Saturday, 5 September 2009

Spearhead from Space

Prevous viewings - many

Ask anyone what Doctor Who is about and probably one of the first things they will mention is the travelling about in space and time. As of this story, we've lost that, gaining a fixed setting for the series that will be with us for a few years. This is where Doctor Who was forced into a position where it had to change, however you'd be quicker pointing out the things that hadn't changed between The War Games and Spearhead from Space. More than any other 'relaunch' story, this one dares to hold onto viewers with its sheer quality and showing them how good the new setup is, rather than holding onto the past to reassure them that this is still the same show.

The first change hits viewers right away - a new title sequence, and it's in colour! I love the red swirls, it manages to keep the sequence mysterious. It's also interesting that with no regeneration this is our first glimpse of the new Doctor. The film look at first amplifies the feeling of newness, a shame it turned out to be unique too. It's not a perfect setup; when indoors it's sometimes too bright and the voices echo too much, however after a few scenes I barely notice.

Meteorites come crashing down (in quite a ropey special effect - so one thing hasn't changed!) in some woods in England. In the same wood, the TARDIS appears and the Doctor falls out, although we only catch the briefest of glimpses of his new face. While The Power of the Daleks spoiled us by dedicating the first ten or so minutes to the new Doctor before the TARDIS even reaches its destination, here that urge to see the new Doctor is exploited by delaying it, so that when he joins the action we're just glad to have the Doctor back, whoever is playing him. This has the benefit of allowing time to introduce Liz before the Doctor takes centre stage, however it does result in a first episode where the Doctor is hardly in it.

Anyway, the Doctor is found and taken to hospital by UNIT (bit of a coincidence!) and the (medical) Doctor there can't quite believe the x-ray showing two hearts and blood that isn't human. A porter hears about the medical mystery and reports it to the press. I really liked these hospital scenes. Every so often we need a reminder that above all the Doctor is an alien, mixing with humans who know nothing about aliens, and things can turn nasty very quickly if the wrong people know of his presence. It's purpose is really to alert the villains to the Doctor's presence but in a present-day London story I like these reminders that there's a world out there with real people doing ordinary jobs.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Shaw arrives at UNIT HQ and is interviewed by the Brigadier (strange that she isn't quite annoyed later that the Doctor takes over her job!). It's great to have Lethbridge-Stewart back, but given the bulk of his stories are in the Pertwee era, it retroactively makes his presence feel not so much like a return, but more that we've reached his era. Nick Courtney includes more humour in his performance here than before, likely to make him likeable given his new status as a regular. Liz also makes a good impression, seeming intelligent but in a more believable way than Zoe, whose intelligence was an aspect of her futuristic background. Liz also seems more mature than all the companions since Ian and Barbara, which is great in story terms as it lends credibility to her job as the Doctor's assistant. A shame that the establishment of the new Doctor leaves little time for development of Liz's character, as early on we're shown her skepticism that aliens exist, and this isn't followed up on. With so much going on it's easy to take Liz for granted, but the only thing I wasn't keen on was her look. I try to ignore the part of me that misses the uber hotness of Wendy Padbury.

The Brig and Liz arrive at the hospital where the Brig checks on the Doctor, however he obviously doesn't recognise him. Jon Pertwee is excellent in his first proper scene, the familiar mirror scene. I wouldn't say that Pertwee takes time to settle into the role, but at times the story seems to have been written with Troughton in mind (more comedy, less dry observations about the human race). However, I do think that Pertwee is the weakest of the three actors to play the Doctor so far - he's not bad, but while at their best Hartnell and Troughton were magnetic on screen, Pertwee never quite manages it. He makes up for this somewhat in the way he fuses with the role - it's never noticeable that he's acting, he just seems to be the Doctor, even in his more eccentric moments, handling his persona and quirks with ease. He'll probably always hover just outside my top five Doctors, but I still really like him.

Okay, a story with a lot to introduce is a story with a lot to comment on. Now lets get onto the story itself. The Doctor is kidnapped from the hospital by some sinister people led by a strange-looking man. He escapes but is apprehended by UNIT and taken back to the hospital. Pertwee's first cliffhanger comes off as pretty lame, with the Doctor apparently shot but as it turns out he wasn't, plus the absence of the sting at the end credits doesn't feel right at all.

