20 – Spearhead from Space

And so we come to the top twenty! From this point on there is nothing but controversy – every story from this point on is utterly excellent, and almost impossible to choose between. And so it is with the first we come to – Jon Pertwee’s superb debut in Spearhead from Space. There is not a bad word to say about this story – and yet it is not in my top ten. As I have said in previous reviews, often a story has been given what seems a very low number for no other reason that the fantastic quality of Doctor Who as a whole.

Your appetite suitably whetted (I hope!) let me share about the story itself. Faced with financial pressures at the end of Season Six, the BBC decided to cut the costs of Doctor Who so that it could remain on the air. The show was slashed from the 40-odd episodes of the first six seasons (the number varied) to 25; the season would feature four stories, of which three would be seven parters; and the Doctor would be ‘exiled’ to Earth – all of which were intended to reduce the costs to sets. As if all of this change were not enough, Patrick Troughton had also resolved to leave his role as the Second Doctor, determined that his career as a character actor would not be jeopardised by being typecast. His departure indirectly led to his companions, portrayed by Fraser Hines and Wendy Padbury, to also leave the series. Oh, and just for good measure, the BBC decided to broadcast the show in colour.

Bearing all of these background details in mind, and Spearhead from Space is very easily understood as a ‘re-Boot’ from the first six seasons. Perhaps this is what makes it such a good story; there is a definite feel of introduction to it. Nicholas Courtney returns as Brigadier Leighbridge-Stewart, now in a permanent recurring capacity as the head of U.N.I.T., while the lovely Caroline John makes her debut as U.N.I.T.’s resident scientific advisor Liz Shaw – a role that deserved better than Dr Shaw was ultimately to get. For the first two episodes at least, we very much view the story through their eyes – a mysterious meteorite shower in the south of England leading the Brigadier to bring in Liz to investigate. Their investigation is then confounded as an unknown force begins stealing the meteorites; and confused as they find an unknown man next to a familiar blue Police Box. He claims to recognise the Brigadier … but no-one recognises him.

Which brings us neatly to Pertwee. In contrast to Patrick Troughton’s all action debut in Power of the Daleks, Pertwee spends most of episode one unconscious, and only really begins to get his mojo back in episode two. But when he does – he is absolutely scintillating. As far removed as you can imagine from the austere Hartnell or the comical Troughton, Pertwee is a debonair gentleman who charms every scene he walks into. While viewers had now become used to the idea that the Doctor could change, the transition to the U.N.I.T. Era owes much to Pertwee taking hold of the role so brilliantly, and building an instant rapport with John and Courtney.

It doesn’t hurt that the story is brilliant, and features some of the show’s most iconic moments. I guarantee that even if you haven’t heard of the story, you will have seen somewhere the dramatic moment in the final episode when all over Britain, shop window dummies come to life. In a story full of firsts, this story also features the debut of the Nestenes, a plastic based lifeform able to animate all plastic. The ingenious use of a common, everyday item to induce terror in the imagination was a master stroke – so it was entirely understandable that Russell T Davies would re-use the imagery in 2005 for the revival of Doctor ho. Iconic, classic, and brilliant – Spearhead from Space summarised in three words!

Fans wishing to enjoy this adventure have an even more special treat in store. Owing to strike action by BBC engineers (this was the 1970s …) the producers were not able to shoot any scenes in the BBC’s studios. It means that, uniquely in the back catalogue of classic Doctor Who, this is the only episode to be exclusively recorded on film rather than video tape (brief note – the show used video tape in studio as an easier editing medium, and used limited location film inserts where needed). The retention of these film originals enabled the BBC to produce this adventure in glorious high-definition; having sampled both SD and HD I can testify that the colour and sound of the HD version is absolutely gorgeous and the perfect complement for an already stunning adventure. If you do wish to enjoy Spearhead from Space I encourage you to invest in the BluRay – it is very much worth the investment.

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You can buy the Spearhead from Space Blu Ray on Amazon for a bargain £7.00!

Next Time: We investigate the origins of Spearhead from Space, as the nascent U.N.I.T. Organisation repels an invasion from the sewers of London.

21 – Carnival of Monsters

I know several readers will be surprised to see this Jon Pertwee classic so high, above such notable classics as The Enemy of the World or Terror of the Zygons. This is less due to the challenge that you get with the best of Doctor Who (That it’s all brilliant, and it’s like being asked which of your children you like best …) and more due to the fact that it’s a bit, well, crazy! Bright, garish, and very much a product of the 1970s, I didn’t expect to enjoy this adventure at all, which is why I didn’t bother watching the VHS version my dad had recorded off UK Gold back in the early 90s.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I found it free to view on the BBC’s channel on You Tube (sadly no longer the case), and even more surprised to find that I hugely enjoyed it! Having been pardoned by the Time Lords in the previous adventure and granted the ability to travel through space and time again, the Doctor and Jo take the TARDIS for a test drive, and supposedly land on a old steam-ship making its way to India in the interwar years. When the passengers and crew forget about their presence, then proceed to re-enact the scene they had just witnessed, the Doctor suspects that all is not well.

His suspicions are well grounded. On the planet of Inter Minor, showman and confidence trickster Vorg has brought a device called a miniscope to entertain the inhabitants. The scope contains a number of entrapped creatures, including the humans supposedly sailing the Indian Ocean. With the highly xenophobic inhabitants of Inter Minor determined to destroy the miniscope for fear it will contaminate their planet, the Doctor must find a way to escape the miniscope and return the entrapped species to their rightful homes before the miniscope is destroyed … or before the deadly Drashigs entrapped in the scope manage to consume everything they encounter!

The story is played out over three wonderful locations – the steam ship SS Bernice, the plaza of Inter Minor, and the interior of Vorg’s miniscope. The production crew manage astonishingly well for the poor budget, and while Vorg and his assistant Shirna may be dressed in the most hideously outlandish attire one could choose, it weirdly works in the context of the story. The relationship between Vorg and Shirna is one of the real highlights of the story, as the huckster Vorg tries to weasel his way to a profit, much to the cynical Shirna’s despair. Special mentions are also due to three actors who regularly appear in Doctor Who; to Michael Wisher, best known for portraying Davros, who appears in a comparably brilliant role as the Machiavellian and scheming Kalik; then Peter Halliday portrays the bumbling and officious Pletrac, a character almost as incompetent as dear Packer from The Invasion; but not least, this story is the Doctor Who debut for Ian Marter, best known for portraying companion Harry Sullivan in Season 12. All three put in excellent performances.

And that’s really why I enjoy Carnival of Monsters so much. It’s really good fun, really well acted, and reasonably clever in its storytelling. Rather like The Androids of Tara, this is a story I rate rather highly for no other reason than the sheer enjoyment I get from sitting down to watch it.

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The special edition of Carnival of Monsters can be bought in the ‘Revisitations 2’ boxset – highly recommended!

Next Time: One of Doctor Who’s most iconic moments, as shop window dummies spring to life …