Terror of the Autons *****

Season eight kicks off with the debut of the Master and Jo Grant – and the exciting return of the Autons

Comments
Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Terror of the Autons *****

Season 8 – Story 55

"Death is always more frightening when it strikes invisibly" - the Master

Storyline
A renegade Time Lord, known as the Master, arrives on Earth and uses a radio telescope to open a bridgehead for the Nestene Consciousness. Infiltrating a plastics factory, he manufactures a new batch of Autons, as well as an array of deadly domestic products: an engulfing armchair, a hideous troll doll and daffodils that emit a suffocating transparent film. At Unit, the Doctor reluctantly accepts the Brigadier's offer of a new assistant, Jo Grant. Together they must face off the Master and a terrifying threat to mankind…

First transmissions
Episode 1 - Saturday 2 January 1971
Episode 2 - Saturday 9 January 1971
Episode 3 - Saturday 16 January 1971
Episode 4 - Saturday 23 January 1971

Production
Location filming: September 1970 at Roberts Brothers Circus, Lea Bridge Road, Leyton, east London; GPO Relay Station, Zouches Farm, Caddington, Beds; Thermo Plastics Ltd, Luton Road, and Totternhoe Lime and Stone Co Ltd, Dunstable, Beds; St Peter's Court, Chalfont St Peter, Bucks
Studio recording: October 1970 at TC8 and TC6

Cast
Doctor Who - Jon Pertwee
Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart - Nicholas Courtney
The Master (Colonel Masters) - Roger Delgado
Jo Grant - Katy Manning
Captain Mike Yates - Richard Franklin
Sergeant Benton - John Levene
Rex Farrel - Michael Wisher
James McDermott - Harry Towb
Time Lord - David Garth
Radio telescope director - Frank Mills
Professor Philips - Christopher Burgess
Goodge - Andrew Staines
Luigi Rossini (Lew Russell) - John Baskcomb
Museum attendant - Dave Carter
John Farrel - Stephen Jack
Mrs Farrel - Barbara Leake
Strong man - Roy Stewart
Brownrose - Dermot Tuohy
Telephone mechanic - Norman Stanley
Auton policeman - Terry Walsh
Auton leader - Pat Gorman
Auton voice - Haydn Jones

Crew
Writer - Robert Holmes
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Ian Watson
Script editor - Terrance Dicks
Producer/director - Barry Letts

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Vibrant colours. Sharp compositions. Fast narrative. Snappy dialogue... A cloak-flapping superhero and his saturnine nemesis... Yes, Terror of the Autons is Doctor Who as comic-strip adventure, and when a scene ends in a craggy close-up on Jon Pertwee demanding "Exactly! Who - and why?" you can almost see the speech bubble.

In 1971, young fans lapped up this change in style. During the programme's six months off-air, they'd followed the Doctor's antics in TV Comic. That cartoon vibe was also perfectly encapsulated by the Radio Times cover. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were smoothing away the austerity of season seven, remoulding the Unit format to lend the series broader appeal.

Even the Doctor looks more colourful: in episode one he sports a red smoking jacket and purple-lined cloak (designed by Ken Trew). An effort is made to establish his "home" and give the Unit laboratory a consistent design - even if its dimensions, rather like the Tardis, could change according to studio space. Oddly, we won't get an exterior shot of the HQ for another two years (in The Three Doctors). And don't ask exactly where or when these stories are set. They don't stand still long enough for such trifles.

Shifts in the Doctor's relationships matter more. Antagonism with the Brigadier is heightened for humorous effect - an approach favoured by Nicholas Courtney, who told me in a 2008 RT interview: "They used to let me write the odd funny line, delivered seriously of course." As the Doctor pours sarcasm ("The military mind at its most scintillating"), the Brig brushes it off with a twitch of the tache.

