So, thanks to some various generous Santa-types over the holiday season, I found myself with a large amount of gift-card cash. Feeling secure about splurging, I decided to make a large addition to my classic Doctor Who library.
During this buying spree, I found myself at Amoeba in Hollywood, trading out some older DVDs to make room for the incoming Doctor Who additions and found a couple of additional episodes that my trade-in credit would cover. When I get to the register, the young woman behind the counter asks me about the classic series as she’d seen all the new stuff, but was unsure where to start with the old. I naturally mentioned “The Robots of Death,” the subject of my first Tread Who Safely.
But let’s say you’ve watched “The Robots of Death” and are caught up on the new series; waiting patiently for Series 8 in the Fall. Where do you go from there? As it happens, I have an answer in the form of Jon Pertwee’s debut story.
I’ve talked about my fascination with Pertwee’s era before and it all starts here with “Spearhead from Space,” the first Doctor Who story presented in color. I suppose that might be important when venturing into the early days of the show. The first six years are in black-and-white, performed as a stage play while recorded live-to-tape with the occasional filmed insert and can be awfully slow, even to an avid watcher. “Spearhead,” by contrast is staggeringly modern.
Due to a strike at the BBC Television Center, the entire story was shot on film and on location. Visually, it’s just one of the most accomplished episodes of the classic era. The consistency of the look, the vibrancy of the colors and the recognizable setting must’ve shocked viewers in 1970. For us, it’s a form of television that looks like a close cousin of today’s standards; a welcome bonus when treading into the classic series.
Besides introducing a new Doctor, the story introduces a new status quo. Punished for his interfering nature, the Time Lords banish the Doctor to late 20th Century Earth and revoke his knowledge of time travel. They also disable the TARDIS dematerialization circuit. Luckily, they leave him the useless TARDIS as a home, which is instantly recognized by the British detachment of U.N.I.T. — The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. The commanding officer, Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, has met the Doctor before and orders the blue box and the man with it to be brought to him. The Brigadier is certain the appearance of the Doctor is connected to reports of unusual meteorites landing in the countryside.
Meanwhile, a plastics manufacturer is overrun by agents of the Nestene Consciousness, an alien intelligence that can transmute life into plastics. The meteorites are part of their silent occupation plan.
The Brig and his press-ganged scientific adviser, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (no relation to the one from Prometheus), arrive at a country hospital to meet the Doctor. Sadly, the Brig doesn’t recognize the white-haried man in the bed, even though this strange man opens his eyes and instantly says, “Hello, Brigadier.”
Following a bought of post-regeneration sickness and a costume change, the Doctor gets down to business by interfering with the Brig’s case. He also makes fast friends with Dr. Shaw — known as Liz from this point on — and the two science their way to the plastics factory, uncovering the Nestene plot. With its quiet occupation unraveled, the alien presence goes into full invasion mode.
Besides the modern look and new format, “Spearhead from Space” features writing from Robert Holmes, the best writer of the Classic Era. He’s witty with dialogue, great with pace and the turns are always worthwhile. It’s also a lean 4-part story that makes you feel pretty comfortable with the spy-fiction glaze applied to Doctor Who.
In front of the camera, Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney are great as the Doctor and the Brig. Though it would take a few more stories for their dynamic to get fleshed out, the beginnings of it are apparent here. Caroline John also turns in a fine performance as Liz Shaw. She’s more no-nonsense here than she will be in her subsequent appearances, but that’s to the story’s benefit. Liz’s skepticism of the unusual, alien things the Brig already knows to be true offers a nice counterpoint.
But no story is perfect. Production wise, the ultimate form the Nestene takes on in episode 4 is absolutely laughable, but the 16mm film makes it look a little bit more credible. Also, the Pertwee Doctor is less eccentric than his clothes might suggest. He’s often stern, occasionally self-righteous, but I think he’s pretty endearing. Indeed, I picked up a lot of his stories in the last month.
These few problems are offset by the immense amount of quality on display in the only story of the classic era that can be released on Blu-ray, thanks to its film-only nature. It will also feel very much like the current show, minus a few flashy elements. I think you’ll enjoy it.