Saturday, June 5, 2010

Terror of the Autons

24/5/10 “Terror of the Autons
“I like being childish.” --The Doctor

Robert Holmes was certainly a genius in many respects, and one of those was in creating fear from everyday objects and really going in for the kill, much like the Vast Toffee does today (and perhaps even surpassing him). This is a fairly well-crafted story, quite disturbing in many aspects, and while the Master’s menace is conveyed by Roger Delgado’s performance, the Master himself seems a bit . . . declawed. From the beginning, it seems like he’s more interested in playing games with the Doctor than doing anything meglomaniacal or psychopathic. It isn’t as good as “Spearhead from Space,” but as sequels go, it gives the Autons a continued ability to intimidate.

Although the story tries to take advantage of its setting at the circus (we get to see some elephants and lions, for example), it falls into stereotype and could have been both creepier and more atmospheric if it had used the setting a bit more creatively. (That said, it didn’t need to ramp up the creepy factor like “From Out of the Rain” did.) It’s very interesting that the Master makes his first appearance in the circus, however, as it was either Russell T Davies or Murray Gold who remarked in the notes to the soundtrack for series 3 that the Master always had a sideshow side to his character, hence why “The Master Vainglorious” sounds rather circus-like. The first thing we know of him is that he has a horsebox that sounds like the TARDIS. He introduces himself to Rossini, the showman, as “I’m usually referred to as the Master.” “Oh yes?” “Quite universally.” We don’t find out until a bit later—and through a rather clumsy method of exposition—that he’s a Time Lord, though I suppose people must have suspected. I wonder what people DID think in 1971? You realize right away that, whoever the Master is, he’s not nice.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is tinkering away. This story also introduces Jo Grant, Dr. Liz Shaw’s successor. Jo Grant is very much based on Katy Manning’s natural character, methinks, and no one makes any effort to disguise her. The Doctor mistakes her for the tea lady and goes into a tizzy even though she’s “a fully qualified [UNIT] agent” (um, how?). When his experiment catches on fire, Jo does the sensible thing and extinguishes it, for which she gets the infamous epithet, “Look what you’ve done, you ham-fisted bun vendor!” “I’m your new assistant!” she announces, forever changing the name from “companion” to “assistant” (for better or worse). Jo is, in this scene, wearing one of her more sensible outfits, and I actually like the choker.

“I want someone with the same qualifications [as Liz Shaw],” the Doctor rants at the Brigadier. “UNIT’s not the place for trainees,” says the Doctor, and though the Brigadier agrees, he admits that Jo has relatives in high places. This says a lot about UNIT, Jo, and the Doctor—he feels they’re foisting off the noob on him, the Brigadier feels he has to grease the oils of the system by returning favors, and Jo probably has a complex that she’s not good enough because she’s been riding on the coattails of others’ success. She certainly doesn’t improve her ditzy image later on in the story—it’s the introduction of Mike Yates, too, and while the two flirt a bit, he mostly gently takes the mick out of her.

Meanwhile, Autons are being produced in a plastics factory (again), this time under the auspice of the Master, and one of the Time Lords comes floating through the air (is he in a TARDIS or isn’t he?) to annoy the Doctor. “You look quite ridiculous in those clothes,” the Doctor justly says. “If you’ve come here to be rude . . .” The Time Lord has come to gloat a bit but also to warn the Doctor that the Master has landed on the planet and is going to make trouble for him. The Time Lord thinks the Doctor is meddlesome but nothing compared to the Master: “your hearts are in the right places.” “He’s an unimaginative plodder!” snaps the Doctor. When the Time Lord points out that the Master did better than the Doctor in school, the Doctor says, “I was a late developer.” This conversation has done more to humanize the Doctor’s mysterious background than the previous eight years of the show put together! I’m not sure that I like it, to be honest, but it’s all in the spirit of that era of Doctor Who, like it or lump it. I’m just disappointed that the Doctor couldn’t have conveyed to us the information about the Master via some other means—they even talk on the phone to each other later (albeit briefly).

Speaking of the Master, he uses the tissue decompressor for the first time in this story, too. He’s recruited a human stooge, Rex Farrell (who I’m reliably informed later plays Davros) who he’s used the power of his hypnotism to full effect on. There’s minor conflict in the shape of Rex’s dad who used to run the factory; he’s the sort of man who wouldn’t be taken in by psychic paper. Unfortunately, another of Farrell’s colleagues is sucked into a plastic sofa that “looks like a black pudding.” As Jamie quite rightly said, it’s pretty disturbing (much more so than Mickey being eaten by the wheelie bin!). There’s a brief moment of danger when Jo is hypnotized by the Master into carrying a bomb back into UNIT (where does she put all those keys?).

Jo is totally made a victim by the Master’s hypnotism, although we have realized it could happen to anybody. “Schizoid association,” the Doctor tells the UNIT staff as Jo appears to fall into a traumatic trance. “The Master can completely control the human mind.” Notice that he said “human”—that seems an odd place to specify. As Jo recovers and the Doctor tries to direct plodding UNIT into finding the Master, Farrell Snr. is forced by the Master to take home a troll doll—“disgusting object” he quite correctly calls it. I dislike the troll as much as Mrs. Farrell does, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. I expected the doll’s strangling of Farrell Snr. to be an episode cliffhanger (though it was poorly staged it was still quite effective) but I guess his death is a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately Mrs Farrell’s acting as she later tells the Doctor and Jo what happened leaves something to be desired! As the Doctor and the boys go out to play at the circus, Jo is annoyed at being left behind. “You all just tell me to keep out of the way.”

At the circus, the Doctor meets Rossini. He wants to know how much the Master has bribed him. “Gentlemen don’t discuss money.” “Gentlemen don’t discuss anything else.” Rossini uses his “Strong Man” to keep the Doctor prisoner. At first I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised as the Doctor started to engage the Strong Man (played by the same actor who played Toberman) in conversation, but that quickly went nowhere. The Doctor and Jo ended the episode “almost being lynched” by those nasty circus people!

The rest of episode 3 is really quite superb with a full-fledged Auton shoot out. The Doctor tells the bewildered UNIT soldiers that Autons can’t be killed by bullets, so they make a hasty getaway. Jo takes the Doctor to task for being ungrateful to the Brigadier for saving his life. “You’re quite right, Jo. I’ll apologize later if I have the time.” The Doctor has taken advantage of being inside the horsebox/TARDIS to remove some components and gets upset when they won’t make his TARDIS fly. Although Jo accuses him of being childish, you have to admire his tenacity—I identify with this stubborn streak of the Doctor’s.

The Master, the Autons, and Robert Holmes bring in the creepy by engineering a plot for thousands of Britons to die as plastic daffodils will smother them. Mike Yates is about to make Jo cocoa with the Doctor’s Bunsen burner but is caught in the act (!). “You might have been right, Doctor,” says the grudging Brigadier, who wanted to try to blow things up. “I usually am.” The Doctor outwits the Master, of course, and no one gets smothered by daffodils; the Master escapes, however, leaving Rex as his very literal fall guy. The Doctor feels certain the Master will return because he’s trapped him on Earth with a stolen component from his TARDIS. Too much of a good thing . . .!

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