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Look at these fellas, sauntering down the street as if they haven’t got a care in the world. There’s broken glass under their feet, their right hands are hanging off as if sliced by a samurai sword, but do they care? They do not. They’re just four trendy guys going for a stroll, powered by sheer style. It’s like a scene from Help! or something.
Oh except they’re not, they’re aliens. They’re made from alien plastic and inhabited by an alien consciousness called the Nestene, and those hanging-off fingers conceal a gun, with which they intend to shoot you. Might be an idea to run, and don’t stop to look at the very reasonable prices on their lapels before you do.
It’s never a bad idea for a horror story to make the audience mistrust everyday objects, especially ones which are a little eerie to start off with. Dolls, clowns, mummies, Mr Punch, even that nice Woody from Toy Story, anything which proports to be humanoid and should not move, is automatically terrifying if given some kind of internal life force. That’s why the Weeping Angels are so effective. Well that and the whole killing-you-while-you-blink thing.
In contrast, the Autons have a quite humanlike range of movement, but still a little stiff and plasticky, as they’re essentially (as seen in their first iteration, Spearhead From Space) just malevolent showroom dummies. Only no one had really seen anything like that in 1970, and those viewers lucky enough to be watching in color got their first glimpse of a very futuristic kind of horror, as this was the first Doctor Who story filmed for color broadcast. So the explanation about the Nestene Consciousness and how they’re one of the oldest races in the universe and they can inhabit plastic and bend it to their will all serves as backwash to this one startling moment.
I mean look at this fella, he’s a badass!
When they come back, a year later, things have got worse. Not only are they rocking a circus makeover this time, which fuses the fear of clowns and statues into one nightmare entity, but inanimate plastic objects that are not human shaped at all have also started to misbehave. Oh and they’ve brought along this surly fellow called The Master with them.
(It’s hard not to smile at the bit where the Master effectively exerts grumpy mind-control over his opponent in order to get him to sit in The Inflatable Chair Of Death. But that’s all part of the fun.)
And as we’ve said before, Doctor Who is a family-oriented horror show more than it is a science fiction show, so the Autons cast a very long shadow, despite only having appeared twice in the classic series. So when the show was relaunched, it must have seemed obvious to bring the Nestene Consciousness back as the first villains of the piece. This time (Rose) they’re starving and desperate, and have them once again inhabit the shops of the high street. Nothing says ‘the Doctor has returned’ like rampaging shop dummies and a malevolent alien consciousness, after all.
Then things get a little weird. In order to trap the Eleventh Doctor in the Pandorica, the Nestene inhabit a plastic roman legion, giving them personalities and realistic skin and all sorts. They are lead by one Rory Williams, recently deceased, but filling his plastic person’s personality with memories of Rory taken from Amy Pond, who can’t remember remembering him.
Having been forced to shoot Amy, the love of his life, his consciousness overcomes theirs, and he essentially becomes her full-sized toy solder, choosing to guard her for nearly 2,000 years while she recovers in the Pandorica.
Which of course means that the Doctor then travels with an Auton for a while, until he can rehumanise Rory. But it’s OK, because it’s a Rory-filled Auton, and therefore good, despite the laser hand.
And this is also part of their appeal, these plastic soldiers are only as evil as the multi-dimensional consciousness that inhabits them. A little bit of reprogramming and who knows what community service you could get them to provide: picking litter, building railroads… And they never get tired.
Just something to think about, should the Nestene ever decide to turn over a new leaf.
Next: Let Zygons be Zygons
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic