Terror of the Autons
Spearhead from Space

Episodes 4 Dr. John Smith?
Story No# 51
Production Code AAA
Season 7
Dates Jan. 3, 1970 -
Jan. 24, 1970

With Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicolas Courtney.
Written by Robert Holmes. Script-edited by Terrance Dicks.
Directed by Derek Martinus. Produced by Derrick Sherwin.

Synopsis: In the first adventure of the third Doctor, he and UNIT attempt to halt the invasion of the Nestenes, an alien life form which can control any kind of plastic.

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A Review by Nick Mallory 30/9/04

The secret to Doctor Who's enduring success is, of course, its willingness to embrace constant change. The abrupt lurch from Pat Troughton's cosmic wandering clown to Jon Pertwee's earthbound techno dandy disappointed some but to many, the UNIT years are quintessential Who and only a format as flexible as Who's could possibly have accommodated such a paradigm shift in its stride.

Spearhead from Space gains much needed realism from the serendipitous studio strike which forced the entire project out on location but the lushly filmed style can obscure the skill in which a new Doctor, a new rationale, an excellent new companion and new organisation in UNIT are introduced as part of a solid, if somewhat derivative story. Any story which starts with a mysterious shower of meteorites is on to a winner and this patiently developed tale lacks only a credible finale. One has the impression that the production staff reached the factory only to find the last six pages of script missing and improvised what they could on the spot. Doctor Who, blissfully forced to rely on wit and character in the absence of big budget special effects, needs denouements better than "improvised flashing device makes all powerful aliens fall over in twenty seconds for no readily apparent reason" and the sight of the Nestene intelligence, scary because of its intangibility, reduced to a flailing rubber octopus, is the only real let down of the whole serial.

The excellent Nick Courtney personifies UNIT, and the comparative facelessness of his subordinates was soon to be remedied by the indomitable Sergeant Benson and flaky Captain Yates. Liz Shaw is one of the least remembered companions but her role here is a constant delight. A cool, intelligent woman, played by a truly talented actress, was a perfect foil for the exuberant Doctor, and the flirtatious warmth between the two is palpable. That the Doctor needs a slightly dim "Watson" to constantly explain the plot to is undeniable, but the freshness of Shaw's acerbic banter with the Brig and the Doctor has dated rather less than her outfit and it is a tragedy that the talents of Caroline John were ultimately wasted. An assistant prepared to argue against the Doctor's ideas and schemes on a scientific basis, and perhaps go her own way at times in terms of offering solutions, would have opened a fresher avenue for plot complexity than the endless capture and release cycles endured for so long.

The Autons are surprisingly well-remembered baddies, with the fear to be found in everyday things brilliantly exploited in the famous scenes of the shop dummies coming to life, a theme developed in Terror of the Autons which did the show no end of good by incurring the wrath of Mary Whitehouse. The Auton's attack on the poacher's wife, and off screen death of the barking dog, are genuinely scary and although the later Cyberman-lite shoot out disappoints - why didn't they use flame throwers against their plastic foes? - the value of such simple baddies lies not least in their obviously negligible cost of production. Their very blankness allows the viewer to imagine their terror far more potently than any amount of painted polystyrene. The intellectual void which is the Nestene Intelligence was ripe for further exploration, a chance smothered by the inclusion of the ludicrously overexposed Master in its return, and its failure to reappear in the Doctor's later incarnations remains puzzling to this day.

An interesting theme through these years of exile was the demonising of medium sized English manufacturing firms, with their bosses constantly portrayed as power crazed stalking horses for alien takeover while in reality they struggled impotently for survival in the sinking corporate state. From Wotan through Channing to the sharp suited stooges of The Green Death, a stream of businessmen were possessed by computers and hostile forces and sought to wreak devastation on the world. Whatever the soft left political, or personal hatred of the day job, motivations behind such portrayals, the CBI had more to be irritated about than the National Viewers and Listeners Association.

This workmanlike mix of War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Quatermass starring James Bond as the mad professor stands up surprisingly well today. If the Autons remind one of the Cybernauts of Avengers fame, they carry the rejuvenated franchise from the sixties to the seventies in confident style. The Doctor's flamboyant energy, Shaw's icy intelligence and the Brig's fundamental decency combine to form an impressive team and it's a shame that Jo Grant's mini skirted, bejewelled bimbo replaced the genuinely sexy and interesting Liz Shaw so quickly. The Doctor's recourse to flailing fisticuffs and cobbled together gizmos are in evidence here of course, but in the end it is the quick thinking, quick fingered Shaw who saves the Doctor, not the other way around.

As the pilot for the Pertwee years, Spearhead from Space is near perfect, and as a stand alone drama remains eminently watchable today. If only the idea of that wretched Octopus had been strangled at birth, the Nestenes deserved better. How many of the trashy "reality", DIY, soap, celebrity and property programmes which infest our screens today like so many creeping copies of each other will be devoured as avidly in 35 years time? The complete dearth in the once space age year of 2004 of any home grown programme with even a sliver of Dr Who's imagination is surely more shocking than even those dummies mowing down a bus queue all those years ago.

A Review by John Greenhead 13/8/05

It must have been quite a shock for long-time Doctor Who fans in 1970 when they settled down to start watching season 7. Not only was there a new Doctor, but also a new companion and a brand new format to get used to, with the Brigadier and UNIT the only links with the past (other than the TARDIS, of course). As the first story of this brave new era for the show, Spearhead From Space really needed to be good. Happily, for the most part it is, getting the third Doctor's reign off to a stylish start and featuring some of the most famous and chilling moments in the show's history.

