Doctor Who (Classic): “Terror Of The Autons”
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Doctor Who (Classic): “Terror Of The Autons”

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Doctor Who (Classic)

“Terror Of The Autons”

Season 8, Episode 1

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Doctor Who (Classic)

“Terror Of The Autons”

Season 8, Episode 2

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Doctor Who (Classic)

“Terror Of The Autons”

Season 8, Episode 3

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Doctor Who (Classic)

“Terror Of The Autons”

Season 8, Episode 4

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"Terror Of The Autons" (season 8, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Jan. 2-23, 1971)

It's a law of storytelling physics, at least for the kind of serial adventure story that is Doctor Who: For every hero, there is an equal and opposite villain. Not just the run-of-the-mill bad guys who take a number and line up for a single-episode smackdown, but a true nemesis, someone who presents a genuine challenge to the hero's abilities and also to the fundamental question of who he is. All good hero/villain pairings do this to some extent, but the emergence of a nemesis relationship is something special, even epic, and when it's done well it resonates throughout the entire series. You know what I mean: Holmes and Moriarty. Batman and the Joker. The great rivalries.

In Doctor Who's case, you could make a pretty good argument that prior to our Mystery Guest Villain's debut in 1971's "Terror Of The Autons," the Doctor already had a perfectly serviceable epic nemesis in the Daleks. He'd clashed with them repeatedly since the beginning of the series, and the things they stood for—fear, oppression, stagnation, conformity—helped define what the Doctor stands against. Obviously, that relationship is still important, even crucial for the series today. But there was always something missing, because the Daleks are perhaps too diametrically opposed to the Doctor. The differences are starkly apparent, but the commonalities aren't. That's what Moriarty has over the Daleks: He's equal and opposite, a man with the skills and temperament of Sherlock Holmes who represents the ways Holmes could have gone wrong. The other problem with the Daleks is that by the time of "Terror," they'd grown overexposed by repeated return engagements, and had in fact been effectively killed off four seasons earlier in "Evil Of The Daleks." So the field was open for a new nemesis.

All this was very consciously on the minds of Who's creative team at the time, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks. They'd already drastically changed the format by exiling the Doctor on Earth after his trial by the Time Lords in season six's "The War Games," teaming him up as the resident alien and scientific advisor to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT, where he helped stop alien invasions but longed for escape. The Brig's practical, no-nonsense attitude made his relationship with the Doctor much like Holmes and Watson, which naturally suggested Moriarty as an expansion. And so Letts, Dicks and scriptwriter Robert Holmes devised a new villain who could be not merely opposite to the Doctor, but an opposite Doctor. The result was a black-clad fellow renegade Time Lord whose academically inspired name punned off of the Doctor's own: The Master.

Like the Daleks, the Master would become ridiculously overused himself very quickly, since Letts and Dicks had made the questionable decision to feature him prominently in every story in season eight. But between Roger Delgado's charismatic performance and Holmes' darkly funny script, his first appearance excellently set the standard for his character.

Much of what's unique about the Doctor, and specifically the Third Doctor, is reflected in the Master. By this point in the series, we'd met other Time Lords—first another renegade, the rather hapless Meddling Monk, and then in "War Games" the Lords themselves, and a peek at the stifling and autocratic society the Doctor had been running away from all this time. But the Master is more like the Doctor than any of the Time Lords. Holmes gives them a shared history as rivals at school, implying roughly the same formative experiences. Both are arrogant and more than a little obsessed with demonstrating their superiority over other people. Both are scientific geniuses on a level that practically makes them wizards to the humans they encounter. Both have a distinctive and even overblown sense of style. And both are fundamentally forces of chaos, whose defining characteristic in dramatic terms is that they 're great disruptors, constantly popping up in the middle of a situation and creating turmoil—the main difference being how and why they choose to direct that turmoil. 