An extraordinary, almost out-of-character moment sees the Doctor being strangled by a telephone cord, screaming for the Brig's help. "I'm afraid I cut your connection," says the soldier, yanking out the cable. Significantly, it's the Brig who thrusts Jo Grant upon the Doctor. It's the first proper "meeting-a-companion" scene for years, and the Time Lord's fluster and fury are beautifully acted by Pertwee.

Jo is a joy and vivacious Katy Manning (then 24) a true find. She seems implausibly young to be a "secret agent", but there's no denying her pluck. She's fibbed her way into a Unit post and locates the Master's base within minutes. She's clumsy, too, extinguishing the Doctor's "steady-state micro-welding". "Yer ham-fisted bun vendor!" he scolds - evidently in need of more polished putdowns.

Jo is immune to his rudeness, though later she chides him for being brusque with the Brig. She chips away at this crusty third Doctor and, given time, he would form with Jo the closest bond he'd had with anyone since the loss of his granddaughter in 1964.

He's also stimulated and challenged by another newcomer - the Master. At first glance he seems an amalgam of the traits and costume of the War Lord and War Chief, who appeared in The War Games 18 months earlier. But it quickly becomes clear he's the archenemy the Doctor's been aching for. "More than a Moriarty," said a thrilled and perfectly cast Roger Delgado in RT's preview feature (see below). He's irresistibly wicked, rivalling the Doctor for our affections.

Despite several worthy successors over the decades, Delgado remains the quintessential Master. He makes his escape here, trying to mow down the Doctor with a coach. Stripped of dignity, bum on the grass, the Doctor can't help but smile. Luckily we've a whole season of Time Lord clashes ahead. "As a matter of fact, Jo, I'm rather looking forward to it," says the Doctor in the final shot. And so are we.

Rather like Russell T Davies's writers in 21st-century Who, Robert Holmes was handed a shopping list of elements to include: new cast, Autons again and a circus. But he's playful with an "incognito" Time Lord messenger, as well as the deadly plastic novelties. Dicks heavily edited the scripts and Letts assumed the director's chair, keen to get everything just so.

His predilection for CSO backdrops now seems misguided but somehow suits the sketchy 2-D approach. The effect of scientist Goodge miniaturised in his own lunchbox is superb, although the CSO work with the troll doll is variable. The shot of it wriggling to life on a car seat is seamless, while its attack on Jo now looks laughable.

I must say, as a child, I was petrified by that scene and deeply unsettled whenever rubbery masks were pulled away. Scotland Yard complained about the Auton policemen, and there was a press outcry about the horror content and its unsuitability for children watching at 5.15pm.

There are plot holes. Why don't the Time Lords simply apprehend the Master? Why does he need Rossini and his circus? Does he really think he can rule alongside the Nestenes? The radiophonic score is also an acquired taste. Letts asked Dudley Simpson and Brian Hodgson to collaborate for the entire season. Once avant-garde, the music is dated, but I adore their efforts - especially the pulsating Master theme.

This and the gaudy early 70s production values sadly repel many latter-day Who fans - Jon-P-come-latelys. But it was this period under Pertwee - with Jo, Unit, the Master and occasional trips into space - that drew in my family and made me a fan as a child. This is "my era" of Doctor Who: a consistent run of well-told stories, dispensing dollops of terror and reassurance and, today, a warm nostalgic glow.

So thank you, Barry Letts. Your spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of the young people you entertained and stimulated back in the 1970s - and in every decade since.

- - -


What Katy did next…
“On the very first day I had to jump out of a car and run across a quarry. I pulled all the ligaments in my foot, had to have my boot cut off and was taken to the hospital. And the other thing that’s vivid is I found a bond with [producer] Barry Letts because the story was partly set at a circus and I got absolutely hysterical about all these animals being kept in tiny cages. They had to drag me away. 

“Otherwise it was a really cool story: the chair that ate someone. The people that gave you a free daffodil at the door. The troll doll thing coming to life. That’s enough to make a child go and have therapy.” (Talking to RT, April 2012)

Radio Times archive material

RT cover

RT feature

RT billings

[Available on BBC DVD]

Add new comment

Ads by Google