Necessity Is the Mother of Reinvention

Review of Spearhead from Space: SE (#51)
DVD Release Date: 14 Aug 12
Original Air Date: 03 - 24 Jan 1970
Doctor/Companion: Three, Dr. Elizabeth "Liz" Shaw
Stars: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John
Preceding Story: The War Games (Two, Jamie, Zoë)
Succeeding Story: Doctor Who and the Silurians (Three, Liz)

When Pat Troughton left Doctor Who, the show was kind of in trouble. Ratings had fallen, and the BBC wasn't sure it wanted to put any more into something that had such a lackluster performance. For various reasons, it continued nonetheless, but by necessity - both due to casting changes and other production pressures - it did so as quite a different program.

As a result, there are a lot of amazing firsts in this story. We get our first taste of a new Doctor, a new Companion, a new credits sequence, a new "monster" and a new era of television: color. Sitting through it again, I couldn't help but draw parallels to multiple later stories, primarily Terror of the Autons and Rose, thanks to those pesky Nestene-controlled Autons, though the dual-hearted x-ray (another first - the mention of a Time Lord's now-famous binary vascular system) had me flashing to The Movie for a moment.

Its opening episode is a lovely way to bring UNIT back into the mix - where it would stay, to one degree or another, throughout Three's time in the TARDIS and beyond. I can't help but smile at the Brigadier's reaction to the news that an abandoned police box has been found in the middle of a field, or at the exchange between the Brigadier and the Doctor as both realize how much his face has changed.

Equally brilliant is our new Companion Liz. Though she never actually traveled in the TARDIS, that counts against her not one whit. Unlike many previous Companions, she's clearly an adult, fully capable of taking care of herself, incredibly intelligent in her own right ("an expert in meteorites with degrees in medicine, physics, and a dozen other subjects," as the Brigadier puts it, glancing at her CV), and a full-on strong female character. Rather than waiting to be told what to do, and screaming at every turn (in the three of her four stories I've seen, I don't recall her ever screaming at all; I understand she did once, when being shoved off a bridge), she just takes care of business. Being a real, grown up woman being taken seriously by real, grown up men - simply because she demands it by her very carriage - makes Liz one of the most brilliant role models we ever get in the show.

Then there's the new antagonist. Creep factor five, Mr. Sulu. (Oh, wait...) Seriously, though, even though the execution of the Auton costumes isn't the best (one of the few down points of this story, to my mind), the entire idea of shop-window dummies coming to life is incredibly creepy (it's done to great effect in Rose, as alluded to above). Add in the idea that they're somehow controlled by some completely alien intelligence set on conquering our planet, and you've got a recipe for sending small fry scurrying behind (non-plastic!) furniture. It's a great way to start a new season.

And finally, there's the new Doctor. I've always quite enjoyed Pertwee as Three, though as with all Doctors, I can also understand the perspective of his detractors. Since Pertwee was primarily known as a comedy man before this, it's a bit of a departure for him (rather the opposite of Eccleston taking the role as Nine because people didn't think he could do comedy). For the most part, he uses it to his advantage, giving just the right tinge of humor to the proceedings. However, it lets him down at the climax, which is ruined less by rubber tentacles than by his comedic gurning as they strangle him. Otherwise, this is a great foundation, and really sets up the character of the "dandy" he will become.

I find this an enjoyable and re-watchable show - not exactly a timeless classic (the drawbacks mentioned above being part of the reason), but still fun enough. And certain "problems" end up being just plain funny. That part in the third episode where some poor schlub off-camera is barking his head off (they couldn't even afford to record an actual dog barking?) always makes me laugh. Mostly, though, it's scary where it should be and funny where it's meant to be: a perfect recipe.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Down to Earth
As mentioned above, the entire show underwent an overhaul as it moved between Two and Three in the lead role. Much of the making-of focuses on that change, how various decisions were made, and what made it work. After seeing that Greatest Show almost got the chop when there were studio issues, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that Spearhead had yet another near-Shada experience, but somehow I was. It all worked out in their favor, though, as the end result is quite strong.

Regenerations: From Black and White to Colour
Switching from black-and-white broadcasts to colo(u)r was not an easy thing. There were plenty of technical challenges, and things had to be done differently to make the end product look good in color instead of (or as well as) for b&w. I found the bit about how the new credit sequence was created of particular interest, but anyone who likes to learn about the more technical side of producing television should find this worth their time.

There's a lovely moment early in Episode 2 when Liz and the Brigadier are having one of their copious tiffs. She pulls out some of the most basic silly ideas of the show and throws them in his face: "You really believe in a man who has helped to save the world twice, with the power to change his physical appearance? An alien who travels though time and space - in a police box?" And the brilliant thing is that we can all look at how patently ridiculous it is, and still say in return, "yes!" with a straight face. It all just works - again.

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Comments

Was this third time lucky for Robert Holmes? In comparison to later efforts, his first two stories, The Krotons and The Space Pirates probably rank as his weakest stories for the programme IMHO. However, Spearhead was in most areas a tour de force and probably the shot of creative adrenaline the show needed to give, what could have been a make or break season, a solid start - so solid that they would essentially reprise the story to start the following season in Terror of the Autons along with some bloke with a beard.

If I recall correctly, Spearhead was also shot totally on film which gives the eye a continuity it may not have expected.

As an aside I used to live 2 miles from the BBC facility, I think it was called Wood Norton, just outside Evesham which was where many of the hospital scenes were filmed and I used to jog there from home (a nice 4 mile jog Fladbury to Wood Norton return) and pause outside the gate and imagine what it must have been like when it was filmed in 1969 - as I was aged 30 when I did this that sounds quite geeky, even for me. Mind you this from someone who chose the job in Evesham as I was reading "Who Killed Kennedy" where the Unit Glasshouse was set in Evesham (probably based on Wood Norton as far as I can tell from the description) at a time when I had two job offers, one in Evesham, one in Cumbria. Hey it was a sign OK!!! Anyway I digress....

Liz Shaw does come across really well and whilst I can try and empathise with Barry Letts whom I think felt it necessary to replace an assertive intelligent character like Liz Shaw with Jo Grant whom the Doctor could more easily demonstrate his vast intelligence and superiority to, this was perhaps a pity (IIRC Caroline John was also pregnant when she left as it was, but why let the facts get in the way of a rant)

Anyway I can even forgive JP's gurning whilst being strangled by the slightly rude looking antagonist's tentacles at the end, as the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts and is, for me at least, a classic

By Wholahoop (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Pretty much every Who story has something that will ruin it for you if you let it. The down sides here certainly don't outweigh the good stuff, IMO, so yes - I don't mind rewatching this one. :)

By mrfranklin

I don't believe I've ever seen this particular one (tho I've seen The Autons) and found it on Netflix! Thanks so much for inspiring me to see the first of my favorite Doctor!!!

By Twilight2000 (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

You're most welcome! :) It's a great introduction to so many aspects of this era - I always enjoy it, too.

By mrfranklin
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