Geekbat Tunes

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons

Serial Title: Terror of the Autons
Series: 8
Episodes: 4
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)

We open to a circus, and a familiar groaning and wheezing sound, as something fades into view. Could it be…?! But no, the sound is slightly different… and this is no policebox, but a horse-trailer. And the man who emerges is definitely not the Doctor. A dark-clothed, goateed, sinister-looking man immediately compels the circus owner to do his bidding- stealing the remaining Nestene meteorite (from Spearhead from Space) from display at a local museum. This is the Master, a rogue Time Lord who is perhaps even more brilliant than the Doctor, a thorn in his side, and a familiar foe. After commandeering a radio telescope, he connects the meteorite to it and transmits a signal…

Back at UNIT HQ, bad news reaches the Doctor in spades- the theft of the meteorite, the ruination of his newly-constructed dematerialization circuit, and most of all, the woman responsible for it- Jo Grant, an intended replacement for the recently-departed Liz, a nepotism-hired ditz who ruins the delicate microcircutry with a fire extinguisher (Doctor Who is doing its part to raise public awareness of all of the dangerous applications of fire extinguishers lately…) due to assuming that the smoke from the Doctor’s micro-welding was in fact a fire of some sort. And later that day, the news just gets worse, as a Time Lord from Gallifrey appears (incognito) to warn the Doctor about the Master’s arrival, and about a bomb planted within the radio telescope center that he’s investigating. (Awwwww, they really DO care…) Disarming the bomb with some heroic acrobatics (don’t ask), the Doctor ponders the arrival of his old nemesis… and finds his calling card, the shrunken corpse of one of the telescope technicians.

At a local plastics factory, owner Rex Farrel has fallen under the sway of “Colonel Masters,” fully hypnotized into doing his bidding. His production manager, James McDermott, confronts him about his erratic behavior, and is soon killed by an invention of the Master’s, a lethal self-expanding plastic couch. (Don’t ask). When Rex’s father, summoned by McDermott before his death, comes to investigate (and proves mind-control resistant due to his strong will), the Master plants a hideous troll-like doll, about two feet tall, (no rhyme intended) in his backseat as a ‘new product sample’ and turns up the heat… the doll starts to animate with murderous intent, but Farrel, Sr. turns down the heat, and the doll becomes inert.

Meanwhile, as the Doctor surmises the connection between the Master and the Nestenes, Jo goes off to investigate and prove her worth to the Doctor- and is captured and hypnotized to take the crate that used to contain the meteorite back to UNIT HQ… with a bomb inside! The Doctor recognizes her hypnotized condition and the potential trap, and throws the bomb out the window just in time; fortunately the window overlooks a small cliff over the sea. But the Master still gains a victory, as the heat is high enough in Farrel, Sr.’s house that the doll animates again, and completes its murderous mission.

Investigating the sighting of the other radio telescope technician (who is missing) at a local circus, the Doctor is captured and threatened by the strong man, but escapes with the help of Jo. He slips inside the Master’s TARDIS (which he’s identified on the circus grounds), but emerges to find a group of angry, hypnotized circus performers on the attack. The mob surrounds him and begins to mercilessly beat him, but the Doctor and Jo are rescued by the timely arrival of the police’s protective custody, with the Brigadier and Captain Yates (a new young officer who has an eye for Jo) moments behind, following in another car.

However, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the policemen are disguised Autons! As the Doctor reveals their true appearance, they enter a quarry (for once a quarry on Doctor Who actually represents a quarry!), and crash during a struggle for control of the car. The Brigadier and Yates arrive to engage the Autons, who are trying to kill the Doctor- but while small-arms fire fails, Yates takes the initiative and rams the Autons with his car, sending them tumbling (in a truly impressive display) down a steep bluff. By the time they climb back up, the group has escaped.

The Doctor takes the dematerialization circuit that he’s absconded with from the Master’s TARDIS and tries to repair his own, but the unit is still incompatible (keeping up the theme, as with the Monk’s TARDIS, that the Doctor’s is an older, out-of-date model)- still, as long as he has it, the Master is as stuck on this planet as he is. Meanwhile, the Master has fashioned a plastic daffodil replica that Farrel and a number of carnival-masked Autons begin to hand out on the streets, working from a large bus base-of-operations.

