It’s odd to see how much both Auton stories have dated in the past few years. Not since they were first screened, but in the last six years, since the return of the series. The reason for this is that both stories try terribly hard to be ultra-modern.
1971’s ‘Terror Of The Autons’, oddly enough, dates more obviously than ‘Spearhead From Space’ in this regard, but they both have the same challenge: since both stories are making the most of the era’s Doctor-in-exile storyline, every effort is made to make the stories as contemporary and up to the moment as possible. Somewhat unfortunately, it works: both stories are very much of the seventies. While this is much more apparent and garish in ‘Terror…’, it absolutely succeeds as a vicious satire of all that was troublesome about consumerism in the seventies.
The Autons are back – there’s no longer any of the blank faces of the original tale, but the boldly painted faces from a circus fairground are equally terrifying. And it seems that every effort is taken to scare the kids right behind the sofa – plastic flowers, children’s dolls, armchairs and even policemen are all villains.
But of course it’s not about the Autons. It’s not even about The Doctor. Hell, it’s not even about Jo Grant, who makes her first appearance here. ‘Terror Of The Autons’ belongs to Roger Delgado. It’s easy to underestimate what a – forgive us – masterful performance this is, managing to channel pantomime villain while being absolutely straight faced and sincere. Delgado’s presence makes everyone – cast and crew – raise their game. By now, The Doctor is very much resigned to his enforced exile on Earth, although nobody really bothers to explain why an entirely free Master decides to spend much of the following season annoying everyone on Earth (presumably we can now blame it on ‘the sound of drums’).
Meanwhile, Jo Grant is always remembered as the archetypal ‘screamer’ – but, while there’s a bit of that going on, Katy Manning is effortlessly cute and engaging, and it’s clear that there’s an instant rapport between companion and title character that, in real terms, hadn’t appeared with such chemistry since Patrick Troughton and Deborah Watling.
Whereas ‘Spearhead From Space’ is creepy and scary, ‘Terror…’ goes all out to live up to it’s title and has great fun with it. It’s almost gleefully sadistic in its humour (which makes some sense of the Doctor’s final line about looking forward to his next meeting with a psychopathic serial killer) and marks a significant step away from the previous season’s mission statement of being all grown up and Quatermass, providing an excellent production-line template for pretty much the next forty years of Doctor Who.
Like the re-release of ‘Spearhead…’, the picture quality here is clearer and sharper than ever. However, that’s not always a good thing, as ‘Terror…’ is of course the story that embraces CSO like an exciting new fetish. Arguably, though, when matched with the odd, warping soundtrack, this gives a feel of something that should look right, but is imperceptibly wrong. Which is about as much as you can ask for in a story featuring murderous plastic.
Extras: ‘Plastic Fantastic’ is a well-made, fun little documentary examining the effects and legacy of the ‘real world’ invading Doctor Who (as opposed to the other way round) a la Doomwatch. Katy Manning is always good value, bubbly as ever on the commentary along with Nicholas Courtney and the legendary Barry Letts. ‘Life On Earth’ is an instructive comparison between the UNIT era and the series now, both of which are perceived to have a greater weight of Earth bound stories, while ‘The Doctor’s Moriarty’ details the introduction of the series’ main humanoid villain.
Released on DVD on Monday 9th May 2011 by 2entertain.
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