You have to admire the sheer audacity of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. A mere three stories after “Spearhead from Space,” the team not only brings back the Autons to invade Earth yet again, but they’re brought back in virtually the same story as we saw in “Spearhead from Space.” Just substitute the Master in the role of Channing from “Spearhead” and the two serials are remarkably similar.
The Nestene, using the Autons, have decided it’s time to invade Earth again. Though this time, the attempt to take over our world features a different ally and is a bit more subversive. Whereas “Spearhead” is a full fledged frontal assault (complete with the memorable image of the Autons coming to life as shop dummies), this invasion comes more from within with the Master spearheading (pardon fully intended) the wiping out of a great number of the population and then invading in the chaos.
The Nestene appear to have decided — or possibly been persuaded by the Master — that taking over Earth is easier if you plunge the world into chaos by killing off large chunks of the population via plastic chairs or daffodils. The invasion plot continues a theme from Robert Holmes’ “Spearhead from Space” of taking the everyday, mundane, or even safe things of life and making them scary somehow. In this case, you can be killed by authority figures like the police or struck down in the safety of your home by a plastic daffodil cutting off your ability to breathe.
It’s a pretty chilling invasion plot, if you step back and think about it. And the idea of your final moments being given over to fear as you’re attacked by a plastic doll or daffodil is one that’s pretty chilling.
In fact, the ways in which Holmes dreamed of eliminating large portions of the popular got the series into a bit of hot water. The story goes that there was a bit of an outcry after episode two aired, leading to Dicks and Letts having to pull back on what they could and couldn’t make scary in the series for a bit. It may also explain why Holmes didn’t contribute a story for season nine, but was brought back in season ten.
I admit that for the Robert Holmes re-watch, I took a bit of a longer pause than intended after “Spearhead from Space.” Part of this was the similarity between “Spearhead” and “Terror of the Autons” and part of it was to allow time for the U.S. release of the Blu-Ray season set complete with new effects.
It was at this point in Doctor Who history that Barry Letts discovered the use of Color Separation Overlay (CSO) and thought this might be the solution to the budget limitations Doctor Who faced. Letts directed “Terror” and used the new process during the serial with limited success. I’m sure on a smaller screen, back in the early 70’s, the outline of various actors in front of the CSO screen wasn’t obvious. Indeed, the first few times I saw this story syndicated in black and white, I didn’t notice. (Or it could be that like many, I was too caught up in the story to tell or be taken out of it).
It’s once the serial had the color restored on VHS that you could begin to tell that maybe that doll wasn’t sitting on the mantle and the guard wasn’t at the actual museum hosting the Nestene consciousness.
In fact, this serial was one that I acquired via the Internet during my first days as an online Doctor Who fan. It seems one of the rights of passage was to track down bootlegs of the orphan episodes and the audio only serials and trade them with a fellow fan. I recall that a group of us in the U.S. went in together to purchase U.K. copies of the color restored “Autons” and “The Silurians” and split the cost of converting them to U.S. standards. We were all then sent a copy of the episodes we could watch a full six to eight months before the U.S. release.
Of course, the biggest significance of this story is that it introduces us to the Master. Once again, I’m impressed by how much of the lore of Doctor Who is cemented into place with Lett and Dicks. Apart from various monsters, the Doctor didn’t really have a recurring nemesis for the first seven years of his adventures. With the Master, we meet the ultimate counterpoint to the Doctor — one who is the Doctor’s equal in every way except being motivated to be the bad guy.
A large part of the success of the role has to come down to this season and the creation of the character itself. And a bigger part of the success stems from Roger Delgado being so good in this role right out of the gate. Delgado puts a stamp on the role that every other actor who portrays the Master (or Missy) has been trying to duplicate since — some with more degrees of success than others. Part of that is the stare that Delgado can give his victims as he hypnotizes them. Part of it is just how casually he slips between moods and his quiet menace.
Yes, this story does firmly put a trend into place for the Master stories of season eight and beyond — namely that the Master hatches some type of scheme to humiliate and/or destroy the Doctor without necessarily thinking it all the way through. Here we see that he hasn’t wondered how the Nestene will see him as any different than any other inhabitant of Earth when it comes to destroying our planet. Later, he won’t think things through with unleashing the alien parasite upon the population or throwing in with the Autons. In most cases, the stories end with the Master having to change alliances or at least pretend to help the Doctor to get himself out of a jam.
I’m not sure if Letts and Dicks intended this recurring element or it just happened back in 1971. I also figure they never thought we’d binge watch the season like we do today and see these recurring themes (similar a bit to the reliance on a base under siege from the Patrick Troughton years, I expect).
I’m also not certain why for the fiftieth anniversary of the show, this serial wasn’t chosen as the best four-part representative of the Jon Pertwee era. It certainly has more elements of what casual fans associate with the Pertwee era — UNIT, Jo Grant, the Master, alien invasion, etc. — than “Spearhead from Space” does. I do wonder if part of it was that the Beeb had just put a lot of times into remastering “Spearhead” and that it would look better on our new-fangled HD sets. Or maybe Steven Moffat just likes that one more, though I can’t see why you don’t include a Delgado Master story to best exemplify this era of Doctor Who.
Whatever the reasoning, “Terror of the Autons” is still scary in all the right ways today. It’s a solid start to season eight and a superlative debut of the Master.
And now, we have to wait a full season and a half before Holmes writes for the show again and begins to change Doctor Who more to his vision of the series….