Doctor Who Project: Terror of the Autons

We Time Lords don’t care to be conspicuous.

Misery loves company, and Season Eight of Doctor Who provides our exiled Time Lord with a fellow Earth-bound refugee in the form of the Master. Robert Holmes’ season opening “Terror of the Autons” (Story Production Code EEE) introduces a renegade Time Lord, the Master (Roger Delgado), who will appear in all five stories this season, essentially creating the very first story arc in the series. Holmes, a regular writer for Doctor Who by now, reprises his Nestenes to, ah, spearhead a season once more, but everyone, from Third Doctor Jon Pertwee and new companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) through to the Brigadier and the plastic fantastic Autons, takes a back seat to the Master.

Meet the Master

The Master seeks to bring the Nestenes back to Earth so they can conquer it; the Doctor likes the planet and that’s evidently reason enough for the Master to help disembodied plastic entities take it over. Their shared animosity goes back quite far, and in several lines of dialogue, Holmes provides more back story for the Doctor, vis-à-vis the Master, than he has had in the series to date. We learn that the Doctor holds a lesser degree in Cosmic Science than the Master, a failing the Doctor attributes to being a late starter, and as with the Time Meddler, the Doctor uses a lesser mark of TARDIS than the Master. We do not learn just why the Master and the Doctor are at odds with one another, but they’ve obviously crossed paths many times before, being quite aware of one another’s weaknesses.

Typically the Doctor has some encounter with the main villain before the story is too far along, but not here. So strong is Roger Delgado’s presence that he and the Doctor do not even speak until the end of the third of this story’s four episodes, yet one still feels like they are at odds throughout the story. Though Pertwee does get more screen time than Delgado, it’s a close run thing. The producers seem to make up for it by allowing Pertwee to wrestle with, um, a telephone cord.

Death by Telephone Cord

Perhaps it’s for the best that the Third Doctor has received both a new companion and a new foil, as the main thrust of the plot revolves around invasion via plastic daffodils, or, to use the slightly more menacing Nestene terminology, Autojets. But, still, they’re just yellow plastic flowers, given away in great numbers and for free. And they’re here to take over the world.

Flower, Madam?

Given their ability to manipulate and imbue any plastic with quasi-lifelike properties, the Nestenes seek to kill a huge number of people via these plastic flowers, which spray degradable plastic on the nose and mouth of anyone who bends in to smell them, suffocating them. The panic of so many unexplained deaths would, in theory, allow the Nestenes to successfully invade, though again, they, like the writers of Doctor Who in general, assume that conquering the Home Counties is effectively the same as conquering the Earth.

To bring the Nestenes back, the Master must commandeer both a radio telescope array and a plastics factory, and to do so he uses a form of hypnosis to control weak minded individuals for a short period of time. He also wields a shrink ray that enables him to dispose of those who do not bend to his will. The Doctor shows no surprise when confronted with the evidence of these abilities, and he’s able to snap Jo Grant out of the Master’s trance without much fuss, but only after she’s tried to blow up the Doctor and all of UNIT HQ. Presumably, then, these abilities are amongst those known to Time Lords.

Cheaper by the dozen.

Significantly, this ability of the Master to control people obviates much of the need for the Nestenes in the plot at all. They’re simply the invaders du jour. The true terror (sorry) of the Autons was their ability to impersonate key figures as part of a long-term infiltration project; the lumbering Autons in the High Street, though iconic and charged with the frisson of danger in the everyday, simply do not demonstrate the same existential danger that the fascimile Autons embodied. Only towards the end of the story, when the tensions between the Nestenes and the Master begin to come to the surface, do they and their Auton servants play any kind of key role in the plot.

In some ways, the story moves fast enough that the viewer either doesn’t notice or, more probably, doesn’t mind that the plot has a few holes. At only four episodes long, there are few scenes with meandering exposition. For instance, when confronted with a room booby trapped by the Master, the Doctor doesn’t deliberate when figuring out a way to disarm the megaton-level bomb; he simply goes into “action hero” mode, jumps in, triggers the trap, and catches the bomb before it falls to the floor. Thirty seconds elapsed total where Patrick Troughton would have filled an episode. Similar jumps, both in logic and narrative, happen throughout the story.

