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8x01. Terror of the Autons
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Barry Letts
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: The Master, another renegade Time Lord, arrives on Earth and steals the Nestene intelligence, which he uses to relaunch the failed Nestene invasion, with the help of the Autons and new lethal plastic products from a factory over which he has assumed control. The Doctor, who has been alerted to the Master's presence by the Time Lords, soon finds himself in a game of cat-and-mouse with his elusive adversary.

Review: The prevailing opinion among some Doctor Who fans seems to be that, after the edgy and often dark seventh season, a decision was made to shift the series to a less ambiguous and more "cozy" style of storytelling, with a companion less matched to the Doctor in intellect and further additions to the recurring UNIT cast. As someone who greatly enjoyed the seventh season, I'm hoping that this will prove not to be the case as I continue with the Pertwee era, but I'm sorry to say that "Terror of the Autons" does seem like a step in that direction.

In "Spearhead from Space," Robert Holmes used the relatively sparse plot of the Nestene/Auton invasion as a vehicle to establish Pertwee's Doctor and the UNIT-centered, Earth-bound formula that was to be the series' new template. In a sense, he's doing the same thing again here, in that the real purpose of "Terror of the Autons" is to introduce an arch-nemesis, the Master, who serves as a personal rival to the Doctor in a way that other villains haven't, as well as other new characters such as Captain Mike Yates and Jo Grant. The Master is a rather peculiar character: as a friend of mine once remarked, he seems to have simply woken up one day and decided to be intensely and unambiguously evil. He and the Doctor apparently know each other already, which is apparently his reason for coming to Earth, but that doesn't really explain why he's such a snake in the first place. Indeed, he seems to thrive on his own nastiness: the doll he uses to kill the senior Farrel, for example, is a horrific-looking little piece of work that could have easily attracted suspicion, and he has a classic Bond-villain moment when he confronts the Doctor in Episode 4 and pauses to explain his entire scheme when he could easily just kill him. This is the sort of thing that can often make a villain seem ridiculous, but Roger Delgado effectively portrays the Master with a unique mix of malice, intelligence, and ego, and we can easily believe that he cares more about humiliating his enemies than he does about the actual success of the invasion.

The Master has enough of a personality to be successful as a villain, even if his motivation is a bit thin. Unfortunately, the Nestenes and the Autons are still fairly dull. Holmes does at least manage to make them slightly more menacing than last time. The Master uses them to create a whole line of deadly plastic products, and he effectively disguises Autons as actual human beings, the result being that there's at least a little more variety to the threat than just a bunch of mannequins with guns inside their hands. At the end of the day, however, they're still the same flat concept that they were in "Spearhead": a collective alien intelligence which seems to have no underlying purpose for its ongoing colonization project and which, by definition, lacks any real character. The ending also does not serve the Nestenes or the Master very well. Faced with an impending attack, the Doctor convinces the Master that the Nestenes will undoubtedy kill him too, and so he helps short-circuit the invasion. It's interesting to see the Doctor and the Master work together momentarily, and while I have no idea what the technobabble was that they were spouting, Pertwee and Delgado deliver it convincingly enough that we believe we're watching two men of considerable intelligence. But it just feels too easy, and I couldn't help but be left with the sense of, "Eighty-five minutes of build-up for *that*?"

As for the other new characters, Mike Yates is a sufficiently likeable and competent military officer, though we haven't really gotten to know much about him yet. Jo Grant, however, is something of a disappointment after a season with the highly intelligent and capable Liz Shaw. She's helpful on a couple of occasions, but she also drops the ball quite a bit and she is clearly in over her head (the Brigadier even says that her family pulled strings to get her into UNIT). I'm also not too thrilled about where the Doctor/Brigadier relationship seems to be going. After a season that portrayed them as two smart, strong-willed individuals who both have good intentions but don't always see eye-to-eye, they behave more like bickering siblings in "Terror of the Autons," with the Doctor constantly complaining and insulting the Brigadier. They have the obligatory argument over whether or not to bomb the Autons' circus trailer, but in general they seem to be simply getting on each others' nerves rather than having substantive disagreements. I guess the writers are going for the "loveable eccentric surrounded by well-meaning bumblers" formula here, but the Doctor borders on just being an overbearing jerk at times, especially since most of the UNIT staff are, for the most part, doing a fairly reasonable job in handling the situation. Similarly, the Doctor's parting comment that he's looking forward to another confrontation with the Master comes off as another inappropriate attempt to lighten the atmosphere. I can understand that he relishes the intellectual rivalry at some level, but this is an extremely callous way to express it when you consider that (a) the Master did kill an awful lot of people, and (b) the Doctor doesn't seem to have a plan to pursue him more actively.

There are some decent bits of characterization to be found in "Terror of the Autons." The relationship between Rex Farrel and his father carries some interest: Rex is clearly resentful of having to walk in his father's footsteps as head of the company, and when his father tries to engineer the Master's removal, he sees it as a challenge to his competence and resists. There's also some subtle commentary in the notion that the Master's hypnosis eventually wears off, at which point the victim's reaction depends on his or her moral character. Jo is in a state of shock after having tried to set off a bomb at UNIT headquarters; Farrel, perhaps accustomed to being ordered around, has a less extreme reaction but does seem to snap out of it and resist the Autons at the end; Rossini, the circus master, seems to go along with the Master willingly even after the hypnosis presumably would have lost its effect, unless we're to assume that he's re-hypnotized off-screen. The Brigadier doesn't get much development in this serial, as he's mostly limited to arguing with the Doctor, but we do see that he's willing to face danger himself rather than order a subordinate to do it when he curtly observes that he's not entirely "desk-bound" yet and heads out into the field.

In another context, "Terror of the Autons" would not be so disappointing: as an hour and a half of breezy sci-fi entertainment, it gets the job done. But the new characters are not up to the standard set by season seven, the Doctor/Brigadier dynamic has changed in what seems to be a self-conscious decision to alter the style rather than a natural development of the characters, and even the Master is more a success of acting than one of writing.

Rating: ** (out of four)

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