Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space Review

Spearhead from Space is an important story in Doctor Who history for many reasons. As well as introducing Jon Pertwee as the third Doctor, it was the first story to be made in colour. It was written by Robert Holmes, arguably the programme's best writer, who effectively handles what amounts to a dual plotline. For most of the first two of the four episodes, the emphasis is on establishing Pertwee's Doctor, scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John) as his assistant, and the whole set-up of the UNIT organisation. Nicholas Courtney had appeared twice before as Brigadier (originally Colonel) Lethbridge-Stewart, in the Troughton-era stories The Web of Fear and The Invasion, neither of which exist in their entirety. From this story onwards UNIT would become a regular part of the series until some time into the Tom Baker era. However, the second and main plot is set up right from the start as a mysterious meteorite shower lands in Oxley Woods, and strange things are happening at a local plastics factory...

Many British thirtysomethings and older will have grown up with Doctor Who and will have received a basic grounding in SF and horror concepts from it. I didn't see Spearhead at the time, as I didn't start watching until the following year at the tender age of six and a half. But this story is a reminder of what once was: a show nominally for children that adults watched that didn't talk down to its audience and certainly wasn't afraid to be scary. This is one of two stories to feature the Autons (walking plastic dummies: the scene where they come to life behind high street shop windows is the one everyone remembers. Partway through the Tom Baker era, after complaints about violence, the programme was more and more played for laughs. This viewer lost interest around the end of the 70s and stopped watching. Looking again at Spearhead now, some dodgy special effects – not to mention Liz Shaw's fashion sense! – date it more than a little, but as a strong suspenseful story it still works.

Jon Pertwee remains many people's favourite Doctor, though there is a backlash opinion which finds him patriarchal and patronising and even sexist. However, here he makes an accomplished start to his four years in the role. Pertwee's background in comedy adds plenty of shading to his portrayal. Nicholas Courtney makes an effortless return as the Brigadier, who is written as much less of a buffoon than he would be later. Caroline John only lasted one season as Liz Shaw and tends to be underrated as an assistant. In 1970, the women's movement had barely begun to make itself felt in popular entertainment, and it's possible that a highly qualified woman scientist might have been a little ahead of its time. It's certainly the case that Doctor Who was a little selfconscious about this: in the next story (Doctor Who and the Silurians) she gets to ask the Brigadier, "Have you never heard of women's liberation?" By all accounts her successor Jo Grant (who looks like a retrograde screaming teenager nowadays, though not as bad as the Secon Doctor companion Victoria Waterfield) was more "identifiable". As it stands, Caroline John's performance in Spearhead has a few awkward moments but is generally solid. Of the non-recurring cast, Hugh Burden is an effective villain, despite an over-reliance on conveying alienness by speaking in a monotone.

Due to a threatened BBC Studio strike, Spearhead from Space is unique among the series stories by being shot wholly on 16mm film. This gives it a look and texture entirely different to any other story, which were shot at least partly on videotape. Given a complete digital restoration, it now looks as good as it ever could, bright and artefact-free though not quite having the sharpness and definition or lack of grain that 35mm would have. As Spearhead was made for British TV in 1970, it was made in 4:3 and so this DVD is non-anamorphic. The sound is the original mono, with only occasional scenes betraying the location-shot origins. (Characters at the back of the frame, and hence away from the microphone, are occasionally echoey and less clear.) There are subtitles, as there should be, and twenty-four chapter stops, six per episode. Like every other BBC DVD, it is dual region-coded, for Regions 2 and 4. The episodes are presented complete with opening and closing credit sequences, preserving those all-important cliffhangers. The short burst of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well", which originally played over the shots of the plastics factory in action in Episode Two, is missing, due to music rights complications.

First among the extras is a commentary track by Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John, which has optional subtitles. The two obviously get on very well together and are engaging to listen to. Inevitably memories are occasionally vague after thirty years, so anyone after much hard information will be disappointed. For these, the on-screen production notes will be what they are looking for. These appear as subtitles, and point out to the viewer where particular scenes were shot, how certain special effects were done, and so on. In short, as much trivia as any fan would need. The TV trailers are those for the story's repeat in 1999, rapidly cut to not-really-appropriate rock music. The UNIT recruitment film was made for the 30th anniversary celebrations in 1993 – it's a jokey five-minute piece featuring the voice of Dexter Fletcher and featuring clips from many of the stories featuring UNIT. The photo gallery is much as you might expect, half colour and half black and white, with a simple back-and-forth navigation system. The menus feature clips from the story. If you highlight the Doctor Who logo in the top left, you will find an Easter Egg, in the form of an unused title sequence.

This DVD has obviously been put together with a lot of care, and Spearhead looks and sounds as good as it probably could do. It augurs well for other Doctor Who DVDs that the BBC will no doubt release.

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 22:12:19

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