Investigating the death of Farrel, Sr. (whose name triggered something in Jo’s hypnosis-repressed memory), the Doctor discovers the doll and takes it for study due to its plastic nature. They also discover a leftover daffodil at the now-abandoned plastics factory. While trying to decipher the meaning of the gadgets, the Doctor receives a phone call from the Master- who uses Auton technology over the line to get the plastic phone cord to strangle the Doctor. The Brigadier cuts the phone line, disabling the signal, and saving the Doctor- while the Doctor’s Bunsen burner, used by Yates to make him and Jo some hot cocoa (that always seems to lead towards engagements in Doctor Who… could we be looking at a future couple? A book I recently read noted that Doctor Who was relatively absent of married couples, having none between Celestial Toymaker (Hartnell, Steven, and Dodo) and Fury from the Deep (Troughton, Jamie, and Victoria’s last serial together). While the New Series is finally premiering a married couple aboard the TARDIS (Note From Future Andrew: Yes, that was referring to Amy and Rory at the start of Series 6... I write these just a little while before I post them...) and Ian and Barbara were certainly implied, could we be looking at the first companions (sorta- the term is a little looser here in the non-TARDIS years) to actually get married in-series? That may be a lot to read into a cup of cocoa, but we shall see…), re-activates the murderous doll, which Yates is forced to shoot to pieces. Since good things and plastic trying to kill you always come in threes, a radio signal over the walkie-talkie activates the daffodil, which sprays a deadly shield of plastic over Jo’s mouth and nose, suffocating her- and accounting for a recent rash of suffocation deaths in the area. Fortunately, the Doctor manages to pry it off in time to save her life, and the two are able to intuit that the radio telescope will be used to activate them en masse… the deaths in the area were premature triggers from portable radio sources like theirs.

The Brigadier plans an aerial strike on the located Auton bus, but before this can be carried out, the Master breaks into the Doctor’s lab, demanding the dematerialization circuit- and when Jo blurts out the plan, takes the Doctor and Jo as hostages to his bus, in order to force the Brig to call off the air strike- which he does. The bound and captive Doctor uses his feet to manipulate the brake pedal, spelling out a Morse Code message to UNIT with the brake lights. Jo manages to escape her bonds and free the Doctor after the Master has left.

UNIT engages the Autons (led by Benton and Yates- they’re straddling the line between ‘Companion’ and ‘Jackie Tyler/Wilfred Mott/Mickey-the-Idiot’), while the Brig, Jo, and the Doctor ascend the radio tower. Once there, the Doctor convinces the Master that the Nestenes will turn on him and kill him, too, once they invade- and with his TARDIS in need of repair before it can leave, he can’t afford to be stuck on Earth during their invasion. The Master agrees, and he and the Doctor work together to reverse the signal, expelling the Nestenes into deep space, Moonbase-style.

The Master flees to the bus, but is cornered there by UNIT. He emerges, hands-up, but quickly draws a gun, and is shot down by UNIT. (I seem to be having to describe a lot of people getting shot dead in the last few serials- if this persists, I’ll have to come up with a few more colorful ways of saying it, lest it get repetitive!) However, as the Doctor fears, this was not the Master, but a mind-controlled Farrel in a plastic mask- an innocent pawn slain in the Master’s cruel game as he escapes in the bus. However, the Doctor has the last laugh- the dematerialization circuit he gave the Master at gunpoint was his own unit- the one Joe ruined with a fire-extinguisher. The Doctor still has the real circuit, and the Master is stranded on Earth- he can hide out with his working chameleon circuit, but he can’t leave. The Doctor is sure that they will match wits again, and he looks forward to the contest…

Terror of the Autons starts off Series 8 by throwing a series of milestones at us: a new companion, a new recurring villain, a new supporting character (Yates), a recurring supporting character (Benton) becoming an actual contracted-regular instead of an occasional guest, the first appearance of the Time Lords and a functioning TARDIS in color, and the last appearance of the Autons in the classic series. In fact, this serial is regarded as what's called a "gentle reboot." Not an out-and-out restart of the Pertwee era that says everything proceeding it didn't happen, but a restarting of nearly all elements to bring things to a new paradigm, a resetting of all elements to zero and a starting over, without denying the past that preceeded it. Just as Star Trek II doesn't deny the existence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but still resets Kirk to a desk job, the Enterprise to someone else's hands, etc. and starts over as if from the beginning, so the new paradigm of the Doctor and Jo vs. the Master resets the Doctor, working for UNIT (and introducing new uniforms for them, the design that eventually became their classic look), to what could easily be the start, and then sets him off in this new direction.

