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Doctor Who complete reviews: Spearhead From Space

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

The third Doctor hits the scene, and in colour...

Spearhead From Space

If you’re viewing Doctor Who in chronological order, the first thing to hit you about Spearhead From Space is COLOUR! We certainly get a lot of it in the opening title sequence in which psychedelic flames change from red to black to green, before new Doctor Jon Pertwee looms up on the screen like a Happy Worzel Head, after which the logo appears and disappears in a twisty, multicoloured set of patterns.

Yes, Jon Pertwee makes his debut in the celebrated Spearhead From Space. The dashing dandy, after one-and-a-half episodes of hospital dazedness, quickly makes his mark after finding himself regenerated and stranded on Earth. Luckily, he has his old buddy Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to fall back on, as well as the prospect of a new job and the promise of a swanky car. Although, as we’ll find, it takes The Doctor a long time to get settled into his new domestic way of life.

The Pertwee years have had a rather turbulent press over time. In the 1990s, the Pertwee era was generally highly praised, and it helped that 20-something programme controllers saw fit to revisit their youth by repeating a string of Pertwee classics. Come the right-on 21st century, and reactions were now decidedly mixed. Both this adventure and the following Silurian seven-parter were intended to launch a complete rerun of colour Doctor Who – until the BBC inevitably decided to put the ratings first and quality second, moving straight into the millionth repeat of Genesis Of The Daleks. The critics too, have offered varied views on the Pertwee years. The common criticisms usually consist of “The Pertwee years are too dated” or “He was too patronising” or “It got too parochial” or “How can he be an alien when he’s part of the establishment?”

"There’s no denying that the era’s dated quite badly, with crap haircuts and more flares than a 1972 edition of Top Of The Pops, but then the Pertwee stories were made in the 1970s, not the 2010s"

Which are all valid, but I must confess that I’m a great fan of both Pertwee’s Doctor and his adventures. It’s one of the few eras that tells a story in its own right – The story of an alien who, after being sentenced to exile on Earth, slowly learnt to not only adapt to but to actually like his time with UNIT – to the point where in Planet Of The Spiders, he says that the TARDIS brought him home. Along the way, we get satisfying character arcs for Jo and Mike, and I actually quite like the setup of the UNIT family. It’s a different tack to what had gone on before, and even if the sentiment gets too cloying from time to time, the enthusiasm of the regulars wins me over every time. There’s no denying that the era’s dated quite badly, with crap haircuts and more flares than a 1972 edition of Top Of The Pops, but then the Pertwee stories were made in the 1970s, not the 2010s.

And then there’s Pertwee himself. An established comedy actor, famous for silly voices and goofing around in The Navy Lark and Carry On films, the Third Doctor was Pertwee’s first serious role. And he nails it completely. Doctor Who is always about contrasts, so after the shambling, comedic figure of the Second Doctor, it was a logical step to make him confident, authoritative and suave – a complete contrast. I never really consider the Third Doctor to be anti-establishment anyway, since he seems to spend a lot of time berating pompous authority figures and acting against the rules of Earth. This different way of life results in a return to the crabbiness of Hartnell’s early stories. In fact, the Third Doctor is quite shocking in his abrupt, rude manner – which admittedly can veer from being amusing to downright annoying. But as we’ll see, it’s fascinating to see him change over his 24 stories into a mellower, authoritative mediator rather than the angry loose cannon of Seasons Seven and Eight.

Pertwee’s performances though are consistently strong, and Spearhead From Space is no exception. Initially, his Doctor is a shadowy, mysterious figure. We never properly see him until 15 minutes into the first episode. The camera cleverly shoots his head from behind and obscures it with bedclothes. Not only is the Brigadier keen to see whether it’s the same man that helped him with the Yetis and the Cybermen, the audience is too.

Once he’s up and running, the third Doctor really makes an impression. He’s full of cutting humour (“Go away and leave us alone!”), rudeness (his clash with Derrick Sherwin’s guard), authority (his urging of Hibbert to come to UNIT) and likeability (his rather good-natured chats with Liz). Pertwee is excellent here, and proves that despite his comedic background, his casting as The Doctor was no fluke.

As for the story itself, Spearhead belongs in that odd entity known as Season Seven. It’s a strange season, rather low on humour and high on gritty bleakness. Spearhead, if possible, is the most light-hearted of the four, although it’s still a sharp contrast to the previous six seasons. There’s a higher degree of horror – not only in the blood shown on the windscreen when Forbes crashes his car in a fatal accident, but also in the Autons, and characters’ reactions to them. Ransome is shown reacting in tea-spluttering, gibbering horror. Meg Seeley (played by Catherine Tate’s Nan character) tries in vain to stop an Auton with a shotgun and the promise that her husband’s abaaht, y’know (what’s Sam Seeley going to do, throw pork pies at it?). And countless shoppers are gunned down by the unstoppable Autons in one of the show’s most celebrated scenes.

