Doctor Who episode 279: Terror of the Autons – Episode One (2/1/1971)

It begins with an explosion of colour at the circus, a far cry from the muted beige shades and scientific environments of Season Seven, and what follows is like eating a whole bag of Skittles in one go. It’s a rush of images, a plot that progresses in great leaps rather than with the methodical and steady pace of last year. Almost before you can take in one thing, the next arrives. It introduces three new regulars, writes one out offscreen, and essentially crams in the story of pretty much the first three episodes of Spearhead from Space. This feels more different from Inferno than Spearhead from Space felt from Season Six.

Taking the new regulars in turn: Roger Delgado gets a fantastic introduction, arriving in a TARDIS and hopping jauntily out to his signature synth warble, proclaiming he’s referred to as the Master ‘universally’, outing Lew Russell and bending him to his will with a snap of the fingers. He’s a great addition, able to turn on a penny from furiously stern to amused in a moment. But he’s also very clearly a major threat. He marches into a CSO museum, does the same to a satellite station, off-handedly kills a fairly harmless scientist (Robert Holmes writes some business with boiled eggs which is typical of his character work but falls a bit flat in the delivery), takes over a plastics factory and gives every impression of being able to carry out his plans with ruthless efficiency.

So far, Holmes avoids having him meet the Doctor, but it’s established that they know each other thanks to the arrival of a Time Lord nipping in to warn the Doctor. Even this is novel: there’s been no indication that they’ve been monitoring the Doctor since his trial, and the way the Time Lord agent dresses up and seems to find the whole jaunt quite amusing is completely at odds with the godlike demeanour of the ones we met in The War Games. His mention of the Master getting a better degree than the Doctor is the first real hint of the Robert Holmes concept of Gallifrey (to be developed in The Deadly Assassin) as a sort of fusty Oxbridge planet, rather than the Olympian home-world of Terrance Dicks’ godlike beings.

Autons1

Equally witty is the introduction of the Doctor’s new companion Jo Grant. No companion gets a better line in their first scene than, ‘I’m not the tea lady.’ Katy Manning is instantly likeable, and even in this episode proves why having someone very different from the Doctor is a useful storytelling device as she impetuously goes to spy on the plastics factory. Brilliantly, the Doctor isn’t instantly besotted with her, and wants Liz back, but equally can’t bring himself to be horrible to her, which probably helps ease any Liz fans in the audience to accept Jo a bit more readily as well.

Finally, Captain Mike Yates turns up as the Brigadier’s new second in command, and in one of the most brazen ret-cons in the show is said to have been running the mop-up after the last Auton invasion. Richard Franklin gets much less to do than either Manning or Delgado, and so we’re left with the vague impression of a slightly gauche minor public school type, but he’s instantly more more memorable than any of the Season Seven roster of captains aside from obviously Paul Darrow (what a coup that would have been).

In between all of this, the only characters to really suffer are the Brigadier, who gets practically nothing to do, and the Doctor, who fiddles with the TARDIS dematerialisation circuit and bosses the UNIT staff about. This is definitely a thin script for Pertwee, although he gets one nice bit of heroics (bursting through a control room door to catch a falling bomb) and one nice moment where he destroys it rather than letting it fall into human hands. No wonder, though, he spends a lot of it like his nose is out of joint.

Next episode: Terror of the Autons – Episode Two

One comment

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who episode 278: Inferno – Episode 7 (20/6/1970) | Next Episode...

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