Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Spearhead from Space written by Robert Holmes and directed by Derek Martinus

This story in a nutshell: A new Doctor, a new assistant, a new format and a new menace. Doctor Who is stranded on Earth and things are more dangerous than ever…

The Mighty Nose: The shot of the Doctor falling from the TARDIS is such a tease because we want to know what he looks like and yet all we see is a weakened man fall into the grass. Then we get to see him tossing in bed but still don’t get a clear view. Okay so he is clearly visible in the credits at the top of the show but that is still no compensation for seeing in the flesh the main man post Troughton. The anarchic little pixie put such a stamp on a role after the definitive first incarnation that it is hard to imagine anybody coming close to capturing that sense of magic. It's not until the Brigadier turns him around that we get to see our new Doctor and we share the Brig’s despondence that we don’t recognise this fella. It is easy to forget that so much of what we take for granted was first introduced in the Pertwee era such as his two hearts, self induced comas and the name Gallifrey. Anybody who was worried that this might become Pertwee’s comedy caper might have been appalled to see him romping around in bed, looking for keys and crying ‘unhand me madam!’ to the nurse, singing in the shower and trying on all manner of comedy hats! It's fantastic fun and initially appears that Pertwee is going to play the part with as much humour as Troughton did (the humour is there throughout his run but it is far more less slapstick and subtle but ultimately Pertwee was probably the most serious and authoritative Doctor of the lot). After the initial shock of seeing his face he judges it as quite distinctive, even his mighty nose. When the Doctor grabs his shoes and hugs them his physician wonders if his brain has been damaged (I love his cheery ‘Hello! How are you feeling?’ and the Doctor’s deadpan ‘Shoes!’). Everybody is having fun trying to find their way with the Doctor in this tale from Robert Holmes to Jon Pertwee to Nicholas Courtney who as the Brig plays the same role that Ben did in Power of the Daleks, attempting to determined whether this is the Doctor or not. Since we have already seen him transform before and the Time Lords stated they would be changing his appearance at the end of The War Games there isn't that sense of uncertainty that we had during Power. But that just leads to even more fun, we're one step ahead of the Brigadier and are experiencing the new Doctor charming his way into his life in exactly the same way Troughton did with his audience at the beginning of his era. By the end of Spearhead from Space there is no doubt whatsoever in the Brigadier's mind that this is the Doctor, having defeated an alien menace on behalf of humanity. I’m guessing that the Doctor figures since he’s been caught and punished by his own people and cast in the role of a criminal and exiled to Earth he may as well keep up the image by stealing clothes and vintage cars. Whilst there was always the feeling that there was more than meets the eye with the second Doctor he never manipulated his friends like the third Doctor does here with Liz, using her to obtain the TARDIS key and escape his prison on Earth. It's fascinating that like the first Doctor in his initial handful of stories you get the feeling he would happily go and leave the humans to sort this mess out themselves. It's a feeling of contempt that would run like words through a stick of rock through season seven. By the end of this story you are convinced that the Doctor has always been UNIT’s scientific advisor and this is how the show has always been, that’s how firmly Pertwee has asserted himself. I never have any problem with the Doctor working for the establishment and making a name for himself, it is the most distinctive way to mark him out from Troughton (although even he work work with the authorities when it was necessary - The Faceless Ones, The Web of Fear, The Invasion). And besides I wouldn't say that his anti-establishment attitude vanishes - he spends almost the entirety of his era mocking the army and their brutish ways and condemning the Brigadier and his military pomposity. It's just he happens to exploit them at the same time. He's card, this one. I love how he scoffs at the thought of earning a salary and yet wants a very materialistic lifestyle on Earth of fast cars, stylish clothes and pretty ladies. He's the James Bond and John Steed of Doctor Who, the feckless dandy adventurer with a penchant for hardware. It's another Doctor I really enjoy spending time with.

Brainy Redhead: Liz Shaw has one of the most stylish introductions of any companions, chauffeur driven into UNIT headquarters and drafted by Lethbridge Stewart into aiding their fight against alien menaces. With her introduction the show suddenly feels as though it has grown up, introducing a strong, intelligent foil for the Doctor in a very sophisticated way. Her interaction with the Brigadier is spiky, almost flirtatiously so at the beginning (at points during their many spats in this adventure I could have sworn they were one more insult away from grabbing each other and snogging) and it is a shame that when the Pertwee gains control of the series that we lose this thorny chemistry in favour of the Doctor/Brigadier fights. She deals with facts and not science fiction ideas and she sounds ever so much like Scully early in The X-Files run. In this story certainly Liz Shaw feels like a prototype for Gillian Anderson’s character, cold, calculating, resourceful and ever so slightly aloof but played by an actress who imbues the part with enough warmth to make her likable. Caroline John’s little eyebrow raise when the Brigadier mentions that Liz is not just a pretty face is perfect. By the end of the story Pertwee has asserted himself and Liz is left holding the equipment whilst he tackles with the monster but their chemistry is instant and very enjoyable.

