Thursday, January 30, 2014

Random Who Report: Terror of the Autons

Terror of the Autons DVD cover

There are only a few Doctor Who stories which are really direct sequels, but "Terror of the Autons" occupies an interesting space. It's a reprise of "Spearhead from Space", the third Doctor's inaugural story, not just in reintroducing that story's villains, but also in accomplishing another tweak to the show's format. It gives the Doctor an adversary, the Master, an evil Time Lord who's just about his intellectual equal. That alone guarantees its significance, even if the story sometimes plays like a dry run for the season to follow; it ends up being fairly effective, but takes a while to get to its payoff.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee), still trapped on Earth and working for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, is paired with a new assistant after the (offscreen) departure of Liz Shaw. Jo Grant (Katy Manning) is young, perky, and kind of silly, but she's determined to help. In the meantime the Master (Roger Delgado) has landed on Earth, and with his power of hypnosis has managed to steal a meteorite containing the essence of the Nestene Consciousness, the intelligence that tried to conquer the planet with an army of living plastic drones.  The Master hypnotizes his way into a local plastics factory, sets up shop, and kills most of the senior staff with an assortment of killer plastic novelties, including a living troll doll and a plastic lounger that inflates to suffocate its occupant. His plans is to help the Nestenenes conquer the Earth and in the process, hopefully kill his old enemy, the Doctor.

This is a story with a somewhat controversial reputation, at least at the time it was broadcast. Much of the story involves The Master's killer plastic creations, all of which hit a little too close to home for younger viewers- killer dolls and suffocating novelty flowers were a stretch too far, even if the story doesn't actually show much of the titular Auton terror. It's in the story's mixture of the innocuous and the deadly that it's the most effective, but many of the complaints seemed, in the end, to stem from the fact that Doctor Who had, up to this point, been considered a children's show and was starting to leave that initial audience behind. Out of context the Auton attacks are scarcely more terrifying than the average episode of The Avengers, but there is something wonderfully effective about the faceless Autons who abduct the Doctor and Jo in the guise of policemen, as well as the ones "disguised" with oversize novelty mascot heads passing out fatal flowers in market squares across the country.

Jo Grant has something of a mixed first outing. The sad reality, of course, is that Liz Shaw was written off (without even a goodbye scene) because the people making the show were having trouble writing for a companion who was nearly as clever as the Doctor, and needed a sillier, more naive female character who could ask the Doctor to explain everything and get herself in trouble. In the course of the first episode Jo manages to get hypnotized by the Master and nearly destroy Unit HQ with a bomb, and her record doesn't improve much from there- Katy Manning is nicely enthusiastic but the character has yet to establish herself.

The Master, on the other hand, doesn't take long to prove his worth. While he and the Doctor have history together, there's something amusing about the fact that the Master treats his attempted conquest of the Earth as part of a long game of oneupsmanship; even his attempt to kill his nemesis is less the settling of an ancient grudge and more the ultimate last word. But just because the Master is being unbelievably petty doesn't mean he isn't ruthless or clever, and Roger Delgado gives the character more than enough presence to be a perfect Moriarty figure. It helps that he also has a strong theme as a controller, someone who forces his will upon others, and leading an army of plastic men helps establish what kind of bad guy this is.

Visually and dramatically the story is a bit lightweight, never really establishing the deadliness of the Autons as they had been in their first appearance. At times the whole thing plays more like a low-key Avengers episode than an alien invasion saga, and though a certain mundanity was always a peril of UNIT stories, here it feels like things have specifically been stripped down so as to focus on the introduction of the Master, who would, in a further twist on an already changed format, be the major villain for every story in the season (and who would be a major presence throughout the Pertwee era until Delgado's untimely death.) This may be why the Autons returned in the first place- a familiar villain from the prior season wouldn't need much explanation or exposition.

So while not a classic in its own right, "Terror of the Autons" lays the groundwork for a further spin on the Doctor Who formula. Time has diminished some of its shock value, with the result that it seems to take a while to get going, but it's worth it just to see the Doctor face off against his evil opposite; the rogue wanderer confronting a would-be tyrant. Pertwee and Delgado only get to interact for a few scenes, but it's the start of something special.

Grade: B

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