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Spearhead from Space

story 51 | season 7 | serial aaa
Scott Moore

Spearhead from Space' is an enjoyable and stylish start to the Pertwee era. The story not only successfully introduces the main character traits of the new Doctor, but also makes a clean break from the 1960s era of the television programme. Fine performances from most of the cast, excellent directing, the extensive location filming, a good script, and numerous touches of humour combine to create an entertaining and not-entirely-unconvincing story despite the B-movie plot it partly shares with the 1966 film 'Invasion'.

Whereas much of 1960s Doctor Who feels like televised theatre (or, at its worst, pantomime), 'Spearhead from Space' is a more of a movie on the small screen. The serial clearly benefits from being recorded on film with a considerable amount of shooting on location. But it also has a faster pace than earlier Doctor Who and more creative camera work.

Jon Pertwee does a good job of portraying his new character despite having relatively little dialogue in the first half of the story. His Doctor is clearly more action-oriented even than his immediate predecessor, still eccentric but softened by a debonair charm. The only fault I can find with Pertwee's performance is that he occasionally resorts to clownish grimaces – witness his facial expressions when shot at the end of episode one, or when attacked by the tentacles in episode four. Nicholas Courtney also puts in a convincing turn as the Brigadier, who although clearly a man-in-charge can be diplomatic and is open to suggestions. Of the regular cast, only Caroline John fails to convince in her role but this is partly the fault of the script, which fails to supply dialogue that portrays her as the experienced and well-qualified scientist she is meant to be. Because she is a woman she is soon shoe-horned into the role of pretty, young assistant for the much older Doctor. Still, her initial air of arrogance and clear displeasure at the Brigadier's sexist comments marks her as a more mature and realistic character than most of the previous female companions.

The supporting characters are generally well-served both by the script and the actors. Hugh Burden is excellent in his portrayal of an outwardly human character with a disturbing and somewhat chilling mien. Anthony Webb supplies a convincing Dr. Henderson, while John Breslin manages to rise above the usual stereotypes for his second-in-command Captain Munro. Both John Woodnut and Derek Smee are also fairly successful at avoiding typical B-movie characterisation, despite one or two lapses. Unfortunately, the characters of Sam Seeley and his wife Meg seem to have been left over from an early script for 'Invasion' (presumably) supplied to Hammer films.

The locations are generally used to good effect by the director. The plastics factory is entirely plausible and even the BBC building is passable as UNIT headquarters. I wasn't convinced, though, by the hospital interior, which with its surfeit of wood panelling looks more like a country hotel. On the other hand, the special effects and some of the design work is rather poor. Applying paint to the faces of the actors portraying certain of the autons works surprisingly well, but the plastic faces of the others are a little too crude and the eye holes are inexplicable (except, of course, to enable the actors to see where they are going). Furthermore, when Channing orders, ''total destruction'' I expected something more spectacular to happen to the victims of the autons' weapons than simply to disappear between frames. Still, the scene where the shop-dummy autons awaken and attack the terrified inhabitants of London is handled well enough to instill some suspense to the proceedings. The shot of the Nestene pods descending to earth is mercifully brief, but alas those green, rubber tentacles are allowed to writhe around for far too long. Given the fact that they are totally unnecessary to the plot, and Jon Pertwee's accompanying facial expression is so ludicrous, they take the prize for comic low-budget production moment of the story.

