Geekbat Tunes

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space

Serial Title: Spearhead from Space
Series: 7
Episodes: 4
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Liz Shaw (Caroline John), Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)

England, “Modern Day” (which either means 1970, the year it was made, or the ‘near future’- the 1980s, in which it was intended to be set. As this blog will chronicle, the various writers are quite inconsistent about which it is… though ironically, most of it is retroactive from the Fourth Doctor’s era). A group of strange, purple, glowing meteorites land in the woods, and a nearby poacher takes one of them. And not far off, something else lands, too… a bright blue Police Box, materializing out of thin air. The door opens, and a strange man, tottering on his last legs, staggers out and collapses.

Elsewhere, Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart, head of UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), is briefing Cambridge alumni Liz Shaw (Does this mean she is a spy? In the movies, all spies and villains explain their knowledge of the culture/fluent English as having studied at Cambridge…), the new UNIT scientific adviser on the classified nature of her work. Of course, UNIT has only had 3 brushes with alien life thus far, but one suspects that number is about to increase exponentially…

The Brigadier is summoned to the hospital to see the mysterious man found near the TARDIS, who is semi-lucid and obsessed with “Shoes!” In a brief moment of clarity, he recognizes Lethbridge-Stewart before lapsing back into the trauma-induced craziness, and the Brigadier is left to wonder… could this somehow BE the Doctor?

Someone thinks he is, as the Doctor is kidnapped by a pair of ruffians, his mouth duct-taped shut (with a TARDIS key extracted from his shoes inside), straight-jacketed and in a wheelchair- and yet he escapes, fleeing by wheelchair into the woods… where he is shot by an overzealous UNIT guard while approaching the TARDIS. Thankfully, it’s only a graze, and seems to snap him out of his mania… when he awakes several hours later, he is lucid- sneaking into the hospital locker room for a shower, and stealing a fancy set of clothes and a car to escape, as questions about his alien blood work and apparent 2 hearts mount with the hospital staff. However, Lethbridge-Stewart has the TARDIS key found in his possession, as well as the TARDIS, and so the man steers his commandeered jalopy towards UNIT HQ…

Meanwhile, the poacher conceals the glowing orb of a meteorite from his wife, locking it into a box in his shed… while in the Auto Plastics factory, a man named Ransome sneaks into his old workshop (having just been suddenly and mysteriously laid off) and is shocked to see a plastic mannequin move of its own accord… even more so when its hand pops open and it fires an explosive shot at him! Ransome flees in terror, headed for UNIT…

Already there, tracking his TARDIS with a locator watch, the Doctor encounters Lethbirdge-Stewart and claims that he is the Doctor, albeit with a changed appearance. The Brigadier is skeptical (Liz Shaw even more so about the claims that the TARDIS is a spaceship), but both cautiously invite the Doctor to look at the broken casing of a meteorite found near the TARDIS. The remains are intriguing to the Doctor, and he agrees to investigate in return for the TARDIS key being returned to him afterwards. However, the Doctor soon dupes Liz into stealing the key for him, ostensibly to access more advanced equipment in the TARDIS, and tries to flee. However, the only result is a loud bang, a great cloud of smoke, and a loss of the Brigadier and Liz’s trust. The Doctor has suffered memory loss, and among it, the Time Lords have removed the knowledge of how to correctly operate the TARDIS from his mind, changed the dematerialization codes… and now, parts of the ship are damaged, too (either from the abortive attempt, or the generally poor state of repair that the Doctor keeps it in, in general). Facing the depressing reality of being stuck on Earth, the Doctor agrees to help UNIT, as the Brigadier, not entirely trustful, begins to believe that he may be the Doctor after all.

Based on Ransome’s testimony, UNIT brings the poacher in for questioning. While he's out at UNIT’s tent-outpost, a mannequin-creature approaches his home, intently tracking the meteorite. When the poacher’s wife attempts to stop it, it bats her aside without a thought. These are the Autons, creatures made of sentient plastic, and they have been collecting the meteorites. UNIT finds and engages the Auton, which flees- called away by its controller at Auto Plastics. It instead runs to the empty UNIT tent and exercises “Total destruction” on Ransome, killing him and destroying his body. The meteorite is found by UNIT and loaded onto a truck- but the Auton steps into the truck's path and causes it to crash, and steals the meteorite from the wreck. The assault continues as, elsewhere, a perfect plastic duplicate accosts and replaces General Scobie, a man in oversight position of UNIT.

