A staple within good science fiction is the ‘alien invasion’ story. It seems that Earth is always at odds with other species seeking to dominate our world. What varies from invasion to invasion is usually the methods and motivation of the aggressor race, and, throughout the years, DOCTOR WHO has explored them all. From aliens dependent on draining human fat to a growing consciousness hoping to seize control of our minds, WHO has delighted fans with the various forms of evil, even at the risk of a few bad special effects, though never a bad idea.
Following the events at the close of the sixth season, the Doctor (now played by John Pertwee) starts his seventh in a largely comatose state. He arrives on Earth in the onset only to collapse after emerging from the TARDIS, and he is taken into custody and hospitalized. At the same time, however, a swarm of meteorites crash down on the planet. Is this some random coincidence, or is there something far more nefarious at work? Rest assured, it won’t take long for the Doctor to come to his senses, find a welcome companion in the guise of Liz Shaw (Caroline John), and thwart an all-new threat to the future of mankind … once he finds a new change of clothes, that is!
For those in the know, this seventh season of WHO was a bit of a re-awakening. A grueling production schedule forced Patrick Troughton to abandon the show, and the economics of revamping the program with a shorter shooting schedule created some unique challenges for the new season. As a result, SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE remains the only episode of the program to be shot almost entirely on location as well as entirely on film. (Much of WHO’s run was shot on videotape.) While it’s easy to debate the merits (or detractions) of the story’s central villains (what’s the real danger of having an entire alien species made out of plastic?!?!), I found it easy to focus in on Pertwee’s whimsy at becoming the show’s new lead. He imbues the Doctor with some old school charm and newfound wit, giving SPEARHEAD have some of the best and curiously worst (the alien octopus is a hoot!) moments in early WHO history.
Still, it’s hard to watch the program and not wish the newest companion – Liz Shaw – wasn’t given more to do. Her character here feels almost obligatory – a bit of a prude know-it-all scientist who’s little more than a failed attempt to show science and sex appeal can go hand-in-hand, think of her as a British Barbie doll. Still, UNIT – an organization that exists secretly to defend the planet from various external threats – rises to the forefront as the Doctor begins his exile on Earth, and the addition of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) was indeed an inspired choice; indeed, Lethbridge-Stewart appears throughout the various WHO products – TV shows, books, radio serials, etc. – as a regular go-to resource for the Doctor (and vice versa) in times of dire need.
DOCTOR WHO: SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE is produced by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through BBC America and Warner Home Video, Inc. For a production that aired back in 1970, SPEARHEAD looks and sounds mostly solid, though I did experience a few drop-offs in quality in the third episode (I couldn’t say why specifically). As is customary with these releases, the BBC has loaded it up with special features: there are two different commentary tracks; a making-of special including interviews with key personnel; photo galleries and the like; and some wonderful extras that relate to UNIT recruitment and operations. It’s everything AND the kitchen sink, just as one would expect a property as long-running and impactful as DOCTOR WHO has been and remains today.
RECOMMENDED. Sure, it may contain a few parts of hokum, but, all-in-all, Pertwee’s debut as the intrepid Doctor (aka John Smith) is a welcome throwback to a time when WHO was taking a few bold steps in some new creative directions. Tying the Doctor down to Earth – his penance for upsetting the Time Lords – meant a change in the BBC production process, gave a solid grounding to stories that was needed for a time, and pushed the writers to approach their storytelling process in a new way. Plus, it’s fun to see some of the earliest mention of the Nestene and even the infamous UNIT (both of which have been featured in Matt Smith’s run as the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor). As always, there are some terrific special features included here that true-blue-Whovians won’t want to miss.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the good people at BBC America provided me with a DVD screener of DOCTOR WHO: SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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