Doctor Who: Looking Back At TERROR OF THE AUTONS

On January 2nd 1971 a very important Doctor Who story began. A story which not only introduced a new companion, but also one of the series' greatest villains. On the anniversary of it's original broadcast Matthew Kresal looks back at Terror Of The Autons.

At the end of the 1960s, Doctor Who was seen as a television series on its last legs. With all three of its leading actors leaving the show at the end of its sixth season, there was even some talk of the series being canceled altogether. Yet season seven, broadcast during the first half of 1970, saw the show undergoing a number of changes, both in front of and behind the camera, which would guarantee its continued survival. With both Jon Pertwee's new Doctor cemented and the addition of the series being made in color having been introduced successfully, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks sought to cement the show's return. In doing so they would introduce a character who would become integral to the show's future: The Master.

The origins of the Master, at least behind the scenes, are easy to trace. There's an oft-told anecdote from Dicks regarding a script conference he had with series writer Malcolm Hulke where the latter summed up the show's new Earthbound format succinctly in that it was now limited to two types of stories: alien invasion or mad scientist. It was in trying to work around the restrictions of the format, as well as the realization that the chemistry between the Doctor and the Brigadier was something akin to that of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, that led to Letts and Dicks to realize that what the series needed at that moment was a Professor Moriarty added into the mix. That realization was combined with Letts experience as a jobbing actor in the 1950s and 1960s working alongside well established character actor Roger Delgado to lead to the creation of the character.

It would turn out to be inspired decision, and looking back on the Master's introduction story with a perspective of four decades it's amazing just how well established the character was from the beginning. So many of the tropes attached to the Master were there from the beginning: the hypnotic abilities demonstrated from his very first scene, the serious yet at times friendly rivalry between the Doctor and the Master and the as yet unnamed Tissue Compression Eliminator are all there. The Master's teaming up with another villain or monster, a reoccurring thread with the character seen most recently in the Series Eight finale, was first established here as well and would be repeated throughout the season ahead. With so much being there, the story feels less and less like an introduction.

In a way, perhaps what comes across the most is Delgado himself. Despite having already had a long career in radio, television and film (that included the original TV production of Quatermass II and the BBC radio serial The Slide) it is the role of the Master for which Delgado is best remembered and it isn't hard to see why. Delgado's Master is a villain of often contradictory qualities: suave and sophisticated in his style and dress sense, ruthless and manipulative in his dealings with people with lethal results more often than not. This isn't the pantomime villain that the 1980s left us with or the more manic character that the New Series introduced us to with John Simm. And while those qualities are certainly there in the script (as evidenced by its Target novelization) what really brings them to the fore is Delgado's performance and especially his scenes facing off against Pertwee's third Doctor. This is a far more measured, downright sinister version of the character and all the better for it.

While the story introduced the Master, he wasn't the only villain by any means. Robert Holmes' story from the previous season had seen the debut adventure of the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness and this story would see their return, as the title might suggest. Yet the Autons return doesn't quite live up to expectations, in part because they're reduced to being the Master's henchmen for much of the story. It perhaps also doesn't help that the Autons, one of the great silent threats of the series, were given voices in a number of scenes, something which really doesn't do them any favors. In a way it's understandable as (we've seen with returning monsters in the New Series) there's always a temptation to try and do something different with them. Terror Of The Autons doesn't quite succeed in that where the titular monsters are concerned.

Perhaps because of that, and having already introduced one of the creepiest monsters the series had seen to date, Holmes and the production team sought to up that creepiness elsewhere. They did so with plastic chairs that could smother, murderous troll dolls and plastic flowers armed with the ability to suffocate people. The results were controversial, coming at the time with Doctor Who being mentioned in the House Of Lords as part of a wider debate about television violence. Looking back on it forty years later, many of those “horror” elements seem almost tame, if not comical in places, as some of the effects required to make them work (such as the CSO effects to make the troll doll run across to attack people) haven't aged very well at all. Yet the concepts behind them still work to add that terror element. Former New Series executive producer Phil Collinson pointed out in an interview on the story's DVD release that things like the smothering of a man in a plastic chair likely wouldn't be approved in the series today.

The story itself isn't without its faults. In many ways it suffers from the same issue that the New Series has been criticized for in recent times: there's too much going on and it has a rushed ending. There are times throughout the four episodes where Holmes' script seems to be a shopping list of items having been thrown together in an attempt to make a workable story out of it, ending with very mixed results. While the Master gets a strong introduction, others such as Jo Grant and Captain Yates do not, despite both arguably being just as important to the series of the time, if not the story at hand. It's also a story full of sizable plot holes and leaps in logic that are purely mystifying (how the Doctor realizes what's happening in the part one cliffhanger is a great example of that). Then there's the ending, which even Barry Letts later admitted, makes no sense, as the Master suddenly has a change of heart thanks to the Doctor in a way that rather undermines the character at the very end.

Terror Of The Autons wasn't to be Robert Holmes' finest script by any means nor is it the Autons at their most menacing but that's not what we remember about the story. We remember its strong introduction of an iconic villain and its striking visuals, even if the latter perhaps haven't held up as well over the last forty years or so. At the end of the day what makes Terror Of The Autons standout isn't the story itself but what it represents: a game changer for the series and one that continues to reverberate through Doctor Who to this day.

Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.
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