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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

classic ‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Spearhead from Space”

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: Patrick Troughton: “The War Games”)
The further back you go into Doctor Who history, the less material of real substance there is to delve into in any given story. Plot is dragged out across multiple episodes that were unlikely to have been rewatched by audiences from week to week, so the overall story can feel a tad repetitious when you sit down to watch all four episodes back to back. And it’s impossible to believe that anyone way back when figured adult audiences would be revisiting a kiddie show 40 years later, in the case of 1970’s “Spearhead from Space”: no one was speaking to the ages here, merely providing some momentary diversion in the Doctor’s adventures.

So while there’s very little subtext to make a story such as this one stand up to much deep analysis, it’s still a lot of fun to watch. There’s the head-smacking hilarity of how dated and ridiculous much of what surely looked cool and futuristic at the time looks to us now. This is where UNIT is keeping an eye on the skies, and discovering some unusual meteorites heading toward Earth:

This is the console from which the Nestene Consciousness plans to take over Earth:

Was this really the desk of the man heading up UNIT, which was in charge of dealing with “the odd, the unexplained, anything on Earth, or even beyond”?

Was this really the state of the art for communications for such an organization?

I guess it was.

But there are other aspects that feel surprisingly modern (and which make the old Doctor Whos worth watching for what they reveal about the cultural context at the time and the kinds of stories TV was telling back then). The newly regenerated Doctor arrives on Earth here, stumbles from the TARDIS, and ends up unconscious in the middle of the woods. Fortunately for him, some UNIT troops are in the area looking for the fallen meteorites, and get him to a hospital. (It’s odd that the soldier who calls in this discovery to the Brigadier doesn’t seem to recognize the significance of the police box the Doctor is found near, when the Brigadier does, but I’ll need to see more of Patrick Troughton’s episodes to determine just how widely known the Doctor was within UNIT prior to this.) In the hospital, the Doctor’s strange biology is discovered — his blood isn’t human, his chest X-ray shows two hearts — and a porter, who overhears some confused discussion among the medical personnel, calls the newspapers to report a “man from space.” by the time the Brigadier arrives at the hospital, aware that the Doctor is there, this is what he encounters (this is in Episode 1):

Reporters are all over him, demanding information on what the big secret at the hospital is, and why UNIT would be involved. Alas, not much more comes of this, and we’re left to wonder whether the Auton attack that occurs in Episode 4 of this story will later be connected by some intrepid journalist to the strange doings at this hospital a few days earlier. Perhaps the notion of someone off to the sides connecting the dots of mysterious goings-on was a less obvious one in the days prior to All the President’s Men. That could have been a fascinating way to link together all the Earth-bound Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker stories… except that serial television at the time simply didn’t work across that big a scale. (Even soap operas weren’t written with quite such a long-ranging plot in mind.) The press never really becomes much of a factor, not even when the Doctor’s companion Sarah Jane Smith was a journalist! She obviously revealed nothing of her adventures with the Doctor to an audience that would surely have eaten it up. It could have made for some interesting meta-commentary on the culture… but perhaps that would have been too much to expect from a kiddie show in the 1970s.

In the photo above, the Brigadier is arriving with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, whom he has just shanghaied into service with UNIT before learning of the Doctor’s return, apparently as a replacement for the Doctor. Certainly she’s eminently qualifed to serve in such a capacity, as “an expert in meteorites, [with] degrees in medicine, physics, and a dozen other subjects.” A woman like that would still be something of a fantasy today, but perhaps no more so than a similarly crendentialed man would be. In 1970, she must have been a startling character for Doctor Who. I can only imagine being a little girl at the time (I was, in fact, a baby when this first aired) and being thrilled by the notion that a woman could be such a brilliant scientist. There can’t have been many characters like Liz on TV then.

Ah, so: the Doctor’s regeneration. There’s no mention of the Time Lords here, but we know from the previous story that the Doctor has been punished for his trangressions against Gallifreyan law: among the penalities is a forced regeneration. He’s surprised that the Brigadier doesn’t recognize him — “I can’t have changed that much,” he says — but then is startled to get a first look at himself:

His reaction: “Oh no.” One wonders what he was expecting, particularly if he thought he couldn’t have changed much…

The Doctor’s other punishment? He’s been exiled to Earth. He can’t fly the TARDIS anymore. Not that he doesn’t try. He manipulates Liz into stealing the key from the Brigadier and tries to fly away, only to do some damage to the TARDIS itself, if all the smoke that pours from it is any indication. What’s most interesting about all of this is how the Doctor and the Brigadier are behaving. The Doctor had every intention of up and leaving, even though he’d promised the Brigadier to look into the matter of these strange asteroids and the clear alien intrusion they represent. It would have been one thing if there’d been nothing weird or dangerous going on, but the Doctor was ready to fly away at a point when he really was needed. We’ve rarely seen him do anything like that. And after the Doctor tries to leave, the Brigadier says to him, “Will you give me your world not to try to escape again?” Escape? Is he a prisoner? I mean, the Doctor is a prisoner, but of the Time Lords, not of UNIT. What hold can the Brigadier possibly imagine he has over the Doctor?

