Doctor Who episode 281: Terror of the Autons – Episode Three (16/1/1971)

In context, this continues to be one of the biggest pivots in tone and style in the show’s history. The opening action sequence (introduced with an iconic ‘Hai!’) features two police officers revealed to be murderous drones (Barry Letts got into trouble for that), one of which is driven off a cliff by Captain Yates in a speeding Morris Marina (why UNIT are driving round in a crap car is anyone’s guess – they’re all in uniform so can’t be undercover). After an impressive fall, the Auton then just gets straight back up and comes after them again. It’s relentless and quite scary.

Relentlessness sums up this story: if at first it doesn’t succeed it batters you over the head with a dozen other things until you surrender. The Master comes up with plan after plan – a bomb, a grenade, an Auton hiding in a safe, a killer phone flex – to kill the Doctor, not really expecting, or, it seems wanting, any of them to succeed (‘He’s an interesting adversary. I admire him in many ways.’) Farrel Plastics has given up making deadly chairs and killer dolls and instead invested in plastic flowers and an army of Autons in queasily jolly costumes to distribute them around the country. Almost anything in the story could turn out to be lethal. And everything moves so fast you never know where the next death trap is going to be.

In the middle of it all, Pertwee acts like an anchor. Last year he was the drop of eccentricity in fairly straight stories. This year, he looks like the straight man. Still, it works, and brings an odd sort of domesticity to the adventure. He squabbles with the Brigadier, then defends him robustly to an interfering apparatchik like an old married couple. He slaps Mike’s hand away when he’s trying to examine the killer doll. He complains about the Master’s conceit (the look Katy Manning gives him is brilliant). He visits the widowed Mrs Farrel in her chintzy front room, and makes commiserating noises. He gets upset that people are making cocoa in his lab. Still, there’s a hint of his old mischief when he tries to get the TARDIS working with the Master’s stolen dematerialisation circuit – in a scene that’s almost exactly like the one in Spearhead from Space 3, right down to the Doctor’s sheepish expression.

Autons3

I’m really enjoying how strange this all is, even if some of the direction choices are odd. Like how it’s meant to take place over days, but Jo is wearing the same clothes like a JNT companion. Letts chooses not to show any of the cutting into the killer doll, which seems oddly prudish as he shows it being blasted to bits by Yates a few mins later.

Next episode: Terror of the Autons – Episode Four

One comment

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who episode 280: Terror of the Autons – Episode Two (9/1/1970) | Next Episode...

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