Thursday, 3 November 2016

Spearhead from Space

Chapter The 34th, where Nigel Kneale calls and wants his plot back.

Plot: 
The Doctor, newly regenerated and exiled after being put on trial by his people, arrives in Pertweeshire - an area of the home counties of England containing a higher than average number of cottage hospitals, tracking stations, factories, and research centres. Excitement! UNIT are also there investigating a couple of meteorite showers, deemed suspicious because the meteorites have landed on Earth - though, to be pedantic, if they are meteorites they must have landed on Earth by definition, so not very suspicious at all really. Except that they fly in formation. And land in the same place six months apart. And contain an alien intelligence that can control plastic. Okay, a little bit suspicious.

The Doctor recovers in hospital, then joins forces with old chum the Brigadier, and newly conscripted UNIT science whiz Liz Shaw. They defeat the Nestenes (for it is they) in their plan to bring shop dummies to life, and to replace various members of the government and civil service with walking plastic facsimiles. The Doctor then agrees to work at UNIT as an unpaid intern, but does get a company car at least.

Context: 
All the family watched, an episode per evening across the middle of a week, from the Blu-ray edition. The clarity of the high-definition picture is a wonder to behold. The rest of the family can't tell any difference, but all of them - including the eldest child (boy of 10) who was moaning at Doctor Who being put on again - were silent within minutes, and at the end of each episode, they chanted "Next ep, next ep". But I strictly rationed it. It went down very well, it's fair to say.

First-time round:
Spearhead from Space must be the single Doctor Who story I've purchased the most: VHS in the 1980s, unedited VHS in the 1990s, DVD in 2001, special edition DVD a decade after that, and finally the Blu-ray edition a few years ago. I've bought the same story five times. I even taped it when it was repeated on BBC2 in 1999. This is why the Better Half thinks I'm crazy. That first release was edited to remove the beginning and end credits as well as other minor cuts. Although this robbed the world of the UNIT soldier's "Who told you to fire, you -" at the end of part 1, and a snatch of Fleetwood Mac, it did make Spearhead - created 100% on film - into the blockbuster movie it was maybe always meant to be.

It was brought out during that first rush of affordable releases in the late Eighties, and was the fifth Doctor Who story I ever purchased on VHS. I bought it in WHSmiths in Montague Street, Worthing, as I think Volume One - which became my mainstay for Who buying later on - hadn't yet opened in 1988. I can remember popping into Superdrug on my way home to get a Panda Cola (these are real things, youngsters, I'm not making it up); in the queue, I was practically caressing the video box, and trying to discern anything I could of the story from the blurb and the very few photos upon it.

Reaction:
In a reverse of my approach when watching The Rings of Akhaten, where I was trying to keep an open mind to its good points, I watched Spearhead from Space constantly thinking "What's wrong with this?" else this blog post may have become far too hagiographic. As I watched, I listed any even slightly negative point, and the list did get quite long.  So, why isn't it a flop? Why - for me at least - does it rise above any problems to be one of the top 10 Doctor Who stories ever.

The biggest exhibit produced for the prosecution is Spearhead's thieved plot. In Nigel Kneale's Quatermass II, broadcast on the BBC in 1955, there's a shower of meteorites that turn out to be part of an alien invasion plan. At the beginning, they're observed by a radar unit, and one is found by a local country type. There's a factory run by the bad guys that the good guys investigate; there's a plot to control high-level government figures. An official that starts off helping is 'turned' and then blocks the investigations. All of which will be stiflingly familiar to anyone who's ever watched Spearhead from Space.

In retooling Doctor Who as an Earth-bound scientific investigations show, the Quatermass serials were the key touchstones of producer Derrick Sherwin. He will have briefed Robert Holmes - writer of these relaunch episodes - on this, and Holmes has obviously taken him very literally and re-staged a Quatermass serial wholesale. But does it matter? There is a tradition older than literature of writers reusing each other's plots, making them their own. That's true here: Kneale would never take such blackly comic glee as Holmes, and would never have written something quite as fun as Spearhead's big finale with shop widow dummies coming to life. Spearhead is tauter and punchier than Quatermass II (generally accepted to be the weakest one of the initial 50s trilogy) but Holmes still finds time to introduce a mysterious 'man from space in a hospital' subplot.

Spearhead from Space must have been doing something right. It has, in its turn, had its material pillaged twice by subsequent Doctor Who stories (The TV Movie and Rose); it is the template for the 'jumping on point' story, cleaning the slate and setting up the concept again for the Johnnie- and Jenny-come-latelies. That brings me to the second major potential flaw: that new direction of the show in 1970; maybe it's not the right direction. The show that could go anywhere has been grounded in one time and place; the charming amateurs of the black and white years, muddling through their adventures, have been replaced by a colder professional organisation investigating - and inevitably shooting at – the unknown. And the primary driver for all this was not a narrative reason, but budgetary. Earth is cheaper than space. Can this be seen as anything but a backward step? It works, though. Even hobbled as they are with immense running times (7 episodes each), the remaining stories of Jon Pertwee’s first year are all excellent, and all make clever use of the rejigged format. It probably would not have survived long had it remained on Earth for good, but as just one, albeit long, stop on the Doctor’s 50+ year tour, it made a refreshing change.

