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.

43 – The Ambassadors of Death

Ask most fans to name their favourite serial from Season 7, and the two most likely candidates would be Inferno or Spearhead from Space. It is a testament to the quality of Jon Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor that the other two stories are also absolute humdingers. The Ambassadors of Death is perhaps even more unusual than The Silurians because it should not have been a success. Where Silurians was specifically written for Pertwee, Ambassadors of Death was originally written to feature the Second Doctor with Jamie and Zoe, and suffered innumerable rewrites and production problems. Somehow, despite these issues, the BBC managed to turn out a thrilling and classic adventure.

The story centres around a rescue attempt to bring back lost astronauts from Mars Probe Seven. The rescue capsule returns to earth, but it transpires that the three suited beings inside are not the original astronauts, but alien ambassadors. The Doctor and UNIT have to discover why the ambassadors have come, where the original astronauts are being held, and why their efforts to reconcile earth and the alien powers have been hindered thus far.

We must recognise that a lot is going on in this story, in no small part due to the continual re-writing of the script. Despite this, and perhaps because the story runs to seven episodes, it works astonishingly well. Thread one is the Doctor trying to understand the alien intelligence communicating with UNIT, being continually set back by internal saboteurs. The second thread is the ambition of the head of the saboteurs, namely to hold on to the ambassadors to provoke an interplanetary conflict. On top of that there is a third thread – that the hired muscle employed by the saboteur is keen to use the alien ambassadors to serve his own criminal schemes. The interplay between the three should not work, but amazingly it does.

Perhaps the key reason it works is the character of Reegan, the villain’s hired muscle. Rather like Scorby from The Seeds of Doom, Reegan is amoral, resourceful, and quite cheerfully looking out for his own interests. Every moment that he arranges new sabotage, or engineers a break in, you cannot help but admire his audacity, and it’s the strength of this character that ties the different threads in the story together. The other characters also play their roles superbly, including the highly under-rated Caroline John as Liz Shaw.

This was one of the very last Pertwee DVDs I purchased, not by choice, but because its release was delayed many times as the BBC looked to restore the colour to the surviving black and white prints. While it is occasionally noticable, it certainly does not detract from a story I was very much looking forward to, and certainly not disappointed by. As with all seven part stories, you may well be advised to break the viewing into smaller chunks – but you will thoroughly enjoy the tale that is told!

54 – Doctor Who and the Silurians

Jon Pertwee’s second adventure is most easily remembered for the production gaffe that saw the title appear as “Doctor Who and the Silurians” – after the team neglected to remember the naming convention that it should be curtailed to “The Silurians.” While this alone makes the story unique in the history of classic Doctor Who, there is plenty else to note in this exceptional adventure.

Season 7 was a year of massive transition for the show. Patrick Troughton had left after three seasons as the Doctor, and most unusually the entire TARDIS crew had changed at the same time – a trick not to be repeated until The Eleventh Hour (or, technically, Rose). A number of concurrent production decisions were taken, all with the aim of reducing costs to the programme. A plot device was used to strand the Doctor on earth (reducing the need for expensive sets to set the show on alien landscapes), placing himself alongside new series regulars Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Leighbridge-Stewart and Caroline John as new assistant Liz Shaw. Very significantly, the show was produced in colour for the first time. Also significant was the decision to halve the season run from 44 episodes making up 7 stories, to 25 episodes making up 4 stories.

The Silurians was the first show to reflect this decision – while preceding story Spearhead from Space was a traditional four-part adventure, this story was a mammoth seven parts, as were the two following adventures Ambassadors of Death and Inferno. For Season 8 the producers would conclude that six episodes was the optimal length for these longer stories, but in Season 7 we have these slightly unusual longer adventures. And I have to confess – I am something of a fan.

One of the highly enjoyable aspects of Season 7 was that it forced the writers to think outside the box, not having the usual capacity to simply whisk the Doctor away in the TARDIS. While Script Editor Terrance Dicks panicked that they were effectively reduced to alien invasion or mad scientist plots, The Silurians is a great example of the lateral thinking brought about through intentional limitation – they dared to ask the question “What if the aliens have been on earth all along?”

The net result is a compelling adventure, that sees the Doctor and U.N.I.T. encounter the titular Silurians, a reptilian hominid race who lived on the earth before mankind and went into suspended hibernation to avoid a global apocalypse. When the Silurians are awoken by activity from a nearby nuclear reactor, the Doctor is forced to try and bring a peaceful resolution between the Silurians and mankind, both believing that the Earth is rightfully theirs.

There are so many excellent story elements at play that it seems wrong to highlight a few. There are the whole range of human reactions – from Dr Quinn trying to make a name for himself by keeping discovery of Silurian technology to himself; Dr Lawrence trying to preserve his own scientific research; and the Brigadier’s concern for global security. We even see the sympathetic appraisal of the Silurians – not merely bug-eyed baddies, but a sophisticated and intelligent race, initially led by an elder Silurian who is willing to broker peace with mankind. When the Brigadier blows up the Silurian base at the end of the adventure, the Doctor is genuinely disgusted – a fantastic example of the show being unafraid to explore ethical dilemmas.

The Silurians is a fantastic story with a fantastic cast – but I do confess it falls behind both its sequel, The Sea Devils (while being a lot better than Warriors of the Deep!); and also the other three stories in Season 7. That is no reason to discredit this story however. It undoubtedly could have been better paced as a four or six part adventure, but it is still an outstanding example of the Pertwee era.