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Doctor Who Re View Terror of the Autons

July 3, 2021

The Reviews

Welcome to the first in an ongoing series of reviews of old Doctor Who adventures. A while ago I got the Blu-ray version of Series 8 of the original series, starring Jon Pertwee with what became known as the UNIT family. That is where the reviews will start. I will then move on to other stories from other eras. What I will not be doing is commenting on the quality or otherwise of the special effects, or the improvement in picture and sound due to the Blu-ray. I will be concentrating entirely on the story and the characters. For those of you who want to enjoy the stories yourself I promise a minimum of spoilers, as I hate spoilers myself! With those parameters set up, off we go!

Time for a change

The start of Series 8 of the original run of Doctor Who was a game changer for the programme. Jon Pertwee was starting his second series as the Timelord and had settled in nicely. The previous run had got good reviews and reasonable ratings, not that those things really made a huge difference in those days. Despite this, the production team felt that things needed shaking up so out went the Doctor’s near equal Liz Shaw, to be replaced by a more traditional companion in Jo Grant. UNIT went up to a permanent complement of three with Captain Yates joining Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart and Sergeant Benton.

Finally, the Doctor was to get his own ‘Moriarty’ in the form of another Timelord as brilliant as he was, but entirely evil. This new character was the Master. It was an idea that gave the writing team the basis for a whole series where the Master would appear in every story. Was that overkill? We shall see!

Fantastic plastic?

The Autons were already well known to viewers as a result of their introduction in Jon Pertwee’s first story, Spearhead from Space, so the title itself lets you know what to expect. We know that the Autons can utilise any plastic material, in whatever form it appears, to help them in their attempt to take over the Earth. The hands dropping away to reveal guns were a familiar device to viewers, but writer Robert Holmes and director Barry Letts wanted to increase the danger posed by the Nestene Consciousness who controlled the Autons. To this end they utilised chairs, dolls, phone wires and even daffodils to attack anyone who stood in their way. Some of the scenes were so shocking at the time that questions were raised in the House of Lords as to whether it was suitable teatime viewing on a Saturday. Mary Whitehouse, the self-appointed moral guardian of the country used her pulpit to denounce the programme, but precious few people, even in those more devout days, saw her as anything other than a crank or a busybody, so all that did was raise the programme’s profile. The Autons were definitely a more evil and frightening monster this time around because Holmes had based their attacks on items that could be found in many homes. To this day, the concept of killer plastic can give children and adults alike fresh nightmares!   

The UNIT Family

Jo Grant definitely makes an impression on the viewers as well as the Doctor on her first outing. The gorgeous Katy Manning immediately gives Jo an appeal based on her bubbly and fun-loving nature. Throughout their first few interactions, the Doctor treats Jo as something of an imbecile. He mistakes her for a tea lady and assures her that he doesn’t need anything. When he appears to accidentally set fire to a piece of equipment he has been working on he looks on in horror as she grabs the fire extinguisher to put the blaze out. Instead of thanking her he calls her a ‘ham-fisted bun vendor’! When he finds out she has been dispatched to UNIT headquarters to take over as the Doctor’s new assistant he tells the Brigadier he wants her gone. The Brigadier says he has to sack her himself, but when the Doctor looks into her eyes he can’t bring himself to do it, much to the Brigadier’s amusement! Later on in the story Jo will prove herself to be a very resourceful companion.

The UNIT trio of the Brigadier, Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates have varying amounts of work to do during this story. Benton, played as a solid and dependable professional soldier by the excellent John Levene, is peripheral to the story but his familiarity to the viewers means that we are content to see him working alongside the Brigadier just doing his job. The Brigadier himself played by the marvellous Nicholas Courtney comes across as the archetypal career officer with little imagination, but he is more than prepared to make it clear to the Doctor that UNIT is his kingdom, and he will rule it as he sees fit. His bravery is never called into question even by the Doctor in his prickliest moods, and on a number of occasions in this story alone he puts his life on the line for his friends and colleagues. Finally, Captain Yates is the new member of the team played by Richard Franklin. Young and ambitious, he plays a similar role to Jo in that he is there for the Brigadier, and occasionally the Doctor, to explain things to. As with Jo, however, his character deepens throughout his time in UNIT and goes off in some very unexpected directions.

