I am usually referred to as the Master.
Oh? Is that so?
The Master and Rossini
A renegade Time Lord, the Master, plans to destroy the Earth and silence the Doctor forever using the Nestene Consciousness and the Autons. Aided by the Brigadier and his new companion, Jo Grant, the Doctor is the only one who can stop them.
Terror of the Autons almost acts as a soft reboot for the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. It serves as an introduction for such key characters as the Master and Jo Grant, as well as firmly establishing the “UNIT family” to provide the Doctor’s support. It is a good story, if not as good as Spearhead from Space, which introduced the Autons at the start of the previous season. There are some great moments, full of horror and a sense of unease, a charming and well-portrayed central villain and some good performances, even if the story does feel extremely similar to Spearhead and the overuse of colour separation overlay really do undermine it.
One of the weakest parts of this story is the titular villains and the fact that this story feels very similar to the plot of Spearhead from Space. The Autons are really rather sidelined as the Master’s heavies for the majority of the story, however, I can understand how this happens. The Nestenes, sadly, are rather a one-dimensional alien race and so they can easily lapse into this role, but this does not mean that they don’t contribute to one of the best moments – the stunt where one of the Auton policemen is knocked down a steep incline, before getting back up and ascending the slope. Sadly, however, for the majority of the story, they lack their previous feeling of threat, no matter how creepy they look as the Auton policemen or the big-headed promotional mascots handing out murdering daffodils. I think this might have something to do with the fact that they move around silently, without the creepy sound that accompanied them in Spearhead from Space. Ultimately though, there’s not really very much you can do with the Autons, and here they serve as a narrative shorthand as something familiar for the audience to hang onto when a lot of the show seems a bit up in the air, introducing a lot of changes.
The story also suffers from an overuse of what was at the time a new and emerging technology, then known as colour separation overlay (CSO), but now known as blue screen. Barry Letts was a particularly forward-thinking individual, both as a producer and a director, and using this new technology did also help with storytelling on a show like Doctor Who, however, the issue that crops up here, and in multiple other stories, is in its overuse. In this story, CSO is used to show the inside of a lunchbox, a kitchen and a quarry, to name but a few, which sadly just takes you out of the story. It is obviously a product of its time and by and large I do excuse it, but there are in occasions in Terror of the Autons where it really spoils it.
Robert Holmes’ script can feel highly derivative of his earlier story introducing the Nestene Consciousness and the Autons, however, it is full of some horrifying ideas and concepts, helped along by Barry Letts’ direction, featuring some of the best uses of everyday items as a source of the terror. One of the most famous and at the time controversial of these is the conclusion to the second episode, where policemen appear to rescue the Doctor and Jo from the Master’s hypnotised circus troop, only for one of the policeman’s masks to slip and reveal that they are Autons. This was highly controversial at the time as it was seen to be undermining the police and did attract complaints at the time. Equally, moments like the Doctor being strangled by some telephone cable and Jo nearly being suffocated by one of the plastic daffodils are really horrifying and really toe the line of what was acceptable for Doctor Who at the time. Another famous moment involves a plastic armchair quickly enveloping and suffocating McDermott in the plastic factory, and the camera lingers on this for a surprisingly long time. Scenes like this really do stick the memory and are definitely part of Terror of the Autons‘ strengths.
Finally, the elephant in the room. Roger Delgado is superb as the Master, effortlessly oozing class and charm in every scene he appears in. The Master is a direct parallel for the Doctor, acting as the Moriarty to his Holmes, and it is telling that after his smooth introduction to Rossini, we see the Doctor being completely horrible to his new assistant Jo Grant, and actually a bit bumbling. They are perfect mirror images of each other, and I love the way that Pertwee bristles when he is reminded by the Time Lord who appears in Episode One that the Master received a better final result than him. The chemistry shared by Pertwee and Delgado is superb and improves the story considerably as the actors bounce off each other fantastically. Of the other new additions, Katy Manning stands out as Jo, who is a distinct departure from her predecessor, Liz Shaw. Whilst she may not have the scientific acumen of Liz, Jo is determined to prove herself and is resourceful in different ways. Manning gives Jo great enthusiasm and the scenes where she is frustrated by being treated like a child by the Doctor and UNIT in general are really well played. As much as I miss Liz, Jo Grant is a fantastic companion for the Doctor, more in the vein of the standard question asking companion but benefits from Katy Manning’s performance.
Nonsense, what you need, Doctor, as Miss Shaw herself so often remarked, is someone to pass your test tubes and tell you how brilliant you are.
Verdict: Terror of the Autons works really well as a soft reboot of the Earthbound stories of the early Pertwee era, even if the story feels like a retread. Roger Delgado’s debut as the Master cements this as a really strong story. 8/10
Cast: Jon Pertwee (The Doctor), Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), Roger Delgado (The Master), Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates), John Levene (Sergeant Benton), Michael Wisher (Rex Farrel), Harry Towb (McDermott), David Garth (Time Lord), Frank Mills (Radio Telescope Director), Christopher Burgess (Professor Philips), Andrew Staines (Goodge), John Baskcomb (Rossini), Dave Carter (Museum Attendant), Stephen Jack (Farrel Senior), Barbara Leake (Mrs Farrel), Roy Stewart (Strong Man), Dermot Tuohy (Brownrose), Norman Stanley (Telephone Mechanic), Bill McGuirk (Policeman), Terry Walsh (Auton Policeman), Pat Gorman (Auton Leader) & Hadyn Jones (Auton voice)
Director: Barry Letts
Writer: Robert Holmes
Behind the Scenes
- This story introduces Katy Manning as Jo Grant, Roger Delgado as The Master and Richard Franklin as Mike Yates. This story also marked the start of John Levene working under an annual contract.
- The story marks the debut of a new UNIT uniform and a lab for the Doctor, which would remain until the end of his exile.
- The Autons return following their debut in Spearhead from Space. They would not return until Rose after this story.
- The set of the Farrel’s home contains the famous round window from the children’s television show Play School.
- Whilst filming the escape from the Auton policemen, Katy Manning sprained her ankle in one of the first scenes she shot on the programme.
- Terry Walsh was injured when he was rammed by one of the cars, which remains in the finished story.
- Harry Towb had previously appeared in The Seeds of Death, whilst Michael Wisher makes his second appearance in Doctor Who. Roy Stewart previously played Toberman in The Tomb of the Cybermen and both Andrew Staines and Christopher Burgess in The Enemy of the World.
Almost any moment that Delgado is on screen, but probably his introduction.
The human body has a basic weakness. One which I shall exploit to assist in the destruction of the human race.
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