The story is helped by the fact that it is the only adventure in the whole of the original run to be shot entirely on film, giving it a unique cinematic feel. The direction of Derek Martinus is accomplished, and he brings a real feeling of terror to such scenes as the car crash caused by the Auton and the iconic moment when the dummies come to life and start gunning down innocent pedestrians on the streets of London. I also thought the effects were pretty good, particularly the Auton's vaporisation of Ransome's body, and also the dyed smoke that appears after shots are fired. The Autons and the Nestene consciousness are excellent villains; there is something very unnerving about the idea of mannequins coming to life, and of course the whole idea of mind control is also quite disturbing, and pretty well used here with the control exerted by Channing over Hibbert. Hugh Burden excels as the marvellously creepy Channing, with his vacant staring eyes signifying both his evil and his alien nature; the shot Martinus included of his face retreating from the glass window in the factory, while the Brigadier looks at him, really emphasises his otherworldliness and creepiness. The rest of the guest cast also turn in good performances, notably Derek Smee as the convincingly terrified Ransome.

The story also succeeds admirably in introducing the third Doctor, and also establishing the other members of the new regular cast. Cleverly, the Doctor is either unconscious or suffering from post-regenerative instability for most of the first two episodes, so that the viewer is kept guessing for some time about what he'll be like. When he does finally escape from his hospital bed, we find out that he will be much more of a dandy than the Troughton Doctor, that he likes fancy cars, that he can be bad-tempered and waspish (witness his brusque treatment of the car park attendant at UNIT HQ), and that he has not lost either his intelligence or his mischievous streak, as demonstrated by his failed attempt to sneak away in the TARDIS.

Jon Pertwee's debut performance is excellent, as he shows a real enthusiasm for the role and also demonstrates his skills as a comic actor, notably when he looks at himself in the mirror and pulls funny faces; from the beginning, he looks right at home in the part. Caroline John is also very good as new companion Liz Shaw. Her accent is a bit peculiar, but she plays off both Nicholas Courtney and Pertwee very well, and does a good job of portraying Liz's growing acceptance of the existence of extraterrestrial life, after her initial haughty scepticism at the start of the story. By the end, she has formed an excellent rapport with the Doctor, and it is good to see a companion who is capable and intelligent, and not just a screamer. Nick Courtney is very impressive as the Brigadier, playing it straight and giving the character real no-nonsense authority, while also making him capable and quick-witted. There is a pleasing tension in his relationship with the new Doctor, even when he has been convinced of his identity, and he also enjoys some good confrontations early on with Liz.

There is therefore much to admire about Spearhead From Space, although I do also have some nit-picking criticisms. I would have liked to know how the Nestene took possession of Channing's body in the first place, as presumably when they first arrived on Earth they would have had no physical form. I also thought the tentacled Nestene creature was rather laughable, and Pertwee did an admirable job of keeping a straight face while he struggled with it. The Doctor's means of destroying the Nestene was also a bit of a cop-out; after the elaborate build-up, surely Robert Holmes could have thought of something a bit more creative than having the Doctor conveniently come up with a fancy gun that can kill them without any trouble?

Apart from these flaws, however, Spearhead From Space is a high-quality Who adventure, and promises much for the new, Earth-bound era. It is also the first Pertwee tale I have ever seen, and it has made me keen to watch more of his stories, particularly the rest of those from season 7.

A Haiku by Finn Clark Updated 3/5/20

Before The X-Files
It's Hinchcliffe before Hinchcliffe
With scary Autons.

A Review by Craig Braddick 22/6/07

Spearhead From Space has always been one of my favorite stories; in fact, it was my re-introduction into fandom. When I got married in 2002, I told my (American) wife about a TV show I loved - turns out she had seen it many years ago on PBS. I told her how the mighty nosed time-traveler was by far the best Doctor but she preferred the one with the scarf.

At the time I had no idea it was available on DVD. One day when browsing through the mall, lo and behold, Spearhead From Space was there! Way overpriced, I still gobbled it up and set out to educate her in all things Pertwee.

This story is perhaps the best post-regeneration story of them all. Pertwee's imbalance only lasts a couple of episodes and he quickly initializes a rapport with Caroline John as Liz Shaw. Liz's character is given perhaps the biggest introduction afforded to any companion in terms of on screen time before she is introduced to Pertwee. It was very clever writing to have the Brigadier "interview" her. This ploy serves two ends (ooh, err missus) as it gives the chance to reiterate the duties of UNIT and allows the viewer to learn about Liz. True, it does stick out a little as a large info-dump but the plot is the thing and in this story it works well.

The Nestene conciousness is a great idea as are The Autons - though I disagree with many fans who claim they are better here than in Terror of the Autons. I think they are great here as an introductory story (and of course they served the same purpose admirably in the new series as a perfect remake/retelling/sequel (take your pick) to kick the new series into orbit.

Blessed with Nick Courtney on top of his game, shot all on film gives this a slightly rough kind of sophistication. Perhaps a perfect example of what this incarnation of the Doctor was to become.

A Story That Nightmares Are Made Of by Matthew Kresal 29/8/09

January 1970 found the start of a new era of Doctor Who and the stage was set for a new beginning. Spearhead From Space, the first story of the 1970 season, proved to be just that and more. It was a story of many firsts from the first appearance of the third Doctor (played by Jon Pertwee of course) and the first episodes made in color to the first appearance of the Autons. Spearhead From Space set the standard for which the Pertwee era would be judged.

Jon Pertwee slips in the role of the Doctor with so much ease that, like Tom Baker in Robot, it is sometimes hard to believe this is his first story. All the hallmarks of his Doctor are here, from the classic combination of shirts and capes to gadgetry and classic cars. Backing him is the ever-impressive Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier for the third time (having played the role in the Troughton story's The Web Of Fear and The Invasion) and Caroline John as Liz Shaw. John plays Liz well and makes a very believable scientist, so it's a shame she was only in the four stories of this season. The supporting cast of Hugh Burden and John Woodnutt as the men who run the factory plus Hamilton Dyce as General Scobie and Neil Wilson as a trapper make for as fine a cast as the show ever had.

