Doctor Who Project: Spearhead from Space

Doctor Who Project: Spearhead from Space
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My dear fellow, how nice to see you again.

Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. Or hearts, perhaps, in the case of Doctor Who.

Six months elapsed from the end of Season Six to the beginning of Season Seven, making Jon Pertwee’s debut story as the Third Doctor, “Spearhead from Space” (Story Production Code AAA) by series regular Robert Holmes, a long awaited reunion for viewers indeed. And what a change they found when they tuned in. A new Doctor and the use of color footage, to be sure, plus a new companion in Caroline John’s Liz Shaw, but also a vigorous sense of confidence in the storytelling that manifests itself in a four episode story filled with fast pacing and dynamic directing by Derek Martinus. Never did the camera zoom in on people in various stages of horror quite so often as in this story. Shame the Doctor spends the first two episodes in bed, though.

Sleeping on the job

And the cause of this extreme terror? A plastics factory run by aliens has been turning out plastic automatons, none of which are quite as terrifying as their usual line of work, plastic dolls. The establishing scenes in the factory, with conveyor belts lines with disembodied plastic baby heads, must surely count as some of the most disturbing in the series’ history.

Abandon hope

The intended monsters in the story, the Autons, derive their menace from their nearness to human beings, humanoid without quite being human due to the slight angularity of facial features and the overall blankness in the visage. The effect harkens to the original, Mondasian Cybermen, whose obvious similarity to human beings causes a degree of ontological dread that the later versions simply lack. The Autons function quite similarly to Cybermen as well, lacking any affect or individuality and obeying the orders of a centralized hierarchy. And wouldn’t you know it, they want to conquer the Earth, too, only while wearing blue coveralls and cravats.

Natty Auton

Despite the care Holmes and Martinus take in slowly revealing the Autons and the plans of their masters, the Nestene, very little time indeed is spent establishing the new Doctor or even remarking particularly about the change. This is not his first regeneration, and he recovers with remarkable alacrity, taking quickly to his expressive new features even as he fumes about the restrictions placed upon him by the Time Lords.

Nicholas Courtney reprises his role as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and serves as the audience’s identification figure for the first two episodes, particularly since Pertwee has no significant role until the second half of the second episode, aside from a rousing escape down a hill in a wheelchair in the first. The Brigadier is dismayed when the strange hospital patient found in the woods next to a police box doesn’t look a thing like Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor; even the evidence of his having two hearts and non-human blood doesn’t convince him that it’s truly the Doctor. However, by the time the Doctor has been shot (by UNIT soldiers guarding the TARDIS), put himself in a healing coma, and then found his way to UNIT’s secret headquarters in stolen clothes and with a stolen car, Lethbridge-Stewart suddenly believes this stranger is, indeed, the Doctor.

Better than one

Though fans of the continuity and the lore of the series might be dismayed that Holmes fails to dally with the regeneration and its consequences, it speaks volumes that the shows production staff felt confident enough in the series’ most basic conceit that it’s given almost no attention at all. Here’s the new guy and on with the show.

Indeed, more focus is spent on the Doctor being marooned on Earth by the Time Lords, who have “changed the dematerialization code,” causing the TARDIS to sputter and smoke when the Doctor attempts to flee Earth once he gains access to his police box again. Though no clear danger had yet manifested itself, the Third Doctor has already shown that he’s not inclined to stick around for curiosity’s sake, a departure from his predecessors’ modus operandi.

With the Doctor grounded for the foreseeable future, the conquest of Earth pretty much has to be taken as given for any given story, and the plan of the Nestene, a collective entity capable of telepathically controlling the Autons as well more lifelike copies of real people, stems around, um, placing mannequins in store windows and having them break out and kill commuters waiting for the bus. Also, they try to replace civic leaders with these facsimiles to facilitate a take-over of the planet, having convinced several Deputy Ministers that Madam Tussauds considers their visage essential to drawing tourists. To the extent that the Nestene use human vanity against humanity, they are perhaps the most clever would-be conquerers in the entire run of Doctor Who.

A killer commute

As campy as the Autons in bathrobes might be, though, these plastic-headed automatons bring a much more violent tenor with them to the show. “Spearhead from Space” is arguably the most violent episode in the series to date, with people catching on fire and a particularly bloody scene after a car crash, taking full advantage of the shift to color footage. Director Martinus also, as noted, revels in close ups of contorted, horrified faces just before they are about to encounter the Autons. Between the extensive location shooting and the fairly wanton killing of civilians, not to mention the Doctor himself being shot as a cliffhanger, this story brings the terror home in a manner never quite reached during the series’ black-and-white era.

