Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Serial 55: Terror of the Autons

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companions: Jo Grant

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Barry Letts

Editor's Note: Hey, kids! I'm back with a quick quick intro to point out that Cassandra is on board to talk about some Autons today. It's a doozy of a story with a lot of moving pieces, and I honestly felt good about giving it up because there's still a bunch of great stories left to do so why not share the wealth? And with this story we're in the last four months of the blog! Hoo-rah!

But for now, I leave you with Cassandra...

Background & Significance:  So the announcement of Season 8 was a pretty big deal for Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks.

Due to the nature of Doctor Who's production scheduling, and how a creative changing of the guard takes some time, Letts didn't really get a chance to make much of a mark on Season 7.  However, with the advent of Season 8, there were quite a few changes.

Among these changes were the introduction of a gimmick of some sort to get new audiences tuning in to watch.  This gimmick arrived in the form of the Master, a Moriarty to the Doctor's Sherlock Holmes.  Letts and Dicks hoped that the Master might overtake the Daleks as the top foe for the Doctor, and aimed to include the Master in each of the 5 stories in Season 8.

Another change was the decision to not bring back companion Liz Shaw, who was deemed too independent to really work well with the Doctor.  The decision was made to bring on a male/female team reminiscent of Jaime and Victoria in the form of Jo Grant, who would assist the Doctor, and Captain Mike Yates, The Brigadier's second in command.  There were even plans for the hint of romantic possibility between the two, and it totally shows (and oh man, I ship them so hard).

Written by Robert Holmes and directed by Barry Letts, "Terror of the Autons" promises to be something fantastic, especially on a rewatch.  I'm excited.  Are you excited?  Because I am.

But enough of all that, let's take a closer look, shall we?



Commentary!:

Part 1

I always forget how good this is.

I think amidst some of the other Robert Holmes stories ("Spearhead From Space", "Carnival of Monsters", "The Time Warrior", all of the wonderful work he did while script editor for Tom Baker and beyond, and of course, Caves) this one gets a little buried.  I mean, it still gets some recognition, because it introduces one of the Doctor’s most popular foes, and a wonderful companion(s), but I feel like people don’t really talk about this one as much as the others.

Which is a crying shame, because goodness is everything about this wonderful so far.  I love how, first thing, we meet the Master.  We already know the Autons are showing up again, given the title, so that’s not going to be much of a surprise (one of the silliest things about Classic Who, to me, is when they give away the return of some enemy (the Daleks, for example) and then they save the reveal as a big old cliffhanger.  Like that’s going to surprise anyone, guys, it was in the title.  Come on).  Instead, we’re presented with this menacing man (another TIME LORD, holy cow!), given no real explanation as to who he is, what he is doing, and thus building a bit of mystery around him, until the Doctor has that delightful conversation with that random other Time Lord on the top of the radio tower.  That’s great.  It hooks us right in and keeps us wanting more, and gives us something else to look forward to being explored, as opposed to the titular Autons.

And I mean, it’s not like the Autons are old or anything, they were just introduced in the previous season.  And they are a popular monster, so it makes sense to bring them back in this way, but it’s a really smart move to not build the whole episode around their reveal.  We know they’re coming, keep us interested.

And we are.  Because not only are we presented with a new menace at the top of the episode, we also get a new companion! And who doesn’t love new companions.

I love Jo’s introduction in this.  It just kind of happens, she just shows up, we’re not really sure who she is or why she’s there (though we can surmise, I am sure) and so we kind of meet her along with the Doctor.  And she’s so adorable, really.  I love how young and na├»ve she is in this, thirsting to prove herself, eager to be of help.  And the Doctor is just kinda crotchety and grumpy and a bit mean to her, but that’s the Doctor.  I mean, she tries to extinguish what she thinks is a fire in the lab and the Doctor calls her a “ham-fisted bun vendor.”  What does that even mean, Doctor??  I dunno, but I think it’s amusing (and probably a bit sexist, but we’re in the 70s, there’s a lot of condescension for female characters around this time period, really, especially since Jo comes off as a bit of an airheaded young girl and not a proper scientist like Liz). 

