“Spearhead From Space” has to be one of the biggest culture shocks in the show’s history. Everything we knew about the show has changed. New title sequence. Color instead of black and white. No central cast carryovers. Nothing familiar to reassure the viewer that they are still watching the same time and space traveler’s adventures, apart from the TARDIS exterior and the returning character of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The exile to Earth only sinks in when the TARDIS cannot take off and the Doctor emerges shamefaced and defeated, smoke billowing around him.
I miss Patrick Troughton already. I’ve never become this attached to an actor playing the Doctor before I watched the series in order. It’s strange, but I almost resented Jon Pertwee’s presence on the show when the TARDIS materialized and he stumbled out. I wasn’t tired of Troughton’s performance, especially after so much of his time on the show has to be experienced via audio or reconstructions. A second reunion between the second Doctor and Lethbridge-Stewart would have been fun, and wouldn’t it have been just as much fun to watch the interplay between Troughton’s Doctor and Liz Shaw?
Still, Pertwee tackles the part with a style all his own, and there are certainly traces of his predecessor’s more light approach at this point in his tenure than we see later on. We suddenly begin to learn a lot more about his physiology as well. I believe this is the first mention of the fact that his blood is unlike human blood, and of the fact that he has two hearts and a low pulse rate. He spends more time recovering from his regeneration than he did in “The Power of the Daleks”, but once he’s up and running he never lets up. Pertwee’s Doctor is certainly a bit eccentric, but more down-to-Earth than Troughton’s, and more bad-tempered towards Lethbridge-Stewart as well. He’s resentful of his exile, but once he tackles a problem, scientific or otherwise, he brightens up considerably. And he’s certainly far more pleasant with Liz than he is with anyone else. The two seem to be on an almost level playing field in some ways, and are certainly kindred spirits when it comes to resentment of the way that the Brigadier essentially conscripts them into service.
Liz Shaw is something new when it comes to companions as well. She’s rather more mature than many of the Doctor’s companions going all the way back to Barbara. She’s a scientist, who is both smart, well-educated and skeptical. Her early scenes with the Brigadier provide some good drama along with exposition as they debate the merits of what UNIT does. She struggles along with the alien plastic until the Doctor shows up and rather quickly works out what is going on, and the two rather quickly form a team with Lethbridge-Stewart as the third wheel. Liz is certainly not a screamer or a cipher that exists so that the Doctor can explain the plot, but then very few if any of the past traveling companions genuinely fall into that category. This is also the first time that the Doctor has been paired up with a single female travelling companion, a pattern that will, with several exceptions, dominate the remainder of the program in much the same way that two or three TARDIS crew members dominated the black and white era.
Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart becomes a regular cast member in this story, and after two successful appearances in “The Web of Fear” and “The Invasion”, I’m glad to see the character’s return. He’s quickly established as intelligent and open-minded. He’s willing to accept the possibility that the Doctor lying in the hospital bed is the same man he’s met twice before, despite apparently being someone else entirely. He’s well versed in the potential threat from alien species, and he remains both diplomatic when necessary, but willing to stand up to his superiors when the need arises. It’s amazing how much the character diminishes over time from this smart, competent leader to a comic foil for the Doctor. There’s no sign of that in this story, and mercifully no sign of his “Doctor dependence” either. Later on it seems as though he can’t even begin to solve a problem without the Doctor’s help, but here he’s proactive and does what he can, even if the Doctor does ultimately defeat the Autons.
So we have our established trio of leads which will last through season seven, making the show a bit more of an ensemble piece, though it’s clear Pertwee’s the star. It makes for satisfying drama to have an independent and rebellious Doctor, assisted by an intelligent scientist, working with and sometimes against an intelligent, independent military commander who doesn’t follow the Doctor’s lead, sometimes to his detriment. So how about the guest characters? Generally quite good, as can be expected from Robert Holmes, who is clearly hitting his stride here. I’m a fan of both “The Krotons” and “The Space Pirates”, but the third time’s the charm, and “Spearhead from Space” is better than both in a lot of ways. Holmes is my favorite Doctor Who writer so I can’t resist throwing some kudos his way, and he clearly demonstrates his gift for characterization. Sam and Meg Seely, Captain Munro, General Scobie, Hibbert and Channing; all deftly drawn and well-acted. From the poacher who is after money to the solid and competent military captain, to the cold and icy alien in human form, the characters are diverse and interesting, easily helping support the plot, which is itself creative. An alien that inhabits and animates plastic is a creative idea that allows for a lot of flexibility, as we will see in “Terror of the Autons” a few stories down the road.
Everyone mentions it, but I think I will too: the location filming really benefits the story. It looks very good, and the contrast between the old VHS release and the restored DVD is very evident. I notice that the sound is a bit muffled on the DVD compared to some of the other releases though.
“Spearhead From Space” is a good start to Jon Pertwee’s tenure, and lays the groundwork for the stories that follow by establishing the Doctor’s exile, the terms of his “employment” by UNIT, and by adding the Brigadier as a regular cast member. No longer is the Doctor forced to deal with threats on his own, because he now has support. It makes for a major change, which is interesting if not entirely welcome considering how much I’ve enjoyed the black and white era that preceded it. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy and this is certainly a story well worth watching.