C055 Terror of the Autons



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Killer daffodils, a carnivorous armchair and the debut of The Master.



Remember the Nestene pod thingy that The Third Doctor left in UNIT’s care at the end of the epochal Spearhead from Space? Enter The Master, who promptly steals it. His ultimate goal is the subjugation of the human race by the Nestene Consciousness.

Before he summons an alien invasion force, however, he wants to incite chaos on Earth, not by releasing an army of killer Autons, but by having them don giant plastic heads and distribute killer plastic daffodils to an unsuspecting, locally contained public. Obviously, he also trials a few other murderous methods, such as a killer plastic demon doll, a killer phone cord and a killer inflatable armchair.

Pertwee, meanwhile, has a new companion in definitely-not-Doctor Jo Grant. Now the two of them, alongside Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart, new UNIT chap Yates and – perhaps to a lesser degree – the legendary Benton, try to fend off a Master-led Nestene invasion.

4 Responses to “C055 Terror of the Autons”

  1. Peter Zunitch

    You know when you have a movie that’s pretty good, so they make a sequel that is also pretty good, but just not as good as the original? That’s probably the best way to describe this story. It’s not horrible, but I wasn’t sitting on the edge of my seat with anticipation.
    Introducing The Master. Not the old Master, the new Master. Well he is the old Master of the Master’s. That’s Master Master, not the other Master from The Mind Robber. That’s a different Master altogether. Let’s put that Master aside for the moment and just call this one the Master. He’s Roger Delgado, and he was a brilliant actor to play in opposition to John Pertwee. He’s every bit as sophisticated, scene stealing and quality of a performer (and in many ways of style for the exact opposite reasons) that JP is.
    Also new is Mike Yates, who is subtly retconned into the previous Nestine story. It’s effective though because this immediately gives us a connection with him. Personally I find Richard Franklin’s acting here a bit inexperienced, but he gets soooo much better as the season goes on. He’s a great character, and a key element of the UNIT days. Later, he is also becomes arguably only the second sub-plot to span multiple series (the stranded doctor being the first), a sign that Doctor Who’s writers are beginning to think long-term.
    This brings us to the new record for most abrupt companion departure ever. At least Dodo lasted midway into The War Machines before disappearing. Liz Shaw however simply never comes back for the new season and gets all of three lines of mention in a passing conversation. Now to be clear this is not the worst departure ever, it’s just the most abrupt. It’s justified though because from the outset we knew that Liz didn’t want to be where she was and that she would leave as soon as the opportunity came. It was part of her character. While as fans we miss her saying goodbye, as a character it fits perfectly and I think in her case a goodbye scene would have just gotten in the way. My biggest regret here is that she has never properly returned (Big Finish notwithstanding…and no the Five Doctor’s appearance doesn’t count either). It’s also worth noting that Liz is the only Doctor Who companion to never travel in the Tardis. I liked Liz’s seriousness and focus. It would have been great if she had returned for a later story in Pertwee’s era as a guest star, and I think she would have been perfect with McCoy or Eccleston.
    Enter now Joe Grant. A ‘not the brightest flashlight in the search party’ kind of gal who is outgoing, fast thinking and oh so kind hearted. She’s emotional and a screamer, but not in a thoroughly annoying manner. To put it bluntly, she’s the exact type of character that typifies all we hate in companions, but in Joe’s case, it’s loveable. She’s as much a break from Liz as Liz was from everyone before her, and again, her acting only gets better later.
    The Autons look great here, and are visibly menacing both in raw form and in costume. However they are truly a back seat plot device. Still, it works because they are such a simple monster to understand. With two successful season premieres under their belt, it’s no wonder they were chosen as the first villain in the kickoff episode of “new Who”.
    So where does this all leave us? Unfortunately with all these comings and goings, there’s just not that much room for plot. So the Doctor meets a new sidekick, heads off to the circus, finds a bad egg with lunch, gets tied up on a phone call, and while Joe stops to smell the flowers, the Brigadier tries to drop a big one on the party until the Master pulls a Homer Simpson, cries, “Doh!”, and everyone shoots the wrong person.
    This, “I didn’t think about that” change of heart earns the retro rewrite award for this week. It’s easily the weakest moment in the entire story. Consider instead that the Brig should have shot his hands at the console and rendered the signal worthless, possibly causing the Master great pain. This would have caused a personal grudge between the two that could have been played out later on. Retro reshoot of the week goes to Pertwee’s hammy impersonation of a Patrick Troughton cliffhanger face when being strangled by the phone cord. It’s cute and pantomime and just doesn’t fit this story at all. That and the silly choice of having a white effect on an almost white sky in the climactic radio telescope effect. You know what color would have been better? ANY color. Contrast is key people.
    I know, I know, These really are some admittedly silly nitpicks, and I point them out mainly because I really don’t have anything else horrible to say for this story. Unfortunately I just don’t have anything wonderful to say either. It’s just okay and that’s all there is to it. As such, from me it earns a “Don’t smoke in the Tardis, no Hot Cocao in the lab” 2.5.

    Reply
  2. Stephen | @sgamer82

    Where you guys were seduced by Inferno, my love goes to Terror of the Autons. One reason is that Jo Grant is one of my favorite classic companions, alongside Troughton’s Zoe and McCoy’s Ace. While I’m not sure how much you’ll like Jo’s debut story, I will (without spoiling) recommend you keep this episode in mind when you reach The Curse of Peladon and Frontier in Space.

    This story is also the debut of the Master. While the Daleks may be the Doctor’s archnemesis, I’ve always had a preference for the kind of one on one conflict enemies like the Master bring. And bring he does as in this one serial his murder spree racks up a kill count that feels like it rivals just about every foe before him except the aforementioned Daleks.

