Terror of the Autons

DVD NTSC
Region 1

DVD PAL
Region 2
VHS Video
NTSC
PAL
(Doctor Who Story No. 55, starring Jon Pertwee)
  • written by Robert Holmes
  • produced & directed by Barry Letts
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each, re-colourized
Story: Roger Delgado debuts as the Master, a newly designed arch-villain for the Doctor to play against. The Master reactivates a Nestene control sphere to trigger a second invasion of Autons, and comes up with several deadly new uses for living plastic. Also making their Doctor Who debuts are Katy Manning as assistant Jo Grant, and Richard Franklin as Captain Mike Yates.

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Nicholas Courtney (The Brigadier), and producer/director Barry Letts.
  • "Life on Earth" making-of featurette (33 min.) with Letts, Manning, Jon Pertwee (The Doctor), Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates),
    script editor Terrance Dicks, and future producer Phil Collinson.
  • "The Doctor's Moriarty" featurette (19 min.) on the introduction and enduring appeal of the Master.
  • "Plastic Fantastic" featurette (11 min.)
  • Photo Gallery
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


Season Eight - music by Dudley Simpson, realized by Dudley Simpson and Brian Hodgson

Doctor Who's Eighth Season is special for a number of reasons, most of which cemented critical elements into place either for the program in general, or the Jon Pertwee Era in particular. The regular main cast of Doctor Who went up to six - a number which has not been matched since - allowing this year's stories to gain an unusually cosy level of viewer familiarity and be the most typical of the heart of Pertwee's era. The addition of an arch villain known as the Master, equal and opposite to the Doctor, was a brilliant move for program, and the bulk of early Master stories are all in this one year.

This is also the first season in which Dudley Simpson's monopoly over the program's music became absolute and total, an opportunity which he thankfully did not waste. He created some very memorable tracks specifically for the Master which are used throughout all the stories of the season, in addition to being very creative with electronic realisation of music. Some really nice musical effects are achieved with this electronic style, but it is sad in some respects that Simpson was limited to this style only all throughout the year, because at many points the more noticeable pieces become the ones that don't work so well after all - interrupting our attention and sticking out like a sore thumb, and after a full year of nothing but electronic music, the style loses the impression of freshness and gets taken for granted.

I like Season Eight a lot, and move into it wholeheartedly looking forward to the changes it pioneered. However, it is not quite as polished or effective as the previous year, at least in terms of the individual stories. Each one offers something unique and different, and manages to excel in some areas while being flawed in others. This is one of the most difficult seasons to rank, and I expect every fan will rank it differently according to the stories' appeal to their personal tastes and preferences.


Terror of the Autons

Robert Holmes won the privilege of opening the season and introducing us to our new regular cast, a task that achieves a somewhat hit and miss success. First up is the Master, and to be fair, the problems with his introduction aren't so much in the script as in the production. The circus and Rossini/Russell's point of view are well established, and the materialization of the Master's horse-van TARDIS is the best the season does of an effect for his vehicle - the over-echoed sound effect is a bit different, even if it has already been used for the Doctor's TARDIS on occasion, and it finishes with a satisfying thud. The effect could have stood out even better visually if the van had not been the same colour as the sky. The Master's exit from it is not too impressive, as he makes his appearance in long-shot, and Simpson's "Master sting" is suspiciously absent here. There is no doubt that Roger Delgado is in superb form from the beginning, but his foil for this first scene, Rossini/Russell, is played a little too hammily to make the scene all it should be. Pretty soon, Delgado's face and Simpson's theme music team up, and the Master we all know and love is born. This moment makes the Master's intro. Unfortunately the atmosphere is broken up all too quickly by a short, two-shot scene. Never mind the cheapness of Colour Separation Overlay (the BBC version of chromakey / blue screen compositing) replacing a real set, this two-shot scene goes by way too fast and gets another hammy acting job from the extra playing the museum guard. We need that scene to complete the character exposition of the Master's new control over Rossini/Russell, and to help clarify the plot unfolding later in the story, but if only it had been done with more feeling..... Poor Delgado is not fortunate enough to be working with the cream of the crop yet.

Jo Grant's intro is much, much smoother in the production, as Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning work well together right from the beginning. Their first scenes are funny and work extremely well. The Doctor even gets to make his entrance using his TARDIS, although here Holmes aims for the funny bone instead of a proper demonstration of the machine.

