After the superb Season Seven, Season Eight begins with a story that represents a considerable down turn in the quality of the era, at least in my opinion. As might be expected from a Robert Holmes story, ‘Terror of the Autons’ has some great dialogue and excellent characterisation, but it also signals a considerable change in emphasis for the series in comparison with ‘Inferno’. ‘Terror of the Autons’ has several features that in my eyes can be construed as faults, although it is by no means a complete loss. I’ll start with the criticisms that I have of the story.

‘Terror of the Autons’ is the debut story of two characters that I feel weaken the era and they do this by beginning UNIT’s transformation from an elite, top-secret military organization, into a Dad’s Army style farcical collection of buffoons. The first of these is Jo Grant. Now Katy Manning is a fine actress and Jo is undeniably rather cute and likeable, but she represents a dumbing down of the series that positively infuriates me. Whereas Liz was a competent, efficient scientist Jo is the living embodiment of the principle that the Doctor Who companion exists so that the Doctor can explain things to the audience. She might be bright and chirpy, but she’s also air-headed and dizzy. As a UNIT agent (which she technically is) she is utterly implausible despite a rather contrived throwaway line about her uncle getting her a job with the organization. Therein lies my problem I think: I don’t object to Jo as a character per se, I just prefer Liz and thus object to the change that Jo heralds. 

The second character that debuts in ‘Terror of the Autons’ and represents a downward slide is Captain Yates. I take no delight in saying this, but whilst Richard Franklin seems like a very nice chap, I personally think that he’s a dreadful actor. As Yates, he presents us with one of the least convincing soldiers ever seen on television. I’m not au fait enough with the military to have much idea of whether Benton and the Brigadier are actually convincingly real soldiers, but Mike seems quite plainly not to be. I think in all honesty that he’s just too camp, although in fairness to Richard Franklin this seems to be as much a problem of the script as it is with his acting. Between them, Jo and Yates weaken UNIT’s credibility and signal the beginning of the organization’s descent into rather twee coziness. Which ironically is of course the very “UNIT family” feeling that many fans seem to like. 

My next major criticism of ‘Terror of the Autons’ is the Nestenes. In ‘Spearhead From Space’, they were a genuinely creepy, menacing threat. Here they are relegated to playing second fiddle to the Master and they suffer from it. The Autons themselves are less successful due to the change in their appearance; in their debut story, they had hollow empty eye sockets and sculpted, pouting mouths, which gave them an eerie, zombie-like feeling. Here however, their faces are completely smooth with no eye holes, and this makes them seem less like ghastly parodies of people and more like, ironically, shop dummies. They actually look more sinister once they don their large carnival heads, regaining some of the eerie incongruity of their shop window dwelling predecessors. On the other hand, the Nestenes do benefit from greater versatility in this story. I like the idea that they can take on literally any form at all if it is made of plastic, and here we get killer dolls, killer chairs, killer daffodils, and a killer telephone cable. This results in some memorable and effective set pieces, such as the deaths of McDermott and Farrell senior. 

My final criticism of ‘Terror of the Autons’ is the use of CSO. I said when I reviewed ‘The Web Planet’ that I don’t judge Doctor Who on its special effects, and I stand by that. What I will criticize however is Barry Letts’ decision to massively overuse CSO in this story. The technique is much maligned by fans, but obviously it has its uses, as illustrated in both ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ and ‘The Ambassadors of Death’. However, here we get CSO backdrops of ordinary rooms, which makes the story look cheap and nasty. The most blatant example is in the Farrell household, but the Museum is also worthy of particular scorn. The use of CSO to show the Nestene doll running around is fine, but CSO kitchens is just taking the piss.

Anyway, enough ranting. For all its faults, there are things that I like about ‘Terror of the Autons’. Firstly, Jon Pertwee’s performance as the Doctor continues to please me here. Much as I find Jo annoying on one level, she and the Doctor do quite quickly establish a rather touching rapport, and whilst she may seem less capable than Liz in some respects, she proves her usefulness as a companion by rescuing the Doctor from the circus and later using her escapology training to slip her bonds in the coach. As I said, she may represent a dumbing down of UNIT, but she is undeniably likeable. The Doctor seems to agree; although he is slightly more irascible and disrespectful in this story than in the previous season, he quickly takes Jo under his wing, despite the fact that she ruins his steady-state micro-welding, nearly blows him up, and refuses to do as she is told. I also like the Doctor’s rather waspish attitude in this story, which some fans have criticized. For example, when Jo removes his gag in Rossini’s (or rather, Russell’s) caravan he crossly demands to know what she is doing there. Rude and ill tempered I know, but it’s also quite funny. Then there’s the scene with Brownrose. Paul Cornell once complained in a scathing review of this story that the production team had turned the Doctor into a Tory and Verity Lambert also allegedly complained about the Doctor being made part of the establishment around this time, in a reference to his status as UNIT’s scientific advisor. I can see both their points, but I just love the idea of the Doctor, who let us be honest has always been rather egotistical, strolling into a gentlemen’s club and charming all of the other members. In my opinion it isn’t so much that the Doctor has sold out to the establishment, it is more that this always rebellious, disrespectful figure can and will charm almost anyone. My basic assumption is that he’s accepted as a member of the club simply because the other members like him.

‘Terror of the Autons’ is of course most well known for introducing the Master. The Roger Delgado incarnation is still my favourite Doctor Who villain, and this story demonstrates why. He’s immediately a commanding villain from the moment that he emerges from his TARDIS in Rossini’s circus in episode one and quickly cows the belligerent circus owner. As the story progresses, he begins to display his trademark charm, but in this story he also maintains a truly ruthless edge. The death toll attributable directly to the Master in this story demonstrates this, and not just those deaths that he causes by allowing the Nestenes to return to Earth. He kills Goodge without a thought, more concerned with leaving his shrunken corpse as a calling card for the Doctor than he is at casually extinguishing a life. He uses and discards Phillips and Farrell, and has no qualms whatsoever about disposing of McDermott and Farrell senior when they get in his way. And whilst I’ve never really paid it any attention before, it struck me on this viewing how out-of-hand and nasty the death of the scientist that he throws from the radio telescope in episode four is. This then is the Master in his debut story; charming and debonair but thoroughly evil.

‘Terror of the Autons’ has been criticized for its ending, when the Master seems too easily convinced to betray the Nestenes by a single line from the Doctor. This I think is missing the point. The Master’s primary aim is never helping the Nestenes to invade, it is always his battle of wits with the Doctor. He simply doesn’t care about anything else; he gets several opportunities to kill the Doctor, which would probably allow him to win easily, but on each occasion he is easily dissuaded from doing so because he enjoys their rivalry. I have no doubt that his ultimate aim is the Doctor’s death, but more important to him is his desire to humiliate his foe, to score a series of minor triumphs before he finally disposes of him. As he says to Farrell, “I have so few worthy opponents. When they’re gone I always miss them”. Interestingly, it is hinted at even this stage that the Doctor enjoys their rivalry too despite the deaths the Master has caused and will no doubt cause later on, the Doctor has a wry smile on his face as the Master drives away in the coach in the end, and in the final scene of the story he tells the Brigadier and Jo that he is rather looking forward to their next encounter.

Overall then, ‘Terror of the Autons’ is not up to the same standard of the previous season’s stories, but is nonetheless entertaining. Unfortunately, it is deeply flawed, but with the following story the season really starts to pick up…

Filters: Television Third Doctor Series 8