Mannequins With Attitude
- Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space review by Count Otto Black
This story marks the beginning of the Golden Age of the original series of Doctor Who. People forget that the Patrick Troughton years nearly killed it. Jon Pertwee was given one season to turn things around, and fortunately he succeeded. For over a decade, under him and then Tom Baker, the show went from strength to strength. And then it got silly. But that was all still a long way in the future.
In this, the first adventure in which we saw the Doctor in colour (unless you count those two dreadful Dalek movies with Peter Cushing), the writers tried to get back to basics, with a snappy four-part format, and a considerably more serious Doctor, though not without a dash of the playfulness his predecessor took too far. And because the Doctor was now stranded on Earth (a plot device to keep the costume and scenery budgets as low as possible to offset the cost of filming in colour), instead of tiny wobbly sets made of polystyrene and tinfoil that we had to pretend were alien planets, the monsters could now be let loose in any part of England that isn't too far from Broadcasting House, which suddenly made the show a whole lot scarier. This story includes one of the most famously nightmarish scenes in any Doctor Who episode ever, and it takes place in Chiswick High Street!
Unfortunately, this particular serial has rather a lot of flaws. For one thing, it's such a blatant rewrite of "Quatermass II" that if that hadn't also been made by the BBC they could have been sued for plagiarism. Since that was a long, slow-building tale aimed at adults which relied far more on suspense and vague unease than action, even this dumbed-down rehash ends up with too many long stretches in which strange people behave creepily and dark hints are dropped that something's going on, but not much actually happens. The truly inspired scene in Chiswick got everybody's attention, but in years to come, that was all they really remembered about this serial. By the time the Autons returned in Jon Pertwee's second season, the writers had stopped trying to make a kiddies' version of Quatermass, and woken up to all the bizarre possibilities of a situation where any object made of plastic may be out to get you. Here, they never go further than the idea that shop window dummies are creepy.
It's also problematic that the Doctor is initially so confused by his enforced premature regeneration that for one and a half episodes out of four, he's barely in his own show, and it's left to the supporting cast to explain the situation to each other at great length while getting nowhere, because it's the Doctor's job to figure it all out, but he's either comatose or running around doing silly things in a nightshirt. And although the BBC meant well when they made his new companion an incredibly intelligent woman capable of doing a lot more than screaming until she's rescued, I can see why Liz Shaw suddenly vanished at the end of this season and was replaced by the not-quite-so-bright Jo Grant. The one quality a companion can't do without is likability, and Liz Shaw is strangely unappealing.
So it's a shaky start to a new era, though not without charm. Jon Pertwee's second adventure, in which the Doctor meets the Silurians for the first time, manages a far better blend of quite grown-up themes, notably the ethical dilemma of what to do about adversaries who are extremely dangerous but not truly evil, and giving the kids plenty of good old traditional rubber-suit monster action.
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