Phew, we’re finally back after that hiatus. Oh, you didn’t realise there was one of those here? You thought the first hiatus was during the Colin Baker era? No, that was just the one that some people sang a very bad pop song about. For the first six years of Doctor Who it was virtually a show that aired all year round. During the Hartnell era breaks between seasons were about a month and a half. Not much changed for Troughton, with roughly two-month breaks per year. So if you are watching Doctor Who as a continuous marathon viewing then up to this point you have had a similar experience to the original viewers, but this is the point that your experience of Doctor Who diverges, because there were six months between The War Games and Spearhead from Space. This will be the schedule Doctor Who will follow right through to the start of the 80s, at which point we settle down into the pattern that endures to this day, with Doctor Who on our screens for three months of the year. There was one final glorious exception in 1975, where a much shorter break between seasons resulted in a year with almost two full seasons, but by and large there are going to be big gaps between seasons from now on.
So Doctor Who is back after the first significant break, and everything has changed. It has not necessarily changed in the ways that you think, but it is fundamentally different from the series that went off-air in 1969. Firstly, the things that are not as significant as you might think:
- The change to colour. This is a big deal retrospectively, especially if you are doing a viewing marathon. However, if you are trying to emulate the original viewing experience then you need to turn the colour down on your television for this whole series. And then the next five seasons as well. It was not until Tom Baker was well-established in the role that more people were watching on colour televisions in this country than black and white. Part of the reason for this was a financial one. Having a colour television at this point not only meant buying or renting at hugely increased cost, but also paying double the licence fee. Spearhead from Space was broadcast to a country of about 18 million television sets, of which maybe half a million were in colour, probably fewer. So that’s about 3% of the viewers, or about a quarter of a million people.
- Spearhead being shot on film. Most people would have watched this on a television set that was smaller than 20″ on the diagonal. Every television had a terrible screen resolution in comparison to anything we are used to nowadays. The difference in the picture would have been noticeable to very few viewers.
- Earthbound Doctor Who. Almost immediately the writers started to find ways to fight against this. Two of the four stories this season actually see the Doctor getting off present day Earth, once into space in a rocket and onto an alien spaceship, and once sideways into a parallel Earth. Next year he’s off in the TARDIS again. But this leads us to…
Things that are probably more significant than you think:
- The Pertwee era is never really Earthbound, but it could be much better described as Timebound. Because when the Doctor is on Earth (and yes, he is on Earth a lot) then it is present day Earth. There are occasional forays into the future which coincide with the breaks in the so-called Earthbound format, but this is now a show that is rooted firmly in the 1970s (ignoring for now a few obscure continuity references that attempt to place the series in the near future – any average viewer would have experienced this as watching the Doctor interact with their present day). What the series has almost completely abandoned is any kind of story set in the past, which is virtually non-existent during the next five years. We have one story that wanders into a fantasy version of history with Atlantis, and then we have the single real exception with the Time Warrior, but it takes us four whole seasons to get to that. Apart from this, only the McCoy era so comprehensively abandons the idea of setting Doctor Who in the past.
- The Doctor doesn’t have a companion any more. Yes, he has a friend (the Brig) and he has a scientific assistant / working partnership to solve the sciency problems (Liz), but in the traditional sense that we understand the role of a companion up to this point we just don’t have one of those for the duration of Pertwee’s first series.
- The Doctor is being explicitly played as an alien for the first time. Hartnell and Troughton both approached the role as if they were playing incredibly advanced humans, with varying degrees of eccentricity. Pertwee does something different, which is really Robert Holmes’s invention and then Pertwee runs with it, presumably because he can see the comedy potential in being Mork long before Mork and Mindy was even thought of. As we saw when we looked at The Lodger, it will be Matt Smith that really taps into that (and then it happens at a point when Doctor Who has been going for so long that it doesn’t make sense), but Pertwee was the first to play the Doctor as an alien living among humans, starting right here with the Doctor as a medical curiosity in a hospital.
So in many ways this feels like a completely different series to the one that ended the year before. The presence of the Brig is a sticking plaster for that, but at this point it is over a year since he was last in the show, and there have been 26 episodes since then, equivalent to what will be an entire season from now on. So his familiarity helps with the transition, yes, but with the limiting factor that he is only helping viewers who were amongst the six or seven million viewers who watched The Invasion, or rather the subset of those who were paying attention and have reasonably long memories. Unlike Troughton’s debut, we don’t even have a familiar monster to ease in the new Doctor. But what we do have is (a) a monster that is so effective that it successfully relaunched the show twice, and (b) Robert Holmes’s characterisations, with a story populated by interesting, memorable characters, taking the pressure off the largely inactive new Doctor.