Robert Holmes' script is one of his best pieces of writing for the series. It finds the Doctor exiled to late twentieth century Earth (it's hard to get much more specific but we fans do try) by his own race as punishment for interfering in the affairs of others (during the final Patrick Troughton story The War Games) in the midst of a metor shower. With the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) investigating, the newly regenerated Doctor comes back into contact with its leader Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the newly recruited scientist Liz Shaw. Together they investigate the meteors, the strange orbs they left behind, and their apparent connection to a factor making plastic mannequins. It all leads to an invasion by the collective mind of the Nestene. While it defiantly has Quatermass written all over it (to be more specific, Quatermass 2 which also played on many of the same themes though the paranoia of that BBC serial is missing in Spearhead From Space) it is a setup for everything that the UNIT stories of the Pertwee years would be.

Holmes' script though is the tip of the iceberg (or should I say tentacle?). Spearhead From Space also has a definite plus in the direction of Derek Martinus and the music of Dudley Simpson. Both (and especially the music) helps to create a taught and suspenseful opening for the Pertwee era. The Autons are one of the series' best creations and when they awake in Episode Four, there is a shiver that goes up the spine. They are one of the worst nightmares come true: shop window mannequins that come not just to life but kill you as well. While their controller, Nestene creature, looks very unconvincing, the Autons and the other elements of this story make it one of the very best stories of the series.

Spearhead From Space was more than just the beginning of the Pertwee years. It was the setup for everything that the UNIT stories of later years would be. Even more than that, with strong performances from the cast backed by Robert Holmes' script, the direction of Derek Martinus and the music of Dudley Simpson, Spearhead From Space is a taught and suspenseful science-fiction story that nightmares are made of.

A Review by Jose Sentmanat 8/5/10

Spearhead from Space is a thoroughly enjoyable Doctor Who adventure, and an excellent premiere episode for Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor and for Caroline John as Liz Shaw, the Doctor's new companion. The plot revolves around what will become the fairly standard type of story from the UNIT era, namely extraterrestrial invasions of Earth. The alien colonizers this time are the Nestenes, a hive-like race of beings capable of manipulating plastic to nefarious and deadly effect.

The Doctor spends all of the first and some of the second episode recovering from the effects of the regeneration process, and Pertwee hams it up throughout; scenes in which the Doctor searches for his shoes and later sings in the hospital shower while trying to avoid detection are the standouts. Far from slowing down the plot development, I saw these scenes as Pertwee's efforts to show us the transition from the Second Doctor's traits to the new Doctor's personality. Other instances of Patrick Troughton-style slapstick include an escape by wheelchair from would-be kidnappers, and the hilarious scene of the Doctor in the clutches of the Nestene tentacles. By the end of the story, however, Pertwee has for the most part established his unique take on the character, and his cool charm and charisma win one over easily as the story progresses.

Nicholas Courtney is excellent as always as the Brigadier, and a little of the tension between his character and the Doctor, which will grow in intensity and play an important role in many of the stories from this era, can already be seen cropping up in the third and fourth episodes. Spearhead from Space also introduces us to Liz Shaw, one of the most underrated, in my book, of the Doctor's companions. With ease and grace, Caroline John transforms her character from a skeptical scientist to her new roles as UNIT team member and the Doctor's assistant; by the end of the story, she has Liz dealing with alien invaders and extraterrestrial technology without blinking an eye. It is a truly wonderful debut performance in its own right. Having a companion for the Doctor who was a brilliant scientist created the potential for interesting storylines, scripts and character development in later stories, a potential I believe was largely wasted. But that is another matter.

The Nestenes themselves are a scary lot even forty years later, and one can see how the scenes of the Nestene plastic mannequins coming to life in shop windows, breaking out and gunning down innocent people created the stir that it did in 1970. The eerie sense we all seem to have around mannequins, the uneasy hunch that they really could come to life at any moment, is exploited to excellent effect in this story. Furthermore, the idea of an alien lifeform that is based neither on carbon nor silicon, but rather on plastic, is imaginative even by today's standards. The fact that bullets cannot stop the Nestene mannequins does nothing to calm the nerves, either.

The pacing of the story is fairly brisk and steady, and one never has the sense that the director, Derek Martinus, or the scriptwriter, Robert Holmes, is trying to use filler or dragging things out for effect. The use of film throughout this story is, I understand, unique to classic Doctor Who, but truth be told it made little difference to me one way or the other in terms of the quality of the story, the scariness of the Nestenes and the actors' performances.

Overall, what makes the episode truly superlative is Pertwee's performance, which is absolutely brilliant. His humor, energy, intelligence, gentlemanly manners and foppish fashion (we learn, incidentally, the origin of the Third Doctor's penchant for fancy wardrobe and old-fashioned automobiles) set the tone for the Pertwee era with gusto and fun. This is a highly recommended serial, a must-watch (and must-own DVD) for Pertwee fans.

