Spearhead from Space Blu-ray

Doctor Who’s history has been filled with fortuitous accidents. One of its best known is that due to industrial action at BBC Television Centre, producer Derek Sherwin persuaded his superiors to let him make Jon Pertwee’s debut adventure as the Doctor entirely on film. The meant an especially glossy launch for the colour era of the show. Now over forty years later, that decision means that Spearhead from Space can be genuinely re-mastered from 16mm film print to high definition digital video. It is the only ‘classic’ Doctor Who story which is worth releasing on blu-ray*. Intended as a companion to the last DVD release of the story, it features exclusive documentary extras and a unique re-graded colour scheme.

Exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, a newly regenerated Doctor lies unconscious in a forest as strange meteorites land around him. UNIT, led by Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, arrive to investigate and recruit him as their new scientific advisor, along with the brilliant Liz Shaw. Together they face the first invasion of the Nestenes and their lethal plastic foot soldiers, the Autons.

The most important question about this new edition is – how good does it look? The answer is – amazing. I’ve sometimes struggled to see that much of a difference between DVD and Blu-ray, particularly with new films, but here the picture quality is startlingly clearer, sharper and smoother than the previous Special Edition release. It’s a cliché to say it looks like it was made yesterday, and it doesn’t anyway, the clothes, technology and atmosphere remain wholly 1970. But it does feel even more like a British cinema film, albeit a low budget SF movie made by Amicus or similar. Because this version is envisaged as an addition to the DVD range rather than a replacement, the restorers have deliberately regraded the colour to a colder hue, giving the story a more subliminally sinister feel. The soundtrack is the same cleaned up one used on the previous DVD, except one or two controversial alterations have been reversed, most notably the return of the stuttering TARDIS landing effect as the Third Doctor arrives.

Spearhead from Space is Derrick Sherwin’s blueprint for what he wanted Doctor Who to be, more adult, contemporary and an emphasis on slick professionals battling the unknown. Writer Robert Holmes partially reworks his own 1966 SF movie Invasion with the addition of the Nestenes, an ingenious idea about formless aliens with an affinity for all things plastic. It gives us the Autons, blank faced plastic dummies with hidden blasters in their hands.

The whole story has a great pace to it. Whilst the Doctor is largely bed-ridden in episode one, there’s plenty of intriguing mystery. Once he’s out of the hospital and dressed in frilly shirt and flamboyant suit, the Third Doctor arrives almost fully formed. Considering this is one of the first times Jon Pertwee has played a leading man heroic role, rather than a comedy eccentric in heavy make-up, he’s remarkably assured. Caroline John makes a good debut too, perfectly cast as a young science high-flyer. Personally I’ve always preferred Liz Shaw’s more mature relationship to the Doctor to Jo Grant’s persona of a favourite niece. Meanwhile as the Brigadier, Nick Courtney is the veteran character here and he basically continues the good work he began in his first appearance during The Web of Fear.

There are some great set pieces, such as an Auton causing an army jeep to crash, a pitched battle between soldiers and Autons at the factory and best of all, shop window dummies coming to life and massacring the shoppers in a London street, a scene so iconic that the revived series paid homage to it in the very first Christopher Eccleston adventure. However it is a shame that the climatic fight between the Doctor and the Nestene mother creature is more risible that exciting, with a gurning Pertwee pretending to fight a host of rubbery tentacles. That should not detract however from what is otherwise a very entertaining SF adventure.

 

Extras

Deciding to not to remake the extensive behind the scenes extras on the Special Edition DVD, BBC Worldwide went in a different direction with two exclusive documentaries on the stars of the show: Jon Pertwee and Caroline John.

A Dandy and a Clown looks at Pertwee’s life story, beginning with his difficult childhood thanks to a cold father and an absent mother, his rebellious school days, life in the navy and going through to his successful career on radio, film and television. The problem with Pertwee’s life is that there is so much to cover, that inevitably this 42 minute programme can only skim the surface. For example it would have been good to learn more about his film career and the stories behind some of the intriguing stills which sail past. As it is, it is left to scriptwriter Terrance Dicks to sum it up in a couple of sentences. The section on his post Doctor Who career is almost completely taken up with Worzel Gummidge, understandable considering it was the actor’s proudest achievement in his career, but I would have like to have heard about his quiz show Whodunnit and other guest roles. Finally Jon Pertwee did have a darker side. There plenty of stories over the years revealing his vanity, egocentricity and insecurity but again these are summed up in a couple of quotes and shunted aside. For better or worse, this is definitely a celebration of Pertwee, rather than a warts and all portrait.

Carrying On reveals the story behind one of the lesser known Doctor Who companions, and it turns out the Caroline John had an interesting life and an acting career that was much more than just one year in a BBC SF show, even if it didn’t turn out to be as successful as she had hoped. She had demonstrated an interest in acting as a child and enjoyed a prestigious career at RADA and then the National Theatre company. Lawrence Olivier was in charge and actors like Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon were playing supporting roles. So she looked on course for a respectable theatrical career before deciding to audition for television roles, notably trying to shake off her serious image with a portfolio of bikini photos. Only working on Doctor Who for the year and not having her contract renewed put a big dent in her confidence however, and she semi-retired from acting to raise her family. For years she laboured under the idea that she has failed in the part, but thankfully the 1990’s saw her discovering how much Liz Shaw was loved by fans. With her family now grown up she went back to the theatre, along with voiceover work and occasional TV work like Harry Enfield and Chums. The documentary is filled with warm recollections from friends and family and is ultimately quite touching. Sadly a battle with cancer took her from them far too soon.

Making up the remainder of the extras are a collection of short items. Film elements from the creation of the title sequence are likely only to interest the most fervent of fans. There’s a segment showing just how much the original film was cleaned up and enhanced. Finally a coming soon trailer for the Special Edition release of The Green Death on DVD.

If you do not already own one of the two DVD releases, then you may regret the lack of behind the scenes extras, in which case buy the Mannequin Mania boxset containing the special edition and the sequel Terror of the Autons. If on the other hand you own a Blu-Ray player, then this is a unique opportunity to see 70’s Doctor Who in 21st century HD quality. So it is lucky that the story is good enough to deserve the restoration.