The Beginning and the End of Doctor Who's "UNIT Family" Era

The early 1970s, arguably, was when Doctor Who started to come of age, and a lot of the credit belongs to the late, great producer Barry Letts. Two newly released Doctor Who DVDs form a kind of Barry Letts celebration.

For one thing, Letts directed both "Terror of the Autons" and "Planet of the Spiders." For another, Letts says in the DVD extras that he considered "Autons" to be the real beginning of his influence on the show, even though he'd produced some of the previous season as well. But also, these two stories show just how Letts tried to push more adult themes into the show: "Autons" is scarier and more sinister, while "Spiders" is about the Doctor confronting his own dark side and his fear of death.

Spoilers ahead...

So "Terror of the Autons" is a great example of early 1970s Doctor Who at its absolute best, and it's full of stuff that you couldn't really imagine the show doing nowadays. (Producer Phil Collinson says as much in one of the featurettes.) Over the course of four short episodes, the Doctor and his friends face death by strangulation, asphyxiation, gunshots, hand grenade and bomb. A plastic daffodil turns out to be a lethal suffocating weapon. A comfy plastic chair swallows up a man's head and chokes him. Dummies with grotesquely large carnival heads go on a killing rampage. A weirdly freakish baby doll strangles a man. Policemen turn out to be evil monsters. And throughout it all, the psychotic Master is laughing and controlling people's minds with amazing glee.

This is the closest Doctor Who has ever come to looking like a low-budget horror film, complete with cheap locations and ridiculous scares. And rewatching it after a long time away, it's amazing how many random incidents the story packs in, from the "brake lights morse code" sequence to the "hypnotized scientist with a grenade" sequence." It still has that slightly stagey multi-camera, actors-standing-around-a-set feeling that all shows from that era have, but writer Robert Holmes manages to pack in a few dozen random twists and subplots.

The Beginning and the End of Doctor Who's "UNIT Family" Era

The most notable part of "Autons," of course, is the introduction of the Master, who became the Doctor's new arch-nemesis. Instead of a gang of relatively faceless creatures like the Daleks or the Cybermen, the Master is a fitting counterpart to the Doctor. He's a fellow Time Lord and a vision of what the Doctor could be like if he abandoned all of his compassion, and all of his scruples. And "Autons" is the purest distillation of what the Master is about: he's a charming bastard, who can dominate your mind so completely that you'll watch him kill your family and friends with no remorse. He's obsessed with the Doctor, and devises ridiculous deathtraps for him. Oh, and he really likes to shrink people using his evil shrink ray.

Despite being kind of impressively nasty, "Terror of the Autons" is actually the beginning of a more cozy era for Doctor Who. The story also introduces two new supporting characters, Jo Grant and Captain Mike Yates. And the paramilitary organization the Doctor is stuck working for, UNIT, becomes more of a family with this episode. The uncomfortable dynamic of the earlier UNIT stories, in which the Doctor is co-opted by the Brigadier's violent organization and resents it loudly, is replaced by a chummy, clubby feeling in which everybody hangs out and practically smokes cigars. So "Terror of the Autons" really represents the beginning of the Jon Pertwee era proper, even as it achieves a level of greatness that the Pertwee years only occasionally achieved again. It's a great representation of classic Who for people who have never delved into it.

The other Pertwee story newly on DVD represents the end of that era — it's Pertwee's final story as the Doctor, as well as pretty much the final story for Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks. "Planet of the Spiders" is Letts' final statement on the show — and it's the only story that he produced, directed and co-wrote. (At least, Letts asserts on one of the DVD extras that he co-wrote the story — he's not credited.) "Spiders" is chock full of references to Letts' Buddhist beliefs, as well as Letts' gentle strain of humanism.

The Beginning and the End of Doctor Who's "UNIT Family" Era

Sadly, "Planet of the Spiders" just isn't as good as "Terror of the Autons." It's really, really slow and meandering — the DVD includes an edited-down 115-minute "TV movie" version of the story, and it still feels really uneventful. There is a giant chase scene that lasts an entire episode, and iust just an excuse for Pertwee to zoom around on land, air and sea one last time. The DVD extras keep mentioning that Pertwee's sendoff was supposed to be the final story with the Master, but actor Roger Delgado died in a car accident before they could film it — and watching "Spiders" will leave you twice as sad that this plan never came to fruition.

Not that "Spiders" is all bad, though — the titular spiders are occasionally quite creepy, and the show makes a valiant effort to tap into viewers' arachnophobia. The spiders are basically giant blobs of ego with eight legs, and just like the Master, the spiders have a way of taking control over people's minds. When they climb on your back, they can bond with you and dominate your will. Poor Sarah Jane, the Doctor's new companion, experiences first hand what it's like to have a mind-controlling spider on your back. And it's sort of great that the spiders gain entrance to our world through the stupidity of a bunch of selfish, idiotic Buddhist quasi-monks.

And there is definitely a kernel of greatness at the heart of "Spiders." Instead of giving the Third Doctor a final adventure in which he must outwit one last enemy or solve some world-threatening emergency, the story confronts him with a spiritual crisis. The Doctor has taken a mind-expanding crystal from the planet Metebelis Three, because he was curious about its properties — and his ego-driven quest for knowledge and greatness has upset the balance of events on Metebelis. The spiders that came to the planet aboard a ship of human colonists have evolved into super-spiders, and their leader needs just one last crystal to complete its collection and become all-powerful.

The Doctor's theft of that last, vital crystal has caused great suffering inadvertently, because the spiders will stop at nothing to get the crystal back, and bringing back that crystal will restore a kind of balance to the situation. But the Doctor knows that he can't go into the Great Spider's web of crystals without exposing himself to a lethal dose of radiation — so he has to sacrifice his own life and "face his fear" to set things right. It's a story that's as much about the Doctor's spiritual growth as it is about nasty giant spiders trying to take over the universe. And it's sort of fitting — Jon Pertwee's Doctor was arguably the most flamboyant and self-regarding of the bunch, so in his final adventure he must overcome his own ego in order to cope with egotistical creepy crawly monsters.

The Beginning and the End of Doctor Who's "UNIT Family" Era

Watching "Autons" and "Spiders back to back, and delving into the bonus features, you get a pretty good summation of what made the Jon Pertwee era great, as well as the aspects that haven't aged as well. Letts and his colleagues reflect a lot on their creative process in coming up with the Master as well as their approach to crafting Doctor Who stories that were both scary and emotionally fulfilling. The featurettes and commentary tracks are full of voices from beyond the grave, including Letts, Elisabeth Sladen, and Pertwee himself.

All in all, "Autons" is highly recommended to casual fans, while "Spiders" is probably more for the die-hards.