Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Terror of the Autons

Previous viewings - one

If pushed, I’d probably agree that Season 7 is streets ahead of the rest of the Pertwee era, but one of the great things about it is that it knew when to end, stylistically, before it got dull. With Terror of the Autons, the UNIT era becomes an ongoing story with the addition of recurring baddie the Master, Katy Manning joins the cast as the more traditional companion Jo Grant, shorter stories make a return and the revolving door of alien invasions commences. It’s like putting on a pair of comfort slippers – this is the first time in the new decade it feels like the production team are thinking long-term instead of taking it a story at a time.

Introductions first. If you’re going to be stuck on Earth it makes sense to have a singular returning villain, not just because it gives Jon Pertwee a chance to develop a rapport with someone his character will spar with regularly, but because it provides a get-out-clause for the writers, who before had to think up a variety of plots involving aliens that just happen to occur now that UNIT and the Doctor are around; if the Master being there makes sense, so does the presence of any monster of the week.

As a rogue Time Lord, possessing intelligence equal or greater than the Doctor’s, the Master is a credible threat. The thing about the character is that he shouldn’t work – Roger Delgado plays the role straight but the clichéd appearance – the goatee and black clothes – is pure panto. Yet somehow the writing and the performance overcome this craft a character who make perhaps the greatest impact of any single character since the Doctor himself. A classic creation.

In his debut story, the Master uses his power of hypnosis to influence the manager of a plastics factory, and send a signal to the Nestene enabling them to control their Autons on Earth, and eventually to invade Earth. The Autons don’t appear as much as they did in Spearhead from Space but their new look is creepy, with big smiling heads. Despite being an agent of a greater power, the Master is true villain of the piece. We follow his actions from his arrival on Earth to his defeat, and though we aren’t privy to his motives (not that they need much explanation), the fact that he leads the plot, with the Doctor always a few steps behind, allows him to dominate the story.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is upset over Liz Shaw’s decision to stay at Cambridge, and to make matters worse a new assistant is forced upon him, one who has none of Liz’s qualifications and only got the job through nepotism. The good thing about Jo’s first scene, where she wrecks the Doctor’s experiment, is that we share his frustration, but when soon afterwards the Brigadier gives the Doctor the task of telling Jo that her services are not required, and the Doctor hasn’t the heart to do so, I hadn’t yet accepted Jo, so would have been quite happy for her to disappear. Jo tries to prove herself capable by chasing her own leads in the investigation, but it usually leads to disaster, and though I liked her for her bravery and loyalty to the Doctor (which seems to be borne out of admiration), there were a few times when her screeching was down there with the worst of Victoria or Susan. Aside from vague hints of the deeper relationship that will develop between Jo and the Doctor, Jo’s debut is far from a success.

Onto the actual plot. UNIT is led to a radio telescope where some scientists have gone missing, but one of them turns up dead and shrunken, the work of the Master’s tissue compression eliminator. From there it’s back to UNIT HQ while the Doctor works out what to do next. A lead takes him to a circus which leads to a great cliffhanger of a policeman being unmasked as an Auton, and a shootout between UNIT and some Autons… then back to the lab. It never feels like UNIT or the Doctor are making any progress because after every setpiece involving them they’re left back at square one.

Fortunately, the Master’s part of the plot is interesting enough that it doesn’t seem to matter. His infiltration of Farrel’s plastics factory under the guise of Colonel Masters is fun to watch, mainly because of Roger Delgado’s performance. His Master always seems intelligent and dangerous, even when pretending to be a charming businessman. I like that Farrel Sr. withstood his mind control attempt, not just because it led to some scary monster doll scenes (about as scary as CSO can be, anyway!), but because I thought the fact that the Master wasn’t angry about it but rather quite impressed was a nice touch, and said a lot about the character.

The conclusion comes about rather abruptly – like I said before, the story has little sense of progression. The Doctor stops the Master from contacting the Nestene, but the Master escapes after some disguise trickery. Having stolen the dematerialisation circuit from his TARDIS, however, the Doctor knows he and the Master will meet again.

Terror of the Autons is greater than the sum of its parts. At four episodes, it’s just long enough that it’s curious pacing doesn’t get annoying. The Master, with his own theme music, is very strong villain, it’s a pity we don’t get to see him interact with the Doctor much here but Delgado still manages to carry the story. Perhaps the best thing about the story is its shock reveal moments – the doll coming to life, the shrunken scientist, the Auton policeman – this might not be Robert Holmes’s best work, but it does a good job of establishing what we’ll be tuning in for week after week as the Pertwee era continues, and dares us to miss it.

Horror quotient – Even growing up in 90s, I would have been terrified of that doll as a kid. The disjointed movement of CSO is far scarier than CGI, which looks cartoonish when done poorly. The Doctor’s quite scary in this too – he hasn’t been this grumpy since the days of Hartnell.
Comedy quotient – Difficult one. Pertwee’s gurning is hilarious.
Drama quotient – Robert Holmes is not a good drama writer. I can’t think of any moment of pure drama in this or any of his stories.

There is some element of disappointment – Jo’s debut suffers in a story that’s all about introducing the Master. But what an introduction! Not a great story, but a good one.


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