Meet Jo Grant

New companion Jo Grant seems tailor made for asking simple questions that allow the Doctor to quickly fill her, and the viewer, in on what they need to know, enabling this new fast pace. Katy Manning’s character provides an odd counterpoint to her immediate predecessor Liz Shaw (Caroline John), not to mention Zoe (Wendy Padbury) before her. As the Doctor himself protests, he wants a scientist as an assistant, not someone who is portrayed from the start as scatterbrained, impulsive, and without much intellectual firepower (though, as becomes clear, someone who has nevertheless qualified as an agent of UNIT). The Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) delivers perhaps the best line of the story, though, in telling the Doctor who he really prefers as a companion:

Brigadier: What you need, Doctor, as Miss Shaw herself so often remarked, is someone to pass you your test tubes and tell you how brilliant you are.

What Jo Grant might lack in book smarts, she more than makes up for in derring-do, somehow infiltrating the exact plastics factory the Master has taken over immediately after the Brigadier decides to start looking into them, again with zero narrative build-up. She just appears there, hiding behind crates that she manages to knock over right as the Master passes by. She is immediately caught, brainwashed, and instructed to kill the Doctor. Not a great start to a job, but we’ve all been through that rough first day at work.

As for Liz Shaw’s last day at work, her departure ranks down there with Dodo being shipped off to a sanitorium, though at least she has “returned to Cambridge” and her studies voluntarily rather than being invalided off. Contrary to what she apparently told the Brigadier, her contributions to the Doctor’s successes over four stories suggest that he needs more than a tube-toter. An ignominious leave-taking, at any rate.

An inauspicious experiment.

One definitive carry-over from Season Seven, though, remains the Doctor’s continued efforts to repair his TARDIS and leave Earth. Even in the midst of the Auton crisis, the Doctor seems willing to leave it all behind if he can just get the TARDIS to work, leading to his stealing a crucial part from the Master’s TARDIS (disguised as a horse caravan) to try to replace the broken one in his own. His repair efforts fail, the parts not being compatible between different models of the time machine, leading to his exiting a smoking police box in a bit of a pique. However, this bit of larcenous legerdemain leads, ultimately, to the Master being trapped on Earth just like the Doctor, setting the stage for many more encounters with the menacing Delgado.

Dapper Delgado and Daffodil

If anything, being presented with a charismatic adversary like the Master brings out the best in the Third Doctor. Pertwee plays our hero with more than a bit of swagger and self-importance, and absent someone who knows his character flaws, who sees his persistent curiosity as a weakness to be exploited, the Doctor would seem all braggart and less, well, human. But with the Master to play against, to fail against, the Third Doctor grows as a character. We see in the Master what the Doctor could have become, given all of time and space in which to play, and while the Doctor might proclaim, “What’s wrong with being childish? I like being childish!” after Jo calls him out after a fit of petulance, we know that there’s a seriousness at work in the Doctor. Or, as the other Time Lord to appear in the story, a member of the Tribunal who exiled him, notes:

Time Lord: You are incorrigibly meddlesome, Doctor, but we’ve always thought that your hearts are in the right places.

In the end, the Doctor appeals to the Master’s sense of self-preservation to help defeat the threat of the Nestenes, with the renegade realizing that the Nestenes will dispose of him as just another “human” once they have completed their transference via radio telescope. The Doctor and the Master join forces to undo the transfer process at the last minute, coincidentally deactivating all the remaining Autons on the planet (er, in the Home Counties, that is). The Master then makes good his escape, unaware that his TARDIS has been disabled. He’ll be back, a fact that gives the Doctor an odd bit of pleasure.

The Third Doctor in his prime.

Jon Pertwee and the Third Doctor remain central to Doctor Who, not just despite but because of Roger Delgado and the Master. His presence brings life and spark to the show in concert with new visual effects (so much CSO!) and a commitment on the producers and writers part to speed thing up. Pertwee shows an incredible comfort with the character at this point, and his embrace of the role remains evident. Though invasions continue to be a predominant theme of this Earth-bound Doctor’s reign, at least the show has resisted the impulse to return to the Dalek/Cyberman well, and we’ll go yet another season without a visit from either one of them. They’d probably just want to invade anyway. The Master, bent on revenge, promises far more interesting stories to come.

(Previous Story: Inferno)

(Next Story: The Mind of Evil)

Post 57 of the Doctor Who Project

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