Spearhead from Space
"- '... the bigger ones hit the atmosphere and explode.' - 'Yes, of course -
shooting stars. But - what about the ones that don't blow up?' - 'They always do. All
right, say one in a billion doesn't. A billion, million.' - 'And the odds against three of
them striking an area twenty miles across - in a single week?'"
"There's only one possible explanation - a multiple organism. A group creature ...
a countless host, a thousand billion individuals if you like ... with one single
consciousness. You see what it means? The experience of any one of them is transmitted to
all the rest ... shared by all of them, simultaneously, wherever they may be..."
"But there's nothing you can pin down. Just ... oh, a face in the corridor,
someone who seems not to know you any more some odd, overheard phrase ... unexplained
transfers ... petty mysteries that never get cleared up ..."
- QUATERMASS II
With the possible exception of the seventeenth and eighteenth, no two consecutive
seasons of Doctor Who have exhibited such a contrast of styles as the sixth and seventh
seasons, despite the presence in the former of The Invasion. And yet, there is the
remarkable fact that this sudden shift in emphasis succeeded In retaining and expanding
the show's audience, whereas the slick eighteenth season (arguably) caused a degree of
bafflement and resentment among viewers so used to a dominant Tom Baker, a strong accent
on humour and charmingly tatty production values.
In any event, Season 7, curtailed in length but not in budget, in glorious colour for
the first time, was a hit from the word go. The occasional stodginess of Patrick
Troughton's last season was swept aside in a tide of fast-paced action sequences, courtesy
of the Men from HAVOC, more complex and thought-provoking plots, moments of unprecedented
scariness and a documentary style "hardness" in the presentation that prevented
the high production values from appearing too showy and "pretty" (although the
latter consideration was neglected somewhat throughout the over-rated eighth season).
By all these criteria, Spearhead from Space was a stupendous success While it is by no
means the best Doctor Who story, nor even, some might say, the best story of its own
season, there can surely be little doubt as to its status as a first-rate set of episodes,
far superior to the trash we've been served with post-Davison. As is well known, Spearhead
was shot entirely on location and on film, resulting in a powerful sense of realism rarely
equalled before or since. In this respect, the interior scenes were the more effective;
exterior location filming was not rare, even by 1970, but the use of real rooms in real
buildings imparted a more startling impression of reality to the proceedings: the actors'
voices have an echoing resonance that no studio set can reproduce. Imaginative, elegant
direction from Derek Martinus contributed immensely to the creation of this particular
atmosphere, of course. Three instances from the first episode are noteworthy: the scenes
of Elizabeth Shaw being chauffeured to UNIT HQ in a real limo (so much better than the
dire CSO car windows of Terror of the Autons); the wonderfully fluid camera-work employed
in the scene where Lethbridge-Stewart and Captain Munro stride down the corridor of the
Ashbrldge cottage hospital; and, of course, the use of that hand-held camera in the
depiction of the Brigadier being harrassed by a pack of reporters at the said hospital.
Each of these scenes, and many others, have a definite feeling of immediacy about them,
which is communicated to the show as a whole.
The effect of this cinema verite approach is to increase the horror inherent in the
more fantastical elements of the story, not so much by making them more
"believeable", but rather by highlighting how wrong they are - in contrast to
the world of familiarity and stability represented by the press reporters, the armed
forces and, apparently, the plastics factory.
In the early episodes the events are so unnerving because they are so understated, both
in the script and in the direction. Instead of the crudely incongruous shock of a Yeti on
a Tooting Bec loo, an intangible atmosphere is built up of something indefinably
unpleasant and off-key going on. Take the scene of the Doctor's kidnap from the hospital.
It would have been so easy to have slipped into hamfistedness in the use of horror here: a
lingering close-up of a hand sans fingernails, for example, as described in Terrance
Dicks' novelisation, accompanied by thunderously menacing incidental music. Instead we are
presented with a few quick shots lasting just long enough to convey the impression that
something is slightly odd about the kidnappers - their movements a little too jerky, their
half-seen faces a little too shiny... Even when we see an Auton fully for the first time,
in the woods, there is something curiously offhand about the direction at this point,
despite the zoom-in, which, paradoxically, heightens the effect the viewer does a near
doubletake. (Something similar, and even more effective, can be seen in The Silurians.
After ages of build-up, one of the creatures is first seen when it ambles casually through
a door. The result is really quite dramatic.)
There is a definite atmosphere of the grotesque underpinning the whole of Spearhead
from Space, a nasty "not-rightness" which acts as an ever-present backdrop to
the moments of more obvious horror. The deservedly famous invasion scene in episode four
is so disturbing not merely because it shows a Normal Everyday Object suddenly becoming an
object of fear and danger, but also because those window dummies are not quite normal to
begin with - their weirdly hollow eye sockets lend them a frightful aspect which resonates
in the mind far longer than the immediate, visceral frisson of their suddenly coming to
This is not to say that straightforward terror should have no place in the programme,
of course - far from it. Doctor Who wouldn't be Doctor Who if it didn't try to deliver the
good old-fashioned scenes, and Spearhead does this admirably. Everyone knows about the
scenes in which an Auton comes to life and creeps up behind Ransome in the plastics
factory, and later slices its way into the army tent and obliterates him, but my favourite
moment is the UNIT driver's fatal carcrash, caused by an Auton stepping out in front of
his jeep: a quick glimpse of the mannequin's looming, frighteningly blank face, wildly
spinning tree-tops and then a rather gruesome shot of the Auton peering at the cracked and
blood-smeared windscreen, before it proceeds to recover the energy-unit.
