February 20th, 2012
Jon Pertwee’s time as the Doctor was the most stable the series ever had. For his entire run, the show had the same script editor, Terrance Dicks, and producer, Barry Letts (Letts officially took over on Pertwee’s second story, but was here shadowing Derrick Sherwin). Their time on the show produced some of the programme’s most-loved moments, and brought it back almost to the popularity it had had in the early days of Hartnell’s Doctor.
The problem was that to start with they were lumbered with a show that they didn’t want to make.
Doctor Who had always been a programme about exploration, about travelling to the past and future, to far-off galaxies and to China under the reign of Kublai Khan, to moonbases and to the French revolution.
Unfortunately, trips to alien planets cost money. And with the programme’s switch to colour, the cost of special effects was going to go up dramatically. So Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant, the production team at the end of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, came up with a completely new series which had almost nothing in common with the show they were making, got it commissioned as the next series of Doctor Who, and then buggered off leaving Letts and Dicks to cope with it.
Their idea was to take the Doctor, the ultimate traveller, and have him trapped on Earth, and then to make the programme into an ITC adventure serial.
For those who don’t know, ‘ITC adventure serial’ has become something of a generic term for a type of programme made mostly, but not exclusively, by the production company ITC. These were generally spy or detective thrillers, with glamorous women and suave leading men patterned roughly after James Bond, usually with some kind of ‘high concept’ twist (a detective and his ghost partner fight crime, a spy who resigned is trapped in a village of other former spies). Many of these shows were created by former Doctor Who script editor Dennis Spooner, and they ranged from the woefully poor (Spooner’s Jason King) up to programmes that had as good a claim as any to be the best TV ever made (The Prisoner).
So instead of a programme about an eccentric traveller through time and space, Doctor Who was now going to be about an action hero in a covert organisation battling alien invasions of the Earth – or at least those bits of it within a couple of hours’ drive from London.
Spearhead From Space, then, has to introduce this new status quo while trying to make it seem in some way connected to the programme people had been watching for the previous six years. Thankfully, Robert Holmes was the writer chosen to make this work.
Holmes had only written two stories for Doctor Who before, neither of them considered exactly classics, but he would go on to become the most consistently good writer the show would ever have. When Doctor Who Magazine did a poll in 2009, asking its readers to rank the 200 televised Doctor Who stories to that point in order, Holmes wrote three of the top ten, including the story voted as number one, and script-edited two others. Here, Holmes is still finding his voice, but it feels, unlike his previous story The Space Pirates, like he’s got the feel of the show.
The story does have a plot of sorts. The basic concept and some of the lines of dialogue were taken from a film that Holmes had written a few years earlier, and we can already see from the plot (aliens create plastic duplicates of major politicians, in an attempt to take over the world) some of the obsession with issues of identity, and non-human artifacts that appear human, that will dominate Holmes’ work.
But mostly, the story just exists to string together a couple of good set-pieces (most famously the scene with the Autons crashing through shop windows) while introducing the new status, as well as introducing those unfortunate staples of early-70s Doctor Who, the ‘hilarious’ country bumpkin and, look you boyo, a comedy Welshman isn’t it?
So we’re reintroduced to UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, which had briefly appeared in The Invasion the previous year, and told it’s there to investigate the strange and unexplained. We’re also reintroduced to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who had appeared in two stories previously, but we’re introduced to these vaguely familiar elements as if they’re totally new, through the eyes of new companion Liz Shaw.
Liz Shaw was one of the very best companions in the series, and one of the few genuinely good ideas in Sherwin and Bryant’s concept – a scientist with doctorates in multiple disciplines (though she’s only ever referred to as ‘miss Shaw’ – this is the 1970s, after all), played with great subtlety by the wonderful Caroline John. Unfortunately she fell foul of Terrance Dicks’ idea that the role of women in drama is to be tied to railway tracks by the villain, and disappeared after this year without even a leaving scene.
Here, though, she’s a scientist called in by a covert organisation to investigate mysterious plastic objects that have been falling from the sky, and coincidentally something else falls from the sky – a blue box, out of which staggers someone who claims to be an alien called The Doctor, who Lethbridge-Stewart remembers, but who looked totally different.
The Doctor spends a lot of this story unconscious, and when he does appear Pertwee’s performance is subdued. Had we not had the previous story, this would have been an effective way of restoring some of the mystery to the character – making it Doctor Who? again – but we as the viewers know, even if the Brigadier doesn’t, that this is the same character we’ve been following. And even the Brigadier just decides to accept him as the same man between scenes.
With the Doctor’s TARDIS no longer functioning, he agrees to take on a role as scientific adviser to UNIT, and by the end of this four-part story, the viewers somehow accept that this new programme, about a military organisation and its frilly-shirted scientific adviser, is the same programme they’ve been watching for years.
Over the next couple of years Letts and Dicks would reintroduce most of the missing elements of the show – the TARDIS would be back, as would the Daleks and the Ice Warriors, and UNIT would just be another aspect of the show, reintegrated into the original format. But this would take a while, and during that time they’d also be introducing new elements which we now think of as integral parts of Doctor Who. One of these would appear in the first episode of the next series, another Robert Holmes script about the Autons…