Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Spearhead From Space on DVD

A review from the days when there were just three Doctor Who DVDs available rather than sixty-odd…
“Rather amusing, don’t you think?”
Spearhead From Space has a lot of baggage. Surely one of the best-known stories, it was the first novel created for the Target range, one of the first videos released, one of the first re-released, one of the few recent terrestrial analogue repeats, and now one of the first DVDs. It’s highly entertaining, but still something of an oddity – one of the series’ most significant relaunches, it’s both highly derivative and a taste of things to come.

The first colour story, it looks better than BBC colour did for years afterwards, through the happy accident of all-film, all-location filming denying us the soon-to-be-usual harshly videotaped studios. The first story of the Doctor’s new exile to Earth, it’s also startlingly similar to Quatermass II, or any number of episodes of The Avengers, or even a pared-down version of the previous season’s The Invasion, with the same factory and all the trimmings. Regarded now as a typical, reliable Bob Holmes ‘film homage with witty dialogue and exaggerated character parts’, it was actually his first of these, following on from two little-regarded late Troughtons. It’s the first story for Pertwee’s more ‘serious’, haughty Doctor after Troughton’s ‘clown’, yet Pertwee spends much of his time clowning instead. It’s even a four-part story before such economy became fashionable, set in a season of seven-part epics, and perhaps because of that, perhaps because it was Pertwee’s first story, perhaps because of that terrific high street invasion scene, or perhaps just because the book was so good, it was remembered and talked about for years, alone from the ‘forgotten’ Season 7. Even Doctor Who and the Silurians tended to get overshadowed by its flashier, emptier sequel, but somehow Spearhead From Space never did.

So, is it any good? Familiarity has bred a little contempt for some fans, but although suffering from the usual Pertwee problem of much better books than TV, in this case it’s because the book is fantastic, not through any deficiency in the production. This is really good, if perhaps only on the edge of my top twenty. It’s a cracking action tale, basically, with dabs of horror to scare the kiddies, and loads of comic bits to say that it’s all right really – and only one horror bit that’s unintentionally funny. So, a pretty good recipe for Who.

People often say how “grittily realistic” this is. It isn’t. While generally more ‘realistic’ than the previous season, it’s far less ‘gritty’ than the rest of the famously dark (for Who) Season 7. Had it been made on video, some of it might have looked much sillier; as it is, the convincing visuals really help make the funny bits entertaining rather than seem mistakes. Much of its reputation must lie with the Autons themselves, which are fantastically creepy monsters, and of course Hugh Burden’s eerie boggling eyes. Even so, it’s not such a big change – horror stories a couple of years earlier like The Web of Fear and Fury From the Deep had far less in the way of comforting comedy to defuse the tension.

This being such a collection of firsts, the regulars are decidedly irregular. Pertwee is generally comic and – with the aid of some rubber tentacles – renders the climax rather silly, but has a fresh appeal in many scenes. Caroline John’s Liz Shaw is a bit too mannered to begin with, but shows huge promise that was to blossom into probably the best TV companion after Barbara. The real star here is Nick Courtney’s Brigadier, a relatively familiar face and an assured performance that is constantly delightful. It’s almost a shame when the Doctor gradually evolves as ‘the star’, with Nick playing the lead so well in the early episodes. By the end of the story, the three are working together awfully well, and while there is a fair bit of scientist-soldier tension, they all get on well from the start.

Liz, in fact, has a lot more problems with the Brig than the Doctor does, largely because he’s just kidnapped her. The Doctor getting her on side with a great piece of eyebrow acting actually brings her into the UNIT fold. That’s not the only exciting thing about this new character – she wears such a stunning array of plastic coats and dresses that you’re surprised the Nestenes don’t seize control of them and strangle her with them. Oh, well, maybe in the X-rated version. Have you noticed, the ’70s begin with a woman in charge (of the tracking station, in the first scene), and probably the strongest woman companion so far… You’d hardly know what was coming next, would you? The new Doctor also betrays some of his more unpleasant character traits early; his ‘escape attempt’ shows he’s a ruthless git. Let’s face it, he uses Liz, and as he can’t fly the TARDIS straight (The Green Death, still years in the future, is the first time in the show’s history he manages that unaided!), we know he’d be leaving the Earth in the lurch here and never be able to get back to sort out the Autons. And is there a little touch of the famous Pertwee Moral Message? You heard it here, kids – automation is evil! People who sack their workers are aliens!

