Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thinks Superman joined the United Nations to get a yellow roadster.
The Doctor: "How did you get in here?"
Fans of the current Doctor Who series know The Doctor once worked for a United Nations outfit known as UNIT, solving some pretty odd puzzles involving aliens. They're also undoubtedly familiar with The Master, a villain who in the new series took on the guise of the British prime minister in his quest for world domination.
Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons, a 1971 serial starring Jon Pertwee (Carry on Cowboy) as The Doctor, shows UNIT in action and introduces two of the original series characters (Jo Grant and Mike Yates). It also boasts the first appearance by The Master and shows the Autons, who kicked off the new series. If that weren't enough, Michael Wisher, who later played Dalek creator Davros, has a role too.
Facts of the Case
The polyhedron—a Nestene energy unit—stolen from a museum ends up in the hands of an evil Time Lord who calls himself The Master (Roger Delgado, Quatermass II). Soon, a shrunken corpse arrives at a UNIT facility. The Master takes over a plastic factory and, through his hypnotic power, its operator (Michael Wisher). The Doctor, with the help of new assistant Jo Grant (Katy Manning, Don't Just Lie There, Say Something!), must figure out how The Master is going to unleash the Auton terror.
What I've seen of Jon Pertwee's Doctor over the years has reminded me of John Steed, another stylish British TV hero with an oddball streak who drove around in a bright vintage roadster and solved some pretty odd mysteries. Indeed, The Avengers comes up a few times in the commentary and trivia track. I have to admit my memories of The Avengers and its very, very, very odd sense of humor did affect my thinking about Terror of the Autons as I watched. I took the Auton terror—which included an attack chair, goofy plastic guys handing out deadly daffodils, and a telephone cord that comes to life to try to strangle The Doctor—as humorous, and intentionally so. Viewers who've seen the first two seasons of Torchwood, which combined heavy doses of odd humor with earthbound alien attack plots, might have the same sort of impression.
Strangely, that take on Terror of the Autons comes up only once in the many extras, from Robert Shearman (a writer for the new series) who quite often manifests an odd sense of humor. Just about everyone else seems to take it very seriously—and consider it very scary. I don't believe they're kidding, as they rattle off comments from viewers who found the Autons too terrifying, since the show aired around 5 p.m. on Saturdays and had a lot of kids watching.
The Pertwee-era Doctor Who is also very much a cliffhanger serial which must have tickled the fancies of older British viewers who watched characters like Flash Gordon in the matinees. Episodes end with The Doctor or Jo in some sort of strange peril that is easily resolved at the start of the next chapter. Some fans might be disappointed that the TARDIS just sits in a corner at UNIT headquarters (you can sometimes see it's just a blue box) but Terror of the Autons excellently handles the original show's Saturday matinee pacing and plotting.
Pertwee plays The Doctor as a cliffhanger hero, but knows his way around comic relief. A funny spot had him interrupting impatiently during a speech by Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney, The Sarah Jane Adventures) and grumbling about the UNIT leader's general incompetence, but later defending his boss to a bureaucrat.
Terror of the Autons is a typical example of Pertwee-era Doctor Who; a little better than average, if you have the right sense of humor. That makes it worth watching, but as is often the case with these original series releases, you may find the extras more interesting than the story itself.
In "The Doctor's Moriarty" (a short feature on the Master) and throughout the extras, show writers and others talk about The Master's evolution over the years. Terror of the Autons director Barry Letts says the staff got the idea for the character when they realized the earthbound Doctor is a sort of Sherlock Holmes, and thus needed a rival like Professor Moriarty. Roger Delgado's performance is consistently described as understated, and you'll notice quite a contrast to John Simm's version of the character. Delgado is convincing, while keeping within expectations for an old-fashioned serial villain. The writers worried about using him too much, but viewers probably didn't mind, thanks to Delgado's handling of the role.
In a commentary, Letts tells us this was his "first chance to really put my own stamp on the program." Katy Manning talks humorously about her audition and her first experiences on the set, including working with severe myopia. They also note that some BBC brass had expressed to Letts a lack of faith in the lasting power of Doctor Who.
A trivia track provides lots of facts about the series and the time in which it was produced, enough that Ford Prefect could have used it to prep when he was stuck on Earth. It's got lots of script changes and cuts, background details on production and effects, and explanations of just about everything. Among my favorites were a historical note on booby traps in serials, and a brief description of the Ministry of Transportation. You'll also get the original Radio Times episode listings and the ratings, which eventually got up to nearly 10 million viewers for this particular story arc.
"Plastic Fantastic," my favorite extra, talks about plastics in everyday life in explaining the background of the episode.
Other features include "Life on Earth," a look at the Jon Pertwee episodes; a motion photo gallery; and PDF features including Radio Times listings and advertisements with a Doctor Who theme.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Barry Letts and Katy Manning are proud of the chromakey work in Terror of the Autons, putting actors in places they very obviously weren't through the use of blue screen. They say it looks realistic, but you probably won't. Still, there were worse examples in the original Doctor Who and, in 1971, they were undoubtedly relieved not to be using painted backdrops. Even so, if you're used to high-tech effects, give it a try. I'm sure you won't find the chromakey believable—I never did—but you may find it charming, which I always have.
Oddly, in talking plot holes, Letts takes issue with an ending that didn't seem like a big deal to me. Pay attention when The Doctor talks about a TARDIS dematerializer and you'll figure out how The Master is likely to react at the end; some trivia track comments about excised scenes further emphasize The Master's motives.
Fans of the classic series have probably already made their decision. If you're someone who watches the new Doctor Who, but haven't seen the original, Terror of the Autons is a fun story arc with a DVD package that provides a wealth of series' background.
Not guilty, but beware of plastic chairs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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