Friday 9 July 2010

Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons

The latest Doctor Who audiobook from the BBC is an adaptation by Terrance Dicks of one of Robert Holmes' many fine contributions to the series. It takes us back to the very first appearance of the Master, who has used his hypnotic powers to take control of a plastics factory. He's collaborating with the Nestene Consciousness to create Autons and assorted deadly items for a new invasion... The Master's first story is here read beautifully by Geoffrey Beevers, who played this regeneration of the character (or so we tend to assume) much later in The Keeper of Traken. This is how we all fancy we sound when reading out loud! The inlay reprints Alan Willow's illustrations from the original Target book, together with the usual excellent notes from erstwhile BFS overlord David Howe.

It's interesting to compare the Master, who arrives here fully formed (although of course Dicks wrote the novel in 1975, so he had the full range of Delgado stories to draw on in his characterisation), and the Nestenes, who, even all these years later, remain very mysterious. All we really know about them is what they do: download their consciousness into specially prepared plastic. Or should that be "its" consciousness? It's not entirely clear: in other stories the Nestene seems to be a single being, but here we hear Autons talking about a High Command, and there is an Auton leader. Perhaps it's just that, as we saw in recent television episodes, the Nestene can choose to give its Autons a temporary consciousness of individuality.

Some of the language and storytelling reflects that this is a book from different times. The Master's "dark", "foreign" look is repeatedly, and embarrassingly (for a modern reader) stressed, while the infamous doll that threatens a factory owner is "one of the most evil-looking dolls he had ever seen in his life". Why? Because of its "slant-eyed Oriental face". Such elements are particularly striking in a story that reflects contemporary concerns about Japanese-led modernisation and foreign ownership of British factories. Jo Grant, here making her first appearance for the second time, is brave, endearing and lovely, but she's a child rather than a woman, completely out of her depth and getting into terrible trouble, and that she fitted the format of the programme so much better than the intelligent, capable Liz reflects somewhat poorly on the programme and, perhaps, this Doctor.

Oddly for one of the most horrifying of Doctor Who stories, the novelisation is quite childish, but of course the novels were squarely aimed at very young children when it was written. I must have read the original novel a half dozen times at least as a child, and at the age of ten I'd have fought anyone who denied its place in the pantheon of literary greats. Most readers will already know if they'll enjoy this or not, but adult fans may find it more an indulgence than a whole-hearted pleasure. There are many nice touches to the writing, though, such as "a horsebox of a different colour", and the story is quite an epic, the Master and the Nestenes causing a national emergency with their schemes, and the humans responding with soldiers and jets – and unlike the epics of previous seasons, it doesn't drag on for three episodes too many. It's full of frightening ideas, and its influence on Steven Moffat's Who – its interest in making the ordinary seem extraordinary and terrifying – probably can't be over-stated.

Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons, by Terrance Dicks, read by Geoffrey Beevers, BBC Audio, 4xCD, 3hrs50.

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