Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space

(1970) *** Unrated
102 min. BBC. Director: Derek Martinus. Cast: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, Hugh Burden.

/content/films/4558/1.jpgEvaluating "classic" Doctor Who these days requires qualifications, and the 1970 adventure Spearhead from Space is no exception. Never seen Doctor Who before? I would strongly advise against starting here. Only seen Doctor Who episodes that follow from the show's 2005 Russell T. Davies reboot? Again, Spearhead from Space isn't an ideal entry point to classic Doctor Who. (Newbies will be able to give classic Who the fairest shake by starting wih Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor adventures.) But if you have at least dabbled in classic Doctor Who, Spearhead from Space remains an historically important adventure and one with recognizable influences on stories to come, including post-2005 episodes.

The 51st televised Doctor Who adventure introduces the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee). After the crotchety First Doctor (William Hartnell) and the alternatingly grumpy and jester-esque Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), the show's producers re-employed their alien hero's ability to "regenerate" a new body when mortally taxed. Cats have nine lives; the Doctor has thirteen. The show, too, regenerated, into a full-color format inspired in part by the popularity of The Avengers, with urbane Patrick Macnee and feline woman-of-action Diana Rigg. Pertwee's dashing dandy remodeled the Doctor into more of an action hero, taken with vehicles and gadgets and partnered with the smart and sexy Dr. Liz Shaw (Caroline John, already a veteran of the National Theatre and the RSC).

Of the twelve canonical Doctors to date, Pertwee is the most reminiscent of James Bond by way of Roger Moore, a charming and game hero with a gadget for every situation and a solution for every problem. Weirdly, though, this story by series stalwart Robert Holmes finds the Doctor acting almost as underhanded as he is usually curious and heroic—he tries to skip the planet rather than save the day! Spearhead from Space also makes rather wan use of the episodic cliffhanger structure, but finer hours were ahead for the show.

Pertwee's first adventure finds him arriving on Earth, where he has been exiled by his people, the Time Lords. Discovered by old acquaintance Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (fan favorite Nicholas Courtney) of UNIT, the Doctor convalesces a bit before helping the Brigadier and Shaw to foil an alien invasion by the Nestene Consciousness (in their series debut). The aliens have infiltrated the local Auto Plastics factory, in part to create marauding plastic men, called Autons, that can do the Nestenes' bidding. The Nestenes aren't especially scary, but the Autons are the kind of scary creatures that made Doctor Who famous. Like Daleks and Cybermen, the Autons surely sent many children cowering behind their sofas at the sight of frozen-faced automatons with plastic hands that pop open to reveal built-in alien pistols.

In many ways, Spearhead from Space is terribly clunky. The four-episode adventure finds the Doctor passed out for much of the first episode and laid up again, in a self-induced coma, in Episode Two. Fans have been spoiled by the relentless pace of new Who, but even by 1970 standards, it wouldn't be unfair to describe the storytelling and pacing as about one step up from an Ed Wood movie. But that's part of classic Who's low-rent charm. The show's severe budget constraints require cheats like a sequence that has a great image—plastic monsters, masquerading as mannequins, breaking through a department-store display window—that it has to imply with editing cheats rather than actually show (replacing windows is expensive!). To be fair, the production saved up most of its budget for some pyrotechnics in the fourth episode, but only crying "camp" could excuse the climactic tussle between a googly-eyed Pertwee and some unconvincing tentacles, which is pure Mystery Science Theater 3000 fare.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0

Street date: 8/13/2013

Distributor: BBC Home Video

The BBC has done a magnificent job restoring the only classic Who title that can be entirely mastered in native HD from a film source: Spearhead from Space. Other classic Who is made up more so of studio footage shot on relatively low-resolution videotape. The crack Doctor Who Restoration Team has made the most of the 16mm elements, yielding a surprisingly detailed and clean picture through the use of grain reduction and digital clean-up tools. Color is well-preserved and accurate, contrast perfect, and detail splendid. One could make a fair point that grain reduction makes Spearhead from Space look very different than it ever has, but it certainly looks mighty fine in this presentation, and the grain reduction hasn't scrubbed away detail or, indeed, an unforgivable excess of the source's filmic texture. Audio comes in a definitive lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that similarly maximizes the source material for clarity and cleanliness.

The biggest disappointment about this Blu-ray release is that it's not definitive. Two audio commentaries and a number of featurettes exist for this title that have been included on previous DVD releases, but none of those return here (so hang on to those DVDs, Whovians). The new HD extras—while providing little in the way of specific details about Spearhead from Space—add significant value nonetheless.

"A Dandy and a Clown" (44:15, HD) profiles Jon Pertwee through use of archival material (including interviews with the late Pertwee) and new interviews with friends and colleagues, including Who actress Katy Manning and Who script editor Terrance Dicks.

"Carry On: The Life of Caroline John" (30:23, HD) pursues a similar tack in memorializing the late Caroline John; family and friends remember the actress in her career and personal life.

"Title Sequence Material" (23:36, HD) compiles the raw footage from which the 1970 opening sequence was created. In black and white.

A "Restoration Comparison" (2:19, HD) briefly demonstrates and explains the upgrade represented by this disc, and the challenges the restoration team had to overcome.

Lastly, a "Coming Soon" trailer for the DVD release Doctor Who: The Green Death (1:25, SD) also serves to demonstrate the difference between HD and SD Who.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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