Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Spearhead from Space

Before I begin, I’d like to make it clear that, as impartial as I try to be in these reviews, this will be tough for me.  I will struggle to remain unbiased purely because, at the open-minded and fresh-faced age of 12, I first stumbled across Doctor Who at a friend’s house, on a relatively poor quality video recording from television, and instantly fell in love with it.  The story that brought me into the magical world of the show was this one.

Even now, owning it on both the original release and special edition, it gives me a thrill, putting it into the DVD player.  It isn’t my favourite story, by any means – although it is up there as my favourite Pertwee serial – but it will always be special to me.

Another thing that makes this special for me is that it is by Robert Holmes.  Holmes had already written two other serials, both for Patrick Troughton (who I think of as my Doctor, despite me age!), but this is his first truly outstanding story.  This serial saw a number of things within the structure of the show changing, for better or worse, and so it’s pivotal on those grounds.  It saw in a newly regenerated Doctor, saw the first colour episodes, introduced UNIT as the Doctor’s new family, following his Earth-bound exile by the Time Lords in The War Games, mentions that the Doctor has two hearts, and it was entirely shot on film, for the first time ever.  Where Holmes works best is in his ‘game-changers’, where he essentially throws away the rule book and starts from scratch.  In The Deadly Assassin, he introduced new mythos to the show, recreating the Time Lords.  In The Caves of Androzani, he takes the regeneration story and makes it truly horrifying, as we watch the eponymous hero die horribly, slowly, painfully...  Here, he brings the show right up to date (the 1970s, anyhow) and helps to lodge it in the social conscience.  Whilst the Earth-bound stories did become a little tiresome, we must remember that this one was the first.  All of the clichés of the UNIT years started here, but back then they weren’t clichés – it was fresh, new and imaginative.  And that’s one of the things I most love about Holmes.  He takes our expectations, and then casually tosses them away in favour of the strange.

Now, not all of these ‘new’ things are down to Holmes, admittedly.  The use of film and location was primarily due to a strike by the studio technicians, but the freedom granted the story by not being confined to studio makes a refreshing change.  As film cameras were lighter, and allowed more freedom, the composition of every scene is excellent, with a depth rarely seen on screen in the show before.  There are some excellent angles used, creating a more abstract feel to the story, once again exaggerating the difference between this, and the old format.

This story flies straight into the thick of it – from the outset, we see an alien invasion, a meteorite shower of glowing orbs, connected to the nestene consciousness.  They fall all around a beautiful forest, elegantly shot on crisp film, and I can’t help but sigh in satisfaction.  Every time – literally, every single time – I watch this, it gives me such pleasure.  UNIT are called in, and we are reintroduced to the Brigadier – God, I love Nicholas Courtney – and Liz Shaw.  The wonderful thing about this exposition, as the Brig welcomes Liz into the UNIT family, explaining the purpose of their work and the like, is that it doesn’t seem in any way forced.  Usually, when we see ‘background’ exposition on TV and in films, it doesn’t seem in the least bit natural – we are made aware that this piece of information is only there to get the audience up to date.  Here, it flows naturally, with Liz asking the exact questions that we want to hear the answers to.

The introduction of the Doctor, then, is something of a disappointment.  Considering how exciting it is to become reacquainted with the Brigadier, the Doctor materialises in a forest, falls out in badly fitting clothes, and gets taken to hospital.  Every other Doctor, post-regeneration, has quirks and tics, and things that make them seem so alien.  Here, though, he is like a drunk, rushed into hospital with a bang to the head.  And while it is somewhat disappointing, I also love it.  Pertwee gets to do several excellent turns of gurning to the camera, typical of a comedy actor of his calibre.  In fact, throughout his tenure as the Doctor, his over-the-top facial reactions to being choked, or punched, or hit in the head, or shot, are just brilliant.  It is through these rubber-faced reactions that he maintains the ‘alien’, the ‘strange’.  

