At the risk of spoiling the ending, two main things of note stand out at the close of Terror Of The Autons.
One, the Nestenes, enigmatic controllers of the Autons and masters of all things plastic, almost but not quite entirely fail to materialise. Two, the Doctor admits to rather looking forward to his next encounter with the Master.
The first is fairly familiar territory if you’ve seen Spearhead From Space, debut for both Pertwee and the Autons. The Nestenes are among the most fearsome of Doctor Who creatures never to have properly appeared. (And no, I’m not counting the shapeless but doubtless expensive CGI doggie-doo that seethed and glooped a bit at the end of Rose.) We want the giant octopus-spider-crab-brain-monster as seen on the cover of the Doctor Who And The Terror Of The Autons Target novelisation! A bit more exciting than the rubber tentacle mass that wrestled Perwee from within its fish tank (Spearhead). To say nothing of what we see in this, which amounts to an energistic Rorschach test in the sky which, when asked, perhaps three out of a hundred people would tell you looks vaguely like an octopus.
Still, 70s Who obliges forgiveness for budget limitations and we must be grateful that they didn’t attempt a full-on giant octopus-spider-crab-brain-monster as I suspect the finished result would have fallen a tad short.
The production is further hamstrung by overuse of CSO. It’s fine (as fine as it can be) for shots of hovering Time Lords and ugly demon dolls coming to life on car seats and radiators. But here it’s providing backgrounds that render some pretty ordinary settings wholly unconvincing. There are oddly framed reaction shots, such as the Brigadier against a plain brick wall, turning on hearing the Doctor’s call for help. And there’s obvious use of a studio set for shots of the Brigadier and UNIT troops taking up an overwatch position in a quarry, when you’d think it’d be just as cheap to have filmed them lying on their the grassy knoll when they had the actors together for the location sequences in the quarry.
When all that is said and done, however, what you’ve got is one hundred-carat (plastic) gem of a story. One of the most surprising aspects, I found, was the pacey way in which it is all chopped together. There’s barely a pause or closing note to the majority of scenes before we’re onto the next. And yet we’re furnished with all the essentials to follow what’s going on and there’s plenty of all that vibrant SF action adventure which so characterises the Pertwee-era tales.
It also dishes out the Terror at frequent intervals, with writer Holmes playing more freely with the idea of the Nestenes’ affinity for plastic, delivering a colourful riot of murder and mayhem with an inflatable chair, aforesaid demon doll, telephone flex (anyone remember those?) and killer daffodils. (The basis for a cult classic B-movie if ever I saw one.) The asphyxiating yellow flowers are handed out up and down the country by Autons with big carnival heads and these brightly clad figures strike a brilliantly creepy image, while possessing that weird and wacky offbeat quality you might find in episodes of The Avengers.
Does it matter that their bus of about twelve seems a limited means of paving the way for a full-scale invasion? Not really. Does it matter that their distribution of 450,000 deadly daffs would seem to have required many a trip back to the factory for a resupply? Ultimately, no. Because the effect is what counts and their perma-cheerful grins and Maplins outfits subscribe to Richard III’s philosophy of murdering while they smile.
And they’re given free rein to kill. Wholesale slaughter of hapless UNIT troops is a given, but it’s not afraid to show a deadly enemy being deadly. The horror is often bizarre, but nevertheless doesn’t pull punches. Terror Of The Autons earns its title.
The infamous sequence where the mask is pulled from the policeman to reveal a blank Auton face must have been genuinely shocking at the time. (Albeit none of this traumatised me as a kid – if anything it excited me and was an integral part of what got me hooked on Who. What good’s a hero if he doesn’t have any actual menace to overcome?) The edit, to be fair, could be sharper where masks are pulled off as, in contrast to all the other quick cuts going on, the camera tends to linger just long enough to undermine the effect every time.
Which is something of a shame, because it’s a favourite trick of the Master.
And as much as this story is about the Autons, it’s even more about the Master. A Moriarty for the Doctor – an inspired creation that proves the simplest ideas are often the best. And Delgado brings him to life with subtlety, sophistication, panache and menace. His introduction is superb and, from the materialisation of that horsebox to his mesmeric control over circus-master Rossini this single scene must have been a real hallmark moment in Who history. You get a sense of the occasion even viewing it from an informed perspective.
Yes, his change of hearts at the end is all too easy but Delgado does his best to convey the self-preservation thought process in the short time he’s given and the Master’s callous final use of Rex Farrell (the excellent Michael Wisher) is an appropriately cold signing off until next time.
Well the Doctor should look forward to it. While it’s true that Letts and Dicks overused the character for the season, choosing to feature him in every story, I can’y say I blame them. I’d have been tempted as well and, as a fan, I’m glad we have as much Delgado Master as we do.
Flawed and dated then, but wickedly creative and not a bad turn of speed for one of those old adventures. Terror and plastic and plenty that’s fantastic, these are the things that great Doctor Who is made of.
Flash, bang, wallop, what a picture!