Sunday, 10 January 2016

Terror of the Autons/The Time Monster

previously published in Whotopia in 2009.

Terror of the Autons

You know one of the things I really like about Doctor Who? It's the little things. In episode one of Terror of the Autons, we see a Time Lord character. He appears for less than five minutes. It's the only thing I know the actor from. But he takes the part with extra gust and is great for it. Lovely little cameos like that.

Terror of the Autons is where the things we all know and love about the Pertwee start to come together. We already had UNIT and The Brigadier, but now we see the d├ębuts of Jo Grant, Mike Yates and The Master. Truly the Pertwee era is born with this story. It is the story of The Master, who wishes to bring the Nestene back to Earth, for reasons unexplained.

Autons holds up rather well for a programme made nearly forty years ago. A lot of the acting – Michael Wisher immediately comes to mind, but there is also a top notch cameo from the recently departed Harry Towb – is excellent. There is some nice dialogue. Jon Pertwee is on fine form (but that is usually a given). Of particular note is the moment where he frightens a pen pusher into helping UNIT. Some other reviews claim that this show ups the Pertwee era as Tory in nature, since The Doctor claims to know senior Whitehall figures, but then, I'd argue that the key word there is “claims”. Besides, his retort to Rossini when Rossini says “Gentleman don't talk about money” (“Gentlemen never talk about anything else!”) is said with enough disdain to show where his feelings lie!

Roger Delgado produces a mesmeric performance as The Master in his first appearance: an adversary who seems to respect the Doctor is all too rare. Thankfully, we were to see him many more times before his tragic death in 1973. The Master hypnotises, connives and charms his way through Terror of the Autons and is never less than fascinating. If it wasn't for the fact that he had that nasty habit of killing folk, and working with invading enemies, and trying to hurt the Doctor, then he would be quite likeable. As it is, he almost is. I think it was Joe Lidster that said that was exactly how the Master should be. He should be charming and likeable, and leave you think “This man is actually not bad” and then, only then, should it occur to you who you are agreeing with. Never was this point of view more obvious than when Roger Delgado was in the role.

Now if you see the title of this story you might expect two things: terror and Autons.

There are Autons, in their second of three appearances to date. Here, they are better than in Rose, and not as good as in Spearhead from Space. They talk! They are however effective at what they do. In a great scene in Part Three, one is knocked down a near fifty foot drop (by the looks of it) and then gets right up again as if nothing had happened! Nightmare fodder. The Autons used to quite honestly scare the beejesus out of me as a lad, and things like this did not help that phobia at all.

And the terror holds up well too. The troll doll is horrific. The daffodil handing out Autons creepy. Would have been nicer if they didn't start talking, but then, the show got in enough trouble as it is with this story. The Auton policemen, who gave me so many nervous nights as a child. And in one of my favourite moments, the Doctor opening a safe only to find an Auton inside! This story does what it says on the label.

Robert Holmes once said that “terrifying the little [children]” was one of the perks of his job. With stories like this, it's easy to see why.  It's not one of the best Pertwee stories – though that is no disgrace, given how strong that era was – but it is still a very good, enjoyable story in its own right. And one that may give a few sleepless nights, or jolts, to the first time viewer even today. I'd call that a success!

The Time Monster

I specifically requested the chance to review The Time Monster for Whotopia. This is because, for possibly the first time in the history of writing, it is about to get a positive review. Because, you see, I love The Time Monster. It will never win an award for greatest Who story ever, greatest Pertwee story ever, or even Greatest Season Nine story ever. But it remains special in its own way, and I feel it only just to celebrate that fact.

This is not your normal Doctor Who story. We start with a dream sequence. The Doctor starts off with a gut feeling The Master is nearby and tries to find out where, on the basis of his dream. To quote the Brigadier: “you'll be consulting the entrails of sheep next!”

The Master is nearby, posing as Prof. Thascales with his TOMTIT machine. (A sort of matter transmitter) He is using it to try and contact a mythical creature of unlimited powers, the Chronovore, which lives in the Time Vortex. To do this, he needs the help of an Atlantean high priest.

So what is so good about The Time Monster? Well: the continual bickering between the Masters helpers, Ingrid Pitt, the episode 3 cliffhanger, Dr Percival correcting The Master's maths, The Doctor and The Master both trying to sort out the TOMTIT problems simultaneously in different rooms, Benton as a baby, “Curses! Foiled again!”, the utterly insane solution to the episode 5 cliffhanger, The Brigadier finally getting one over on a civil servant, the poor Window Cleaner, the poorer Minotaur, The Master pulling out of his lunch engagement after seeing The Brigadier will be there (“I've always been a lifelong pacifist..”), yet another Pertwee era comedy yokel, the Doctor with his tea and many more moments.

But two people manage to completely steal the show. One is Jon Pertwee who gives us an amazing leading mans performance, full of gravitas and strength and over words people use too often in reviews.

The other man is Roger Delgado. He simple owns the entire thing. From his opening moments with Ruth and Stuart, to his conniving with the poor Percival and dimwitted Krasis, to his seduction (what other words are there for it!) of the Queen, and his treatment of Jo, right up to his begging for his life.

The story ends with The Master managing to trick The Doctor. Imploring to the Doctors better sense, the Master has his life spared, and the Master then uses the advantage to escape. He used the Doctors weakness, his compassion against him. Of course, The masters scheme never worked, but he did get that last laugh in on the Doctor. A friend of mine insists that the end of the Time Monster would have been a great last moment for the Delgado Master.

As it is, I am glad we had Frontier In Space to follow, and infinitely sad that we lost such an acting heavyweight far too young.

Without Roger Delgado, this story could have been run of the mill. With him, it is enjoyable and entertaining, and that is all I ask of my Who. The two of them, Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado, could take scripts like this and raise them beyond their means on their sheer talent alone. That alone  would be a fitting legacy.

The Time Monster was co-written by Barry Letts, the Producer of the Jon Pertwee era. As I came to write this, the very sad news broke that Mr Letts died last night after a long battle with cancer. Quite simply, I owe a good chunk of my childhood watching's to that man. Both The Time Monster and Terror of the Autons, and every single other Pertwee era story, enriches the entire history of Doctor Who and fandom simple by being there. Stories like The Time Monster are completely watchable, eve forty years on. That is Barry Letts legacy. And I thank him for it, more sincerely than I can put into words.

It is fun. It is perfectly serviceable middle ground Doctor Who. And we are all the better for having it. So if you read a review that says “less enjoyable than watching paint dry”, or “what were they thinking?” just remember this. Doctor Who fans voted Kinda worst story of Season 19 on first showing, Doctor Who fans thought The Gunfighters was terrible, and Doctor Who fans frequently rely on perceived fandom. So give The Time Monster a try. It's honestly a lot better than you might have expected.

After all, who needs to be Shakespeare or The Caves of Androzani, when you're having this much fun!