'SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE' BLU-RAY (BBCBD0230) RELEASED IN JULY 2013;
AND 'MANNEQUIN MANIA' DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD3135) RELEASED IN MAY 2011.
EXILE! THE TIME LORDS HAVE BANISHED THE NEWLY-REGENERATED DOCTOR TO EARTH, BUT THE DOCTOR ISn'T THE ONLY ALIEN TO HAVE ARRIVED - A SWARM OF METEORITES HAVE CRASHED INTO SLEEPY ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE, BRINGING WITH THEM A TERRIBLE NEW THREAT TO MANKIND.
AS THE NESTENE PLAN TAKES SHAPE, UNIT, THE DOCTOR AND HIS NEW SCIENTIFIC ADVISOR, LIZ SHAW, RACE AGAINST TIME TO STOP HUMANITY BEING REPLACED BY A TERRIFYING PLASTIC FACSIMILE RACE...
Spearhead From Space
3RD JANUARY 1970 - 24TH JANUARY 1970
Spearhead from Space is one of the most significant Doctor Who serials of all time. Not only did it see the series make the radical leap from monochrome to colour, but it also drastically altered the format of the show, having the Doctor sentenced to a period of exile on 20th century Earth where he would help the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce to combat a mixture of alien incursions and home-grown threats.
The outgoing production team, Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, thought that this shift of emphasis would help to reduce the strain on the series’ meagre budget, however incoming producer Barry Letts and his script editor Terrance Dicks were not convinced that this new format would work from an artistic point of view. Indeed, Dicks was worried that the format limited itself to just two scenarios – “alien invasion” and “mad scientist”. Yet Spearhead from Space, together with many of the serials that followed it, would prove that when Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney are your leading men, “alien invasion” and “mad scientist” will do just fine.
Robert Holmes’ opening four-parter would use the former as its starting point, telling of the disembodied Nestene consciousness’ attempt to take over the planet (well, Home Counties at least) by taking possession of every day plastic mannequins – “Autons” – which, let’s face it, are creepy enough even when they aren’t imbued with murderous extra-terrestrial intent. Such a disquieting tale would almost certainly have been a hit had it cropped up during any era of Who, but I feel that it works particularly well here due to the distinctive manner in which the story is presented. Being the only story of the seventh season to be condensed into just four episodes, Spearhead doesn’t feel as protracted as the ensuing few serials do, and it certainly looks a damned sight better than they do on the screen. Due to industrial action at the BBC, the serial had to be shot almost entirely on location using 16mm film, lending it a certain cinematic ambience that really heightens its expansive, mature feel. Scenes of the Autons coming to life in shop windows are amongst the most enduring images ever to be filmed for series, and are every bit as disturbing today as they were forty years ago, hence their recycling in the revived series’ opening episode, Rose.
Furthermore, like all the best Bob Holmes scripts, Spearhead from Space is as remarkable for its characters as it is for its incident. Even the most fleeting of scenes are enhanced by luminous characters such as the poacher, Sealey, and the vile army officer Scobie, while the dynamic between the new cast is established through a series of succinct though memorable scenes. There is a wonderful moment, for instance, where the Doctor tries to abscond in the TARDIS, only to emerge from it moments later surrounded by a cloud of smoke, an embarrassed look on his face as he meets the Brigadier’s disapproving glare. That’s half their Season 7 relationship right there, painted silently upon two fine actors’ faces.
Above: The DVD's menu screen (NB the background is animated on the actual DVD; this is just a still)
Pertwee’s Doctor is a little less straight-laced here then he would later become - it’s great fun to see him trying to escape the hospital, singing in the shower (where he also reveals an intriguing cobra tattoo…), and even dashing around in stolen motor cars, particularly when such scenes are juxtaposed with much more stern, sciencey moments. It may have become something of a cliché to compare these early 1970s UNIT serials to Quatermass and their Doctor to James Bond, but the parallels are clearly identifiable, even this early into Pertwee’s reign.
Spearhead’s original DVD release was a marked improvement on the two releases that it followed, coupling the visually-stunning 1999 remastered version of the serial with a modest array of special features that, for the time, were really quite impressive. A short, tongue-in-cheek UNIT recruitment film produced in 1993 was complemented by a warm commentary track; a few trailers; a photo gallery; and, best of all, some on-screen production notes, which would go on to become a standard feature on all subsequent releases – and rightly so. They allow the viewer to watch the story whilst any relevant production information is presented in the form of subtitles. This gives the obvious advantage of being able to follow the story whilst learning a few things about it, as opposed to watching the story with the commentary turned on and not really being able to concentrate on both things at once.