Jo Grant has possibly the worst introduction a companion could ever ask for unless their name is Dodo. Her fire-extinguisher mistake is perhaps understandable, but having her ruin the Doctor's work through incompetence does not endear her to the audience, her absolute stupidity does nothing to further it, and the fact that she is outright declared to be here solely as the result of nepotism doesn't help, either. And then, she decends into the greatest stupidity on record for any companion ever by pointlessly blurting out to the Master about the airstrike... as some sort of tactical advantage...? Not sure at all why she did that, but it was utterly idiotic and very annoying. So, all-in-all, airhead Jo may be a good character- her heart seems to be in the right place- but her introductory serial seems to be doing everything it possibly can to bias the audience against her from the start; an odd creative choice. She can certainly fill the 'be dumb and require exposition/need rescuing' role that Liz failed in quite well. The one ray of light for her character comes in a later scene in which she is very upset, whining and carrying on- and someone tells her that she's acting like a child. She responds with incredible maturity- stopping short, considering, agreeing, and apologizing; a far better reaction than I would have were I upset and someone told me the same thing! This gave me hope for the future of her character beyond this rocky start.

Meanwhile, the Doctor sulks and defends being childish- but then, he has lots of great quotes in this serial. He’s also a clever investigator and a bit of an action hero with the bomb defusal. The brake light Morse Code was a thing of beauty, a very creatively written and extremely clever ploy- my compliments to the writers. Most significantly, he first suggests “Reversing the polarity” here, the other half of his famous catchphrase- but this time without the “Neutron flow” bit pioneered in the Silurian serial. Hopefully, soon, we shall hear the entire piece joined together…

Otherwise, the Doctor does rather annoy me a bit in his continued opposition of the millitary simply in order to oppose the military. His objections to the airstrike are completely unfounded- the plastic-animate Autons have distributed hundreds of deadly weapons and are capable of triggering them at any minute- there is no reason whatsoever that their destruction before they can act would be a bad thing; in fact, the only thing that makes the strike a bad plan at the last minute is the Doctor and Jo getting captured and placed into harm's way. The Doctor's earlier objections have no grounding and no merrit, and are thrown in just so that the Doctor can disparige violence once again. Like simillar counterpart in the New Series (David Tennant's insulting, shortsighted, and hypocrticial "You carry a gun- that makes you a bad guy in my book" to another UNIT soldier, for instance (funny how he never complains thus when visiting WWI, WWII, or being the coolest Doctors- Hartnell weilded a gun (while showing distaste for it), Matt Smith has used one, and Troughton was practically Rambo in Seeds of Death!)), this really irritates me, especially when done in such a clumsy, propaganda-style manner for no good reason other than to spread a self-important message. When it's organic to the story (say... *SHUDDER* Doctor Who and the Sillurians), fine. But when it's shoehorned into a story even when the military thing is also the logical and propper thing to do in order to save lives, then it just looks foolish and ticks me off. The knee-jerk response to the military actually being PRUDENT is getting annoying. Likewise, I can’t decide if the Doctor boiling away the contents of the defused bomb to keep UNIT from getting to it is wise, or his inner jerkish Time Lord showing through. Who is he to keep technology out of Earth’s hands? He didn’t seem to object to Earth getting new, advanced technology if it came from the frickin’ Silurians… Basically, though it is true that Earth doesn’t need another kind of bomb… that’s not really his call to make, it’s Earth’s. Perhaps it could have replaced nukes as a non-irradiating equivalent that would have ended nuclear waste, or been harnessed as a new and powerful energy source. It’s a little insulting (and continuing with the pointless anti-military diatribe new to this Doctor) to imply that he has to make that decision for us.

New (recurring) villain The Master is introduced here, played by Robert Delgado (born Roger Caesar Marius Bernard de Delgado Torres Castillo Roberto, who left a job at the bank to take up acting- and thank goodness he did!). He is an interesting villain, with a flair for hypnotism, a fatal shrinking gun, and as high (or higher) affinity for science as the Doctor. He is also stranded on Earth in a very logical way within the story, ensuring his presence as an ongoing villain. He has good dialogue and a strong presence, and I look forward to seeing more of him.

