Doctor Who – Terror of the Autons Review (or ‘Barry Letts Has a New Toy’)

Sometimes a story surprises me. When I started my run-through there was no way – for example – that I thought I would be so critical of Fury from the Deep, or that I would rate the Underwater Menace so highly. So it’s nice to have my perceptions challenged while watching a show I thought I had completely sussed.

Well this next story – The Terror of the Autons – is another example of that.

Before I get to my review, I’ll expand on what I thought I was going to say about this story going into it…

“This story is nothing more than a hollow vehicle to introduce all the UNIT characters and the Master, complete with bad special effects and a far poorer use of the Autons”

But what do I think now that I’ve watched it with my ‘Reviewers Hat’ on?

Doctor Who – Terror of the Autons Review: What’s This One About

Well it is the one that is a vehicle to introduce the new UNIT characters (Jo Grant and Captain Yates) and The Master, but it’s not hollow.

Random Screen Cap Alert. Oooooh, I say.

The Master arrives on Earth and looks to use the Nestene to help him take over. And while he’s at it, he wants to kill the Doctor too.

Thoughts – How it Looks

First and foremost, the quality of the recording is poor. I couldn’t find my DVD of it (thanks to my brother and his ultra-efficient DVD filing system of ‘Putting Any Disk In Any Box’) so I had to watch AVI file versions through my PC, but what I watched was poor quality. In fact, with it being re-colourised and made at a time when the standard of transmissions probably weren’t the best anyway, this story – along with the Daemons – is probably the worst quality Dr Who story around from a visual standpoint.

I know that that’s not got anything really to do with how good it is as a story, but it could be seen by some as being off-putting. I don’t know if any of you have seen the Cary Grant film Charade? Well I’ve only seen the first 15 minutes of it because the film print on the DVD I watched was so bad that it was simply unwatchable. So to some people in 2012, the quality of Terror of the Autons may be considered a turn-off.

Barry Letts’s New Toy

The other major issue of how this story looks is down to Producer and Director Barry Letts’s new toy – CSO (Colour Seperation Overlay – more commonly known as ‘Green Screen’).

Compare this screencap to the one from the Factory in the Spearhead from Space. The quality is wildly different…unfortunately.

Now, I’m not going to insult your intelligence. You know what ‘Green Screen’ is. These days it’s ‘Blue Screen’, but you get the idea. Well anyway, we can look at a film that primarily uses this sort of technology – The Phantom Menace for example – and see that it has dated considerably. So it’s natural to assume that something made in 1971 when the technology was in its infancy would look even worse.

Well this is where I was first surprised.

Undoubtedly some of it looks bad, and is actually completely unnecessary (Letts decided to use CSO in place of any set he couldn’t be arsed paying for, it would seem, so we have CSO workshops, phone boxes, museums, scenery from a car and most ridiculously of all, a CSO kitchen) and it’s because of that that people generally look at this story as being an abomination when it comes to the use of CSO.


Credit must be given where credit is due. Some of the CSO stuff works brilliantly, and far better than you could possibly expect it to in 1971. The effect of having Goodge being miniaturised and left in a lunchbox is great. More than 10 years later, Dr Who would do the ‘miniaturised’ effect by using Barbie dolls, so that just shows you how ahead of its time this is.

And then there’s the troll doll, which  is an absolute triumph. To get the effect of this 15″ high troll doll moving about, they put an actor in a full size suit and had him wander about

And yet this is a really nice special effect. That doesn’t look like a man in a suit standing in front of a green-screen,

over good looking CSO backgrounds. And it works. These days everything would be done with CGI, but to do what they did back then was pretty awesome.

The Use of the Autons

An area where my perceptions weren’t challenged so much was with the Autons themselves. I don’t think they look anywhere near as good as they did in Spearhead from Space, and I also didn’t like that they spoke. It just didn’t seem right.

Certainly the Autons here are less scary than they were in the earlier story.

