Monday, 3 June 2013
Terror of the Autons written by Robert Holmes and directed by Barry Letts
This story in a nutshell: The Autons are back and this time they’ve got a Time Lord ally...
Dippy Agent: Katy Manning objects to being called 'dizzy' in the commentary to The Mind of Evil (which co-incidentally shows the character at her most focused and intelligent) but I think the tag stands if you watch her era from beginning to end. She's smart, resourceful, selfless...but she's also very dizzy at times. Jo Grant is an instant favourite and as she trips onto the scene with her hippy hair and crazy clothes and walks straight into ruining one of the Doctor’s experiment (thinking she is saving his life) and it is easy to see why a generation of teenagers might have fallen in love. There are few other assistants that prove to be as feisty and enterprising and yet also fairly useless and somebody you would want to take under your wing and protect at the same time. It’s all down to Katy Manning’s very sweet performance and her chemistry with Jon Pertwee - there is a sense of instant rapport that never really built between fellow scientists the Doctor and Liz Shaw in season seven. There's was a much more professional relationship, with Jo it's like the are already old friends and that almost explains the difference in the two seasons styles entirely. Jo is very excited to inform the Doctor that she took an A Level in General Science but waits a while (when she has cocked something up) to admit that she failed. There are a couple of moments of overdone hysterics (‘I’ve got to open I’ve got to!’ certainly counts but ‘I can’t remember!’ is also a quality moment of madness) which prove this one is going to be a firecracker. She’s not above a stroppy childish rant when the Doctor tells her to keep out of the way and be a good girl. She wont be left alone in the lab with drippy Mike Yates and a cup of UNIT cocoa.
Chap With Wings: The Brigadier has been around the Doctor long enough now to know that he doesn’t need a highly qualified scientist to butt heads with but a pretty girl to pass him his test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is! Apparently Nicholas Courtney was suffering a breakdown during the filming of this story but stalwart performer that he is you would never be able to tell. The only telltale sign is that Mike Yates gets a bigger slice of the action than usual, stealing moments that belonged to the Brig so Nick Courtney could take some time off.
Mr Satan: The Master steps from his TARDIS with that crisp black suit, piercing eyes and pointed beard and you know this guy means business. He’s simply the sharpest looking villain we have seen in the show to this point and brought to life by the incomparable Roger Delgado he brings a whole new dimension of rivalry to the show. The last time the audience would have sat up like this with regards to a Doctor Who villain is The War Lord from Troughton's swansong and for similar reasons, a black heart, an utter disregard to those he considers beneath him and a sneer that could curdle milk. The Doctor is well aware of the Master’s reputation (although we don’t realise yet that they were quite as close as we later find out) and we are left with no illusion of what his feelings towards this jackanapes are. I love the moments of viciousness that crop up in this story; when he can’t hypnotise Mr Farrell he goes to strike him instead and later he sends a technician to his death simply because he got in his way. His insidious, almost childish methods of dispatching people (inflatable chairs, plastic daffodils) are more sinister because of their apparent innocence. The more the Doctor attempts to postpone his death the greater the satisfaction for the Master. You really get the sense that this is a game for him, or rather the continuation of a long term rivalry.
Camp Captain: I don’t want to be too ingenious because his character would certainly mature over the next four seasons but Yates is the only addition that I don't think was entirely successful. He’s a little too effeminate to convince as an army lad, he’s not exactly my cup of tea in the looks department (although I know that is a matter of taste but considering he was introduced as a bit of male eye candy that is a definite fail) and the performance by Richard Franklin at this early stage is quite stiff and awkward. As early as the next story he manages to pull himself together and The Mind of Evil witnesses a far more dynamic Yates motorcycling after the villains and grappling with the Master. His flirtatious line ‘a key for every occasion’ whilst checking out Jo's butt always makes me feel slightly nauseous. What sort of rugged army Captain minces out of a laboratory saying ‘I’ll just go and fetch the gubbins!’ with regards to making some cocoa? I realise the majority of these high ranking soldier boys would have been upper class but this nancy isn't falling anybody. Even Barry Letts admits that he doesn't have the look of a soldier. Personally I feel that Yates works at his best when he plays against type and turns rogue, and especially in the aftermath of that betrayal.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You ham fisted bun vendor!
‘Such an amusing idea!’ ‘Then you better think of a witty way of dealing with it.’
‘He sat down in this chair and just…slipped away.’
‘What’s your friends name?’ ‘His name’s none of your business!’ ‘Hmm…that’s a strange name.’
‘You’re quite right Jo, I’ll apologise…if I have the time.’