The Master

The Master is a rogue Timelord, like the Doctor, but his aim is not to protect Earth. Instead he wants to work with any alien race that will help him to enslave it. Roger Delgado gives the Master a suave and, in many ways, appealing character that makes the audience well disposed to him even when he is being evil. As with the Doctor there is a sense of purpose, a sense of honour and a sense of humour underlying everything he does. He sees the Doctor as ‘almost’ his equal, and he sees their battles in a chivalrous way. He would never stab the Doctor in the back because that would be dishonourable. He would only kill the Doctor face to face because that would give him a chance to say goodbye properly. Roger Delgado was a long term friend of Jon Pertwee’s and that gave the relationship between the two protagonists an underlying affection that shone through in every scene they did together. Every incarnation of the Master since has owed something to Delgado’s template for the character but none of them have matched the ability that he had for showing sheer closeness of the bond between the two Timelords. He was the first and unquestionably the best Master.

The Story

This is an incredibly fast paced story, apparently giving a lie to the widespread perception that stories were built up much more slowly in those days. It could prove to be an outlier, but I’ll get back to you on that one! The first appearance of the Master completely wrongfoots the audience, as you hear the sound of the TARDIS before it appears as a horsebox in a circus. The Master himself is this very impressive self-contained character who sees little need to shout which, as all good villains know, makes him much more menacing. His ability to hypnotise people is shown straight away, and that becomes very important throughout the story. When he walks in and takes over the plastics factory run by Rex Farrell, the son of its founder, he realises straight away that the other manager, McDermott, will be something of a problem, so he invites him to try out a plastic chair for size! Farrell’s father doesn’t like Colonel Masters and proves to be immune to hypnosis so other means will have to be found to remove his opposition. The menace of the Autons allied to the intelligence and ruthlessness of the Master makes this high stakes from the start. As UNIT investigates further they realise that anything or anyone can be used as a weapon to stop them thwarting the plans of the Master and the Nestene. The problem is that they don’t know where the next attack will come from, and they have no idea where the Master is working from. It’s time for the Doctor to really rack his brain to come up with ideas before it’s too late.

Favourite Moments

I love the way that children’s television in the 70s saw no need to talk down to their viewers. In the aftermath of one episode of hypnosis, the Doctor explains that the subject was suffering from ‘schizoid disassociation’ as a result of being made to do something that was completely out of character.

Usually, the Doctor’s new assistants take a couple of stories to get into their stride. Katy Manning IS the Doctor’s assistant from the time she walks through the door in her first scene. She has an air of sweetness and vulnerability, but her instant reaction to the workbench fire shows that she has a real instinct to help and protect the Doctor wherever possible. The instant rapport with Jon Pertwee is magical in its instinctiveness and is the reason why 50 years later she is still my favourite companion.

My favourite line in the story comes from Jo Grant. She tells the Doctor that she did an A Level in Science when she is trying to persuade him that she can be useful to him. Later on he describes the Nestene as being like a cephalopod in appearance, and she asks him what a cephalopod is. He explains it is a type of octopus, then looks at her quizzically.

‘I thought you did an A Level in Science?’

‘I didn’t say I passed did I?!’

The appearance of a Timelord in Episode 1 to warn the Doctor about the Master’s appearance on Earth is very amusing. It is a stroke of genius to have the Timelord appear in front of the Doctor in a bowler hat, three piece suit and carrying an umbrella. It places the rest of his race in the role of universal bureaucrats who look at the rest of the races in the galaxy in a bloodless and dispassionate way, in clear contrast to the meddling duo themselves.

The beautifully drawn relationship between Farrell senior and his wife takes place over two scenes. In the hands of experienced character actors, Stephen Jack and Barbara Leake, you see a whole lifetime of affection in their brief interactions despite them only sharing a couple of minutes of screen time together. In the second scene, where Mrs Farrell is speaking about her husband the depth of feeling is clear in the faraway look in her eyes, as she gives the Doctor the clue he needs to find out where the Master is hiding. The quality of the supporting cast, epitomised by these two characters, really shines through in this episode.

Final thoughts

This story is effectively the second reboot of the new era of Doctor Who and it works pretty much perfectly. The close knit relationship between the main cast members would become ever more apparent over the next few years, but as a starting point this can’t be beaten.

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