Thursday, 5 April 2018
Inspirations - Spearhead From Space
January 1970 saw Doctor Who broadcast in colour for the first time. Spearhead From Space began life as a story called "Facsimile", by Robert Holmes. He had been asked by Producer Derrick Sherwin to launch the new format for the show, one where the Doctor is exiled to Earth. Holmes looked for a potential threat which viewers might conceivably imagine coming from their own homes, and hit upon the idea of plastic becoming the conduit for an alien force. Plastic has become big news at the time of writing this, and we might finally be taking some action to make the planet less appetising for the Nestene Consciousness...
Although he had been a power behind the throne for some time, Sherwin was to step down as Producer after just two stories (albeit 16 episodes worth). The insecure new star, Jon Pertwee, arrived to find that the person who had cast him was about to leave. Previous Producer Peter Bryant had moved on to oversee the troubled series Paul Temple, and Sherwin found himself being ordered to transfer over to help him. He had already been contemplating moving on from Doctor Who, devising some ideas for other adventure series of his own (such as Special Projects Air, collaborating with John Rollason, who had played Harold Chorley in The Web of Fear). We'll talk about his replacement next time.
Pertwee came from a light entertainment background, having appeared in a number of comedies and musicals (check out his singing skills in the Billy Fury vehicle I've Gotta Horse, for an example). It was as a voice artist on radio that he was best known. It was his colleague on The Navy Lark, Tenniel Evans (Carnival of Monsters), who suggested he put himself forward to replace Patrick Troughton when it was announced that he was leaving. Not regarding himself as a serious actor, he decided to try anyway, only to discover that he was already under consideration. He liked to tell the story that when he asked Sherwin and Bryant how he should play the role he was told just to be himself - only to reply that he didn't know who that was, as he had always hidden behind make-up and funny voices.
He wore a business suit to his first photo-call, accompanied by a Yeti - which is why he chose this particular monster as the one you'd be surprised to find sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec. He claimed that this is how his Doctor would dress. A follow up press appearance saw him don some of his grandfather's clothes, including a cape, and this would inspire his eventual flamboyant, dandy-ish look. One idea of him resorting to the Spanish guitar when pondering problems was not followed up, mercifully.
To help bridge the transition to the new Doctor, and the new format, UNIT was brought back, once again commanded by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). They had been trialed in The Invasion. It had originally been planned that the Brigadier would have different staff working under him in each story - to suggest the size of the organisation - and this led to the various seconds-in-command of the 7th Season. Here we get Captain Munro, on secondment from the Regular Army, for instance.
It had been hoped that Zoe might have stayed on as companion to ease the changeover further, but Wendy Padbury had decided to leave with Troughton and Frazer Hines. In her place came Liz Shaw, who would be a scientist and a more adult foil for the Doctor. She is played by Caroline John, who wanted to break into TV after a successful stage career - including working with Sir Laurence Olivier. She claimed that she sent bikini shots of herself around various producers when other means to attract work failed. She did not own a TV so did not really know the series, and bought a scientific encyclopedia to help with any jargon she might encounter. She hired a TV in order to watch her first appearances on the show, only to break it.
The gap between Part 12 of The War Games, and the first part of this story was the longest there had ever been for the series - a whole 6 months. At the end of Troughton's reign, there had been a mere 8 days between recording an episode and its broadcast, with only a few weeks between seasons. The new series would see much shorter season lengths.
The production of this story almost turned into a disaster, as a strike hit the BBC. Studio cameramen were not happy at the extra work, for no extra pay, they were having to put in due to the changeover to colour. Much was riding on the relaunch, so Sherwin suggested that, as there was a considerable amount of 16mm filming involved anyway, the whole thing could be made that way. Film cameramen at the BBC were members of a different union - one that was not on strike. BBC premises would be used, which would help with insurance and permissions. We can therefore thank the strike for this story becoming the first adventure of the original run to be made available as an HD Blu-Ray release.
As for the story itself, then, we can spot a couple of inspirations - beginning with the story's opening. Quatermass II, broadcast from October to November 1955, begins with a military radar tracking team. They observe small meteorites landing in the vicinity. In the Quatermass serial they contain a fraction of a gestalt alien creature. Unable to thrive in our atmosphere, they attach themselves to a human host who falls under their mental domination. As with the Autons here, those infected are sent out to gather other meteorites when they land. The alien is then created in a tank.
Another big inspiration is a previous work by Holmes. 1966 saw the release of a low budget British science fiction film called Invasion. It was written by Roger Marshall, but from a storyline by Holmes. A UFO crash lands in rural England, and the occupant is taken to a cottage hospital. The army turn up soon after. The commanding officer was played by Barrie Ingham, who had played Paris in The Myth Makers, and Alydon in the first Peter Cushing Dalek movie. Other aliens then arrive and try to abduct the first one from the hospital, after setting up a heat barrier around it - but that's for a later Doctor Who story.
Malcolm Hulke would have been around the Doctor Who production office at the time this story was commissioned and produced, having worked on the previous story with Script Editor Terrance Dicks, and he would have been preparing the story that was to follow it - The Silurians. Hulke had co-written The Faceless Ones with friend David Ellis, and it had originally been set in a department store where aliens were disguised as shop window mannequins. Holmes must surely have heard this mentioned, as he has the Autons disguised in the same way - leading to the story's best known scenes.
These would become an inspiration themselves - for Russell T Davies when he relaunched the show in 2005.
One of the Autons was credited as Ivan Ortron. This was actually Robin Squire, who had joined the series as Terrance Dicks' assistant. The actor originally cast proved to be too claustrophobic to wear the mask, and so Squire was roped in. Another last minute replacement was Sherwin, who held an Equity Card, taking over as the car park attendant who is berated by the Doctor when he turns up at UNIT HQ (which appears to be built under St Pancras Station). The actor cast was incompetent, apparently.
Before we go, a few firsts and lasts in this story. The Doctor is now credited as "Doctor Who" at the end, rather than "Dr. Who" as it had been throughout the 1960's. It is the last appearance of the Morok Freezing Machine prop (which was also seen as the Wheel's X-Ray laser), and the Doctor is stated categorically to have two hearts. This last item has proven problematic in continuity terms, as previous stories had seen him X-Rayed, have his chest examined, and refer to his heart in the singular.
Lastly - see how many of the Madame Tussauds waxworks you can recognise. One half of the room seems to feature world leaders, whilst the other half has British religious figures.
Next time: The new Producer is thrown in at the deep end, and Malcolm Hulke thinks the new format is limiting, but Terrance Dicks has other ideas about that...