Doctor Doctor Who Guide

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 amount 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 atmosphere has changed. The 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 Season 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 expedient 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 familiar, inanimate things coming to life, be it displays in Madame Tussauds or shop window mannequins. 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 influence 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 mischievously 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...

Filters: Television Third Doctor Series 7