These flowers are designed to emit a suffocating plastic film over their victim's mouth and nose. The Master plans to activate the flowers with a signal from the radio telescope, and in the ensuing chaos he use the telescope to bring the full Nestene Consciousness to Earth. 

Arriving at the telescope in the nick of time, the Doctor convinces the Master that the Nestene will turn on their Time Lord ally once he's outlived his usefulness  and that it is in the Master's best interest to oppose the invaders. Forging a temporary alliance, the two Time Lords successfully repeal the Nestene. The victory isn't complete, however, as the Master manages to escape, with the Doctor looking forward to a rematch.


When I wrote about The Macra Terror, I described those stories that you can love even if they aren't very good. The inverse is also true. There are perfectly good Doctor Who stories that I find difficult to love, even if objectively they are well-done and even beloved by fans. Terror of the Autons is one of those stories.

Part of it certainly is that fact that it comes after one of my favourite periods in the programme's history, and it represents a significant change in tone from the darker and more adult seventh season. Terror of the Autons, while it is often frightening and certainly action-packed, feels more like the family show that Doctor Who had been in its first six seasons. That's not a bad thing at all, and indeed I don't believe the series could have continued in the vein of Season Seven for very long. Yet, I can't help but feel this is a tad cartoonish after the heights of something like Inferno.

The story itself is solid, at least. The plot of the Master makes sense by and large, and it's structured well. It only lets itself down at the very end because are we honestly expected to believe the thought never occurred to the Master that the Nestene might betray him? It makes this character, whose ruthless brilliance we've been admiring for three and a half episodes, seem like a complete fool. That's no slight on Roger Delgado, who is absolutely superb in his debut. The concept of an evil Time Lord (the Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes, in the production team's mind) is a genius move, and Delgado's cold charm and malicious humour sparks nicely with the Third Doctor. He immediately captivates, and he's undoubtedly the best new villain since the Daleks. The Autons are creepy, though I'd argue less effective than their debut as they are mostly used as henchmen.

Barry Letts' direction is workmanlike, if uninspired. The one area in which you can see some energy is in his use of special effects and CSO (or what would become green screen). He was certainly an early adopter of the latter process, but using green screen to create ordinary sets and backgrounds such as a common kitchen may save your budget, but looks so unreal that it sucks you right out of the story. You can excuse bad CSO when its showing an alien landscape because, hey, what are you gonna do? But with a kitchen? 

Jo Grant also makes her debut. I like Katy Manning, and she does what she can with what she's given, but after the step forward that was Liz Shaw, Jo really irks me. The problem that Letts and Dicks had with Liz was that, as a scientist, they felt that she impeded exposition for the audience; that she and the Doctor would discuss things as scientists and the audience wouldn't understand what was going on. I never felt that for one second in Season Seven, but I can see their point. They make Jo an inexperienced rookie agent, and that's okay, that can work. But from the first scene she is depicted as a scatterbrained silly girl who got her position through nepotism and who makes lame-brained errors in judgement. She doesn't need to be incompetent to be an audience surrogate or to facilitate exposition. She could be effective and adult and competent and still ask the Doctor what's going on.

Doctor Who had always had an issue with sexism. There were times when they showcased some amazing female characters (Barbara Wright is an incredible example of that), but they more often had female characters make the tea, wear mini-skirts and scream. But here's a character that is supposed to be a qualified government agent, and in her first story she blunders about, causing trouble with her "silly girl" ways. She is implied to not deserve the job she has, she gets called a child by Mike Yates, she blows up the Doctor's experiments and hides behind trash cans….badly. The Doctor even, at one point, appears to swat her bottom after Philips blows himself up at the circus. What bothers me most about Jo is the implication that this is who the current production team thinks is the perfect companion; a pretty, flighty scatterbrain with more nerve than sense, who constantly needs a patriarchal figure to swoop in and rescue her. I'm not naive enough to ignore that, in many ways, classic Doctor Who always saw female companions in this way to some degree, but the Jo we get in this story exemplifies to me that whole sexist way of looking at the female characters. I know she won't always be this bad, and I know that she does save the Doctor's life here and many other times. And I do grow to really love Jo and the Doctor as a pair, there's no denying the chemistry that Pertwee and Manning had. But in this story, I kind of shudder at how she's written.

Finally, I'm really irritated by how the Third Doctor behaves in this story. Part of it's the writing, but most of it is the spin Pertwee puts on it. The Third Doctor was always haughty and arrogant, and could be snappish, certainly. But here he just bites at everyone. He insults the Brigadier throughout, he makes numerous arrogant claims at his intelligence and he rarely thanks anyone for saving his life. He's insufferably patronizing, he's abrasive; he's just a jerk the whole way through. Now, I'm okay with the Doctor being unlikable from time to time, but there's has to be something underneath all of that; some wit or depth or vulnerability. Something interesting to latch on to. But Pertwee is just being an ass in this story. I really dislike him throughout, and that's not how I usually feel about his performance.

The UNIT team is solid, though, with Nicholas Courtney providing his customary excellent turn as the Brig. And the addition of Richard Franklin as Mike Yates is nice. Franklin doesn't really project a very soldiery vibe, but that's refreshing in and of itself. He doesn't seem incompetent, just more of a thinking man than an action man. As we already have the stalwart and very soldiery Brigadier, and the rough and tumble working class Benton, he fills a nice gap. 

What this story does provide in spades is tons of iconic scares, from the vicious troll doll to the deadly novelty chair, to policemen with false faces. All of these things are more in keeping with the tone of the previous season, but go way further than any story of that period dared. Add this to how many people the Master ruthlessly kills and you get one of the most violent and scary stories in classic Who. What keeps the story from being too frightening is the brighter tone that the new direction takes. 

In the final analysis, I know that Terror of the Autons is, to many, an absolute classic of the series. Objectively, I can see why, but to me it's just one of those stories that I can't get behind.

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