That's certainly what the Master does here, to great effect. The plot of "Terror Of The Autons," in which the Master lays the groundwork for an invasion by the Nestene Consciousness we first met in "Spearhead From Space," is almost incidental. The Master has no particular devotion to the Nestene cause, nor has he thought very deeply about the consequences of working with them, considering how laughably quick he is to change sides in the finale. They're so marginalized that just about the only dialogue they get is to complain that the invasion plans aren't moving fast enough—in effect, complaining that they're not getting enough screen time.

It's a similar dynamic to the one we just saw between Tobias Vaughn and the Cybermen in "The Invasion," interestingly enough, where the single mastermind is far more interesting than the alien army he's working with. The balance is tipped much more firmly in the Master's favor here, partly because the Master is a far more dynamic and charismatic figure than Vaughn, and because the Autons are driven even further into the margins by the script. While it's fairly clear that they have a plan of its own that doesn't entirely fit with what the Master wants to do, they're almost wholly used as as a threat the Master can use against others, and don't become a threat in their own right until the very end of the story. Holmes uses the Nestene and its plastic Auton soldiers less as villains in their own right and more as a way to let the Master be evil in a crazy, surreal way that will get the Doctor's attention. To play with him, in a way.

Like the Cybermen of "The Invasion," The Autons are just a sideshow. Which is appropriate, since the Master is introduced to us at a circus. And that's not an accidental choice on Holmes' part, but a way of stating flat-out that the Master is an evil conjuror—literally the first word used to describe him—who plays tricks on his victims with a wicked and impish sense of humor. If it's not always apparent that he's joking, it's partly because Delgado plays the role so deadpan and partly, I think, because Holmes' jokes may have gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the production team. But they're there. Working with the Autons allows the Master to manipulate everyday objects into items of, essentially, evil sorcery. In comparison to the way the Autons behaved when they appeared by themselves in "Spearhead," it also shows off his imagination and sense of style. "Spearhead" gave us mannequins and creepily accurate duplicates. "Terror" gives us death by plastic chair, by troll doll, by daffodil, by a mob of killer clowns, and kills a man who's irritated by his boiled eggs by  shrinking him down and stuffing him in his own lunchbox. I think we only see the Master smile once, during the cliffhanger of part three when he's about to get the Doctor's own telephone to strangle him. But a character who plans all that is pretty clearly having a laugh.

He is, basically, behaving the way the Joker does with Batman. They're very similar, both motivated both by whimsical cruelty and a deep-set inferiority complex focused specifically on the star of the show. That's reflected in the name producer Letts chose: Just as a master's degree is inferior to a doctorate, the relationship between the two Time Lords is driven by the Master's jealousy and resentment of the Doctor. He's like a younger brother trying to impress an elder sibling who will always see him as just a little gnat. (I kept getting reminded of Willem Dafoe's character in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.) In fact, Who has often danced around the idea, never completely ruled out or stated outright, that the Doctor really is the Master's older brother. Whether or not it's true, it's the best way to think about their relationship.

And it's a particularly appropriate way to pair him with Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor—who, let's face it, is often a pompous, disdainful, insufferably vain ass. Although the Doctor's character changes mercurially from actor to actor, arrogance is certainly a common recurring trait. But only Colin Baker's disastrously mishandled Six surpassed Three's insistently autocratic attitude, which is on flagrant display in "Terror." He's mean to everybody, just everybody. New companion Jo Grant? A "ham-fisted bun vendor." The Brigadier and UNIT? "An idiot" in charge of "incompetent imbeciles." The Master?  An "unimaginative plodder." Most infamously, there's the moment in episode three where he caustically stamps on an officious bureaucrat named Brownrose by nastily pulling social rank, sneering that he's chummy with his boss, the Wodehouseian-named Lord "Tubby" Rowlands, and has the power to get the guy fired. "'Wrong sort of chap is creeping into your lot, Tubby,' I said!" We never actually see the Doctor swanning about with aristos at the club, making sniping comments about the plebes over snifters of brandy, so it's possible this is just a story he's making up on the spot to squash the irritating Brownrose. But Pertwee gives no indication he's joking, and instead plays the scene totally straight, using his upper-class rank as a weapon.

