Autons are essentially life-sized plastic dummies, automatons animated by the Nestene Consciousness, an extraterrestrial, disembodied gestalt intelligence which first arrived on Earth in hollow plastic meteorites. Their name comes from "Auto Plastics", the company that was infiltrated by the Nestenes and subsequently manufactured their Auton shells in Spearhead.
Autons conceal deadly weapons within their hands, which can kill or vaporize their targets. The typical Auton does not look particularly realistic, resembling a mannequin, being robotic in its movements and mute. However, more sophisticated Autons can be created, which look and act human except for a slight sheen to the skin and a flat sounding voice.
The Nestenes are among the oldest beings in the Doctor Who universe, described as creatures which existed in the "Dark Times", along with the Racnoss, Great Vampires and Carrionites. Eventually, they sought to invade the Earth, Spearhead from Space, using more human-looking Autons to replace key government figures, although these plans were thwarted by UNIT with the help of the Doctor, who also destroyed their invasion form, a multi-tentacled cephalopod.
The Nestenes subsequently returned in the first serial of Pertwee's second year as the Doctor, Terror of the Autons, which also featured the introduction of the Master. In this attempt, the Nestenes also made use of more mundane objects, animating plastic toys, inflatable chairs and artificial flowers in addition to their Auton servants. The Doctor convinced the Master that the Nestenes were too dangerous to be reliable allies, and they reversed the radio beam the invasion force was coming in on, sending it back into space.
Early drafts of The Five Doctors (1983) featured a scene where Sarah Jane Smith encountered some Autons and is rescued by the Third Doctor, but it was dropped before filming for reasons of time and expense. A third appearance was planned for the aborted 1985 season during Colin Baker's tenure as the Doctor, but never materialized. Titled Yellow Fever and How to Cure It, it was supposed to be set in Singapore, with appearances by the Rani and the Master. The story, which was to be scripted by veteran writer Robert Holmes, only exists in outline form.
Although the Autons only made two appearances during the original television series run, they remain one of the more memorable monsters associated with Doctor Who. The image of store mannequins coming to life in Spearhead, in full colour and shooting people down in the street, is one of the series' iconic moments, and is often cited as an example of the series' ability to make everyday things terrifying. The use of even more ordinary objects in Terror of the Autons — including the unmasking of a police officer as an Auton — caused public controversy about whether the programme was too frightening for children. The story also featured in a discussion in the House of Lords, where Baroness Bacon expressed worries about it being too frightening even for older children.
When the series was revived in 2005, producer and writer Russell T Davies chose the Autons as the first monster to be featured. The Nestenes infiltrated Earth once more, using warp shunt technology, in the opening episode of the 2005 series. In "Rose", it was revealed that the Nestenes lost their food supply in a war when their protein planets rotted. Their intent was to overthrow and destroy the human race, as Earth was ideal for their consumption needs, being filled with smoke, oil and various pollutants. The Doctor eventually destroyed them when a vial of his "anti-plastic" solution was spilled into the vat of molten plastic which housed the main bulk of the Consciousness by Rose, causing it to explode.
"Rose" also featured an Auton facsimile that could change the shape of its features and limbs, and established that the Nestenes animate the Autons by means of telepathic projection. When duplicated, the originals are kept alive to maintain the copy. It is not yet clear if the war mentioned was also the motivation behind their earlier invasions or a recent development, but it is likely to be the same war as the Time War that is mentioned in subsequent episodes of the 2005 series.
In the Sixth Doctor novel Business Unusual by Gary Russell (which gave Melanie Bush a belated introduction story), the Nestenes used computer games and plastic toys in another bid for world conquest. In Synthespians™ by Craig Hinton, a far-future television station's artificial actors were not what they seemed. This novel also featured the Time Lords launching an assault on the Nestene homeworld Polymos, which may or may not be connected to the war mentioned in "Rose".
In the Doctor Who Annual 2006, an article written by Russell T Davies mentions the loss of the Nestene Consciousness's planets during the Time War, and states that it "found itself mutating under temporal stress". This may be a reference to the difference between the portrayal of the Consciousness in Spearhead from Space and "Rose".
In the late 1990s, BBV released a trilogy of made-for-video films, titled Auton, Auton 2: Sentinel and Auton 3. These stories featured UNIT battling the Consciousness. In the first film, a Nestene energy unit and several Autons captured by UNIT in Spearhead from Space are accidentally reactivated. In the sequels, the escaped Autons attempt to awaken several dormant Nestenes put in place since before the development of human civilization. Though BBV was licensed to use the Nestenes, Autons and UNIT by the writers who created them, as with all spin-off productions the canonicity of these films is unclear.
In the first series of the televised Dead Ringers, in a sketch with Jon Culshaw visiting The London Eye (calling it an Interstitial Time Delay Helix) in the persona of the Fourth Doctor, he humorously accused two tourists: "You are Autons from the planet Tosos!"
In 2006, a sketch on The Charlotte Church Show showed the Doctor examining the inner thigh of a scantily clad female mannequin; when confronted by Church (playing his companion), he claimed that he thought it was an Auton.
The Autons appear in John Smith's A Journal of Impossible Things in the episode "Human Nature".
They appeared in issue 15 of Doctor Who - Battles in Time in which they were the main theme of the issue.