There’s just a lot of great lines in here, as is expected of a Robert Holmes script.  The dialogue pops and everything is so crisp and tidy, it’s wonderful.  And it's so funny, too.  Like when the Doctor is speaking with the Brigadier about Jo, and how he insists that he wants a scientist as an assistant, and the Brig tells him that he doesn’t need a scientist he needs “someone to pass you your test tubes and tell you how brilliant you are.”  Which, first of all, the Brig knows what’s up, because that’s when the Doctor/Companion relationship works best, isn’t it?  But put in a humorous way, of course.  If a Companion is too independent, too self-sufficient, then the dynamic doesn’t really work all that well, which, to be entirely honest, is what happened with Liz.  Which is not to say that companions can’t be intelligent, far from it.  Like, Zoe, for instance.  Zoe is a brilliant mathematician, but she lacks humanity at first, but learns and adapts and opens up with help from the Doctor and Jamie.  Anyway, my point is, that the Doctor and his companions should be healthily co-dependent upon each other.

Which is why I think Jo is such a great companion, because you can track how she grows and learns under the Doctor’s mentorship, and how he learns from her as well.  And you can see how that whole relationship is set up in this episode.  I mean, Jo wants to be there, she doesn’t lack for initiative, and she does her best to help.  And the Doctor shows signs of liking her well enough, even though he is still a bit crotchety about it; I mean, if he genuinely didn’t care about her, he would have had no trouble firing her as his assistant, right?  His hearts are in the right places.

And I love how they introduce both the new villain the new companion all in the first 5 minutes!  That’s so fantastic.  It’s so well-paced.

I love how, whenever Robert Holmes tends to write a serial, you know it’s going to be a doozy.  There’s always new things to be introduced, new foes, new companions, new Time Lords, new mythology, new insights into the Doctor’s past.  I think that’s what I enjoy the most about this so far; we’ve only really gotten fleeting glimpses of Time Lords in the past.  The Meddling Monk in Hartnell’s era, The War Chief and then the council on Gallifrey that sentences the Doctor to forcible regeneration and exile in “The War Games”.  The Doctor’s past is shrouded in such mystery, and so it’s always intriguing whenever a story addresses it. 

And the Master is such a great character.  I mean, that’s such a good choice, telling us that the Doctor already knows this guy, that they have a definite past, that they pretty much went to school together, that “all he does is cause trouble” (the Doctor’s first words about him that we are privy to), and we learn from that random ass Time Lord (who reminds me a bit of a genderswapped Mary Poppins, ahahah) that the Master is out for blood.  And that’s a nice technique, being told about the Master from a perspective that we trust (The Doctor) and then also showing us what the Master is capable of.  I mean, he hypnotizes people to get them to obey him, shrinks that guy and kills him.  That’s some ruthless shit right there.  We know not to mess with him, and because the Doctor already knows that he’s up to no good, it makes it all the more exciting and menacing.  What is going to happen when the Doctor finally meets up with him?  The Master is apparently smarter than the Doctor when it comes to some things, is the Doctor going to be able to save the day this time, or is it all over?  I love that.  It’s great stakes building and throwing stuff in early to be paid off as the story continues. 

Woo boy, I can just tell this blog’s going to be a lot of me gushing about how good this is.

Part 2

Okay so this episode is really fucking dark??

I mean, I should have known to expect such a thing, but I forgot just how gruesome this got, especially this part.  I mean, people are just dropping like flies right and left in this.  Then again, it begins with Jo trying to blow up UNIT (granted, she is under hypnosis, but STILL) and it… doesn’t really let up from that.

