Spearhead From Space

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: Derek Martinus
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1970
Video Availability : Try sendit.com

As an introduction to my Pertwee reviews I should point out two things. One is that, while I have the stories on tape, the reviews were conducted off their repeat screenings on British satellite channel UK Gold, so you may find references to this throughout them. The other more serious point is that the screenings took place before, during and immediately after the second Gulf War, so they may be more political than usual, with lots of "War On Terror" angst…

Is my video player on the blink or did UK Gold start early? Because, frustratingly blocking my plans to update my Pertwees on video (because everyone wants a collection with a UK Gold logo in the corner, right?) I taped it this morning and it started half-way through the episode, meaning I only got to see 10 ˝ minutes of episode one!!!

Never mind, I don't think it'll effect my judgement, as I've seen this one loads of times, but I would've liked to have seen him fall out of the Tardis again. Maybe a full 25 minute exposure to all the county stereotypes and Caroline John's slightly wooden acting (sorry, I used to love Liz, but recent viewings of season seven proved to me that she wasn't always crash-hot as an actress) would have dampened my enthusiasm, but I doubt it.

For - and this is something you're going to have to get used to, because I'm going to say nice things about a Jon Pertwee story - this is a cracking first episode. The grimy, saturated film looks wonderful, and UNIT are portrayed with far more credibility than in later Pertwee outings. Yes, Jon may have evolved into an overbearing, moralising old granny who was frequently bored in the lead, but for his first few stories isn't he likeable? Yes, he might not have the depth of his peers in the first four Doctors, but he is the Doctor in a way that, say, Colin Baker wasn't. (Come on, I've said nice things about Big Nose, I've got to vent my spleen somehow!) Pre-karate chopping granddad, this is Pertwee as loveable eccentric, and even though he's out of character (retrospectively) in his first story, he instantly takes to the role and is a hell of a lot better actor than he's sometimes given credit for.

Is it dated? Sure, it's three decades old, of course it's dated. Just seeing journalists queueing up to use a public telephone box dates it, and the quaint, now stylised dialogue and starch fashions stand out. But this is a cosy kind of dating, a nostalgia fest similar to jelly and ice cream on a Sunday afternoon after a trip to the park. There's no real villain yet (or is there? I can't remember if an Auton's in the first episode, I missed half of it, remember?) but this instalment focuses on the Doctor, and as a reintroduction to the series, it works brilliantly.

Excuse me a second. I've just bigged up a Pertwee episode, now I need to go and be sick...
* * * * ˝

A slightly lesser episode two, with a bubbling laboratory, some iffy secondary actors and a fair amount of jarring exposition. It's nice to see Patrick Stewart getting an early acting gig as the Auton, however, even if Pertwee is marginalised in his own show.

Liz Shaw's misfiring mock irony for the under 10s and chip on her shoulder (I know the Brig's a bit of an ass, but stop copping an attitude, love) vexes slightly. Meanwhile, Jon gets to do some funny schtick and show off his Time Lord trial mark (tattoo). An older Doctor is always what the show needs I think, 40 years of life being the minimal experience requirement I would expect*. (And, with Billy and The Mighty Trout, they looks years older, too, which is another bonus). While some of Jon's bantery might be too much of a homage to the silent era that Troughton only really homaged in myth (backed up by Simpson's OTT "comedy" score), his furtive, clearly demented take on the Doctor is really quite endearing. Though when he tells the guard to let him in it's a precursor to his later persona.

With the quaint "jeep crash" direction, then is this the first time that blood was seen in the series? (It definitely was in tomato sauce red, anyway). It's cute having a story dedicated to plasticophobia, something that'd never happen nowadays*, and even if the Autons aren't as scary as they used to be (especially when contrasted with the campery of that junior factory worker), then the low-key film stock stills adds a certain frisson to proceedings...
* * * *

* Over a year after I wrote this review, I now find they've picked a forty year old actor for the part - a good one, too - and the Autons are rumoured to be coming back. Who would have thought it?

The direction is great here, though it can't disguise the fact that while the programme is now firmly in the 70s, the incidental score wouldn't sound out of place in the Hartnell era. The opening also puts paid to those who scoff at slow-moving monsters. As soon as the Auton starts running you're aware it's a man in a suit. The slow pace of normal monsters, such as the Cybermen, adds to their alien quality.

In every real sense this is a far superior story to its sequel, Terror of the Autons. But where this is about build-up, plot development and characterisation, Terror was just a wham-bam ferrago of plastic mutilation. After the initial thrill of the post-regeneration developments, the actual story proper perhaps doesn't engage as fully as it should. Cynics might point out that you can clearly see the Auton blinking behind its mask, but with it coming impassively forward after being shotgun blasted, it does predate Terminator 2 by some margin. (though it's probably more of a nod to Night of the Living Dead than anything else).
* * * *

Fittingly for a Doctor infamous for contrived endings, Pertwee resolves the dilemma by gadgetry. ("I've made a boxxxxx with ssssssome wiressssss on it, Brigadier!") The Brigadier's outburst of "just because he feels flattered they made a facsimile of him" must also go down as one of the most contrived lines in Who history. The waxworks scene was always one that I found dragged the pace a little, too.

Now we've reached the climax, I do get a slightly flat feeling from it all: this is Who redesigned as a shallower, more action-based series than what proceeded it. The Auton attack on the street is strange, as a deserted street suddenly becomes overrun with rolling stuntmen. The realisation of the Nestene as pulsating fanny, then giant octopus straight out of The Goodies is questionable, but it gets by and doesn't bother me nearly as much as some.
* * * *

Not as involving as perhaps it should be, this is nevertheless a successful, streamlined Who for a new generation. The production is notably strong for the series, and the fact that this remains almost the weakest story of season seven shows how great the whole of the year was.
* * * *