The Doctor is so irritated at Mike and Jo that he’s begun
voluntary conversion into a Cyberman just to stop feeling
emotions about them.
It’s January 2nd, 1971. Dave Edmunds is at #1 with “I Hear You Knocking.” It’s unseated the next week by Clive Dunn’s “Granddad,” a piece of Victorian nostalgia by one of the stars of the sitcom Dad’s Army, which holds #1 for the next three weeks. Lower in the charts are the Jackson 5, Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell, and Andy Williams. But the real action starts at number ten in the first week, rising up to a peak position of #2 the final week “Granddad” is on top, namely T. Rex’s chart debut with “Ride a White Swan,” recognized as the real start of glam rock. Tat Wood argues that Terror of the Autons is an equal partner in the start of glam rock, which is an interesting argument, if not one I’m completely sold on. But in any case, glam will serve as the primary musical accompaniment to the Pertwee era from here on out.
In other news, we’ve done a season transition, which means six months to catch up on. Deep breath: The US withdraws from Cambodia. Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II expedition is completed successfully. The Aswan High Dam opens in Egypt. The largest rock festival of all time happens on the Isle of Wight. Jimi Hendrix dies of an OD in London. Janis Joplin follows suit in LA. The US’s ridiculously meager and pathetic version of the BBC, PBS, begins broadcasting, which will turn out to have profound ramifications for Doctor Who as, with minimal budget, importing BBC shows is a cost-effective policy for them, resulting in Doctor Who’s US debut in 1972. The October Crisis begins in Canada when, in a series of events that seems deeply bemusing given Canada’s current stereotypical reputation, Quebecois separatist terrorists kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner and held him for 60 days.
Which catches us up to 1971, where a stairway crush at a Scottish football match between the Old Firm results in 66 deaths. (For those playing along at home, the Old Firm refers to Celtic and Rangers, two Glaswegian football teams whose sporting rivalry serves as a proxy rivalry for Catholic/Protestant sectarian disputes and thus, by extension, for the Troubles that continued to calmly rear their heads. Harold Wilson’s flagship venture, the Open University, began. And the worlds first ODI cricket match is played between Australia and the UK.
Whew. I miss when Doctor Who was on for 3/4 of the year, you know? So, Terror of the Autons. On the one hand, this is one of the most beloved of Pertwee stories, full of classic scary moments and, furthermore, the debut of three classic characters in Jo Grant, Mike Yates, and the Master. On the other hand…
I’ve talked before about the Pertwee backlash of the 1990s. This story is what we might call exhibit A in this regard. That’s down largely to Paul Cornell’s full-throated, bomb-throwing savaging of this story in DWB… oh God, I need to cover this, don’t I? All right. So, in the late 70s and early 80s, there were some major Doctor Who publications. The most significant being Doctor Who Magazine – the officially licensed one – and The Celestial Toyroom, the newsletter for the Doctor Who Appreciation Society. So in protest against those, Gary Leigh started up DWB, the Doctor Who Bulletin, which rapidly became a quasi-professional fanzine, and eventually relaunched as Dreamwatch, one of the major sci-fi genre magazines period.
During its fanzine days, DWB became, essentially, the dissident Doctor Who publication. Notorious for its hatred of John Nathan-Turner, the magazine was the major place to put contrarian commentary on Doctor Who in general. And so in 1993, Paul Cornell, by then one of the hot stars of the Virgin New Adventures line, published a review of Terror of the Autons that can be found online here. I’m going to go ahead and recommend reading it before proceeding, because it’s pretty crucial.
The crux of Cornell’s objection is what we talked about last week with Inferno – the way in which the conflation of Pertwee and the Doctor has given the character an egotism he previously lacked. Cornell further identifies this egotism with the newly in power Conservative party – and if we’re being honest, there’s some logic to that. However, sorting out that logic requires some care, because the British Conservative party can be confusing for Americans who expect it to behave more or less like the American Republican party. This is almost, but not quite, completely wrong.