Now in color

The Nestene’s plot never really gains much traction, especially since the Doctor, with the assistance of astrophysicist Liz Shaw, creates an unwieldy machine capable of tuning in to the exact frequency needed to disrupt the Nestene telepathic control—and, as it turns out, the frequency also fries the collective brain that the Nestene sent to Earth to, ah, spearhead their colonization plan. The Doctor may be complaining about a lack of memory after his regeneration, but one could be excused for thinking he just used the same sonic kludge box from “Fury from the Deep” to destroy another collective entity. This one even has tentacles, too, though rather more like that of an octopus than seaweed.

Reusing props

Still, the plot doesn’t have to be too compelling, given that the focus for most viewers likely centered around this new chap calling himself the Doctor. Jon Pertwee plays his rendition of the Doctor as forthright, confrontational, and down to business. There’s very little dissembling or subterfuge about him. He’s quite no nonsense in many ways, and yet also slightly craven, as seen in his immediate attempt to escape UNIT headquarters in the TARDIS after he cons Liz into pilfering the key from the Brigadier for him.

Yet to his credit, he also apologizes in a sincere manner. The Third Doctor, as yet, hasn’t made any grand proclamations about the role of evil in the universe like the Second Doctor, nor does he have the First Doctor’s incessant curiosity to make him stick around. Instead, he has a plot device to keep him focused on the monster of the week and involved in the affairs of humanity. This narrative conceit, oddly, allows for a new definition of the Doctor’s character. Though obviously the hero, he doesn’t have to be heroic about his motives or approaches. He’s just kind of stuck, and helping out seems a better option than waiting for Liz and the Brigadier to figure it out.

Caroline John brings some verve to Liz Shaw, at least when she’s incredulous about the claim that UNIT has fought off two prior (and apparently unpublicized) alien invasions. By this point in the show, we’re running up against that longstanding problem of contemporary Earth having been invaded so many times that the writers are typically best served by ignoring the past attempts. The new companion shows no great love of authority, much to the Brigadier’s dismay. In some ways, Liz Shaw amalgamates Zoe and Jamie into one character, whip smart and raring for a fight, though still subservient to the Doctor in age and experience.

Liz and the Brigadier

Nicholas Courtney’s repeat turn as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart sees him mostly fighting with bureaucrats and journalists. UNIT’s odd structure, outside of the British Army and yet strangely beholden to it and the British government for just about any action they want to take, certainly helps with plotting, providing reasons that UNIT can’t just go and arrest everyone before the plot has a chance to develop. Nevertheless, since he provides the sole linkage to the show’s past, he provides a nice bit of continuity. The idea of him being the Doctor’s keeper, though, attempting to coerce the Doctor into helping by withholding access to the TARDIS strikes a sour note.

Most jarring, however, is a scene where the Doctor and Liz are explaining their discoveries about the facsimiles of minor civil servants and the plot to take over by replacing them. Liz begins to spell out the nefarious scheme when the Doctor just talks right over her. Perhaps it was written differently and Holmes didn’t intend to have the Doctor run roughshod over his erstwhile companion, perhaps it was a poor take during a rushed production schedule, but it just feels off. The Doctor has certainly been dismissive of his companions, and has not been above reprimanding and scolding and even gloating, but he’s seldom been, well, rude.

A broad smile

Still, it’s early days for Pertwee’s Doctor, and his evident glee in making facial expressions shows us a playful side of the Doctor that Troughton only occasionally revealed. This story sees the introduction of the “two hearts” conceit as well as the firm establishment of the Doctor’s nom de guerre, John Smith. And, somehow, the Time Lords kitted him out with a TARDIS detecting watch that I’m pretty sure the Second Doctor didn’t have on at the end of “The War Games,” a handy bit of tech indeed.

This evidently isn’t the Doctor Who of 1963, let alone the Doctor Who of 1969. Just seeing the TARDIS in color is worth the price of admission, and its age and beaten-up nature show clearly on screen. Season Seven allows the show’s producers to start with an almost clean slate, and they manage to keep the essentials intact while bringing color, speed, and just a bit of force to the proceedings.

(Previous Story: The War Games)

(Next Story: Doctor Who and the Silurians)

Post 53 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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