REVIEW – Doctor Who ‘Spearhead from Space’ (BBC Worldwide, 2013)

For my second Doctor Who review I thought I would write about the only classic serial that has so far been released on Blu-ray.. ..’Spearhead from Space’. So we are going to be taking a look at another Jon Pertwee story, indeed his first as the Doctor.

Spearhead BD box

‘Spearhead from Space’ was the first serial of the seventh season, first broadcast in four weekly parts from the 3rd January to the 24th January 1970. The serial was a first for many reasons: (i) the first to be shot in colour, (ii) the first to feature Pertwee, (iii) the first to feature Liz Shaw and (iv) the debut of the Autons as an enemy of the Doctor.

Why has this serial suddenly been released on Blu-ray? Well, it may be the only classic serial ever to be released in HD as it was the only one shot on film (all of the others were either entirely or partly shot on video tape). It was an accident that this serial was shot on film.. ..industrial action had meant that the studios at BBC Television Centre were unavailable, so instead the serial was shot entirely on location using 16 mm film. Fortunately, negatives of the film were retained by the BBC, giving the perfect source to produce a HD transfer.

The story (contains spoilers)

There is a bit of a strange (somewhat plodding) start to this serial.. .. the Doctor has changed.. ..again, this time the ‘regeneration’ (not named at this point) being seemingly forced upon him by the Time Lords and not seen.

The TARDIS door opens and the Doctor collapses upon exiting. He is found and promptly taken to Ashbridge Cottage Hospital in Epping, where nobody recognises him and his unusual anatomy confounds and confuses the resident doctors.

Alongside the Doctor’s arrival is a swarm of meteorites, which crash into the English countryside. At the impact site a poacher procures a strange, pulsating plastic polyhedron.

Meanwhile, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) is attempting to recruit a Dr. Elizabeth “Liz” Shaw as his scientific advisor, to investigate the unusual meteorite shower. Shaw, on the other hand, is not only sceptical of the Brigadier’s claims of alien invasion, but also resentful of being taken away from her research at Cambridge.

The brigadier is perplexed by both the meteorite storm and a man, in the care of a hospital near to the impact site, who claims to be the same Doctor who helped Lethbridge-Stewart in a previous crisis.. ..but looks nothing like the previous Doctor that the Brigadier got to know well.

We learn that the plastic polyhedron is in fact a power unit for a non-physical alien intelligence known as the Nestene Consciousness. Normally disembodied, it has an affinity for, and can animate, plastic.

The Nestene quickly take over a plastic toy factory in Epping, and plan to replace key government and public figures with plastic facsimile duplicates, known as ‘Autons’. The Auton in charge of the factory, ‘Channing’, looks relatively realistic, but other, less human-looking Autons are sent to retrieve power units held by both UNIT and the poacher.

The Autons attempt to kidnap the Doctor from the hospital but he manages to escape (nearly being shot dead in the process) but finds the TARDIS has been disabled by the Time Lords, confining him to an exile on Earth.

After convincing himself, and the Brigadier, that he is in fact the same person who aided in the defeat of the Yeti and the Cybermen the Doctor uncovers the Nestene plot.. .. with the aide of his new assistant Liz. Almost simultaneously Channing activates Autons now ensconced across the UK (mainly in the form of shop window mannequins), who start to kill everyone. The Doctor quickly manufactures a device that will produce an electro-shock, which should disable the Autons.

UNIT having now established the manufacturing location of the Autons, attack the plastics factory, but find that the Autons are impervious to gunfire. The Doctor and Liz enter the factory and find an octopus-like plastic creature that the Nestenes have created with the power units. They intend to use this creature as a ‘bridgehead‘ for their invasion of Earth.

Whilst the Doctor (hilariously) wrestles with the creature, Liz manages to use his machine to incapacitate the creature.. .. along with all the other Autons  across the UK – as they are all part of a single gestalt consciousness.

The Brigadier is fearful that the Nestenes will return and counter-attack and requests that the Doctor stays to assist. The Doctor, somewhat begrudgingly, agrees to join UNIT in exchange for facilities to help him repair his TARDIS; as well as acquiring a sporty antique roadster similar to one he commandeered during the adventure. The Doctor also persuades Liz to remain with him as his assistant.

Production

The working title of this serial was ‘Facsimile‘, and it was based on a story that Robert Holmes wrote for the 1965 film ‘Invasion‘. The film featured an alien crashing in the woods near a rural hospital, where a medical examination reveals his alien nature. The hospital is later visited by other aliens, seeking a fugitive criminal. Some of the exact lines of dialogue used by human doctors to describe the physiology of the injured alien were re-used.

As this was the first serial produced in colour, changes were required to update the opening titles. The designer, Bernard Lodge, who had produced the existing titles, intended to use the same ‘howlaround’ technique that he had for previous titles. However, it did not produce good enough results when used with colour equipment.. ..as such they were again produced in black and white before being manually tinted. The new opening sequence was only completed in August 1969, a mere month before work began on the serial.

Blu-ray extras and quality

There are some nice extras on this Blu-ray edition, which is a good thing as the serial has seen many releases, and re-releases over the last few years.

‘A Dandy and a Clown’ is a warm and interesting documentary about Jon Pertwee. Roughly 40 minutes in length it features clips and photos that have, in the main, not been seen before. Not everything is covered in detail, but it does cover his career well, ranging from his early days to his favourite character Worzel Gummage; it is an impressive insight into the actor’s life.

‘Carry On’ is a 28 minute tribute to Caroline John. Her family and friends contribute to this documentary and as a result it’s even more personal than the Pertwee one, with warm recollections of schools, religion, romance and family.

A short feature on the process of restoring the film for HD is included, which highlights the improved quality but doesn’t really go into any technical details (which if you are interested can be found here).

Finally, we get a ‘coming soon’ trailer and raw test footage from 1969 of the first Third Doctor title sequence.

What about the quality of the HD transfer? It’s probably wise to warn you to avoid setting your expectations too high. Originally shot on 16 mm film, the episodes aren’t exactly striking, at least not in a contemporary sense. You will be more than happy with what you see, but the colours are a little bland by today’s standards.. ..although accurate and the black levels and contrast are just right. Many of you will be disappointed, as I was, that the serial remains in a standard format, it would have been fantastic if it were true widescreen. However, you have to be realistic and remember that the film is over 40 years old, what you see on screen is more than satisfying and clearly better that the usual DVD releases.

There isn’t anything particularly remarkable about the DTS-HD Master Audio mix either, but there also isn’t anything wrong with it either. Dialogue is clean and clear, without any hiss or noise.. ..it sounds about as good as a 70’s TV show will ever sound. As you can imagine the low frequency channel and rear speakers aren’t used in any real capacity.. ..but in this day and age, this comes as something of a rest-bite.

Retrollection recommendation?

Is this worth getting? Absolutely.. ..this is a great serial, which whilst taking some time to get going is definitely one to own.. ..it has so may firsts – the sight of the Autons smashing out of shop windows is classic Doctor Who. Even if you already own this on DVD I would still consider getting this Blu-ray release.. ..the HD transfer may not be stunning by contemporary standards, but you are never going to see or indeed hear a classic Doctor Who serial as clearly as this one.


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