While U.N.I.T. is investigating the disappearance of the sole surviving Nestene energy unit (see “Spearhead from Space”), the Doctor receives a visit from a Time Lord. He warns the Doctor that his old adversary, The Master–a renegade Time Lord, is, for some unknown reason, on Earth. It transpires the Master is working with the Nestenes in their quest for world domination, hoping to get a share in the rewards. With the Master and his hypnotic powers as their hands and feet, and their deadly plastic products widely disseminated, are the Autons set to succeed where they previously failed, or can the Doctor, U.N.I.T., and new companion Jo Grant find a way to save the world–again?
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
The Third Doctor’s inaugural story, “Spearhead from Space,” and the monsters introduced in that story, the Autons, proved so popular that the production team hired Robert Holmes to write a follow-up to kick off the next season. This time, the Nestene Consciousness is expanding its product offerings from shop window dummies to chairs, dolls, daffodils, telephone cabling, and who knows how many other lines. Plastic was becoming a staple part of British homes in the early 1970s, so what better way to scare an audience than to imagine that even your favorite troll doll might come alive and strangle you in the night?
This does seem a logical step to take in the Nestene saga, though, at the time it aired (January, 1971), some felt it pushed the scare envelope a bit too far. I have to say, the scene where McDermott is suffocated by a large black plastic chair is a little disturbing, even by today’s standards. And while we don’t see the troll doll murder Mr. Farrell, his wife’s scream when she discovers his body, and the idea that a doll would commit murder, is, again, more than one might expect for a “children’s show.” Evidently, even this early on, Robert Holmes saw Doctor Who as more than just something to entertain the kids on a Saturday tea-time. He wasn’t afraid to play with the show’s darker potential, and give it more adult appeal.
“Terror of the Autons” introduces us to new companion Jo Grant. The Doctor informs us in an off-hand comment that Liz Shaw has returned to Cambridge. Her replacement could hardly be more dissimilar. Whereas Liz Shaw was a sharp scientist with multiple degrees, hired for her proven skill in her research fields, Jo Grant failed science, and got the job with U.N.I.T. because her uncle pulled some strings for her. This contrast was, no doubt, intentional, fearing the Doctor might be upstaged by a companion as smart himself, and conscious that the audience could get lost in their intellectual conversation. I disagree. Zoe worked out well for the Second Doctor, and I saw no problem with the rapport between Liz and the Doctor. As for losing the audience, the Second Doctor and Zoe had Jamie as their less intellectual foil, and the Third Doctor and Liz had the Brigadier.
Jo certainly gets off to an inauspicious start, destroying the Doctor’s experiment, getting caught and hypnotized by the Master, and inadvertently telling him that U.N.I.T. plans to send fighter planes to destroy the Autons. She does eventually manage to be of help to the Doctor, and all’s well that ends well. But if I didn’t know how much a part of the Third Doctor era Jo Grant would become, I wouldn’t have given her another season. I’m sure there’s a turning point for her character, but I don’t think it’s here.
“Terror of the Autons” also introduces The Master, the show’s third renegade Time Lord (after the Meddling Monk and The War Chief). He was conceived as the Doctor’s Moriarty, just as the Brigadier was the Doctor’s Watson. As with all the best evil counterparts, the Master is more than a match for his adversary: he scored better than the Doctor in his exams, he has a fully-working TARDIS, he is charming, a master of disguise, and has a stone cold heart that will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. Roger Delgado’s portrayal set the standard for all future incarnations. He blends just the right amount of arrogance and schmooze to make him believable. This is also the first time we see the Master’s trademark weapon (at least in the Classic series): the Tissue Compression Eliminator, which shrinks people to death (how on Earth did Robert Holmes come up with that?!)
The last thing I’ll comment on is the ending, about which I wholeheartedly agree with Script Editor Terrance Dicks. The Master’s sudden about-face when the Doctor reminds him that, given power, the Nestene won’t treat him any differently than the rest of Earth’s inhabitants. I’m sorry, but I’m not convinced the Master would be so easily persuaded. I much prefer Dicks’ suggestion that the Brigadier simply pull a gun on the Master and tell him to do as the Doctor says. Though given the military competence displayed by U.N.I.T. last season, I’m not totally sure this would have worked. (To be fair, U.N.I.T. are considerably more impressive in this story. They actually seem like a military force to be reckoned with.) For whatever reason, Dicks let Holmes’ ending stand, perhaps out of respect for the writer.
This is the last time we see the Autons until their return in the opening episode of the 2005 reboot, “Rose.” The fact that Russell T. Davies chose the Autons to launch a new era of Doctor Who is both an homage to these two stories (“Spearhead from Space” and “Terror of the Autons”), and Robert Holmes, the creator of this simple, yet ingenious monster.
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