To give Letts credit again though, he does manage to overcome some of the issues through his use incidental music, but then that goes back to my long-standing problem with creating ‘scare factor’ by playing short, sharp loud music for effect. The ones in Spearhead from Space didn’t need any of that.

But while it might well fall down there, at least the story explores the use of plastic in general being deadly under Nestene control far better than the other story. Rather than it just

This is slightly more obvious but still pretty damn impressive.

being about Autons we have killer flowers, armchairs, telephone cords and of course the aforementioned Troll doll. It’s Steven Moffat-esque in its thinking.

The New Cast

As I’ve said above, this story launches the new cast. Liz Shaw is gone to be replaced by the far more ‘Doctor-Who-Girl-like’ Jo Grant, The Brigadier now has a regular Captain in Mike Yates and the Doctor has his own Moriarty in the form of the Master.

Katy Manning and Roger Delgado are both very good – Delgado is excellent in fact and is without question one of the very best actors to play a villainous role in the show’s history. He’s just so smooth, and his face is wonderful for the part.

But this is a CSO Kitchen. I mean…FFS.

Unquestionably, he’s the best Master. But then that wouldn’t be too hard considering the second best Master is Derek Jacobi, and he played the part for about 90 seconds. Still…the fact that Delgado is better than Jacobi says it all.

And to give her credit, Manning is probably one of the best companions. People often shower praise on Elisabeth Sladen (Gawd Rest ‘Er Soul) as being the definitive Dr Who Girl, but I actually prefer Manning, who I think works better as both an audience identification figure and as an actress working with Jon Pertwee. Mind you, when you consider the difference in the relationship Pertwee allegedly had with both women in real life, that’s not a surprise. Look it up…

Still, neither companion are a patch on Ian & Barbara.

As for Captain Yates…well it’s not that he’s bad, because he’s not. It’s just that…well…he’s a little bit effete. He doesn’t suit the role. Why they would hire Richard Franklin to play the part of a man who was supposed to be a romantic male lead opposed to Manning is a little bit confusing. But hey-ho…

The Ending

The only issue in terms of storyline I have with Terror of the Autons is most of what goes on in the final episode. Up to this point things have been cooking along nicely, but events seem to skip a few pages and all of a sudden the entire plan to take over the world (assuming that’s what it was) rests within a bus parked in a quarry.

There appears to be some level of tension about whether or not Farrell wants to abandon the Master because he seems to have gone AWOL, and then there’s the famously bad conclusion to the whole thing.

All it takes for the Master to abandon the Nestene is for the Doctor to say ‘They probably won’t distinguish between you and the rest of the humans’. Talk about a cop-out.

Random Observations

  • Jon Pertwee is excellent in this story as the Doctor. The whole notion that he goes to Gentlemen’s Clubs (no, not in that sense) and mixes with the upper echelons of society is fantastic. And really, it’s only the Third Doctor who could pull that off.
  • In terms of the guest cast, one actor I thought was terrific was Stephen Jack as Farrell Senior. As regular readers of my blog will know, I like when actors do the little things right. Jack’s acting while confronting the Master and nearly being hypnotised couldn’t be better.
  • From a storyline point of view though, the Master seems to lose his cool very quickly when he realises Farrell Senior can’t be hypnotised.
  • I don’t really understand how the plastic daffodils work. Well…I do, they work by spraying quick set plastic over the victim’s mouth and suffocating them, but what I didn’t understand was how that plastic was dissolved. It seems to dissolve when it comes into contact with carbon dioxide. But wouldn’t that mean if the person who is being suffocated simply tries to exhale then it’ll dissolve? Or am I being obtuse?
  • You have to wonder what The Master wants his relationship with the Doctor to be. On the one hand, it seems as though he is simply playing a metaphorical game of chess with him and is doing what he’s doing to get the Doctor’s attention, and yet on the other hand, had the Time Lord not warned the Doctor about the bomb, it would have been game over immediately.
  • And the Doctor says he’s quite looking forward to crossing swords with the Master in the future, which is actually quite mean of him considering Round One of their feud has seen numerous innocent fatalities.
  • I never really understood – from a storyline point of view – why the Master bothered to capture that other scientist, since nothing really came of it until it was time for him to be killed off.
  • Also, it’s good to see that Roy Stewart was still making a living playing against pre-1980s British Stereotypes of Strong Black Men,
  • One area where this story excels is the cliffhangers. All of them are good, which is in direct contract to most of the ones seen in Series Seven. Episode Two especially is a good one from a shock point of view, although if we assume

