A Special Look at: Spearhead from Space

Spearhead from Space is the first story to feature the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, as well as introducing his new companion, Dr. Liz Shaw, who is played by Caroline John. The Nestenes and the Autons also debuted in this story, who reappeared later on. It marked a significant change in the format of Doctor Who, as The Doctor was from now on serving his Time Lord-imposed sentence of exile on Earth. It also continued some elements from The Web of Fear and The Invasion in depicting a renewal of the Doctor’s association with UNIT and re-introducing Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier as head of its British branch. Both would be regular features of this era of the programme. According to A Brief History of Time (Travel) on the production of the story:

More than a year before it was to begin transmission, it was clear that Doctor Who‘s seventh season was to be very different from its six predecessors. In the wake of the success of The Web Of Fear and The Invasion— both stories set on modern-day Earth and including a significant military presence — outgoing producer Peter Bryant and his successor, Derrick Sherwin, felt that Doctor Who should be reformatted to emphasise this sort of adventure. With Patrick Troughton electing not to return to the show for Season Seven and Nicholas Courtney (who had played Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in both serials) confirming his interest in assuming a regular role in Doctor Who, Bryant and Sherwin set about defining the programme’s new status quo from about December 1968.

In the early months of 1969, the basic elements of Doctor Who‘s revised format fell into place. The Doctor would be exiled to Earth in the modern-day or the very near future. There, he would come to work with Lethbridge-Stewart and the UNIT organisation which had been introduced in The Invasion. Since the Doctor’s two previous companions, Jamie and Zoe, would also be written out at the end of Season Six, a new assistant — a scientist named Liz — was created by Sherwin, with input from script editor Terrance Dicks. It was thought that Liz would be more intelligent and mature than most previous Doctor Who companions. The Third Doctor himself was cast on May 21st when Jon Pertwee agreed to the role; Courtney was contracted on the 27th. Both actors were booked to appear in at least twenty-one episodes.

The changes to Doctor Who would not be limited to matters of cast or storyline, however. BBC1 was scheduled to begin transmitting in colour from November, and so it was decided that Season Seven would see Doctor Who broadcast in colour for the first time. The number of episodes comprising the new season would also be sharply reduced, as it was planned that Doctor Who would now run for only six months instead of nine. One of Troughton’s major complaints about his tenure on the programme had been the exhausting production schedule, and it was felt that the reduced episode count would ameliorate the situation. Because of all this, Season Seven’s debut was scheduled around New Year 1970 rather than at the start of autumn 1969.

Meanwhile, on February 12th, Dicks commissioned a storyline entitled “Facsimile” from Robert Holmes, who had recently written The Space Pirates for Season Six. “Facsimile” was intended to serve as Serial AAA, the first adventure of the revamped Doctor Who. Since it was hoped that the Earthbound setting would allow the introduction of more relevant, timely dangers into the series, Holmes drew inspiration from concerns about the still-new technology of plastics. Full scripts were subsequently commissioned from the writer on June 3rd.

During this time, Pertwee’s take on the Doctor was gradually being developed, with the actor receiving considerable feedback from his old friend, Shaun Sutton, who was then serving as the BBC’s Head of Drama. Although Bryant had assumed that Pertwee would portray the role in a rather comedic vein, Pertwee instead opted to assume a more serious aspect; Sutton advised the actor to basically play the Doctor as himself. For his costume, Pertwee suggested a high-collared black outfit in the style of Pandit Nehru. However, costume designer Christine Rawlins liked the way Pertwee had dressed at his introductory press call on June 7th, when he had worn a velvet smoking jacket, a frilly shirt and his grandfather’s Inverness cape; she decided to use this as the basis for the Doctor’s new look.

Casting for the role of Liz occurred during July. Photos of actress Caroline John were forwarded to Bryant and Sherwin by another BBC producer, James Cellan-Jones, and John was subsequently contracted for two serials on July 28th. The actress’ experience to date was largely confined to the stage, though she had a handful of film and television credits to her name, including an episode of The Power Game. John was revealed to the press on September 10th. She was initially very keen to read up on the scientific terminology she’d be spouting in Doctor Who, and was subsequently dismayed to discover that most of it was made-up gibberish.

