Terror of the Autons

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: Barry Letts
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1971
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

If you wanted to slate Terror of the Autons then you'd have plenty of scope. I won't knock the extreme use of CSO, which makes it kind of fun, but, despite his rep, Robert Holmes didn't realise his potential until two years later. What we have here is a contrived comic strip with some self-conscious clumsy lines ("… about these hardboiled eggs…") that try and pretend to be rich characterisation. Add to this an empty retread of Spearhead from Space and an already-lazy performance from Jon and you'd have rich pickings for anyone wishing to knock.

While Jon had a stronger opening run than any other Doctor, no other era collapsed so quickly. It's only his second of five seasons, and already out comes the ego and the Carmen rollers. Out goes Liz Shaw and in comes Jo Grant, the dizzy blonde who asks dumb questions and is there to pick locks. Here, already, I must make a distinction: because Liz was a more credible character, it's easy to assume that Caroline John was the better actress. She wasn't. Katy Manning is a much, much better actress than most - certainly I - gave her credit, and just because she has a pretty crap character doesn't mean she doesn't imbue it with enthusiasm and charm. Look at Peri - the two are miles apart. And just look at how she rips the pee out of Pertwee's lisp in only her first scene: "Nine opposssssssssable digitsssssssss." "Nine what?" "Oppossssssssssable digitsssssssssss. Yes, well, never mind."

Yet it's not just Jo, because, the first time I saw this story I just really didn't "get it". I didn't understand what was so great about the debut of a motiveless villain and extras pretending to be soldiers on sets dressed up as exteriors. But in a very real sense Terror is so good because it's so bad. It's Doctor Who as rock and roll, a full-on, totally mental, to-the-limits violence and gorefest. It's Johnny Rotten gobbing on the audience, singing God Save The Queen. Technically it's pretty lousy, but the end result is something utterly divine.

For the first episode itself, then there are some oddities right from the start. Like why does the Master land in a circus? Just because it looks cool having his Tardis in the shape of a Horse Box? And why does he "need" Lew Russell? And, of course, how can he click his fingers in leather gloves? Less than five minutes in and already his "Master theme" is becoming annoying. Isn't he much cooler than the other incarnations - save Pratt - though? Okay, he has a limited range, but he's great in the part. Obviously he got diluted and became more of a comedy character by the time of Frontier In Space, but here he's at his nastiest, most sadistic self. (Best performance? The Sea Devils, though again it's Master as comedian).

Then there's the UNIT "family". With a family like that you'd wish you were an orphan, wouldn't you? Yates has to be the campest army captain in history, while already Nicholas Courtney is milking the comedy support elements of his Brigadier to full throttle. Check out Yates being dropped to the canvas by Jo in only his first episode - what a girl! The exposition dealt out by the Time Lord is crass, though, to give credit to Holmes, it is an amusing scene that doesn't make you think you're being dealt out plot.

In many ways I could argue that this is the worst Pertwee episode so far. It's brash, childish, tacky and unremittingly shallow. But it's also, bizarrely, absolutely brilliant. You ham-fissssted bum vendor!
* * * * *

Episode two begins with an Irish stereotype getting smothered by a plastic chair. Some cynics might point to the fact that he has to pull it down over himself, but take no notice. With seven seconds focussed on his still, lifeless body, then this is a very horrific scene indeed, and one that clearly steps outside of the family show remit. Ain't that great?

The Master gets loads of funny lines in this one actually, lovingly crafting new and inventive ways to kill people. "I'm simply trying out a new product" he joyfully tells a man whom he's just given a homicidal doll to. Also an incongruous treat in this episode are all the shots of "real life", with the Doctor patrolling a circus - quite unique for Who. The episode gives us a rare sighting of a black man in the show, though as he's a mute strongman then it's perhaps not worth dwelling on. Also curious to note, of course, how many times Pertwee is overpowered in this story. If this was season nine he would have karate-chopped the guy to the ground. Well, okay, his stunt double would have. Lew Russell is one of those self-satisfied "comedy" characters that Holmes loves so much, though falls flatter than a Pertwee performance in a Dalek story.
* * * *

Jon gets his first "Hai!" at the start of this episode, though he's still far from the somewhat ridiculous caricature he became. This is much more action-packed than Spearhead though, which is normally a bad sign. Again, in many ways it is a bad sign - the story is left to the sidelines to make way for explosions. Yet it's brilliant fun. Look at all the other stories in this season, even padded and unfocussed ones like Colony In Space. They all have something to say, whereas Terror has nothing to say. Yet in some ways that makes it even better, a slam-bang joyride of a Doctor Who adventure.

The Autons get to speak for the first time here, something which again shows a lack of ingenuity on Holmes's behalf. Though they do get to speak in distorted Dalek tones which are quite chilling. As this is episode three, then we get lots of episode three padding, including an obsequious Minister called Brownrose (sounds like Brownnose, geddit?) and an Auton in a safe. Why put an Auton in a safe? Come on, narrative logic is the least of Terror's concerns. Just as a policeman's face, on close-up, can suddenly have no eyes and rubbery skin, here the Master shrinks by about a foot when he disguises himself as a telephone repair man. They always look so lifelike, yet strangely when you get really near to them it's Delgado with a bit of rubber on his face. What a master of disguise, eh? The cliffhanger sees the Doctor being choked by a phoneline… old Worzel's got his gurning head on.
* * * *

Some more hard-rock ultraviolence here, with a daffodil that sprays plastic film over the nose and mouth, suffocating the victim. There's also the first of the "I shall kill you, Doctor... but first..." moments, and a very silly scene where UNIT in a studio are supposed to be in the same place as RAF stock footage. What's with all this Greyhound/Eagle/Bluebottle nonsense, anyway? Given that the phrase "trap" is a crass nickname for a toilet in my part of the country, then Jo calling Yates from "Trap One" does have unsettling connotations.

And so, we get to the bit where - DAMN YOU, UK GOLD!!!!! - my tape runs out. With my original copy in the attic, I reasoned that no self-respecting TV station - not even a minority satellite one - would overrun by over twenty minutes. I was wrong. From what I do remember, there's a likeably violent bit where the Master, his face full of viciousness, hurls a man to his death. Then the Master, that criminal genius who has been meticulously planning for months, suddenly realises in a split second that his plan is flawed. "Do you really think that thing," says Jon, and I'm having to guess the exact line with no copy to hand, "will be able to dissssstinguisssssh between you and usssssssss?" "You're right!" cries Delgado, all pop-eyed, and together they press a few buttons and reverse the topography of the zoocrumb grow. The story concludes with Jon saying he's "rather looking forward" to his next meeting with the Master, though as he says it with all the inherent enthusiasm of a man who's just followed through in his own pants then you're not fully convinced.
* * * * ½

Doctor Who as a comic book, this is garish and shallow entertainment. But what entertainment! One of the dumbest and most superficial stories ever made, Terror of the Autons is nevertheless terrific fun.
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