It would be fair to say that the infamous Autons are something of an iconic Doctor Who monster. Whether it be via their legendary early 70s invasion of Ealing High Street (included in this box set), or their surprise reappearance at Stonehenge in 2010’s The Pandorica Opens, there’s something about these ‘domestically scaled’ monsters that lingers in the mind.
It’s perhaps somewhat surprising, then, to discover that the stories contained in this latest 2Entertain box set (1970’s Spearhead From Space and 1971’s Terror Of The Autons) amount to the Autons’ only two appearances in the classic series.
Effectively mothballed until Rose in 2005, it’s hard to imagine a monster as good as this being shelved for that long in the modern show. But then that’s something of a feature of the Letts/Dicks era of Doctor Who; great monsters like the Drashigs, Ogrons, Axons and Draconians were created on an almost weekly basis and then tossed aside with almost cavalier abandon, because there’d be another one along in a minute.
However, what sets these two Auton adventures apart from some of those other examples – and why they have such a particularly fond place in the hearts of fans – is that these two shows are historically significant for a whole raft of other reasons.
First up is Spearhead From Space. The inaugural story of the 1970 season, it’s not only the first Who story to have been made in colour, but also the maiden outing for Jon Pertwee’s decidedly different and newly earthbound Third Doctor. It also happens to be the first really significant contribution to the show by scriptwriter Robert Holmes, who would go on to become, arguably, the greatest writer in the original show’s history.
Prior to this, Holmes had contributed a couple of scripts for the latter part of Patrick Troughton’s tenure as the Doctor, and during that time developed a strong working relationship with newly promoted script editor Terrance Dicks. Because of this – and Dicks’ entanglement in co-scripting The War Games, the ten-part finale to the Second Doctor’s era – it was left to Holmes to write the hugely important debut show of the new season.
Easily the best ‘new Doctor’ story until Matt Smith’s triumphant debut The Eleventh Hour in 2010, Spearhead is a confident and muscular thriller, which anchors itself around the unfolding mystery of the Nestene Consciousness and the slow emergence of the new Doctor’s personality, while also taking its time to set down the foundations for the show’s new Earth-based format.
Tying these strands together is the potent UNIT double act of Nicholas Courtney’s soon-to-be-iconic Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the spiky but dryly witty Dr Liz Shaw (Caroline John). So good are Courtney and John that you barely miss the Doctor from episode one, and by the time he emerges fully formed in episode two, he enters a set-up that seems both wonderfully organic and yet tailor-made for his haughty and somewhat patrician third incarnation.
However, while the first Auton story absolutely sets in place the template for the Third Doctor era to come, it’s not until their second appearance in Terror Of The Autons that the ‘UNIT family’ really comes together.
Again scripted by Holmes, Terror was the opening story of Pertwee’s second season, and was the first real opportunity for new producer Barry Letts (who’d inherited the basic set up of the new show, its leading man and script editor Dicks from the previous regime) to make his mark on the show.
Luckily for all concerned, Letts’ instincts dovetailed with both Dicks’ and Pertwee’s take on the show, and Terror begins the process of not only warming up the Third Doctor, but also creating a more inviting, family-friendly tone that would drive the programme to heights of popularity unseen since the peaks of Dalekmania in the mid-60s.
Crucial to this were two changes to the cast. The first was the replacement of Liz Shaw with the younger and somewhat bubblier Jo Grant (Katy Manning), who filled the classic sidekick role with far greater ease and warmth. The second, and probably more significant for the show’s longer term future, was the introduction of the Doctor’s legendary arch-nemesis, the Master.
Brilliantly portrayed by Roger Delgado, the Master would in many ways come to define this era of the show, and his endurance as a character is a ringing endorsement of the choices that Letts and Dicks made in this somewhat pioneering period for the show.
Despite all these successful tweaks, not everything about Terror is a roaring success. Certainly, overall, Terror lacks some of the narrative cohesion of Spearhead, while in their second appearance, the Autons are reduced to playing the role of foot soldiers to the Master.
However, these are minor complaints, and Terror Of The Autons still stands up as a fantastically entertaining and incredibly confident slice of macabre fun that finds the Autons cranking up the inventiveness of their deathtraps to surreal and comic-book levels.
Whether it be killer plastic daffodils that suffocate you, sentient plastic chairs which consume you, or heat-sensitive killer troll dolls which strangle you in your home, the deaths in these episodes are some of the best remembered moments in all of classic Who, and quite rightly so.
It’s no accident that, when New Who was launched in 2005 and then relaunched in 2010, both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat wisely drew heavily on many of the elements laid out in these two stories.
As the reviewer Gary Gillat recently remarked in Doctor Who Magazine. “[The show] continues to excel today not only because it is made with passion and with skill, but because the people who make it were inspired by the very best.”
On the evidence of these episodes, never have truer words been written.
The previously released Spearhead From Space contains two commentaries, one featuring Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John, the other featuring Terrance Dicks and then producer Derek Sherwin. While both are enjoyable, the Terror Of The Autons commentary is far better, with Katy Manning, Nicholas Courtney and Barry Letts offering a fast, lively and fun string of anecdotes.
Both episodes have making of documentaries, with Down To Earth – the making of Spearhead – being a somewhat perfunctory affair. Luckily, the documentary for Terror – entitled Made On Earth – is way more enjoyable, and a must for fans of both the old and new series.
Featuring contributions from the usual suspects of Dicks, Letts and Manning, it also features Phil Collinson (series producer on Who from 2005-2008) in a neat compare and contrast with his work on the show in the 21st Century, and Barry Letts’ during the Pertwee years. It’s a really well-done little piece, and is almost worth the price of admission on its own.
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