Doctor Who #256: Spearhead from Space Part 1

"In the last decade, we’ve been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. We’ve drawn attention to ourselves, Miss Shaw."TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is on DVD. A Special Edition DVD has also been released in Region 2, and will soon be released in Region 1. First aired Jan.3 1970.

IN THIS ONE... First appearances of the third Doctor and Liz Shaw, as UNIT investigates strange meteorites.

REVIEW: From the first second, this is a completely different show (no, not completely, I recognize that music). It starts with a highly colorful opening sequence that reminds me of a Bunsen burner (because the Doctor is a scientist) and that tiny arrow-point shape in the middle could be that of the Doctor with his little cape (which has not yet made an appearance). The new Doctor's face appears (which makes director Derek Martinus' delay in showing it during the episode moot), and the background shapes become a vortex, though one with an ugly horizontal line running through it. Opening shot: We're in space, the camera pans on Earth and starts to zoom towards the blue planet. Seem familiar? That's because it's only one of SEVERAL things re-used in the new series. Because of a strike at the BBC, this entire story was made on film, with no video elements. That means it looks slick and expensive, and that the camera has a lot more mobility. The press conference is handheld, and oh my, there's an actual walk-and-talk! Where this format fails is with the sound, with a nasty echo in some of the rooms used. In any case, this look and sound is somewhat misleading. After Spearhead, the show will return to a location-on-film, studio-on-video mixed format.

Though there's an alien threat brewing, it is kept mostly in the background - bleeping pink spheres fall out of the sky - while we meet the new cast. But do we meet the new Doctor? Not exactly. The 2nd Doctor was quicker to become a new man, walk out of the TARDIS and carry on. Jon Pertwee's first appearance could be the first true post-regeneration episode, as the production allows time for a new Doctor to form right before our eyes. His first words are "shoes" (I told you before, Time Lords are obsessed with them - though in this case, it's because that's where he keeps his TARDIS key) and when he sees himself in the mirror, a certain vanity comes out. The "hobo" days are over, and the Brigadier is right not to recognize this man. It's not just the face, it's more than that. We don't otherwise get much more from him - except that he's a very watchable actor - because he lies in a hospital bed for most of the episode, until captured by the mysterious bad guys who think he might have their spheres (he was found in the wood where they fell, but he's guiltless), which leads to the third Doctor's first vehicular chase scene... in a wheelchair! It's a fun bit of action, and a lot more action-y than anything the Doctor's ever done. There will be more.

A more fully realized introduction is that of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, played by Caroline John, who is driven in UNIT HQ for a secret meeting. It's all very 60s spy show, and Liz is given her own romantic theme going in. She's there to meet the Brigadier (ah! a character we recognize!), apparently to play Scully to his Mudler (watch the roles switch as the series goes on). She's clearly brilliant, with multiple degrees in science and medicine, and it makes sense that UNIT would try to recruit her. Their past successes were thanks to the Doctor, a brilliant scientist, but he's not around all the time (the Time Lords are about to answer his prayers). Liz is to be THEIR Doctor, and she has just the right amount of contempt for the Brig's authority to do it too. Both characters spark off each other well, both dealing with the other with the cocky confidence of people who know they are right. The Brig wants to blow her mind, but she's too much of an expert to do anything but laugh at his basic presentation of the program's new focus. It's almost too bad the Doctor has to come in and change that dynamic.

THEORIES: So the Doctor has two hearts, eh? (Something else that features in the new series in a major way.) The question is, since when? We know the Dominators have double hearts, but they didn't examine the Doctor or make note of his physiology. A lot of fans have tried to make the case for the second heart showing up only after the first regeneration, based on the use of "heart" singular, and Ian checking the Doctor's chest and not noticing a second heartbeat, etc. I've never needed an explanation. The use of the plural each time the Doctor uses a heart-related expression in the new series is cutesy eventually to the point of annoyance, like an inside joke that's gone on too long, so I've no problem with a Time Lord hiding among humans talking about his heart, singular. And if you really need to explain away Ian's anatomical confusion, well 1) he doesn't know to look for the second heart, and 2) the first Doctor is old enough to have had one heart give out on him by that point. I mean, there's a reason for the redundancy, right?

REWATCHABILITY: High - An assured start to a new era of Doctor Who, colorful, dynamic and exciting. A very good introduction to the new Doctor and his assistant, very good indeed!


Eric TF Bat said...

Ah, my first Doctor, and possibly the first episode I ever saw. I'm watching it right now, and it's lovely.

Anonymous said...

Liz Shaw remains my favorite assistant of all time. Well, of old DW anyway: the differences in quality and style between old and new make it very difficult to compare apples-to-apples.

Kind of like how Pertwee is my favorite old DW Doctor, but any of the three new DW Doctors have unquestionably been the beneficiaries of better writing ... what standards can you use to compare old to new? Can't be done, you can only evaluate them on their own terms.

I think I read once that you have ... problems, shall we say, with much of Pertwee's run. Have at it! It won't shake my love for this era, so do what you must.

Siskoid said...

Watching a DVD here and a DVD there in among DVDs featuring other Doctors, I've had trouble getting into his adventures. And yet he was a favorite of my youth, certainly the Doctor that brought the entire family to the living room (my sister would have none of Tom Baker).

This is my re-evaluation. And I think it will make me grow fond of him again. That's not a promise, but it is a hope.

LiamKav said...

First instance of a regeneration not changing clothes. Although we only get to see Pertwee in Troughton's outfit for all of 4 seconds. I'm guessing the reason why they don't make it obvious is because they didn't want to spend the money making an identical version of the second Doctor's outfit for Doc Three to wear, as surely Pertwee would be too tall to wear Troughton's actual clothes?


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