Last but not least, we mustn't forget Richard Franklin's debut as Captain Mike Yates, a moment easily unrecognized thanks to the script's reference to him already being part of the team retroactively. I suspect Holmes was all set to bring Captain Munro back, until this was changed at the last minute. Curiously, Barry Letts' cameras seem to go out of their way to avoid Mike Yates all throughout his first episode, keeping him in middle- to long-shots or shooting only the back of his head, when he is allowed to be on camera at all and not just an off-screen voice. Thankfully, Yates cements himself in place as the Brigadier's right hand Captain before long, putting an end to the round robin of love-struck yokels we were stuck with on previous occasions. Sure, there is enough suggestion throughout the show that Mike and Jo might be getting a little sweet on each other, but this is held to a more decent and watchable standard and never gets overdone as it was with past captains & assistants.

Finally the Brigadier and Benton show up on the scene, the Brigadier in top form as usual and doing the best justice possible to providing a suitable exit for the absent Liz Shaw. Benton just sort of shows up late in episode one to quietly do his usual thing, and he remains the most easily overlooked regular character throughout most of the season. Thanks to his exposure in "Inferno" (the previous story), he is at least present most of the time.


Motivating the Master

The Master is a difficult character to motivate properly, as his TARDIS provides him with all he needs for his material survival and gives him the freedom of all time and space. That freedom in fact keeps him separate from any society he might wish to dominate. What really is his life-style of choice? Ruler of the universe surrounded by minions in a command structure, or self-centered loner wandering the galaxy by TARDIS? Well, lots of people don't really have the issues in their lives all neatly sorted out, and villains should be no exception, particular those who miss their objectives as often as the Master does with the Doctor on his tail. Still, in order for the Master character to work well in a script, he either needs a particularly grand ambition to deviously work towards, or he needs to be in some form of trouble causing him to work to regain what he originally had. Ideally, both ideas should be in play. Revenge is yet a third possible motivational factor, but I find it to be the weakest in terms of creating quality entertainment, and insufficient to sustain a complex character like the Master over the long-term. "Doctor Who" is definitely a long-term sci-fi adventure series.

Robert Holmes' motivation for the Master in this introductory story is too deep into fuzzy territory for my liking. Obviously, much of what he does is simply a continuation of the sparring with the Doctor that he reportedly enjoyed so much in the past. Okay fine, no problems there. But what exactly does the Master want out of an alliance with the Autons? Obviously Holmes wants to bring them back in a sequel, hoping they'll be as effective again as they were before. But the Master just puts too much careful planning into aiding the Autons regain a strong foothold on Earth, for one line from the Doctor to reverse the Master's allegiances in the Autons' moment of triumph. Talk about the Master working hard to climb the ladder of success, only to realize at the top that he's leaned it against the wrong polarity of the neutron flow. Ooops! Might be believable if he was more of a brawn-based idiot and not such a devious long-term thinker.

Mind you, as far as endings go, there is so much fast-paced give and take throughout the conclusion of "Terror of the Autons" that the Master's motivations are only a brief momentary gaffe and don't detract much from the superficial enjoyment of the story. The moment itself only needs one little communication of betrayal from the Nestenes, if not conversationally then through the Autons' actions, to indicate to the Master that the Doctor actually is right about them not giving a damn about him. Something must CHANGE in the Master's relationship with the Autons at this point; the Doctor's word is not enough by itself to believably turn the Master's allegiances.

So how exactly did that allegiance begin? How does a Time-Lord make contact with a Nestene, earn its trust, and gain command of its Autons? Would the Master make such a deal without either a plan to remain in a good position in the Nestene hierarchy, or a plan from the beginning to discard the Nestenes after he's used them? Perhaps there never was any deal... yet. Perhaps the Master just found out that Nestenes like plastic and started giving it to them. His final flip-flop still isn't believable enough though.

And really, what does he want with Earth? To destroy it in revenge and escape? No previous relationship between the Master and the Earth is described to fuel that. Does he plan to stay on Earth to rule it through the Autons? The Master's plans for the Earth flip-flop about a little too easily all through his time on the program to make good sense.

The Master really replaces Channing from "Spearhead From Space" (story no. 51), and if Channing was a well-disguised Auton, how did he ever come into being? How would the first control sphere meteorite find its way into a plastic factory to turn itself into a Channing Auton? No explanation is offered, Channing is like a chicken who materializes out of thin air and then invents the process of the eggs. It's easier to see how the Master arrives on the scene, but why is quite another matter.


Episode One will probably remain my favourite due to all of the classic introductions it contains and the fact that its structure holds together fairly well. Episode Three is next on my list, as it is possibly the most creatively directed episode of this story, and gets a nearly perfect execution all the way through, demonstrating the essential creepiness of the Autons and giving them some great expository action scenes. Episode Four begins very cheesily for the first fifteen minutes, as the script is not great at all on dialogue or on applying suspenseful threats where they need to be for good story dynamics, and the production also displays a lot of its cheapness at this point. The last ten minutes make up for this, with a fast-paced conclusion that provides lots of action for UNIT vs. the Autons as well as plenty for all of the regular characters to do.