Holmes’ storyline, meanwhile, had undergone a number of changes. In episode one, the Doctor was originally kidnapped from his bed and taken to a storeroom for interrogation; he escaped through a window after feigning unconsciousness. The Autons were defeated in the end by a high-frequency sound Liz arranged to have transmitted from Broadcasting House at the Doctor’s request. For a time, Sam Seeley was accompanied by a son. Liz’s surname was revised from “Shore” to “Shaw”, while Captain Munro’s last name was originally spelt “Monro”.

With the change of Doctor and the move to colour, it was decided that a new title sequence was needed for Doctor Who. Bernard Lodge was once again pressed into service. His original plan was to generate interesting-looking feedback patterns — as he had done for his two earlier efforts — but he found the colour results disappointing compared to what he had achieved in monochrome. With Ben Palmer, Lodge instead decided to film shifting diamond patterns in black-and-white, then tint them with colour gels using an optical printer. Pertwee’s countenance and a new Doctor Who logo were then added to the mix. One aspect which was abandoned was the idea of beginning the sequence with Pertwee throwing his cape over the screen, with the colour patterns then emerging from the darkness. The title sequence was filmed on August 3rd at Television Centre Studio 5. For the first time, an end credit sequence was also created — to date, Doctor Who‘s closing credits had usually run over a simple black background.

The director assigned to “Facsimile” was Derek Martinus, who had last worked on The Ice Warriors two years earlier. Martinus had been trying to distance himself from Doctor Who, and agreed to the assignment with considerable reluctance. His work began with a week of filming starting on September 13th; around this time, the serial’s title was amended to Spearhead From Space. The first day of filming began at the Favourite Doll Factory in Holloway, London which stood in for the Auto Plastics Factory. Liz’s arrival at UNIT headquarters was then filmed around St Pancras Station. Geoff Brighty was cast as the UNIT commissionaire in this sequence, but upon recording he was found to be unsuitable for the part. Sherwin himself stepped in to play the role.

September 14th was taken up with action on the Broadway in Ealing. On the 15th and 16th, land owned by the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley, Surrey served as the woods while nearby Hatchford Park School was used as the hospital grounds on the 17th. Finally, more factory scenes were filmed at TCC Condensers in Ealing on the 18th and 19th. It seems that Martinus intended to film the Doctor and Liz arriving at Madame Tussaud’s in London, but these plans were abandoned at some point.

Studio recording was then supposed to occur on Monday, October 13th for episode one, followed by three consecutive Thursdays — October 23rd and 30th and November 6th — for the remaining installments. However, while cast and crew were carrying out the location filming, the Association of Broadcast Staff began industrial action in the wake of a salary dispute with BBC management. With recording dates for all programmes at Television Centre threatened, Sherwin was aware that Spearhead From Space might have to be abandoned altogether. To avoid the loss of his season premiere, Sherwin convinced his bosses to allow him to complete the serial entirely on film.

Work resumed on October 8th; the filming dates largely coincided with the original schedule for rehearsal and studio recording. One casualty of the changed plans was that the original voice of Dr Lomax, Henry McCarthy (who also played Dr Beavis), was replaced by Ellis Jones (also cast as the UNIT technician). The majority of the filming took place at the BBC’s Engineering Training Centre at Wood Norton, near Evesham, Hereford and Worcester. Wheelbarrow Castle Cottage in nearby Radford was used for Seeley’s home, while the Mansion House Hotel in Evesham served as Scobie’s residence. After a break on November 1st and 2nd, the material in the Army tent was filmed at Van Arden Studios in Ealing on the 3rd and 4th. Finally, Madame Tussaud’s itself was visited on November 5th. Model shots were completed at the Ealing Television Film Studios on November 19th, and Martinus remounted the Doctor’s climactic confrontation with the Nestene creature at Ealing on the 22nd, as he was unsatisfied with the original effort.