A Review by Jean-Marcel Casey 3/2/11

A post-regeneration story in Doctor Who can be a tricky thing to pull off. Usually what we remember most is the antics and behaviour of the new Doctor. How many people recall Robot for its plot, rather than the exciteable and fresh portrayal of Tom Baker in the title role? Not many, I'll wager. A case can be made for the idea that, in order to establish the new actor and his mannerism, the story ought to be a bit lightweight, so that focus can be placed entirely on the characters and their interactions with this vital change in the programme. When I was a child, I loved the Pertwee years, possibly for the very reasons that they're often disparaged by certain circles of fandom today. In retrospect, I realise that many of the stories weren't really that great and the earthbound settings may only have a little to do with that. I also have to concede to the ethos of fan wisdom that season seven is fantastic and stands up as a whole better than all of Pertwee's tenure, and indeed better than almost any other line of consecutive stories in Doctor Who. The reason for this might be connected with the need to boldly reinvent the programme; not only bring about a change of Doctor but a transmogrification of the show's format into a gritty, military-centred, almost Avengers-like style of storytelling where the Doctor worked alongside a force of soldiers and often had guns to back him up. Yeah, actually it's a terrible idea on the surface and makes Doctor Who something far from Doctor Who... Can you imagine if the show had continued this way until an inevitable cancellation? Thinking about it now, it's almost incredible that the show went from it's literally wonderful historical and alien world beginnings to this "macho" stuff in a mere seven years; it makes the shakeups the format and style of Doctor Who has had in the last, oh, I don't know, two decades seem positively minor by comparison! Sex in the TARDIS? No Gallifrey? Big bloody deal. Imagine, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks wanted to dispense with the TARDIS, and time and space travel altogether!

But wait. I'm not here to condemn the era, which certainly has its charms, and least of all am I going to lambast this story for starting it all, because as I've already said, season seven is groundbreaking, big, fantastic and grim in a way that the show hardly ever was before or would ever be again. For a while here, the Earth exile format is an incredibly powerful, has a lot of meaning and adds a certain depth, out of necessity, to characters like the Doctor and the Brigadier that we wouldn't be able to see if it was all business as usual in the TARDIS as in, say, a fun and giddy romp like season five. The exile motif probably went on for at least a season too long, but that's pretty common for ongoing threads on television now, isn't it? Here, the Doctor isn't part of some cozy family; his relationship with Lethbridge-Stewart is quite prickly and trust between them is certainly lower than it was in The Invasion, when the Doctor wasn't desperate and hadn't lost his freedom.

What we have in Spearhead from Space is the very first try: a bold step into territory that is unknown and uncharted, which the production team took a real gamble on. After all, while you could argue that the blueprints for this form were laid with Web of Fear, The Invasion and so on; those stories were very much "business as usual" as you had no doubt that after the adventures were over the Doctor and company would slip back into the TARDIS and be off to some future time or colourful alien planet. Not so here, where we have a bored and resentful Doctor who, along with the UNIT folks, had no room for complacency or the much criticised incompetence that would surface later on. In some ways, it's not surprising that the team thought they had to tone things down a bit after 1970, just as it's not really surprising that their efforts to bring the show into new territory seemed to pay off reasonably well with the public; after all, I'm sure most of the young people watching at the time would have been pretty turned on by this stuff: More guns, bigger explosions, alien invasions galore, traitors, an evil arch-nemesis...!

But I'm getting way ahead of things here, and I really want to discuss Spearhead from Space, which I sometimes believe belongs in the top five or so Doctor Who stories ever told, if I ever made a serious effort to make such a list. Not only is this probably the best overall story in a great season (as in, it really has no faults that I can think of and I'd show it to almost anyone), but it's the best post-regeneration story in terms of actually having real meat to it other than a showcase of "look how odd and different this new Doctor is". Really, only The Eleventh Hour comes even close to being this engaging, and that only in its first half. What Spearhead gives us is almost 100 minutes of gripping, intriguing television, where everyone seems to be giving it all they've got, everyone takes the proceedings seriously and there's a sense that yes, this is something new, while still paying respect to what came before. Discussing this story, it's best to simply write about everything that stands out to make it so wonderful, and there's a lot to talk about.

I spoke of links with the past earlier, and this is as good a time as any to talk about Jon Pertwee's first lines; his first scene with the Brigadier, specifically. How well is this handled? It's almost genius, that's how well. The only slightly off element being the idea that, just as the Brig is starting to explain about the funny little man and the blue box to Liz Shaw, what should turn up, but the blue box in question, a coincidence that stretches the muscle a little but doesn't really offend as it might in a lesser story (after all, you could certainly argue that the Time Lords chose very specifically to land him in that place and time just so UNIT could rescue him and help ensure a reasonably smooth regeneration).

I just love how this scene is played: the Brig is expecting to see his old friend, as well as thinking there might be trouble on the horizon; he walks into the Doctor's room, only to discover it's not the man he knew. It's a testament to Nicholas Courtney's acting ability that you can really hear the disappointment and puzzlement in his voice when he says something like, "No, I thought I might know... but no, I've never seen him before in my life." Then the Doctor starts speaking, for the first time, in that quiet, restrained, tired voice Jon Pertwee could do so well, and, even though he's not overdoing anything, even with the mirror and everything, you just know that it's actually the second Doctor speaking still, and that it's not until he regains conciousness later on that we really see the third's personality for the first time. He doesn't have to say "oh my giddy aunt" or do anything so obvious as that - unlike Peter Davison's all-over-the-place and almost comical portrayal of post-regenerative "personality leftovers" from Castrovalva - you just know that yes, this is pretty much what Troughton would have said, and that the mingled horror and excitement as he really sees his new body for the first time is like the curtain call for Troughton's personality. I think even the Brig knows this, or feels it instinctively, as he's strangely quiet and pensive during the whole interaction, like he's really trying to figure it out and that it's not really a simple case of mistaken identity as he first thought. When we see Pertwee in full Pertwee mode, the Brigadier's hackles are up because, let's face it, the Doctor is suddenly belligerent and untrustworthy at this point; he's very DEFINITELY not the man he knew.

The hospital scenes are slow and quiet for the most part, but that's the way it should be. Dr. Henderson seems oddly engaged when he could have been played so dispassionately; he actually reminds me of my middle school science teacher in his speech and mannerisms!

