Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Story 51 - Spearhead From Space

In which UNIT are investigating a mysterious meteorite shower which has come down in a forest in Essex. They are particularly interested as there was a similar, smaller shower in the same area some time ago. Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart brings in a scientist from Cambridge - Dr Liz Shaw - to help him with his investigations. He discovers that a battered blue Police Box has turned up in the woods - a man found unconscious beside it now taken to the local cottage hospital. The Brigadier takes Liz to the hospital - expecting to see the Doctor. The tall, grey haired man they see lying in the bed is a stranger to him. However, he appears to know the Brigadier...
A man named Channing is hanging around the hospital foyer, and he overhears someone theorising that the stranger found in the woods may know the whereabouts of one of the meteorites. Soon after, a pair of ambulance men try to kidnap the Doctor. They fail, but the Doctor is wounded by a UNIT soldier in error, and slips into a self-induced comatose state. Doctors have discovered that he has two hearts (10 beats per minute), inhuman blood type and other unusual physiology. A specialist is called in.

Nearby, a man named Ransome has just returned to his work at a plastics factory to find he has been sacked. Boss Hibbert has a new business partner - Channing - and the factory has been given over to automation. Ransome breaks into a high-tech restricted area - and is attacked by a living plastic humanoid. This is an Auton. He reports what he has seen to UNIT. Troops find one of the meteorites intact. It is a glowing plastic sphere. Soon after, and Auton steals it back after forcing a UNIT jeep to crash. Channing is also an Auton, but of a more advanced form. Hibbert is under his mental control. The meteorites are really carriers of an alien intelligence - the Nestene Consciousness. Each Auton is animated by a fraction of this intelligence. The vital control sphere is missing. It has been found by a poacher named Seeley, and hidden in a lead box at his cottage.

The Doctor recovers and steals the rather flamboyant clothes of the visiting specialist - as well as his vintage car. He has a homing device in his wristwatch which takes him to the TARDIS - now in a lab at UNIT's London HQ. The Doctor attempts to escape in the TARDIS, but discovers that his memory has been tampered with by the Time Lords, as part of his exile. He joins the investigation. There are three types of Auton which the Nestenes plan to use in their invasion of Earth. First are crude humanoids, such as the one seen by Ransome. Second are identical replicas of real people. The third are an army of shop window mannequins. Autons have a built in energy weapon in their hands. Seeley's sphere is found and brought to UNIT HQ. However, an Auton replica of Major General Scobie takes it to the plastics factory. The invasion begins with the activation of the shop window dummies. The replicas sow confusion. The Doctor creates a UHF device which can destroy the fraction of Nestene energy animating each Auton - but only at close quarters. At the factory, Hibbert is killed when he rebels. The Doctor destroys the Auton Scobie and Channing. In a tank is a tentacled creature made of plastic - a form for the Nestene Consciousness to use on Earth. The Doctor uses his UHF device to destroy it  - and all the Autons collapse. The Doctor agrees to stay on with UNIT on two conditions - that Liz remain to work alongside him, and that he get a vintage car of his own. He adopts the name of John Smith...

This four part adventure was written by Robert Holmes, and was broadcast between the 3rd and 24th January, 1970. It is the first story of series 7, with a new Doctor in comic performer Jon Pertwee, and a new companion played by Caroline John. It is the first story to be broadcast in colour. It was also recorded entirely on film and on location.
The reason for the unusual recording set up was a strike which meant that studio filming was unavailable. The launch of a new colour series of Doctor Who, with a new Doctor, could not be threatened by industrial action, and so the go ahead was given for out-going producer Derrick Sherwin to make the story on film and on location (mostly BBC premises).
Jon Pertwee famously said that when he asked how he should play the Doctor, he was told just to be himself. He replied that he didn't know who that was. Born in July 1919, he had led a highly eventful life. He was obsessed with transport of all kinds - especially of the fast variety - and had seen service in the Royal Navy. He was a keen scuba diver, hunting for treasure in the Mediterranean. He had a chequered educational history, having been kicked out of a couple of schools. He was told that he would never be an actor - partly due to a perceived lack of self-discipline in his earlier days, and a slight speech impediment. Desperate to be a performer, he drifted into stage and radio comedy and Variety.
Caroline John (born 1940) on the other hand was a classically trained actress. After a period out of work, she had decided to get some publicity photographs done in a swimsuit - and suddenly she found herself up for the role of companion in Doctor Who.