Chap With Wings: The scenes between the Brigadier and Liz in episode one are phenomenal – I love it when they take UNIT this seriously and Nicholas Courtney sells this format changing material brilliantly. Despite a moustache that doesn’t quite want to hold in place he is instantly charismatic and exceptional in his field and you can see how he will be an invaluable asset to the series. It’s a shame he became something of a parody of his own character in later years because there is absolutely nothing wrong with how he is characterised here. The Brig knows how to deal with the press and their incessant questions; he asserts his authority over them with a firm ticking off. I love the way the Brigadier treats the Doctor like a naughty child after he tries to abandon them, he makes him promise not to run off again just as a parent would with a wayward child. UNITs co-operation with the army is discussed here and it is clear it is a tentative relationship. It takes a long time for the Brigadier to be convinced that this is the Doctor and his little runaway attempt doesn't help matters but by the story's conclusion it is clear that his new scientific advisor is a massive benefit to his cause and he is trying to make his transition to exile on Earth as comfortable as possible.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We have drawn attention to ourselves, Miss Shaw.’
‘What you don’t understand is that there might, there is a remote possibility that outside your cosy little world other things could exist!’ ‘No need to get tetchy!’ ‘Well sometimes you can be very aggravating!’ ‘Me? What about you? You really believe in a man who’s helped to save the world twice with the power to change his physical appearance? An alien being who travels through time and space…in a police box?’ – hurrah for Robert Holmes for managing to sum up the first six years of Doctor Who in one witty line!
‘Camouflage General, its not really a police box…it’s a spaceship!’
‘Where are they going?’ ‘To take their places…’ – all those dummies of civil servants are heading of on a killing spree to take over the country!
‘We are the Nestenes. We have been colonising other worlds for 100,000,000 years and now we have come to colonise the Earth.’

The Good Stuff: Its only when you watch this story in hindsight of the new series that you realise just how much Russell T Davies nabbed to reboot the series in 2005. A contemporary Earth setting, a new Doctor and assistant, a Nestene invasion – both stories even start with the same shot of a pan in on the Earth! Clearly everybody looks to Spearhead from Space for inspiration since the TV Movie features a Doctor who is rushed to hosptial and the x-ray sequence is repeated practically to the letter. I'm not surprised, this is stirring material and deserves to be repeated.What it points out is just how contemporary Robert Holmes' writing could be, this material works in 1970, 1996 and 2005. The music leaves you with no doubt that the throbbing sphere that Seeley is pulling from the ground has not come to the Earth for any beneficial reason to the planet. Armed soldiers guarding the TARDIS in the woods – there has been nothing like this in Doctor Who before and it genuinely feels like a whole new, grittier lease of life for the show. There are a number of beautifully executed tracking shots in this story – one taking place in the corridors of the hospital and another as the Brigadier is taken to one of the meteorite fragments outside. The slick camerawork feels glossy and contemporary, a real jolt after the creaky black and white years, a quantum leap in quality as much as the leap from third to the fourth season of the Avengers was. Hugh Burden’s Channing is a creepy background presence; he doesn’t need to say anything to put the wind up me, just stare with those cold eyes. Make no mistake, no matter how many attempts there have been to copy the success of this original Auton story this is the definite article and they have never been scarier then decked out in their boiler suits, eyes gouged out and faces slick with plastic. They are a terrifying menace, all the more disturbing because they resemble something that we all see on a daily basis. If this were being made today the glorious Meg Seeley would have her own spin off (‘You watch your tongue and don’t think I’ll have that dirty old box in my house!’). What a marvelous old dragon. Proof that the show was trying to push the horror content as far as it would go, we have never seen anything quite as grisly as the scene where the Auton steps out in the road and forces the UNIT soldier to collide his jeep with a tree. We see its blank staring eyes surveying the wreckage through the cracked windscreen, the poor soldiers bloody face smacked into it. Astonishingly nasty for Doctor Who and quite terrifying for the kids watching. The end of episode two is enough to give you nightmares, a row of mannequins that our victim passes and one slowly twitching and coming to life. Ransome spitting out his tea and shaking with fear is scarier than a hundred monsters, a very human reaction of terror to an inexplicably terrifying situation. This the first time that Doctor Who has ever had a monster stepping into a normal person house and terrorising somebody, it wouldn't be the last but I don't think it is ever quite as effective as it is handled here. The awful gluey face of the Auton who menaces Meg Seeley is pretty horrific and the way he slowly advances on her as she pumps his chest full of lead must have given the kids around the country nightmares. The scares keep coming when it is revealed that characters aren't even safe under UNIT protection, the Auton tears through the fabric of the tent and disposes of Ransome in a tightly edited sequence. I remember when this was first released on video I was petrified by this sequence, it is so quick and unrelenting and Ransome barely has time to react before he is blown away. It really establishes the Autons as an unstoppable force. There is a sequence in The X-Files episode Two Fathers that mirrors almost exactly the end of episode three where Scobie answers the door and is greeted by an alien facsimile of himself. Love the Nestene plan to replace all the top civil servants and replace them with facsimiles to take over the country, very clever, and they are all such emotionless automatons I doubt anybody would even notice! The Nestenes in their natural form feature a disgusting gunky eye that pulsates and shudders nastily, thanks goodness they took human form for this story because this is nauseating. Save the best set piece for last and the one that everybody wants to see – shop window dummies smashing through windows and terrorising the high street. About a million times more effective than a similar scene in Rose because it doesn't feel as though it has been edited down for a CBBC audience. Whilst we never get to see the glass smashing what we do get is genuine looking dummies storming the streets, cutting down policemen and people running for their lives, genuinely terrified. What the kids would have made of this beyond me...this is enough to get adults twitchy walking down the high street! There is something so horribly mundane about executing a bunch of people waiting in a bus queue, the Autons punishing us Brits for what we do best! What an awful way to go though, waiting for a bus. Although it is shot in the same place as The Invasion concluding action set piece it feels entirely different in colour but equally as spectacular, UNIT soldiers are disposed in flashes of smoke, gunfire is exchanged and explosions rip through the scene. It looks gorgeous and provides an exciting story with a memorably action packed climax. Channing’s smoky Auton corpse covered in green snot is the last gross out shot of the story.  ‘Will these Nestenes try again?’ – yep when the ratings are down at the end of the season!