The highlight of the second episode has to be Pertwee’s shower – the way in which he attempts to remain incognito, by bellowing at the top of his lungs, and then proceeds to steal his trademark outfit is utterly brilliant.  We must, of course, ignore the fact that he has a walloping great tattoo up his arm.  This is closely followed by the introduction of the Autons, who we later meet again in both Terror of the Autons and in the reintroduction of the show, in Rose.  The Autons are amongst some of the most genuinely terrifying monsters in Doctor Who.  The suggestion that the most mundane objects can become killers – particularly that which we associate with such ordinary tasks as shopping – is horrifying, and again, it’s little wonder that Mary Whitehouse had such a field day with it. 

Hugh Burden is outstanding as Channing, and oozes a malicious, dangerous air to the character, and the scenes of him simply lurking around are some of the most dramatic.  His presence in the media circus in part one, and quietly observing Ransome in part two, are brilliant. 

The introduction of Liz Shaw is also pivotal to this story – she is, for the first time, an intelligent companion, in the vein of Zoe, who genuinely doesn’t believe any of this.  Many fans write off Caroline John’s companion, as she was ‘too smart’, and as such it ensured that the companion was no longer responsible for asking “What is it?!” in a quailing voice.  Personally, I find her a lacking companion because, despite her intellect, she is a stubborn character, refusing to acknowledge evidence provided to her.  This is essentially Mulder and Skully of The X Files, 23 years earlier.  We have the Doctor, all-knowing and imparting his knowledge, to an overly sceptical assistant who pooh-poohs all of this information, despite what she sees.  Obviously, this format changed during her season-long tenure as companion, but much like Colin Baker was regarded as the worst Doctor because of his post-regeneration crisis, and the damage had been done, Liz unfortunately never fully managed to claw it back from this sceptic intellectual.  Incidentally, I disagree with most fans on this – I enjoyed Liz as a companion, and I loved Colin’s portrayal of the Doctor, though not so much the stories he was given to work with.

The emergence of General Scobie’s double at the tail-end of episode three is another horrifying twist in this story – it leaves the audience with a bitter taste in the mouth.  Not only are these hideous creations unstoppable by bullets, but they can impersonate anyone they want to...  It doesn’t get much more terrifying than that.

In episode four, as the Autons step from the shop windows in a clatter of broken glass, there is little that can match it, in my honest opinion, for truly terrifying scenes.  And again, yes, I’m biased, because it’s my first story.  But honestly, when you look at the unfortunately poor special effects in any number of the great stories, whether they be giant rats or a magma beast, the Autons are outstanding.  They haven’t aged, and it’s, for me, another example of a recurring villain that never needed updating for the new series, along with the Sontarans and Silurians.  The scene in which they emerge, causing destruction, and shooting anyone and everyone, including those running away screaming, it is awful...  Horrific...  Monstrous.  That these foes are willing to shoot unarmed people in the back makes them all the scarier.  These creatures do not benefit from committing this senseless murder.  They just do it. 

The final showdown hasn’t dated as well as the Autons, sadly – the nestene consciousness is simply a tentacle in a box, being waved by a prop man backstage.  But, it still works.  Pertwee’s facial expressions are priceless, and as he struggles with the monster in the box, it is believable that this new incarnation of the Doctor truly could die as soon as he came.  Of course, what’s nice about this serial is that this time, Liz saves the day.  True, it’s using the machine that the Doctor himself created.  But still, it’s a nice touch, to not only give the character intelligence, but courage too.

As Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart requests the assistance of the Doctor, who in turn requests the assistance of Liz Shaw, we see the dawning of a new age of Doctor Who.  Gone are the madcap planet-hopping adventures (for now).  This is the first of the “Earth Under Siege” stories – or more specifically, the “Home Counties Under Siege” stories.  This will quickly become the standard for much of Pertwee’s tenure, with few chances to escape from the confines of his new prison, Earth.  It sees the full introduction of the UNIT family, with the Doctor begrudgingly accepting them.  This is a lovely touch for one major reason – both the first and second incarnation of the Doctor took on his companions, often begrudgingly, into his own little sanctum.  Here, the Doctor is stranded, orphaned from the TARDIS, and the best he can do is become an adopted member of another family.  The tables have turned, and it’s a fantastic twist.  Pertwee has begun his tenure – and the Doctor is most definitely in the house.

No comments:

Post a Comment