Grant McLanaghan

Spearhead From Space - new decade, new Doctor, new setting, new companion, new titles, re-arranged theme tune. Shot in colour, entirely on film and location. Phew, that's a whole lot of innovation going on! Admittedly, the latter two elements were forced upon the production team but was there ever such change brought about in one solitary story in the history of the series? An Unearthly Child was literally a new programme, the TV Movie wasn't, not really. One suspects that the Eccleston series will herald the greatest ammount of change seen since January 1970. It must have felt odd seeing Troughton in control of the TARDIS having been used to the previous incumbent but all the usual trappings remained; companions, Daleks... Arguably Ark in Space is second only to Spearhead in the 'shock-of-the-new' stakes. Same companions and it carries on directly from Robot but just compare the two productions. Many consider Robot as a Pertwee story starring Tom Baker but no, it feels quite different. Baker, himself, gives it an unique feel and all the other, familiar characters are different because they react differently to a new actor. Ark in Space has a new Doctor, good old Sarah plus Harry but the whole atmospheere has changed. Ths story is positively charged with Baker, Hinchcliffe and Holmes. The combination is electric.

Spearhead from Space is virtually a new programme. History tells us that the BBC seriously considered scrapping the series in favour of something different. Effectively this happens with Ssason 7. The TARDIS makes little impact on the story (other than alerting the Brigadier to the possible return of the Doctor) and reference to the past is fairly oblique; Time Lords are alluded to, Jamie and Zoe are not even mentioned. It would seem that the production team were keen to attract new viewers, the complete lack of baggage appears to support this. This story really could have been part of new series completely unrelated to Doctor Who with very little change made to the script. The same goes for the rest of the season, and the next one too.

Spearhead from Space benefits enormously from the deliberate and expediant changes wrought on the series. I don't subscribe to criticising any story that doesn't heavily feature the Doctor, as long as the story is a good one. Spearhead has a good, solid B-movie type script. This is not a to denigrate it, It's great; it tells a story that anyone can follow. No prior knowledge of the series is really necessary, UNIT is explained and all we really need to know is that something strange is happening in the woods and some soldiers are a bit twitchy.

Effectively it's a story of two halves. The Brigadier carries the first two episodes and the Doctor takes command in parts three and four. This is probably the Brigadier's finest hour (and a half) and it's a shame that his characterisation isn't continued. He's an intelligent soldier with a pretty good grasp of science and not the Graham Chapman-like figure of later stories (it's easy to imagine Nicholas Courtney inside the TARDIS in The Three Doctors rebuking Troughton and Pertwee with, "Stop this, it's silly!"). The tale kicks in straight away with strange meteor showers hitting the Earth (south east England, naturally) and the way that Pertwee is introduced is a delight. Effectively we are teased by half-glimpses of him. Two hooks for the viewers: mysterious meteors; mysterious man.

The Nestenes are not the most original of genre baddies. We've seen their like before, and since, many times. From Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, the Thing from Another World, Faceless Ones through to Michael Myers and the toy factory of Halloween III. However, this simply doesn't matter. As a baptism of fire for a new Doctor/series they are pretty unbeatable. They have an affinity with plastic - a brilliant conceit because it doesn't have to be explained how this actually works (no cogs, springs, micro-circuitry, etc.) and the ubiquity of the substance itself makes them a formidable threat.

The Autons are probably the series' most monstrous creations simply because they tap into our primal fear of familar, inanimate things coming to life, be it displays in Madame Tussauds or shop window manequins. Terror of the Autons extrapolated the idea more fully but Spearhead has it's share of scary moments: Ransome being stalked by a (sinisterly blank-faced) plastic man. General Scobie coming face-to-face with his facsimile and the activation of the shop window dummies. All different manifestations of the same relentless, uncaring and wholly alien menace.

Jon Pertwee makes a great start to his era. He amuses with his bizarre obsession for his shoes, his "Unhand me, madam!" to the nurse (Carry on Doctor, perhaps?) and The Shower Scene that wasn't Psycho or Dallas. This type of humour seems to have a lot of detractors but I can promise you that my 6 and 7 year old boys found if very funny indeed! Pertwee looks simply brilliant; a great, interesting face, imposing stature and flamboyant taste in clothes. He has an imperious quality, no doubt, but a certain vulnerability too. Especially when in hospital and his misfiring attempt to leave (the story precariously poised) in the TARDIS. To a 5 year old boy (as I was when these episodes first aired) Pertwee was peerless.

