Five Hundred Eyes

Terror of the Autons

Terror of the Autons - the best story of the eighth season, and the only story of that season bar The Daemons which actually works better in colour than in monochrome (judging The Mind of Evil by the quarter-minute or so that exists in colour) ...

Terror of the Autons is perhaps the gaudiest of stories, perhaps also the least convincing CSOer. Colours are primary, while a museum, a police car's windows, another car's back seat, a telephone box, a factory floor, a radio telescope gantry, and much more besides, are all 2D CSO creations. All this is true. And yet ...

FHE #1 - I raved about Spearhead from Space. I was wrong. I've changed my mind - Terror is a LOT better, because, you see, the docu-drama style isn't the best route along which to approach a concept like the Autons.

Why are the Autons (forget the Nestenes, which we only briefly see as tentacles or a shimmery SFX blob) the best aliens to appear in Who? Because they are, in a sense, the ONLY aliens. Asimov once wrote that the ultimate challenge facing an SF writer is to portray a race of (alien) beings who can think as well as a man, but not like a man. Who is television, television is visual, so if any "alien" thought-processes are to be shown they have always to be different-yet-very- recognisable - the Draconians' social structure is modelled on the Japanese warrior-honour code, the Usurians are money-mad bureaucrats. And so on.

Television is visual - so tv's version of the Big Challenge is to give us a race of aliens who exist as physically as human beings, but in a totally different way. Judged by this criteria, most Who aliens tend to flop. If they're not robots, which don't count, they're just like us - a bit uglier, perhaps, but still your basic flesh- and-blood, irrespective of the texture of that flesh or the colour of that blood. Plant creatures are no good 'cos fibre-and-sap is too close to flesh-and-blood. It's life, but just as be know it.

If Zygons, Krynoids and the like are too close to us, energy-creatures are too distant - non-corporeal, vague, difficult to relate to in any way. Stone-creatures? Silicon-based beings? Too difficult to present convincingly as animate lifeforms. We either have a bloody great stone lurching towards us, which looks silly (the Ogri), or what are (visually) standard flesh-and-blood aliens who just happen to have skin which is coarse, grey and lumpy (Bok, the Kastrians). Which puts us back at square one. So what's left?

How about plastic?

It's solid and tangible enough to relate to. Unlike stone it's sufficiently malleable and flexible to be convincing in its own right as a medium of existence. In other words, it's PERFECT. The Autons are perfect.

So why is Terror of the Autons so much better than Spearhead from Space AS AN AUTON STORY?

Specifics: the Spearhead Autons are too robotic. There's an electronic hum when they move, a piercing homing note when they're near an energy-unit. The Brigadier calls them robots. Their faces are too like Cybernauts, which are robots.

The Terror versions don't make funny buzzing noises when they move, don't look like Cybernauts as much as Greek heads from the Cyclades, and so are more like weird LIVING CREATURES. So strong is this impression, that when the Auton leader speaks in an electronically-synthesized voice, the effect is one of actual incongruity - which only goes to make the weirdness weirder. Right? Right.

More generally: Terror's production-values are more apt. As I've said, they're bright, colourful, gaudy, unconvincing, false. And the incidental music is brashly complementary - those sickening, sliding electronic tones signal not robotic, but UNNATURAL. Now folks, what substance is peculiarly associated with precisely that sort of shiny, shallow, ersatz primary colourfulness? Right first time.

Terror of the Autons, one might say, is the ultimate in self-conscious, self-referential fictionality, the whole look of the show mirroring the very concept of the Autons!

Don't try to tell me that it's all because it was an early colour story, or an early CSO story, and that therefore it HAD to be false and bright - tell that to Season 7. No, Terror is no more an accident of colour than Kandinsky's 'Fugue', or 'Black Increasing'.

Unfortunately, the production team then decided, for some perverse reason, to apply the SAME production-values to a story which DON'T need 'em, The Claws of Axos. Result: disaster. The Mind of Evil was even worse, as that was a story which positively DID demand the gloomy grit of Season 7.

(The Daemons was different. That story had a visual richness ˆ la Season 14, but fell into the trap of having a first episode that was too good for the rest of the story's own good - a fault shared, on a lower level, by Earthshock. But I digress.)

