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Doctor Who: Spearhead From Space (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Spearhead from Space originally aired in 1970.

Oh well, at least he won’t get very far.

You mean, before your men shoot him again?

I don’t find that funny.

– The Brigadier and Liz discuss the Doctor’s (second) escape

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that Spearhead from Space had so much riding on it, if only because of the deft combination of Robert Holmes’ sharp script and Derek Martinus’ confident direction. Indeed, the serial served as something of a second pilot for the show, demonstrating that the survival of the series during the transition between William Hatnell and Patrick Troughton had not been a fluke, broadcasting in colour for the first time, and setting up an entirely new status quo set primarily on present-day Earth. It’s a miracle that it all works so well, let alone that fact that it remains one of the most accessible adventures featuring the character.

We need a Doctor in the TARDIS!

In fact, if a viewer were looking for an opportunity to “jump into” classic Doctor Who, Spearhead from Space provides perhaps the best point at which to do so. It’s a light little adventure, even today, and it serves to demonstrate that producer Derrick Sherwin and script editor Terrance Dicks had made the right decision to confine the Doctor to Earth. Shot on film, Spearhead from Space looks relatively lavish by the standards of Doctor Who.

Deciding that alien worlds would look too silly in colour, the pair had decided that their revamp of the show would see the character exiled by the Time Lords to Earth in the wake of Patrick Troughton’s last adventure, the epic ten-part War Games. The result is an aesthetic that would serve the show remarkably well. The BBC never truly gave the show the budget or technology to fully realise the sci-fi scope that it required, but Dicks and Sherwin kept the series’ goals relatively modest, something that paid dividends. While the Earth-based setting would grow tedious (to the point where the next series would take the character off-world again and the series after that would return his control of the TARDIS), it works here.

Plastic? Fantastic!

In particular, Holmes very effectively manages to find that perfect balance of the banal and the terrifying – scaring the audience with the threat of something that we pass everyday. Thanks to Spearhead from Space and its sequel, Terror of the Autons, the image of the lumbering killer plastic dummies has become an iconic part of British television history. It was at this point that the moral guardians would begin to notice the show, and complain that it was corrupting the youth with images of violence and horror. I think that a lot of that effective approach to what might be termed “the banality of horror” can be traced back to here, with the eerie sight of a doll factory under alien control, a wax museum that comes to life, a murderous doppelgänger made of an inorganic material.

“What’s happened to this place?” Ransome asks, returning from America to find his entire factory has changed. “Most of the staff gone, security notices everywhere.” It’s a chilling idea, one playing off The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which would be remade only several years after this adventure. Holmes sets up a rather creepy background to events, but Martinus’ direction elevates the suspense. It’s a frightening thought that everything could change so quickly and seemingly arbitrarily. “The whole layout of the factory floor is different. And my workshop, what’s in there now?”

The General's a dummy!

More than any cheap jump scares or ugly aliens, there’s something deeply unsettling about the notion of plastic doubles – something in the uncanny valley. It’s disturbing to think about something that looks human, but is cold to the touch, and is so inherently alien. Even the factory’s exhibit populated with all manner of world leaders feels coldly chilling, once you think about it. It’s not the sort of fear you face with a quick cut to an attacking monster, but a more subtle sense of unease.

Spearhead from Space was shot on film. It’s arguably the only serial in the classic run of the series that would benefit from an upgrade to high-definition. I think it holds up remarkably well. Sure, there are occasional awkward moments. I think that Jon Pertwee wasn’t really the Doctor until he had to pantomime wrestling with a giant fake tentacle, and the assassination of Ransome is hardly the most impressive of special effects. Still, as a whole, Spearhead from Spaceis a remarkable proof of concept for the Earth-based experiment, and one that I think exemplifies the Pertwee era.

It's Pertwee's neck on the line...

I maintain that it’s the classic serial with the broadest appeal, being a four-episode Pertwee adventure that effective sets up and resolves its mystery with a minimum of fuss, while taking full advantage of the changed dynamics. There’s a genuine sense that there’s something new about the show. While I don’t think I could legitimately argue that it’s even the best Pertwee episode (let alone the best episode overall), I think that it deserves recognition for that.

There is, after all, a reason that this adventure set the tone for “regeneration” stories (although the term wouldn’t be coined until Pertwee’s final story, Planet of the Spiders). When the show itself “regenerated” under Russell T. Davies, the episode Rose was sure to include the Autons as villains. The Eleventh Hour, transitioning from Davies to Steven Moffat, felt like an even more direct homage with its rural Earth-based setting, low-tech qualities and even the Eleventh Doctor’s method of getting dressed. I think it’s difficult to overstate just how efficiently Holmes’ script codified what the audience expected from a regeneration episode.

Pun!

Building off bits and pieces that had been set up in earlier adventures like The Invasion or The Web of Fear, the episode sets the status quo of the Doctor’s Earth-based adventures, including his somewhat expanded supporting cast. The advantage of anchoring the protagonist was the fact that it afforded him the chance to sustain an on-going relationship with more than a couple of fellow travels. It tied him down to the Brigadier, a character who was very much the opposite of a companion – rather than a young person looking for adventure and wonder, the Brigadier was an officer dealing with very practical concerns.

