Doctor Who (Classic): S08E01 “Terror of the Autons”

Season 8
Directed by Barry Letts
Written by Robert Holmes

I really wasn’t intending to follow-up the last review soon or possibly ever, but then I took a look at the premise of the next episode and well…  it was kind of hard not to take a look back in time now.  I say this because the two-part episode that started this season of NuWho saw the surprise and unwelcome return of the Doctor’s archenemy, The Master (played here by Roger Delgado).  Despite his status as such, The Master didn’t actually make an appearance in the first seven seasons of the show.  In fact, the Time Lord who had the most appearances to this point aside from The Doctor was still The Monk from “The Time Meddler” and “The Daleks’ Master Plan” (the latter also obviously containing The Doctor’s greatest foe).

It took until Season 8 for him to appear for the first time and he would spend Season 8 as the overarching threat.  While similar situations have cropped up since, this would be the first time that the show committed to a single villain hovering over a season.  The show had degrees of serialization over Season 1 featuring the development of the relationship with his kidnapped companions and last season where The Doctor was marooned on Earth and kept busy helping UNIT and trying to get the hell off of it.

Speaking of UNIT, the organization would also return for all of Season 8, though Dr. Liz Shaw would not.    The Doctor’s relationship with UNIT noticeably evolved throughout last season as it started as a bit of reluctant partners before devolving significantly following the conclusion of “Doctor Who and the Silurians”.  The end of “Inferno” however set up more of a peace between The Doctor and the Brig.  This season also elevated John Benton (John Levene) to a more prominent position and introduced a new set of companions associated with UNIT in the forms of Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning) and Captain Mike Yates (played by Richard Franklin).

In contrast to common practice, this serial wastes no time in establishing the new order of things.  The Master makes his appearance early, introduces himself, and shows off his powers.  His main skill is the ability to hypnotize people with his eyes to the point where he can completely take over minds.  His influence fades when the person feels further from him, but it’s a powerful skill, nonetheless.  He also debuts a sonic screwdriver device which shrinks people (a technique used prominently on the latest NuWho episode though with far less restraint).

His main value to the show, however, is that The Master is a more intelligent Time Lord than The Doctor.  The two have met in the past with The Doctor viewing him with disdain, while The Master considers The Doctor a worthy if inferior opponent.  He very much comes off as a malicious counterpart to The Doctor.  They both are arrogant with a frequently haughty demeanor and they even carries themselves in similar manners.  The Doctor is far more likely to snark back while The Master prefers to menace, but they are unmistakably cut from the same cloth.

As far as the actual plot goes, The Master steals the Nestene’s energy unit from National Space Museum which was retrieved “Spearhead from Space”.  For in further parallels to the current season of Doctor Who, Season 8 follows up a season which avoided any recurring characters only to start it off with the return of a villain.  Despite their status as the first returning villains of the Third Doctor’s run, The Nestene Consciousness and the Autons would not become his Daleks or Cybermen.  In fact, they would not return until they were given the vaunted position in “Rose” serving as the debut enemy of the rebooted show.

The Doctor is warned by A Time Lord (who has transported himself with no TARDIS but with a TARDIS sound for some reason) on behalf of the tribunal that The Master is here and up to no good.  Their non-interventionist nature was already established in “The War Games” and continues here as this is clearly something that they could sort out quickly while saving plenty of lives, but hey, at least they are giving The Doctor a head’s up.  Together he must team up with UNIT to stop him.

Naturally the investigation centers around various plastics manufacturers as they would be central to any development of Autons.  The Master is constructing them at a manufacturing plant in order to enable an invasion by the Nestene Consciousness.  I’ll give the show credit, they didn’t just stick to manufacturing a bunch of mannequins as they go with quite the variety of plastic.  There are the basic Autons who look great with their smooth heads and no eyes.  There is the black inflatable chair that like the rest of the Autons is controlled by The Master snapping his fingers and which hilariously swallows a man up.  There’s the creepy doll thing straight out of a crappy ’60s horror movie which probably has some unsavory overtones, and which hilariously comes to life and kills people.  And then there’s the disguises for the Autons which range from Mission: Impossible style face masks to brilliantly goofy Frank style big head complete with garish yellow suit disguises that they use to hand out plastic daffodils.

Besides looking better, the Autons are plain used to better effect here as all the possibilities of any piece of plastic being a potential threat are on the table.  Sure, the phone cable which wraps around The Doctor while he reacts in over the top horror was absolute gold and not in the intended sense, but it works conceptually.  Plus, the way that they distribute something as innocuous as plastic flowers across the country which can spring to life by hijacked radio signals, squirting film that covers the face and quickly suffocate people to death is a far more horrifying sight.

As mentioned before, The Doctor’s support team is bolstered this time out with some new friends.  Josephine (Jo) Grant is the most prominent one, effectively taking the place of Liz.  Unlike Liz, she is not a scientist, though allegedly a trained agent.  Granted, she’s still very inexperienced and a trainee.  It is clear though that she has been palmed off on The Doctor as his assistant since she’s merely a trainee but has relatives in high places.  The Doctor had wanted someone more capable, but is instead just given more of a yes man as Liz had claimed was all he needed.