The accession of Jon Pertwee to the title role also coincided with a significant
upswing in the appearance of breathtaking, hardware-laden action set pieces, a development
prophesied by The Invasion, the only embryonic Season 7 yarn in Season 6. Spearhead,
although not so stunning in this respect as The Ambassadors of Death was to be,
nevertheless boasted its fair share of such sequences. The rampaging shop-window dummies,
methodically slaughtering passers-by, have already been mentioned, but the showpiece is
the climactic clash between UNIT and the army of Autons at "Auto Plastics".
Halls of bullets rip harmlessly into the Autons, whose handguns prove somewhat more
efficient, blasting the human soldiers down with ease. "There's nothing the men of
the Visual Effects department like more than a really big explosion," avers The
Making of Doctor Who. Well, they certainly get their chance in this story, as an Auton's
handgun ignites a leaking petrol tank next to an unfortunate soldier in the course of the
Anyway, such enjoyable but unsophisticated aspects of the story apart, the actual
script is pretty good, isn't it? Okay, so the Autons themselves are a blatant imitation of
a certain Avengers adversary, while the concept of artificial meteorites containing an
alien gestalt intelligence must have had Nigel Kneale reaching for his lawyer, but a
smidgin of unoriginality in plot is to be forgiven when one considers that Robert Holmes
was being asked to do a hell of a lot in changing the show's whole style overnight,
introducing a new companion and Doctor, and still retaining audience loyalty. It was a bit
of a risk to assign all this to Holmes, who had at that time only contributed two
relatively uninspiring stories, but producer Derrick Sherwin must have spotted the
fantastic potential which first fully blossomed with this tale.
Mind you, no one can doubt, surely, that Mr Pertwee must also take a large slice of the
credit for the rescuing of the programme from the edge of destruction it was teetering on
as the Troughton era drew to a close. Emanating a warm charisma (while proving at the same
time that he is a very fine actor indeed), Jon Pertwee is utterly watchable and totally
convincing, seemingly showing not a hint of uncertainty about his approach to the role in
his very first story. His fragile, post-regeneration exhaustion; his bumptious browbeating
of the UNIT garage attendant (D. Sherwin, Esq.); his polished charm when introduced to
Liz; his cool, alien detatchment when chatting to Channing in episode four; his childish
eagerness to "go and choose" a new car in the final scenes - all these moments
are a positive joy to watch.
And then there's his costume... outrageously flamboyant and yet with a certain severe
elegance which, to my mind, is far preferable to the hideous rainbow-hued velvets he was
to sport in later seasons. Such a shame he didn't retain that natty hat!
Writing space is finite, but suffice to say that most of the other actors and actresses
give consistently fine performances, from Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John's love-hate
bantering, to Hugh Burden's chilling Channing, a bravura portrayal, emanating an icy,
unearthly aura that nearly steals the show (cf. Bernard Archard in Pyramids of Mars). Neil
Wilson, as Sam Sealy, is a bit embarrassing at times, mugging shamelessly, but that stock
stereotype of the Pertwee years, the Yokel, can't be a role any actor can easily take
A brief word on the special effects. The relative scarcity of such effects (video being
a better medium for their presentation, apparently) makes their occurrence all the more
striking, from the glowing "meteorite" globes ("Thunderballs, I calls 'em
..."), to those 'orrible greeny-brown hairy tentacles which half-throttle the Doc in
the last episode (I feel rather queasy every time I see that scene).
Just room to slip in one small, churlish criticism: the effect of that excellent
invasion scene (heightened by Dudley Simpson's sinister, strident score) is dissipated
somewhat by the fact that life seems to go on pretty much as normal. When General Scobie
snaps out of his trance in Madame Tussaud's, various "oohs" and "aahs"
are laid on to the soundtrack, presuamably representing an astonished public. But who in
their right minds would be visiting a waxworks with an alien invasion going on?! I
appreciate that the budget couldn't stretch to realising Terrance Dicks' descriptions of
shattered cities, fleeing populaces, etc., but this minor slip could have easily been
avoided. An unimportant but irritating bit of carelessness.
To sum up then, I would argue that Spearhead from Space works well both on the level of
enjoyable detail (acting, SFX, incidental music) and on the less tangible level of
"atmosphere", something which is somehow more than the mere sum of those
details. Certainly the rest of the seventh season of Doctor Who would have to be very
strong if it was going to follow this
"This Doctor Who adventure wins my vote as the best in the lifetime of the series
so far. What it did was to suggest an authentic sense of the uncanny."
- Matthew Coady in the "Daily Mirror", 1970
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