The plot is a straight invasion, but not as in The Invasion. There isn't a strong villain, and the menace is kept as undefined as possible. We're never quite sure who the mysterious Channing is until the end, and some of the threat is kept ambiguous - Seeley, the man who finds a meteorite in the first episode, gets a surprising amount of screentime apparently just so we know the meteorites are important.

In Episode 2, we meet Ransome, a businessman who returns to his factory to discover that his partner has turned the factory to automation and changed their plans for the business. Ransome finds himself dismissed and forbidden to enter his former office, but he decides to investigate and finds some ready-made Autons, who come alive to attack him. He runs off and alerts UNIT (their penchant for being in the right place at the right time knows no bounds in this story!). Despite knowing little about him, I found Ransome a sympathetic character, we know what he thinks is only his job in crisis is much more and he can't handle the bizarre truth. I could have done without him drooling his tea though.

Meanwhile, the Doctor finally gets up and about, sneaking around the hospital in a bid for freedom (surely he could simply discharge himself?). Pertwee's at his silliest as he sings in the shower to get rid of the Doctor before he notices he's out of bed, then he steals a VIP's clothes and car and goes to UNIT HQ. In this new era, I've practically forgotten the travesty that befell the Doctor in The War Games. It's an interesting aside that the Doctor doesn't care about helping the Brigadier with the meteorite situation until he becomes aware that the TARDIS isn't going anywhere anytime soon. His attempt to make a quick exit after taking advantage of Liz's trust to get the TARDIS key could have come off as cold but Pertwee carries it off and turns it into quite a funny scene.

Unfortunately, once the Doctor decides to aid the investigation, the story becomes slightly less interesting, mainly because the Doctor has settled and the story itself isn't as gripping as The Power of the Daleks. What it does do is what should have been a difficult feat - making me forget about Troughton right away. By the end of the story, it already feels like Pertwee's been around forever.

Thats not to say the story isn't enjoyable. In the third and fourth episodes, the Nestene Consciousness, the intelligence behind the plastics factory takeover, sees to the replacement of UNIT General Scobie with an Auton (although he looks fake!), while the Doctor and Liz visit a mannequin gallery before making their way to the factory with the Brigadier, followed by a shootout between the Autons and the UNIT soliders while the Doctor and Liz tackle the consciousness. There's that iconic scene where Autons come to life in shop displays and smash their way into the street to menace shoppers - a great example of the clash between the ordinary and the extraordinary that Doctor Who does so well.

It does its job, however I always thought that actual villain wasn't so important to this story - the fact that it isn't revealed until the last possible moment supports this. The Autons are memorable, even if there's not much that can be done with them, and by the end of the story I'm sold on the new setup, even though the scope of the series has just been reduced quite significantly. It remains to be seen if the writers can support a story without the novelty film look and the diversion of all the introductions - all of this story's best points - but this is easily one of my favourite Pertwees.

Horror quotient - The colour makes a huge difference to the way horror works. The Nestene Consciousness is laughable, but the Autons are more successful.
Comedy quotient - It's not often cited as one of the funnier stories but certainly for the Pertwee era this is quite often hilarious, mostly because of Pertwee himself.
Drama quotient - Not sure. The way the Doctor is re-introduced is done better than the threat of the Nestene, but not to the extent that it jars.

Robert Holmes delivers his first classic, and the perfect template for the introduction of a new Doctor. Funny, scary, dramatic, it's a good all-rounder of a story. Pertwee couldn't have asked for a better beginning.


1 comment:

  1. I think I'd have to disagree with the comment about Pertwee not being 'magnetic' like Troughton and Hartnell. For me he was and also he was and still is my favorite Doctor. I find him always mesmorising in the role and I enjoy his era as a whole greatly especially when Jo and the Master enter into the series and of course when Sarah Jane becomes the companion much later on. I think the Third Doctor is the only one of his incarnations I actually wanted to be when I was a kid and I recall making a fairly unconvincing (but helped by my imagination) Bessie out of cardboard boxes and paper plates for the wheels and steering wheel :P

    Which reminds me, once my money situations sorted out I gotta get me some more classic Who DVDs.