The look of Terror of the Autons was indeed a product of its time, but in a different way. It's not just that some rotten company WAS then giving away plastic flowers with soap-powder; it's not just that some particularly ugly Danish dolls WERE then on the market. It's the whole look of the early 70s - clothes in artificial looking primaries, furniture and ornaments in ... plastic. Even more than 1968's The Mind Robber, Terror of the Autons brilliantly captures the zeitgeist of its own particular age and distorts it into TERROR. One might argue that a plastic chair coming to life and smothering its occupant wouldn't strike quite such a creepy chord nowadays, when no one would dream of even making such a thing. In the same way, it's incongruous to look at men's clothes ads in old magazines from that era, which boast that not a trace of the natural colour of the wool remains - the fact that the plum-coloured dye will never wash out of the three-piece suit is the big selling- point.

(Late 80s stories capture the ethos, the zeitgeist of the late 80s superbly. Make of that what you will.)

In fact, however, Terror is not really dated, for seen today it appears (unintentionally?) more alarming for different reasons. Precisely because we are no longer in the 70s, the sense of reality-distortion is all the greater. After all, a chair is still recognisably a chair, be it made out of clammy black plastic ... but it's now an ALIEN chair. At the time Terror was a simple case of Everyday- into-Menace; now the Everyday is seemingly distorted in the first place. The effect is not unlike the colour remakes of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' or 'The Thing', in which aliens imitate humanity, but in such a way that the alien always shows - grotesquely, evilly - through the facade ... Thus the armchair, familiar in itself seventeen years ago, now seems like an unpleasant and not-wholly- successful alien attempt to imitate the norm. Likewise the blackly funny killer doll, whose cute gingerbread-man buttons fail to disguise the great grinning fangs. (Likewise also the hollow eyes of the window-dummies in Spearhead (see FHE #1) - again probably not deliberate, as the actors had to be able to see where they were going.)

Ramsey Campbell's 'Parasite', quoted in Stephen King's 'Danse Macabre'; a department store is the setting: "A group of toddlers watched her pass, their eyes paintyed into their sockets. On the ground floor, red and pink and yellow hands on stalks reached from her from the glove counter. Blind mauve faces craned on necks as long as arms; wigs roosted on their heads ...

"The bald man was still staring at her. His head, which looked perched on top of a bookcase, shone like plastic beneath the fluorescent lights. His eyes were bright, flat, expressionless as glass; the thought of a display head stripped of its wig. When a fat pink tongue squeezed out between his lips, it was as if a plastic head had come to life."

Lurid and nasty, a cold, bright, bad-trip version of familiar reality - Terror to a tee.

*  *  *  *

If Spearhead was Holmes's subtle dig at vacuous politicians and bureaucrats (compare the following by Orwell: "When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases ... one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them ..."), then Terror is a more general assault on tawdry consumer- materialism. Possibly an unconscious reflection rather than an actual "message"; although consumerism figures largely inthe story, what with a banal advertising gimmick forming a crucial plot device ("PLASTIC IS COMING TO TOWN!" burble the stickers on the Autons' coach), and what with the killer weapons all being basic consumer objects.

Thus is the physical distortion paralled by a typically Who-ish moral/political/social-message-through-exploitation-of-current-trends. Just as Kit Pedler argued that dehumanising science might turn us into unfeeling machines, so Robert Holmes seems to be saying that we risk ending up as cheapened and insubstantial as the ugly, ephemeral plastic gewgaws that we insist on buying.

We must be thankful that the third Auton story never came to fruition. JN-T's imbecilic desire to see the Autons in action in Singapore would have gone a long way towards disrupting the effectiveness of both the physical (for fear) and the theoretical (for didacticism) distortions which made Terror so memorable. To most Who viewers, Singapore is itself an alien world, and as Morris Barry so rightly says, the programme works best when the unreal is inserted into the real, or vice versa, and not when the unreal is bunged into the unreal.

In fairness, Bob Holmes's plan to have his Autons develop an affinity for RUBBER was also a bad idea. Rubber has indeed many and varied connotations, but commercialism is not one of them. The sinister sheen is lacking, too. And for what other reasons should rubber have been adopted? I can think of none.

(Looking back over the last paragraph but one, I've noticed that a bit of largely gratuitous JN-T- bashing has crept in, for which I apologise. It's just that I've today read a rather barbed preview of Remembrance in the Observer which, together with an AWFUL trailer, spurred me to't.)

Looking back over the last paragraph (in parentheses), it's suddenly occured to me that the advance data on The Happiness Patrol suggests that something rather similar to Terror is in the offing. Bright, distorted ... Alas, it also suggests that Patrol will be altogether too self-consciously self-conscious to have a hope in hell of succeeding.

Do see Terror of the Autons if you get the chance, and do see it IN COLOUR. The acting and direction are pretty good, too, and there are some nice stunts as well.

Issue three contents
Five Hundred Eyes index