And then we have the Master's poor henchman in this serial. Poor fellow. He was just a pawn- we only saw a few seconds of him as himself, if that- and even when his colleague tried to snap him out of it, you got the sense that he could get no more than halfway there- the Master's brainwashing was that strong. (And apparently blinds both parties, if they didn't see Jo Grant's head sticking out a foot above those barrels until after they passed her...!) Still, one robotic scene aside, he was very interesting- passionately committed to his indoctrinated cause- not just a blank automotaun (Autonmoton?) carrying out orders, but a man not only whose mind and will were bent to the Master's use, but his personality and his passion, as well. This is new- typical hypnotism victims act unimaginatively and under duress in these kind of stories- but here, we see a kind of hypnotism that retains the ingenuity and willpower of the individual, just re-directing it to a new goal- dangerous indeed! While I predicted his decoy-mask end, I really pitied this man- he was a complete innocent in all of this. (As a side note, the carnival strong man under the Master's control was described as incredibly strong, but not talking much, and I sarcastically quipped while viewing “Oh, another Toberman.” Turns out it actually WAS Toberman- the same actor from Tomb of the Cybermen, typecast in a similar Earth-bound role that I am choosing to believe is Toberman’s distant ancestor).

Talking of villains, the Autons themselves are relegated to a bit more of a background presence because of the Master. We do hear a non-human-form Auton speak for the only time, get a really effective reveal of the false policemen (it made two of my three viewing companions gasp out loud in unison), and a great fight scene that includes a truly impressive (unintentionally so, as it got out of control) pel-mel tumble down a steep embankment that was truly a highlight of the episode.

Other effects of note were largely blue-screened in this serial, which seems to be turning into a Doctor Who staple. While a few of the effects demonstrate some terrible fringing and bleeding again, they overall work to create an effective sense of scale- you really believe that there is a tiny two-foot doll running around the set and interacting with people (pretty creepy in its own right), the standout effect of the episode. For the radio telescope (the Doctor and the Master have a final climactic confrontation on a radio telescope. Oh, the irony... such confrontations will not always work out well for you, Doctor!), while the locations on top of the catwalk never look real, the bluescreening provides a believable locale that doesn't feel studio bound (though the cartoon lightning is another story, triggering off an ending one part Seeds of Death and ALL PARTS the Moonbase, only cheaper, as we don't get to see the invading fleet repulsed into space this time). Even the scene in which a nervous henchman waits in the bus is noteworthy, as a bluescreened background is visible over his shoulder. Again, it didn't look real, but it impressed me with the work ethic, as it is a tiny, tiny patch- barely noticeable- that could easily have been covered up with framing or cheaped out with a false wall behind it- that the team went to all the effort of matting in a background in such a tiny window to try and sell the location is an impressive testament to the focus and commitment of the FX team.

As usual, we do still have a few moments of oddity. We get another Time Lord (an insufferable prig that cements my previous War Games impression that the Tme Lords are JERKS), followed by a bomb-dilema with probably the least well-thought-out solution ever presented to us on Doctor Who. Nearly any option would have been preferable, and just because the Doctor had nothing on-hand... contrived as it was, though, it featured a nice stunt (a truly impressive dive)- though it was outshadowed by the later, more-impressive Auton stunt. 

And the flower-masks... dissolved by carbon-dioxide from the lungs, almost instantly???? That is so completely illogical and stupid- the trapped breath in the wearer's mouth would immediately cause the mask to dissolve within seconds, making suffocation impossible! What were they thinking? That's like trying to drown a man by holding him under with paper-mache hands that instantly dissolve in water! It was very poorly explained and executed, and makes the whole premise completely absurd. And doesn’t the conjecture of the Nestene Consciousness’ natural form as an octopus-like creature, while consistent with Spearhead From Space, mean that the New Series’ premiere “Rose” got it totally wrong, and wasn’t even trying? If so, it’s really rather disappointing that show-runner Russel T. Davies didn’t at least TRY to match the descriptions given here.

And is there any reason that the inflatible chair seemed so cool when it was clearly just a blowup chair being inflated? Because it wasn't supposed to be, I suppose? For whatever reason... it was pretty cool.

Overall, despite a few odd complaints of stupid plot points or anti-millitary stances, and an extremely un-promising companion introduction, this was a fun serial. It kept a good pace and held my attention, had a fun and memorable villain, and lots of witty dialogue.

Great moments:
The animate doll, the first appearance of the Master, the quarry fight, the opening, the bomb dive, and the finale.

I give this one 5 out of 5 Tumbling Autons; I wouldn't necessarily call it a classic like Keys of Marinus or The Aztecs, but definitely a milestone, extremely entertaining, great characters, good writing, and a pace that didn't flag.

Nothing noteworthy, though the technology demonstrated seemed to be distinctly contemporary and not futuristic. I’m arbitrarily calling this one a 1971 vote.