Title: Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons
Televised as: Terror of the Autons
Written by: Terrance Dicks
Teleplay by: Robert Holmes
Televised in: January 1971
Published in: May 1975
Chapters: Four through Nine
The novelization of Terror of the Autons, coming out immediately after Doctor Who and the Giant Robot, is the first time we’ve gotten back-to-back Terrance Dicks on the schedule. It’s not quite the first of his soon-to-be standard 3/3/3/3 books – a four-part story novelized in twelve chapters, with the cliffhangers falling neatly every three chapters, at the end of Chapters 3, 6, 9, and 12. As with Giant Robot, there’s one stray non-conformist, the Episode Three cliffhanger which falls in the middle, rather than at the end, of Chapter 9. Fast-forward two to three years, when the release schedule is dominated by five or six straight 12-chapter Terrance Dicks books, and this might look like a glimpse into a less-than-dazzling future.
But this is still a Terrance with remarkable attention, to detail and at the top of his game. As I alluded to in the last post, talking about the Episode One material, Dicks’ dialogue and scenes go on for much longer than what you’ll remember from the televised serial. My guess (without being in a position to have read Holmes’ final scripts) is that Dicks took his expanded material from a combination of Holmes’ original words, and his own extrapolations and bits of insight.
Certainly the action scenes are more vivid than what was realized in studio. When Jo, hypnotized by the Master, attempts to detonate a bomb in the Doctor’s UNIT lab, the Doctor resolves the cliffhanger with a bit of comic Venusian aikido:
[T]he Doctor lifted Jo off her feet, and literally threw her across the room. “Hold her!” he yelled. Jo cannoned into the two soldiers like a well aimed ball in a skittle alley. All three collapsed in a tangle of arms and legs.
The UNIT/Autons fight at the beginning of Episode Three is also expanded, with an Auton being blown up, something not realized on TV. When the Doctor and Brigadier encounter a stray Auton locked into a safe later in Episode Three, Dicks milks the moment in print by having the thing dismembered with a grenade and by having a heavy desk upturned onto its still-blasting arm/gun. An explosion seen largely off-screen in Episode Two is more vivid on the printed page, leaving behind a “smoking circle of ash where the trees had once stood”.
In addition to the expanded dialogue and action, Dicks adds a non-stop series of witty asides into his characters’ thought processes. When learning of the Master’s hypnotic skills, for example, the Brigadier “had visions of a platoon of hypnotized secret agents on his hands”, and, when the Doctor observes that the Brigadier is likely too stubborn to be hypnotized, Lethbridge-Stewart “stroked his mustache thoughtfully, trying to work out whether or not this was a compliment”. Jo, trying to apologize after the bomb incident, tells herself that “it’s difficult to know what to say to someone you’ve tried to blow up”.
And Dicks adds another dash of Hulke-ian critique at capitalist consumerism. Of the deadly Auton daffodils flooding the market:
Nobody really worried. The public was getting something for nothing, and you can’t complain about that.
But enough about the American electorate of November 2016. Let’s talk more about Terror of the Autons.
Not all of Dicks’ additions are salutary. Written in 1975, editors and publishers would still not flinch when the face of an ugly plastic doll is described in horrifically insensitive racial terms, as Dicks regrettably uses here. Less offensively, but no less bizarre, Captain Yates gets a whole paragraph wondering about why army regulations prohibit him from sporting a beard, mustache, or other whiskers. 1975 may well have been the Year of the Mustache outside of Target’s home office, and I believe Dicks himself even wore a bad mustache in those days, but, I don’t care what year this was written. Those things were never cool.
Dicks also spends more time with Rex Farrel, the Master’s principal victim in this story, and we learn of his abused-child upbringing:
Farrel Senior was a big, tough, self-made man, who had bullied his way to the top through sheer determination. Even in his sixties, he was an imposing figure. Unable to accept that Rex hadn’t inherited his own strength, he had always treated him harshly in an attempt to “put some spine into the boy”. As a natural result, Rex had grown up feeble and indecisive, always living in his father’s shadow.
However, at the same time, even the doomed Farrel Senior “loved his son, in his own way, and was genuinely distressed to see the boy looking so desperately haggard”. Farrel’s wife, presumably also battered in the past, now got on “remarkably well” with him, because “[t]hirty years of marriage to her forceful husband had convinced her that he was always right”. After Farrel’s death, Dicks sympathizes with the widow, because, “without her husband, life was empty as the big house she lived in”.
Beyond the tertiary characters, Dicks also makes good use of the circus that was hired to play Rossini’s company in Episode Two. Here, the Doctor is delighted to ride a carousel and affectionately pats his horse on the nose after riding. We learn that the kidnapped Professor Phillips (Christopher Burgess, who was also invited back for Planet of the Spiders) was pressed into service by the Master as a:
circus clown, stumbling about in the ring with the others, accepting the buckets of water and the blows and the kicks without complaint. It had amused the Master to degrade a brilliant scientist into a mindless buffoon. Under the influence of the Master’s hypnotic power, Phillips had almost forgotten who or what he was.
Dicks is at his best when telling us about the Doctor’s hidden depths. Rossini, bullied by the Doctor even after the latter is tied to a chair, “felt suddenly brightened [by] this tall, stern man, who could coolly issue threats and warnings while lashed to a chair”. The Doctor tries to escape from the chair using muscle-contraction techniques learned from “his old friend, Houdini” (a detail Dicks must have ported in from Planet of the Spiders, the novelization that he wrote directly after this one). In another anachronism, the Doctor recognizes a Sontaran fragmentation grenade, even though Holmes didn’t invent the Sontarans for another three years after writing this story.