The production team had been planning a change of format for the programme for some time. Alien planets were losing their interest for the viewers due to the difficulty of realising them on low budgets. It was thought that Earthbound stories would be cheaper, as you could use real locations and everyday costumes. The programme needed a fresh relaunch, and it was proposed that the Doctor should find himself exiled on Earth, working with a military organisation against a variety of alien threats. The Invasion had been a deliberate piloting of this new format - and also a means of setting up the UNIT structure, though the Brigadier is the only character carried forward (for now). Malcolm Hulke pointed out to Terrance Dicks that this proposed format might limit the type of stories available - alien invasion or mad scientist. Fortunately this proved not to be the case.
Considering the weakness of his two Troughton adventures, it seems surprising that Holmes was entrusted to launch this new era. Sometime after The Space Pirates, a miracle appears to have occurred, as he has suddenly become the gifted - and slightly twisted - writer that we would all come to love. With the new Doctor pretty much sidelined for the first episode, the Brigadier and Liz get a chance to (re)introduce themselves and we get to learn about the impending threat. The Nestene / Autons are an inspired creation. The idea of everyday things becoming deadly - in this case shop window dummies - is a brilliant one. Children could imagine, on boring shopping trips, that those creepy looking dummies might secretly be disguised aliens. The moment when the Autons smash their way out of the shop window and march down the high street, blasting everyone in sight, is rightly one of the programme's iconic images.

Of the guest cast, plaudits have to go to the villainous double act of Hibbert and Channing. Hibbert is John Woodnutt, who will return to the programme as the Draconian Emperor in Frontier in Space, Broton / Duke of Forgill in Terror of the Zygons, and Seron in The Keeper of Traken. Channing is superbly played by Hugh Burden, a veteran of many movies of the 1950's and 60's.
Episode endings for this story are:

  1. The Doctor, his mouth taped shut, has escaped from his abductors. As he pushes his way through the undergrowth, a UNIT soldier panics and shoots at him. He grasps his head and collapses.
  2. Ransome is looking round the restricted area. A number of blank faced figures are lined up behind him. One of them suddenly stirs to life and advances towards him.
  3. Scobie has just offered support to the Brigadier for his investigation of the plastics factory. His doorbell rings and when he opens the door, he is confronted by an exact replica of himself.
  4. The Doctor presents his conditions to the Brigadier for joining forces with UNIT. He adopts the name of John Smith.

Overall, a superb start for the new series, and the new Doctor. The move to colour reinvigorates the series. Pertwee, John and Courtney are all well served. A brilliant new monster and the first real glimpse of how good Robert Holmes was going to be for the series.
Things you might like to know:
  • Holmes reused elements from a low budget feature film he had written (Invasion, released in 1965). These were the alien goings-on around a quiet cottage hospital.
  • The original title was Facsimile - but this rather gave the game away a bit too early.
  • The new opening credits are actually black and white which has been colourised - as you couldn't achieve the "howlaround" effect in colour.
  • The uniformed car park attendant at UNIT HQ is producer Derrick Sherwin. It's not the first time the former actor has been seen in the programme. When the Cybermen begin their Invasion, he is the guy in the car with his head resting on the steering wheel.
  • Jon Pertwee's tattoo is visible in the shower scene. Some fans have made out that this is some kind of Time Lord criminal brand and this even finds its way into one of the novels.
  • The Autons have the distinction of launching three new series of Doctor Who - and introducing two new Doctors. (Daleks have launched four series - but only one Doctor).
  • That is the real Madame Tussaud's waxworks that is seen on screen.
  • You'll spot the same factory location being reused from The Invasion - Cybermen and Autons bursting out of the same doors a year or so apart.
  • There are lots of reused props from earlier stories in the UNIT lab, oldest of which is the Morok freezing machine, which had also appeared in The Wheel in Space as the X-Ray laser.
  • Thanks to the serendipity of being made on film, this story is shortly to receive a Blu-ray release (June 2013, with extra items on both Pertwee and John).

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