In the midst of filming, Doctor Who‘s production office got a major shake-up when the BBC decided to shift both Bryant and Sherwin over to a troubled German coproduction, the thriller series Paul Temple. Sutton first asked Douglas Camfield (whose most recent Doctor Who directorial assignment was The Invasion) to take over as producer. When he declined, Sutton instead approached Barry Letts, who had helmed The Enemy Of The World during Season Five. At that time, Letts had voiced a number of ideas on how Doctor Whoshould be made, some of which Bryant and Sherwin had since implemented. Letts’ appointment came on October 20th.

Spearhead From Space was consequently the last Doctor Who story on which Sherwin received a credit. After finishing up on Paul Temple, Sherwin left the BBC to form an independent production company called SkiBoy. In the Eighties, he headed up the computer animation firm Electronic Arts for a time; he subsequently continued to both write and produce.

True to his word, Spearhead From Space also brought Derek Martinus’ involvement with Doctor Who to an end. Martinus left the BBC to go freelance in the mid-Seventies, during which time he directed episodes of series such as Blake’s 7 and Into The Labyrinth. Later in life, Martinus concentrated his efforts on stage productions; he passed away in March 2014.

Despite all the behind-the-scenes changes, the new-look Doctor Who debuted on January 3rd, 1970. Despite the fact that the audience was roughly twice that of the final Troughton serial, The War Games, it remained to be seen whether audiences would accept an Earthbound, action-oriented colour version of the series which had already been running for more than half a decade.


According to the m0vie blog review:

Oh well, at least he won’t get very far.

You mean, before your men shoot him again?

I don’t find that funny.

– The Brigadier and Liz discuss the Doctor’s (second) escape

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that Spearhead from Space had so much riding on it, if only because of the deft combination of Robert Holmes’ sharp script and Derek Martinus’ confident direction. Indeed, the serial served as something of a second pilot for the show, demonstrating that the survival of the series during the transition between William Hatnell and Patrick Troughton had not been a fluke, broadcasting in colour for the first time, and setting up an entirely new status quo set primarily on present-day Earth. It’s a miracle that it all works so well, let alone that fact that it remains one of the most accessible adventures featuring the character.

In fact, if a viewer were looking for an opportunity to “jump into” classic Doctor Who, Spearhead from Space provides perhaps the best point at which to do so. It’s a light little adventure, even today, and it serves to demonstrate that producer Derrick Sherwin and script editor Terrance Dicks had made the right decision to confine the Doctor to Earth. Shot on film, Spearhead from Space looks relatively lavish by the standards of Doctor Who.

Deciding that alien worlds would look too silly in colour, the pair had decided that their revamp of the show would see the character exiled by the Time Lords to Earth in the wake of Patrick Troughton’s last adventure, the epic ten-part War Games. The result is an aesthetic that would serve the show remarkably well. The BBC never truly gave the show the budget or technology to fully realise the sci-fi scope that it required, but Dicks and Sherwin kept the series’ goals relatively modest, something that paid dividends. While the Earth-based setting would grow tedious (to the point where the next series would take the character off-world again and the series after that would return his control of the TARDIS), it works here.

In particular, Holmes very effectively manages to find that perfect balance of the banal and the terrifying – scaring the audience with the threat of something that we pass everyday. Thanks to Spearhead from Space and its sequel, Terror of the Autons, the image of the lumbering killer plastic dummies has become an iconic part of British television history. It was at this point that the moral guardians would begin to notice the show, and complain that it was corrupting the youth with images of violence and horror. I think that a lot of that effective approach to what might be termed “the banality of horror” can be traced back to here, with the eerie sight of a doll factory under alien control, a wax museum that comes to life, a murderous doppelgänger made of an inorganic material.

