Day 143 — May 23rd 2021

Terror of the Autons Episodes Three and Four

I think one of the issues I’m having with this story is that there’s loads of ideas thrown in here — and some of them are really interesting — but they don’t feel like they’ve got the room to breathe, and several of them are just sort of dead ends.

Take the circus for example. It’s the first place we see in Episode One, and Doctor Who and Jo get caught up there a lot in Episode Two, but now it’s pretty much vanished from the story entirely. I may be misremembering, but I don’t think we go back there in the next episode, and we certainly don’t in this one, so it feels like a bit of a wasted idea. I can’t help feeling that the fact the Master rocked up at a circus was irrelevant to the plot, and has only served to confuse me a bit.

Perhaps it would have been simpler to have him show up directly at the radio telescope, and streamline to story? I’m always more in favour of simply getting to the point, and especially as we’re back to a four-parter for this story.

And then there’s the Nestene. This story is more interested in the idea that they control plastic, rather than simply being shop window dummies, as Doctor Who explains;

‘It’s plastic, Brigadier, and any plastic artefact, anything at all, can, in the Nestene sense of the word, be alive. First a doll, then a flower...’

And they’ve really made the most of it, with the chair and the doll in the last episode and then the introduction of the Daffodil Men and their sinister flowers plus Doctor Who’s telephone cord in this one. But again I feel like you could streamline it. Why did the factory make the doll in the first place? Was it simply to act as a tool for the Master? The chair I understand — the Master as good as says it’s a prototype that he later streamlined… was the doll the second attempt? We’re three quarters of the way through the story and we still don’t know what the flowers even do — they feel like they’ve been introduced a bit late in the day.

I wonder if the story would work better — he says, arrogantly presuming he knows better than Robert Holmes — if we basically came into it with this episode? UNIT have been asked to investigate a spate of mysterious deaths across the south of England. As they investigate they discover that the one thing which links them all is they occur in places where the Daffodils have been handed out. And then the owner of the plastics factory dies in suspicious circumstances… and off we go. Losing all the messing around at the circus can only be a good thing.

Oh but look at me moaning on. There’s plenty of stuff in this episode which is enjoyable. It’s nice to have the Autons back, though I can’t decide if I prefer their new totally blank faces or the ones from Spearhead which were rough around the edges. It feels like they’re both scary in different ways. Whenever I see the Daffodil Men I think they look a bit ridiculous — too innocent to be sinister and too sinister to be innocent — but in context within the episode they work perfectly, and once again it’s all the scarier to see them out and about on real streets interacting with real people.

Once again it’s another point off for the circus — it’s just not something I’ve any understanding of or connection to. Stick me on Chalfont St. Peter high street and — although I’ve never been there — I’m totally at home and just happy to enjoy the story.

Also scary in this one is the idea that Doctor Who can peel the face off a policeman and reveal the enemy underneath. There were discussions at higher levels of the BBC about that sequence and it’s not hard to see why — it’s genuinely terrifying and probably not the message you want to be giving kids about trusting policemen…! In the scene that follows we get a brilliant stunt fall, too, where one of the Auton policemen falls down a fairly lengthy drop and then stands back up at the bottom. It’s totally effective, and one of the best stunts we’ve seen in the programme so far, even in an era where they’re becoming a more commonplace occurrence.

On the whole, though, this still isn’t for me. Another 5/10.

There’s something admirable about them introducing the Master in the opening moments of Episode One, and then holding back the confrontation between him and our hero until a month later. Oh sure, they speak briefly on the phone at the tail end of Episode Three, but this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. And while Pertwee and Delgado bounce off each other nicely I can’t help but feel like I want a bit… more?

It doesn’t help that the confrontation simply happens in the middle of Doctor Who’s UNIT lab (another in a string of bizarre set designs for the location) for no reason other than that being where Doctor Who is. You can’t help but suspect it would be more dramatic had it happened at the top of the radio telescope scaffolding, or on the middle of the plastics factory as daffodils are produced around them.

Heck, I’d even take the return of the bloody circus if it meant that they could have their first meeting take place in the middle of the big top — it would be more interesting than this!

I wondered during The War Games if there would be anything in this story which would contradict the idea that the Master and the War Chief were one and the same, and having now reached the end of this one I’ve decided that there isn’t. They talk here as old acquaintances who’ve clearly done battle before, and I think it works out nicely to imagine that that prior meeting was the one we’ve seen on screen. I always used to think it was a silly idea, but there’s very little difference between the discussion we get here and the one we had in Troughton’s last story, so I’ve decided in favour of the idea.

This episode is another example of the story being filled with some great ides which sadly never quite get the space they need to develop. Take the daffodils, for example. I couldn’t remember how they fitted into the story at all, and it’s no wonder because having watched it the whole strand goes absolutely nowhere. We get a scene in Episode Three where the flowers are handed out, talk about a spate of mysterious deaths taking place across the country, and then Doctor Who works out what the plan is regarding them here.

And the best scene in this episode — and quite possibly in the whole story — is when Jo get attacked by one of the flowers. It sprays her in the face and we see her start to suffocate while Doctor Who tries to save her. It’s incredibly scary, totally effective, and you can’t help feeling that the plan is a rather good one — you can almost see how it would work. But the story doesn’t seem to realise how good this strand is, so once Jo is saved we broadly of see the end of it. There’s no sequence of the flowers activating and ordinary people being effected. Even the Daffodil Men only emerge from the bus in this episode so they can all fall down.

You can just imagine how this story would have played out in the Russell T Davies era, with the idea of the invasion being carried into people’s homes via freebies really being front and centre. It’s such a great idea that it makes me resent all the messing about in the first two episodes even more, because you can see what a brilliant story is tucked away in the latter half without the room needed to explore it. I can also just imagine a scene of Jackie Tyler proudly arranging a bouquet of the daffodils, having managed to swindle a bunch of them!

I think that’s my main take away from Terror of the Autons — it’s all a big missed opportunity. The script is littered with good ideas but lacks the refinement needed to bring the best to the fore. I also can’t help but feel that as director Barry Letts has missed the knowing humour with which the script is written. It means that actors — Pertwee especially — deliver lines completely straight which are meant to be done with a knowing wink.

In his 1993 review of the VHS release, Paul Cornell describes the production team as fighting against Holmes’ humour. He also — famously — ends the review by lamenting that the Third Doctor Who is turned into a Tory here, citing the moment he talks about ‘Tubby’ Rowlands and the club as evidence. But I think that’s another moment where the line hasn’t been delivered as intended. It’s supposed to be Doctor Who knowing exactly what to say to rile up an obstructive government minister (and we’ve had plenty of those since the series went into colour), but it’s played far too straight and the meaning is totally altered.

I’m gutted to see Season Eight start off on such a duff note, especially as I’d been looking forward to moving onto it. I’m hoping that the return of Don Houghton with the next story will be enough to turn things back around for me…

5/10

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Will Brooks

English Boy in Wales. Freelance Writer and Designer. Doctor Who Art for Big Finish, Titan Comics, Cubicle 7. TARDIS Fan. Pinstripe Counter.