Sunday, 20 January 2013

Story 55 - The Terror of the Autons

In which a rogue Time Lord arrives on Earth determined to provide the Nestene Consciousness with a new opportunity to invade the Earth. The Master was a contemporary of the Doctor on his homeworld and they are great rivals. The Master's TARDIS materialises in the form of a horse-box at the travelling circus of Luigi Rossini. The Time Lord has great hypnotic skills and soon has the whole company in his thrall. The Brigadier has allowed the last intact Nestene sphere to be loaned to a museum, and the Master steals this. He takes it to a radio-telescope station, kills one of the crew with a matter compression weapon, and makes the link with the Consciousness.
At UNIT HQ, the Doctor finds himself lumbered with a new assistant - Jo Grant, whose uncle at the UN has pulled some strings to land her a job. Liz Shaw has returned to research work at Cambridge. Jo accidentally destroys the Doctor's work on a new TARDIS dematerialisation circuit. At first the Doctor wants rid of her, but is slowly won over by her enthusiasm. On learning of the theft of the Nestene sphere and the events at the radio-telescope, the Doctor knows that they are connected. He and Jo go there with the Brigadier and UNIT Captain Mike Yates, who was involved with the previous Auton invasion and is now on the Brigadier's full time staff. They find that one of the scientists has gone missing, and they see the corpse of the other horribly shrunken. A Time Lord appears and warns the Doctor that the Master is on Earth - and is intent on destroying him.

The Master takes over the Farrell Plastics factory by hypnotising the weak-willed owner, Rex. He uses the reanimated sphere to create new Autons. When sales manager McDermott starts to interfere he is killed - smothered by a plastic chair. Rex's father, John, decides to take the company back under his control but he too is killed - by a heat activated troll doll. When Jo investigates Farrell's factory, she is caught and the Master hypnotises her into returning to UNIT HQ to kill the Doctor with a bomb. The missing scientist is traced to the circus. The Doctor is captured but Jo frees him. They are attacked by circus people but a police car turns up to take them away. This proves to be driven by Autons. The Brigadier and Captain Yates rescue them. In high streets across the Home Counties masked men start to distribute free plastic daffodils which are incredibly realistic. A number of inexplicable deaths are then reported. When they learn that McDermott and John Farrell are amongst the victims, the Doctor and the Brigadier visit the factory. It is deserted - apart from an Auton sentinel. The Doctor finds one of the daffodils and examines it in his lab.

The daffodils prove to be deadly. They are activated by short-wave radio and spit a smothering plastic film into the faces of their victims. Those deaths so far have been due to the daffodils being triggered prematurely. The Doctor deduces that the Master will use a radio transmission to activate them all at once - killing thousands. The Master tries to kill him using a length of Nestene-controlled telephone cord. When this fails, he breaks into UNIT HQ to destroy his enemy in person. The Doctor had earlier stolen the dematerialisation circuit from his TARDIS, so the Master takes him and Jo hostage when he learns the Brigadier is about to bomb the coach in which the Autons are travelling. They travel to the radio-telescope and the Master attempts to bring the Nestene Consciousness to Earth. The Doctor is able to convince him that he is just as likely to be killed as everyone else, so the two Time Lords join forces to repel the Nestene back into deep space. The Master tries to flee and is shot down by Captain Yates. This proves to be the hypnotised Rex Farrell in a mask. The Master has escaped - but he is still trapped on Earth.

This four part adventure was written by Robert Holmes, and was broadcast between 2nd and 23rd January 1971. It is the first story of Season 8, and marks Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks' first full series in control. Elements of Season 7 had been inherited from the previous production team - such as Liz Shaw and the seven part stories.
Letts stamps his mark on the series by introducing a new companion - Katy Manning's Jo Grant - who would be much more of an audience identification figure. Despite being a member of UNIT, she doesn't wear any uniform, and she is not that bright academically. She is keen but green, having been helped into the job by an uncle who works for the UN.
There are two further new additions to the regular cast - the Master, played by Roger Delgado, and Captain Mike Yates, played by Richard Franklin.
Letts and Dicks had been discussing how the Doctor could often be like Sherlock Holmes, and hit on the idea that it would be good if he had a Moriarty figure - someone equal but opposite whom Pertwee could play against. With the Doctor still exiled on Earth, an extra story element was needed. The Master would provide a "human" counterpoint to the monsters, as well as a reason for the invasions in the first place. Delgado, who had worked with Letts before, was the only actor ever considered.
UNIT was a little undermanned, having only had the occasional "guest" captain in previous stories. Yates was introduced to give the Brigadier a regular second-in-command, and provide potential romantic interest for the new companion. Franklin joins John Levene who is now a fully-fledged regular.
One further change introduced in this story is the UNIT uniforms. Letts detested the beige ones and was keen to use ones that looked them look like conventional soldiers.

