And so we come to the top twenty! From this point on there is nothing but controversy – every story from this point on is utterly excellent, and almost impossible to choose between. And so it is with the first we come to – Jon Pertwee’s superb debut in Spearhead from Space. There is not a bad word to say about this story – and yet it is not in my top ten. As I have said in previous reviews, often a story has been given what seems a very low number for no other reason that the fantastic quality of Doctor Who as a whole.
After some reasonable debate whether our first two villains are villains within the definition of the act, our next baddies are indisputably bad pieces of work – the living plastic foes commanded by the Nestenes and known as Autons. And we focus on the Autons because, to be honest, most of us were not really taken in by the other forms of plastic that turned lethal – the telephone cables, the dubious plastic chair – or the frankly horrendous reference in Rose to the implications of years of cosmetic surgery. What really terrifies us when the Nestenes decide they want your planet are their automated psychopaths the Autons.
I will leave aside the rip-off of Spearhead from Space that was Rose (well done though it was) and the truly awful use of Roman Autons at the end of Series 5 to focus on the two classic stories of the Pertwee era. As I will comment when I get to the review of Terror of the Autons, the only thing the sequel suffers from is having to live up to the exceptional standard set by Spearhead from Space, which justifiably is very high on most fans’ most appreciated stories. In both cases, the adventure is made terrifying by the seemingly unstoppable force of the display store mannequins – and in a lesson that Steven Moffat and co should note – the very sound of the Autons. Whoever was in the effects department at that stage deserves a pat on the back for creating the very unnerving throb of an Auton chasing their victim.
So we have an unstoppable killing machine, unnerving by its capacity to blend into normal life seemlessly, and matched by a sound-effect that produces dread, menace and unease. Why aren’t the Autons higher on my list? I suspect really that comes down to a simple observation – while they are excellent in the stories they do appear in, they are also slightly one dimensional in terms of means and motivation, somewhat reducing their capacity as a recurring villain – as evidenced by the sense of deja vu for fans watching Rose and noting the strong plot similarities – there wasn’t really a new angle to take.
The Autons make the list as a memorable recurring villain, but they lose out for not really having a good recurring value. That said, if Moffat’s successor comes up with a better idea that Autons masquerading as Romans, then I am prepared to be persuaded!
Terror of the Autons is a perfectly respectable four-part story, whose only crime is to pale in comparison to the first story to feature the Autons, Spearhead from Space. It is memorable for a whole series of first appearances, not least of which is the mercurial Roger Delgado as the original (and best) Master. From the very first Delgado is mesmerising – not only in terms of his hypnotic prowess, but his calm command of any situation he finds himself in (Steven Moffat take note!)
It is also the first serial to feature Jo Grant, who is probably the main character associated with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor – and while she is still somewhat prone to the “damsel in distress” scream at the monster syndrome, I would say that Jo is the true forerunner of Sarah-Jane Smith – feisty, independent and capable – albeit with a rather endearing clumsiness that frequently lands her in trouble! Honorable mentions also go Richard Franklin’s first appearance as Captain Mike Yates, and to Michael Wisher who made the first of many Doctor Who appearances in this serial as Reg Farrell – although his most famous appearance would not come for another four seasons …
The story itself is a very simple alien invasion of earth plot – the Master decides (seemingly on a whim) to help the Nestenes invade earth by distributing plastic flowers that spray plastic solution over the nose and mouth making it impossible for the victim to breathe. Rather bizarrely however, the invasion is repulsed by the Doctor persuading the Master that once the Nestenes take over he would be killed as superfluous, and so the two Timelords stave off the attack – before the Master engineers his escape. In that regard, the story is not that different to the later story The Claws of Axos – the show suffering from the problem that if bound to earth there are not a huge number of story types you can use. Which is rather why the story is not higher on the list – it’s a good example of the UNIT era, and as with anything featuring Delgado he is utterly excellent, not least in any scene featuring both he and Pertwee. A classic however, it is not.