Jeff Reviews “DOCTOR WHO: Spearhead from Space – Special Edition (DVD)”
DOCTOR WHO: Spearhead from Space – Special Edition (DVD)
BBC / 1970 / 97 mins / NR
When Patrick Troughton, Frasier Hines and Wendy Padbury decided to leave their roles as The Second Doctor and his companions, Jamie McCrimmon and Zoe Heriot, at the end of “The War Games” in 1969, the future of DOCTOR WHO was once again in doubt. The minds behind the series were able to successfully swap out lead actors once before but would audiences buy that again? The concept of “regeneration” had yet to be named in the series (and wouldn’t until “Planet of the Spiders” some three years later) and we had only just met The Time Lords. Ratings were down and something spectacular had to happen to keep the TARDIS flying.
The creative team gambled big by making several major changes to the series. In January of 1970, DOCTOR WHO returned to British airwaves with a charismatic new lead actor and in a way it had never been seen before on television: in full colour. Did the gamble pay off? Let’s just say that “Spearhead from Space” can arguably be called the beginning of a multi-year “Golden Age” of one of the longest running television series of all time.
Having been found guilty of breaking the Time Lord’s policy of non-interference, The Doctor is forced to “change his appearance,” have his knowledge of time travel blocked and is exiled to Earth for an indeterminate period. The Third Doctor’s (Jon Pertwee) exile occurs at the same time a swarm of meteorites land in the nearby English countryside. While he is recuperating from his regeneration, The Doctor is reunited with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) of the recently formed United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) and must convince him he is the same person that fought beside him twice before, just in a new body. Soon The Doctor is partnered with brilliant scientist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Caroline John) and the team is neck deep solving the mystery of the meteorites and the strange goings on at a local plastics factory.
“Spearhead from Space” is a great example of British science fiction at its best, not just great DOCTOR WHO. The tone and pacing of this story was very reminiscent of the highly acclaimed Quatermass television series of the past. The villainous Autons would only return twice more (to date) in all of the series, but they are one of the most fondly remembered of all DOCTOR WHO baddies. In fact their next appearance, in “Terror of the Autons,” would provoke a national outcry for their scariness and they are who Russell T. Davies chose to launch the new series with. They are potent, powerfully creepy and haven’t been used to death (something Steven Moffat needs to learn with the Weeping Angels).
Pertwee would prove to be the perfect choice for his era’s Doctor. He was a dashing, James Bond-ian character who commanded any situation he was in with authority (completely opposite of the slyly clownish style of Troughton). His exile on Earth set up something DOCTOR WHO hadn’t had before, a regular family of recurring characters with the gang of UNIT, something audiences connected with strongly.
The only misstep of the Third Doctor’s era was in companion Liz Shaw. The writers wanted to break from the traditional female companion whose primary role was to scream and ask The Doctor questions. They wanted a strong female character that was more in tune with the growing women’s liberation movement. This sounded logical and commendable… On paper. While there was nothing at all wrong with John’s performance or the character on the whole (she was well liked among fans) Liz Shaw was simply too smart for her own good. The companion is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the viewers (and DOCTOR WHO was still very much a children’s show at the time) and Liz didn’t need to ask The Doctor anything. She already knew most of the answers. So Liz would last only through this season.
I’ve noted several times before that for most of these “Special Edition” re-releases of classic DOCTOR WHO stories the major upgrade is in the supplement section. Very rarely are the picture and sound quality able to be significantly improved to warrant the double dip. “Spearhead from Space” is one of those exceptions. This release is like night and day compared to the original 2001 DVD. This is a very rare story that was entirely shot on film (rather than a mixture of film and video) and the improvements and restoration that were achieved on this release are substantial.
The full frame 1.33 transfer is magnificent. Amazing detail (for a classic DOCTOR WHO) and even fine detail are evident in every frame. The color is still on the slightly muted side (it was shot on 16mm after all) but is far more natural looking than any other story we’ve seen from this era.
Even the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack has been much improved. The original release sounded very hollow and sometimes far away, and while there are still scenes where the microphone was clearly nowhere near the actors speaking, the fidelity and richness of the overall audio is again significantly improved. This is a jawdropper in terms of technical quality on a classic DOCTOR WHO release. But does it include all of the supplements from that 2001 DVD, you die hard collectors are asking for….
The original 2001 DVD of “Spearhead from Space” included a commentary track with Caroline John and Nicolas Courtney, the fan made “UNIT Recruitment Film,” some of the original trailers and an Easter Egg (in addition to the usual “Photo Gallery” and “Production Notes” feature.) The good news is they are ALL included on this release. The only thing missing is the “Who’s Who” still frame supplement explaining who the main characters are, which I doubt anyone will miss. Throw away that original release! This is all you need!
In addition to all the original supplements, we also get a second, newly recorded commentary track with producer Derrick Sherwin and Script Editor Terrance Dicks.
“Down To Earth: Filming Spearhead from Space” is our making of documentary.
“Regenerations: From Black and White to Colour” is a fascinating look at the impact of moving the series from black and white to color. Input from many of the technical crew at the time goes into detail about all the training they had to do for this. Highly recommended!
A trailer for the Seventh Doctor DVD release “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” rounds out the goodies.
Still a GREAT story that sets up so much to come, “Spearhead from Space” is must see DOCTOR WHO. Highly Recommended!
– Jeff Allen