Spearhead From Space had proved to be an extremely popular story, so a sequel was rapidly commissioned.  Perhaps because of all the new elements that had to be introduced, there is actually very little on screen Auton involvement in the story. They have been redesigned and can now talk. In the second part of the story they are disguised under grinning carnival masks.
The main threats now come from Nestene-controlled plastic items of different sorts - a black inflatable chair, the grotesque troll doll, the spitting daffodils and the telephone cord.
As these are everyday household items, the threat comes closer to home and is therefore scarier for the younger viewers. There were reports at the time of children being afraid to take their teddy bears to bed in case they attacked them. The use of Autons disguised as policemen also caused controversy, as the police felt it undermined their attempts to get children to trust officers if in trouble.
The Nestene creature in the first story had been a tentacled creature, and in this it appears only as a blurred energy form - a huge disappointment for non-contemporary viewers brought up on the Target novelisation.

The main guest artist is Michael Wisher as Rex Farrell. He is superb throughout. Farrell has obviously been bullied by his father all his life, and has only grudgingly been handed the reins of the family firm. Harry Towb's McDermott has been left to look after him. Farrell is weak-willed, and relishes the power which the Master gives him. As I mentioned in my recent post on Wisher, he has a cold streak to him - nonchalantly cancelling McDermott's salary and entitlements mere seconds after seeing him horribly suffocated to death. He does rebel against the Master's influence before being taken over one last time.
Episode endings for this story are:

  1. A UNIT ammo box, which had held the Nestene sphere, is brought into the Doctor's lab. Jo is determined to open it, and the Doctor realises that it contains a bomb...
  2. The Doctor and Jo are in a police car being driven away from the circus. Jo realises they are not headed into town. The Doctor pulls away a mask from one of the officers to reveal the blank features of an Auton...
  3. The Doctor answers the phone in his lab. It is a call from the Master, who operates a small control device. The cord comes to life and starts to strangle the Doctor...
  4. Back at UNIT HQ, the Doctor points out that the Master is also trapped on Earth. He is quite looking forward to their next encounter...

Overall, a very good story which establishes the template for the next season or two. The new additions are all very welcome - especially Delgado and Manning. One gripe is that the Master, after going to great lengths to help the Nestenes, so readily accepts what the Doctor warns and turns against them. In hindsight, it won't be the last time this happens. Some people have questioned certain aspects of the Doctor in this - his talk of hobnobbing with civil servants in Pall Mall clubs (when the character had always been very much anti-establishment) and his apparent relish at the rematch with the Master - who poses the risk of death to millions. With regards the latter we, the audience, are also relishing it.
Things you might like to know:
  • This story has no credited director. It was directed by Barry Letts himself. He had agreed with his superiors that he would have the opportunity to direct one story per season (generally a four parter). As such, he couldn't be credited as director and producer at the same time.
  • Despite the story title, it was quickly found that there was a distinct lack of Autons. The scene where Rex sees the Master animating some Autons in part one was a last minute addition.
  • The quarry-set escape from the Auton policemen proved a troubled shoot. The short-sighted Katy Manning tore a ligament tripping over a boulder, and Nicholas Courtney had been taken ill and had to be doubled. Unfortunately, the double is clearly identified as he is wearing white socks - something the Brigadier would never do. There is a wonderful stunt fall from Terry Walsh to enjoy.
  • Pertwee's strict adherence to the script is demonstrated in the lab scene after the troll doll has been destroyed. Yates says he went to "fetch some cocoa", to which the Doctor responds "fetch a tin of what?"
  • The two hapless radio-telescope scientists are played by Andrew Staines and Christopher Burgess. Letts had used them in his first directorial Who job (The Enemy of the World) and he would use them again in his last Pertwee directorial outing (The Planet of the Spiders). Many directors used their own "rep" companies.
  • Viewing figures tended to fluctuate over the course of individual stories. This story saw the figures rise for each successive instalment - the first time this had  happened since The Tomb of the Cybermen.
  • Regarding the Nestene creature which graced the original Target book cover, we would eventually get to see it on screen. It was used by The Mill as an audition piece to get the CGI work for the new series in 2005. It would be used as the basis for the Bane Mother in the SJA pilot Invasion of the Bane.

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