Jo is introduced by accidentally messing up the Doctor’s project and the show doesn’t even bother trying to make her seem like an equal to Liz (and especially not The Doctor).  She has a much meeker, more juvenile sounding voice, repeatedly gets into trouble (often as a result of her own carelessness), acts mostly as an exposition target, and just generally acts like a more typical female companion.  I’m aware of the acclaim she has and I’m willing to leave room that she comes into her own over the next three seasons, but so far, she just seems like a correction for accidentally giving The Doctor a capable female sidekick for once.

As far as the rest of the supporting cast, Yates is a more experienced officer who had handled cleaning up messes in the past, but thus far isn’t much to write home about and along the lines of say Ben Jackson.  The Brig is probably the most prominent companion as he seems to relish the opportunity to get out from behind his desk.   His relationship with The Doctor has also changed from last year as it is snarkier this time around, not that it wasn’t before.  The Doctor is still dismissive, but less bitter and most of his complaints come down to perceived incompetence and not to viewing them as evil.

The rest of the plot is pretty standard and proceeds exactly how you’d expect.  Perhaps the most compelling element is that at one point The Doctor nicks a key part from The Master’s TARDIS to try and fix his TARDIS, one of his many continued failures to repair his craft and escape, but in the process also manages to strand The Master.  He may still be trapped on present day Earth, but now he has company and it is clear that by the end of the story, it is something he relishes.  The two even work together to stop the invading Nestene by reversing the polarity (because of course that nonsense works).  I’m not quite sure why The Master helped in the final moments, but it certainly helps set up a more complicated relationship between the two.  It also provides him with a moment to escape though so self-preservation may be the reason.  He’s also smart enough to put a Mission: Impossible mask on a stooge (who is shot and killed) to allow for even more of a distraction.  A distraction that once again The Doctor sees through and UNIT falls for hook, line, and sinker.

The last important detail has nothing to do with the story or acting.  I mentioned last season the improved visuals even beyond the switch to color.  They decayed in quality as the year went on, but they were still a cut above.  This serial falls headlong into the abyss.  The show goes way overboard with the chroma key (CSO), and it looks absolutely terrible.  The scale is completely off, and the actors don’t even look vaguely like they are in the same frame.  Chroma key is even used extensively for interiors.  There are more exterior seemingly ambitious shots, but that increased ambition yields a result more visibly cheap.  Even the non-chroma keyed exteriors look like an old VHS copy someone found.  The background music (which I noted last time would no longer be stock) is much louder, more noticeable, and in a way which only extenuates the cheap feel.  I know the show has never been a standout in the way of visuals, but the changes are too notable not to say something and do detract.

In fact, much of the serial is similar to the visuals; I would probably be better disposed to it if it hadn’t been following up on Season 7.  Last season was so strong that the show falling back on old habits in cheesy visuals, a companion that isn’t nearly the equal to The Doctor, and a more traditional story is a bit of a disappointment in a story that is pretty good all things considered.  The story continues Season 7’s trend however of making the entire serial feel essential instead of just first, last, and maybe second episodes.  It’s well paced and enjoyable with some compelling ideas and the goofy moments of threatening monsters are countered by the more effective ones.

Grade: B

Stray Observations

– “I am usually referred to as The Master”, except presumably on Thursdays when he is stripping.
– The Doctor singing “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” is great
– There is a thrown off reference to the nine opposable digit race of Lamadines and I wish that the show would just scan through these random references and add appearances by them in decades later.
– We get a rare non-white actor (YAY!) as a silent circus strongman used to threaten The Doctor (BOO!)
– The Master’s TARDIS is shaped like a horse box which seems like an ideal one for discouraging people from going into.
– “Where are they taking us?  It’s some sort of a quarry.”  I like to think that the writers just threw that in as a joke but I’m skeptical.
– The Master uses the pseudonym Colonel Masters which feels at once lazier than John Smith, but also at least more believable as the name of a human.
– I choose to believe that The Master’s name was just chosen to create a pun with master’s degree since they took the time to mention his degree.
– This serial saw the debut of the green uniforms that became the standard for UNIT.
– “Terror of the Autons” was actually cited in the House of Lords as something that may cause nightmares in younger children which to my mind is about the greatest compliment the show could receive.
– In a reminder that the terror of wiping hadn’t completely passed, episodes were still being wiped at this point and it required quite a bit of restoration to get to a point I didn’t even properly appreciate.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The Master is stuck on Earth as The Doctor still has the piece to his TARDIS and is looking forward to facing off with him again.

Next Up:  Who the hell knows what I will be doing with Doctor Who (Classic) as my life is about to be very focused on grad school.  “The Mind of Evil” is up next but considering how this series of NuWho seems to be mirroring this season Classic Who, I might continue through this season as it is just too apropos.  That someone threw around a comparison to “The Claws of Axos” certainly encourages me, but I was hardly reliable about sticking to these even before something as big of a priority cropped up.

Regardless, check in every Sunday for the latest reviews for the current season which will go up as soon as I can bang out 2000 words or whatever on it.