Companion: Liz Shaw
Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Derek Martinus
Background & Significance: Because of the way Classic Doctor Who worked as a convention, the way the stories were told and how they were serialized individual stories but without any real overarching serialization or continuity, it's rare for a Doctor Who story to be "important". "Pyramids of Mars" can be all the fantastic in the world. Still doesn't make it "important." Important stories are typically regeneration stories (not even necessarily companion arrivals or departures because they're almost always backgrounded excepting certain instances).
For one thing, "Spearhead from Space" is the first time in Who history that the Classical-Gallifrey-favourite line "God damn, Robert Holmes" comes into play. Holmes had previously done two Doctor Who stories ("The Krotons" and "The Space Pirates"), both Patrick Troughton stories (to lesser or greater effect), but "Spearhead From Space" is the first one that really mattered in the overall scope of Doctor Who both from a Robert-Holmes-quality standpoint and from a game-changer standpoint (Holmes would later change the game with such stories as "The Ark in Space", "The Deadly Assassin", and "The Caves of Androzani").
It's the first Jon Pertwee serial. It's the first time Doctor Who was broadcast in colour. It's the first Doctor Who story to be entirely shot on film. It's the first story of The Doctor's five-year exile on Earth, commonly known as "The UNIT years", which was the five year run under producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks (despite Letts's noninvolvement here (it was produced by Derrick Sherwin) it really feels like a fairly "typical" Pertwee story) And it's the introduction of one of my personal favourite villains, The Autons (and oh my god what an introduction).
So let's get to it!
Given that this story is about nothing except introducing the show’s first (and perhaps greatest?) format change, it’s amazing how elegantly executed everything is here.
My thoughts on this story are a bit jumbled. On the one hand I find it almost impossible to talk about this story out of context. Because we around the blog here bounce around we don’t get the full effect of how out of left field this story really is. I mean, we’re coming off of three years of, essentially, “monster” stories under Patrick Troughton, which was very much about The Doctor getting involved with a whole manner of aliens and monsters and stuff on alien worlds and in exotic locales.
Real quick, does Robert Holmes have a thing with poachers? Cuz this is the second time one’s shown up in recent times (the other was in “Pyramids of Mars”). Maybe he just likes them because they are exotic and super exciting and they’re kinda breaking the law and they’re like all criminally because they hunt on land that isn’t theirs? I dunno, it’s just funny is all.
UNIT, is, of course, one of the main drives of this story. Not only does this story have to introduce Jon Pertwee as The New Doctor (we’ll get to that in a minute) but it also has to introduce this whole new paradigm of UNIT as an institution and what their role is and how they’re going to play into… well… not just the next few years of Doctor Who but really all the way up until the current run where UNIT still makes the occasional appearance.
The only thing that’s really linking these two versions of the show, really, is The Brigadier. His appearance is, perhaps, my favourite of the whole era, especially in this episode, which is… I don’t know, it just works. It’s the ultimate in continuity. For a show that doesn’t really have any sort of overarching continuity (beyond main cast and the occasional recurring villain, especially in the Troughton era) one of my favourite things in this story is the reappearance of The Brigadier. If you had never watched the show before, you get to meet him, but if you watched the Troughton era, The Brigadier’s arrival is a really fantastic moment, one that inspires me with excitement.
Whenever I think about this story (and specifically The Doctor in this story in particular) I always come back to his introduction, with the TARDIS landing in a clearing and The Doctor (Pertwee) falling out in the Troughton costume. It’s one of those really great iconic moments that just feels different and unique. It’s not often in the old series that you actually see that and it really sorta brings the idea that The War Games represents the first time The Doctor truly… falls. And this is the end of that. It’s a little blunt as a metaphor, but it works, especially given the knowledge that this is one of his lowest points of his lives.
The media, too, really hits home this idea that we’re on Earth and we’re kinda stuck here and… all that. It feels so… grounded and so real. That sounds really silly, but it’s true. The Brigadier with the microphone in his face is one of those really great moments that’s… probably the closest the classic series ever comes to aliens being revealed to the public (as opposed to the 2005 revival, which brought aliens into the forefront of everyone’s minds in the first ten minutes, but I’ll explain that at some point maybe).