How great is it that that whole first scene, that iconic moment of Pertwee's Doctor and the Brigadier meeting for the first time, in that hospital room, is played so quietly, without music of any kind? Can you imagine how this would be done in the new series? Murray Gold would be slobbering all over everything with strings and pianos and you'd have to strain just to hear what was being said over the sentimental symphonic glop pouring out of the speakers! I think the more limited funds, the need to at least occasionally hire a bunch of musicians to play the stuff and the lack of complacency engendered by hiring an in-house show composer (although really, Dudley Simpson was almost that) forced the team to exercise much more restraint and tact in the use of music, and, damnit, it's something I really miss. While on the subject of music, it's fantastic here, maybe one of the best scores the show's ever had, with a few memorable themes cropping up and perfect use of cello and what I think is a flute fed through an echo chamber to create a lot of tension. A couple of action sequences even feature perfect driving and thumping tunes that you could easily find in something like a James Bond movie of the time.

Another scene is played in complete absence of music and it's one of the best in the show. Just as spectacular for me is the famous mannequins-coming-to-life bit. It's the very first scene in the plastics factory, in episode two. it comes completely out of nowhere because we've never seen the place before; never even heard anything about the connection with plastic yet. It is throwing something completely new and yet so ominously built-up at the viewer once they've already endured the first week's cliffhanger. We won't know what this place is, where it is, what's going on! All of a sudden, there are all these hulking great machines and conveyors, rumbling and purring (no music, yes, but the sound effects here are awesome), and they seem to be making plastic babies! I watched this story with my partner earlier this year and she was simply riveted when this scene came up and wouldn't stop talking about how great it was for five minutes. It's unnerving and freakish because we really have no idea what's going on, and there's something really macabre about the whole plastic-doll-in-the-making thing, even though in the very next few moments it's revealed to be a perfectly mundane operation, except, well, it really isn't! Well done, Robert Holmes and Derek Martinus, seriously!

The window dummy scene may be so etched in everyone's minds that it had to be copied to far less effect in Rose, but this one is somehow more subliminally chilling. You can almost imagine the complete bafflement of Mr. Ransome as he tours the factory he set up, where things are suddenly so different and, well, wrong! It's an automated assembly churning out completely useless and yet somehow sinisterly anthropoid objects! I love the sequence where the Auton enters the Seeley's house looking for the energy unit. There's an air of violation about the whole thing, as the Auton advances on Mrs. Seeley, yet it's not really interested in her, only in her possessions, which it ransacks and smashes with abandon (though my partner rightly pointed out that the piano was left unscathed; probably too expensive to wreck!). During this whole section, Channing displays hitherto fettered emotion as he seems pained and frantic, eventually resigned to a temporary defeat as the UNIT soldiers close in. It's clear that the link between Autons and Nestenes is more than a simple communication as Channing's apparent desperation is mirrored by the more basic Auton's actions.

The Nestenes make their debut here and they were, at this point, a very fascinating creation. A form of energy that is sentient, telepathic and which can create objects from certain kinds of synthetic chemical compounds. The possibilities were virtually limitless, and it's a shame that their following TV appearances were really a bit crap. Forget about Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the like; the Nestenes, with their control over the endlessly mutable plastic compounds, can replicate virtually anything, be represented in any size or shape, liquid or solid. While this power and danger is only partially represented in Spearhead from Space, the clues are all there. The Autons are often mistaken for mere robot-substitutes, and as a child my first exposure to them was reading the novelisation of Terror of the Autons, where they really come across as nothing more than that. But as Channing, for example, very adequately illustrates, there's much more to them. I suppose you could think of them as pseudopods, extrusions, except they do possess a certain degree of autonomy if they've been replicated from a living brain print, as shown in The Big Bang, for example, and by Channing himself.

Yes, Channing is a bit interesting, and as a reviewer on a site for "silly Doctor Who fans", I hope you all will indulge me a bit of silly fan theory. I think Channing was a real person at some point and not, as the novelisation of Spearhead states in a rather ho-hum manner, some plastic man simply formed out of nothing when Hibbert was telepathically contacted by an energy unit scout (though the latter case doesn't necessarily negate the possibility of the former's truth, of course). There's an odd weariness, a sort of fatalism to his portrayal, magnified by the look of Hugh Burden's face. He looks so tired, beaten down! I'm not sure if this was just the actor, but he does not appear well, and he often doesn't do expected villainous things. Brian May states in his review here that Channing treats Hibbert in a rather sadistic way, but I can't say I agree. He almost seems affectionate towards Hibbert at some points and, although he does use the mind-control trick on him (the first and only time we've ever seen an Auton do this), he seems to do so sparingly, almost as if he's reluctant. In a couple of scenes he talks to Hibbert like a teacher would to a student, explaining little details about his work and so on. He doesn't even make the effort to kill Ransome until he returns to the factory, a course of action which he almost seems to regret for Hibbert's sake. When Hibbert walks in to the restricted workshop area, Channing says, "you shouldn't have come here, Hibbert", and while a lesser story would have had this line dripping with menace and anger, Channing just sort of sounds melancholy, as if facing, reluctantly, some inevitable course of destiny. In episode four, he has this weird sort of monologue with the swarm leader, and seems to express a kind of sadness that Hibbert won't understand the necessity of what they're doing. He doesn't have to do this. If he were a mere Nestene construct, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't. He doesn't even seem to be gloating in his brief climactic meeting with the Doctor.