Luckily the Doctor does figure out what’s going on with Jo in time to grab the bomb and toss it into the moat, which is actually ridiculously funny.  I mean, what if a duck or something had been just outside the window?  Hell of a clean-up job that would have been.  What if the bomb had exploded on impact with the glass pane of the window?  Why didn’t he just open the window instead of breaking it?  That cracks me up.  The Doctor’s got no time for your bullshit, window.

I think the plastic inflatable chair at the factory is also pretty funny, when it’s inflating on its own, I mean.  And just the concept of the Master having a blow up plastic chair, that is really amusing to me.  But then he uses the chair for evil and the chair totally smothers that guy and it’s a very scary, very wtf moment.  I like how the Doctor Who tradition of taking mundane, ordinary things and making them terrifying is basically established here with the Autons.  And Holmes takes that plastic concept, and expands on it.  It’s not just shop window dummies anymore, oh no, it’s plastic chairs, and creepy ass troll dolls that can get up and walk around and kill you (which does nothing to help my pediophobia).

And it’s here in this part that the Master’s objective is stated, but not the why.  I mean, he wants to bring about the “destruction of humanity” by letting the Nestenes out and about, but it’s never said why.  Which is fine for now, I suppose.  I mean, we get that he is one evil sonuvabitch, but it’s getting to the point that I just want his justification/reasoning behind it.  But that’s a good thing, I think, giving us just enough to keep us engaged, and keeping enough from us that we want to come back and tune in next week to see what happens.  Just as long as they give us some sort of explanation eventually.

I can’t get over how great Delgado’s Master is in this.  I think it’s been a while since I’ve either a) seen a good Master story, or b) watched some Delgado at work, but man.  This is great.  He’s menacing and all business.  I don’t really know what he’s got up his sleeve, I don’t know what he’s going to do next.  He’s not campy, he’s not the sort of generic moustache-twirling bullshit that Classic Master stories can sometimes devolve into, especially when it came to Ainley’s interpretation.  He plays it straight, he plays it close to the chest, and it’s awesome to watch.  There’s a no-nonsense attitude to him that contrasts with Pertwee’s Doctor in this quite well.  I can’t wait til they square off finally.

And have I mentioned that Delgado is dapper as fuck, because wow he looks great in that suit.

He’s legitimately scary, though, because he doesn’t fool around.  He straight up kills people without a second thought.  He hypnotizes people to forward his own ends, and when that doesn’t work, they die.  That’s… Man.  Robert Holmes knows how to write a villain, let me tell you.

I think what’s most horrifying about the scariest and gruesomest moments in this is you can’t really protect yourself.  I mean, in the case of hypnosis, you can’t really fight against yourself.  Jo has to be knocked out of the way from blowing everyone up; and even then, what if the Doctor hadn’t been there to figure it out in time?  And, in the case of Professor Philips, he tries to resist, but then he just ends up blowing himself up.  Which is…. Yeeeeesh.  They even show some blood, man.  This is some dark Doctor Who.  And in the case of the plastic… how do you protect yourself against a chair or a fucking doll?  It’s over before you even realize what’s going on.

And the Master’s very obviously in control.  He knows the Doctor’s going to be drawn to the circus, so he’s got a trap laid out and ready to go.  He’s got all the cards, and everyone else is flying blind, trying to catch up.  That’s great and makes for excellent stakes.

So now, the Doctor and Jo, who have just been nearly beaten to death by carnies, may I add, are stuck in the back of a rogue police car with Autons at the wheel.  How are they gonna get out of this one?

Part 3

Hahahah. Well that was easy, I guess.  That’s not my favorite resolution to a cliffhanger, but it’s still pretty great.  I mean, anytime Pertwee wants to karate chop things, that’s fine by me. 

I love how tongue and cheek the quarry scene is.  I mean, Doctor Who films in quarries all the time, passing them off as alien worlds or vast deserts or wilderness, or what have you.  I just love the fact that tradition of quarries in the show is brought into this scene.  ‘Oh, the rogue police are driving the Doctor and Jo off somewhere, why not into a quarry?  They’re probably gonna film in one anyway, might as well.’  That’s so funny to me.