From the meteorite examination, the Doctor realizes that there is a living consciousness within each meteorite, which is then fashioned a plastic Auton body on Earth. These creatures, the Nestene, are invading by sending their brains inconspicuously to Earth, and building conquering bodies for them after landing. Visiting a waxwork museum in London on a hunch, the Doctor discovers the real general Scobie, paralyzed and placed in amongst the dummies… all of important contemporary persons, whom the Autons are replacing…

Waiting in the waxworks at night, the Doctor captures Hibbert, one of the men from Auto Plastics, and tries to turn him against his Nestene masters. The Doctor returns to UNIT and fashions a device to destroy the Autons… but at dawn, they strike- shop dummies in store windows throughout the nation come to life, rampaging through the streets and killing indiscriminately.

UNIT makes an assault on Auto Plastics as Hibbert attacks the Nestene’s central consciousness (and is killed for his troubles). The Doctor and Liz make their way up to the central chamber as UNIT and the Autons engage in a firefight below. The Doctor begins disabling Autons (including the fake General Scobies). In the central chamber, the Doctor confronts the Nestene Consciousness and tries to get it to leave, but the creature attacks him in a hideous, tentacled, octopus-like form. Liz fixes a short in the machine and turns it on the Nestene, destroying it- and without its animating energy, all of the Autons as well.

The day is saved, and with nowhere else to go, the Doctor decides to stay on as UNIT’s scientific advisor… negotiating a workship to repair the TARDIS in preparation for the day he can work around the Time Lords’ mental block, and a car like the one he stole, which he’s become rather attached to. Then, properly introducing himself as “Doctor John Smith” (*sniff* …Jamie gave him that alias…), he sets to work on his days with UNIT.

Doctor Who kicks into color high-gear with a refreshing short, fantastically funny, brilliantly written post-regeneration story that introduces the Third Doctor, The UNIT Exile period, and the Autons all in one go. The serial has an unrelentingly alien and unfamiliar feel; it is totally foreign to all that precedes it. It's almost a surreal experience, seeming to have no relationship to the familiar Black and White era serials that one is used to... but what is there, this new tone, is good; engaging, funny, witty, colorful, energetic, and intriguing.

The Third Doctor is not what I expected at all. He's so Troughton-ish initially, it sells completely the regeneration- but he quickly becomes his own man, genial and friendly, and far more down-to-earth than either preceding Doctor. (Note from Sarah: I really liked him from the moment he was asking for his shoes...he did it so funny and to this day is a favorite line for all of us)

The new title sequence is very similar in style to the BWW openings, but features not only a very frightening version of the Doctor’s face, but also the first redshift/blueshift time vortex graphics, even reversing directions for the colors.

Returning actor Nicholas Courtney (sadly, as of just last month per this writing, the late Nicholas Courtney) makes the third appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, beginning his era on the program as a true TARDIS-less companion. He does a  very nice job of crafting a deep and realistic character- at the same time skeptical and suspicious of this new character that seems to have stepped into the Doctor’s shoes, and grudgingly open to the possibilities due to some of the bizarre things he’s seen in his times with the Doctor. While he is not as likable as he could be, due to his role of almost acting like the Doctor’s jailer (not altogether unreasonable, as the Doctor has yet to prove he really IS the Doctor, simply regenerated, but still…) and in the next serial will prove neither likable nor open-minded (acting as a two-dimensional near-antagonist) and then settling into a likable-but-not-so-open-minded reverse of his role here in the 3rd Third Doctor serial, Ambassadors of Death- but despite a rough opening, I have confidence that the character will find a balance of likability and depth. (NFS: This is a note from your future...yes he does.)

I have a little less confidence in Liz Shaw, who is frankly a bit obnoxious here, and doesn’t really have enough time or presence in the following two sequels to confirm or dispel this impression. Unfortunately, she’s rather snide and disrespectful, mocking, and haughty in this first outing, acting smugly superior to the Brigadier at every turn, and playing the constant naysayer- and while she gets in a few fair cracks (“So your men can shoot him again?”) by far and large she just seems to be backseat driving and wisecracking while not actually helping or contributing, making her an irritant in the first few chapters. That said, some small redemption is earned in the latter two, as the Doctor’s charmer routine works on her, and she demonstrates a sympathy for this new stranger that the Brig doesn’t, and even aids him by stealing a key- and then being rightly angry when she finds out that the Doctor used her. She certainly improves- acting as an able ally and the only one the Doctor trusts by the end of the story- but a rocky beginning and snarky, mean-spirited personality in the beginning have not endeared her to my heart- I’m still waiting for a second strong serial for her that can change my impressions of her one way or another. (NFS: I didn't mind her but also didn't feel like she had a strong enough character for me to feel strongly one way or another about her.)

