Written by Greg Barbrick
The first Doctor Who serial to be filmed in color was Spearhead From Space (Story #51), and originally aired January 3-24, 1970. It introduced the world to the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, who portrayed the character from 1970-1974. In 1969, it looked as if Doctor Who would be cancelled, as the ratings were terrible. Not only that, but due to an insane schedule of 44 episodes per year, the second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) was leaving. To say that the entire franchise was riding on the success of Spearhead From Space would be pretty accurate.
Derek Martinus directed a great script by Robert Holmes that brought the “new” Doctor to Earth. Although I have never seen the serials themselves, the Doctor had met Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) on Earth before. This is an excellent plot device, because if he is able to convince the Brigadier that he is in fact the Doctor, no doubt the audience will buy it too.
For someone who has never seen the Doctor on Earth before, the opening scene is a shocker. It shows an outer space shot of our planet, followed by the Doctor stumbling out of a battered TARDIS, in the English countryside. We then enter the offices of UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), who are dealing with an unexplained rain of what they believe to be meteoric debris. As it turns out, the arrival of the Doctor, and these “meteors” is coincidental, but proves to the one thing that saves mankind from total alien occupation.
I really do not wish to give much more of the story away, because this is one of the more compelling and interesting serials I have seen. The script is taut, and the slow reveals definitely keep you on your toes. A couple of other notable things about Spearhead From Space is that the third Doctor finds a new companion for his journeys. This is UNIT member Liz Shaw (Caroline John), who is highly intelligent and a little older than Jaimie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy McCrimmon), who accompanied Patrick Troughton. Another element that makes Spearhead From Space so great to watch 42 years later is that it was filmed in 16mm, on location. The four-parter “looks” like a feature film. With everything on the line, Spearhead From Space really did save the day for the Doctor Who franchise.
Most of this background information comes from the extras included on the new BBC Video release. The best of these is “Down to Earth,” a 22-minute piece featuring interviews with Jon Pertwee (from 1994) and others. “Regenerations: From Black and White to Color” (18 min) is also pretty interesting. For one thing, I had never realized that the Beeb hadn’t fully committed to broadcasting in color until 1970. Considering that American shows were being made “in living color” since the 1950s, this seems somewhat absurd. Yet the fact remains. The old guard did not want to “go color,” and the suits didn’t want to make the investment.
This parsimony extended to Spearhead From Space. Since Doctor Who was really “on the bubble” at the time, nobody wanted to spend the money to build the elaborate sets the script required. So the decision was made to shoot most of it on location, which turned out to be the perfect choice, and a big reason why it still looks so great.
The other special features include audio commentary, a photo gallery, some PDF materials, and a funny 1985 spoof “UNIT Recruitment Film” which runs four minutes.
I am the first to admit that I came to the Doctor Who party a bit late. But even with only a dozen or so serials under my belt so far, I think it is safe to say that Spearhead From Space is one of the franchise’s very best. It introduced the third Doctor with an excellent story, and some great location filming. Very well done, on all counts.