Praxeus Breeds in Plastic (Terror of the Autons)


The rule, apparently, is that anyone talking seriously about this story has to start with Paul Cornell’s 1993 review of it. I’m not entirely sure why this is the rule—presumably because Cornell is surely terribly embarrassed by the review now that he’s firmly into the “everything is lovely, especially fandom and the Pertwee era, let’s all just get along and support New Labour” phase of his career instead of the “actually doing anything worthwhile” one. Or perhaps just because, in spite of Cornell’s latter day shame at having ever had interesting opinions, the review remains one of the most solid and important things ever said about the Pertwee era. It’s not that Cornell is correct per se—his vituperative denunciations of the entire cast along with everyone else involved in the story is excessive, not least in his claim that there are only two competent actors in the era, which more than doubles the actual number, although he at least correctly identifies one of them. It’s just that it’s petty, mean-spirited, and therefore exactly what the era needs, culminating in the utterly savage kicker that Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks “exiled the Doctor to Earth and made him a Tory.”

Part of the brutal efficiency of this comes from the fact that Terror of the Autons is, on a surface level, one of the least conservative Pertwee stories. I mean, the next story is a racist fantasy that posits that evil is a tangible thing. There’s two stories that look at the genocide of indigenous populations and offer a firm “well there’s good points on both sides.” This, meanwhile, is the ur-text for the era’s glam rock inclinations, which introduces three of the queerest characters in series history. It’s one of the maddest stories in the series to date—an explosion of color, spectacle, and basic weirdness. It is, in other words, an odd story to use as your staging ground for an attack on the Pertwee era’s right-wing politics. It’s like trying to go up an escalator on a unicycle: this should be easy, but not the way you’re doing it.

In a real sense, this is the appeal of Cornell’s approach. By going after one of the most straightforwardly appealing and consensus beloved stories of the era—one where its political foibles are quieter and its gonzo glam excesses are pronounced—Cornell goes for the throat. Complain about the politics of The Mind of Evil and you can semi-reasonably be answered “yeah, but it’s not all like that.” Complain about the politics of Terror of the Autons and the era’s defenders have relatively few retreats open to them. But Cornell does not actually go for the throat. Instead he takes drab swipes at the acting and production. As I said, it’s not that Cornell is wrong per se about the acting in the Pertwee era—almost everyone involved is various forms of dreadful. But what of it? The next era of Doctor Who is going to prove beyond all doubt that you can build a great show around a poor actor so long as you structure it to use their flaws. And by and large the Pertwee era uses its actors’ flaws. I am not interested in becoming the sort of Doctor Who blogger who parses fine production details, but surely even the most committed Pertwee skeptics have to admit that bulk of the core cast assembled here—Pertwee, Manning, Delgado, Courtney, and Levene at least—form a functional core. Perhaps what most of them are doing isn’t “good” in some objective craft sense, but in the context of everyone else on screen their decisions all work, to an extent that leaves Cornell looking like more of an impish troll than he needs to be given that he is, at the heart of it, still right.

No, the real angle to take here is to cast a skeptical eye on the politics of glam. In most useful regards, glam was the first post-hippie subculture, and revealed the true pattern of post-war subcultures that had not been truly apparent when the only data points were hippies, mods, and the various 50s prototypes. With hippies it was just about possible to convince yourself that this was really an entirely organic process—an emerging phenomenon of Haight-Ashbury that went culturally pandemic. The degree to which it was tied to genuinely radical politics obscured the extent to which it was still what every other subculture is: a matter of branding and marketing. (Indeed, the subsequent crashing and burning of the baby boomer generation into drab conservatism suggests just how much this really was true of the hippies)

Glam has no such cover. There’s no separating it from its commercial aspects because capitalist media was always a part f what it was. This is obvious in David Bowie—the commerce of being a rock star was always at the heart of the narrative in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. But its also implicit in glam rock’s innate nostalgia. This was always a movement that romanticized and reimagined early rock and roll for the first generation too young to remember it. Yes, it queered the past in an attractively gaudy spectacle of color, but the point of all that color was precisely its salability.

At the heart of this was a transition in drug culture. The iconic drug of the 1960s was, of course, LSD—a non-addictive drug whose effects are introspective and spiritual. But the 1970s and the rise of glam saw a shift away from psychedelics and towards cocaine and amphetamines. These drugs were not only addictive (and thus better suited to capitalism by ensuring long-term brand loyalty), but their effects were essentially aligned with capitalism: manic, hyperfocused energy. Why offer a drug that makes you want to stare at your ceiling contemplating the spiritual nature of the universe, that had a several days refractory period before it was effective again, and that often gives users a strong sense of having had enough when you could offer one that made you want to go out dancing and then buy another dose to stave off the withdrawal symptoms, repeating ad infinitum until eventual overdose?