And of course… the new Doctor. Attached to his new (stolen) car. Trying to run in a panic at being stuck on Earth- and his resigned depression at finding that he can’t. Commanding. Funny. Shoe-obsessed. And finally being credited, no longer as the in-universe inaccurate “Dr. Who,” the name of the program but not the name of the character. No, that’s now been corrected to the much more accurate… “Doctor Who.”

Oh, well.

Aside from the end credits (which also no longer scroll, instead fading in static screens, as part of a much improved title sequence/cliffhangers setup), we have very much to learn about this new Doctor, who is one of the least-known to me, by reputation or video clip. The first thing that hit me was how… Troughton… he was in his deliveries. He didn’t have the voice or manner that I expected, and for those early hospital-bed scenes, you can practically believe that he is still the Second Doctor, simply in a different body. I can’t say that, three serials in, I quite have a feel for his personality, but he does establish a strong character early on, not dwelling in Troughton’s shadow. Actually, at first he seems a bit of a hustler here, stealing whatever he needs or wants, charming Liz with his eyebrow-talk routine, and then conning her into getting him what he wants- heck, he’s practically an aristocratic, grey-haired version of Sawyer from LOST! But somehow I suspect ‘con-man’ is not the term that will be associated with the Doctor is this run. Still, for all of his reputation as a stuffy, aristocratic type, he’s surprisingly personable and jovial, a very friendly sort of Doctor- perhaps even more so than Troughton in some ways- he’s a bit more genuinely warm, while Troughton was friendly in an “I’m harmless” calculated sort of way. The third seems more focused, more like he really cares about befriending you rather than just putting you at ease while he takes your measure.

Which isn’t to say that he isn’t funny! From his petulant “Do I have to?” when the Brigadier (unjustly) demands the TARDIS key back, to his insane and hilarious wheelchair escape (with a mouth duct-taped shut), this Doctor doesn’t shy away from the humor. While he’s not as expressive or physical-comedy oriented as Troughton (it’s only fair I make the unfavorable comparisons if I’m going to make the favorable ones), having more of a dry-wit and ironic-humor based shtick, he’s still fairly funny in his own right- especially the newly-introduced post-regenerative madness scenes. Unlike Troughton, who just sort of wandered around in a daze (well, maybe he was funnier, but it just didn’t come through in stills), this Doctor (like the 11th after him, to grab an example from my own Who-watching past… which is Pertwee’s future… ah, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, you know…) establishes himself quickly with some strong humor, obsessing over his shoes, making an aforementioned frantic wheelchair escape, and finally reacting in dismay to his new face (and later becoming quite vain about it). 

Despite his scallywag behavior, he does rather endear himself, giving the Nestene a chance to retreat (an element that continues to influence Doctors all the way up to the 10th and 11th, and a trait his predecessors rarely gave, say, the Macra or the Ice Warriors before blowing them up or chucking them into the sun)- a trait that appears to be an ongoing part of his character, a marked and significant-to the-character-and-mythology change. One can hope that the ongoing kleptomania will not be the same- despite ATM and hospital clothes examples to the contrary in the New Series (Indeed, based on a viewing of this serial, Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor now seems to me more of an amalgam of the 2nd and 3rd Doctors, with more of the mannerisms of the former than the latter). Still, despite the humor, the second-chances, a return of the gung-ho bloodthirsty doctor from Seeds of Death, etc., I think the greatest Doctor moment focus lies on his exile, his panicked attempt to escape in the TARDIS, his sorrowful resignation at the end… it’s a sad moment to see the Doctor’s wings clipped, and a heavily impacting one to throw the new actor straight into- Petrtwee handles it well. (The DVD also features a partially-completed fan film which has a ‘Series 6B’ variation story in which a half-regenerated Doctor escapes the Time Lords before the process is complete- noteworthy, as it contains Jon Pertwee’s final performance, ever.)

For better or worse, UNIT is now also a central focus of the show, meaning a lot more gun battles and a lot more uniforms. Whether this change will be beneficial or not remains to be seen, but it does work well as a plot device to get the Earth-bound Doctor involved in extraterrestrial situations. (A direction the series would have gone in even if Troughton hadn’t announced his intention to make the sixth series his last; the fact that the color/UNIT/Earth transition also happened to be a change of Doctors only aided the clean break).

This serial also introduces the Autons, a living plastic race traditionally used in Doctor introduction stories as a menace strong enough to build a story around, but weak enough not to outshine the Doctor. They are extremely creepy in this serial, and very effective… not only in their plastic forms, but the pulsating-eye-and-tentacle-monster at the end, which is a pretty cool bit of puppeteering. Here too is the famous moment in Who history where shop dummies smash out of their displays and begin wreaking havoc in the streets- which has a very massive feeling of scale to it that similar scenes, like The Invasion, failed in. (It’s also much mocked for not actually showing a single pane of glass breaking, just using sound effects, as they didn’t have the budget to break the glass- an oversight corrected in the New Series opener, Rose, with a re-staging of a similar scene.)

