For its first six seasons, Doctor Who featured call-backs to its past but hadn’t really started building any significant amount of mythology. That all changed with the introduction of the Time Lords in the last installment of “The War Games” and solidified for the next five years under the leadership of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks.
The Jon Pertwee years were the time when the show began to establish precedents that would continue not only for the rest of the classic series run but are still being used and built on today. It even extends as far as when the series decided to come out of retirement that Russell T. Davies borrowed heavily from Pertwee’s first four-part serial “Spearhead from Space.”
During the wilderness years, a fellow Whovian and I were discussing what it would be like if the show came back and it was pointed out that a great monster to bring back the show wouldn’t necessarily by the Daleks or the Cybermen but the Autons. The Autons are significant in the series, appearing twice in the original series run, and the sequence of them breaking out of shop windows in episode four is one that is indelibly burned into the minds of the viewing public. But the Autons don’t have the same level of backstory, expectation, and baggage as some of the more popular foes the Doctor has squared off against.
“Spearhead from Space” starts off the Pertwee era on a solid note, not only solidly establishing the dynamic that most casual fans think of when it comes to the era, but also becoming a model for all future regeneration stories. “Power of the Daleks” had seen the Doctor’s mind muddled a bit from his experience in changing faces, but it’s “Spearhead” that introduces the concept of him being sidelined for the early moments of the story, being a bit unstable both mentally and physically. The duration of this instability would seemingly get longer the later we get into the classic series run.
“Spearhead” feels like a second pilot for Doctor Who. Or to use the modern vehicular, it feels like a reboot. Pushing Doctor Who boldly into the color era with a lot of new faces in front of and behind the camera.
“Spearhead from Space” fairly ubiquitous in the age of releasing the series on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray. It always feels like it’s the first third Doctor story to hit a new medium and it was chosen by Steven Moffat to represent the Pertwee era to new fans for the fiftieth anniversary. And while “Spearhead” is a crackling great story, it’s missing one huge element from it that defines the Pertwee era — the Master. (It’s for this reason that I would have picked “Terror of the Autons” to showcase the Pertwee era).
Instead of the Master, “Spearhead” gives us Channing as the voice-piece for the Autons. This has varying degrees of success. Director Derek Martinus takes full advantage of the strike that led to “Spearhead” being the only classic serial produced entirely on film to give us some truly off-putting angles and camera shots when it comes to Channing. His make-up makes him feel at times as if he’s already become plastic himself.
“Spearhead from Space” begins Robert Holmes’ tradition of making the ordinary scary. Sure, we’d seen Cybermen walking the streets and rising from the sewers a season before, but it’s here that things we see every day start to become truly frightening. It’s one reason I think the shop dummies coming to life in episode four is so fondly remembered. That sequence is one of masterful editing and sound design. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho, audiences are certain they saw the Autons breaking the glass just as they were sure they saw the knife piercing Janet Leigh in the famous shower sequence. (We would see Autons breaking glass in “Rose”).
And while Holmes will take the Autons and their use of plastic to a new level in “Terror,” he still makes them scary and effective here.
The big disappointment comes when we finally see the Nestene itself. Pertwee was known as a comedic actor before taking the role as the Doctor and there are times during his tenure when his comedic tendencies tend to come to the fore — pretty much any time he has to be attacked by an alien and he crosses his eyes and seems to be taking his pantomime to the next level.
If “The Krotons” and “The Space Pirates” are a warm-up, then this is Robert Holmes hitting his stride. The script for “Spearhead” is a solid one with a few interesting double-acts (though not nearly as many as we’d see in just two stories) and some solid pacing. Looking at this story, it’s easy to see why Holmes is considered the best writer Doctor Who has ever had.
And he only continues to get better from here….