What strikes me most strongly about The Doctor in this story is really the way he’s written. There are a few instances throughout the show’s history when you can definitely tell that one Doctor is speaking much like another. The most palpable example of this is in the 8th Doctor audio adaptation of the 4th Doctor story “Shada” (which we’ll be talking about eventually because it merits discussion) when you can tell that Paul McGann (who has a very particular zeitgeist for his Doctor) is reading and performing the words designed for another Doctor (in this case, Tom Baker in his very-much-Drunk phase).
This is fixed later, of course, but it’s terribly fascinating to be able to listen to Pertwee knowing that they are very specifically Troughton-influenced. The lilt, the manner, the mode… even the obsession with his shoes and the way he holds them in his moment of crisis… all of it points to Patrick Troughton and I can just imagine all of these actions and words coming from the 2nd Doctor rather than the 3rd.
Then again, maybe I’m just crazy, but I swear it’s there!
Anyways, this part was really long and I’d feel bad not rewarding you with a youtube, so here’s the end of the episode and it kinda freaked me out the first time but it’s also funny and there’s a wheelchair and who doesn’t love a wheelchair.
Anyways… To discussion…
If the first part of this story is about the introduction of UNIT and hinting at the new status quo of new Doctor and all that excitement, part two is about two very specific things: The Autons and The Doctor and everything that happens in this part enhances one of those two aspects (or both).
I also love The Doctor’s reluctance to stay around and help with anything. Even when he’s met up with The Brigadier and sees that there’s trouble afoot all he really wants to do is get into his TARDIS and fly away, back to the stars to get out to adventure. It’s only when The Brigadier reveals he has the key and refuses to give it to The Doctor that The Doctor acquiesces to stay, but only until he gets the key back and then he’s off to the far out there.
As a critique of Liz, I think that’s a strong one. I’m not saying I like a Companion’s reliance on The Doctor, but Liz was almost too independent, and while the relationship between the two of them is charming and Jon Pertwee and Caroline John definitely have some great chemistry, it highlights the almost… necessity of a Doctor/Companion relationship in which the two actually need each other, but that never comes across with Liz, which I think ends up hurting her character in the end.
While playing almost entirely background in the first episode, the Autons come out of nowhere as total crazy sauce in this episode. First, by way of showing the inner workings of a plastic factory (which is totally terrifying and weird and gross and plastic is gross and ew) and by introducing this new character called Ransome who works at this plastics factory… or at least he used to work there. Now he’s… not. I think he’s on extended shoreleave? But really, all that’s important is that his laboratory has been sealed and something’s inside it but we know not what.
All of this actually plays early on, with the mysterious looking and TOTALLY FRAKKIN CREEPY Mr. Channing checking in on Ransome’s boss and the employees of the factory to make sure no one steps even a toe out of line. I know he appeared as an observer at the hospital and led the attempted Auton kidnapping of The Doctor, but this is really when the creepy starts to show up. The way he looks and the way his face sags just…. Yes. It’s just perfect for his character and the way he just is… it doesn’t sit well with you and it just works.
And. Okay. Look. I love Mr. Seeley. He’s just so silly. I love the way he argues with his wife and the way he talks in that accent (Holmes writes great dialogue) and there’s the hint that he’s a bit of a klepto and this isn’t the first thing he’s stolen (it’s an issue. He was in rehab but it didn’t take) and the way he demands that she go fix him his dinner while acting all shifty because she’s snooping in the trunk is just… it’s magic.
But the standout moment of this episode is the end, when Ransome breaks back into the factory to find out what’s REALLY going on in his room and why he can’t be allowed in there. And what is there is so…. Chilling that you just have to see it. You have to. In youtube. Because holy crap.
Also included is the other side of the cliffhanger (it’ll be separated out) because it’s also kinda freaky face.
Again. Holy crap.
