Monday, February 21, 2011

Terror of the Autons

Terror of the Autons
[1971 – Season 8, Serial 1]

We begin in a circus.  Luigi Rossini, the owner, is stopped in his tracks by an astonishing event.  A sound familiar to us occurs: the whine of a TARDIS – but not the Doctor’s.  A van appears directly in front of Rossini.  Out of the trailer steps a man dressed in black.  He introduces himself, saying he is usually referred to as The Master.  Rossini, assuming this guy is a conjurer looking for a job, tries to throw him out.  The Master turns towards him an hypnotizes him with a single look.  Rossini is his to command.

And with that, we are introduced to the man who would become the Doctor’s arch-nemesis: fellow Time Lord, childhood best friend, now lost to evil.  Roger Delgado could not have been more perfectly cast; his Master is magnetic and fascinating.  While the Master would eventually lose some of his effectiveness through overuse, he makes a knockout impression here.

In his first story, he is working with the Nestine Consciousness, head of the Autons, those horrific plastic creatures from Spearhead In Space.  He aids their attempt to conquer the earth for reasons known only to him.

Terror of the Autons is, in many ways, a milestone Doctor Who story.  It completes the UNIT family by introducing Captain Mike Yates.  It introduces Jo Grant, who would be the Third Doctor’s companion for three years.  And above all, it introduces the Doctor’s archenemy.  The Master comes off very well; writer Robert Holmes makes the mix of friendship and mortal rivalry between him and the Doctor compelling and fun.

Ms. Grant’s debut is a bit more controversial.  Jo is often regarded as a big step back for feminism, with her meek personality, clumsiness, and apparent uselessness.  I think people who see only that side of her are totally missing the point (or only watching her lousy episodes).  She’s very much like a good version of Harley Quinn: a relentlessly cheerful, bubbly girl on the surface, and as a consequence constantly underestimated by everyone.  But when pushed to it, she shows incredible resourcefulness and bravery, and outwits her apparent betters.  I think it’s a joy to watch her, and it’s only helped by the perfect casting.

Katy Manning is so perfectly cast as Jo that it’s easy to forgive her occa… for… I… I… I can’t do it.  I can’t say anything even kindly or slightly negative.  She’s just so cute, so nice, so sweet.  It’d be like kicking a puppy.   She’s perfectly wonderful.  What’s more, her chemistry with  Pertwee is evident right from the beginning; it’s a joy to see these two together.

The other introduction, that of Captain Mike Yates, isn’t so effective.  Eventually, the writers would get around to giving him some interesting stuff to do, but here, he evidences no semblance of personality or character.  But he’s kept in the background, so it’s no real loss.  Otherwise, UNIT is used pretty well.  It’s of course wonderful to see the Brig, and UNIT gets in on the action in some good action scenes late in the story.

The Autons have to share the villain light with the Master, which unfortunately means one of them is going to get the short end of the stick, and it’s the otherworldly plastic abominations.  They barely appear in the story, and their appearance is lessened by the bigheaded masks they wear, making them far less terrifying.

Surely, the face of evil itself.

Still, they have three terrific moments in the story.  The fight in the quarry is scary and thrilling, and stands as one of the great moments of the early ‘70s.  Their attack on Jo with the flower is incredibly unsettling.  And their murder of an unfortunately victim with a hideous plastic doll is both creepy and darkly funny, which makes for quite an uneasy scene.

Given this is a Robert Holmes script, characterization and dialogue is great.  Besides the Master and Jo, he does a perfectly fine job with the Doctor and the Brig, and adds two more characters vividly sketched in a limited time: Rex Farrel and his father, Farrel Sr.  With just one scene between them, you learn everything about their relationship and the younger Farrel.  The father comes across as an overbearing patriarch, disappointed in his son, and obviously unsympathetic, though his strong-willed resistance to the Master gives him points.  But when he goes home to his wife, their dialogue totally fleshes him out into a sympathetic, three-dimensional character.  He only gets those three scenes, none of them very long, but he’s completely humanized in those brief moments.

The younger Farrel gets a bit more screentime, and does eventually become more than the Master’s hapless victim himself.  The portrayal by Michael Wisher is very strong, though fans know he has a much more unforgettable appearance in a later serial…

And the Doctor?  Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor was a man of action, who jumped right into the fray with the full force of his charm, wit, and intelligence.  He’s patronizing, egotistic, funny, and totally heroic.  He’s one of the most three-dimensional of the Doctors; his flaws aren’t limited to the obvious flaws of the Doctor, nor are his good points limited to his power and heroism.  Holmes, not surprisingly, gives him plenty to work with.

Rossini: I don't think my friend's going to like you.

Doctor: I'm sure of it.

Doctor: How much are they paying you?

Rossini: Come, come, Doctor, gentlemen don't discuss money.

Doctor: Nonsense.  Gentlemen never talk about anything else.
Jo: Doctor, stop being childish.

Doctor: What's wrong with being childish?  I like being childish.
I love the way the Doctor turns on the "pen-pusher" in Episode 3, and then pretty much turns him to his side in a few smooth lines of dialogue.  I also love the very knowing look Jo gives the Doctor when he calls the Master self-conceited.

For all its good point, Terror of the Autons doesn’t really amount to much.  It’s another invasion of Earth, foiled at the last minute.  Other than the Master’s last bit, the finale has little tension or meaning.  It’s done very well, of course, but it’s a pretty weak story to hang such wonderful execution on.  Still, great execution of a so-so story in almost every aspect is more than worth a look.  It may not be special or particularly compelling, but it’s very entertaining.

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