Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Serial 51: Spearhead from Space

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
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).

"Spearhead From Space" is one of those stories that is... well... Extremely important.

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").

"Spearhead from Space" is significant for a number of reasons.

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).

And Autons aside, all of that groundbreaking firsts stuff has nothing to do with Robert Holmes (the story concepts were developed by Producer Derrick Sherwin and Script Editor Terrence Dicks, the-all-shot-on-film bits was because of a labour strike, and the colour broadcast was a BBC mandate). And yet, it's easily one of my favourite Robert Holmes stories ever. It's exquisite science fiction horror, and all of the "mandates" (specifically the introduction of possibly the show's biggest format change of the classic series: that of The Doctor being confined to Earth during the UNIT years) feels like an afterthought amidst the gorgeous distraction of this tremendous story.

So let's get to it!



Commentary!:


Part 1:

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.

Granted, this first part is chock full of exposition. But really really great exposition.

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.

But then we come to this story and it’s… so different. It’s very much an alien invasion story from minute one. There’s meteorites falling out of the sky and a poacher named Sam Seeley sees one fall, finds it (it’s a glowing orb), and then shoves it into his bag and takes it on home right past UNIT noses.

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.

That brings us to UNIT, who guard the area while looking for these mysterious orbs that crashed down to Earth.

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 bulk of this introduction comes in the first scene between Liz and The Brigadier, where he spells out all the rules of the game and establishes everything that UNIT is doing and standing for and all that sorta stuff. One of the things I like most about it is the real conduit that Liz becomes to the audience’s understanding of The World. She’s the one who asks the ever important question “Why now?” (specifically as it relates to UNIT’s sudden interest in extra-terrestrial activity) and it is with her that we are brought into the establishment, past the checkpoints and into the underground places.

As such, UNIT is brought to the forefront as a major player in what is, truly, a completely different show than the one that ended its season just six months previously.

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.

I mean, the last time we saw him was in “The Invasion” when he was fighting off Cybermen with The Doctor and now here he is back again and it really feels… I guess the word would have to be Dickensian (although it wasn’t intended that way). I’m a huge fan of Dickens and that sort of long-sprawling story with characters weaving in and out of the main narrative (that of The Doctor) and it’s… It just works to see The Brigadier show up here as this really fantastic main character who’s now (basically) joining The Doctor’s team for the forseeable future. I love that. I love that it’s a nice treat for people who have been watching consistently since at least the Troughton era and for that to come from Robert Holmes, a guy who wasn’t huge on continuity makes it work just that much better.

And then there’s… The Doctor, who spends most of this episode confined to a hospital bed.

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.

Besides that there’s some really… interesting Pertwee in this. For one thing, we find out (for the first time, mind) that The Doctor has two hearts, and his arrival at the hospital attracts media attention because of a janitor who can’t keep his mouth shut.

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).

Sorry! Tangents! Anyways! Yes! The Doctor!

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).

So imagine my surprise when I realized that Jon Pertwee was actually performing words that were written with Patrick Troughton in mind.

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.


Part 2:

Before I forget about this, lemme just say that The Doctor, after escaping from his wheelchair doesn’t even bother taking the tape off his face at all as he runs through the woods. I love that. It’s silly.

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).

We’ll start with talk about The Doctor first, which should be easy because really all he does in this story is get out of bed and head off to UNIT. But it’s really the way in which all this occurs that makes it so… fantastic. From the way The Doctor sneaks out of bed to the way he takes a shower and sings really really loudly to make sure no one pays attention to him (PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE TAN LINES) (Also! Shower cap!) and then dresses in that famous fancy frills and cape and then hot wires a red roadster and rides it all the way to UNIT and demands to see The Brigadier… It’s those things that make this story truly unique. If the Post-Regeneration story is all about showing off The Doctor, this episode does more to show off this new Doctor than most post-regen stories…

Also, at some point The Doctor got ink’d. By the Time Lords, maybe? I dunno. BUT LOOK AT THAT THING.

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 point of interesting fact, we also have some continued use of expanding The Doctor’s power set. In part one, Holmes established the binary-vascular system of The Doctor (which is the first time it’s EVER mentioned that The Doctor has two hearts); here in part two he establishes The Doctor’s ability to place himself in a self-induced coma that’s… well… pretty deep and heavy and all that sorta jazz. What makes that interesting (especially the two-hearts bit) is that because the previous story (“The War Games”) gave us a whole mess of awesome about The Doctor and The Time Lords, it allows someone like Holmes to expand that which we know about The Doctor and start to lift some of the veil.