‘Who’s in charge of you pen pushers these days, Old Tubby Rowlings isn’t it?’ ‘Lord Rowlings is Head of our Department, yes’ ‘Yes I was saying to him in the Club only the other day “Wrong sort of lot is creeping into your lot, Tubby, I said”.’
‘Death is always more frightening when it strikes invisibly.’
The Good: Riding high on the success of season seven, is this where the Pertwee era went wrong? To answer that question depends on what your personal view of Doctor Who is and whether you watch it for simple entertainment or want to look a little deeper beneath the surface than that. Is this story actually inferior to the four produced the year before? Yes and no; certainly it lacks the intelligence and injection of realism that was mastered by Pertwee's initial year, this being in itself a comic book copy of his debut story, but I genuinely feel if Doctor Who had continued in its seven part, crushingly real format the show would have died in a few years. I do very much enjoy the early Pertwee stuff (Inferno is one of my all time favourites) and shake my head with despair when I compare it to later 'romps' such as The Time Monster and The Three Doctors but I am not blind to the fact that season eight received about a third more viewing figures than the year before and that the audiences were dwindling when asked to follow such gritty epics with little in the way of light relief. Inferno plummeted to roughly five million per episode and although we might be able to see all these years later that it was about as sophisticated as Doctor Who ever managed to be it perhaps wasn't entirely suited to its time slot and audience. The Three Doctors might have a travesty of a production and flaunt a general dumbing down of the scripts but the story was watched by about ten million per episode. The numbers speak for themselves. You could perhaps argue that Terror of the Autons and stories of this ilk were responsible for the shows survival way into the future. Gearing the show more towards entertainment rather than character or educational drama might just have been the smartest move Letts and Dicks made. The kaleidoscopic explosion of colour that is the Pertwee title sequence might just epitomise the seventies in its entirety. It’s certainly the most colourful of all the title sequences, a bold statement that we have stepped out of the monochrome era. As exemplified in later years in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, the circus is a terrific location to set a Doctor Who story in and both the the Doctor and his satanic villain fit in very well with this cast of oddities. It's a shame that the story should avoid the circus setting as much as it does. And I love the casual shot of the clown with great big shoes plodding past the camera. Just where does that staircase lead in the Doctor’s laboratory? I've heard Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood having something of a conniption fit when it comes to the synthesised Dudley Simpson music in season eight but on the whole I rather like it (but then I would take anything other than the wailing/scratching/bleeping wallpaper that is plastered all over stories such as Dr Who & the Silurians, The Sea Devils & The Mutants) and I there are moments in Terror of the Autons where the music really manages to get under my skin. The Master's theme is justly famous but I also like the terrifying sting that plays over McDermott's death, the spine tingling work as the Doctor figures out how to foil the Volitiser trap and the menacing purr that plays over the scenes of the Doctor and Jo being chased through the quarry by Autons. The only score in season eight that I find lacking is Colony in Space when we venture a bit too far into Original Star Trek dramatics but can you honestly imagine life without Pigbin Josh's theme? David Garth gives a very charming performance as the Time Lord and in his eccentric get up I could see him making quite a fine Doctor himself. Whilst Barry Letts might have relied a little too heavily on the magic of CSO (to the point where he is superimposing people into horrendously fake looking kitchens and factories where a simple scenery flat would suffice) but in effects triumphs such as Gooch snuck away in the lunchbox which is probably the most effective Master shrinking in the series (it's certainly a massive step up from Barbie dolls). Michael Wisher is always good value for money and whilst this might not be the most demanding part he has played watch how he adds lots of little moments of depth during the scenes where they are discussing his father. You know exactly the sort of domineering parenting Rex has suffered and he is trying desperately to make his way in the world and make himself out as something different from the old man. There's a whole subtext there that is primarily added by the actor. That hideous black plastic chair (otherwise known as the black pudding) that consumes Mr McDermott is both really embarrassing, blackly comical and utterly terrifying and that is not an easy combination to pull off under any circumstances. It's such an absurd way to go (I would be mortified if my final breath was taken at the hands of a 70s design disaster) and yet the idea of being asphyxiated by horrible clammy plastic is enough to get me gasping for breath (plus Letts does the unthinkable by lingering on the struggle until McDermott is no longer breathing). Terror of the Autons is full of moments like this, that turn something blatantly laughable into something sinister. Holmes is having great fun taking the piss out of the mass consumerism of cheap old tat that was rife in the seventies. The