Streaming Who: Spearhead From Space

Gone before his time. Punished for breaking Time Lord law of non-interference. Exiled to 20th Century Earth. Forced to regenerate.

Things weren’t looking good for The Doctor at the end of Patrick Troughton’s final serial, The War Games. It was one of the more tragic regenerations. Not only because Troughton’s three years had defined the role for so many. But because he wasn’t sick or dying. He wasn’t in the middle of stopping evil. The regeneration was not necessary. The Time Lords forced it on him.

The Doctor went in the Tardis in one face and Black & White. He came out with another face and, for the first time, in color.

I said a little while back that when you’re New To Who the ’80s can be an intimidating looking time in the series. I went on to explain that if you give it a chance you’ll probably like it. The same goes for the four years known as The Pertwee Era.

Of the decades worth of Who material Jon Pertwee’s time as the 3rd Doctor seemed to be the strangest to me. I can’t even say for sure what it is about his term that worried me. I think it’s probably because no one ever talks about it. Who fans go on at length about their favorite Doctors. Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton coming up time after time. Some pretty die hard fans mention Sylvester Mccoy and Peter Davison. They offer a nod of respect to William Hartnell for being the first. Remark (rightfully) that Paul Mcgann was never given a fair shot. They Blindly scoff at Collin Baker (a Doctor with potential for greatness who was mishandled by the producers). Yet no one really talks about Jon Pertwee. I came to think of him as the Doctor the Whoniverse forgot.

The things I did hear about him were contradicting. He’s the most authoritarian. Too serious. A goofball. Hard to take seriously. Too energetic. Too boring. I honestly heard all of those things spoken about him. I cast those comments aside and looked at the facts. He was the oldest actor to play part, which didn’t matter much. He was also the second longest serving Doctor.

The dude had to be doing something right.

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I also found that a great deal of the Doctor Who mythos was first introduced in those four years. The fact that The Doctor has two hearts. Regeneration is given a name and further explained. His home planet is named and its location in the universe given. Several classic villains make their first appearances. The most significant probably being The Master. Fan favorite companions like Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith enter the Whoniverse. A lot of people may not talk about these four years but it became obvious that they helped solidify the foundation that the rest of the series could stand on. I had to see it for myself.

Well, where better to start researching something than at the beginning? Netflix (I know I’m pimping their service like crazy. Trust me when I tell you that I ain’t seein’ a nickel for it.) finally took the few classic Who stories they’ve selected for streaming and put them in chronilogical order. That makes it easy for you to pop on Jon Pertwee’s first Adventure, Spearhead From Space.

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This story is so fun it’s criminal. It was written by legendary, and I mean LEGENDARY Doctor Who scribe Robert Holmes. Before Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies there was Robert Holmes. No one would have more of a long-lasting influence on the series and its universe. So much of what we now know as Who lore flowed from his pen. I couldn’t think of anyone better to introduce the next era of Who.

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We get the Autons, living plastic with a mission to replace us, murdering cizens on the streets in the cold light of early morning. Hilarious side characters that keep you laughing and the plot moving. A brand new companion with a mind and wit of her own. And a fun, exciting, charming Doctor played entirely strait. He wasn’t a grumpy old man or a cosmic hobo. He was a man of action with a mind for science. (I’m abreviating Mr. Pertwee’s own statement on the character.)

I was genuinely enrgized by this story. It had a slow start. Holmes introduced all the players in turn and set them in their places. Once the stage is set and the story gets rolling it was a total blast.

Jon Pertwee had me laughing one minute. Smiling the next. And glued to his actions the next. He reminded me a bit of David Tennant’s performance. He doesn’t yell, spin, or jump as much as David but he has all the charisma and ads a dash of class and refinement.

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Nicholas Courtney is a gem as the head of UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The character is every bit as important to the series as any companion. His admiration and bafflement of the Doctor is wonderful. There is a constant expression on his face of, “I’ve seen some strange stuff, Doctor, but you take the intergalactc cake.”

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I’m ashamed to admit I knew almost nothing of Liz Shaw when coming into this. Sad to say, but the first I’d heard of her was when the actress, Caroline John, passed away this past June. What a surprise she was. She starts the story physically incapable of giving a shit about what the Brigadeire was trying to tell her and skeptical of anything outside of what science can already explain. By the end she’s a companion with a new understanding of the complexities of the universe. She’s got a smart mouth that made me laugh several times. Unlike more recent feisty companions (::cough:: Amy, Clara::cough::) she isn’t cocky or annoying or flirty. In fact those I get the feeling that she would find those things to be a serious waste of her time.  Her and The Doctor are great together. I can’t wait to see more of their chemistry.

My only real problem with the story is the editing and a few of the minor roles. Lines are lost in jump cuts. Shots linger on nothing for ridiculous amounts of time. The speed of the actors movements and dialogue leave the editor in the dust. It took me right out of the story much of the time.

A lot of the humor is dry. The kind of thing that has to be timed just right and delievered with skill to be funny. Nicholas Courtney and Ms. John pull it off with mastery. A few of the secondary characters do a pretty good job. But many of the characters who pop in and out of th story in a single scene are just atrocious. I had to consider if a line was meant to be stupid or dry. Was it a joke or really bad? Coupled with the just plain sickening editing and some of it becomes nauseating. Luckily it doesn’t eat up much of the running time.

This is also the first time that the quality of special effect bothered me a bit. There are scenes when the Autons are cold and troubling. Then there are other scenes when their masks are seconds from falling off. Some of the props and explosions come off as failed chemistry experiments. I boil it down to this being the first time the production staff is working in color. I have no facts to support this, but I’ll go with it anyway.

Like I said, the story is such fun you’ll likely look right past any imperfections. A great start to an often unremarked yet quite remarkable era.

The Doctors will return in The Three Doctors.

The Doctors will return in The Three Doctors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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