The skirmish that happens after the Doctor and Jo make a break for it is awesome, though.  It’s legitimately thrilling, and guns and shooting and ducking, and some poor UNIT chap gets taken out, and it’s nuts.  I love that.  It’s a great utilization of the setting, and action set-pieces are always welcome and exciting.  I like that it’s just a taste, though.  Just enough to whet our appetite again, just a taste of what’s to come.  Glorious.

And I feel like that really helps the episode.  I mean, without it, it’s just a lot of people talking, making guesses, examining clues, trying to figure out what’s going on.  But instead, we open with some exciting action, and then everything after is just a big old sigh of relief that they got out of there okay.  It’s still a bit wheel-spinny, but since all the speculation and investigation got interrupted by a nice set piece, we don’t really mind all that much.  Great stuff, great structure.

I really enjoy how the Doctor is written.  Holmes definitely has a solid grasp on the Doctor as a character, and that really shines here.  I like how smarmy and sassy Pertwee is with the Brigadier, almost like a petulant teenager.  I like that interpretation of him a lot, because, in a lot of ways, he is kind of like a petulant teen.  I mean, when the TARDIS malfunctions and he gets upset and kicks the door, Jo chides him for being childish, and he replies, “What’s wrong with being childish?  I like being childish,” almost arguing for the sake of arguing.  He’s very clearly over being stuck on Earth, he doesn’t really want to have to deal with all of this stuff going on, doesn’t want to have to deal with the military bureaucracy of it all, just wants to get in his TARDIS and leave.  I mean, his actions are continually framed by him toying with the dematerialization circuit; first, trying to repair the one from his own TARDIS, and then stealing the one from the Master’s.  

And he has so many good, funny quips, like “military intelligence is a contradiction in terms” for instance.  He’s clearly fed up and frustrated, but has no choice but to deal with everything that’s going on now that the Master’s here to rile everything up.

I mean, he almost gets his TARDIS to work; he claims he’s  only taking it for a test drive, but what guarantee is there that he’d come back?  That, if he had gotten it working after all, he’d even be able to?  And I don’t think the Doctor is the point in his character development where he would choose to return.  He feels hampered by UNIT, and I feel like he’s still using them as a means to an end, not staying out of affection or camaraderie with the Brigadier, or Jo, or anyone.  That comes later. 

There’s some good payoffs in this episode as well.  Like the creepy troll doll striking again because of the heat of the burner, as well as the telephone.  I mean, that scene with Yates walking in on the telephone repairman is so random, but then you find out it was the Master all along, and then every scene with someone talking on that telephone is really really tense, until the end where the Doctor picks up and starts getting strangled.  There’s just something about it, the anticipation of the inevitable, it’s really utilized well.

The element of surprise part of horror is also used well here, because let me tell you.  I’ve seen this story before, but when the Doctor and the Brigadier are poking around Farell’s office and the Auton pops out of the safe and fires at them, I jumped so much I nearly dropped my computer.  That is some quality right there.

Also Pertwee never fails to deliver perfect cliffhanger face.  Look at that beauty.

Part 4

This part definitely holds up, but it’s also incredibly straight-forward.

I dunno, I find that this happens quite a lot when I review stories lately; I’m really engaged by the first three parts, but for whatever reason, the fourth doesn’t really do it for me.  It’s not that I’m disappointed so much as I feel like I build it up in my head and it fails to live up to that, which is unfortunate.

Especially because this whole story is really strong, scary, and a lot of fun.  But I guess it would make sense that everything just kind of falls into place and continues towards its inevitable conclusion.  And there are a lot of great moments in here, for sure.