That said, the British Conservative party of 1970 – and I think we can fairly surmise that Cornell was talking primarily about that institution – was still very much a party of the establishment. And the standard argument against conservatives – that they only help those who already have power and let the rich get richer – applied here. In Heath’s case, the two policies most associated with that tendency were his abandoned plan to move towards indirect taxation (which, because it taxes consumption instead of income, ends up being a regressive tax due to the fact that poorer households tend to have to spend a larger percentage of their income) and his aggressive attempts to curb the powers of unions.
So why is Pertwee’s Doctor a Tory? Well, look at him. Not just the velvet smoking jacket and frills, although the fact is that this Doctor is visibly an aesthete, but things like the line Cornell highlights in which the Doctor speaks confidently and off-handedly about how gentlemen only talk about money. Or, for that matter, his downright nasty attack on Jo after she innocently tries to help him when he apparently sets his lab on fire, “You ham-fisted bun vendor!” It’s worth looking at the nature of this attack – at the fact that he specifically attacks her based on her perceived (working class) job. That’s the thing that Cornell finds problematic, and honestly, he’s right to. There is something deeply uncomfortable about the continual smug superiority of the Doctor in this era.
(This is probably the point to stave off some angry comments when I point out that Pertwee’s dandy/aesthete image has different resonances when taken in the context of glam rock than it does on its own and we’re going to deal with this. But keep in mind, glam rock is starting in this story – whatever redemption of Pertwee’s character it might bring, that’s not in play yet.)
So let’s put our cards on the table. Going back to what people like about this story – and there’s a lot to like – one thing of note is that the core cast as it exists in this story – the Doctor, Jo, the Brigadier, Benton, Yates, and the Master – remain intact basically for the next three seasons. That’s not as many episodes as Hartnell or Troughton got, but it’s as many years as either of them got, and something we’ve never seen Doctor Who do before – take a production team and just continue with one approach over three years. The thing about the approach is that no two people seem to agree on what the approach is. Or, indeed, to agree on the approach from moment to moment.
One way we’ve started to look at the Pertwee era is in terms of the Brigadier as an almost Pythonesque (and for once we’re using that term to mean something other than “stupidly zany”) character who continually highlights the absurdity of the situation. This was Robert Holmes’s invention back in Spearhead From Space, and served to give Pertwee’s Doctor an immediately necessary object – a foil. What Holmes does in Terror of the Autons, then, is to expand on this technique with two new characters who work the same way the Brigadier does.
Cornell correctly identifies one of these characters in Jo Grant. Jo is a hilariously brilliant companion. But to understand why what Holmes does with her is so brilliant, you have to understand the counter-narrative – the person who manifestly isn’t on the same page as Holmes here, Terrance Dicks. See, it was Dicks who decided that Liz Shaw had to go (though the pregnant Caroline Johns probably would not have returned anyway) because she wasn’t working as a Doctor Who companion.
Dicks is a puzzling figure, as I may have alluded previously. Unquestionably one of the most skilled writers in Doctor Who, Dicks falls somewhat short of the legacy one might expect him to have given that for several reasons. First, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Terrance Dicks’s Doctor Who writing career spans the years from 1968 to 2008, leaving little room for absence. Second, a 40 year career is going to have a lot of turkeys no matter who is doing the writing. Third, Dicks’s long-term association with the show and frequent appearances at conventions and on DVD documentaries mean that his accounts of the behind the scenes aspects of the show are frequently disseminated. And they’re… well, aside from the fact that Dicks has as much of a gift for a memorable phrase in his storytelling as he does in his writing, and as much of a willingness to use that phrase over and over again (a neither cruel nor cowardly sound, for instance, or the fact that the Doctor never wheezes or groans), Dicks is, when telling stories about the series, not always the most sympathetic figure.
