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Posts Tagged ‘Terror of the Autons’

It is, I suppose, possible that some people reading this may come away with the idea that I am some sort of obsessive Season 8 fan: there are a couple of Pertwee seasons I’ve barely scratched the surface of, and yet here we are talking about Terror of the Autons, meaning that more than 80% of this particular run is done.

This is a story with which I have a slightly odd relationship. It was one of the very last stories from the 20th century run of Doctor Who that I saw – I bought it on VHS in the Spring of 2004, and probably only watched it once before, well, the series came back, and DVD became my preferred format, and all that sort of thing.

And yet this was one of the first Pertwee stories I – well, not watched, but certainly experienced, outside of the novelisation format, certainly. In the early summer of 1986 I came across someone at school who had the story on audio tape. Younger readers will probably find this impossible to comprehend, but audio tapes of old Doctor Who stories remained a big deal into the 1990s: the complete availability of the existing series on any format seemed like an impossible dream, and swapping audio tapes could go on under the radar of the BBC’s legal team. So it was that my first time through Terror of the Autons with actors and so on happened not in front of a TV but next to a hi-fi.

Hey ho. This is not, I would say, a story best suited to the audio-only experience, consisting – in very characteristic Robert Holmes style – of not much more than a string of bravura set pieces strung together by a somewhat perfunctory plot.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) is still exiled on Earth in the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s). To be perfectly honest, the Time Lords could have exiled him to one small English county in the 1970s (etc) and it would have made no difference as far as this story is concerned, because every key location seems to be remarkably close to all the others.

Anyway, the Doctor’s old enemy the Master (Roger Delgado) turns up to cause trouble, quickly forging an alliance with the Nestene Consciousness and its polymer-based servitors, the Autons. What follows is, basically, a series of plastic-themed death-traps with the odd action sequence thrown in for good measure.

delgado

The obvious thing to say about Terror of the Autons is that this is the story where Barry Letts took a firm grip on the series he had inherited, slightly less than a season earlier, and thoroughly reworked it into the style he wanted. This is where the Pertwee style of popular conception really gels. Henceforth, none of those sprawling seven-part stories; none of that quasi-grittiness and adult restraint. Season Seven often looks like it wants to be The Avengers or Department S: Season Eight is the one you can imagine inspiring The Tomorrow People. It is brash, it is colourful (often to the point of garishness), and given the remarkable body-count it is often strangely cosy.

Strangely enough, though, none of these things are really what you would want to remember Barry Letts for – none of them are tied up with his greatest contributions to the series. Quite what those are – well, different people will have different ideas, I shouldn’t wonder, but for me they are the creation of a Doctor Who which took itself and its own mythology a little more seriously, and also a considerable elevation in the sophistication of the series’ storytelling, both morally and narratively.

As I say, not much of that is visible here: Terror of the Autons is largely just razzle-dazzle, but entertainingly done. I suppose you could argue it partly constitutes a commentary on early 70s Britain’s love for plastic consumer tat, but this is hardly a profound message. To be honest, the story really only functions as an introduction to another of Barry Letts’ great innovations (though here Terrance Dicks should take his fair share of the credit), the Master.

The Master is the first of the regular characters to appear and for most of the story he has the most pro-active role, even if it is basically just to kill lots of disposable guest characters and make various doomed attempts at killing the other regulars. Delgado, of course, ensures that the character is always great fun to watch, even if he is always a cartoony villain in a cartoony story. Not just cartoony but also quite as cosy as any other element of the format – you know he’s never going to kill anyone important, or murder a woman or a child.

This isn’t close to being the greatest Master story, or even the greatest Master story of the Pertween years. But it is one of the very few occasions where the Master is as utterly central to the narrative as the Doctor, if not moreso – it’s interesting to note the number of parallels between this story as The Sound of Drums, which is arguably its 21st century counterpart. And the story fits him like a tight leather glove: he may be quietly ridiculous, cartoony, and not stand up to serious consideration for more than a few seconds, but then neither does Terror of the Autons. It doesn’t stop either of them from being a lot of fun to watch.

 

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