The story isn't faultless, it has dated and is a little bit creaky in places. Some of Dudley Simpson's music is great (the Auton retrieving the sphere from the crashed UNIT Land Rover) but the score that accompanies the sequence with the Doctor stealing the consultant's car is grating in the extreme; it seems Simpson is unwittingly creating the theme to Worzel Gummidge 9 years early, but not in a good way. Much of the sound isn't as clear as it might be and some of the locations are a bit threadbare such as the Brigadier's office. Caroline John seem ill-at-ease and it's difficult to warm to her.

The guest performances are generally very good; John Breslin plays UNIT's best captain and it's a shame he didn't do more episodes. John Woodnutt brings Hibbert to painful life, you can see his inner conflict in every look and gesture. Channing - great name. Chillingly played by Hugh Burden with the right mix of ruthlessness and intensity - alien but plausibly human.

Spearhead from Space. Scariest monsters, scariest title sequence, scariest arrangement of a scary theme tune. Add to that a very different Doctor banished to an all-too-familiar Earth and you have a winning combination.

As I alluded to earlier, there are many features that this story shares with the Halloween film series. Relentless, terrifying killer (in plastic mask?) wearing blue boiler suit. The much underestimated Halloween III (effectively written by Nigel Kneale - can we deny his influcence on 70's Doctor Who?) told the story of a toy factory with a terrible secret, guarded by murderous automatons and presided over by a driven but charismatic boss. The film's finale more closely mirrors Terror of the Autons, this time with the Master mischieviously engineering the wanton massacre of the nation's children with dolls (if not halloween masks). Kneale utilises that other british institution Stonehenge and it is a bit like watching a fun but gory Doctor Who story even if there is no 'Doctor' to Halloween III's Irish-American 'Master'. John Carpenter is a self-confessed admirer of Kneale's work and he in turn (unwittingly?) plagarises the concepts of Spearhead and Terror which themselves... and so it goes. It's Interesting to note that Kneale had his name removed from the film's credits because he objected to the violence and that Barry Letts felt he had crossed the line with Terror of the Autons...

Robert Michael

“I couldn’t bear the thought of being tied, to one plant and one time”

Having being exiled to 20th Century Earth by the Time Lords, the next time we meet the Doctor he has changed yet again. This time it is Jon Pertwee who plays the time traveller. His version of the Doctor is very different to the approach of his predecessor. After the rather muddling second incarnation of Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee brings back the authoritative figure that the Doctor once was. Once again he is a man who speaks his mind.

In Spearhead from Space Jon Pertwee puts in a performance that sets the tone for the rest of the season. He is truly brilliant as the Doctor and gets lost in the role. His sense of urgency towards the Nesten Invasion draws the viewer in. His sharpness to brand a lesser intellect an idiot, is a perfect example of the authoritative figure that Jon Pertwee was. He brings a refreshing approach to the role and it is only the shadow of a fantastic era to come.

The Earth bound Doctor’s first companion is Liz Shaw (Caroline John). At first Liz is very sceptical of the Brigadier’s stories about little blue men with three heads. (Who wouldn’t be?) As the story progresses she learns to trust and respect the Brigadier and the Doctor. Caroline John puts in a great performance as Liz Shaw which continues into the season.

Spearhead from space is the return of UNIT. It is once more lead by Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart. Nicholas Courtney’s approach to the character is at its best here. He is respected and highly regarded by all members of UNIT. However it is unfortunate that this does not last for the entire era. In this story Courtney really does shine.

The Nestenes are a fantastic foe for the new Doctor. Hugh Burdens Channing is very creepy and naturally looks like an alien. The faceless Autons with their concealed guns makes an extremely convincing and spooky effect.

Of course due to this story being the only Doctor Who episode made entirely on film, it gives a unique and realistic feel.

In conclusion it is a beautifully constructed episode. It makes a fantastic debut for Jon Pertwee and a great start for the season to come!

