The newly regenerated Third Doctor teams up with UNIT to fight plastic mannequins.
A formation of meteorites land on the Earth in Essex; one of the meteorites lands in a forest, where it’s found by gruff poacher Sam Seeley. Not too far away, the TARDIS materializes. Its doors open and the newly regenerated Doctor falls out, unconscious. He’s been exiled by the Time Lords.
Brigadier General Lethbridge-Stewart, last seen in The Invasion, meets with Liz Shaw, a scientist he hopes to recruit into his organization, UNIT. The Brigadier tells her about the meteors and alludes to the existence of aliens: “In the last decade, we’ve been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. We’ve drawn attention to ourselves, Miss Shaw.” She totally doesn’t buy it, though.
The phone rings – a man found in the woods near a police box was taken to the hospital. Believing this to be his friend, the Doctor, the Brigadier rushes to the hospital. However, he is surprised to find that this is not the same Doctor he previously worked with. The Doctor explains that he has regenerated, and after looking through a mirror, gets a good look at himself for the first time. “Oh, that face. That hair. Oh, I don’t know, though. I think it’s rather distinctive, actually.”
There’s a subplot in this episode about the press being given leaked information about there being an alien at the hospital, but other than being a nuisance, it doesn’t really factor into the rest of the serial.
At the end of the episode, a man named Channing tries to kidnap the Doctor from the hospital but the Doctor is able to escape into the woods, where he’s shot by a trigger-happy UNIT soldier.
The bullet only grazed the Doctor; he is returned to the hospital and puts himself into a self-induced coma.
At a plastic factory, director Hibbert fires his employee John Ransome. The factory’s changed a lot in the last few months and John wants to know what’s up, but Hibbert won’t give him any clear answers.
We return to Sam Seeley, who takes the glowing meteorite home and puts it in a trunk. His wife nags at him and says the trunk is stupid and ugly.
Back at the hospital, the Doctor steals a car and heads to UNIT Headquarters, where the TARDIS is being kept. The Brigadier shows him broken pieces of a meteorite and the Doctor deduces the meteorites were carrying something to Earth.
Speaking of meteorites, a couple UNIT soldiers find another in the forest. It attracts the attention of a walking plastic mannequin, an Auton, which startles the soldiers and causes them to swerve their jeep into a tree. They die in the crash and the Auton claims its meteorite prize.
John returns to the plastic factory in full-sneak mode and breaks into his old workshop, where several Autons stand stationary on a platform…but not for long. As John snoops around, checking out all the fancy new equipment, one of the Autons walks towards him.
The Auton’s hand folds down to reveal a concealed gun. It fires at John, but he manages to run away and escape the factory with his life. He meets with UNIT and tells them everything. Meanwhile, the Doctor attempts to leave in the TARDIS but fails due to the Time Lords having changed the dematerialization codes.
Sam Seeley shows up again and wants to know the reward for finding one of the meteorites. He meets with UNIT at their base camp in the forest, leaving his wife alone at home to fend off the unwanted attention of an Auton. UNIT arrives just in time and the Auton runs away without Seeley’s meteorite, but another Auton finds John at the UNIT camp and kills him.
The Doctor and Brigadier check out the plastics factory and meet with Mr. Hibbert, who’s all like, “Everything’s fine, guys. Nothing bad going on here.” The Brigadier calls a General Scobie to ask permission to raid the factory. Scobie’s totally cool with it, but he has to hang up because someone’s knocking on his door. He goes to answer it and finds his Auton doppelganger staring him down!
The Doctor and Liz check out Seeley’s meteorite and he believes it contains a brain. Auton Scobie calls the Brigadier and tells him he’s apparently changed his mind, and that the Brigadier’s request is denied. “They’ve got some important work on hand. It mustn’t be interfered with.”
The Doctor and Liz check out Madame Tussauds and find plastic replicas of a lot of important people, including General Scobie – though the Doctor deduces the General Scobie in Tussauds is actually the real Scobie due to his watch being freshly wound.
