November 21, 2012

Who50: "Terror of the Autons"

The Master (Roger Delgado), in Terror of the Autons
Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #50: "Terror of the Autons", a four-part 1971 serial written by Robert Holmes and directed by Barry Letts.

Every hero needs a good villain. It was a core requirement of 20th century pulp fiction. Flash Gordon fought Ming the Merciless, Batman fought the Joker and Luke Skywalker fought Darth Vader. For the first four years Doctor Who coasted along using the Daleks, but after their climactic appearance in Season 4's "The Evil of the Daleks" they hadn't been seen. Successive production teams tried replacing them with the Cybermen, but that didn't seem to suffice. To be honest, the Daleks didn't seem to suffice. They were an army, full of faceless minions with no individual personality. They weren't able to look the Doctor in the eye and taunt. They couldn't gloat. The Doctor didn't need more monsters. He needed a villain. He needed a nemesis.

"Terror of the Autons" was the first serial of Doctor Who's 8th season. It was notable for quite a few reasons, including the debuts of popular companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and UNIT's Captain Yates (Richard Franklin) and the return of the faceless Autons. What it is really famous for, however, is introducing the Master.

The Master (Roger Delgado) was another rogue Time Lord, like the Doctor: only while the Doctor travelled the universe fighting evil and righting wrongs, the Master travelled the universe being evil and creating the wrongs in the first place. Or so we were told. In practice, the Master spent a large amount of his time on Earth, ostensibly trying to take over the world but for all intents and purposes just hanging around to give Jon Pertwee's Doctor the absolute shits.
There's a sense of playfulness about Delgado's Master. When the character was reinvented for 1976's "The Deadly Assassin", it was as a macabre, obsessive walking corpse. Later performances by Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts and John Simm pushed the character further and further into manic depictions of comic book insanity. Delgado's original interpretation stands heads and shoulders above his successors. He's got a marvellously dry sense of humour, and genuinely seems more interested in fighting the Doctor than actually taking over the planet. The Doctor in turn, for all his protestations about the Master's evil, seems secretly pleased to be fighting him back. It's like two hyper-intelligent centuries-old time travellers are having a constant schoolyard name-calling contest.

The Master makes Jon Pertwee's era of Doctor Who fun. Season 7 had been a relatively humourless affair, with a serious scientist for a sidekick and lengthy seven-episode dramas. The Master injects a bit of pulp into the mix. He gives Pertwee someone to bounce up against. He improves every serial he's in. I'm not the biggest fan of the Pertwee era, but my goodness if Roger Delgado isn't the best and most entertaining villain that Doctor Who ever had.

Of course there's more to recommend in these four episodes than just the Master. The Autons are back, and are a lot creepier than they were in their first adventure ("Spearhead from Space"). These episodes are a cavalcade of horrors designed to terrify any impressionable child: dolls that will kill you, chairs that will swallow you whole, telephone cords that will strangle you, plastic daffodils that will suffocate you and - most notoriously of all - policemen you're unable to trust. This serial was criticised in Britain's Parliament. Forget about claiming this was edgy for kids television in the 1970s - this stuff is pretty edgy for kids television now.

Have you seen "Terror of the Autons"? Leave your opinions and memories of the serial in the comments below.


  1. Delgado was an absolute joy. Simm was so stunningly awful, and the way the Master was portrayed by the new series so utterly lacking in any feel or *grace* for the character's past, that I genuinely want him to just stay dead.

    Which is a pity, because at his best, the Master is a wonderful character, a dark anti-matter Doctor who is cunning where the Doctor is not, charming where he is not, careless where he is not, and spiteful where he is not. He's everything the Doctor wants to be and wants never to be, *simultaneously*. It's just a pity so few writers got it.

    1. I still quite like Simm's Master, but the problem is that he's well written for the last three minutes of "Utopia" and one or two conversations in "The Sound of Drums". The stuff they did with him in that awful final two-parter was terrible.


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