    My single biggest criticism in the episode is the utter cop out that is the Master aborting his own plan because he only THEN realizes the Nestene has no reason to uphold its bargain with him. I will confess that there’s more than one resolution to a serial I genuinely cannot remember, so the fact that this stood out even before I rewatched it should give an idea of my annoyance with it.

    My final score for Terror of the Autons is 3.9. Love the Master, love Jo, hate the resolution.

    Finally, I’m curious to hear what you call the Auton flower vendors, because the only thing they made me think of was Hervé Villechaize, sidekick on Fantastic Island.

    Reply
  3. Paul Fauber | @wordsmithpaul

    Producer Barry Letts put his stamp on DOCTOR WHO in the show’s eighth season. He issued UNIT, paramilitary investigators whom the Doctor advised, better looking uniforms his team designed after consulting the British military. He also gave their leader, Brigadier Lethbridge Stewardt, a right hand man, Captain Yates, and the Doctor a pretty, new assistant. Jo Grant burst into the Doctor’s life and lab, ruining a delicate experiment as leggy, brainy Liz Shaw, his former aide, never would have. The Brigadier explained Jo’s role, “to pass you test tubes and tell you how brilliant you are.” Together with Script Editor Terrance Dicks, Letts envisioned a Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes and Writer Robert Holmes gave them, and us, the devilish looking Master, whose scenes often included a musical tag.

    The Doctor’s “best enemy” stole a sphere containing part of the Nestene Consciousness he used at a radio telescope to summon the rest. Masquerading as Colonel Masters, he found a henchman in actor Michael Wisher, who, years later, would brilliantly play the Daleks’ creator, Davros. The Master also took advantage of the Nestenes’ ability to energize plastic into “quasi-organic matter” at the molecular level to murder obstructive managers at a plastics factory. Their deaths and a Time Lord’s timely warning drew the Doctor and UNIT. The factory was abandoned except for an Auton, an automaton soldier built there and upgraded for speech. More Autons gave away deadly, plastic flowers from a motor coach UNIT traced to a quarry not portraying an alien world. The Brigadier ordered an air strike on the coach his men watched, giving the Doctor and Jo a time limit to determine how the plastic flowers killed. They succeeded, of course, but only through serendipity.

    Autons were not prominent in “Terror of the Autons” despite its title, which misidentified the story’s main antagonist. They acted as stooges for the Nestenes, who were further in the background than in both enemies’ debut. Because UNIT’s new faces had not faced the returning invaders, the Doctor could directed rather than advising UNIT. Once again, this Auton story had a lot more going on. It chronicled a deadly duel between the Doctor and the Master, a one Time Lord spearhead from space heralding the Nestenes’ second invasion attempt. The Master used circus performers; Autons; and a long, plastic phone chord the Nestenes manipulated to directly attack the Doctor. His indirect attacks, though, were much more interesting. An alien bomb was rigged to destroy the radio telescope and anyone investigating it. Later, Jo was hypnotized and commanded to to detonate another bomb set to blast UNIT headquarters to bits.

    Though iconic for the Master’s introduction, this serial was controversial. The deadly, plastic doll used to kill a plastics factory manger looked hideous and it threatened Jo as she learned it was heat activated. Obviously, the idea of toys coming to life could terrify children. Worse. The Autons who rescued the Doctor and Jo from an attack at the circus were disguised as policemen. This idea is dramatic and made a terrific cliffhanger but undermined public trust in the police.

    The serial’s climax was disappointing despite a wonderful scene setting it up in which the Master infiltrated UNIT headquarters. He suavely dismissed the question of how he’d arrived and prepared to shrink the Doctor to death with his Tissue Compression Eliminator. The Doctor revealed he had stolen the Master’s dematerialization circuit, which was incompatible with his TARDIS. Unfazed, the Master threatened Jo, who saved herself and the Doctor by revealing UNIT’s impending air strike. The Master responded sensibly, taking them both to the Autons’ coach as hostages, causing the Brigadier to call off the attack that would have thwarted the alien invasion. Sadly, the audience saw neither the Doctor and Jo’s capture nor the Master’s escape from UNIT headquarters. The Doctor and Master’s battle of wits continued when UNIT saw a cleverly coded signal, prompting a hopeless, action-packed battle with Autons. The Doctor escaped with Jo and guessed the invaders’ final move before implausibly talking the Master into changing sides at the crucial moment The Nestenes’ defeat saved UNIT and the world but was anticlimactic. The Master’s inevitable escape , though, was great like the Doctor’s theft of his dematerialization circuit, which left both Time Lords trapped on Earth.

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  4. Erin Zimmerman | @DoctorZedd

    Hey Future Ponken! I’ll be quick. Mostly, I just want to say that this is my all-time favourite classic Who serial. There’s just so much to love here: the beginning of the Delgado run as the best-ever incarnation of the Master, the start of the awesome supporting crew of BAGLS, Jo, Benson, and Yates, and a classically convoluted Master scheme with people getting killed by a fantastic variety of plastic objects. And lots of time hanging out in the Doctor’s UNIT laboratory, which I would kill to have as a workplace.
    I give it a fangirl-y and unapologetic 5.0.

    Random Thoughts:

    -Time Lord John Steed at the beginning made me wish for a Doctor Who/Avengers crossover in the worst way.
    -I saw this in re-run once as a child and the daffodil carriers gave me nightmares.
    -BAGLS with his dry wit and stupid phone pun was in top form here.
    -How is someone as determined as the Master that easily dissuaded from his plan? Could the Doctor not have had this little talk with him earlier?

    Reply

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