‘Doctor Who’: ‘Spearhead From Space’ (‘Mannequin Mania’) DVD review

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In 1963, Doctor Who began as an occasionally educational, often sci-fi series for kids. Certain elements of iconography were put in place when Patrick Troughton came along a few years later, with long winding corridors and things lurking in the shadows. However, it’s arguable that (controversial claim, this) Doctor Who as we know it didn’t really start until 1970’s ‘Spearhead From Space’, here re-released as a Special Edition alongwith the following year’s ‘Terror Of The Autons’.

Over forty years later, it requires some re-stating to emphasis quite how important ‘Spearhead From Space’ was at the time, wrenching violently from battered old man in battered old police box to suave Adam Ant clone swashbuckling his way through the neon-Bond era. It’s an absolute change of pace – at times, somewhat unsettling, like when the Hammer Dracula series relocated to the swinging ‘70s (as would happen two years after this aired).

It feels sometimes like a cheat. When Jon Pertwee began gurning his way through death scenes or having comedy sequences requiring him to spin down a hospital corridor in a wheelchair (invoking images of Carry On Matron), there must have been at least a few viewers who decided that they’d give up on the show there and then. It must have been disappointing for some viewers that the Doctor was no longer visiting different times and planets (wasn’t that the point, after all?), instead having aliens filmed lumbering outside a recognisable Tescos, but of course this marked the beginnings of one of the most successful runs of the series (similar concerns were voiced, and similarly quashed, when the show re-booted in 2005).

What’s absolutely apparent is that Pertwee owns the role – and the show – from the outset. Arguably he had as tough a job – if not tougher – than Troughton. When the second Doctor appeared, the concept of regeneration was gently explained to coax the viewers along, and a bunch of Daleks were chucked at the screen in the hope that nobody would really notice. Pertwee doesn’t get the same treatment: his first story is in colour, his first villains are ones that nobody’s heard of before, and he only gets about thirty words in his first episode (and two of those are ‘shoes’). But, instantly, he is The Doctor, dashing and heroic.

If you caught this story from the middle of the second episode, there is little to indicate that this is a regeneration adventure. He’s firmly ensconced in the UNIT lab, trying to repair his TARDIS, and already recognising Liz Shaw as a brilliant scientist – seeing her initial scepticism as proper scientific enquiry as opposed to simple blinkered denial.

Caroline John’s Liz Shaw hasn’t quite settled down yet, the script requiring her to arch her eyebrows sardonically slightly too often, making her look like she’s presenting an episode of Jackanory. However, it’s instructive to note when the series decided to make a very conscious change from screaming teenager, they went to independent, feisty redhead with very long legs and a penchant for short skirts.

What’s most important about ‘Spearhead From Space’ is that it’s clearly designed for the new Doctor – all too often in the Who-niverse, a story in a Doctor’s first season will have been written with the previous (or indeed, no) actor in mind. This means that while there’s still slightly too much time spent with the Third Doctor in a self-induced coma, by the end of the adventure, you’re likely to have taken him to heart as the titular character.

Famously Quatermass gets its claws into Who right now: Episode 3 is a tightly wrought 25 minutes of tension. Despite the now-infamous complete lack of an actual onscreen breaking of glass, the Auton attack is suitably scary. More unsettling – and more Quatermass influenced – are the earlier scenes where something that’s almost human lumbers through the undergrowth, slicing through canvas, and putting the fear up what appear to be some distant relations of the Grundys. Spooky and effective, massively (almost cockily) confident right off the bat, if we didn’t have Pertwee’s gurn-off with an octopus near the end, Spearhead From Space’ would be close to perfect.

The picture quality is a vast improvement on the previous ‘Spearhead…’ release, giving this edition an immediate and vibrant feel. Your HDTV will love it, and the early scenes –  in the hospital and the surrounding forest – benefit greatly, as does the sequence of the large scale Auton attack on the public. Previously, it’s sometimes come across as dated and even a little silly, but the crisp quality here returns the story to its sinisterly real roots.

Extras: A warm commentary from Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney is full of delightfully genuine affection, the sound of a lifetime friendship burnishing the banter, even when it’s clear that the two are discovering things about the other for the first time. Of the two, John comes across most as the ‘jobbing actor’ (and thus delivers her commentary as if talking to others in the business), whereas Courtney is an old hand on picking apart the story for the Whovians. ‘Regenerations’ is an absorbing documentary looking at the show’s transition to colour, but the UNIT recruitment film, while nice to have for completion’s sake, promises more than it delivers, being ultimately little other than stitched together clips.

Released on DVD on Monday 9th May 2011 by 2entertain.

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