This was not a small shift in the culture—indeed, it was one of the largest shifts in the nature of culture until the post-9/11 transition from depression to anxiety as the dominant mental illness. And glam fed off of this shift, exchanging the swirling colors of psychedelic perceptual shifts for the eclectic and gaudy colors of, well, a new television. And in the UK market where glam would hold the biggest sway, Doctor Who was the show that took the most advantage of that. With Terror of the Autons, a story whose structure could fairly be described as “coked out,” the alliance of children’s television and subcultural appeal hit its zenith.

It’s fitting, in this regard, that the monster of Terror of the Autons is plastic. Plastic, of course, was firmly in the zeigeist as a threat at this point—consider Cybemen creators’ Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis’s show Doomwatch, which opened with an episode of plastic paranoia. But Terror of the Autons further focuses this by centering the fear not on plastic as a material that conjured a sense of artificiality, but on plastic as a mass produced consumer product. The Autons’ first appearance, Spearhead From Space, began to play at this with its use of deadly mannequins (thus associating the monsters with sales) or its shot of a production line creating an endless profusion of identical doll heads, but Terror of the Autons dials this in even further, with the Master’s plot being, essentially, a massive sales pitch. All of these things, ultimately, are tightly knotted together to form a grimly perfect enapsulation of what glam is. That it includes “fun” along with “consumerist,” “coke-fueled,” and (this is a Robert Holmes story after all) “cynical” is indisputable, but, well.

But let’s back up. I alluded earlier to the existence of two types of Pertwee stories—glam ones like Terror of the Autons and more militaristic ones like Inferno or The Mind of Evil. This dichotomy, as applied to the Pertwee era, is largely pioneered by Phil Sandifer, although one could fairly accuse him of just having filed the serial numbers off of Gareth Roberts and Kate Orman’s old frock/gun distinction. But the real error of this division is the basic idea that these two impulses within the Pertwee era exist at cross-purposes. pulling it in opposite and contradictory directions. This is based on a naive reading of glam where, because it’s vaguely queer, it must be good. As we’ve already seen, this strains credulity.

With the era’s glam instincts no longer read as liberatory, the interplay between them and its glorification of militarized action starts to become clearer as something other than an oppositional force. Instead it becomes possible to read the glam instincts as a means of rehabilitating the military fetishism. By making the military a fundamentally camp institution headed by a man who finds himself wryly ensnared in the conflict between two opposite but equally ridiculous forces, and employing the absurd force of nature that is Jo Grant, the series is selling militarism as a potentially coherent piece of the larger glam aesthetic. In the period in question, as the Vietnam War wound down in the United States and it became evident that the World War II-era sense of unwavering faith in the institution of the military was waning. Although Doctor Who would sometimes serve to address this through ruthlessly straightforward means (next season will have a story that is literally a propaganda piece for the Royal Navy), the more general approach is represented here, where the military is a sweet and beloved facet of a wild and youthful glam aesthetic, offers a far subtler and more insidious attempt at rehabilitating the military’s image.

The same can be said of Pertwee’s Doctor. Cornell is onto something when he snarks about the Doctor becoming a Tory. Certainly Pertwee is a figure of the establishment—his outfit may be ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous in a way that’s firmly upper class. And, as Cornell rightly notes, he’s a creature of the establishment in this story, tossing off bon mots about how gentlemen only ever talk about money and being on a nickname basis with government figures. This should be as insufferable as Cornell suggests, and the fact that it ultimately isn’t speaks volumes about how effective the strategy of wedding these tropes to the hip, contemporary, and youth-focused sheen of glam rock is.

My point here is not to trace some sort of chain of causality where the children of 1971 become the adults who sanction their governments’ war crimes in the Falklands War a decade later. This is too simplistic, and my argument has never been that Doctor Who is a leading cause of the 20th and 21st century’s depravities. Doctor Who is only ever a leading indicator—an effective way of getting one’s bearings within the madness. Nevertheless, if one does want to make an argument for Doctor Who as a causal force, Terror of the Autons would provide a better example than most. Its basic playbook of piggybacking on youth culture to promote the interests of established power is going to be followed repeatedly in the future by all sorts of nasty entities seeking reputation laundering. It’s absurd to say that it invents the process—the basic means are firmly identified by the Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle when he talks about detournement and recuperation. But Doctor Who offers an early and brutally direct approach to using the late 20th century progression of youth subcultures to do it. It may not have invented the process, nor even perfected it, but much like color separation overlay, it was unequivocally one of the first to make heavy use of it.