Episode Two is the least effective in the story, looking cheap and filled with inane scenes of characters who don't get acted out all that well at all. The script could have given us decent and proper exploration scenes inside the Master's TARDIS instead of wasting the Doctor's screen time with old worn out prisoner vs. interrogator dynamics with Rossini/Russell and our friend Roy Stewart in a leopard suit. (Stewart is more famous as Toberman in "The Tomb of the Cybermen" (story no. 37).) The one effective scene of this episode features Harry Towb as Mr. McDermott, a fine actor putting a gem of a performance into this touch-and-go production. He plays well off of Delgado and Michael Wisher. Wisher's natural features are seen in this story better than in any other, with his face clean-shaven and his haircut neat and trim, and his acting is superb as always in a role that becomes stranger and more demanding as it progresses. I'm not sure I like the Rex Farrel character too much towards the end of the story, but this is mostly in the scripting.

Finally, let's look at what the Doctor actually gets to do in this adventure. Jon Pertwee is not really at his best in this one. His scene with the holographic Time-Lord in episode one doesn't work as well as it really should, and to be realistic, holograms don't really need to rip the ether of time and space wide open with the usual TARDIS sound effect upon appearing and disappearing. (Nor do heroes look particularly heroic asking holograms to deal with bombs). Jon Pertwee also seems to have accidentally stolen some of Richard Franklin's lines about hypnosis early in episode two and made an awkward cover-up, and his first confrontation with the Master in episode four is less than impressive. The rest of the Doctor's shortcomings originate in the script. He seems all right in the first half, a wily investigator as well as scientist and outcast Time Lord, and a really likeable, friendly, reasonable kind of guy at that. Robert Holmes' use of the Doctor's lab as a "home base" set throughout the story is also quite excellent in pushing investigation to the forefront of story dynamics. The Doctor conscientiously boils out the contents of the Master's weapon to keep it out of UNIT hands - a nice touch. His character is not so pure in the second half, getting irritable and provoking conflict where none be needed.... also requiring rescuing and not contributing a heck of a lot to the plot resolution. Proving that the Daffodils are dangerous, and exactly how they are dangerous, is no great achievement - Jo and Mike Yates make more contributions to that and to the problem of the ugly plastic doll. The Doc also seems like a weak wiener when it comes to confronting the Master, winding up helping the bad guys and requiring rescuing and sacrificial cavalry characters to do their thing. He can take credit for a clever way of giving the Brigadier his report in Morse code, and that's about it apart from the ridiculous one-line job of rerouting the Master's loyalties. He has to share the credit of defeating the Nestenes with the lead villain, and nothing really goes well for the good-guys after their defeat.

Dudley Simpson's music for the Master is limited in this particular story to a very effective and recognizable electronic sting, plus a "hypnosis" track, the two being played back-to-back over the Master's entrance. The rest of the music is quite bold, including some very distinctive melodic tracks played with harshly simplistic electronic tones, at other times very short notes or phrases bubble out with fresh creativity in electronic sound. The two styles manage to complement each other fairly well in this story, and though "Terror of the Autons" is one of the season's better scores, only the two above-mentioned "Master" tracks survived to be heard in later stories of the year.


"Terror of the Autons" is aptly named, a story whose strength is in the horror department, attempting to frighten and terrorize and upset the daily British rituals of tea-time and what-not. For some fans, this is what Doctor Who should be about, but not me. Not all of the terrors work anyway, so it's a bit of a hit and miss job of finding its own target. Personally, I prefer to aim at different ideals, so this adventure will not be ranked high as a personal season favourite of mine.


     Final Line:  "I'm not [worried about our next encounter with the Master].
                   In fact I'm quite looking forward to it."

     Rating: Disgusting.  A lot of average citizens died horribly in this
                          round with the Master.  If the fans want to look
                          forward to the next adventure of Doctor vs. Master,
                          fine; they know it's entertainment, they know from
                          the fuzzy CSO definition, rubber masks, and
                          shrapnel-free explosions how fake the loss of life
                          is anyway.  The hero of the show does not have the
                          same luxury if he is going to make any attempt to
                          stay in character, and needs to show more concern
                          for all those innocent lives that will be lost in
                          the next round with the Master.



This story is available on DVD and VHS video, re-colourized as it was meant to be seen:
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.
in a box set with
Spearhead From Space
Special Edition
VHS Video
NTSC for North America
PAL for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Mind of Evil"



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