Paul Clarke

As debut stories go, ‘Spearhead From Space’ is one of the best and far better than Jon Pertwee could ever have hoped for. This is only partially because it was recorded entirely on film; whilst this undoubtedly benefits the production by giving it a unique slick appearance, it is not enough to rescue a mediocre story. Coupled with fine acting, superb direction and a marvellous script, however, it helps to make ‘Spearhead From Space’ a true classic.

Firstly, the new Doctor has to be mentioned. Pertwee makes an impressive Doctor, debonair, charming and immediately commanding. During the first two episodes, he is given little opportunity to make an impression, since the Doctor is suffering somewhat form his regeneration and spends most of the time bed-ridden and unconscious. Even here though, Pertwee makes the most of the script and is immediately charismatic enough to maintain viewer interest. His performance really starts to shine in the latter half of episode two, as the Doctor awakens and makes his escape from the hospital, gaining a new costume on the way. By the time he reaches UNIT HQ in London, his performance hits the pattern that he will stick to throughout his era, occasionally waspish (note his treatment of the speechless guard whom he demands take him to Lethbridge-Stewart), often charming (his first meeting with Liz), and commanding, but above all likeable. For all that he is far more intimidating than Troughton was, he is still very much the Doctor. His rueful performance on leaving the smoking TARDIS and shamefacedly admitting to the Brigadier that he tricked Liz into stealing the TARDIS key so that he could escape shows the Doctor’s vulnerable, almost human side, which shines through the rest of his persona, even when he is irritable and bad-tempered. In this respect, he recalls Hartnell more than Troughton, but also establishes the Third Doctor as a distinct character in his own right as a rather dashing man of action; he leads the raid on Auto Plastics during episode four, heading for a meeting with Channing with Liz whilst the UNIT troops remain outside, despite the danger. The final scene, as the Doctor agrees to remain with UNIT whilst he tries to repair his TARDIS and escape from his exile, sets the pattern for the rest of the season, and of course most of the Pertwee era. And it is also worth noting that for all his desire to escape Earth, once he realises the true threat posed by the Nestenes, he focuses his entire attention on defeating them.

The other regular cast members of Season Seven also make an impression here. Lethbridge-Stewart is of course a familiar figure, and Nicholas Courtney falls back into his role with great aplomb. The Brigadier seen here is intelligent, commanding, and also diplomatic; despite his military rigidity, which will later be used as a source of fun, he is not portrayed as some hard-nosed stereotypical soldier, but rather a trustworthy and eminently likeable authority figure who listens to those around him and smoothly deals with the cynical Liz Shaw, the terrified Ransome with his seemingly ridiculous story of killer manikins, and later the Doctor. In fact the Brigadier is admirably broad-minded (understandably so after the events of ‘The Web of Fear’ and ‘The Invasion’) and quickly accepts the idea that this tall, debonair, white-haired stranger is the same man as the small, scruffy dark-haired man whom he encountered previously. He also takes Ransome and the Doctor’s theories about the Nestene energy unit seriously, and this plays an important role in defeating the menace he is facing. His relationship with the new Doctor is also quickly established; there is mutual respect between them and the impression of a budding friendship carefully disguised by occasional banter. The Brigadier is clearly prepared to humour his old friend in episode four by agreeing to his various demands in exchange for his help, indicating just how much he values the Doctor’s help. His relationship with Liz Shaw, and her relationship with the Doctor, are also cemented here. Initially, Liz is the voice of cynicism; the rational scientist confronted with the unusual and alien and forced to come to terms with it. To her credit, she does not try to fly in the face of evidence and having been forced to accept that an alien invasion is underway, she pitches in to help, gradually gaining respect for both the Brigadier and the Doctor. Whilst Zoe was highly intelligent and open minded, Liz combines both of these attributes with considerably more maturity, which gives a rather more grown-up feeling to the regular cast and enhances the more adult feeling of Season Seven compared with Season Six. She is able to talk to the Doctor on a more equal footing than many of her predecessors and yet is sufficiently unknowledgeable about the unique problems faced by UNIT that she still provides somebody for the Doctor to explain things to, and thus to the audience.