Lastly, we have the effects. Ambitious at times, simple at others- from a fairly laughable shot of meteorites falling in perfect formation (it worked in Space Pirates, but…) to a fairly interesting explosion/explosion played in reverse/vanish effect for disintegration (‘Total destruction,’ as it is dubbed) that looks pretty cool. It seems that Doctor Who is a bit less of an FX show now, being Earth-based… but it’s still not without a few notables per serial. There’s a nice model Earth to start things off, a trend that series openers for the New Series have long continued.

Oh, and the Doctor now has a car, a jalopy, which I think is truly his surrogate TARDIS- he lavishes it with all of the affection and tinkering and protectiveness that he had for his space/time machine while it lies unused in a UNIT store-room. We’ll be seeing much more of it in serials to come, much to everyone but the Doctor’s dismay.

Great moments:
“Shoes!”, the wheelchair chase, and all of the post-regenerative moments. Plus, the Doctor’s attempted escape.

So, this is our introduction to Doctor number Three. A simple story, thankfully short, focusing more on the Doctor than the menace- this works well. It’s funny, establishes the characters and settings well, gives us some good new villains- all in all, not a bad day’s work. 4 out of 5 “Shoes!” for Spearhead From Space, the dawn of a new era… well, actually, about half a dozen separate new eras, some of which persisted for only a few years, and others still in practice today. Either way, not a bad cornerstone for them.

Dating: (Note from Sarah: Warning timey wimey type stuff ahead.)
Dating notation: Arrived at through a chain- Victoria mentions that Abominable Snowmen took place in 1935. In Web of Fear, Travers notes that it has been 40 years. This would place it in 1975. However, Silverstein, the museum owner, says it was 30 years. Assuming that 10 years don’t pass between the Yeti activating and the later siege when the Doctor arrives… this would place it about 1965. This is consistent with the lack of the Victoria line on the subway maps, which was completed in 1968. Regardless, Lethbridge-Stewart references the Invasion as being 4 years later, placing it in 1979 as per Travers statement, and 1969 as per Silverstein’s. We will assume Silverstein’s as additional evidence leans more in favor of this date, and Travers may just be senile. And the brigadier’s age in 2009’s appearance on the Sarah Jane Adventures certainly suggests that these stories either took place in the 1970s, or else he aged 40 years in the course of 30 years.

Supporting this, the not-quite-canon-but-seen-on-screen-in-the-Sarah-Jane-Adventures-so-maybe-partly-canon "official" in-universe UNIT website created in 2005 for the New Series’ revival, notes that “UNIT was formed in 1968 in response to the "London Underground" incident” (The Web of Fear), which would place that story pre-1968, supporting the 1965 date (and The Invasion post-1968, making its 4-year-later date no later than 1972, supporting Silverstein’s statement instead of Travers’ once again). It also calls January 25th, 2005, the “35th anniversary of UNIT's involvement in "Project Waxwork"” (the assault on Auto Plastics from the end of this serial), suggesting that this serial occurred on the airdate of the final part, January 24th, 1970- again, suggesting that Silverstein is right, and these stories take place concurrently to the time they were aired.

Production statements, however, do imply that this story- and those following- take place in the ‘futuristic’ 1980s. Pertwee said so in publicity interviews. In fact, as noted in The Invasion, production statements and on-air announcements indicate that the story, with the formation of UNIT, took place in 1975 or 1976, definitely supporting the 1980s date here. However, all of this was behind the scenes only, and never established onscreen (or was it?), which is what canon derives from.

So, when do these stories take place? Unlike the constant “near-future” stories of Troughton’s era, these stories all take place in the same time! But which time period is it- the ‘modern’ 70s, or the ‘futuristic’ 80s? Fan debate has raged to the point that the UNIT website tongue-in-cheek-ly notes "[UNIT] quickly expanded, making our presence felt in a golden period that spanned the sixties, the seventies, and, some would say, the eighties." And the Tenth Doctor himself notes in ‘The Sontarran Stratagem’ that he worked with UNIT “In the mid-Seventies. Or was it the Eighties?”

So what’s the verdict for the purposes of this blog, which attempts to coherently link all of the Doctor Who events into a coherent timeline? (Itself an exercise in futility, as the actions in any given adventure could theoretically render every story set in a time period afterwards drastically altered). Clearly, it will have to be on a case-by-case basis! Onscreen evidence says to me that, as of this serial, I have to come down in favor of the earlier, contiguous-with-the-air-date dating of 1970. We’ll see how this develops…

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