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Doctor Who Enemies: Autons

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The Autons featured in the BBC's popular and longest running sci-fi series, Doctor Who (1963-1989). They featured only twice in the original series, but they gained much popularity during their second story because of the large scale critical response the show received from parents and TV watchdog Mary Whitehouse.

The monsters proved so memorable that they were selected to make a reappearance when the show returned in 2005 and re-appeared with a twist in 2010's series finale.

Who Were the Autons?

The Autons were the physical representations of the Nestene Consciousness. Autons themselves were no more than animated plastic, whether that be in the form of tailor's dummies, mannequins, dolls, armchairs or replica daffodils - even exact plastic replicas of people. The Nestene Consciousness came from a distant planet and had a form similar to an octopus, but thousands of years ago the Nestene got rid of this many-tentacled body and became pure mind - an energy source with a curious affinity for plastic. The Consciousness split itself into a large group of minds which drifted through space seeking different planets to conquer and colonise. The Consciousness' group-mind travelled through space in pink or blue hollow plastic spheres each about the size of a football, with slightly flattened surfaces and a remarkably-high resistance to extreme heat. These spheres would target a planet and form a spearhead to pave the way for the rest of the Consciousness. The spheres glowed and bleeped when active and waited to be found. Somehow the spearhead would form a bridgehead and from there begin to take over. It is presumed that the Nestene Consciousness had already colonised several planets before it came to Earth.

Story Guide

Below is a description of the Doctor Who stories that featured the Autons.

'Spearhead from Space' (1970)

The Autons were first encountered in a story called 'Spearhead from Space', which was the first story to feature the Third Doctor. The Doctor's TARDIS landed on Earth during what was thought to be a meteor storm but in reality was a swarm of Nestene spheres descending through the stratosphere. The spheres landed in Essex Woods and buried themselves into the soil. The area was cordoned off by troops from UNIT - the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, an organisation charged with investigating extra-terrestrial activity. There, the unconscious body of the Doctor was found lying next to an old, abandoned police box...

The Doctor was taken to a nearby hospital by UNIT officers to recover. But during medical examinations it was discovered that this stranger appeared to have two hearts. This anomaly caught the attentions of UNIT - specifically the head of the UK division, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. However it also attracted a group of very plastic-looking men who tried to kidnap the Doctor. Rescued by Unit troops, the Doctor was taken to UNIT HQ in London for safe-keeping. He later accepted a position as UNIT's residential Scientific Adviser, courtesy of his old friend the Brigadier.

The Nestene Consciousness meanwhile took over a local plastics factory. The Nestene's representative, Channing, converted the factory over to production of Auton mannequins, aided by the confused and easily-intimidated factory owner, Hibbert. The mannequins were armed with concealed wrist-guns that fired deadly clouds of gas. The dummies guarded the factory and were later sent to retrieve one of the missing Nestene spheres. Channing's plan was to place the Auton mannequins in shop windows all over England and activate them when the time was right. However, the Doctor discovered that high-frequency radio waves could render the Autons lifeless by removing the fragment of the Consciousness's mind that controlled them. Channing had also arranged for a number of key governmental figures to be replaced by Auton replicas - including General Scobie, the man who was Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart's commanding officer.

As UNIT troops battled the Auton dummies in a fierce battle within the factory, the Doctor (aided by UNIT scientist Liz Shaw) struggled to defeat the octopus-like Nestene creature Channing had created to house the Nestene group-mind. With the Nestene slain, Channing and all the other Autons were deactivated.

'Terror of the Autons' (1971)

Though all the Auton units were destroyed, one of the Nestene spheres was retained for research purposes. When a request came from a museum to borrow the unit for a display, the Brigadier agreed to the request - without consulting the Doctor first.

Some time later, the Doctor received a visit from a representative of his own race, the Time Lords, who informed him that they had traced the movements of the Doctor's arch enemy, an evil renegade Time Lord known as the Master, who had recently arrived on Earth. The Doctor then learned of the theft of the last Nestene sphere from the museum and realised that the Master was responsible. Using a signal from a radio telescope, the Master managed to reactivate the sphere and summon the Nestene Consciousness. Next, he employed his hypnotic abilities to take over a plastics firm which he converted over to production of a number of deadly Auton devices, including a plastic chair that suffocated anyone who sat in it, a killer troll doll and daffodils that were given to members of the public - who, naturally, would be unaware that something so small and innocent-looking could spit liquid plastic into their faces and suffocate them in a matter of seconds.

After calculating the Master's whereabouts, the Doctor managed to make him realise that the Consciousness would not accept him as its ally and instead would kill him just as easily as it killed all non-Nestene life. The Master helped the Doctor repel the Nestene Consciousness back into space before it could take corporeal form and the remaining Autons were deactivated for good.

'Rose' (2005)

Rose Tyler is a shop assistant working in a department store who stumbles across a group of shop window dummies that have come to life. Rescued by a strange man called The Doctor, she escapes from the store seconds before it is destroyed in an explosion. The next morning, the Doctor turns up at Rose's mum's flat in search of an arm from one of the dummies - which comes alive and attempts to strange both himself and Rose. Having witnessed such strange events, Rose is intrigued but the Doctor tells her to forget him. It's only when Rose's boyfriend Mickey is captured by a plastic wheelie bin and replaced by a replica that the Doctor comes back to save Rose once again. Having evaded the Auton Mickey and stolen its head, the Doctor and Rose use the head to track down the lair of the Nestene Consciousness, deep below the Millennium Wheel on London's South Bank. From there, the Consciousness releases a signal that sends its dummies smashing through shop windows to gun down helpless shoppers.

The Nestene is a refugee from a great Time War that the Doctor had witnessed, and is once again trying to take over the Earth to turn it into its home. Thanks to a phial of 'anti-plastic' the Nestene is destroyed and its control over the shop window dummies is broken.

