Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part one)

There were a few big changes for Doctor Who as it started its eighth season. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks returned as producer and script editor. Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney, and John Levene were all back, but there were three major new additions to the cast.

First up, there’s Richard Franklin as Captain Mike Yates. The producers correctly decided that UNIT would feel more alive if it didn’t just cast new speaking parts with each new serial. Levene went from a recurring character to one who appears in each “present day” story, but the Brig needed a junior officer rather than an enlisted man for closer collaboration. Ian Marter, who would later play a different regular part, Harry Sullivan, was almost cast as Yates but had a prior commitment which would interfere with filming later stories. It’s kind of become trendy to mock Franklin’s casting; he doesn’t really radiate the macho action-officer vibe the writers seemed to want, but I like the character. He’s a bit ordinary here, but he gets a surprisingly good storyline a little later on.

And then there’s Katy Manning. On the one hand, her character, Jo Grant, is a very deliberate step backward from the resourceful and intelligent Zoe and Liz, and some of Terrance Dicks’s commentary about the requirements of a Doctor Who companion seem less and less sensible the older we get. She’s scatterbrained and silly. But she’s fantastic all the same. For somebody in the “damsel in distress” school of Who, she’s much more able than her dumb foibles in this episode would suggest, and she grows and matures like few other Who companions are allowed to. Jo is one of the greats.

But this episode is completely dominated by the villains. The Autons don’t get to do very much this time out, but never mind them, because the great Roger Delgado is here as the Master.

I don’t like the Master, generally. I just really, really like Roger Delgado. He spent his career playing forgettable guest star parts, a sheikh here, a Spanish ambassador there, usually a villain, usually quickly dispatched. Many of his earliest performances are lost, but he’s in two episodes of Quatermass II from 1955 and he’s the best thing about that whole fun production. Well, episode six is completely ridiculous, but the other five parts are pure quality and Delgado’s journalist is my favorite thing in them. See, it’s not that the Master’s a great villain; he’s usually a very silly and, eventually, tiresome villain, and every other actor who has ever played other incarnations of the Master is operating in Delgado’s long shadow, because he’s that good.

(Well, I guess Peter Pratt got to do something different and strange in his one-off appearance, but Anthony Ainley didn’t impress me until his last performance in the role, in 1989’s “Survival.” The less said about Eric Roberts drezzzing for the occasion in ’96 the better, Derek Jacobi didn’t have time to make an impact, and John Simm was godawful in his first two appearances. Michelle Gomez has been the first performer to really consistently satisfy me since Delgado, but even she was hamstrung by a self-consciously “wacky” Jim Carrey Riddler direction in “Death in Heaven.” She, and her scripts, improved a hundredfold after that, and darn if Simm didn’t rein it in and be completely fantastic in last week’s new episode.)

Anyway! Our son better get used to the Master, because he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. “You can X out me liking him,” he said with eyes wide. “He even shrunk that guy and put him in his own lunchbox!” He also noted that the Autons look somewhat different to the way we saw them last time. I foreshadowed a bit, and reminded him that anything plastic can be an Auton, not just mannequins.

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