Stories like The Silurians would explore the ideological difference in more depth, but you can see the different dynamic at play here, were the Brigadier finds himself acting like a babysitter for the aloof and playful alien. When the Doctor discusses the conditions of his employment, he’s very keen on keeping a car that he stole. It’s the Brigadier’s job to play the role of a responsible adult, insisting, “No, Doctor. That car must be returned to its owner.”

What a mannequin!

The episode also outlined the role that UNIT would play in things, essentially serving as a story device to connect the Doctor to whatever strange alien incident happened to require his attention that week. “We deal with the odd, the unexplained, anything on Earth, or even beyond,” the Brigadier explains, offering a concise mission statement. It’s a nice hook, and a clever story idea. It sort of sets the Doctor up so he can deal with any sci-fi situation that might pose a threat to anybody.

On the other hand, Spearhead from Space does set a somewhat unfortunate precedent that would be followed in later adventures. Quite simply, UNIT does not appear especially competent. Wondering how a witness could have been killed with guards standing outside the front of his tent, it’s up to Lethbridge-Stewart to point out the obvious. “Never mind about the front, what about the back?”he asks, drawing a somewhat embarrassed response.

Those Presidents do like to wax lyrical...

The serial also introduces the character of Liz Shaw. Caroline John would famously depart after one series after becoming pregnant, but I still think highly of Shaw as a character, despite her limited exposure. I think it’s interesting that she’s portrayed as a character who is actually quite comfortable with her life at the point where she enters the story. Offered the job at UNIT, she’s fairly quick to decline. “I have an important research programme going ahead at Cambridge,” she insists, refusing to be strong-armed into taking what she considers to be a boring, dead-end job.

She’s clearly portrayed as smart and articulate, perhaps more than any other companion up until that point. When she finds out that UNIT has been created to fend off alien invasion, she asks a very astute question, “Why is Earth any more likely to be attacked now than during the last fifty thousand years?” (In fairness, Robert Holmes offers a rather interesting counter-explanation: “In the last decade, we’ve been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. We’ve drawn attention to ourselves, Miss Shaw.”) She is skeptical of the Doctor, but within reason – while respecting his wit and abilities, she seems to refuse to be carried along by them.

The OTHER man with no name...

In fact, it’s interesting how Pertwee’s Doctor treats Liz, and how she responds. Troughton’s Doctor and Hartnell’s before him had a tendency to treat their companions as children – Troughton was clearly more affectionate, while Hartnell was decidedly more condescending. Pertwee, on the other hand, treats Liz almost as an equal. He’s clearly aware that he knows much more than her, but he respects her insight and opinion. Indeed, at one point, it seems almost like he’s flirting with her. “Look, do I really have to call you Miss Shaw?” he playfully asks. For her part, she seems flattered. It’s almost disappointing that Pertwee would be back in the role of father-figure when playing opposite Katy Manning.

Of course, the other major change is Pertwee himself. Pertwee would go on to headline the show for five years, the longest up until that point. (Tom Baker would then show up and stick around for seven seasons.) While Pertwee tends to be a pretty divisive Doctor, I am reasonably fond of him. There would be times, in later shows, where it seemed almost like he was sleep-walking through the part, but he was also capable of incredible energy and enthusiasm. While we see little of it here, Pertwee would go on to cast the Doctor as a bit of an action hero – perhaps the most dynamic of any of the Doctors.

The Doctor with the Dragon Tattoo...

Indeed, Holmes’ script is a little broad – perhaps waiting for Pertwee to make the role his own. He doesn’t immediately own the role in the same way that Tom Baker or David Tennant would, but I think the stronger story around him distracts a bit from his own performance. We do get the typical post-generation hijinks where the character “settles in” to his new body, with Pertwee indulging his comedic instincts by demonstrating his new face is  “very flexible.” It’s a strong start the character. If you look closely when the Doctor is showering, you can make out the actor’s tattoo on his forearm (of a snake). While it’s not exactly relevant and is just a production error, I do like the theory that it’s some sort of brand the Time Lords put on his body. There’s never anything in the show too small to merit a detailed fan theory, after all.

Outside of all the massive changes, I think that Spearhead from Spaceworks so well because it’s simply a solid little episode, with any number of factors falling perfectly into place. I especially love Robert Holmes’ portrayal of wily country folk – the hospital porter who makes a few bob selling a story to The Daily Chronicle, or the poacher hiding his find from the authorities. That said, guest star Neil Wilson is occasionally (and probably intentionally) difficult to understand with his Welsh accent. There’s something so perfectly regional and rural about Holmes’ portrayal of these small villages, inherently wary of outsiders and keen to turn a profit at the expense of the city-slickers.

The storefront prices are murder...

It’s also worth mentioning Derek Martinus’ direction. He does an excellent job, especially with the establishing shots at the factory. That said, my favourite sequence is the Brigadier’s impromptu press conference at the hospital. Martinus shoots the scene from the point-of-view of the reporters, as if the viewer is watching it on the news. It’s an old trick today, but it seems quite clever for a show at the time, especially one with so much else going on. That said, the scene wouldn’t work nearly as well without Holmes’ sharp script, with the Brigadier suggesting the mysterious occurences were down to “training exercises.”

I love Spearhead from Space. I think it’s easily the best episode to show to a new fan of the show, to convince them of the merits of the classic series. I think it was one of the first few that I watched getting into it, and it made quite a fan out of me.

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