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.

Spearhead_from_space

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.

Villain Countdown No. 6 – The Autons

After some reasonable debate whether our first two villains are villains within the definition of the act, our next baddies are indisputably bad pieces of work – the living plastic foes commanded by the Nestenes and known as Autons. And we focus on the Autons because, to be honest, most of us were not really taken in by the other forms of plastic that turned lethal – the telephone cables, the dubious plastic chair – or the frankly horrendous reference in Rose to the implications of years of cosmetic surgery. What really terrifies us when the Nestenes decide they want your planet are their automated psychopaths the Autons.

I will leave aside the rip-off of Spearhead from Space that was Rose (well done though it was) and the truly awful use of Roman Autons at the end of Series 5 to focus on the two classic stories of the Pertwee era. As I will comment when I get to the review of Terror of the Autons, the only thing the sequel suffers from is having to live up to the exceptional standard set by Spearhead from Space, which justifiably is very high on most fans’ most appreciated stories. In both cases, the adventure is made terrifying by the seemingly unstoppable force of the display store mannequins – and in a lesson that Steven Moffat and co should note – the very sound of the Autons. Whoever was in the effects department at that stage deserves a pat on the back for creating the very unnerving throb of an Auton chasing their victim.

So we have an unstoppable killing machine, unnerving by its capacity to blend into normal life seemlessly, and matched by a sound-effect that produces dread, menace and unease. Why aren’t the Autons higher on my list? I suspect really that comes down to a simple observation – while they are excellent in the stories they do appear in, they are also slightly one dimensional in terms of means and motivation, somewhat reducing their capacity as a recurring villain – as evidenced by the sense of deja vu for fans watching Rose and noting the strong plot similarities – there wasn’t really a new angle to take.

The Autons make the list as a memorable recurring villain, but they lose out for not really having a good recurring value. That said, if Moffat’s successor comes up with a better idea that Autons masquerading as Romans, then I am prepared to be persuaded!

91 – Terror of the Autons

Terror of the Autons is a perfectly respectable four-part story, whose only crime is to pale in comparison to the first story to feature the Autons, Spearhead from Space. It is memorable for a whole series of first appearances, not least of which is the mercurial Roger Delgado as the original (and best) Master. From the very first Delgado is mesmerising – not only in terms of his hypnotic prowess, but his calm command of any situation he finds himself in (Steven Moffat take note!)

It is also the first serial to feature Jo Grant, who is probably the main character associated with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor – and while she is still somewhat prone to the “damsel in distress” scream at the monster syndrome, I would say that Jo is the true forerunner of Sarah-Jane Smith – feisty, independent and capable – albeit with a rather endearing clumsiness that frequently lands her in trouble! Honorable mentions also go Richard Franklin’s first appearance as Captain Mike Yates, and to Michael Wisher who made the first of many Doctor Who appearances in this serial as Reg Farrell – although his most famous appearance would not come for another four seasons …

The story itself is a very simple alien invasion of earth plot – the Master decides (seemingly on a whim) to help the Nestenes invade earth by distributing plastic flowers that spray plastic solution over the nose and mouth making it impossible for the victim to breathe. Rather bizarrely however, the invasion is repulsed by the Doctor persuading the Master that once the Nestenes take over he would be killed as superfluous, and so the two Timelords stave off the attack – before the Master engineers his escape. In that regard, the story is not that different to the later story The Claws of Axos – the show suffering from the problem that if bound to earth there are not a huge number of story types you can use. Which is rather why the story is not higher on the list – it’s a good example of the UNIT era, and as with anything featuring Delgado he is utterly excellent, not least in any scene featuring both he and Pertwee. A classic however, it is not.