Why is Channing so interested in the Time Lord anyway? It's not really sufficient to simply explain that he's an alien presence that the Nestenes sense could be a threat. There are surely lots of aliens on Earth at this point, and if the Nestenes are really so telepathic that they can sense what kind of person the Doctor is from afar (not likely given the evidence), they'd probably just realise that at this point his primary and overriding desire, at least until nearly the last moment, is simply to overcome his exile. Perhaps Channing or, rather, that energy unit that landed before the invasion force which contained his essence, was an emissary from the future. If you think that sounds daft, remember that the new series has mentioned that the Nestenes were in some way caught up in the Time War. Maybe in some aborted timeline Earth did get colonised, and the Nestenes were scrambling to ensure the success of this effort, hence the strange and almost immediate interest in the Doctor. All this also makes me wonder what a Nestene-colonised world would be like? Would they keep humans around for brain-printing? Not much call for the regular forms of enslavement when your conquering life-form is so versatile that it can probably adapt to just about any circumstance. Come to think of it, the Nestenes' apparent capabilities seem to make all that messing about with window dummies to be a bit small-minded, but hell, the campaign was only just beginning and I guess you could still argue that such "urban terror" is an effective psychological attack.

I haven't even talked about Liz Shaw yet and I simply must, for she's absolutely impressive in this debut tale of hers. It unfortunately just has to be said one more time: they made a big mistake by not getting Caroline John to stay on for more than four stories. Her character is intelligent, witty, possesses genuine scientific curiosity and is simply portrayed with enough conviction that you can tell that John had slipped naturally into the role. Her interactions with the Brigadier are priceless and it's interesting to note the difference in her reactions to the Doctor as well. The Brig is a little officious at first, but candid and friendly, trying to win Liz over to his side, but she simply won't bite, plays with him and generally acts the skeptic. Then this strange, pushy and yet charming "alien scientist" shows up and suddenly she has someone she can relate to, odd as he may be. Her initial probings of his nature, asking him about his doctorate and school and so on, are amusing; you think she's going to dismiss the Doctor as a total crackpot, but he makes her laugh and they start talking science, suddenly making the soldier a background figure in proceedings. At times, she's almost being coy! It's really one of the best introductions ever for a companion.

I think the Doctor and Liz could have lasted longer (ignoring for a moment the team's sad but possibly pragmatic desire to introduce a character like Jo) if he hadn't tried to run out on her several times, and I like to compare this story, where she obviously has little time for the Brig and treats him with just a hint of gentle scorn (Scoby gets a lot more, and he deserves it), to the next, where she sides with him against the Doctor while the army blows up the Silurians. Her apparent distaste for the military is in keeping with her generation, and it's interesting to see her character develop just that little bit through these four tales of hers, culminating in our glimpse of Liz actually being a soldier in the alternate world of Inferno. Makes you wonder how many other stories remain to be told involving these characters; I'm glad the books and even Big Finish are trying to fill up some of the gaps.

The supporting cast are quite well done, too. Characters like Sam Seeley and Ransome get their own little stories within the tale and I must say it's nice to see how many points of view Spearhead really has. Sam and his wife, whom I thought was never given a name but is listed here as Meg - must have missed that somehow - are an interesting couple of locals. You really think something horrendous is going to happen to Sam and he kind of deserves it as he seems quite an abusive bastard when interacting with his wife, who calls him a drunken lout more than once. We get to see Meg trying to face down an Auton with a bloody big gun; she impressively holds her own but, when she realises the horror and incomprehensibility of what she's facing, she just crumples up. Give her points for effort though. I was a little disappointed that Sam's story just trails off, but maybe with his wife seemingly in a catatonic state, his "thunderball" gone and house raided, he'll start treating the woman in his life with a little more respect!

There it is, then. Spearhead from Space is a marvelous example of Doctor Who done to near perfection, and a rare case of a "format reset" done with care and proper style. It's much more than an homage to Quatermass II, even though it certainly wears the influence quite proudly. It's telling that Russell T. Davies and company essentially decided to re-model this story for their opening tale and shows you how influential it has been in the minds of the most casual fans. If you've only seen Rose up until now, I implore you to watch this 1970 story and see where it really came from and witness Doctor Who at the top of its game.

A Review by Leslie McMurty 5/6/11

"On this planet, there's a saying: it's never too late." --The Doctor
I've gone on record many times as saying that the UNIT years really don't do much for me, but slowly watching Pertwee from the beginning and going (as much as possible) in chronological order has done a lot to dispel my prejudices. In particular, this first story is tightly crafted, suspenseful, and gives us a charming, slightly barmy Doctor, a prickly scientist who still wears mini-skirts, and a strange bridge between 1960s and 1970s Doctor Who. I actually found very little with which to fault it; though undeniably "of its time", it also has the timelessness that marks the best Doctor Who. Certainly both the TV Movie and Rose owe it a large debt as a good example of how to press the reset button with verve and narrative.

My boyfriend in fact notes that the very first shot, of Earth from space, is echoed in Rose. A meteorite shower, characterized by the recent heat wave, sees the newly regenerated Doctor falling out of the TARDIS and into the woods; I say this every time, but new Doctors look so strange in their predecessors' clothes. Not realizing the Doctor has left it, the Brigadier orders the TARDIS guarded by UNIT men. A predecessor of Pigbin Josh encounters the corn puffs of doom (that must be the spearhead from space, I guess?). Bizarre muzak (or "special sounds") are provided by Brian Hodgson as UNIT scientist Liz Shaw arrives. One of the biggest questions of the 1970 season of Doctor Who is where is Liz Shaw getting her fashion sense? Is it from the past, ie 1969 when this story was filmed? Or is the future, since the UNIT years are contentiously set in the 1980s? One could argue for both as her short skirts defy belief and link her more closely with Polly than Jo Grant, and yet in this story her hair definitely seems to be post-Princess Leia.