There’s a fair case to be made that this is just another facet of Dicks’s skills as a raconteur – that he quietly and self-depricatingly sends himself up with stories he knows don’t make him look too good because they’re better stories. Certainly fact-checking Dicks’s accounts often turns up some problems, suggesting he bends the truth. But in any case, in interviews, he’s prone to doing things like publicly identifying himself as a supporter of the British Empire. Or saying point blank that he thinks the only real job of a Doctor Who companion is to ask the Doctor to explain the plot and to get kidnapped. Accordingly, he claims, with a pride that is thoroughly irksome, that he ditched Liz in favor of Jo because Liz was too smart, thus single-handedly seeming to confirm every accusation of sexism leveled against the Pertwee era.
And on paper, Jo looks the part. She’s designed as an unintelligent blonde bimbo with no demonstrable skills who got assigned to UNIT because of her powerful uncle and who the Brigadier has decided to foist of on the Doctor because he’s a raging egoist who isn’t going to listen to a scientist like Liz anyway and, as the Brigadier puts it, just needs someone to hand him test tubes. Watching Terror of the Autons, then, one gets the distinct feeling that Robert Holmes reacted with a deep horror at this idea and, in characteristic Holmesian style, proceeded to mock it ruthlessly without anybody noticing. (It’s astonishing how many Robert Holmes scripts make sense if you hypothesize them as deliberate insults.)
So what we get is Jo Grant as a parallel to the Brigadier – another character who is far too sane for the world she’s in. Just as the Brigadier is a sane, level-headed military type in a world in which that makes no sense as a reaction, Jo is the plucky, well-meaning ditz. Except she’s in a world full of complicated science, thrilling adventure, and mortal peril. And she approaches it, basically, by unceasingly being plucky and ditzy. Holmes establishes this beautifully in the first episode of Terror of the Autons, where Jo is found by the Master and sheepishly rises from her hiding place and calmly says “Oh. Hello!” It’s perfect – the companion walks into her first moment of mortal danger and is utterly unfazed by it.
This is a brilliant turn – take the character Terrance Dicks designed to be a useless bimbo and make her into yet another subversion of the entire structure of the show. And Katy Manning is more than game for it, proving every bit as capable as Nicholas Courtney in selling illogical reactions based on character integrity. The two of them are both essentially ontological forces in the narrative – you can do anything you want in a Doctor Who story featuring Jo or the Brigadier so long as Jo’s a ditz and the Brigadier is completely and utterly composed. They become hard limits of how the narrative can be stretched, and because they’re absolutely ridiculous characters, the narrative delightfully skews around them.
The other character Holmes does this with, as Cornell notes, is a bit more of a mixed bag. The Master is a… vexed Doctor Who character. Much of this is down to the fact that it is possible to write a very good Master story, and it is possible to play the part of the Master very well, but for some reason these two things hardly ever happen in the same story. In this case, Cornell is somewhat on target – Delgado hasn’t found his feet with the role yet, and part of the problem is that Barry Letts, as director, is working at cross purposes with Holmes as a writer. Letts wants the Master to be all sneering menace. Holmes wants the Master to be hilarious.
Let’s note that the Master’s plan makes no sense. No. Not only no sense. A sort of sprawling anti-sense that makes Cybermen schemes look efficient. In this case his overt plan appears to focus primarily on messing with the Doctor – indeed, he admits that he’s in this more to play with the Doctor than for any particular goal. Reading the script, the Master is clearly meant to get many – indeed most of the good lines. Delgado swallows the delivery on many of them, but they’re there.
Given that Holmes has already created two versions of this character, it makes sense to assume that the Master is meant to be a third. But the sort of character he is is, perhaps, the funniest of the lot. If Jo is always ditzy and the Brigadier is always level-headed, the Master is always scheming. In any scene that the Master appears in here, he is coming up with an evil plan. As a result, the Master becomes a preposterously baroque trickster figure – one who simply keeps the plot going via utterly insane twists and ideas. No matter what, he has to complicate the plot via insane schemes.
Even if the acting on the Master isn’t quite where Holmes clearly wants it, there’s something genuinely compelling about his role in the script. Because the Master is a continual generator of bizarre schemes who is, in this story, given the delightful toybox of the Autons, the story becomes an unending stream of delightful ideas. As a result, deadly chairs, killer plastic daffodils, Auton impersonators of everyday figures like policemen, homicidal toy dolls and a lethal phone cord make up the main stepieces of the story.