It all looks like it cost about a hundred times more than The War Games. And even though that had loads of soldiers, here they seem like the main characters. It’s a different series! Despite The Invasion the previous year, it’s a bit of a shock to have the serial open with some modern soldiers. It used to be an eccentric traveller in time and space, and suddenly it’s gone all macho. You’d think with the advent of colour, they could find a more exciting one to start with than beige… On the other hand, the horror elements are distinctly anti-beige in their excitement; the shocking splash of red for the soldier in the car crash, the Auton tearing its way into a tent to kill Ransome and terrify the kiddies off camping, and Ransome becoming a gibbering wreck. We should get that more often – in the following story, too, people see things and lose their minds. Shame the series had so few such Lovecraft and Quatermass and the Pit-style reactions, but perhaps they would have caused too many nightmares. There’s more for parents and teachers to disapprove of when it comes to the Nestene energy unit, too. Either the Doctor’s or the designer’s maths is terrible, as the Nestene energy unit is much bigger than his guesswork. And who’s the woman with the world’s largest eyepatch in the hospital waiting room? What’s she waiting for? A head transplant?

On the production side, the Bob Holmes script is well-paced to slowly introduce the new Doctor (though attempts by the director to hide his face after he’s already toppled out of the TARDIS just, er, fall flat), then pick up with the scary Autons, and leavened with some great dialogue and, of course, those splendid stereotypes Mr and Mrs Seeley. As well as the obvious Quatermass borrowings, Holmes seems to have lifted much of the early set-up from Invasion, a rather poor sci-fi film he co-scripted in the mid-’60s (though the hospital scenes are also reminiscent of Adam Adamant Lives: A Vintage Year for Scoundrels and The Avengers: The Forget-Me-Knot). The crude-faced, unstoppable, homing killers are very like The Avengers’ Cybernauts, but no less impressive for that, and it’s a nice twist that they’re more interesting than just another robot. Dudley Simpson’s incidental music – particularly for the ‘Auton invasion’ – is awfully good, as we’ve fortunately come in just before he goes quite dreadfully mad with a synthesiser for a few years. Derek Martinus turns in some great pieces of direction, with super zooms in on and out from hunting Autons, and even for the episode titles. Two dazzling scenes in particular stand out – first, the Brigadier’s impromptu press conference at the hospital. I defy you to watch Nick Courtney calmly insisting, “I know nothing about a man from space” while pursued by a camera, and not have a little part of your brain think it’s real. The other scene, of course, is in Episode 4, and involves the most aggressive January sales windows you could imagine…

Anyone who brings Doctor Who back to the TV really must give a thought to some great visual set-piece. Get people talking afterwards about ‘The one with the dummies coming to life / The one with the Dalek in the Thames / The one with the Daleks climbing the stairs / The one with the maggots, or spiders, or monsters walking out of the sea’; high-quality pretty images aren’t enough. Everyone does pretty these days. It’s got to be a memorable image, with any luck rising out of a memorable plot.

This being a DVD, though, it’s not just the show itself that’s there to be excited by (well, it would be if it were issued by Revelation, but fortunately the BBC have learnt better). The extras are very jolly; for example, a UNIT recruitment film, sadly missing the phone number at the end it used to display (they could have updated it!), some terribly hammy Pertwee publicity stills, and the BBC2 ads from 1999 – the second of which sadly has different music after copyright problems, is way too loud and doesn’t work nearly so well. At least they’re much better than the ad for Genesis of the Daleks… Which reminds me, shame there’s no BBC2 Dalek on here. Oh well.

That’s not the only boon on DVD, however. For my money, the best thing about it is what else you can have playing while the show’s on. First, there’s the option to display little text factoids on the screen in random scenes. It sounds terribly dull, and admittedly it tries very hard to be written that way, but actually they’re so surreal, we fell about laughing (this effect does wear off as they become more and more boring with later releases). Some are appropriate to the scene in question; many just pop up out of left field. There’s one long set of items about Jon Pertwee’s career that appears mid-way through Episode 2 for no reason at all. We just sat and imagined Richard Molesworth strapped to a chair, being hit with electric shocks every 2 minutes 37 seconds to come up with something (very faintly) interesting, and tapping out all this foolishness.

But that’s not all! The best is yet to come. While the earlier release The Robots of Death boasted an interesting, informative and serious commentary by the producer and writer, Spearhead does none of this. Its commentary is gloriously irrelevant, but pricelessly entertaining. Actors Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John appear to have been locked in the sound booth for a few hours with nothing but a microphone, a video and a tanker of gin. It’s clear that there is a break in recording before Episode 4; by the end of the marvellous Episode 3 track, they’re talking such enchanting gibberish I’d swear they’re paralytic.

