Spearhead from Space

Posted in Episode by - January 28, 2016
Spearhead from Space

Aired 3 -24 January 1970

‘Spearhead from Space’ is unquestionably one of the most important episodes in Doctor Who’s long history, tasked with introducing a new lead and cast and proving that a radically new format confined to modern-day Earth could work. Serving as a second pilot episode of sorts, this serial somehow manages to achieve everything that it sets out to do while remaining incredibly accessible to old and new fans alike.

With Doctor Who never really receiving the budget to make alien worlds come to life all that successfully, producer Derrick Sherwin and script editor Terrence Dicks made the decision to have the Time Lords exile the Doctor to Earth after the conclusion to Patrick Troughton’s final The War Games, and the filming employed here certainly pays dividends in showing the comparatively modest but varying splendours of Earth. Of course, the Earth-based setting allows for an exploration of the intrinsic horrors of commonplace items, and ‘Spearhead from Space’ introduces the Autons and employs plastics and mannequins to achieve this to spectacular effect, the image of walking shop dummies being burned into the public consciousness and causing complaints of excessive violence and corruption.

The idea of the very layout and purpose of a factory changing so incredibly quickly is quite frightening, the sense of the unknown only heightening the tension for the true chills and unease that only something that looks so human but is so obviously false could deliver. Showing the wax museum exhibit full of world leaders is a deliberate attack on the sanctity of command in which citizens place their trust, and the implications of this particular attack are immense. Alien incursions had become rather commonplace by this time, but the Autons bring something much more intimate to their fear factor than any other foe before them.

Aside from the unique foe, though, ‘Spearhead from Space’ also deserves credit for efficiently introducing the Doctor’s supporting cast as well. Building off of ‘The Web of Fear’ and ‘The Invasion,’ anchoring the Doctor to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart- a decidedly different type of person to the typical companion looking for adventure- is a masterstroke, bringing about a distinct ideology that challenges the Doctor’s forthright nature frequently. Having the Doctor working for UNIT as scientific advisor also gives him the perfect reason to come upon alien threats on Earth as he helps to explore the odd and unexplained with military resources and intelligence at his disposal. While the general soldiers of UNIT may not be portrayed as the brightest or most competent, the script does go out of its way to showcase Caroline John’s companion, Liz Shaw, as a very strong and determined woman, creating an interesting dynamic with this new Doctor where he seems to respect her abilities and opinions right from the outset.

Just like it took some time for both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton to find their comfort zone with the role of this strange alien, ‘Spearhead from Space’ is written quite broadly without playing to any certain characteristic that Jon Pertwee would make famous as his time as the titular hero continued. There are flashes of the action hero, but here he is truly settling into his new body and what it is capable of, accenting comedy before finally stepping into the spotlight and taking control. Still, Pertwee immediately commands attention whenever he is on screen, and this ends up being a strong if not representative performance of his time in the role that helps solidify a very strong if not representative story of his time in the role as well.

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