Look at that list for a moment, and one of the things you’ll notice is that we’re in the version of Yeti-in-the-loo that actually works here – subversion of expected objects into uncanny ones. But here Holmes has thrown the process into overdrive. Instead of taking a single object and making it uncanny and scary, he’s gone ahead and made everything scary. And more to the point, he’s made what’s scary change constantly through the story. Once the good guys encounter a given horror, that’s it for that horror. The story moves onto the next. So it’s not a matter of taking an individual object and making it scary – it’s a matter of making it so that any object is potentially an object of horror. (This is what the uproar over this story, which focused mostly on whether it was acceptable to make policemen scary, missed. The story didn’t make policemen scary, it made the entire world scary.)
Here we see one of the great instances of two creators meshing haphazardly. Holmes and Letts failed to see eye to eye on the role of the Master in creating this broad collage of terrors. But in terms of directing style, Letts is exactly on target, using cuts and editing to make the random objects seem genuinely uncanny and disturbing. So, for instance, when the Master impersonates a telephone repairman to install a deadly plastic phone cord, we know something is wrong not because the plot has explicitly told us anything but because the tone and pacing of the scene is telling us we’re seeing something important happen as it’s installed. And since we know anything can be scary, we read the phone wire as scary before we have any reason to know that it is.
Letts inadvertently (or perhaps deliberately) increases this sense further via what is usually taken as a flaw in this story – gratuitous overuse of CSO. CSO – what we call bluescreen most of the time, although Doctor Who’s version defaulted to green so as not to conflict with the TARDIS – is a technique that defines 1970s Doctor Who, and quickly becomes part of the basic vocabulary of the show. But the bulk of CSO shots are ever so slightly off. Not in a huge and visible way – though you can generally tell by the halo of black lines surrounding objects – but in a significant way that makes the shots feel slightly unreal. But in a story like this, gratuitous overuse is strangely wonderful, making even more objects feel uncanny and strange.
The end result is a lurid collage of objects that flicker between representations of real things and terrors. Tonally and structurally, it’s far closer to The Atrocity Exhibition than it seems imaginable for Doctor Who to be. It’s a glitzy, madcap story with a delightful subtext about consumerism. And Holmes uses his unparalleled skill at writing ordinary people to give this lurid festival a sense of grounding in the real world. So we get intersections of media, consumerism, adventure narratives, and the everyday all feuding and overlapping.
So does that mean Cornell is wrong? Well, no. Really the only difference thus far I’ve had with him is that I think Letts executed Holmes’s script a bit better than Cornell gives him credit for. But what Cornell gets spot on is that there’s a sense of dissonance to this story – a sense that not everybody is on the same page.
Delgado still finding his sea legs aside, the most obvious problem among the supporting cast is Richard Franklin as Mike Yates. With it not being entirely clear why he’s been added to the cast given that the show was not hurting for virile male leads, Franklin is already in some difficulty. The fact that he manages to give the strong impression that Yates is gay approximately once every three lines does nothing to improve matters. (Or perhaps it does, but that’s another story.)
But the real problem is where we started – with Pertwee. Now, I’ve been hard on Pertwee already, and I’m going to get harder on him here. And so I want to stress that there are points in his tenure, including ones we’ve already seen, where he is sublime. But I said with Inferno that Pertwee is at his best when he’s a bit unhappy with his material. Unfortunately, he’s pleased as punch here, and simply struts about at the center of the production, a sort of unceasing stretch of egotism in the middle of all the interesting bits. Worse, he at no point seems to understand the show around him, a point shown by his bizarre attempt to bully Mr. Brownrose. There’s a line in which the Doctor makes reference to talking to his boss “in the club the other day” to try to put him in his place after he’s rude to the Brigadier and the Doctor. As scripted, the line is clearly intended as a bit of Troughtonesque bluster and fakery. With Brownstone making snooty assumptions about the Doctor, the Doctor bluffs his way to an authority he doesn’t have. You can imagine Troughton delivering the line, visibly pausing to try to remember the name he wants to throw around, changing his demeanor slightly to stress the fakery of it, etc. Except Pertwee just delivers the line like he means it – as if the Doctor really does hang about bridge clubs talking to the nobility and joshingly calling them things like Tubby Rolands. Which isn’t right for the Doctor at all, unless you assume it to be a sort of upper class British version of The Lodger. (But frankly, can you picture Pertwee in The Lodger? Even if the shower scene is a hat-tip to Spearhead, it’s tough to see Pertwee in large swaths of that story in a way it isn’t in other stories from the same season.)