Christopher Brown 10 months, 3 weeks ago

Damn. This series is really hitting its stride...I can't wait to see where it will go next.

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TommyR01D 10 months, 3 weeks ago

YouGov's profile pages used to include a left-right political gauge. This showed, for instance, where fans of Audis stood in relation to fans of Volvos, or how Justin Bieber's fans compared to Miley Cyrus's.

I recall that William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker and so on up to Matt Smith all lay somewhere on the left. Pertwee's fans had the right to themselves.

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tmmuy 10 months, 3 weeks ago

Wait, why this one doesn't have an introduction like the others ?

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Elizabeth Sandifer 10 months, 3 weeks ago

Because I forgot to write one.

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John G. Wood 10 months, 3 weeks ago

And there was me thinking it was because of the rule that you had to start by talking about Paul Cornell's 1993 review...

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(Not That) Jack 10 months, 3 weeks ago

Damn, we're really going after all the sacred cows of the Eruditorium here. What's next, dismantling material social progress in the Brain of Morbius?

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Daibhid C 10 months, 3 weeks ago

While I don't disagree with the premise, I don't think Third's "Gentlemen never talk about anything else" is the best example of him being a creature of the establishment. It's him pricking the pretensions of the establishment, surely ... although admittedly, he is totally doing so from the inside.

(The line he's responding to always reminds me of the quote by Nancy Mitford that Ogden Nash uses for his poem "M.S. Found Under a Serviette in a Lovely Home", where she says that because Americans don't have an aristocracy they are always talking about dollars, whereas "the English seldom sit chatting about pounds".)

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Lambda 10 months, 3 weeks ago

I don't get interpreting the Doctor's "in the club" claim as meaning he actually goes to "the club" either, when he would obviously be bored silly and clearly just wants to tinker with technical things. He may act it convincingly like someone who does, but the simplest interpretation of that is just that the third Doctor is a good actor.

The biggest actual "Tory Doctor" moment which I recall would be the classist "ham-fisted bun vendor" insult.

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Voord 99 10 months, 3 weeks ago

Since this is the one week where I cannot shut up about Ireland and Doctor Who: -

One thing to note about UNIT is that Northern Ireland was more salient in British experience in 1971 than the Vietnam War. Britain stayed out of Vietnam, but from the very end of the ‘60s, British troops were deployed for the first time in a long while on UK soil against a domestic threat. That is by far the most prominent context in which viewers would have been used to seeing British soldiers on the six o’clock news at this time.

1970-71 marked a critical stage in the conflict, in which the IRA attacked the British army, and the British responded with increasingly severe measures, culminating (after this programme aired) with the spectacularly counterproductive own-goal of internment.

This is relevant not only to the military element in the Pertwee era in general but to the fact that this specific story contains a Northern Irish character (played by Harry Towb using his native accent - contrast The Seeds of Death) who is heavily coded as Unionist: McDermott is the voice of tradition and the loyal subordinate to an authoritative English figure (the elder Farrel).

Link | Reply 10 months, 1 week ago

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Paul F Cockburn 10 months, 3 weeks ago

So... you can't even mention Richard Franklin by name, now?

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Elizabeth Sandifer 10 months, 3 weeks ago

The sentence stops being true if you include him.

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Steve 10 months, 2 weeks ago

You often find that political poseurs are literalists at heart. Does anyone still fall for the silly idea that the Doctor saying: "I was saying to him in the Club only the other day, wrong sort of chap is creeping into your lot, Tubby, I said" means (a) that he frequents gentlemen's clubs, (b) that he's on nickname terms with the Establishment and (c) that he's actually met any of the Establishment?

If so, they really need to explain how they can call the Doctor an Establishment figure when we know from The Green Death that he works as a charwoman and so must be low-paid manual working class. What? You mean he was only pretending in order to fool the gullible?

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Matt Moore 10 months ago

Has anyone read Shock And Awe:

I found it fascinating...

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moto x3m 9 months, 4 weeks ago

The more general approach is represented here, where the military is a sweet and beloved facet of a wild and youthful glam aesthetic.

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