It’s on film. This being Doctor Who, it wasn’t a clever backroom ploy to relaunch the show in style, it was just an accident, a way to salvage the story at the last moment and avoid the impact of a strike by the BBC studio camerapersons. As such, it has been criticised that the set-ups are mostly static: people sitting still in big echoey rooms, and it loses the friendly intimacy of a multi-camera video approach. Balderdash! A couple of scenes, on repeat watching, might stand out like that, but for the most part it is directed magnificently by Derek Martinus who embraces the use of film and really gets the most out of it. There are some wonderful cuts, which wouldn’t have been possible on video, that tell the story with economy; for example, going from the soldier in the woods asking “Is he dead?” to Doctor Henderson answering the question with the Doctor tucked up in bed, much later. And there’s visuals like Channing’s distorted face, viewed through a glass door, or the blank eyes of a doll mould in the factory staring straight out at the audience.

I’ve almost run out of significant negatives, the rest are minor niggles - the big boss at the end is rubbish, yes, but there’s a fantastic gunfight with the excellent Autons to cut away to, so the ending doesn’t suffer. The superlatives never run out: I haven’t talked about the universally great performances – minor characters like Mullins or Meg Seeley are more interesting than the entire cast of the Rings of Akhaten put together. The great script, with some lovely subtle and not so subtle lines: Meg says she’s going to “blow a hole” in the intruding Auton, and does just that, Channing tells General Scobie he will arrange to have him see his plastic copy before it goes to Madame Tussauds, and it turns up on his doorstep, large as life, and takes his place.

Connectivity: 
There's a focus at the beginning of both stories on some rocks moving about in space. At the end of both stories, the Doctor ends up in confrontation with a new and powerful creature not like the ones he's seen in the story so far, and needs his companion's help to defeat it. It demonstrates how rubbish the sun thing in The Rings of Akhaten is that the weird tentacled mess at the end of Spearhead is a much more convincing enemy.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Carrie - Redux The world behind the scenes of Doctor Who is as full of stories as the fictional world of its narrative; the era that started with Spearhead from Space perhaps most of all. Many of the anecdotes, made famous though much repetition, date from this Pertwee period, The saddest – and ultimately happiest – story of all is that of Caroline John, who played Liz Shaw, my favourite companion. After Spearhead, Derrick Sherwin moved on, and Barry Letts took over as producer. He has gone on record as saying that he didn't agree with a lot of the changes to the format that his predecessor had made. The 7-part episodes were ditched first; the Earthbound nature of the stories was gradually relaxed, and the more professional focus dispensed with - UNIT were reset as a pseudo family.

This was a curious echo of decision made early on in the development of Doctor Who, before it first aired; Sydney Newman had commissioned a Saturday sci-fi serial, and the proposal on the table, involving a trio of scientific investigators, was very similar to Derrick Sherwin’s later concept for Doctor Who in 1970. This wasn’t accepted, and after many tweaks and suggestions what instead resulted was the 1963 version of Who. Famously, Newman insisted that the series needed a youngster to get into trouble and make mistakes. Letts noticed the same gap in 1970’s Who; so, Liz Shaw, intelligent, capable, sometimes caustic, but also compassionate and warm, was sent back to Cambridge, and Jo Grant – a youngster who would get into trouble and make mistakes – took her place.

Much as I like the character of Jo, and Katy Manning's performance, and much as I can see the logic of a character arc where the Doctor educates his companion until she's ready to leave and have her own adventures, I wanted more of Liz and Caroline. John was pregnant by the end of her stint filming, and would likely have resigned anyway, but all she knew was that the new producer didn't want her to continue. Not knowing of Letts' feelings about the character and the dynamic, she assumed she just hadn't done a very good job. It was only in the early nineties, as she later told it, when she discovered the convention circuit, and finally met her fans, that she was disabused of this notion. This is the tragedy for me; for twenty years, at the back of her mind, even at the same moment as I was watching the VHS of Spearhead from Space for the first time and being super impressed by Liz Shaw's introduction looking like a spy in the back of a mysterious car, my favourite companion incorrectly thought she wasn't well liked.

Caroline John is also the only companion actor that I have actually met; I have met a few Doctors over the years, but only one companion. It was in 2003, Doctor Who's 40th Anniversary year, and I was at the anniversary convention (the 'Panopticon') with my old friend David (mentioned before many times on this blog) and another great guy Chris Petts, who later worked on the CGI for the first couple of series of new Who. The Edgware Road Hilton, where it was based, was not a suitable venue - it was too small, and the lifts could not cope with the sheer number of fans using them. The three of us, though, had discovered a secret lift shaft being kept for use of the talent rather than hoi polloi, and we proceeded shamelessly to abuse it, rather than have to queue with a lot of Doctor Who fans, who can be a bit scary en masse.

At one point, we arrived at these lifts only to find Caroline John and her husband, actor Geoffrey Beevers, waiting there too. Caroline turns and smilingly addresses me: "Oh darling, it's you! I haven't seen you for ages!" Golly gosh. My favourite companion actress has mistaken me for someone famous that she knows. Time suspends. For a scant few nanoseconds I agonise about how I can best capitalise on this, but come up short of ideas and mumble something about mistaken identity. The lift arrives, we all travel up to different floors, and that's that. I didn't even read until long after that about all those years she was mistaken about her worth, or else I'd have screamed after her "Carrie - you weren't a failure, you were THE BEST!!!!!". Caroline John died of cancer in 2012, by which time I'd realised that the capital I'd earned that day in 2003 was a huge amount of happiness and luck in chancing to meet her, however briefly. Liz Shaw: she didn't get into trouble, she didn't make mistakes, and she could certainly rock the plastic-panelled mini-dress look. 

In Summary:
Plastic = fantastic.

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