Aired 2 – 23 January 1971
Jon Pertwee’s first season stands up as some of the very best and consistent British science fiction of the era, tackling mature themes while also proving that the shift to colour and setting the stories during one time period on Earth could breathe new life into the franchise. Beginning Pertwee’s second series, ‘Terror of the Autons’ takes a step back from the high-concept, instead offering a thrilling and frightening adventure that, though perhaps light on plot, is brimming with iconic moments that left an indelible mark on public consciousness.
After proving to be such an incredible success the year before, the Autons return with another plan for world domination. Writer Robert Holmes proves adept at making the mundane absolutely petrifying, and the use of plastic mannequins, dolls, flowers, and even armchairs as weapons of destruction is terribly brilliant in its elegant simplicity. Doctor Who thrives when the commonplace becomes anything but, and the Autons exemplify this perfectly, the plastics here sometimes literally scaring their victims to death. The villains here also know how to exploit humans’ need for oxygen, and the Doctor fighting to save his new companion, Jo Grant, from suffocation is played to great effect.
Although the plot may not do too much to distinguish itself from ‘Spearhead from Space’ in the long run, it certainly refines the concept while pushing the boundaries of what Doctor Who can do. However, it is notable for introducing Roger Delgado as the Master, a character clearly with evil intentions given his garb but one who manages to come off as charming and eloquent at the same time. Even setting the Master up as the Doctor’s equal, the fact that the Master cannot possibly win is handled well, treating his plans almost like a game in which he revels in the scheming but never really has the heart to carry out the ultimate sanction. He clearly loathes losing and becomes terrifyingly vindictive instantly, but Delgado gives the impression that his character is seeking a validation of sorts from his rival, a captivating aspect that speaks volumes about the man beneath the goatee and black suit. Having the two ultimately come together to fight a common foe is fitting given the circumstances, but it is nonetheless strange that it happens in the Master’s introductory episode, taking away a bit of his menace from the outset.
As alluded to above, the arrival of Katy Manning’s Jo Grant is the other major talking point of ‘Terror of the Autons.’ With Liz Shaw having departed off-screen, Jo steps in as a vivacious if less scientific companion than her predecessor. The script itself even pokes fun at this shift in dynamics, highlighting what a stereotypical companion to the Doctor is as his request for a competent scientist is refused and is instead given someone whom he is told can pass him test tubes admirably. Jo struggles to find her way in a world full of condescending men, and it brings out a more compassionate side to Pertwee’s Third Doctor than seen previously, even manifesting in his surprising support of the Brigadier whom he has perhaps begrudgingly grown to respect.
Even if ‘Terror of the Autons’ isn’t quite as revolutionary as ‘Spearhead from Space’ and takes a bit of a step backwards in terms of mature themes and progressive female characters, it is unequivocally one of the most frightening and iconic stories of the classic series, proving the Autons to be a superb recurring threat and introducing the wonderful Roger Delgado’s Master, a character already seemingly perfectly refined from the start.