The Autons are inspired creations, and it’s understandable as to why they were chosen as the first monsters to usher in the 2005 revival. There’s always something creepy about dummies – remember that promo video for Godley And Crème’s Englishman In New York in which non-beardy Crème conducted a creepy troupe of blank-faced dummies? The Autons are monsters that vaguely look like the human form, but not quite. The blank eye sockets give off nothing, and so walking, unstoppable shop window dummies understandably gave kids screaming nightmares – simply because there’s nothing to react to. Out of the three Auton stories, they are at their creepiest in Spearhead because of their design and also the calm, collected way in which they casually stroll up to blast their victims into nothingness.

Spearhead From Space is probably the simplest out of the Season Seven quartet, but that’s fine. You need a simple story to showcase your new Doctor, and this scary contemporary horror story does this admirably. What’s great about Spearhead is that the mystery is gradually built up over the four episodes. The first episode concentrates on the identity of the mysterious man in the woods, with the Auton threat very much in the background. By the second episode, the story has shifted to the creepy plastics factory and the machinations of the equally creepy Channing, a man who looks like he’s had way too much black coffee and sleepless nights. The questions come thick and fast. What are the pulsing globes? Who is Channing? What are the Autons? How does a grizzled old goat like General Scobie get caught up in all of this? Robert Holmes pulls his first real winner out of the bag. There’s none of the humourous double acts that pepper his later stories, but in terms of scaring kids, it’s Holmes to a tee. Countless characters are killed off. Countless people react in terror. It’s all shadows and silent but tangible menace, and so the seeds are sown for Holmes’ script-editing stint in the mid-1970s.

It’s notable that there are so many set pieces that stick in the mind, and this is partially down to Derek Martinus’ fantastic direction. The most notorious of these is the high street rampage, which is really Spearhead in microcosm. A slow, peaceful start, which gradually builds up to a frenzied climax. The shots of the Autons miraculously breaking out of shop windows is excellently shot by Martinus. Quick cuts of the reactions of the shoppers are perfectly balanced by the ominous, lingering shots of the advancing Autons. And if that’s not perfect enough, Dudley Simpson’s memorable score only adds to the terror of this perfectly-realised set-piece, again building up from a small bleep on a 1969 electronic piano through to the crescendo of noise.

It’s not just the shoppers’ slaughter that proves to be so memorable. There’s the eerie scene in the waxworks museum when the Autons silently leave. Ransome’s first look at his newly refurbished workshop. Auton Scobie makes an unwelcome house call. The wheelchair chase. Even the little touches such as the documentary-style press grilling of the Brigadier, the long tracking shot in the hospital corridor and the eerie close-up of Channing in the distorted window work perfectly. So many little nuggets sprinkled throughout the story and all expertly directed by Martinus.

"The rubbery Nestene looks ridiculous, and matters aren’t helped by Pertwee’s over-enthusiastic gurning and wailing"

Sadly, there has to be an exception to the rule. And of course, it’s the climatic struggle with the thrashing Nestene. Apparently this was a reshoot, so god knows what the original version looked like (if it ever was filmed). The rubbery Nestene looks ridiculous, and matters aren’t helped by Pertwee’s over-enthusiastic gurning and wailing. As many commentators have said, speed the whole thing up and you’re looking at a sequence that could have comfortably slotted into an episode of The Goodies. In fact I’m almost surprised that a giant Auton Dougal or Kitten Kong don’t burst into Ransome’s workshop to help the Nestene overpower The Doctor.

Apart from this misfire (which is partially redeemed by the last shot of Channing’s snot-covered remains), there’s little to fault Spearhead From Space. The performances are strong across the board. Hugh Burden is excellent as Channing, all silent, spooky stares at first and then softly-spoken menace. John Woodnutt is also perfectly cast as the put-upon Hibbert, as is Derek Smee as Ransome, the man who has a mini nervous breakdown after meeting an Auton.

And of course, there’s the UNIT team. Season Seven is a bit disjointed in this regard, since the Brigadier’s second-in-commands change more times than the weather. Nicholas Courtney is as good as ever, and makes The Brig an assured, confident leader that knows how to make shrewd decisions. Caroline John too, also makes a good first impression. Liz Shaw is a complete contrast to the screaming companions of the Troughton years and it’s a refreshing throwback to the days of Barbara the Grown-Up. Liz isn’t quite so prone to screaming, she doesn’t ask a lot of fool questions and she can hold her own in an argument. Only problem is, Liz’s snottiness is overdone just a tad in her first adventure. With the air of a duchess being forced to work in a supermarket, Liz huffs and puffs around, lashing out at The Brigadier on a non-stop basis (“You don’t expect me to salute, I hope?”) Luckily, Liz would calm down in her next few stories – evidently either The Doctor or The Brig offer her a crash course in How To Get Over An Attitude Problem.

"Spearhead From Space itself is a triumph, launching the third Doctor in fine style"

So The Doctor once again saves the day, although the Autons would continue to plague the Earth, not only in Doctor Who it seems. Just look at rubbish musical screech-a-thon Glee, in which classic songs are reduced to plastic, soulless soup by a cast of plastic stereotypes. Or look at any politician you’d care to name. Or… well, you get the picture. Spearhead From Space itself is a triumph, launching The Third Doctor in fine style and with an enjoyable, thrilling script from Robert Homes thrown in for good measure. The incredible thing is that the best is still yet to come in the season…

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, The War Games

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked


 

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