    Holy Shit! Holy Shit! Holy Shit!

    the masks of the Autons are meant to be a little bit more realistic than the make-up department have managed to convey, how did the Doctor come to the conclusion that the Policeman was an Auton, and had it not been, would he not have seemed a bit foolish trying to peel the guy’s face off?

  • From later on in that sequence, there is one of my favourite stunt-man falls of all time. When the Auton gets hit by a car and falls down the cliff it looks absolutely brilliant. For years I thought it was a dummy, but apparently it was a stuntman. Man….that must have hurt. And the best thing about it is the way the Auton seamlessly gets back up again. Terrific stuff.
  • Finally, one thing that always gets criticism is the scene with Harry Tawb and the Killer Chair. People point to him pulling the chair down over his own face, but I don’t think it’s that bad. If you excuse that little bit it’s a very nicely done effect.

Doctor Who – Terror of the Autons Review: Final Thoughts

Terror of the Autons might well be a vehicle to introduce the new regular characters, but it also works well in its own right.

Episode Four is a disappointment, some aspects of the CSO are poor and the Autons aren’t are scary as they were in Spearhead from Space.

But on the other hand, the writers do a far better job of exploring the concept of plastic as a deadly weapon, the new characters are introduced very well and some of the CSO works tremendously. The story is well acted by everyone concerned and it’s one that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend, though I would make allowances for the poor picture quality.


5 Responses to Doctor Who – Terror of the Autons Review (or ‘Barry Letts Has a New Toy’)

  1. spdk1 says:

    I still need to see this one, man I’m worried about that CSO over-use! It reminds me of when stereo was first introduced, bands would do all sorts of crazy stuff like flip-flopping the sound from one side to another and basically abused it – this seems about on par. good review!

  2. […] From Space Doctor Who And The Silurians The Ambassadors Of Death Inferno Terror Of The Autons The Mind Of Evil The Claws Of Axos Colony In Space The Daemons Day Of The Daleks The Curse Of […]

  3. Bill says:

    As regards Richard Franklin, I think he actually was in the military as an officer before becoming an actor. Admittedly, I came by this info on the DVD commentaries so I’m unsure if they’re entirely true, however I do know Franklin is one of the few actors in the series to hold his gun properly (with the finger on the trigger guard instead of the trigger). I doubt he saw any fighting but he had been an officer for a few years at least.

    As for this serial… I felt really bad for Rex. He lives in the shadow of his domineering father who despite being retired still has a tight grip on the company and is constantly looking over his son’s shoulder in the form of Rex’s hand-me-down employees who examine every decision Rex makes through the filter of their experience with Daddy, and tattle on him when he colors outside the lines (so to speak). No wonder Rex was a neurotic wreck.

    And then he dies. What a sad and tragic end for such a pitiable character. I also dislike how his death is basically treated like no big deal at all beyond “Oh no it isn’t really the Master.”

    Granted I’m sure many viewers have different opinions about Rex. And about his dad. Still, I just saw a controlling parent who disliked retirement and so couldn’t just let his son run the company by himself, and a son who was just sick of having his every decision constantly questioned and second-guessed by his employees. Whether Rex was wrong and his father and employees were right is beside the point.

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