Terror of the Autons is a story I’ve grown up with. And it’s grown up with me.
My first exposure to it, and I suspect that of many other fans of my vintage, was its Target novelisation. Second edition, the one with a terrifically moody painting of a gruesome monstrosity, staring balefully out at the reader with its solo eye. Creepy stuff.
Inside the cover, writer Terrance Dicks told the story of UNIT ingénue Jo Grant’s first meeting with the Doctor. Which was odd because another novelisation, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, told that story too. Never mind, it’s a vivid read. I particularly like Dicks’ description of the story’s climactic moment when the Nestene Consciousness descends to Earth via a radio telescope: “It crouched beside the radio telescope tower, dwarfing it, a many-tentacled monster, something between spider, crab and octopus. At the front of its body a single huge eye glared at them, blazing with alien intelligence and deadly hatred.”
The first time I saw the story would have been its 1984 repeat screening on Australian TV (with thanks to this glorious site for jogging my memory), in grainy black and white. It still strikes me as odd that the ABC in the 1980s were happy to interrupt their otherwise full colour broadcasts with monochrome episodes of Doctor Who, but I was glad they did. That’s me there, sitting inches from the TV screen. 10 years old, a fan but with no concept of fandom. Just an avid watcher.
Anyway, Terror of the Autons was perfectly fine in black and white, although I couldn’t help but notice that the many-tentacled monster on the book’s cover turned out to be a fuzzy white vaguely hand-shaped blob above Mike Yates’ head. Well, the disappointment experienced when finally watching a Doctor Who story after having expectations unreasonably raised by its novelisation is a familiar sensation to Whoheads. I’m sure it didn’t stop me watching the story on its next repeat in 1986. By then, I was a genuine, fanzine reading tragic. I may have even tried to watch the story while simultaneously flicking through the book to see how close the two versions were. The things fans do.
So the book matured into the black and white TV version, at least from my perspective. And even if you happened to have seen the story in the UK on its original transmission, chances are you saw it on a black and white TV anyway. For most fans therefore, Terror of the Autons was a colourless experience until 1993, when a colourised version was released on VHS.
Now, the Pertwee era is a patchwork of picture quality, especially for its first three seasons. Most of the original colour videotapes for these stories were wiped, leaving us with a mix of black & white film prints, some NTSC versions sent to North America and the occasional episode that survives in its original PAL format. (Oh, I love a PAL episode. Despite the immense efforts which have gone into restoring these episodes, you still can’t beat them. Watching the first three episodes of The Dæmons is fine, but when episode four comes on, it’s like you’ve taken off a pair of grimy spectacles).
For the viewer, this makes for a slightly disjointed experience if watching the stories in order, as you’re constantly adjusting to the slightly different look each episode has. We’re lucky to have every Pertwee episode in some watchable format – and now every one in some sort of colour – but nonetheless, Terror of the Autons is one of those Imperfect Pertwees.
The growing up continues with the 1993 VHS release (I’m 19, at university and while rich enough to buy beer, too poor to buy a copy. Luckily the local video store had a one.) where the restoration boffins merged a NTSC colour version with a black and white film print. And colour really suits it. Although as you might expect from working with vintage AV material, the colour hardly leaps off the screen. But even in these muted hues, it’s still a vivid experience, all pinks and yellows and wood panel browns. It’s indicative of a series’ growing confidence in its use of colour. And while a story like The Dæmons (also colourised in 1993) was a unique, and in some ways better, experience in black and white, Terror of the Autons, was bigger and bolder in colour. Its highs (like the skirmish with the policemen Autons in the quarry) were higher, its lows (that fuzzy blob of a Nestene again) lower.
Then it’s a big jump to 2011 and the DVD release. And Terror of the Autons looks and sounds better than it ever has. It even has a bit of PAL footage from episode one in it. And me, being a man of what we might laughingly call means these days, buys it. In fact buys the UK version because the cover art is better and has it air mailed around the world to my door. Extravagance!
All the Imperfect Pertwees – your Silurians, your Ambassadors of Death – have gone through similar evolutions, from scratchy monochrome to digitally remastered clarity. But here’s the thing, they’re still imperfect. Compare them to the all PAL Day of the Daleks, and you’ll see what those DVD wizards are aiming for. Problem? Oh no.
Because it means there will always be some further enhancement to make – and a further variation to sell. We’ve already seen it happening. I’m not 100% sure I can see the picture quality improvement on the special edition DVDs for The Claws of Axos and Inferno, but I bought them anyway. If they hand colourised episode one of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and special edition-ed it, I’d probably buy that too. Imperfect those Pertwees may be, but they offer a repeatable income stream.
And the story itself? It’s a mixed bag. Less an Auton story than a series of increasingly bizarre assassination attempts by the Master. The start of the UNIT family. The beginning of the dumbing down of the Brigadier. A grumpy, snobby Doctor. But you know all this. You’ve heard it all before. Because you, like me, have grown up with Terror of the Autons.
LINK to Dr. Who and the Daleks. In both, the Doctor attempts to make a trip in the TARDIS mid story, only to be foiled by a faulty component.
NEXT TIME: Doctor Who is required! We dig the fab gear of The War Machines.