troll doll is one of the most hideous things I have ever clapped eyes on (although it loses something when it starts moving, clearly a man in a suit rather than a genuinely toy that has been animated). Where would Uncle Terrance be without out that 'children refused to take their teddy bears to sleep' quote? I don't feel as if a Pertwee DVD commentary is complete unless I have heard at least once. CSO is such an inconsistent tool, it is extremely effective at suggesting that Farrell's car is moving and yet fails utterly when doubling for rooms in his home. Holmes must have loved the idea of destabilising the little kiddiewinks...first that can' take their toys to bed with them and now they can't turn to PC Plod for help in fear that he might rip his face off and brandish a hand gun! The moment that gets me is when the Auton is knocked down the ravine and immediately springs to its feet and starts climbing back to deal with Yates - it's a hell of a fall and edited together so briskly that it really suggests how invulnerable the Autons are. Big fake grins plastered on peoples faces always give me the willies so imagine my reaction to those absurdly cheerful carnival masks? Doctor Who so rarely scores a win with sudden shocks that the Auton in the safe is an instant winner. Wow, the daffodil spraying plastic over the camera and the prolonged scene of Jo being smothered are pretty nasty for Doctor Who. It's one of the few times where I think Doctor Who might have been a little irresponsible with it's child audience - imagine young children trying to re-enact this? The pitch battle between the UNIT soldiers and the Autons in grinning carnival masks is one of the quirkiest action sequences ever in Doctor Who of which I heartily approve. There is also a fantastic stunt where a scientist is knocked off the radio telescope – I don’t think the stunts during this era are given the credit they are due.
The Bad: Why does the location work look so grainy and ugly at this period in the shows history. Shows like Terror of the Autons, Colony in Space and The Sea Devils have some of the gaudiest location work in the shows run. CSO has quite a lot to answer for during its early stages and whilst this story doesn’t feature the worst examples (head over to The Green Death for that), it does perhaps rely on it far too much to achieve its ambitions. Spare characters like Gooch (and his boiled eggs) are cast without much care and distinctly dull (although the idea of him winding up next to one of his boiled eggs did make me chuckle). Um…why doesn’t the Doctor simply climb through the window and unhook the Volatiser? Jo finds the right plastics factory awfully quickly and then returns to UNIT HQ with the bomb in what feels like seconds – surely one of the most manufactured cliffhangers Doctor Who has produced. Plus how does the Doctor figure there is a bomb in the box? What is so strange about Jo opening a crate? Talking Autons are no where near as scary as the silent forebears of Spearhead from Space. Never again will you see an autopsy performed on troll doll and with good reason. The doll coming alive in the Doctor’s lab is highly unconvincing…they don’t have the techniques to make it work and so it is sort of wobbled in front of the camera as if it is walking. Jon Pertwee breaks out his gurning again as the telephone wire on a string attempts to strangle him. I know the 70s were responsible for some intruiging fashions but what on Earth are those giant rubbery fish hanging from the ceiling of the Doctor's lab all about? After a number of episodes playing the amusing stooge Farrell has outlived his usefulness and is casually murdered just to get him out of the way. Flashing the break lights in morse code? Don’t make me laugh! Much has been made of the climax where the Master sudden switches sides on what appears to be a whim and what baffles me is why this couldn't have played out with the Doctor overpowering his nemesis and the sequence playing out as it does. It would make the new Time Lord rival look like far less of a numb nuts. Bring back the Nestene testicles! This Etch-a-Sketch white blob simply isn't up to the job of convincing as an all conquering force.
Result: An easy story to enjoy because it skips from one twisted set piece to another as the Doctor and the Master play their game of cat and mouse, Terror of the Autons is a colourful affair with lots going on and no time to get bored. With CSO being used a default setting and its crazy imagery it is like watching a comic strip come to life and whilst it might be a little gaudy in places the show is now fully exploiting the fun and visual splendour that it can have with colour. I have always thought that Terror of the Autons was nowhere near as scary as Spearhead from Space but there were quite a few moments where I felt a little chill of disquiet (clingfilm spitting daffodils and unstoppable murderous policemen being the best examples) despite the lighter mood and wittier script. Jo Grant and the Master are both very enjoyable new additions and the Doctor is more abrasive and discourteous than ever before, insulting everybody in his own irresistible (and very funny) way. There is definitely a shift from political and scientific dramas of season seven to something more shallow and quirky but I genuinely believe had this move not been made Doctor Who might have died a death had it continued in the same mature vein as the previous year. Terror of the Autons is occasionally embarrassing but more often addictive and it skips along so entertainingly that I cannot bring myself to be too harsh on its weaker effects moments. Joyously anarchic: 8/10