'The Pandorica Opens' and 'The Big Bang' (2010)

The Autons are one of an alliance of interstellar races that unite against the Doctor, intending to lock him up in a prison known as the Pandorica. They wish to avert the end of all existence which they believe the Doctor causes through his TARDIS exploding. Autons disguised as Roman soldiers, based on Romans found in one of Amy Pond's history books, are able to infiltrate the Doctor's defences.

One of the Autons is a duplicate of Amy's forgotton fiancée Rory Williams who was wiped from all existence. Following a struggle with his Auton and human nature, this Auton is gifted with Rory's soul and guards the Pandorica, which contains Amelia Pond, for 2,000 years, thus earning the name 'The Last Centurion'.

Writing Credits

The Autons were created by renowned Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes (who was also responsible for the Krotons, the Drashigs, the Sontarans and the Wirrn, as well as being the man behind the demystification of the Doctor's own people, the Time Lords). Inspired by a film called The Plastic Eaters, Holmes wanted to create a menace that could hide in everyday objects like dolls or plastic objects, thereby bringing the terror of Doctor Who into the home. Unfortunately, the plan backfired somewhat as, in 'Terror of the Autons', there were scenes of children's toys mauling adults and, most controversially, policemen that were revealed to be killer Autons. Such was the outrage that questions were asked in the House of Lords about the show's effect on the public image of the police force.

Due to the massive popularity of the Auton concept among fans, however, Holmes was asked to write a second sequel, which was planned as a centre-piece for the 23rd season. It was provisionally entitled 'Yellow Fever and How to Cure It'. However, when the programme was taken off the air for 18 months, during 1985-6, the story was scrapped in favour of another.

The idea for the story never progressed beyond the storyline stage, so details remain sketchy as to what it would have been about. However, what is known is that the producer of Doctor Who was keen for it to feature both the Master and the Rani (a female Time Lord), with Singapore scouted as a possible location. Ideas that Holmes was considering included plastic bullets that zipped round corners after people and plastic hands that melted over a person's face to suffocate them. However, this story was never elaborated upon. Robert Holmes died in 1986.

When writer-producer Russell T Davies decided to resurrect Doctor Who, he chose to bring back the autons for the new Doctor's first adventure. He remembered the creatures from their earlier appearances and knew how chilling they could be. Although they were never referred to as Autons in the episode, the shop window dummies were once again controlled by the Nestene Consciousness and were clearly intended to replicate the 1970s originals (even down to the sound effect used for their wrist guns).

TV Episode Checklist

'Spearhead From Space' (1970). 4 episodes, written by Robert Holmes

Cast: Jon Pertwee (Doctor Who), Caroline John (Liz Shaw), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart), Hugh Burden (Channing), Neil Wilson (Seeley), Talfryn Thomas (Mullins), John Breslin (Captain Munro), Antony Webb (Dr Henderson), Helen Dorward (Nurse), George Lee (Corporal Forbes), Tessa Shaw (UNIT Officer), Ellis Jones (Technician), Alan Mitchell (Wagstaffe), Prentis Hancock (Reporter), Hamilton Dyce (Major General Scobie / Auton Scobie), Henry McCarthy (Dr Beavis), John Woodnutt (Hibbert), Derek Smee (Ransome), Betty Bowden (Meg), Clifford Cox (Sergeant), Edmund Bailey (Attendant), Pat Gorman, Robert Jewell, Murphy Grumbar (Autons).

'Terror of the Autons' (1971). 4 episodes, written by Robert Holmes

Cast: Jon Pertwee (Doctor Who), Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Roger Delgado (The Master), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart), Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates), John Levene (Sergeant Benton), Michael Wisher (Rex Farrel), Harry Towb (McDermott), David Garth (Time Lord), Frank Mills (Radio Telescope Director), Christopher Burgess (Professor Philips), Andrew Staines (Goodge), John Baskcomb (Rossini), Dave Carter (Museum Attendant), Stephen Jack (Farrel Senior), Barbara Leake (Mrs Farrel), Roy Stewart (Strong Man), Dermot Tuohy (Brownrose), Norman Stanley (Telephone Mechanic), Bill McGuirk, Terry Walsh (Auton Policemen), Pat Gorman (Auton Leader), Haydn Jones (Auton Voice), Tommy Reynolds (Auton Doll - uncredited), Bob Blaine, Les Clark, Ian Eliott, Nick Hobbs, Tom O'Leary, Charles Pickless, Mike Stevens (Autons - uncredited)

'Rose' (2005). 1 Episode, written by Russell T Davies

Cast: Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who), Billie Piper (Rose Tyler), Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler), Noel Clarke (Mickey Smith / Auton Mickey), Mark Benton (Clive), Elli Garnett (Caroline), Adam McCoy (Clive's Son), Alan Ruscoe, Paul Kasey, David Sant, Elizabeth Fost, Helen Otway (Autons), Nicholas Briggs (Nestene Voice)

'The Pandorica Opens' / 'The Big Bang' (2010). 2 Episodes, written by Steven Moffat

Cast: Matt Smith (The Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams), Alex Kingston (River Song), Caitlin Blackwood (Young Amelia Pond), Tony Curran (Vincent van Gogh), Bill Paterson (Professor Bracewell), Ian McNeice (Winston Churchill), Sophie Okonedo (Liz Ten), Simon Fisher-Becker (Dorium), Marcus O'Donovan (Claudio), Christopher Ryan (Commander Stark), Susan Vidler (Aunt Sharon), Frances Ashman (Christine), Halcro Johnston (Augustus Pond), Karen Westwood (Tabetha Pond), Nicholas Briggs (Dalek voices)

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