Received wisdom (and Barry Letts' autobiography, for that matter) dictates that Liz Shaw was replaced because, as a scientist, she was the Doctor's equal and made explanation through the plot difficult. My boyfriend has also suggested, with some accuracy, that Caroline John, despite the short skirts, was maybe not the most attractive of all the actresses to play a companion, and it is, alas, a requirement for the companions to be somehow attractive. Her character is a shock in this first story: her sarcasm and skepticism with the Brigadier and later the Doctor verge on the acidic. Being briefed on the function of UNIT, Liz remarks wryly, "You produce invisible ink and that sort of thing." When the Brig explains that the function of UNIT is to "deal with the odd, the unexplained; anything on Earth... or even beyond..." Liz makes a very good point. "Why is Earth any more likely to be invaded now than in the previous 55 million years?" The Brig counters this by adding the recent probe activity into space. When Liz's harshness becomes too much, he says, "It's not my habit to tell lies, Miss Shaw."

Meanwhile, the poor collapsed Doctor has been found and brought to hospital. The perturbed medic thinks "someone in the x ray department is having a game!" when the Doctor's x rays are revealed: "two hearts!" Anyone with the TV Movie burned into her consciousness (me) can't help but react: it's very similar to what Matthew Jacobs ended up with: "double exposure". (Fortunately the Doctor doesn't seem to feel like kissing Dr Beavis.) While the Doctor languishes in the hospital, nameless and amnesiac, a guy is randomly hoovering in a corridor. Actually, he isn't: he's about to alert the press to the UNIT investigation (and he's Welsh!). When the press scent blood, the Brig gives them the silent treatment. This sequence, surprisingly effective with handheld film, combined with the new title sequence and, oh my gosh, color, really gives a new feel to this era of Who.

When the Doctor's blood can't be identified, the Brig comes to see the extraordinary patient. It's the first time we get the now-familiar routine of the new Doctor coming to terms with his (disappointing?) new appearance. "I don't know," he decides, "I think it's [his nose] rather distinctive." In another parallel with the TV Movie, the Doctor exclaims, "I must find my shoes!" The Doctor is acting both manic and Troughton-esque while at the same time displaying some of the deviousness of the First Doctor.

The whole sequence in the factory reminded me of some Twilight Zone stories and, if anything, felt more ‘60s than ever. Liz is frustrated because "I didn't ask to come here." It does make me wonder about Liz's backstory, something that isn't really addressed in her brief time on Doctor Who and in what scraps in other forms of Who media I've read, is only hinted at.

Meanwhile an official visit to the plastics factory has revealed nothing out of the ordinary for the Brig's superior, Major General Scobie, but when the disgruntled and curious Ransome returns to investigate, he's in for a nasty shock: Autons! Now iconic, and indeed what RTD chose to reboot the scare factor in Rose, I have once again gone on record many times in saying that I had a hard time walking by mannequins in the mall when I was little because I feared them coming to life just as in Doctor Who (which means I must have seen Spearhead or Terror of the Autons when I was very small but I have no memory of the stories themselves).

Episode 3 ends on an unerringly creepy note: General Scobie, deemed to be the easiest way into UNIT who Channing fears are investigating too deeply into the plastics factory, is greeted at his door by his own doppelganger. This is straight out of the annals of Gothic horror everywhere and makes a very effective episode ending.

In the final act, Channing reveals that the manifestation of the Nestene Consciousness - a rather horrific pulsating eye/brain in a box, which later has tentacles (!) - is nearly ready and that they are going to take over the world with their plastic replicas of important world figures. This is one of my favorite moments of Doctor Who ever as the Doctor and Liz make a detour to Madame Tussaud's! Total creepiness. I mean, that's the great thing about wax: it's almost lifelike, but it's more akin to death-like. That's why it's fun but slightly unnerving to be a dark room full of wax dummies. The thought that they could come to life preys upon even the dullest imaginations.

The Doctor, in an attempt to stop the Autons, has Liz working around the clock. When the Autons make their iconic escape from shop windows and assault the unknowing populace with their hand guns, the production team pulls out all the stops. Of course, in contrast to the 2005 Autons, these look rather obviously like people in plastic masks. Still, their lurching, not-quite-human movements are the same and carry the same menace. The sequence doesn't hold back in terms of carnage. The finale teems with explosions, the Doctor getting strangled by tentacles, Channing dissolving into plastic, and the Nestene being repelled back into space. As a coda, the Doctor is loathe to return the old-school car he stole and feels a little guilty about the clothes he "borrowed". He agrees to help the Brigadier and UNIT with Liz Shaw.

If Robert Holmes could read Autonomy, the Tenth Doctor book about the Autons, I wonder what he would think. Other than masterstroke for creating fear out of ordinary objects - for which Holmes and Steven Moffat both have an affinity - I wonder if Holmes intended any social critique upon monsters made of plastic. This being 1970, I think that could well be the case.

A Review by Richard Conway 9/11/12

No story in Who's history screams out new era more than Spearhead From Space. Probably more than even the TV Movie in 97 or even Rose in 05. Many reasons are given for this, from the change to colour to the all-filming shoot, from the new regular UNIT setup to the complete change of pace. These, however, are just symptoms of a regular on-going series growing and developing with differing setups and filming techniques. It's a natural progression, surely, rather than the revolution that hits you when you watch Spearhead in any kind of context. What is it then about this particular story that screams "new"? The answer, as ever with the program, lies with the writing rather than what is happening in the production office at a technical or ideas level.

It's notable that this is the story where the two most influential writers on the program took control: Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes. Sure they'd been involved before, but a lot further down the creative and influential ladder than the position they found themselves in now. Whatever your opinion of these two writers, there is no denying their ideas of storytelling and creative impulses reshaped the program fundamentally from the 60s serials into the program that is still running today.

