Doctor Who #259: Spearhead from Space Part 4

"So, if you live as a group, you can be destroyed as a group, surely?"TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jan.24 1970.

IN THIS ONE... The Autons come out of their shop windows and the Doctor defeats them.

REVIEW: The episode makes me worry about the future of the UNIT era for two reasons. The first is that the climax includes a scene where soldiers fight bulletproof monsters, just like they did in every other present day story in the 60s. That will get old, and in fact it already is. The second is that it gives the Doctor a lab as a new base of operations, and while he and Liz are quite good at working things out in that environment, it's not that compelling in the long run. You don't stay in the TARDIS, but the Doctor seems strapped to that lab for the better part of the last two episodes. Can they keep it fresh? Here, I'm relieved to see Liz treated as an equal, coming up with answers as well as the Doctor, and indeed, being instrumental in saving the day at the end. The building of the Auton-killing device is played for comedy, the two of them covered in wires (which again scream out COLOR!), Liz yawning away in the late hours.

Ironically, the bit where they finally leave the lab is the weakest part of the episode. The expedition to Madame Tussaud's is suspenseful, but it doesn't bear scrutiny. How silly is it for the Nestenes to store their impostor Autons and the people being impersonated in a public waxworks? Almost as silly as Madame Tussaud's having an exhibition of "public servants" or their letting the plastics factory essentially dictate who they got to show. (I know it wouldn't have been possible, but the show missed a turn not having the American Presidents exhibit come alive and attack the British populace - and Gandhi too! - ah well.) Though their plans aren't particularly well thought-out (a common weakness of Doctor Who monsters), they do get that iconic scene, reproduced in "Rose", of the shop window dummies coming to life and covering the street in bodies. While the New Series Autons are more slick, I rather think the original sequence is the better one. Instead of a frenzy of breaking glass and gun fire, they creep up on people and send them flying in bursts of acrid smoke. The Nestene Consciousness seems a cousin to Lovecraft's Elder Gods, and for once in Doctor Who, a monster is SUPPOSED to look like it's made of plastic.

It's a good episode for both the Doctor and Liz, whose invention defeats the baddies. The Doctor seems able to plant a suggestion in Hibbert's mind that frees him from Channing's control, though it only gets him "totally destroyed", and his confrontation with Channing is calm and assured. Good stuff. There's also quite a bit of what the fans call "gurning" on Pertwee's part as he struggled against the Nestene tentacles (that's a plus or a minus, depending on your level of fandom). And of course, there's the final scene which is meant to lock off the show's new paradigm. The Doctor offers his help to UNIT, but on HIS terms, which include Liz Shaw AND a vintage roadster of some kind. Delightfully, he seems very eager to go pick one out. And to whom should we make out the paychecks? To "John Smith", of course.

VERSIONS: The Target novelization is called Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The situation is resolved with a gadget, but that's hardly what's important. Part 4 some of Who's most iconic moments and treats its characters right.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - Robert Holmes' first bonafide classic, it still doesn't have all the hallmarks and wit of his later work, but it does have some creepy new monsters, introduces us to a new Doctor, assistant and status quo, and looks slick and expensive, filmed all on location as it is.


Anonymous said...

I'll be intrigued to see your reaction to Terror of the Autons, which is essentially the same story aided by the superlative addition of Roger Delgado as the Master.

And it's interesting that the new series chose the template of Spearhead to revive the show in 2005. I think it shows how dynamic this story can be.

Anonymous said...

"Gurning" isn't a fan phrase: it's an English expression for pulling funny faces, often competitively. Fairs would award prizes for the best grotesquerie.

Siskoid said...

Oh, I know it's a real word, but fans have appropriated it in connection with Pertwee specifically. He never pulls a face or bugs his eyes out, he only ever "gurns".


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