Apologies for the lengthy parts one and two. There’s just been a lot to talk about. I’ll try and keep this one shorter.
The stories (finally) intersect in this story at the house of Mr. Seeley where Mrs. Seeley is attacked by an Auton while it is trying to get its hands on the orb. The thing doesn’t kill her, but it definitely leaves her hospitalized and oh my god have I mentioned how freaky this thing is especially when it walks? And bullets have no effect and then it runs away?
Amidst the terror and horror there’s also some fantastic comedy like when Mr. Ransome gets away and is just sitting there terrified and scared absolutely shitless, so much so that he can’t even drink some tea to get himself to calm down (in his defense, that’s probably my response too). And then there’s the bit when Mr. Seeley tries to sell off the orb to UNIT while being all shifty (IF THERE’S ONE THING YOU CAN’T DO, MR. SEELEY, IT’S BE SNEAKY), which ultimately leads to the harming of his wife and the orb almost falling into Auton hands and a truly terrifying sequence when Mrs. Seeley comes inside only to find an Auton standing in her kitchen. Which is awful. Can you imagine? Worst. Day. Ever.
There’s also a fantastic bit in here where The Doctor manages to trick Liz into stealing The TARDIS key from the Brigadier, only to have the TARDIS unable to depart. It’s a really fantastic bit and only comes because of the relationship between the two of them and Liz’s enthrallment with The Doctor’s mystery, his promise of a laboratory inside his spaceship and all that fantastic.
And yet, The Doctor is settling in at UNIT very nicely. He works diligently and this story really does make an effort to introduce this new Doctor as a scientist or, as the axiom goes “The Stranded Scientist”.
Holmes’s ability to build the tension and slowly increase the scope of what’s really going on really comes out in this.
I was going to save it for later, but really there’s one thing that just has to be mentioned and I have to get it off my chest here before continuing and that’s the ever-so-fantastic Auton attack. Never before had Doctor Who been more violent or horrific, or at least, I cannot think of a time before this when the show had been more out and out that as it was here. It got Holmes under a lot of fire (wouldn’t be the last time) and it’s just….
There’s one of those times when people talk about The Autons as scary. I know it scared the crap out of John Barrowman for years.
That scared the crap out of me the first time. It’s still chilling on re-watch. Also fantastic.
Take the Weeping Angels, for instance. The Weeping Angels come from Steven Moffat looking at those things and putting to life all the creepy that comes from them, thinking that they move when you aren’t looking… But what if they do move when you’re not looking? It’s so simple, and yet pulling out that idea is truly, truly difficult and very, very well-executed.
But yes, what we’re left with is a UNIT assault on the plastics factory and The Doctor and Liz confronting the evil Nestene Consciousness, which controls all the Autons. It’s all rather standard but in a very strong way. We get to see some great UNIT action (before they get all lame and defunct) and we see the actual thing controlling the Autons in all its tentacle glory as it attempts to strangle the heck out of The Doctor… and The Doctor managing to overpower it through SCIENCE.
Then it ends with The Doctor resigning himself to helping out UNIT and acclimating himself to his new persona, one who wears fancy dress and has a fascination with hot rods and roadsters… And he introduces himself as “Smith, John Smith”.
And if that doesn’t define Pertwee as the most Bond-like Doctor ever, I don’t know what will.
Final Thoughts?: "Spearhead From Space" is one of those stories that is just.... yes.
By all rights, this story shouldn't have worked. It's a completely new format for a show that had spent six years doing one thing and one thing only. And a huge gutsy move.
It's just a strong, strong outting, and another one of those stories that you can give to fans of the new show and prove to them that the old show is not boring or dry. It's shot on film and is very well directed and fairly scary at times and super entertaining from top to bottom. It's a great Doctor introduction story (one of the best) and just works.
A great start to a strong era for the show. And The Autons are still freaky.
Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Shiny foil shimmery things! Gallifrey! A Horrible Companion Departure! Sontarans?! And one of the stupidest endings to a Doctor Who story ever! "The Invasion of Time!" Coming Next Tuesday!