Doctor Who (Classic): S07E01 “Spearhead from Space”

Season 7
Directed by Derek Martinus
Written by Robert Holmes

The show had been avoiding proper story ending cliffhangers for a while, but “The War Games” left us on a heck of a doozy.  The Doctor was mid-regeneration, a punishment for his constant violation of the Time Lords policy of non-interference throughout the show, and about to be stranded on his beloved Earth.  While there’s only three weeks here separating the reviews and nothing practical from stopping us in the future from watching the two stories back to back, at the time, the gap between the two stories was the longest break in the show’s run.  It wrapped up in June of 1969 before picking up in January of 1970.

Besides welcoming in a new Doctor played by Jon Pertwee and a new decade, this serial also welcomed in colour production and there’s a distinct look to the episode that’s much more polished than what has come before, and the inevitable invasion scene is much more crisply shot.  Part of that is likely due to this serial being the only one ever shot on film (due to a strike by the BBC cameramen), but there was a distinct feeling that it was moving closer to the visuals I glimpsed in the future when we stopped in to look at “Shada”.  Even aside from getting to appreciate the new visuals, I was also quite appreciative of the relief felt in the move to a story with only four episodes after the mammoth ten episode “The War Games”.  Granted, that’s a rare respite in a season where the rest of the stories are seven episodes long, but I’m enjoyed it while it lasted.

A man tracks something flying in from space which he believes is something flying in formation, but his superior dismisses it as meteorites.  Six months earlier a smaller shard had come down in the same area and Liz Shaw is brought in by The Brigadier and UNIT to help investigate it.  Liz is introduced as a highly intelligent woman with countless degrees in a wide variety of subjects and as someone who doesn’t believe in any of this extraterrestrial stuff (which UNIT has successfully kept under wraps over the past two invasions even if they only existed for the latter).  The show has frequently been in favor of using the first episode to introduce the supporting cast for a story and this serial is no exception, spending much of it setting up not only other three, but also the new reality for the show.    A poacher who saw the “meteorites” land uncovers one of them and carries it off, his subplot largely feeling like a useless bit of comedy that quickly disappears.

Meanwhile, the TARDIS lands on Earth, the Doctor collapsing on the ground and helpfully obscuring his face, teasing out the reveal of just what this new Doctor looks like a little longer.  The Doctor is found by some medics and taken to a local hospital where he can continue to remain unconscious.  I mentioned last time that his alien nature had largely been deemphasized up until “The War Games”.  There may have been the occasional reference to him not being human or his twice meetings with The Meddler, but for all intents and purposes, he was essentially human to just about any outside observer.  This episode however establishes for the first time that The Doctor has two hearts after being x-rayed and it’s a discovery that even causes complications as reporters start snooping around for a story after being tipped off by an eavesdropping hospital worker.

The reporters aren’t the only ones tipped off as we start to get a glimpse at the kind of cover up work that UNIT performs, descending upon suspicious scenarios (like the hospital and the site of the meteorites), deny anything is happening, investigate while covering it up.  Yet the show makes it clear that they have become an established enough name among the reporters at least that their presence is seen as suspicious of something, the kind of world building detail the show rarely has time for.  The Brigadier doesn’t recognize The Doctor understandably despite having high hopes that it is him (his excitement is a joy to watch and I’m quickly feeling pro-Brig), but The Doctor recognizes The Brig in a brief moment of consciousness.

The Doctor is kidnapped with tape put over his mouth by a mysterious man who doesn’t quite behave right and who has been hanging about the hospital, but when he tries to escape, he is shot by a UNIT soldier.  It’s the second straight time The Doctor’s ended the first episode getting shot (and yes, it was an especially busy and relevant first episode).  This time, however, the show amplifies it by ensuring that he indeed goes down from the shots.  I’ll admit that I thought they were going to pull out or introduce the regeneration energy gambit where The Doctor is weaker while he is still regenerating, but able to recover from wounds that he normally wouldn’t.

That wasn’t the case as it merely caused a slight burn on the scalp, but it is fascinating that this time they have gone through with indicating he is still recovering since he puts himself into a state of deep, self-induced unconsciousness after.  That recovery extends even as he wakes up as there’s indications that he has some memory loss. It’s the kind of memory loss that doesn’t affect much of anything but what just happened, but it does take a while for The Doctor to fully regrasp his new situation.

It’s the Brigadier’s desire for The Doctor to work with UNIT as he has before, but our newly regenerated lead has no such desire to work beside Liz.  He first tries escaping by stealing someone else’s clothes (complete with ruffled shirt and cape) and then car, before later trying to escape in the TARDIS after convincing Liz to return his key.  The latter attempt fails as it just starts to smoke and play an off version of the normal sound the TARDIS makes when it tries to dematerialize, the dematerialization code having been changed which is preventing him from leaving. 