After six seasons of stories in which the Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space, the concept of restricting him to Earth during a specific period of time is potentially limiting. Robert Holmes quickly dispels any such fears by establishing the new template for the series with an impressive and memorable threat. The Nestenes are truly alien, a disembodied and utterly malevolent alien intelligence in the mould of the threats from The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II. Despite the merciful brief appearance of the unconvincing Nestene monster at the end of episode four, this allows for an alien invasion of Earth that doesn’t resort to rubber monster costumes, and further adds to the adult feel of the new season. The Autons are extremely sinister and creepy monsters and still look great thirty years on. ‘Spearhead From Space’ contains some of the most sinister sequences in the series’ history, including the Auton coming to life behind Ransome at the end of episode two, the Auton advancing remorselessly towards the terrified Mrs. Seely in episode three, and most notably of all, the classic sequence in episode four as shop window dummies come eerily to life, break out of the shop windows, and silently slaughter members of the public. These sequences capture the same sort of impression as those of the Cybermen marching through London in ‘The Invasion’ and earlier the Daleks in ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’. Suddenly, the threat faced by the Doctor is on Earth in the present and it makes it all the more frightening. Suddenly, the benefits of the Doctor’s exile become clear. The Autons are simply terrifying, more so even than the Cybermen because whilst they are also remorseless, seemingly unstoppable, and bulletproof, they are also silent.

So much adds to the success of ‘Spearhead From Space’. The use of colour is an obvious difference, and adds to the slick new look of this film-only story. The incidental music is suitably chilling, and enhances the menace of the Autons. The location work is gorgeous, especially the quaint interior of Ashbridge Cottage Hospital, and of course that shower. The direction is exemplary, with an impressive shot in episode one of the Brigadier and Captain Munro walking towards camera along a corridor. In comparison with modern television programmes it seems almost pointless to mention this, but it signifies such a technical advance compared with the previous Season that in the context of the series it really stands out. Most of all however, ‘Spearhead From Space’ benefits from acting and characterisation. Hugh Burden is almost as sinister as the Autons as Channing, looking remarkably cadaverous and ghastly. Most of his best acting is with his eyes alone; witness the way that they widen with excitement as he orders the “total destruction” of first Ransome and then later Hibbert. There is also some very impressive “Frightened” acting on display; as Ransome, Derek Smee looks genuinely terrified as he gibbers and dribbles tea in Munro’s tent, and Betty Bowden as Meg Seely looks equally frightened as the bullet-proof Auton advances on her in episode three. Then there is John Woodnutt’s tortured Hibbert, Neil Wilson’s shifty Sam Seely who unwittingly holds up the Nestenes’ invasion plans by hoarding the swarm leader to make a quick profit, Antony Webb’s perplexed Doctor Henderson, baffled by the Doctor’s alien physiology but determined to help his patient… the list goes on.

I could make a couple of criticisms of ‘Spearhead From Space’. The switch from the model shot of the TARDIS materializing to location footage of the Doctor emerging and collapsing is so obvious that it’s painful, and the Nestene monster at the end is crap, but these are such minor criticisms that they vanish under the weight of the story’s good points. Finally, there is the ending, as the Doctor defeats the Nestenes. Yes, it is a deus ex machina ending, the Doctor cobbling together a contraption to defeat the invaders, and it could have been better, but crucially it entirely depends on the Doctor. Without his machine, the Auton invasion would probably have succeeded. Frankly, that exonerates it in my eyes, serving to establish the Doctor’s importance in UNIT’s operation. ‘Spearhead From Space’ shows us the new direction for Doctor Who and it shows it to us with tremendous style.