Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part two)

So, season eight of Doctor Who. It’s more colorful, isn’t it?

It’s not just the costumes, but they’re a start. Jon Pertwee has traded in his black and white for red and purple. In later stories, he’ll find some green and blue smoking jackets. The UNIT men have traded their beige uniforms for green. Caroline John had worn dark reds and blues. Katy Manning, the new companion, is very pink and yellow. And then there are the backgrounds…

Season eight is when Barry Letts made a more obvious mark on the look and feel of the program. He’d been brought on to produce season seven in an incredible rush, and was told to get some ideas together for a replacement program, because nobody at the BBC was certain that Who would continue after Pertwee’s first four stories. Letts would occasionally mention a little about what he’d worked out as that replacement: Snowy Black, sort of a BBC version of an ITC action drama with an Australian cowboy lead character. Since the same pipe-smoking “serious drama” people who ran the corporation were already unhappy about Paul Temple being sort of a BBC version of an ITC action drama, it’s hard to imagine Snowy Black succeeding. Letts never seemed to go into much detail into what he imagined for Snowy Black, and since he never revived the idea after leaving Who, he probably didn’t spend all that much time developing it.

Letts agreed to produce Who if he could still occasionally direct, and so “Terror of the Autons” became his return to the control room. It is colorful, garish, and looks downright weird. Letts fell completely in love with the blue-screen chromakey tech, and used it for every possible special effects shot, including creating places like museums, and, in part two, the kitchen of a small house. It’s not that it all looks fake necessarily – although it certainly does – it’s that it looks amazingly unreal.

You aren’t supposed to look at the environments of a television narrative, even environments as seen in modern TV that are created entirely by CGI over green-screen sets, and ask what in the world you’re seeing. You go to the movies and intuitively, immediately, instantaneously understand that Benedict Cumberbatch, dressed as Dr. Strange, was in a studio and computers filled in the weird world around him. You see the actress Barbara Leake in front of what seems to be a kitchen and it all looks so amazingly wrong that it becomes weirdly unsettling.

And it keeps happening! The same scene includes a pair of shots where the troll doll, an Auton weapon used by the Master, is played by an actor in a suit CSO’ed onto the “sitting room” set, and the special effects people can’t get the doll’s size right in relation to the furniture. So the milliseconds that it should take to process these weird images get a little prolonged. It doesn’t seem “bad,” to me; it seems “wrong.”

The troll doll is one of the great Doctor Who monsters. Does anybody else remember those from the seventies? They were unaccountably popular in the Scandinavian countries, but there was a shop in Vinings GA – the cottage on Paces Ferry where the Old Vinings Inn has thrived for many years – that had some of those beastly things in the windows and on the porch.

The doll succeeded in scaring the pants off my older kids. They watched this serial years apart. My older son was so worried that he asked me to keep his beloved teddy bear, Fluffy, in the den, and to put Fluffy in the freezer if he should come to life. (The Master’s doll is activated by heat.) My daughter saw it about five years later, and she didn’t just have an entire wall full of teddy bears, dolls and stuffed animals, she even had an inflatable chair. She slept in her brother’s bed that night.

Our favorite six year-old critic doesn’t actually have a teddy bear. Fingers crossed!

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