Of course, all of this presumes Pertwee even cares about the show around him. Case in point, his flagrant stealing of Richard Franklin’s lines in episode two. This is a complete dick move on Pertwee’s part, and shows shocking contempt for his newest costar. (It’s in the scene in which the Doctor is working on deconditioning Jo from the Master’s hypnosis. Mike begins to deliver a line in which he trots out the old “but you can’t hypnotize someone to do something they don’t want to do” line and Pertwee interrupts him to steal the line, then has to pause in the line to remember the rest of it.)
But even if Pertwee weren’t missing the intended tone of his lines and bullying his costars, there’d be something wrong here. The problem is that this isn’t just another counterpart to the Brig/Jo/Master approach, with the Doctor constantly and unceasingly being the Doctor. Except that the only reason the others work is because they’re in orbit around the Doctor. For six years, that’s what the Doctor was – the mercurial figure who would flit around and do whatever the narrative required. That’s why it was interesting to send him to Earth in the first place – to force him to put in a real, long-term commitment instead of beating the bad guys and running. Pertwee’s inverting of the character into a consistent star vehicle part wreaks (action by) havoc on the entire setup of the show.
Suddenly there’s no center to the narrative. The Doctor should be the force of chaos that makes those other characters work. (Even the Master, one gets the sense, would not be pushed to quite so over-elaborate schemes if faced with an opponent less brilliant than the Doctor) Instead, he’s a brilliant man surrounded by stupid apes that he grudgingly saves. And that’s not who he is. It’s who he complains about being when he’s in a bad mood sometimes, but if the Doctor is just humoring our stupidity 24/7, that’s not being a good guy. At the end of the day, the Doctor is supposed to like people.
But there are some useful checks to that. The first is that Katy Manning and Jon Pertwee got along extremely well from day one, with Pertwee being extremely protective of Manning. As one would expect, this gets reflected onscreen, with the Doctor being exceedingly warm and friendly with Jo. Since Jo is by any rational standard the least competent person around the Doctor, the fact that he is so warm with her mitigates helpfully against his disdain for everybody else.
The second ends up being Delgado who, as I hope I made clear, is quite a good actor who just takes a few episodes to warm into his part. And in episode four, he finally hits his stride for the first time when he gets his first big face to face meeting with the Doctor. And he nails it. He strides into UNIT headquarters holding his weapon like a cigar and being more decadent and pompous than the Doctor (including having the gumption to step on one of Pertwee’s lines) and beautifully underplaying everything. Delgado is amazing in this, managing to turn every moment of calm understatement into a mockery of the Doctor. And Pertwee, who was supposedly a bit sensitive about Delgado getting better billing in the promotional material for the season than he did, rises to it, finding himself on the back foot and losing control of a scene for almost the first time since he took the part. As is usually the case for Pertwee, the adversity does him good, and his game is upped accordingly.
It’s not entirely clear that this is a healthy position for the series to be in. It’s suddenly flipped to where the major engine of interest and excitement in the show is the villain, while the Doctor is, absent the villain, kind of a pompous bore. The villain makes everything a lush, thrilling carnival of scares. The hero plays bridge with rich people and yells at the tea lady. It works. It’s even very very good. But as Doctor Who, it seems to be stretching the concept to its breaking point.