Terror of the Autons [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

Terror of the Autons

Starring Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor.
Companion:  Katy Manning as Jo Grant.
Recurring Characters: Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Roger Delgado as the Master, Richard Franklin as Captain Mike Yates, and John Levene as Sgt. Benton.
Written by Robert Holmes.  Directed by Barry Letts (uncredited). Produced by Barry Letts. Script Edited by Terrance Dicks.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  January 1971 (Episodes 1-4 of Season 8).

Terror of the Autons was the start of the Jon Pertwee’s second season, not his first, but it is where we really see the Third Doctor’s era as we will come to know it take shape. I’ve been wanting to rewatch Spearhead from Space but I did go through that one with my kids a little while ago (before I started blogging about all these stories), so we hit the sequel instead.

Spoilers Ahead!

Terror of the Autons is a story with a lot going on. One of its biggest development is the with the introduction of a new assistant to the Doctor, Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning. Jo is obviously a completely different flavor of character than Liz Shaw, being much more scatterbrained and much less competent, making it much easier for the Third Doctor to display his naturally condescending attitude toward. Still, she’s bright, brave and attractive, and there’s quickly a warmth established between her and the Doctor which is appealing–setting her up as one of the series’ great companions.

In addition to Jo, the show continues to develop the presence of UNIT, with the return of the Brigadier, a most established role for Sergeant Benton, and the introduction of Richard Franklin as Captain Yates. Yates in particular is a good movie–a recurring officer to serve a second-in-command to the Brigadier who is higher than a Sergeant makes the whole set-up more believable.

But possibly the most significant new character this story is Roger Delgado as the Mater, one of the Doctor’s most enduring enemies. The Master is nearly a regular character this season–appearing in the same number of episodes as the Brigadier, and more than anyone else either than the Doctor or Jo. As producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks have settled into their roles, Doctor Who has moved away from the attempts at hard science fiction of Season 7 and into more pulp adventure territory, and the Master fits that tone like a creepy black glove. Delgado’s Master is a compelling and quite frightening villain–the most violently murderous humanoid adversary that the show has had, what with his shrinking people to death, pushing people off of radio telescopes, and arranging for people to be killed via Auton. Most chilling of all is the way he hypnotizes poor Farrel into dying for him. He is a sinister and calculating, and with none of the prancing lunacy that nearly all of the modern-era Masters have felt compelled to have.

I’d say the only misstep with the character in this story is the way that he suddenly realizes the Nestene Consciousness is just as much a danger to him as to the earth. The Doctor and the Master having to team up because the Master’s schemes got out of control is as much as cliché as anything else with the villain.

As others have written, this is far too early in the series to pull such a trick. Logopolis will make it seem like a big deal, some ten years later, but that’s only true because by then we’ll have forgotten how many times the show has already gone down that route, including all the way back here at the Master’s first appearance.

Terror of the Autons is of course a follow-on from Spearhead from Space, with the return of the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness. Writer Robert Holmes leans heavily into the creepy implications of plastic that wants to kill you. Spearhead from Space (which Holmes also wrote) has the killer shop-mannequins, but in Terror of the Autons we go further with killer fake policemen, killer novelty dolls, killer cushy chairs, killer phone cords and killer fake flowers. Doctor Who has long been known for its ability to make the ordinary terrifying, and right here in this adventure is where all that really begins.

It doesn’t necessarily make a huge amount of story sense. Is the Master getting his plastics factory to make chairs and dolls just as a marketing experiment? How exactly do these Autons work? If they are activated by some sort of radio wave why do the plastic novelty dolls (which, even if the effects used to make it are patently transparent, is still as creepy a thing as I’ve seen on the show) suddenly come to life? And why does the doll stop working after Mike Yates shoots it to pieces? Do they have organs or something? None of this is explored in the story, and of course ultimately it doesn’t really matter. Autons aren’t about logic, they are about giving children nightmares. The whole thing is ridiculous, but great fun.

The guest cast of Terror of the Autons includes a pre-Davros Michael Wisher as the doomed Rex Farrel a character with a surprising amount of personality given that the spends most of the adventure a hypnotized drone of the Master’s.

His father is also well-played, by Stephen Jack. The two characters had an interesting relationship, so it’s only a bit disappointing that more wasn’t made of it (the older man died in the same episode that he debuted in). Interestingly, both of Farrel’s parents’ names are spelled wrong on the closing titles, as “Farrell”. In one episode, “Rex Farrel” and “Mrs. Farrell” are even credited on the same title screen!

As mentioned, Terror of the Autons was a bit of a course correction for early 1970’s Doctor Who. Many people consider it a step down from the more serious tone of the previous year. I haven’t rewatched enough stories on either side of this to day whether I think that is true or not. But I do feel like with the addition of Jo Grant, Mike Yates and the Master we see here a “typical” Third Doctor story for the first time, which is something I quite enjoy.


I forgot to mention an amazing story I read about stuntman Terry Walsh when he was filming this episode. There is an amazing shot of a car that Mike Yates is driving (although it was a stuntman actually driving in this particular instance) when it rams right into an Auton policeman (Terry Walsh). Apparently, this was a mistake! The car was supposed to miss him! But because it looked so good and because Walsh was able to just get up and carry on with the shot, it’s actually in the episode!

6 thoughts on “Terror of the Autons [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. The Autons are indeed creepy. This serial was a red flag for the “Doctor Who is too violent for children!” activists in the UK back then.
    And yes, Delgado was best. I’m up to where Anthony Ainsley steps in and while he’s not bad, he lacks the restraint that helped Delgado so chilling.
    According to an article in Doctor Who Monthly, Katy Manning was legally blind. As Jo didn’t wear glasses, there was a lot of “Count to five, jump left off the motorbike, you should land right on the mattresses …”

  2. The troll doll issue is certainly understandable for how it scared children into not taking their teddy bears to bed. Delgado’s Master has been forever hard to match by other Masters. Even with occasional moments that can almost recapture the magic like The King’s Demons or The Doctor Falls. Or even sometimes fan films like A Dame To Kill (Episode 1 of Doctor Who: The Ginger Chronicles). When the original friendship between the Master and the Doctor may in some ways still shine in their confrontations, it can be both fun and heartfelt. That’s why the original ending that was planned for Delgado’s Master, for Pertwee’s regeneration finale, was a most fitting notion at the time. I assumed that John Simm’s grand finale exit for The End Of Time was a considerable homage to that. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

  3. frasersherman–wow, that’s really interesting to hear about Katy Manning. I had no idea, but I can imagine that some of that would have fed into her character. It reminds me of an interesting story I’ve heard about stuntman Terry Walsh which I’ve now edited the piece to include.

  4. scifimike70, I’ve always had a hard time picturing any of the other Masters as the same character as Delgado–although Pratt / Beevers and Jacobi come closest for me. Even Michelle Gomez, who might be my favorite “Master,” is easier for me to accept if I let myself forget she’s supposed to be the same person.

  5. Michelle Gomez may now be my favourite Master too. She’s a lovely actress and was very well cast.

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