It does become an interesting coda to the adventure here that the Doctor negotiates with the Brigadier for his services while he’s stuck on Earth. He doesn’t want money, he insists (though I think we can assume that he does end up on UNIT’s payroll — all those ruffled shirts and velvet jackets don’t buy themselves), but of course access to lab facilities and Liz’s help are a must. And he wants to keep the fancy car he stole to get himself away from the hospital, or at least another car like it (which will be Bessie, of course). And he tells the Brigadier that his name is “John Smith” so that the Brigadier “can arrange for a full set of papers.” From which I think we can assume that documentary evidence of the Doctor might be found in the early 70s in the U.K. via not only UNIT credentials but also a driver’s license and an NHS card, perhaps a passport, a credit card, bank account, etc.

The major reason this episode is remembered fondly by many fans: Autons.

Shop-window dummies coming alive and killing people.

Which is deeply creepy. Before “Are you my mummy?” and cracks in the universe in your wall, Doctor Who was always good at making the ordinary scary.

Though I think the ascot reduces the level of scary just a tad:

Random thoughts on “Spearhead from Space”:

• The TARDIS key in the shoe

would turn up again in “Robot,” suggesting that this is where Pertwee’s Doctor continue to hide the key. The key itself, however, looks like an ordinary key

not the funky alien key it would be later. (It’s back to an ordinary-looking key in New Who.)

• The Doctor’s watch

can home in on the TARDIS. That’s handy.

• Shower scene! Not till Matt Smith in “The Lodger” would we see anything like this again:

And, wait: he regenerated a tattoo?

I’m sure today this would have gotten covered up with makeup, but since this is what we got, it remains an intriguing oddity.

• Pertwee always was good at making faces while under attack:

• This sequence, in which the Doctor is being kidnapped by the Nestene (one of whom — the guy on the right — appears to be Crispin Glover)

and then escapes

would be vastly improved by the addition of Benny Hill chase music.

• And these two, the poacher who snatches a Nestene meteorite, and the poacher’s wife

are a Monty Python sketch waiting to happen…

• Great quote:

“What are you a doctor of, by the way?” –Liz
“Practically everything, my dear.” –the Doctor

(next: “The Silurians”)


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb
  • I think someone did put Pertwee Who to Yakety Sax music on YouTube.

    Please be nice to the poor production crews of the late 60s to early 80s. They just didn’t know that computer technology would be more compact, streamlined and funky cool.

    This was an odd episode to watch on the PBS rebroadcasts. It was an early Pertwee episode in color where following episodes between this and Sarah Jane were B&W (maybe a few Jo Grants were color, but I can’t remember her episodes now). It looks like it was done on film and not video. Very odd.

  • Matthew

    It’s reasonably easy trip back to the origins of UNIT: they only appear once before this, in The Invasion, having been set up after the events of The Web of Fear (which is a sequel, of sorts, to The Abominable Snowmen).

    The Invasion has had its missing episodes animated for DVD release, but only bits of the other two survive. The Brigadier is the only person in Spearhead from Space to have met the Doctor (he’s a colonel in the regular army The Web of Fear). Sergeant Benton is in The Invasion (where he’s a corporal, which gets a mention in The Three Doctors) but he doesn’t show up again until a couple of stories after this one, in The Ambassadors of Death. So, to the viewers watching at the time it would make perfect sense that the Brigadier would be the only person who knew about the TARDIS.

    There’s a fan theory about the tattoo – that it’s a Time Lord criminal mark. Doctor Who fan can retcon anything.

  • Matthew

    PaulW:

    All the Pertwee episodes were made in colour, but some only survive as black and white film prints for overseas sales. They are episodes 2-4 and 7 of The Ambassadors of Death, all except a few clips of The Mind of Evil and episode 1 of Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Sarah Jane Smith’s second story).

    For a long time, episode 3 of Planet of the Daleks was only available in black and white, but it has been recoloured for the DVD release.

    Spearhead from Space was shot entirely on film because of a strike by BBC studio staff. The more normal method of filming was to shoot onto video tape with multiple cameras, mixing as live, and with film inserts for location shooting.

