‘Terror of the Autons’ launched Doctor Who Season Eight in 1971. Written by series stalwart Robert Holmes, the tale was a sequel to the previous year’s ‘Spearhead from Space’ and saw the return of the dreaded shop window dummies. And, in this instance, clowns. And daffodils. (And other plastic paraphernalia.)
But this Third Doctor story was important for many other reasons. Just how well do you know ‘Terror of the Autons’?
1) It was a tale of many firsts
Now you probably know that ‘Terror of the Autons’ was the first to feature the Doctor’s new companion in the form of Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning. And it also introduced the Time Lord’s arch enemy the Master – played by Roger Delgado – and a new UNIT regular in the shape of Captain Mike Yates, played by Richard Franklin.
But, more obscurely, this serial was also the first in Doctor Who history to make use of the BBC’s new Television Rehearsal Rooms (known informally as the Acton Hilton) which would be oft-frequented throughout much of the classic series’ run.
In addition, ‘Terror of the Autons’ was the first to adopt a new recording method. Up until this point, Doctor Who episodes had been filmed on a one-at-a-time, week-by-week basis, but the producer Barry Letts opted to change this in 1971, meaning that fortnightly pairs of episodes would now be shot back-to-back.
The serial also took a new approach to post production. For the first time in Doctor Who history, the composer Dudley Simpson was handed time-coded copies of the edited episodes, meaning that he could write music that matched the on-screen action. For Simpson, this amounted to approximately five minutes’ worth of music for each episode.
2) ‘Terror of the Autons’ was originally called ‘Spray of Death’
‘Spray of Death’ was Robert Holmes’ working title for this story, referring to the (spoiler alert) plastic film emitted by the evil daffodils, which clung to people’s faces and suffocated them.
Although the history of ‘Terror of the Autons’ stretched back much further than its working title. It had originally been commissioned the previous year as a six-part serial, under the less evocative title of ‘Serial EEE.’ However, when Barry Letts became Doctor Who‘s new producer, he had a strong desire to move away from longer stories, feeling that audiences tended to lose interest as the adventures progressed.
And when he saw the success that ‘Spearhead from Space’ had enjoyed, he opted to commission a sequel from Robert Holmes, which nudged ‘Serial EEE’ (with a protracted episode length) back to Season Eight.
3) Not all of it was written by Robert Holmes
As is typical in film and TV production, the ‘Terror of the Autons’ scripts were tweaked by members of the cast when taken to the rehearsal room. For example, when the circus owner Rossini says to the Doctor (referring to the Master) that “his name is none of your business,” the Doctor replies with a sardonic, “Oh – strange name.” This line was improvised by Jon Pertwee.
Similarly, Roger Delgado (the Master) had fun with some of his dialogue. In episode four – when he’s confronting the Doctor in the UNIT lab – he refers to his rival as his “intellectual equal,” before taking a beat and adding, “almost.” Again, this was a line added by the actor to give his character a greater sense of pomposity.
And despite these dialogue tweaks, not every unscripted moment in ‘Terror of the Autons’ was deliberate. For instance, when the Doctor and Jo Grant meet in episode one – and Jo attempts to give her new friend a handshake – it’s a somewhat awkward encounter; Jo holds out her hand in the wrong place, and the Doctor has to work around the lab equipment in order to shake it. This was entirely accidental on Jo Grant’s part, as the actor Katy Manning couldn’t see what she was doing owing to her myopic vision.
4) ‘Terror of the Autons’ was controversial at the time
‘Terror of the Autons’ was one of the first serials in Doctor Who history to raise questions about the level of horror on display. The newspaper The Daily Telegraph argued that there was too much, claiming that the way in which the show evoked children’s everyday domestic lives raised the horror to an unacceptable level (it may have been referring to the evil troll doll that goes on the rampage in episode two.) Similarly, ‘Terror of the Autons’ received an unfavourable mention in the House of Lords by Baroness Bacon, who wondered if the story had given children nightmares.
Moreover, the police wrote to the Doctor Who production team to complain about the way that they had been portrayed. They were keen that children should feel protected by their local bobbies, and stated that the scene in which some evil Auton cops rescued the Doctor from a riot had been unhelpful.
And whilst there were certainly reports of children being impacted negatively by this story – with some refusing to take their teddy bears to bed, for fear that they would attack them – ‘Terror of the Autons’ did, in fact, have the opposite effect on some youngsters. Indeed, a number of children wrote to the BBC programme Ask Aspel to complain that they found the story too silly, referring to the climactic battle at the end of episode four in which the Master attempts to unleash the power of the Nestene Counsciousness with a radio transmitter.
5) People thought Roger Delgado was the Doctor
As bizarre as this may sound, this was a genuine problem that occurred when ‘Terror of the Autons’ was first transmitted. The problem stemmed from a Radio Times cover promoting the start of a brand new Doctor Who season, sporting a large picture of Roger Delgado. And although, as you know, Delgado was playing the Doctor’s enemy the Master, the BBC’s Head of Drama Shaun Sutton felt that people would be confused.
And he wasn’t the only one. Jon Pertwee, too, expressed displeasure about the story’s publicity.
Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the cast for ‘Terror of the Autons’ could have looked markedly different – even without Roger Delgado in the titular role(!) The actor Ian Marter was originally offered the part of Mike Yates, but he had to pull out as he was enable to commit to the rest of Season Eight. Similarly, the actors Rula Lenska and Anouska Hempel were, at one point, in the running to play the Doctor’s companion Jo Grant.
Of course, that role ultimately went to Katy Manning, but even that was touch-and-go. Apparently, when she was offered the part, she was so surprised that she fainted. And when she came round, she thought the entire conversation had been a dream.
It’s a good job she checked!
So there we are – those are five things that you might not know about ‘Terror of the Autons.’ Can you add any more tidbits to the list?
Don’t forget that the Doctor Who: The Collection – Season Eight box set is due out in Blu-ray in 2021, featuring ‘Terror of the Autons’ as its opening serial.
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