The Bad Stuff: Whilst the cliffhanger to part one is great as written (the Doctor is shot dead before we even get to know him) the closing line feels really badly edited. What's missing is the cliffhanging sting that Barry Letts introduced and in it's place is an awkward silence before the title music cuts in. Barney the dog is clearly a man doing a poor dog impression ('arf! arf! arf!') - they couldn't find stock sound effects of a dog barking?  You can see General Scobie the waxwork blinking clearly and one of the female waxworks actually opens her eyes and closes them several times when she thinks she is out of shot! Just to remind us that actually this is still Doctor Who after all we get the Doctor gurning ridiculously as giant green rubber tentacles try and strangle the life out of him. Pertwee tries to play this danger for real but with the camera shoved right down his nose it looks like he is taking the proverbial out of the climax to this tale. What a shame as otherwise this story would be practically flawless and probably earn full marks.

The Shallow Bit: I cannot believe that they filmed Pertwee washing his lily-white butt in episode two! I cannot imagine any other actor being able to pull of a velvet jacket and frilly shirt and not look ridiculous but during his time Pertwee pulls off all manner of ensembles without batting an eyelid or even thinking about feeling embarrassed. Nameless soldier (lets call him ‘Bemused Man’) who looks around in astonishment as the Auton’s fall is pretty cute.

Result: Spearhead from Space is so slick and assured it could have been the pilot story for the series and nobody would known otherwise. A mysterious man who falls to Earth at a time when he is most needed, having been exiled from an unknown planet and aiding a military organisation against a terrifying menace. That is a premise strong enough to hold up a feature film. Holmes affords himself the entire opening episode to the mystery the Doctor's new face before kick starting the plot in episode two. Forcing this story on location is the best thing they could have done because this reboot couldn't have looked any more expensive and different from what had come before. It feels as though the BBC is throwing everything they have at this story to make the switch to colour a success when in reality it was industrial action that forced the show on film. Jon Pertwee, Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney make for an impressive set of new regulars and all three characters are intelligently written and have memorable interaction. Some of this material is astonishingly adult and frightening and episode three in particular features one scary set piece after another. At four episodes long it feels quick paced and with touches of Avengers eccentricity and Quatermass frights   but bundled into a story that is as mad and as engaging as only Doctor Who knows how to be the result is an alluring introduction to the shows Earthbound formula. If they are all going to be like this then the show is in very safe hands. What do you get when you combine a polished production, a charismatic new Doctor, a bold new format for the show and a proper scary adventure? A ratings smash hit: 9/10


Anonymous said...

That fabulous "spiky chemistry" between the Brig and Liz never went away (till she did). Hence the number of fanfics that pair them up (totally disproportionate to the number of episodes Liz appeared in)!

Joe Ford said...

I can't say I have ever read that many fanfics but I really found that after Spearhead that their chemistry was far more amicable and less abrasive.

Cavecanem said...

what a delight to see your incisive and exhaustive analysis applied to a classic episode such as this one. This was indeed one of the greatest departures in style for the show and it was a risky experiment. Seasons 7 and 8 are packed with marvelous episodes and I think Pertwee was underappreciated by many modern fans