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Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part four)

Like many middle-aged American Doctor Who fans, I first found the series via the edited-into-a-movie omnibus versions that Lionheart syndicated in the mid-eighties. By that time, the BBC had wiped several of their color copies of Jon Pertwee episodes, and so five of the stories, including this one, were offered as black-and-white movies. I taped my copy off WGTV one Saturday night in 1986 and watched it so often I can still recite whacking great chunks of dialogue.

Color copies in various levels of condition – often poor – circulated for most of the episodes as well. A decade previously, Time-Life had successfully sold most of the Jon Pertwee stories, in their proper episode-by-episode form, to several PBS stations around the country. At least one person copied a 1977 broadcast of “Terror” on Chicago’s WTTW, and I landed a copy around 1991 or so. My eyes just about fell out of my skull when I saw it, not because the quality was so poor – it was probably fifth or sixth generation – but because it proved that the BBC’s black-and-white master copy had been cut by five or six seconds.

The black-and-white “Terror” that I’d seen a hundred times was one where the UNIT forces defeat the Autons pretty decisively. The shootout at the radio telescope at the show’s climax was kind of disappointing, but UNIT had the upper hand, for once. That’s because somebody decided to carefully snip out every shot in which a human gets blasted or knocked off the tower. It’s so nice to have a complete color copy of this fun story at last.

Our son also thought this was very fun in the end, giving this his thumbs-up “pretty cool” seal of approval. He thought the Autons’ daffodil was “crazy.” I remember reading about the daffodil around a year or so before I saw this story and thinking that was exceptionally grim when I was a teen: a weapon that kills you by gluing four square inches of clingfilm around your nose and mouth. Best not to linger on it. It’s no less grim in the cold light of middle age.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part three)

Last night’s episode, while “super duper scary,” did not produce any nightmares. I asked our son about it today and he said “Nope! I didn’t have a bad dream. I only had one dream, and it was about ice cream.” Nevertheless, when the Auton troll doll came back to life in tonight’s episode, he was back behind the sofa like a rocket.

For a long time in the eighties, the carnival-headed Autons were the only ones we had photos of. I love the delightful garish fellows in their “Plastic Comes to Town” bus, giving out the strange plastic daffodils. Although it did mean that I pictured these big-headed guys when I read the Terrance Dicks’s novelization of their first appearance, “Spearhead from Space,” which was entitled Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion. When I saw “Spearhead” some time later, at a Terminus TARDIS meeting at Emory, I was surprised to see those Autons were shop window mannequins with normal-sized heads.

This story’s writer, Robert Holmes, is often praised for how well he created worlds and backgrounds in dialogue without resorting to clumsy exposition. Probably only Douglas Adams did it as well as Holmes. Over these three episodes, we’ve seen so much about the Farrell family with so little screen time devoted to them. I didn’t really connect all the dots until Tat Wood pointed them out in volume 3 of About Time, but isn’t it strange that John Farrell and Mr. McDermott are so set in their ways that they don’t want Colonel Masters as a customer, even though the old plastics factory is clearly failing, running at less than half capacity, and this mysterious colonel is, on the surface, going to keep them at full production? The elder Farrell retires, their son turns the dying business around, and these two idiots can only think that Rex, played by Michael Wisher, must have done something wrong. Well, it turns out that he did, and he gets both of them killed, but their first instinct when they hear “revolutionize” is “Oh, God, what has Rex done now?”

I also note that there is no indication that Rex has visited his mother in the wake of his father’s murder. They must have had a grim and unhappy life, and then the Master came and made it even worse.

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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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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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Doctor Who: Inferno (part four)

“Inferno” gained its wild reputation from its tone of accelerating doom, which starts very slowly and trickles through episodes three and four until it hits the amazing climax of this story, which is brilliantly directed and features one of Jon Pertwee’s best performances as the Doctor. But to be brutally honest, most of part four is very frustrating. Our son certainly felt it. As the Doctor tells the truth again and again and is ignored again and again, he shouted “He’s telling them the truth!” It’s a real sense of desperation, with our hero just not able to get out of this mess.

I think episodes three and four could easily have been combined into one and this would have been an even better six-parter. This one’s incredibly repetitive, and not just with the Doctor re-explaining the parallel world situation. We get more scenes of Olaf Pooley being obstinate in both universes, and more of the simmering desperation of Derek Newark trying to get Sheila Dunn to listen, all hammered home again and again, just in case anybody in the audience missed the previous part.

But that cliffhanger! Apparently Douglas Camfield wanted to use stock music and occasional special atmospheric effects rather than let any musician, even one he really trusted, interfere with his desire to make the increasing noise of the drill be the focus. It leaves the actors having to shout over it. The cliffhanger is brilliantly paced, with the Doctor begging everyone to listen while trying to avoid being captured again, and it ends with Pooley cornering him with a pistol while the countdown gets closer and closer to zero. I think that Barry Letts directed this one from Camfield’s detailed battle plan. It’s completely fantastic and left our son wide-eyed and breathless.

We’ll leave it there for a couple of days and give him time to wish we could see the next part right now, right this very minute.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part one)

Yesterday morning, we took our six year-old son to his first cave, a very, very safe and gentle experience called Fairyland Caverns at a local tourist attraction called Rock City. It’s atop Lookout Mountain, and, in that dopey-dad way, I said “Boy, I hope there aren’t any Sleestak in here,” and then hung back and, later, started hissing. “I know that’s you, Dad,” our son bellowed.

