I love, love, love the last part of this story. The bit where the window dummies come to life and start indiscriminately killing pedestrians and policemen is just terrific. It’s one of my favorite scenes in all of Doctor Who, directed and shot just perfectly, with some of the most well-matched incidental music in the entire series to accompany it.
Our son handled it very bravely. His jaw unclenched and he looked in wide-eyed surprise at what he was seeing, but nothing really frightened him this time out. There are some very nicely staged action scenes throughout the episode – and, in fairness, Jon Pertwee making faces while great big green plastic tentacles wrap around his head – but while they were all well-staged by the director, Derek Martinus, they weren’t quite enough for him. He was ready for the tanks and the bombs. His favorite part was when the Nestenes’ big gestalt body died and all the Autons collapsed. “I liked it best when the bad guys either die or get knocked out!” he said.
Overall, he said that “Spearhead” was “pretty cool,” but Pertwee has yet to dislodge Patrick Troughton as his favorite Doctor so far. But he’ll have plenty more chances. There are twenty-three more serials to go!
I like how our son correctly likes and yet doesn’t like all the frightening bits. He liked/didn’t like the Auton coming to the remote cottage and terrifying Mrs. Seeley, and he liked/didn’t like the Auton facsimile of General Scobie showing up at the general’s door at the cliffhanger. That’s how it should be when you’re six. We had to pause and give him a chance to run for his security blanket.
I mentioned last time that this restoration looks amazing, but to be clear, “Spearhead from Space” has always looked great because the whole thing is – for the only time in Who‘s original run – on film. The plan, when they made it in late 1969, was to do all the relevant location work and then go into the studio and do all the interior sets on videotape as usual. But while the BBC had been slowly moving to color for a couple of years already, there was still a very tight fit to get all the drama and comedy and light entertainment in the studios with the new color equipment. When one of the unions involved called a strike, there wasn’t room to remount this serial when everything was rescheduled.
This was a very similar situation to the one that would befall the story “Shada” about a decade later. It was canceled after its location work and one of its three studio sessions. But Derrick Sherwin, who admittedly tells the story on one of the special features making himself out as quite a hero, wasn’t going to let that happen in ’69, and he got some 16mm color cameras and told the location manager to get him some facilities to get the story in the can. The result is excellent, even if it’s a little slower-paced than what our son is used to seeing. It actually is a little more deliberate than the black-and-white years of Who, but that’s going to change in a big way in tomorrow night’s installment. It’s a great serial, one of the program’s very best.
Kind of makes you wish Sherwin was still around the BBC in 1979. Reckon he’d have got “Shada” made?
Anyway, I’m jumping ahead just a touch, but this was actually Sherwin’s last Doctor Who production. While he was deep in the trenches working on season seven, he got the call to rejoin his colleague Peter Bryant on Paul Temple. The first season of this detective series began broadcast in the UK, also in color, in November 1969, but it needed some help. So Sherwin finished work on “Spearhead” and rejoined Bryant for three seasons on Temple as Barry Letts came on board to produce the rest of Who‘s seventh year. After Paul Temple ended, Sherwin went on to work on the BBC’s star-packed drama Man Outside and a ghost story called Nobody’s House for Tyne Tees Television.
Another first appearance in this Doctor Who serial: John Woodnutt, who will appear in at least two more Who serials in the years ahead, joins the cast as Hibbert, the manager of a plastics factory that’s been taken over by Channing and his as-yet-unnamed Autons. We meet the mannequins for the first time in this episode: a small group of bald and eyeless shop dummies that dress in dark blue denim suits. The cliffhanger, in which an ex-employee of the factory makes his way into his old lab to find it full of strange equipment and motionless Autons, is one that’s much loved by fans. When one of the Autons slowly reacts and walks toward the intruder, our son was up like a rocket. “What’s going to happen?!” he shouted.
But he was quite clear that the ending was one of only two parts that he enjoyed. “This is not too exciting,” he explained, although he really did love the bit where the Doctor has a quick bath and leaves the cottage hospital after stealing some other peoples’ clothes, and a big fancy red car. Otherwise, it’s not engaging him quite as much so far.
Speaking of mannequins, I do want to recommend that everybody buy the upgraded Special Edition DVD of this story, even if you have the original R1 release already. I’ve never felt like I had the disposable income to purchase all the many Special Editions that they’ve released, but early last year I decided to finish my DVD collection and was first annoyed to see that I’d waited too long and missed the R1 edition of “Terror of the Autons,” and, out of print, it was then going for $100 on Amazon, and secondly annoyed that in the UK, “Terror” was issued in a box set with the Special Edition of “Spearhead” called Mannequin Mania. You can’t get one without the other.
But the annoyance was short-lived, because they did an amazing job restoring a serial that had always looked perfectly good, I thought. But now the colors just pop out and it looks amazingly vibrant. It honestly looks like it was shot on 35mm film instead of 16mm, and the only annoyance left afterward was realizing that the rest of the series is going to be on that blasted British videotape instead of looking as fabulous as this every week.
In January 1970, Doctor Who returned after its longest break ever – six whole months – and it was all in color with a new lead, played by Jon Pertwee. When our son saw the new psychedelic title sequence, he went “Ooooh, color!” Behind the scenes, Derrick Sherwin was still producer, at least briefly, and Terrance Dicks was settling in for five more years as script editor. Nicholas Courtney was back as the Brigadier, now a regular member of the cast. And there’s a new companion in the form of Caroline John as the Cambridge-based scientist Liz Shaw.
The new Doctor spends almost this entire episode in bed. It’s the first act of a four-part serial by Robert Holmes, and our hero is experiencing what we’d later call the after-effects of his regeneration, but at the time, all that was explained was that the Time Lords changed his appearance. His antics are no less silly than what we’d occasionally see from Patrick Troughton; our son giggled as the Doctor grumbled about his missing shoes, and he had a field day when the Doctor made an escape bid from some shiny-faced men under the direction of guest villain Hugh Burden. He makes a getaway in a wheelchair, and our son just adored that.
Our boy didn’t really notice that the strange men have shiny faces. We’ll deduce later that these, along with Burden’s character (called Channing), are the first of the Autons that we’ll meet. The Autons only appeared in two serials in the original run of the show, but they quickly became iconic enemies and were used to relaunch Doctor Who in 2005 and appeared again in the form of some Roman legionnaires in 2010.
A couple of guest actors here would return in slightly larger roles later in the Pertwee years. Talfryn Thomas, who we’ll later see in “The Green Death,” plays the hospital’s porter, and Prentis Hancock, who will appear in “Planet of the Daleks,” is a reporter with a couple of lines. They’re only in this episode; we have several new characters to meet next time.