Spearhead from Space ★★★★★

It's 1970 and Jon Pertwee debuts as the third Doctor in a battle against the Autons

80

Season 7 – Story 51

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“What do you think of my new face, by the way? Mmm? I wasn’t too sure about it myself to begin with, but it sort of grows on you” – the Doctor

Storyline
Some time in the near future, the newly transformed Doctor begins his exile on Earth. The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (Unit), under the command of the Doctor’s old ally, the Brigadier, is monitoring meteorite showers that have fallen over Essex woodland. He recruits Cambridge scientist Dr Elizabeth Shaw to investigate the mystery. With the Doctor’s help, they discover the meteorites are energy units containing an alien entity with an affinity for plastic. The Nestene Consciousness has taken control of the Auto Plastics factory to manufacture deadly Autons, including shop-window mannequins and facsimiles of people in power. When activated, they will take over the world…

First transmissions

Episode 1 – Saturday 3 January 1970
Episode 2 – Saturday 10 January 1970
Episode 3 – Saturday 17 January 1970
Episode 4 – Saturday 24 January 1970

Production
Filming (exteriors): September 1969. Principal locations: Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley Surrey; NCP, St Pancras Station, London; The Broadway, High Street and TCC Condensers in Ealing; Wood Norton estate, Evesham; Wheelbarrow Castle Cottage, Radford, Worcestershire
Filming (interiors): October/November 1969 at BBC Training Centre, Wood Norton; Madame Tussauds, London; Van Arden Studios, Ealing

Cast
Doctor Who – Jon Pertwee
Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart – Nicholas Courtney
Liz Shaw – Caroline John
Channing – Hugh Burden
George Hibbert – John Woodnutt
Captain Munro – John Breslin
Major General Scobie – Hamilton Dyce
Sam Seeley – Neil Wilson
Meg Seeley – Betty Bowden
John Ransome – Derek Smee
Unit technician – Ellis Jones
Unit officer – Tessa Shaw
Corporal Forbes – George Lee
Dr Henderson – Antony Webb
Dr Beavis – Henry McCarthy
Mullins – Talfryn Thomas
Nurse – Helen Dorward
Reporter – Prentis Hancock
Attendant – Edmund Bailey
Sergeant – Clifford Cox
Wagstaffe – Alan Mitchell

Crew
Writer – Robert Holmes
Incidental music – Dudley Simpson
Designer – Paul Allen
Script editor – Terrance Dicks
Producer – Derrick Sherwin
Director – Derek Martinus

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Radio Times 1 January 1970: the dawn of a decade was heralded by a fabulous cover for Doctor Who and its new star Jon Pertwee – an iconic, cloak-flapping image that conveys panache as well as the promise of fear and a touch of magic.

1970 cover

Spearhead from Space is an extraordinary debut for the third Doctor. It looks unlike anything else seen before – or later – in the series. Shot entirely on 16mm film, and for the first time in colour, the production is closer in style to LWT’s Catweazle, also of 1970 vintage and featuring a similarly comedic, out-of-time “magician”.

“Shoes. Must find my shoes… Unhand me, madam,” are the Doctor’s first words, a sign that Jon Pertwee was cast for his funnyman skills. We see him singing in the shower and indulging in petty theft. He’s rude and childish, meek and bashful, and often walks with a waddling gait. It’s amusing to observe this short-lived schtick as Pertwee quickly determined to play it straight. The more familiar third Doctor, strident and authoritative, firmly arrived in the next story.

Spearhead Pertwee

[Jon Pertwee filming at TCC Condensers in Acton, October 1969. Photographed by Don Smith. Copyright Radio Times Archive]

The formula of an avuncular time traveller accompanied by orphans and juveniles has become a thing of the past; here the “heroes” are a stranded Time Lord, a military commander and a haughty emancipated academic – three intelligent grown-ups at the top of their game who enhance the austerity of 1970-vintage Who.

Nicholas Courtney returns as the Brigadier (after two appearances in 1968), exuding guile, charisma and gravitas. We believe him when he explains the threats to our planet. Unit deals with “the odd, the unexplained, anything on Earth… or even beyond”, though Dr Elizabeth Shaw remains sceptical: “I deal with facts, not science fiction.”

Liz doesn’t become a “companion” in the strict sense, in that she never sets foot inside the Tardis. Effectively, she’s the Doctor’s first “assistant”, a frowned-upon term in modern times but here it’s her job. Though immediately charmed by the Doctor, Liz does not hit it off with the Brigadier. He says, “If you could be a little less astringent, Miss Shaw…” Caroline John is a gifted actress, but here she’s severely styled in a ginger suit with heinous plastic panels and with her hair in a tight bun. (She’d get several makeovers under incoming producer Barry Letts.)

Spearhead from Space is Robert Holmes’s first truly great script. Not only does it expertly establish the revised format, it moves with swift remorseless precision – rather like the Auton we see crashing through bracken as it homes in on a missing energy unit.

There’s something inordinately nightmarish about the plain boiler-suited Autons. Even now their shiny heads and leering rictus give me the heebie-jeebies. The cliffhanger where an Auton jerks into life in the factory to confront Ransome retains its power. Even more disturbing is the moment when Meg Seeley finds one ransacking her cottage. When the Autons resurfaced for Christopher Eccleston’s debut in 2005, they were devoid of this horror.

Times and tastes change. Derek Martinus’s direction 35 years earlier is brutal. After an Auton forces a Unit jeep off the road, we see the dead driver’s bloodied face smashed into the windscreen. The animated window dummies gun down a copper, shoppers and commuters and they’re sent sprawling across Ealing High Street.

Composer Dudley Simpson is on top form. At his simplest, four electronic notes and a ratcheting effect provide an eerie underscore for the Autons; whereas a jazzy flute and trumpet theme lends Liz an air of sophistication. He employed eight musicians. “Every now and then the BBC used to go mad and ask for special music,” Dudley told me in 1985, “and they had to pay for it.” We talked through clips from many stories, but he loved seeing the Auton invasion again (“Ugh, that’s horrible”) backed by his alarming music. “A nice sound for that time. Fascinating. You’ve made my day.”

The production sparkles. Bernard Lodge’s fabulous diamond-patterned title sequence was aimed to dazzle the few Brits who’d invested in colour television sets. The Doctor looks great in his ruffled shirt and red-lined cloak – a collaboration between Pertwee and designer Christine Rawlins. Dandies were everywhere in late 60s pop culture.

The only real disappointment is the lacklustre representation of the Nestene. Its cellophane sphincter twitching behind perspex is decidedly peculiar and, later, the sight of rubber tentacles “strangling” a boggle-eyed Pertwee always warrants a snigger.

*

Radio Times archive material

Despite its cover, Spearhead from Space’s coverage in RT was limited. Barry Letts complained about a revealing preview in the Christmas issue, and there was only a paragraph about Jon Pertwee. Caroline John had been introduced back in September 1969. The Saturday page printed a photo from The Silurians. RT invited cartoonist Frank Bellamy to provide thumbnail illustrations for Doctor Who, starting from Spearhead’s repeat in July 1971.

Spearhead coverage
051 Spearhead billings
051 Spearhead billings rpts

Jon Pertwee also appeared in an RT holiday feature in January 1970.

1970 Holiday article

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[Available on BBC DVD]