    No TV drama is made this way any more, but there’s an interesting quality that you get from “filmed play” set up of the studio scenes in Doctor Who and from what is usually capture of a single performance, rather than an assembly of separate takes.

  • MaryAnn

    Please be nice to the poor production crews of the late 60s to early 80s.

    I’m not being not nice. I’m just commenting on the difference between how we thought the future was going to be (or what constituted “neat-o sci-fi set” produced on the cheap) and how it really turned out.

    I have immense respect for the DW production people. I bet it was at least as much fun as it was annoying to have to produce tons of new and original sets, costumes, and props every week on a limited budget. The creativity that went into it had to be exhilirating.

  • I watched a recreation of Web of Fear recently and the Colonel (He wasn’t a Brigadier yet) is a canny customer. He treats the Doctor as someone who has knowledge beyond what we know. He casually accepts Jamie’s statement about a Time Machine. And he sort of overlooks Victoria and Jamie’s anachronisms.

    Our theory — The Colonel was actually part of Torchwood before the was assigned to UNIT. He knew who the Doctor was before he met him and protected him all those years.

    It is remarkable how well that “fan retcon” fits his attitude, knowledge, and behavior in Web of Fear.

  • What a treat to check out the site and be greeted by one of my very favorite faces! I think that shower picture merits a “female gaze” entry, myself. Never noticed before just how far below Jon’s tan line the camera went.

    RE: the funny faces while under attack. I, of course, always took this show VERY seriously and when I saw this episode I cringed at the faces the Doctor made while wrestling with the tentacles and obviously forcing them around his neck and in his mouth, etc. I’m sure Jon was just finding his way in the role, and he was more used to playing the comic than a serious leading man. He never played it up this badly again, as he too decided to take the part very seriously and be the dashing hero. Which he will always be to me.

  • Lisa

    I think the ascot makes it scarier – that it took the time to be era aware fashionable!

    I used to think Tennat was a Prince fan and then I saw Jon Pertwee.

    Remember Eccleston in World War 3 (the one with Tosh in it)? He loved the press attention!

  • Ken

    As low-budget as some of the tech appears in this episode, it’s far ahead of some of the early Hartnell episodes, which feature computers with ticker-tape readouts, including those used by the Daleks. (It must have been a real bitch changing the paper.)

    Agreed on the feel of Python, which of course was right around the same time.

  • Ide Cyan

    The further back you go into Doctor Who history, the less material of real substance there is to delve into in any given story. Plot is dragged out across multiple episodes that were unlikely to have been rewatched by audiences from week to week,/blockquote>

    That varies wildly depending on the story. Take “The Romans”, for example, which offers a tour of history replete with murders, political plots, slavery, (also some unfortunate rape threats played as a joke), economics, etc. in four action-packed episodes, AND anachronistic-on-purpose humour AND flirting between Ian and Barbara that establishes them as adults whose relationship has nothing to envy from any of the New Who companions. It’s from 1965. The show wasn’t meant as a Kids’ Only show then: it was meant — and designed — as a Family show, which was meant to offer something for children and adults to enjoy, before the splintering of the demographics across different television shows.

    The pacing of each story and the amount, if any, of padding therein depend on the writers, directors, script editors and producers overseeing the serials, and some eras have more of it than others, which does *not* follow a chronological order.

    And Dr Who did long-term arcs very early on: from the “Daleks’ Master Plan” to “The War Games” to the Key to Time season, and “The Trial of a Time Lord”, etc.

  • Martin

    Ah, Spearhead from Space. The first Doctor Who I ever saw and the reason I was afraid of cloth shops for most of my formative years…

  • I’m with you Martin. This was my first doctor who story as a child, and i was terrified of being taken to the shops for years after that. How could my parents not understand that they were in mortal danger? Worse, how could they not understand that they were putting ME in danger!!

    Looking back at these episodes, the Doctor is always pitted against the stupidity and pigheadedness of humans and of the military. And put at risk by mad scientists. That doesn’t happen so much now (perhaps UNIT shooting the pig in Aliens of London, or the evilish Mr Magpie, Luke Rattigan or Henry van Statten). If a children’s program with little subtext could express our then fears about technology and the military, what do the modern, richly nuanced doctor who stories reveal about early C21 fascinations/fears? Or is that question itself very old?

  • RogerBW

    Regarding “trying to escape”: I see this primarily as a matter of honour. The Doctor could try to escape from the de-TARDISing that’s been inflicted on him; the Brigadier is asking him not to, because he’s needed on Earth. No suggestion that the Brig. is keeping him imprisoned…

  • McFeely

    Pertwee is one of my top ten doctors. I get a lot of flack for the one that isn’t on the list but I stand by my judgement. Anyways this series is one of my favorite Pertwee ones, only because I haven’t seen them all yet. Most of them but not all.