At night, the Doctor and Liz return to Tussauds. They hide behind a curtain and watch Channing and Hibbert enter and activate all the dummy replicas of important people. After the dummies leave with Channing, the Doctor peers from behind the curtain and tries to free Hibbert from the alien mind control that has a hold over him.
The next morning, the rest of the Autons in the city are activated and kill a bunch of people. Hibbert confronts Channing, who gives an infodump about the Nestenes, the true enemy. They’re aliens that travel to different planets and conquer them with their ability to control plastic and create Auton henchmen.
Hibbert finally breaks his hypnosis and tries to one up himself by also trying to break the tank the Nestenes live in, but his dreams are dashed when an Auton kills him.
The Doctor, Liz, and the Brigadier arrive at the factory with a bunch of UNIT soldiers. Auton Scobie blocks the way, but the Doctor uses a gadget to destroy him.
The Doctor and Liz go to the workshop to deal with Channing and the Nestene consciousness. The Doctor tries to use his gadget on them, but a Nestene tentacle comes out of the tank and tries to strangle him. Liz grabs the gadget, fixes the loose wire connection, and uses it on the Nestenes, which works so effectively that they leave the planet. Channing, who was really an Auton, along with all the other Autons on Earth are deactivated.
Later at UNIT Headquarters, the status quo for the next few years of the show is established. The Doctor, unable to use his TARDIS, is stranded on Earth, so he formally joins UNIT as a scientific advisor to help thwart any future alien invasions. His alias: John Smith.
This serial was an important milestone in Doctor Who history. It introduced a new Doctor, a new tone, and a new storytelling format that would last for several years. Instead of gallivanting off on adventures on different planets, budget cuts have forced the Doctor to become more reactionary, staying stationary and waiting for the adventures to come to him (with minor exceptions of course).
Established in this episode is the all important fact that the Doctor has two hearts, which helps make him more alien; this fact will be constantly referenced in years to come. The weird blood composition, also established this episode, not so much.
Filmed on Film
Notably, this was also the first Doctor Who serial in color, and the only classic Doctor Who serial completely shot on film (all the others used film in exterior scenes and video in interior). At the time, all the video-cameramen were on strike, but since the film-cameramen weren’t, they were hired to film everything. It ended up working in the serial’s favor, giving it a more cinematic feel.
Adding to this effect was the fact that everything was filmed on location with no shabby sets to be found! And the incidental music was very effective – no crazy, experimental synthesizer “music” here. The only negative part to all this is the fact that it’s all gone by the next serial.
The story itself suffers from a slow pace in the beginning with the Doctor bedridden and in recovery mode, and it’s not until he’s back on his feet in episode 2 does the story finally start.
The Autons themselves are an especially frightening adversary, fueling Doctor Who’s habit of scaring small children by taking real life, everyday things (in this case, mannequins) and turning them into monsters. The other antagonists – the Nestenes themselves, with only their tentacles shown, along with Channing and Hibbert, weren’t particularly noteworthy. Just standard.
The final solution to defeating the Nestenes, the Doctor’s gadget, was a bit too convenient. Considering the Doctor had all that time to study the meteorite, though, it’s certainly plausible.
New companion Liz Shaw is introduced, and I find her to be an excellent one. She’s intelligent, able to keep up with the Doctor, and is in no way a screaming damsel in distress. Her being responsible for thwarting the Nestenes AND saving the Doctor gives her a lot of points in the usefulness category. It’s too bad she only lasts a year on the show.
The Brigadier returns again and will become a mainstay for this era of the show. He and the Doctor will often come to blows, brain vs. brawn style, but at the end of the day, they’re friends. His growing relationship with the Doctor is one of the highlights of this era.
All in all, this is a good entry point for those wanting to experience Classic Doctor Who without starting at the beginning.