I think my favorite part about all of this is the Doctor and the Master finally meeting face to face and having their big ol’ showdown at UNIT.  I love that scene so much.  And it’s so well-done; because everything has kind of been leading to this moment, there’s so much tension and suspense and drama built into the scene already.  So they threaten and bluff and ohhhh god it’s so fantastic.  How long has it even been since they last saw each other?  How long has this really been in the works?  I mean, we get a sense of that scope in the episode, but there’s so much history and so much left unsaid built into this confrontation as well.  It’s just… Oh, it’s perfect.  I can’t get enough of Pertwee and Delgado.  And their chemistry is off the charts, it really is.  They make such fantastic foils for each other, it’s breathtaking.

And then they have no choice but to work together!  The Master says it himself, the Doctor is his intellectual equal.  And even though they never really did explain why the Master was so hell-bent on destroying the Earth (which is a pet-peeve of mine, to be entirely honest), he’s over-looked the fact that the Nestene probably won’t spare him, even though he did assist them in returning to Earth.  Faced with that fact, with his survival in jeopardy, he has no choice but to work with the Doctor to stop the Nestene, the threat he wanted to unleash upon the world in the first place.  I love that begrudging teamwork, it’s a great twist.  And they work so well together; I mean, it’s just a fleeting moment, but goddamn that potential.  No wonder the Doctor is always trying to get him to change his mind and travel the universe with him. 

And I love how Jo just kind of becomes a part of the team over the course of this.  It’s never questioned, and I feel like it’s earned and well-deserved.  She gets kidnapped, she gets hypnotized, she helps rescue the Doctor from carnies, they survive being kidnapped by Autons, she is attacked by the evil plastic flower and has to be rescued by the Doctor, they get kidnapped by the Master and have to rely on each other to get out of there.  She’s inquisitive, genuine, and she’s already beginning to learn.  It’s great.  The nature of their relationship is established, and, though he is at first begrudging, the Doctor does indeed genuinely like Jo.  It’s a great outing all-around.
Of course, the final epic set piece with all the guns blazing and the creepy plastic fucks is fantastic as well, it’s a good conclusion, though I feel it kind of lingers a bit too long afterwards.  I mean, I know we have to address the Master escaping and what happens to Farell and everything, but it seems a bit anti-climactic.  Maybe that’s what colored my perception when I started writing this part, I dunno. 

Also the Master pushes some poor unsuspecting scientist off the radio tower to his death, what the fuck is this story, man.


Final Thoughts?:  I’d go so far as to say that this story is almost too violent?

Like, that aspect genuinely shocked me this time around.  It gets straight-up gruesome.  But I think that kind of drives home the point that the Master means serious business and isn’t some fuck-around sort of ineffectual villain, at least in this.  I mean, he actually does succeed at bringing the Nestene to earth.  The Doctor and UNIT are literally too late to stop him; it is the Master who decides to pull the plug and work with the Doctor to stop them in time, after all.  And then he gets away!  The Doctor only wins by technicality, because the Earth is spared.  That’s astounding.  It’s really sad that the Master gets watered down in subsequent stories, because think about that.  He fucking won and outsmarted the Doctor.  That’s fantastic.

I also just realized the fact that the Master/Nestene relationship is pretty much a classic Holmesian double act.  I mean, you have the Master on Earth, working to bring the shapeless blob that is the Nestene Consciousness back.  True, the Master isn’t really working in league with the Nestene in the strictest sense; he’s still an autonomous (heh) party acting of his own accord. 

But at the same time… That’s really all it is.  Straight up villainous double-act.  Good old Robert Holmes.  And if you take a moment to think about all the Holmesianisms that he displays here, this story really does rank right up with the best of them. 

Next Time!: 7th Doctor! Mel! A motorcycle-riding not-Ace! Colonel Sanders and Walter Mathau from The Odd Couple! 1950s poodle skirt madness! An alien space bus! True, trans-species love? And a creepy ass green baby! Matt is back next week to discuss the madness of "Delta and the Bannermen!" Coming Next Tuesday!

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