“What’s happened to this place?” Ransome asks, returning from America to find his entire factory has changed. “Most of the staff gone, security notices everywhere.” It’s a chilling idea, one playing off The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which would be remade only several years after this adventure. Holmes sets up a rather creepy background to events, but Martinus’ direction elevates the suspense. It’s a frightening thought that everything could change so quickly and seemingly arbitrarily. “The whole layout of the factory floor is different. And my workshop, what’s in there now?”

More than any cheap jump scares or ugly aliens, there’s something deeply unsettling about the notion of plastic doubles – something in the uncanny valley. It’s disturbing to think about something that looks human, but is cold to the touch, and is so inherently alien. Even the factory’s exhibit populated with all manner of world leaders feels coldly chilling, once you think about it. It’s not the sort of fear you face with a quick cut to an attacking monster, but a more subtle sense of unease.

Spearhead from Space was shot on film. It’s arguably the only serial in the classic run of the series that would benefit from an upgrade to high-definition. I think it holds up remarkably well. Sure, there are occasional awkward moments. I think that Jon Pertwee wasn’t really the Doctor until he had to pantomime wrestling with a giant fake tentacle, and the assassination of Ransome is hardly the most impressive of special effects. Still, as a whole, Spearhead from Spaceis a remarkable proof of concept for the Earth-based experiment, and one that I think exemplifies the Pertwee era.

I maintain that it’s the classic serial with the broadest appeal, being a four-episode Pertwee adventure that effective sets up and resolves its mystery with a minimum of fuss, while taking full advantage of the changed dynamics. There’s a genuine sense that there’s something new about the show. While I don’t think I could legitimately argue that it’s even the best Pertwee episode (let alone the best episode overall), I think that it deserves recognition for that.

There is, after all, a reason that this adventure set the tone for “regeneration” stories (although the term wouldn’t be coined until Pertwee’s final story, Planet of the Spiders). When the show itself “regenerated” under Russell T. Davies, the episode Rose was sure to include the Autons as villains. The Eleventh Hour, transitioning from Davies to Steven Moffat, felt like an even more direct homage with its rural Earth-based setting, low-tech qualities and even the Eleventh Doctor’s method of getting dressed. I think it’s difficult to overstate just how efficiently Holmes’ script codified what the audience expected from a regeneration episode.

Building off bits and pieces that had been set up in earlier adventures like The Invasionor The Web of Fear, the episode sets the status quo of the Doctor’s Earth-based adventures, including his somewhat expanded supporting cast. The advantage of anchoring the protagonist was the fact that it afforded him the chance to sustain an on-going relationship with more than a couple of fellow travels. It tied him down to the Brigadier, a character who was very much the opposite of a companion – rather than a young person looking for adventure and wonder, the Brigadier was an officer dealing with very practical concerns.

Stories like The Silurians would explore the ideological difference in more depth, but you can see the different dynamic at play here, were the Brigadier finds himself acting like a babysitter for the aloof and playful alien. When the Doctor discusses the conditions of his employment, he’s very keen on keeping a car that he stole. It’s the Brigadier’s job to play the role of a responsible adult, insisting, “No, Doctor. That car must be returned to its owner.”

The episode also outlined the role that UNIT would play in things, essentially serving as a story device to connect the Doctor to whatever strange alien incident happened to require his attention that week. “We deal with the odd, the unexplained, anything on Earth, or even beyond,” the Brigadier explains, offering a concise mission statement. It’s a nice hook, and a clever story idea. It sort of sets the Doctor up so he can deal with any sci-fi situation that might pose a threat to anybody.

On the other hand, Spearhead from Space does set a somewhat unfortunate precedent that would be followed in later adventures. Quite simply, UNIT does not appear especially competent. Wondering how a witness could have been killed with guards standing outside the front of his tent, it’s up to Lethbridge-Stewart to point out the obvious. “Never mind about the front, what about the back?”he asks, drawing a somewhat embarrassed response.