  • DaveTM

    OK McFeely spill it. Which is your least favorite doctor? hmmm that might make a interesting Question of the Day.

  • History of Bubbles

    I just watched this recently. (Boning up on classic Who during the revival-series hiatus.) The tattoo made me wonder for a good long while as well. And the Doctor’s chastened expression when he gets out of the crippled TARDIS and tells Brig “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again,” just breaks my heart!

  • McFeely

    OK McFeely spill it. Which is your least favorite doctor? hmmm that might make a interesting Question of the Day.

    ugh well I always catch hell for this but its Colin Baker… there I said it… I just can’t get past his awful awful outfit. I know they say his radio eps are good but that multicolored nightmare just makes my eyes bleed.

  • Tammy Rizzo

    McFeely said, of Colin Baker’s Doctor: “I know they say his radio eps are good but that multicolored nightmare just makes my eyes bleed.”

    I’m losing some of my color vision (complications of diabetes — get your sugars checked, folks!), and about the only consolation I have about that loss is that I can now watch the Sixth Doctor episodes without getting a headache from the costume.

  • Jim Mann

    ugh well I always catch hell for this but its Colin Baker… there I said it… I just can’t get past his awful awful outfit. I know they say his radio eps are good but that multicolored nightmare just makes my eyes bleed.

    The awful outfit aside, the Colin Baker TV episodes also seem to have been the low point in the show in terms of writing.

    Disclaimer: I have not seen all of the Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy episodes, but of the ones I’ve seen, the McCoy ones were a bit better — though still not up to the level of Doctors 1 through 5 (or 9, 10, and 11).

    I can’t speak to the 8th Doctor since he was only in one movie, and I haven’t seen that since it originally aired.

  • bronxbee

    you’re not alone McFeely (or Jim Mann) — colin baker is my least favorite, and not just because of his hideous wardrobe. his character was written with all of the Doctor’s worst features (testy, insulting, arrogant) and none of his best (compassion, humour and those occasional flashes of kindness and melancholy). i don’t blame colin baker totally for this (although his portrayal is at least 50% to blame) but it really makes sitting through the CB era tough. i’ve seen them all, but they are the ones i re-watch the least. SMcC was much better and most of the episodes, on re-watching, are not quite as bizarre as i remember. still, it’s always going to be David Tennant and Tom Baker as my favorites.

  • Ken

    Disclaimer: I have not seen all of the Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy episodes, but of the ones I’ve seen, the McCoy ones were a bit better — though still not up to the level of Doctors 1 through 5 (or 9, 10, and 11).

    It’s been years since I’ve seen the Colin Baker episodes, but they can’t possibly be bad as some of the early Hartnell episodes. I’m rewatching those now, and often question why I’m bothering. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold them to the same standard as the later episodes, as they were created pretty much for one-time consumption.

  • History of Bubbles

    colin baker is my least favorite. . . . his character was written with all of the Doctor’s worst features (testy, insulting, arrogant)

    I find those features make him fun to watch. I’ve only seen a few of his episodes, but he manages to turn Peri’s incessant whining into something constructive, because he really needs to be kept in line more than the other Doctors. I really like their rapport. (I’ve also heard that he was meant to have a long arc in which he verrrry gradually grows more “likable,” but he was canned before that could develop.)

    Now here’s where I have to gird myself against the pitchforks. . . . The one Doctor who’s off MY top-ten list is . . . Tom Baker! Now, I’ve only seen a handful of his episodes, but so far it’s like he’s sleepwalking through his performances, totally isolated from his costars and the scene. He doesn’t seem to be inhabiting a character all the time he’s on screen; it’s like when he doesn’t have a line or a specific stage direction, he’s not bothering to act. And he gives his costars NOTHING. It’s like they filmed in different studios. I’ll turn in my card on the way out, guys.

  • Ooh, brave heart, History of Bubbles! You have given me the courage to come out as a non-lover of Tom Baker’s Doctor too! I liked him as Puddleglum much more than as the Doctor. :) (He was a great Puddleglum.)

    I used to rate “the Baker boys” as co-equals at the bottom of my list of favorite Doctors, but CB has moved up a good bit thanks to Big Finish (“Old Sixy,” as he calls himself in a behind-the-scenes track–LOL!) and TB has stayed firmly in the bottom ranks based on his audio work in the Hornet’s Nest series, which was a big disappointment. I tried to rewatch his episodes recently and gave up shortly after Sarah Jane left the TARDIS.

  • WillRoney

    Please blog about “The Mind Robber”.

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