I must admit to not being a fan of the commonplace approach to a new Doctor of turning him into an invalid and keeping him away from the action. But if you are going to go down that route this is probably the best way to tackle it, building up the tension as to what this new Doctor is going to be like, making the most of viewers’ eagerness to discover what is going on. Jon Pertwee is easy to take to as the Doctor, playing it for laughs initially, then capable and in control later on. It’s just a shame that this new Doctor’s solution to the Auton problem is to build a gadget which kills them, which is pretty prosaic, doesn’t showcase what is special about the Doctor beyond “he can build cool stuff”, and ultimately is not much better than if he had simply blasted them with a very big gun. But then again, he is in the military now. And in this brave new world of Doctor Who, that might just turn out to be the most interesting thing of all… RP
The view from across the pond:
Opening episodes are often slow. That’s true of any series. They have to set up the pieces. You can’t have a chess game without setting up the board, and that’s what a first episode does: places the pieces. This may not always have been true as the classic Star Trek shows, but with any show of the modern era, especially post 1990, there’s the introductory episode. Dark Matter, Babylon 5, Breaking Bad, Dexter… you name it, the first episode has to make you familiar with the characters; to care about them. (Come to think of it, The Prisoner can be watched basically in any order, provided you see the first one, first and the last two, last. That first episode, 1968, was what set the tone for all 17, so the idea goes back well before 1990 but it is very noticeable post 1990!)
In Doctor Who, the very first episode, An Unearthly Child, sets the stage for the next 3 parts of that overall story. We, sadly, no longer have Troughton’s completed first story, Power of the Daleks, but we do have Jon Pertwee’s. Spearhead from Space opens with an unknown man falling out of the TARDIS into the shrubs. He has no companion and only the most tenuous link to the past in the form of the recently promoted Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. How does this episode hold up, considering it carries almost no baggage with it and has the lead actor incapacitated for much of the first half of the story?
I met Pertwee years ago. I liked him and when I first viewed his episodes, I enjoyed them too, but in later years, when I watched again, I realized he’s by far the most chauvinistic of the Doctors, often talking down to Liz and others. During my first viewing, it was somewhat comedic, but in subsequent viewings, I realized it’s just that this Doctor, in his frills and smoking jacket, does believe himself to be better than others. And that’s a letdown. Perhaps it stands out more as an adult, but now I find him harder to watch as a result. But his first story, Spearhead from Space has him recovering from regeneration so he’s weaker than normal throughout, only really coming into his Doctor towards the end of the story. It actually works as a strength for the episode because he doesn’t have the opportunity to be all superior. (That’s not to say he doesn’t get his chances to be high-and-mighty. When Liz asks him what he’s a doctor of, he answers “practically everything”, which is a far cry from the more humble Patrick Troughton Doctor.) Liz Shaw, played by Caroline John, was never a favorite of mine, but probably because she never had enough time to become a favorite. I did appreciate the idea that she was intelligent and not a screamer; shame they couldn’t maintain that level of character for her. One thing that stands out about this character though is that we consider her a companion, but she never even had the chance to look inside the TARDIS! Hugh Burden plays Channing, the bad guy of the piece, working to establish a Nestene hold on Earth. I can’t imagine the casting call for this: “need a man who looks plastic and can maintain an immobile face throughout an interview.” If that had been the pitch, they got the right guy! Burden plays the role incredibly; he’s unnerving to watch. You know something is off the moment you see him, but it takes a while to figure out what it is. Nick Courtney as the Brigadier is, as he will always be, outstanding.
The location filming helps the episode too. It feels big; not constricted to a studio (which, due to a strike, was the case: it was filmed on location). It’s actually one of the best things about the story since it created an atmosphere that the threat was larger than that of most stories. The Autons themselves are a marvelous threat. Shop window dummies are a bit creepy and have long been the subject of disquiet for many. In the 1960 Twilight Zone episode, The After Hours, mannequins are shown to come to life and have a night out on the town. They are kind, not even fully aware of their non-human origin. The Auton’s would not be working in the same shops as the Twilight Zone’s Martha White! They walk about without even taking on anything akin to human form. Yes, they wear dressing gowns, but that doesn’t fool anyone! And their control source is a tentacled monstrosity that we don’t get to fully view but as a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I think it could be tied into that weird fiction very easily. (Maybe that will be a future revelation!)
Spearhead is the first color story for Doctor Who and it brings in a new era very well. It’s one of the strongest regeneration openers for the classic series. With Robot, Castrovalva, The Twin Dilemma, and Time and the Rani as competition, that may not be saying much but the only one stronger may have been Power of the Daleks because the Doctor is thrown in without all the silly “down time” that regeneration typically brings. Pertwee starts off his series strong, complete with tattoo and the first mention of 2 hearts. The tattoo might not follow into future regenerations, but the second heart does! Pertwee is also the Doctor that revealed his home planet is called Gallifrey, so I can’t knock him! This story is only 4 episodes and that seemed to work best for classic Who. When they went on to create longer stories, there was a tediousness to them that often felt interminable. But for this one, it’s a strong format, a good introduction to the new Doctor and we have the UNIT crowd back – that’s always a fun thing!
Thankfully the Autons only take over plastic shop window dummies! Imagine if they took over everything plastic. We’d all be in trouble!
Wait a second! What happened? My keyboard! My mouse! Even my chair! They are all made of plas…. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Silurians