Courtney is a fabulous old pro, reproducing every tiny detail and no doubt sending fanboys wild by talking about how the Brigadier’s wife Fiona left him (in spin-off Downtime). Ooh! If it wasn’t canon before, is it now that it’s been released as part of Spearhead From Space? I don’t know. I don’t care. But it’s lovely to hear! He announces that Zygons were “very funny,” complains that the uniform “Doesn’t flatter my bottom at all!” and steals the show. So, how can Caroline challenge him? By knowing nothing at all! Ah, it’s bliss. She knows that there were no loos and it was cold, but spends the rest of the time regaling us in her Mrs Doyle Oirish accent and saying she’s a nauddy nauddy girl for telling us the plot (which she doesn’t actually remember anyway – in fact, her recollections give away a whole different plot!). It’s as if they’ve decided to play it in gender-reversed character to the old song, I Remember it Well. Bless her, she promises “I shall spend my dotage watching every episode,” and draws our sympathy as she recalls, “I never got to go in the TARDIS. So sad,” or “Nobody ever said I was any good.” Oh, Caroline, Caroline, you were fabulous! I almost wrote my first ever fan letter to an actor on the spot. Still, she gives the game away in the end; “You were never averse to being in a pub a bit, were you?” she tells Nick, and finally proves she knows the world of Who far better than she pretends with her response to Nick’s “Now there’s a useless piece of information”: “Not at all! I should think some people are really thrilled!” Yes, Caroline. We were.

Spearhead From Space is a highly enjoyable slice of Doctor Who, and this DVD makes it better than ever – nine out of ten. So, even if you’ve got this on tape already, it’s a real treasure – not just for a far, far superior picture quality, but for the enchanting uselessness and sheer entertainment of the Caroline and Nick show. My only niggle is that it doesn’t give a proper time counter display, but with a package this good, I’ll live.

Lastly, it’s odd that both the early 2001 DVDs (this and Remembrance of the Daleks, if you can’t cast your mind back that far) have a solid claim to contain the series’ best-staged fight sequences ever, and are famous for looking terrific – yet both are thoroughly upstaged by their novelisations, for me the best two books Target ever did. Who says action scenes don’t work on paper?

It’s a strange experience, reading back through a DVD review I originally wrote in 2001. Looking at How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal yesterday, I could write almost the same thing today, but while my politics haven’t changed, my expectations of DVDs certainly have. Though I allude above to my dislike of completely bare-bones, no extras, crummy-pictured DVDs – I’d just bought a very disappointing copy of Quatermass and the Pit released by Revelation at the time, which has since been issued as part of the BBC’s The Quatermass Collection with the other stories, fantastic picture restoration and documentaries – if a Doctor Who DVD were to be released with so few extras as that early edition of Spearhead today I’d be just as irate. The standard has climbed since to a remarkable degree.

It’s strange on other levels, too. Now that my Summer holiday repeat season from Outpost Gallifrey reaches a proper story, I thought it would need very little thought in reprinting before this link disappears forever. I was quite wrong. Obviously, my attitude to DVDs has become much more discriminating, as I’m comparing them now with the very best of DVD rather than just VHS. But I was also surprised to find that the version of this review that I wrote in 2001 isn’t the one I sent in to Outpost Gallifrey. The original draft I have on file went to a Doctor Who e-group when the DVD first came out; the one I’ve reprinted above is cut-and-pasted from OG (aside from minor ‘house style’ changes), which I clearly must have amended and submitted a year or two later, as I’d added a couple of lines and a new paragraph in the middle as well as trimming one bit, clearly having seen a few other Who DVDs in the meantime. And, perhaps most significantly, it’s now difficult to talk about this story without looking at its influence on the series’ return in 2005, as I’ll come to in a moment.

Despite all that, I still rather like that old review. It was written in a rush of enthusiasm (I can clearly spot some of the more critical lines I inserted a year or two later), and it was the only piece of my writing that the late Craig Hinton ever praised… Though that’s not quite as proud a memory as the only speech of mine that Paddy Ashdown ever congratulated me over, in which I had been bold, radical and risky, outlining our principles to move party policy forward, but also – summing up in a debate in front of a couple of thousand people – as then Chair of what-Liberal-Youth-was-then-called, a speech in which I brutally swatted down an executive member who’d spoken out of line. I never had the nerve to ask Paddy if he more agreed with the principles involved or the ‘leader tersely nuking a pesky colleague’ aspect of the speech… But back to Doctor Who.

