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die hard is a xmas movie | 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

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