More than any other Doctor, Three takes the "Lord" part of "Time Lord" seriously. And maybe that's the root of his snappishness—because he's been kicked around by his social betters as well. He is especially sensitive about rank because his trial in "War Games" took it away from him, a fact made painfully clear by the visit from the nameless Time Lord who shows up to give the Doctor his instructions. Just as the Master resents that the Doctor won't take him seriously, the Doctor is hugely resentful toward the Time Lords, who don't take him seriously either. And they're the reason he's stuck on Earth doing little chores like saving humanity from annihilation instead of wandering the universe as he longs to do. And it's significant that the Tubby Rowlands scene takes place just after he's tried using a piece from the Master's TARDIS to fix his own, and failed in a humiliating cloud of smoke. The Third Doctor can be a kind and charming person, but he's also nursing two hearts' worth of frustrated wanderlust that boils over easily.

Sometimes his attitude comes across as not just arrogant but weirdly callous. When we first see him in "Terror," he's working in his lab and happily singing The Inkspots' "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire" to himself. That's just a little bit appalling when you realize that in the previous serial, "Inferno," the Doctor had visited an alternate Earth which he saw completely destroyed and reduced to a ball of boiling lava, killing billions. And his boredom and disdain while listening to the Brigadier's report about the Nestene threat is pretty clearly motivated by his belief that the Master's dematerialization circuit will let him escape his exile. He just doesn't care anymore—suddenly he's so ready to leave that he's willing to abandon humanity in the middle of a threat that he knows only he can deal with. True, he tells Jo it's "only a proving flight," but his attitude suggests that he's not necessarily going to come back. Only when he fails does refocus on the petty problems of humanity, but not without a petulant remark that he likes "being childish," and then later unleashing his fury on Brownrose. This is not entirely out of character; the Doctor is at heart a person who's running away from something, and refuses to accept the notion of conventional responsibility. But usually he deals with the immediate threat before leaving.

The suggestion is that the Doctor is feckless and irresponsible on a level that's, again, a little appalling considering the stakes. And it's another point he has in common with the Master. They're like kids playing war games, only with real soldiers against a plastic army of life-size action figures. For all the elaborate conniving the Master does throughout the story, it takes only a single sentence from the Doctor to make him to abandon his scheme, betray his allies, and destroy the Nestene invasion he had made possible in the first place. And then, even though he's got the Doctor unconscious and at his mercy, he doesn't kill him but just runs away. This is all a game to him, and he doesn't want to make the final move that would end it. The point, for him, is to play with the Doctor, not to crush him. He's got his worthy adversary, and if you win then you have to stop playing. This reminds me of the Joker again, when he tells Batman at the end of The Dark Knight that "you and I could do this forever." They seem like squabbling brothers as much as enemies, and clearly enjoy the prospect of clashing again. "As a matter of fact, I'm rather looking forward to it," says the Doctor in the closing line, setting up the rest of the Master-filled season. Which also throws into sharp relief just how odd the Doctor's exile is, when you think about it. He's less like a prisoner than a boy who's been grounded. He's supposedly been sent to Earth to punish him for violating the Time Lords' policy of non-interference in the natural unfolding of history. But if that's really true, then why force him to work with UNIT to stop aliens from invading Earth? Isn't that interference with history? They've sentenced him to do the same thing that he'd been put on trial for. Apparently, the Time Lords don't want him to stop interfering, they just want him to learn how to interfere better. Seen in this light, sticking him with the Master is maybe something like an exasperated parent telling two bratty kids to go play outside so mom and dad can have some peace in the house for once.

