Thursday, July 11, 2013

Terror of the Autons - "Vicious, complicated, and inefficient. Typical of your way of thinking."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Terror of the Autons - Details

Series 8, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #55) | Previous - Next | Index

Enter the Master.

Roger Delgado has a well-deserved place of honor in hearts of Doctor Who fans and relishing the opportunity to watch the story in which he was introduced for the first time in years. (Seriously, it's probably been a quarter century since the last time I watched this one.) In addition to Delgado's debut, I have fond memories of the chair that eats that guy, the crazy little attack troll doll, and the inroduction of the Doctor's new assistant, Jo Grant. And, of course, since it's an Auton story, that means Pertwee gets to crank the gurning up to 11!

Here's Sandifer's capsule review:
The series is pulling itself apart at the seams as it tries to decide if it’s a gaudy, glam rock spectacle or a serious-minded action adventure show.1 But in the course of that comes this, a story where the contrasts between the two approaches end up balancing perfectly to produce something quite remarkable. It falters frequently - neither the Master nor the Doctor quite work in it - but when it’s on its game, and it is more often than it isn’t, it’s absolutely phenomenal. 8/10
That bit about the two main characters not quite working, I disagree. Look, there's a fundamental flaw in the Master's character, that is to say, in the concept of the Master as a character (certainly the character's character flaws are numerous!) though it's the kind of flaw I think fans could debate whether it's a feature or a bug, as it were. His plans are always overly-complex and byzantine, and as much as he wants power and to destroy the Doctor in getting it, you can't help but sense he doesn't really want the power as much as he wants to fight for it, and he doesn't want to destroy the Doctor as much as he wants to be in the act of destroying the Doctor, so if his plans ever came to fruition, he'd be sort of purposeless. The introduction of the Master also changes the Doctor a little, and establishes that while he and the Master act like mortal enemies, it's really quite a fraternal rivalry they're engaged in. It's a strange relationship that will echo through the years and into the new series under RTD.

The Master is often explained as a Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes, but that comparison doesn't really work, even if it's the inspiration for his character because, though we may think of Moriarty as being a significant rival for Holmes, it's not in the Conan Doyle stories where we actually see them square off. Except for one scene in "The Adventure of the Final Problem" where Holmes vividly relates to Watson Moriarty's visit to Baker St., we mostly just hear about Moriarty in vague, sweeping terms about their titanic struggles against one another. Moriarty was designed (allegedly) to kill off Holmes -- though if Conan Doyle were serious about that, one suspects he wouldn't have left himself the out of not producing a body or having the death witnessed -- yet the Master can never destroy the Doctor; he's designed to be a recurring character, not the annihilation of the series. Moriarty lives large in the world of Holmes thanks to movies and non-canonical stories, but he's really barely there. A more apt parallel might be to think of the Master as Blofeld to the Doctor's Bond.

While watching this one I was struck by what was probably rather obvious to everyone else, but I'd not noticed until now -- Rose is very much like a second coming of Jo Grant. Nine faces off against the Nestene in his debut, in an earthbound story, where meets a lovely young lady who at first might not seem like she's got the brains to be companion material, but eventually turns out to be quite brilliant in her own way. There's more than a little physical resemblance between Katy Manning and Billie Piper as well. RTD really was mining and reinventing the classic series back in 2005.

Finally, as I mentioned in the comments and am chagrined I forgot to include when first publishing this post, at some point we're going to have to have an uncomfortable discussion about race and the classic series. The inclusion of yet another mute black strongman (shades of Toberman) spoils what's otherwise a guiltless pleasure. Yes, it was another era and we'd lose a lot of babies if we threw out all the bathwater of the last century's casual racism. This is far from the most egregious case of dehumanizing a non-white character in popular entertainment of the post-MLK, Jr. era, but it's also important to remember that there were people who knew better, and should have known better, who presented this kind of stuff long after the point by which society had been confronted with its racist attitudes. At some point, and I don't know where we draw the line, only unreconstructed bigots continued to perpetrate these sorts of borderline white supremacist portrayals of the non-white characters in their productions.

I'm planning to watch "The Talons of Weng Chiang" again soon and am going to have to acknowledge the weird Orientalism of that story, while at the same time confessing that has been since first viewing, and remains to this day, one of my absolute favorites of the entire run, classic and new, of the series.

1. For more about the competing aesthetic dynamics of the series during the Pertwee years, the Glam v. the Action, check out TARDIS Eruditorum - An Unauthorized Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 3: Jon Pertwee.

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