The serial also introduces the character of Liz Shaw. Caroline John would famously depart after one series after becoming pregnant, but I still think highly of Shaw as a character, despite her limited exposure. I think it’s interesting that she’s portrayed as a character who is actually quite comfortable with her life at the point where she enters the story. Offered the job at UNIT, she’s fairly quick to decline. “I have an important research programme going ahead at Cambridge,” she insists, refusing to be strong-armed into taking what she considers to be a boring, dead-end job.

She’s clearly portrayed as smart and articulate, perhaps more than any other companion up until that point. When she finds out that UNIT has been created to fend off alien invasion, she asks a very astute question, “Why is Earth any more likely to be attacked now than during the last fifty thousand years?” (In fairness, Robert Holmes offers a rather interesting counter-explanation: “In the last decade, we’ve been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. We’ve drawn attention to ourselves, Miss Shaw.”) She is skeptical of the Doctor, but within reason – while respecting his wit and abilities, she seems to refuse to be carried along by them.

In fact, it’s interesting how Pertwee’s Doctor treats Liz, and how she responds. Troughton’s Doctor and Hartnell’s before him had a tendency to treat their companions as children – Troughton was clearly more affectionate, while Hartnell was decidedly more condescending. Pertwee, on the other hand, treats Liz almost as an equal. He’s clearly aware that he knows much more than her, but he respects her insight and opinion. Indeed, at one point, it seems almost like he’s flirting with her. “Look, do I really have to call you Miss Shaw?” he playfully asks. For her part, she seems flattered. It’s almost disappointing that Pertwee would be back in the role of father-figure when playing opposite Katy Manning.

Of course, the other major change is Pertwee himself. Pertwee would go on to headline the show for five years, the longest up until that point. (Tom Baker would then show up and stick around for seven seasons.) While Pertwee tends to be a pretty divisive Doctor, I am reasonably fond of him. There would be times, in later shows, where it seemed almost like he was sleep-walking through the part, but he was also capable of incredible energy and enthusiasm. While we see little of it here, Pertwee would go on to cast the Doctor as a bit of an action hero – perhaps the most dynamic of any of the Doctors.

Indeed, Holmes’ script is a little broad – perhaps waiting for Pertwee to make the role his own. He doesn’t immediately own the role in the same way that Tom Baker or David Tennant would, but I think the stronger story around him distracts a bit from his own performance. We do get the typical post-generation hijinks where the character “settles in” to his new body, with Pertwee indulging his comedic instincts by demonstrating his new face is  “very flexible.” It’s a strong start the character. If you look closely when the Doctor is showering, you can make out the actor’s tattoo on his forearm (of a snake). While it’s not exactly relevant and is just a production error, I do like the theory that it’s some sort of brand the Time Lords put on his body. There’s never anything in the show too small to merit a detailed fan theory, after all.

Outside of all the massive changes, I think that Spearhead from Spaceworks so well because it’s simply a solid little episode, with any number of factors falling perfectly into place. I especially love Robert Holmes’ portrayal of wily country folk – the hospital porter who makes a few bob selling a story to The Daily Chronicle, or the poacher hiding his find from the authorities. That said, guest star Neil Wilson is occasionally (and probably intentionally) difficult to understand with his Welsh accent. There’s something so perfectly regional and rural about Holmes’ portrayal of these small villages, inherently wary of outsiders and keen to turn a profit at the expense of the city-slickers.

It’s also worth mentioning Derek Martinus’ direction. He does an excellent job, especially with the establishing shots at the factory. That said, my favourite sequence is the Brigadier’s impromptu press conference at the hospital. Martinus shoots the scene from the point-of-view of the reporters, as if the viewer is watching it on the news. It’s an old trick today, but it seems quite clever for a show at the time, especially one with so much else going on. That said, the scene wouldn’t work nearly as well without Holmes’ sharp script, with the Brigadier suggesting the mysterious occurences were down to “training exercises.”

I love Spearhead from Space. I think it’s easily the best episode to show to a new fan of the show, to convince them of the merits of the classic series. I think it was one of the first few that I watched getting into it, and it made quite a fan out of me.



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