13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE
"Not a lot going on, is there?"
The Doctor blasts into a new era, and wow, what a difference.
The colour has a lot to do with its seeming so much more modern, of course, but there's also a quantum jump in sophistication. Spearhead From Space feels like a very adult story, with a lot going on in the plot and some seriously scary monsters.
Apart from a disappointing ending which fizzles out in a sea of woeful tentacles, this is a predictably excellent script from Robert Holmes. First, there are the Autons, who have got to be amongst the best Who monsters ever. The masks, the fold-down hands and the way they come to life all make us vote them Monsters Still Most Likely To Make Us Hide Behind The Sofa. Even the scarves, used to hide the neck joins, work brilliantly, giving the Autons a surreally natty air that makes them even more frightening.
The reason they work as well as they do comes down to two things: we're all creeped out by mannequins, and It Could Happen Here. These two combine into a very powerful nightmare, and the scenes where the Autons are inexorably gunning down people in the street are very dark indeed. It was a serious error of judgment not sticking with the Autons as the prime monsters, as the clingfilm Nestene Consciousness could never be anything other than an anticlimax.
Then there's Holmes's characterisation: it's usually one of his strong points, and Spearhead From Space's script is no exception. The glassy-eyed Channing is memorably creepy, we really care about the fate of poor gibbering Ransome, and even Hibbert, in the standard role of man inadvertently caught up in alien web of deception and derring-do, makes an impact. And even the little parts, like the pompous doctor who's the lawful owner of the Doctor's duds, are a delight. The writing is matched by some great perfomances, with Hugh Burden as Channing and John Smee as Ransome particularly standing out.
As for the majors, Liz Shaw is fabulous. Zoe was refreshingly smart, but she was still a little girl, whereas Liz is a lot more on a par with the Doctor, and it's a welcome novelty seeing the Doctor's collegial relationship with her (annoying "my dear"s aside). What a long way the programme's moved since Susan. (Although not far enough, considering Liz was deemed too smart and bundled out after her first season to make room for the ghastly Jo.) We also love her justifiably snippy exchanges with the Brigadier: their relationship's at its most interesting in this story. The Brigadier, too, is great in this, smart and effective instead of the buffoon he later became. And we really appreciate seeing Nick Courtney, at this time in his prime and one of the most drop-dead gorgeous men in the universe, in living colour. Mmmm.
And the shiny new Doctor? Holmes handles his introduction beautifully. There's a lot to set up here, what with the multiple plot threads and the introduction of Liz Shaw as well as the Doctor's regeneration, and Holmes deals with this by introducing the Doctor very slowly, which gives the Doctor the space he needs to make an impression while building up the tension in the process.
This regeneration, with the Doctor flailing around a bit before getting comfy with his new persona, sets the standard for all the others that follow. It gets off to a slightly comic start, what with the shower scene, the flat cap, the car horn and the comedy music, but the tone quickly sobers up (and stays there, caustic remarks about the military aside, throughout the rest of his tenure).
We love this more serious Doctor: it adds a bit of gravitas which the Second and even the First Doctor's clowning sometimes undermined. Jon Pertwee makes a striking impression even in his very first scene flopping face down into the bracken, and he inhabits the role totally right from the start. And, unfortunate gold bracelet aside, we love love love his outfit. The styliest Doctor by far.
The powerful script and performances are complemented by some dazzling direction: Derek Martinus, in his last Who, outdoes himself here. The jeep crash, the Auton ripping the tent, the shot of Channing through the ribbed glass door: the horror shots are fantastic, but there's also some quieter stuff here, like the press scene shot on hand-held camera and the incredibly icky doll manufacturing scenes, that add tons to the story's style.
All in all, a cracking start for the Third Doctor. It's one of our top ten.
DVD: Pretty good value. The commentary by Nick Courtney and Caroline John's entertaining, the production notes are interesting if a bit basic (and we wish they'd got a proofreader in, as whoever wrote them has zero idea about apostrophes and can't spell either), and we enjoyed the trailers and UNIT recruiting film. Recommended.
MORAL: Life in plastic? Not fantastic.
PHONE HOME, E.T.
The glowing "energy units" sound smirksomely like mobiles.
A MINER PART
Talfryn Thomas, the hospital porter, appears again in The Green Death as a miner.
Look, there's Who stalwart Prentis Hancock (starship captain in Planet of Evil, etc) as Second Reporter!
THE NAKED TRUTH
When the Doctor is showering, you can see on his right hip the edge of a pair of black shorts pulled down low.
GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU, GIRLIE
Why "Miss Shaw" and not "Dr Shaw"?
ALIAS GROUP 4
The Brigadier admonishes the Doctor about attempting to "escape" and asks him to promise he won't try again. Since when did UNIT become prison warders for the Time Lords? And as for the Doctor practically begging to keep the key to his own TARDIS, bit out of character, isn't it?
It's a very nice piece of characterisation when Channing puts his hands behind his back to avoid shaking hands with Scobie.
YOU SAID THESE MANNEQUINS WERE FLEXIBLE
We can see the point of killing Ransome first off, but why bother when he's clearly already spilled all he knows?
THIS ONE'S ER
Waxworks of prominent civil servants? Not very likely, is it?
IT'S DRIVING ME SPARE
We're a bit bamboozled by this whole copying people deal. When the originals-turned-waxworks troop out of Madame Tussaud's, Channing says it's time for them to "begin their work". What work? Surely not the taking over the positions thing - isn't that what the copies are supposed to be doing? If they can control the originals like that, why take copies? What exactly are they keeping the originals for? And why bother sticking them into Tussaud's?
I DIDN'T COME DOWN IN THE LAST SHOWER
Okay, so we know the Nestenes came down in their plastic bubbles at sometime during the last few days. But when and how did the previous Nestenes, the one/s who took over Channing, got the doll factory changed et al, arrive?
AH HA HA HA HA HA!
Handily for the goodies, Channing is very obliging about explaining the Nestene's cunning plans first to Hibbert and then to the Doctor. We do like a cooperative villain.
OH, NO! THE WIND JUST CHANGED!
Jon Pertwee can be a terrible gurner, and there are some horrible examples of this in this episode, including some grade A face-pulling when he's being tentacled.
When Channing's been offed, his Auton corpse demonstrates generous quantities of the ever-fashionable green goo. Whatever would evil villains do without it?