That childish relationship is a reminder that Doctor Who has to be seen as a family-oriented show, and is always trying to appeal to kids no matter how sophisticated it can otherwise be. And that goes some way toward explaining another major change "Terror" brought to the series' core cast, which is otherwise a little distasteful—the disappearance of the Doctor's seventh-season companion Liz Shaw, who has quit UNIT and gone back to Cambridge. In-story, her leaving gives the Doctor one more thing to be irritated about, and helps explain his particularly aggressive misanthropy. I'm with him there. That jab the Brigadier makes about how the Doctor doesn't need a partner who can be his equal but "someone to pass you your test tubes and to tell you how brilliant you are" is a somewhat uncomfortably frank admission of the real-life reason Letts and Dicks got rid of Liz—basically, they thought she was too smart and independent. Which is hugely sexist. And yet... It's also kind of right. Doctor Who's style of serialized adventure works best when the Doctor has someone close to him who's vulnerable and needs his protection—not in some kind of macho way, but to balance out his Sherlockian irritability by showing that no matter what, he does care about people after all. I don't think this changes that Liz Shaw's groundbreaking potential was utterly squandered.

But this cloud has a silver lining, and her name is Jo Grant. Played with tremendous charm by Katy Manning, Jo is one of the quintessential sidekicks of 20th-century Who. She has a lingering reputation as something of a bimbo, partially because she replaced Liz Shaw and perhaps also because Manning later posed nude next to a Dalek for a magazine layout. That's not really fair or accurate, though. She's not a genius like the Doctor, but she's not dumb. The first thing she does is to grab a fire extinguisher when the Doctor sets his own lab ablaze. She's practical, sensible, and cool under fire.

There was apparently an intention to set Jo up in "Terror" as a kind of Avengers-style Emma Peel figure, given that her qualifications include training as a field agent including "cryptology, safebreaking, [and] explosives." But although Jo does exhibit a certain take-charge attitude, cutting off the Brigadier over the phone and rushing off to save the Doctor from the circus folk, the kick-ass spy-girl thing definitely didn't take. It wasn't what the show needed—UNIT could take care of the action, but the Brigadier was too much of an authority figure to be the Doctor's true Watson. Jo can do that. She's a daughter-figure, or perhaps a younger-sister figure, someone who can tell the Doctor how brilliant he is but also keep him grounded by giving him someone to care about.  

Stray observations

• A stray bit of trivia from the DVD's informational subtitles that I found unaccountably hilarious, because this is all the explanation we get: "During the circus filming, Katy Manning learned something she never knew about herself: She dislikes animals." No idea why. Is there a story there? I like to imagine that after her terrible discovery, Manning would sit in the dark for hours, thinking about puppies and kittens and just fuming silently to herself.

• "Terror" is notable for its extensive and sometimes distracting use of color-separation overlay, i.e. the method by which the maps and temperature charts are shown behind TV weather forecasters, as a way of making studio-bound scenes like ones set at the radar installation look like they were filmed on location. It's, well, not exactly a total success, but give them credit for helping pioneer today's green-screen techniques, which by now have become ubiquitous and almost totally invisible to us.

• During the break between seasons, Jon Pertwee landed a film role in the horror anthology The House That Dripped Blood. I haven't seen it. Have any of you? Any good?

• The Master's ill-fated assistant Farrell is played by Michael Wisher, who would go on to create the role of the Doctor's next major nemesis figure—Davros, creator of the Daleks. Less prominently, the circus strongman is Roy Stewart, who played Toberman in "Tomb Of The Cybermen."

• The grey-suited Time Lord with his bowler hat is dressed to evoke the stuffy authoritarianism of a stereotypical member of England's governmental bureaucracy, similar to the way The Avengers' John Steed embraced and played with the same ideas. But in keeping with the Time Lords' essentially magical nature, there's also more than a hint of Rene Magritte's surrealist painting "The Son Of Man," better known informally as "the guy with the apple in front of his face."

• Next time: Steampunk Victorian London long before it was cool, in the Fourth Doctor's "The Talons of Weng-Chiang."
• Oct. 31: "Kinda"
• Nov. 6: "The Dalek Invasion of Earth"
• Nov. 13: "The War Games," episodes 1-5
• Nov. 20: "The War Games," episodes 6-10
• And coming up after that, "The Silurians," "City of Death," and visits to the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctor eras in episodes to be named later.

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