Doctor Who Story 055 – Terror of the Autons

Story Recounted by Robert Holmes

There have been many stories involving a figure known as “The Master”. He tends to be a personal nemesis to The Doctor, setting himself apart from races such as The Daleks and The Cybermen. Terror of the Autons is one of the earliest incarnations of the rivalry between The Master and The Doctor. It is certainly the oldest in existence despite the claims of other stories to tell earlier tales of The Master, some positing a familial connection between the two men, others a life-long rivalry taken up after a broken friendship.

Some scholars debate the existence of the historical Master, believing The Master to be an evolving archetype in the mythology of The Doctor. They cite—in particular—the recurring elements of The Master from tales that occurred chronologically earlier. The figure of The Meddling Monk was a trickster of The Doctor’s race. A Master also appeared in The Land of Fiction. The War Chief was also a Time Lord who seemed to hire himself out to an alien race, in his case to help them develop better war strategies and technologies. Scholars who defend the historical Master tend to dismiss these theories of a developing archetype, insisting these other figures were separate individuals rather than evolving mythology.

It is, however, possible that the creation of The Master was inevitable. A strong hero tends to come with a specific, incarnational nemesis: Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty; Batman and The Joker; Coriolanus and Aufidius. These nemeses embody opposite concepts and philosophies, but in themselves are responses to the hero. The hero and villain are only separated by a thin line. They are opposite sides of the same coin, so to speak. Into this duality step The Doctor and The Master.

What is fascinating in this earliest story is how dismissive The Doctor is of his nemesis. There is the impression that the two have not yet met, although are aware of one another. In some ways, the Time Lords can’t be bothered to deal with each other. The other merely presents an interesting challenge, albeit an inconsequential one. They enjoy hunting one another. The attacks, however, do seem to grow more personal as the story progresses. This escalation may show in future stories.

As for the story itself, it continues from Spearhead from Space, yet lacks the emotional punch of that story. The loss of Liz Shaw is a disappointment and Jo Grant has yet to prove an interesting replacement. The Brigadier seems to have lost a bit of fire that was present in the previous stories. He doesn’t seem as interested in challenging The Doctor as he once did, and when he does, it  is usually due to sheer bone-headedness.

In sum, Terror of the Autons fails to live up to the high standard set by Spearhead from Space, The Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death, and Inferno. While an enjoyable story (and quite short), it lacks the depth of previous ones.

3 thoughts on “Doctor Who Story 055 – Terror of the Autons

  1. This story is written by Robert Holmes, and is considered among fans as his greatest of the Pertwee era. In a mere four episodes he has to introduce three new characters, who we came to love: the Master, Jo Grant, and Captain Yates.

    Admittedly, the basic plot is pretty much a straight re-run of ‘Spearhead from Space’, as the Autons invade again; this is perhaps what makes you feel less than enthusiastic about this story. But the addition now of the Master gives this serial a menace – courtesy of the superb Roger Delgado – that Channing and his associates didn’t manage to create in the earlier story.

    Also, the 1971 season, which begins here, saw something of a move away from the Quatermas style of storytelling, which had been hard-hitting real science and had a real scientist, university graduate Liz Shaw, assisting the Doctor.

    Now we enter the Barry Letts era, the era of fluffy Jo Grant – a sexy sidekick who failed all her A-Level exams, in place of the more credible Liz Shaw. Jo was not a genuine collaborator for the Doctor – she was a companion in the Victoria Waterfield mould, helpless and needing to constantly be rescued – a screamer, not a scientist.

    This was a big change of direction. Jo is more loveable than useful; and her character is a departure from the real scientists – i.e. Zoe and Liz – who had been in the show for the previous 2 years.

    But this is nevertheless the story that got Barry Letts into real trouble with his BBC bosses, for using killer policemen and killer teddy bears in the show, and which resulted in questions being asked in parliament about violence on television.

    So this was no routine story. And it resulted in Letts having to change the entire direction of the show, and move away from scaring the kids into ducking behind the sofa, towards a more twee style, which would give us such forgettable serials as ‘The Mutants’ and ‘Frontier in Space’ – leading well away from the real science of Quatermas and Doomwatch, and instead heading towards Space Opera.

    But ‘Terror of the Autons’ itself pulled no punches. Its storyline had kids on the edge of their seats, literally – since one character, McDermot, is actually murdered by his plastic chair. Another is killed by an everyday household object: a plastic daffodil. The Doctor is strangled by his telephone flex. A teddybear attacks another character. A killer policeman attacks the Doctor and Jo.

    Boy! The BBC were madder than hell with Barry Letts over this serial!

    1. I was a bit surprised at the darker elements of the story (the Auton policeman, the disturbing teddy bear troll thing). It doesn’t surprise me that the BBC intervened in the production of Doctor Who because of those elements. I’m sorry that it resulted in moving away from Quatermass-style science toward twee. I prefer the former. I’m sure there will still be things to enjoy, and I’m quite looking forward to Mind of Evil. Delgado’s Master is wonderful!

  2. Don’t get the wrong idea!

    Although ‘Terror of the Autons’ had long term implications for the future direction of Dr Who, the furore which this serial caused took some time to reach its climax. Whatever feelings the BBC suits had about the levels of violence in the show, it was too late for them to have any serious impact on the 1971 series. That series had already begun transmission, and most of the 25 episodes were already scripted, and a lot were already filmed, before the BBC bosses became aware of the developing row.

    So don’t go away in the belief that the next few serials will be affected by the row between the Producer and the head of the Drama Department. This row will impact the 1972 season, and later seasons; but you can be confident that the 1971 season will stick closely to Barry Letts’ original vision for the show.

    Twelve months later, the show will be trying to avoid realistic violence, and will be using fantastical violence instead. One could still blow up the world, but one could not frighten kids into thinking their teddybear might come to life and attack them.

    But that’s for next season. And there will be BIG compensations, because fantasy violence means the return, after a 5 year gap, of the Daleks! Every cloud has a silver lining!

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