What was it then between them in their storytelling techniques that so fundamentally over-hauled the program? The main thing that strikes you about both their storytelling styles is how straightforward and populist they both are; ie, they give the viewer exactly what they know they will be crying out for and give it to them straight. The story packs a punch and it's usually a punch on the nose. You're not sitting around waiting for something to happen because both Holmes and Dicks know that's not what the average casual viewer wants. They want the big, slam-bang moments in a straight and startling way. That's what's going to keep them around watching and that's what's going to bring them back for more.

They know how to tease the viewer as well. And very tantalisingly too, as demonstrated by the slow reveal of the new Doctor. Knowing that something isn't quite right with some of these characters you're watching, they're not quite what they seem, with their look and their movements but they're not going to tell us what, not quiet yet. It all adds to pull the viewer in, in a newer way than it has before and so therefore feels fresher and more invigorated.

Then there's Robert Holmes' two strongest aces up his sleeves: the sensational and more importantly psychological. This is new to Who and this is how Holmes imprinted his manifesto on the program rather than just conforming and letting the format shape his writing. When Ransome breaks into his old workshop at the end of episode two, it's notable how Holmes lets him wander around a little bit. Not out of fear and fore-boding, like you would expect, but just plain curiosity at what has happened to his workplace. He lets him walk past the manner of his destruction in a nonchalant way. There's no reaching out to grab him, there's no booming voice of death and world domination like in the past. Holmes just waits till he's turned his back - just enough - and then there is a slow step down from the Auton he's just walked past. And that's the key: it's a very slow and delibrate step down. That's where the terror and horror now is in the program, Holmes is telling the audience. In that small little psychological moment. That feels fresh for the program and it feels like a new direction.

Into this new direction of course comes our new Doctor and boy does he feel new. Confession time: Pertwee was my first Doctor and anything I say about him is bound to be clouded by that fact, but for me he just walks into the part and owns it straight away. As I've said in another review about another Doctor, when the actor in question plays against expectations and doesn't conform with how they will be perceived to play the role, the character of the Doctor seems to catch fire and light up the screen and that is exactly what seems to be happening here with the good Doctor's third persona.

What of the rest of the production in this new era then? Well, the near-tragic incident of a strike in the BBC studios at the time of making this story is turned into a triumph by producer Derrick Sherwin. Turning the production into an all-filmic affair gives this story both a classy and unique look. Derek Martinus shows us here why he was probably in the top 5 most stylish directors ever to work on the series. Every decision is right, every angle and look is both different to what we are used to and designed to tell that scene in the most dramatic and telling way possible. It was a great shame he never worked on the program again after this production.

Of course, our new Doctor wasn't the only new regular of this new era. Our gateway to this new world was seen through the eyes of the two other new regulars. Namely Niholas Courtney and Caroline John as the Brigadier and Dr Liz Shaw, respectivley. Carrie John was a classy actress - all the way to her fetching boots! - and it shows here as she brings a level of sophistication to the role of assistant/companion, rarely seen up to that point in the series. As for Nick Courtney, well what can you say about an icon of the program? He took what was probably the most underwhelming and underwritten regular role in the series and turned it into TV gold. Not only to be adored by the generation who saw him in the role, but by the generation after who merely heard about how magical he was. That's how you get to be an icon, I suppose.

This then wasn't just a succesful start of a new season for the program, this was a new template for a succesful era. Follow the new storytelling rules laid down by Holmes and Dicks. Make sure your lead both oozed charisma and energy. Plenty of location work and/or high production values. Classy and sophisticated actors and actress in the regular supporting roles, and big slam-bang moments on the screen. Follow some of these rules and you had a pretty good show. Follow all of them and you had a great one and one that would last. The golden era had truly arrived. 5/5

A Review of the Flawed Classic by Jacob Licklider 23/8/15

Spearhead from Space is rather an oddity in Classic Who. It was the first story to be filmed in color and the only story to be shot entirely on film. It also was the first time the Doctor was travelling alone since he left Gallifray. It begins the four year long exile to Earth that would eventually be ended in The Three Doctors. It also follows on from the incredibly good The War Games, which meant that it had to be a great story. According to fandom, it is among the best stories of Doctor Who. I have to disagree with this for a few reasons.

First off, the first episode of the story, while interesting, goes at an extremely slow pace while the new Doctor is out of action until the end of the episode when he is shot. This doesn't really work, as we need to be impressed with the new Doctor. He can be confused, but he can't be rendered useless because it won't make any impression. The best examples of making an impression are seen in The Power of the Daleks, Robot and even The Twin Dilemma (although that story gives a bad impression), which give us our new Doctors by introducing their personalities. Here the Doctor is unconscious and mumbles about his shoes.

Second off, the reveal of the Autons as villains is poorly executed, with one just randomly showing up during Episode 2 wandering around the woods in a boiler suit. It could have been better as a reveal when Ransome comes across them in the factory and one of them attacks him at the end of the episode. And if that puts the run time low, then just use the time to introduce the Doctor and Liz and UNIT.

Finally, the comedy feels really awkward in the story except for a couple of jokes. Other than these three major problems, and the fact that the Autons have a lot of potential that would be used in Terror of the Autons, Spearhead from Space is a really good story.


A Review by Paul Williams 20/3/23

Spearhead from Space is an effective relaunch of Doctor Who. New viewers with no knowledge of the black-and-white series can begin here with a more modern and mature show reflected in both content and design.

After three episodes of a somewhat localised threat, it springs into life when the Autons smash through shopping windows and begin massacring pedestrians. By then, the new Doctor has charmed his way into UNIT and the audience's hearts, even if he did attempt to leave.

For those transitioning from Troughton, the Brigadier is a familiar figure, and the new companion is, like her predecessor, intellectually closer to the Doctor. The supporting cast are a mixed bunch, some irritating like Sam Seeley and his wife, others like Dr. Henderson entirely authentic. Channing is a chilling and effective villain.