While I get his desire to rush off and not be tied down to one place, it does also feel unusual for The Doctor not to at least try to sort out this problem first especially after making a grand speech about how the Time Lords weren’t doing anything to help others in need.  Connive the key back from Liz, yes.  Try to actually take off, probably not.  Then again, he’s also just been dealt a life changing blow and it’s understandable (especially in its desperate, futile attempts to escape at the end of “The War Games”) that he would still be trying to fight off and deny his inevitable fate.

The villains are walking mannequin type creatures called Autons who are impervious to bullets and whose fingers can drop down like a hinge to reveal a gun.  Their initial attire and plastic face are almost Michael Myers-esque in appearance although I’m not gonna pretend they are anywhere near as intimidating.  They are not the only Autons being created however as something as been making plastic facsimiles of political leaders including the general and having them replace the originals.  They aren’t perfect replicas as there’s something off about the people’s faces and their behavior.  They are all being controlled by the Nestene Consciousness for the “meteorites” are hollow orbs a that act as part of it, sending out signals.

The Nestene itself spends its time chilling in a tank controlling all the Autons with their telepathic abilities where it is in actuality a creature (or possessing the form of one) with a bunch of giant octopus-like tentacles (the default Doctor Who alien race at this point appearance aside from humanoid).  The story felt like a more refined version of the First Doctor’s “The War Machines” with the Nestene filling in for WOTAN and the Autons for the War Machines with a proto-Stepford Wives (minus the metaphors) twist.   The Doctor gets to flash some of his possible personality in crafting the weapon that is used against the Autons, making him out as a tinkerer in the lab while also allowing Liz to continue to show off her intelligence when she has to rush in to fix it when it fails at first.

With the Nestene and Autons finally defeated and The Doctor finally coming to terms with his situation, he gives in to The Brigs request for consulting; with demands of course.  While he does not need or want to be paid in money, he does want facilities to repair the TARDIS, a lab, equipment, the help of Liz Shaw, and a car.  I love the detail of The Doctor being disappointed that he couldn’t keep the car he stole, having already become attached to it.

Unlike the previous writeups, I am heading into the Third Doctor blind, with no experiences with him or any of his stories so I admit that my descriptions of him thus far are very vague.  I’ll get into more of this Doctor’s personality once we see more of him going forward, but I liked Pertwee well enough in the serial even if I can’t rightly say it gave me too deep of a look at him or his personality.  Even still, the Third Doctor may not be fully traced out yet, but this serial does a better job at defining him than “The Power of the Daleks” did for the Second Doctor which explains why Russell T. Davies modeled the first episode of NuWho after it (even returning the villains).  It’s an entertaining start to the season and promising set up for the story arc of The Doctor being chained to UNIT and Earth.

Grade: B

Stray Observations

– Since it was shot on 16mm film, “Spearhead in Space” remains the only serial to make the transfer to Blu-ray.  Sadly, that was not copy I watched.
– This was Derrick Sherwin’s last production with Barry Letts coming in mid-serial to take over uncredited.
New intro! And one that shows off all those new groovy colours.  We also get a proper end credits sequence for the first time to match the intro.
– I never thought I’d get to see the Doctor showering, his bum practically on display.
– Nor did I expect him to be the type to be sporting a snake tattoo (of course in the shape of a question mark).
– I can say in terms of the Third Doctor’s portrayal that through his clothing at the very least, they are countering the rougher portrayal of the Second Doctor with a more aristocratic looking Doctor.
Speahead from Space 2.jpg
– While I’m expecting to see more out of Liz this season given more time to interact with The Doctor and The Brig, Caroline John has already given her a pretty defined personality at the very least beyond being the skeptic.  Someone with a propensity for sarcasm and scientific know-how that isn’t just an informed trait (something the show has been guilty of in the past).
– The Doctor apparently has a watch that hones in on the TARDIS, a tool that probably would have been useful a number of times in the past.
– It’s a shame the trip to Madame Tussauds isn’t better executed because it is a classic horror set up.  There was a lot left on the table with the paranoia over the realistic looking Autons, probably because the show couldn’t help but make it obvious who were fakes.
– The Third Doctor gets upgraded in credit from “Dr. Who” to “Doctor Who” even if it makes no impact on the show itself.  Coincidentally, The Doctor takes the name Dr. John Smith at the end of the episode.
– We finally buck the typical Doctor Who naming convention as this is the first serial to not start with “The” since “Fury from the Deep” or contain the word since “Galaxy 4”
– Derrick Sherwin’s cameo appearance affords him the honor of being the only producer to have also appeared onscreen (and second writer after Victor Pemberton).
– This Week in Cliffhangers: While not the final shot, the show does explicitly set up a return for the Nestene with the Doctor hinting that they should know about their attacks failure since they are telepathic and may try again.

Next Up:  Assuming Netflix ever gets around to sending me the discs (or I just get tired of waiting and track it down from alternate means), Doctor Who (Classic) will return on 4/22 with “Doctor Who and the Silurians”.  Before then, however, we will finally be returning to Star Trek: The Original Series on 4/15 with “Arena” and “The Alternative Factor” as a reward for passing $350 in the Avocado Sells Out fundraiser!