We also see The Doctor’s introduction to Liz, in which he's charming and delightful and the two have an immediate rapport with each other. Liz was designed to be a much more self-sufficient companion, but as a result we have a lot of scenes in which Liz isn’t… close to The Doctor.

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.

And with nothing else to talk about… Let’s talk about The Autons…

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.

That, of course, is the big mystery of the episode: What is in the room?

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.

Then there’s the Auton traipsing through the woods in search of the orbs that fell to Earth and that’s scary because it looks SO FRAKKING CREEPY and you know it’s coming after Mr. Seeley the poacher who’s locked it away in his trunk, hiding it from his wife.

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.




Part 3:

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.

Part three (as with other part threes) is very much a continuation of what’s come before. We have more intrigue with the Autons (with the added influence of Mr. Channing) and The Doctor’s resigned assimilation into UNIT.

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?

Oh and he totally “Total Destructions” Mr. Ransome and it’s jacked up in every sense of the word. Also scary. Did I mention scary?

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.

And can we only tangentially talk about Mr. Channing? Because holy crap how is he so scary?

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”.

All in all, the thing I love about this story is the way the horror just increases. We’re teased about Autons at the end of the first episode. We actually see on in episode two, but we do not see it attack. Autons attacking is unique to this story. The Auton's hand gun is even hidden from us in the cliffhanger to episode two but revealed in the recap at the top of this one. The gun is one of the most terrifying things about the Auton, so why not show it? It's because this episode is designed to show us how ruthless and cold they are, how they attack (the hand cannon, which is just masterful), how powerful they are, and how truly unstoppable as a force they’re turning out to be.

Not only that, but we also end the episode with the revelation that General Scobie has been targeted for Auton REPLACEMENT as a Plastic Version of himself has come a’knocking at the door. It was hinted at in previous parts, but it really comes to fruition here and we suddenly realize that this hardcore invasion is not coming out of nowhere. Now these guys can make plastic copies of real people? That's infiltration level badassery and that's really bad and doesn't bode well for our heroes. It doesn't bode well for them at all. Not only that, but General Scobie has the ability to shut down anything UNIT wants to do. Can nothing stop the Autons at this point?

Holmes’s ability to build the tension and slowly increase the scope of what’s really going on really comes out in this.

Part 4:

“Spearhead From Space” has the honour of being the first time Robert Holmes had a “it’s too violent and scary” complaint leveled at him. Can’t say I’m too surprised.

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.

Really, what I love about this story is it’s very… Proto-Moffat, if I may. Plotting aside (because no one does plotting like Moffat not even Robert Holmes, and yes I just said that), the ideas all come from that place of genuine childhood fear and trauma.

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.

The Autons are much the same. They come from being scared at shop window dummies, from Robert Holmes passing a display on the street, thinking they all look life-like and then coming up with the idea of them marching down the street as mindless, plastic drones and gunning people down left and right. It’s… very simple but wonderfully executed and well thought out in the way that Moffat does things. It’s one of the things I really love about Robert Holmes. His ideas are all always so solid but so terrifying and so so good. I really like that and it… it just works and works so well.

Even the section with the wax dummy museum is much the same. Wax dummies are kinda really freaky. So why not breathe life into them and further the scary metaphor.

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.

For one thing, it works on just about every level. As a post-regeneration story it totally does a great job of bringing in all the Pertwee with the quirks and the silly and all that wonderful. As a UNIT story it tells a great "Earth under siege" meme so common to the time. And then as a story it just works so so well. It's structured fantastically and all the pieces fit together to tell a truly compelling piece of sci-fi horror. And, of course, it works as a truly fantastic Doctor Who story, and one that works insanely well especially considering the format change this story introduces.

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.

And yet it does. And that all comes from a really strong foot forward by everyone involved. Not only that, but it really cements my love of Autons. They're one of the series' best all time villains and they really stand out in this story as the first of many alien invaders that this era has to contend with. Not only that, but it makes me appreciate the work Russell T Davies did in bringing them back. It's not as good as this story (and really, few stories are), but it's definitely a worthy Auton story.

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!

1 comment:

  1. I think the storyline is a bit weak and the Nestene's invasion plan does not make much sense. But it does have some great moments.

    Jon Pertwee totally reminds me of Mr Toad in 'Wind in the Willows.' Borrowing a motorcar.

    I like the way the Brigadier and Liz have a sort of Mulder and Scully relationship (with a fair bit of friction) in the first episode.

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