Fourteen years ago, our son’s older brother was also six and I took him to Rock City’s sister attraction, Ruby Falls, which is far, far below Rock City at the bottom of the mountain. In that dopey-dad way, I said to him “Boy, I hope there aren’t any Silurians in here,” and the kid started crying. I didn’t even need to shake my head around and growl “This is our planet! We were here before man!” Tears just flowed immediately.

Ruby Falls is on the calendar for a little later than age six for this boy, just in case that deep cave is too frightening. When the time comes, I still intend to hope aloud that there aren’t any Silurians in it.

Anyway, with Derrick Sherwin rushed off Doctor Who to help shore up Paul Temple, Barry Letts was moved over to become this show’s new producer. Everything was in chaos; even the format of the serial’s title “Doctor Who and…” was evidence that Letts, whose only previous Who experience had been directing “The Enemy of the World” two years before, had to hit the ground running. They promptly decided to use the 21 remaining episodes of the season to tell three large seven-part stories to save money on set and costume design.

Guest stars for the story include Peter Miles and Fulton Mackay, both of whom can safely be called much-loved character actors with credits as long as your arm. This is the first of three seventies Who serials for Miles, who made a career out of playing disagreeably intense but fascinating men with wolf-like smiles. And then there’s Norman Jones, who here plays a mostly-incompetent soldier working security at this research station. He’d been in the show before, in the largely-missing “Abominable Snowmen” in 1967, and would return as a really great villain in Tom Baker’s time.

We don’t know yet from part one what a Silurian is or what it looks like, but there’s definitely a really large dinosaur-like reptile in the caves beneath the research center. This didn’t frighten our son, but it certainly surprised him, and prompted much debate about what kind of dinosaur it might be.

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Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (parts five and six)

Unfortunately, our son is so unhappy with this story that we went ahead and wrapped it up tonight rather than aggravate him any longer than necessary. Nothing really satisfied him with it, though I’m pretty sure the next one we watch will please him more. I honestly didn’t think he’d be wild about it, but the level of his boredom was still a little surprising to me.

For grownups, this really was a pleasure, happy to say. There’s another good twist at the end, and the climactic fight with Salamander is, while far too brief, nevertheless thrilling. I’m fairly sure that Salamander is the first villain to ever make his way inside the TARDIS, and you really feel that sense of occasion and weight, as Patrick Troughton plays both characters, each injured, with gravity and anger. It’s a terrific moment.

In fact, the only thing not to love about this story is the awful performance of an actor named Adam Verney in the role of Colin, one of Salamander’s stooges. There are worse – way, way worse – to come, but wow, is he ever theatrical.

An oddball little note about coincidences and actors: as we’ve watched this story this week, I’ve also been watching a 1972 ATV spy series called Spyder’s Web, and my wife and I have slowly been making our way through the black and white series of The Saint. I’ve been enjoying Milton Johns in the role of Salamander’s sadistic deputy Benek, and there he was this morning in episode seven of Web. Two nights ago, we watched a Saint called “The Invisible Millionaire” which guest-starred Mark Eden, and there he was this afternoon in episode eight of Web. I love it when that happens.

Anyway, “The Enemy of the World” was the last Doctor Who story produced by Innes Lloyd. He went on to be in charge of several prestigious programs at the BBC, including Thirty Minute Theatre, Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, Alan Bennett’s acclaimed Talking Heads, and many of the sort of pipe-smoking critically acclaimed human dramas that don’t have things like Cybermen and Ice Warriors in them. He oversaw some great times for Who, even though it clearly was not the sort of program he really wanted to make. He died in 1991.

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Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (part four)

In the 1990s, some enterprising fans began taking the audio from all the missing episodes of Doctor Who and marrying it to whatever visuals were available. These included a few surviving clips, publicity photos, and “telesnaps” that an entrepreneur named John Cura was taking with a special camera – about three shots a minute – in order to sell to directors and actors who wanted a visual record of their work in the days before home video. These reconstructions are amazing, but they’re not really for me. I’d really rather not experience TV in that way, even if it’s all that’s available. (We are going to watch one next week, though.)

I certainly had friends in the nineties who collected these reconstructions all the same, and one of them was kind of overbearing in his insistence that I spend time watching them with him. I declined, and when I first saw this story a couple of years ago, I was so very glad that I did. See, I’ve only paid the smallest attention to the plot details of the missing stories, and so I had no idea about the spectacular twist at the climax of this episode. In a program as documented and discussed and blogged about and written about and rewritten about, there are not very many surprises left.

In fact, I enjoyed this so much that I’m not going to mention in this blog where exactly Salamander goes for his cigar breaks.

When I was writing about “The Power of the Daleks,” I mentioned that it was common in the sixties for the regular actors to get occasional vacation weeks in the middle of a serial. Part four of “Enemy” is unique in that both Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling are absent; their characters Jamie and Victoria are Salamander’s prisoners. The guest cast began shrinking last week when George Pravda and David Nettheim’s characters were killed. Carmen Munroe’s character also dies in this episode, but Milton Johns and a squad of “guard” bullies take center stage.

Unfortunately, the guards would need to be replaced by Daleks or something to stir our son back into enjoying this story more. “This is not very cool,” he has pronounced. I think he’s wrong, but you can tell that all the Supermarionation shows that he’s enjoyed have had quite an impact when he grumbles “I wish this had some explosions in it.”

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