Spearhead From Space and Russell T Davies

I mentioned the series coming back in that review far more in hope than expectation but, when it did return in 2005, they did indeed give the first story a memorable image like dummies coming to life and going on a killing spree on the high street – by the simple expedient of bringing the Autons back, so that dummies came to life and went on a killing spree on the high street. Good choice, though other elements of the relaunch were more original (and it rapidly found its own image that everyone remembered: ‘did you see the one where the spaceship crashed into Big Ben?’).

Looking at Spearhead From Space with Twenty-first Century Who on TV eyes, it’s striking how familiar it is. 1970 saw a massive overhaul of Doctor Who, for the first time in colour, with an entirely new regular cast and a new writing and visual style. It was the biggest reformatting the series had ever had until the still bigger 2005 relaunch – and even that was in some ways a less radical change to the series’ ethos, with 1970’s stories the ones in which the rootless, anti-establishment wanderer starts working with the military, and still the series’ only season in which a lead character defined by his travels in time and space is so Earthbound that he never once gets into his TARDIS and flies off.

So it’s no wonder that Russell T Davies chose to borrow much of this story for his own relaunch. Of course Rose restaged that Auton invasion, as did Love and Monsters (rather more stylishly), as well as at least three pop videos and even a Pringles ad, but there are other touches, too. The story starts off with a woman from ‘our world’ gradually introduced to strange happenings, only meeting the Doctor and aliens bit by bit to get used to them with the audience, luring you in with normality as a pilot for the new series. There’s a shifty character part who’s almost the first ‘ordinary’ person to appear in the series and certainly the first to do the vacuuming or sell his story to the tabloids, making him uncannily like a piece of Russell T Davies in the countryside. And in what we’re told is Essex, he’s Welsh, too. It’s a sign! Going right up to last week’s Torchwood story Children of Earth, the UNIT set-up here is not merely the seed of modern-day UNIT stories, but – in making the Doctor Earth-based and working for a secret alien-fighting organisation – plainly of Torchwood, including some form of government conspiracy that gets in our heroes’ way, a small alien incursion in the past that returns here on a much larger scale, an alien encounter threatening a man’s sanity and a half-seen alien roaring and spitting against a glass tank. Even that scene I mentioned that scares kids off camping, though Russell hasn’t borrowed it, got a grislier echo in the later story The Stones of Blood – which Russell’s described as his favourite “hopeless” death in the series. And, coming full circle from 1953 to 1970 to 2005, the week after Rose was first broadcast the BBC remade The Quatermass Experiment live, which had a strange look of Spearhead From Space by shooting many of its scenes on location in exactly the same sort of echoing warehouse as the inappropriately enormous UNIT lab.

Though it may be worth waiting for the rumoured ‘Special Edition’ reissue of this story in perhaps a year or so (if you want to see it with an improved picture transfer and what’s now the usual host of extras, as well as probably restoring a piece of music omitted from Episode 2 for copyright reasons which have since been resolved; the other early DVD I mentioned in the review, Remembrance of the Daleks, is actually getting a ‘Special Edition’ re-release next Monday!), right now you can probably find this DVD for a third of the price it was released at in 2001, and, as I say above, it’s a very impressive story to enjoy. Most of it looks like a rather well-shot film from the end of the ’60s – given that it’s very well-shot, on film, and made in 1969 – and has great style about it, but having to shoot the story on location rather than in studio corridors gives a lot of it a very modern-seeming immediacy. I praised the Brigadier’s jostling impromptu press conference above for looking like a real news report, while scenes of the Brigadier and Munro pedeconferencing, brisk and businesslike with the camera walking back in front of them, would probably be shot just the same way today (and decades before The West Wing). Though Mr and Mrs Seeley are outrageous stereotypes, they’ve got some great character touches, too; there’s Russell-style gossip, and she’s as real worrying about her dog and facing off against an Auton as she is when, in a brilliant moment, she suspiciously re-opens Sam’s shed door a moment after he ‘disproves’ her suspicions to try and catch him at it (whatever ‘it’ may be), and her husband’s still ready for her! And though Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is far more likeable here than he becomes later, his sneering to the Brigadier at the end that he has no use for a salary is worth scoffing at. As my lovely Richard put it last time we watched the story:
“Of course he doesn’t need money… Merely a car, and clothes, and equipment, and a building, and an assistant, which of course money could play no part in obtaining.”

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I finally listened to the audio commentary and found it absolutely delightful, though I'm torn about my favorite bit of useless information: Caroline John likes men's bottoms or Nicholas Courtney never liked how his bottom looked in his UNIT outfits. =)
Hurrah! I'm so pleased. And the latter is the one I use more often in conversation ;-)
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