The Doctor, although a “strange, outlandish figure”, has “something very reassuring about him”. He also gets an added moment of charm, solely in the book, reassuring Mrs. Farrel that her husband’s death wasn’t in vain: “He was one of the first casualties in a sort of war. What you’ve told us tonight may help to prevent many more deaths…”
Terrance adds extra time getting into the Master’s head, as we even see the renegade Time Lord in a mood of “rare amiability”. Rex Farrel finds that “the Master was by no means immune to a little flattery”. But, boy, does Terrance twist in the knife every time the Master fails in an effort to kill the Doctor:
[H]aving twice failed to kill the Doctor, the Master was salving his enormous vanity by pretending he’d planned things that way all along.
To preserve his enormous vanity, he was forced to pretend that his attempts to kill the Doctor were merely an amusing game, which he could end when he pleased. But each successive defeat was a cause of bitter anger. He began to plan the Doctor’s destruction once more.
Three of the biggest complaints about Terror of the Autons on TV are rendered moot by the novelization. One of them is director Barry Letts’ over-reliance on CSO. As producer of the show, Letts allowed himself to co-write one episode, and to direct one episode, per season. As both producer and director, Letts was fascinated by cost-saving methods, and CSO was most certainly that. Flash-forward 45 years, and green-screen technology is a mainstay of big-budget movie and TV production. But in 1971, the technology wasn’t quite there yet; Letts’ ambitiously used CSO to stand in for a museum and the inside of a lunchbox in Terror of the Autons, and even the shiniest of DVD restorations won’t fix that look now. But, in the book, Terrance is unconstrained by budget, so the museum is actually a museum and the lunchbox is actually a lunchbox.
A second complaint has to do with Brownrose, the man from the Ministry, who appears in a single scene in TV’s Episode Three, to drop exposition about the discovery of the first wave of unexplained Daffodil deaths. The Doctor berates the poor fellow, and reveals that he’s friends with Brownrose’s superior, Lord Rowlands (whom the Doctor knows as “Tubby”). The Doctor reveals that he attends the same club as Rowlands, and has already warned him about paper-pushing civil servants (“The wrong sort of chap is creeping into your establishment”). But that’s not in the book. Seems that Brownrose was added by Dicks and/or Letts late in the game, after Holmes’ involvement with the script ended , or that Dicks never liked the scene and cut it out for the book; Brownrose’s exposition is reassigned to the Brigadier. Thus, the image of the Doctor as an elitist snob who spends his days as a gentleman associating with lords – something that irks a particular strata of Doctor Who fandom – is something you can pretend never happened, thanks to the book. (Also missing is the off-screen character of Mr. Campbell, the electronics supplier, who Jo on TV memorably called her “dolly Scotsman”).
The third, and most serious, complaint, is that the Master switches sides too easily – acts as the Autons’ agent for 90 minutes, but then helps the Doctor defeat them at the merest suggestion that the Nestenes will kill him along with everyone else once they complete their invasion. In the book, Terrance rectifies this by adding several scenes showing how the Autons are displeased by the Master’s constant side plots to kill the Doctor. One of those scenes makes the relationship between the Master and the Nestenes explicitly similar to the wonderfully symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship between a nail and a hammer:
A spurt of ungovernable rage shook the Master. “You dare to criticize me?”
There was no emotion in the dead Auton voice. It could feel none. Flatly it said, “I speak for the Nestene High Command. You risk failure in your principal task. Such failure will be punished.”
The Master controlled himself with an effort. It was humiliating for him to depend on the help of these plastic puppets. But he needed them.
The Doctor also reminds the Master: “Your plan failed. You didn’t fulfill your promises. The first act of the new Nestene rulers will be to execute you”. The Brigadier is present at this moment, and offers to shoot the Master if he doesn’t cooperate.
Then there was the Brigadier and his revolver. Time Lords are immensely strong and resilient. They can live to an enormous age. They can change their appearance. They have many strange and mysterious powers. But they are not immortal. The bullets from a service revolver at close range would end the Master’s life as effectively as they would that of a mere human being.
All in all, thought the Master, perhaps it was time to change sides …
Added moments like these make the novelization a joy to read. In fact, some moments have only gotten better with the passage of time. When the Master invades UNIT HQ in the Episode Four material, to kill (and later kidnap) the Doctor, in the book we learn that he hypnotized his way into the otherwise-secure building: “A number of UNIT sentries firmly believe that they have just admitted the Prime Minister”. Once the Master regenerates into John Simm in the year 2007… that’s exactly who they’ve admitted.
We also get an insight into the Doctor’s thought processes as he sets about trying to defeat the Master, and the following passage is worthy of James Bond himself:
Beneath his apparent calm, the Doctor’s mind was racing. He knew the Master would be unable to resist the opportunity to explain his own cleverness. The Doctor was relying on this to buy him time. Moreover, he really did want to know the answers. He wasn’t dead yet, and the more he could get out of the Master the better.
So, what looks like a standard assembly-line novelization of a four-part TV story takes on unexpected dimensions when you go page by page and compare it to the TV product. This is arguably not one of Dicks’ best-known novelizations, but it’s certainly a good place to stop and examine just why he’s still celebrated today. Next Time, we’ll wrap up our look at Terror of the Autons by taking a look at how he salvages the Part Four material from TV. And then, after that, it’s the long-awaited return of Malcolm Hulke to the novelizations.