Doctor Who: Spearheads From Space Review
After six years of monochrome adventuring through time and space ‘Spearheads from Space’ sees Doctor Who undergo a complete transformation. Now broadcast in glorious colour (assuming, that is, you had a colour television in 1970) the entire format of the show was radically altered in order to keep production costs down as well as make the series grittier and more grown up. Taking inspiration from the likes of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials outgoing producer Derrick Sherwin wanted to get away from ‘wobbly jellies in outer space’ by bringing the show crashing back down to earth.
Following his trial and conviction by the Time Lords at the end of ‘The War Games’ the freshly regenerated Doctor has been exiled to near future/modern day Earth (don’t ask), a far cheaper setting than all those alien quarries. Trapped in one place and time the Doctor now finds himself working alongside his old mates at UNIT, defending the earth from alien invaders and science experiments gone horribly wrong.
Before ‘The Eleventh Hour’ came along and made us all realise how undeniably cool bow times really are ‘Spearheads from Space’ was my favourite post-regeneration/new Doctor story. Much like Matt Smith’s introduction it works extremely well as a jumping on point for new fans. You don’t really need to have seen the previous six series to understand or enjoy it. Robert Holmes’ script cleverly covers all the basics you need to know without ever feeling like you’re being subjected to a massive info dump. At the same time it firmly establishing the legend that is Worzel Gummidge as the new Doctor.
Growing up Jon Pertwee was one of my favourite Doctors (partially because of the Worzel connection) but these days I’m not as enthusiastic about him as I used to be. At his absolute worst he could be a boorish, temperamental and patronizing old grump who, despite his flamboyant attire, is often more eccentric than extraterrestrial (I never got much of a Time Lord vibe with Pertwee). But when he’s at his best, as he is here, the Third Doctor is a charismatic, refined and debonair man of action as well as a compassionate do-gooder and ever curious scientist. He’s Bernard Quatermass crossed with Derek Flint, always happy to tinker with sci-fi gizmos, drive fast cars, knock back fine wines and karate chop bad guys across the head (obviously he never got the memo about the Doctor being a pacifist).
Filling out the crucial role of female companion we have Miss Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Shaw. In terms of female characterization Liz Shaw is a step forward for the show. She’s a stronger and more mature character than the wide-eyed adolescent screamers the Doctor used to travel with, someone who’s more in tune with Woman’s Lib (albeit the show’s somewhat narrow understanding of it) and isn’t likely to be tolerant of the casual chauvinism of her UNIT colleagues. It’s just a shame I’ve never much liked Liz Shaw. It’s not that I hate her like I do with some other companions, I just can’t find anything to really like about her. Most of the time she comes across as an excessively sarcastic Scully, mocking our beloved Brigadier for believing in aliens and never once apologising for it when he’s proved right (bet she’s just jealous we love him more).
‘Spearheads from Space’ does have the unfortunate side effect of highlighting the major flaw with Sherwin’s more grounded, less fantastical approach to the series. As Malcolm Hulke was quick point out there’s very limited story potential in having the Doctor stuck on Earth all the time and working with UNIT. You can only do two types of story; alien invasion and mad scientist. This wasn’t a problem for Sherwin. He scarpered after this story to be replaced by Barry Letts.
Once the post-regeneration rigmarole is over and done with the last two episodes plays out like a condensed rehash of ‘The Invasion’. There are even a few bits and pieces of Quatermass II thrown in too such as the idea of aliens falling to Earth in meteorites, a factory being used to grow a creature and the government being infiltrated. But I’ve never let a lack of originality stop me from enjoying a Robert Holmes story before and I’m not going to start now.
The Autons themselves are quite a nifty concept. The idea of something as plain and everyday as shop window dummies coming alive and turning into instruments of death and destruction is brilliant and quintessentially Doctor Who. But, personally, I don’t think the execution quite manages to successfully live up to the idea. The final showdown with the Nestene’s perfect form/octopus-thingy is letdown by some special effects too dodgy even for this show and Jon Pertwee’s successful audition for the National Gurning Championship.
Notes and Quotes:
--As it now somewhat traditional, a new Doctor means a new title sequence, logo design and reworking of the theme tune.
--The Doctor steals his costume from the hospital lockers just like his Eighth and Eleventh incarnations. Along with the theft of the TARDIS and that hospital big wig’s fancy car its further evidence he’s something of a kleptomaniac.
--When he first appears the new Doctor is briefly seen wearing his predecessor’s wardrobe. Despite the noticeable height difference between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Trouhgton it fits him perfectly. Are the Doctor’s clothes also bigger on the inside?
--We learn for the first time that Time Lords have two hearts.
--Why do aliens invaders always seem to think that marching very, very slowly down the high street and zapping bus queues at random is a viable plan for global domination?
--That UNIT radar operator was seriously sweaty. Get some Lynx, man!
--The Doctor seems to have regenerated with both a tattoo and… tan lines?
--Did no one find it a little farfetched that there was a famous Civil Servants section at Madame Tussauds?
Liz: You really believe in a man who has helped to save the world twice, with the power to change his physical appearance?
The Brigadier: I’m not sure. It might not be the same man.
Liz: An alien who travels though time and space… in a police box?”
The Brigadier: In the last decade, we've been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. We've drawn attention to ourselves, Miss Shaw.
Liz: Do you know him?
The Brigadier: What? No. I thought I might do but he's a complete stranger. I've never seen him before in my life.
The Doctor: Lethbridge-Stewart? My dear fellow, how nice to see you again.
The Brigadier: Well at least he won't get very far.
Liz: You mean before your men shoot him again.
The Brigadier: I don't find that funny.
The Doctor: Alright, alright, I assume you want to see my pass, well I haven’t got one. And I’m not going to tell you my name. You just run along and tell Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart I want to see him. Well don’t just stand there arguing with me man!
Liz: What are you a doctor of, by the way?
The Doctor: Practically everything, my dear.