Above: On the DVD relevant production information is presented in the form of subtitles
What the original release lacked, with hindsight, was a flagship documentary looking back at the production of this seminal story and the lead-up to it. The special edition’s Down to Earth redresses this omission, collecting together a number of interviews with many key players – including numerous clips lifted from Pertwee’s 1994 Myth Makers interview – in a slick and stylish twenty-two minute feature. It’s fantastic to be able to hear Pertwee discuss his casting and approach to the role with the same wry candour that he did on the recent Planet of the Spiders release, and Terrance Dicks, as ever, speaks with warm fondness. What sets this documentary apart from other Pertwee-era features though is Derrick Sherwin’s contribution. This was Sherwin’s final story as series producer, and first as an actor – I knew that harried UNIT sentry looked familiar… – and, as such, he has plenty to say about the “crazy, nutcase” era that he laid down the blueprints for.
Sherwin also participates in the special edition’s new commentary track, which he provides along with Dicks. It’s another interesting and wistful offering, though personally I got more out of Courtney and John’s, which is also included on the special edition along with all the bonus material from the original release. It’s lovely to hear Courtney enthusing about the series and sharing his fond and vivid memories of it, and whilst John may know little about Doctor Who beyond the serials that she appeared in, she still chips in with some interesting anecdotes about her time as Liz.
Above: Jon Pertwee comes Down to Earth to discuss filming Spearhead from Space
The revisitation’s final offering ties into Spearhead’s status as the series’ first colour serial, and will probably be more of interest to video-techies than it will the average Doctor Who fan. Regenerations: From Black and White to Colour documents the evolution of colour television from the BBC’s experiments in 1954 all the way up to its UK implementation in the late 1960s. I found the feature rather fascinating, not to mention a little surprising. It seems that many producers were most resistant to the introduction of colour for both artistic and logistical reasons, although to look at some early 1970s Who episodes, it isn’t all that hard to see why. I still find that the surviving monochrome Pertwee episodes look better than their colour counterparts, though Spearhead from Space, with its subtle, filmic complexion and CSO dearth is one happy exception.
All told, Spearhead from Space is a breathtaking beginning to the third, and arguably most remarkable, era of Doctor Who, and I’m delighted that this long-awaited special edition has finally done it justice.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006, 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
THERE’S A LOT OF NONSENSE TALKED about Blu-ray, particularly in Who circles. Skint and weary consumers who’d not even completed their two-decades-in-the-making VHS collections when DVD came along were quick to roll their eyes and exhale when the next format got its big push, either resigned to parting with another great wad of hard-earned cash, or determined not to succumb to temptation, while know-all cynics were just as swift to quash any mumblings that classic Doctor Who could ever be released on Blu-ray as it wasn’t produced in high-definition. Obviously the vast majority of fans don’t harbour such polarised views, but a large number still probably don’t appreciate the misapprehensions that continue to abound about Blu-ray sufficiently to be able to make an informed decision about whether or not to take the plunge. This article is for them.
Blu-ray = HD?
Anyone who owns The Complete (2008/09) Specials on Blu-ray should know that Blu-ray is not just a container for true HD video. I’ve singled out the series’ inaugural Blu-ray release as it contains a more assorted mix than most of 1080i episodes (episodes presented in stunning 1920 x 1080 resolution - what you’ll have heard referred to as “true HD”, in this case with interlaced (i) fields as opposed to the more commonly-seen progressive (p) fields); 576i standard-definition (which is displayed on screen in 1024 x 576 resolution after your DVD player applies horizontal scaling) special features; and even material that’s been upscaled from 576i SD to 1080i faux-HD (The Next Doctor and its Confidential at Christmas companion piece). The SD material is identical to that found on the DVD version, right down to its MPEG-2 encoding, which means that even a programme as long as Doctor Who at the Proms takes up only a fraction of the first disc’s capacity. This means that, were 2 | entertain minded to do so, entire seasons of the classic series could be released as they stand on Blu-ray in slim, two or three-disc sets with all the individual stories’ respective bonus material preserved thereto, and probably more besides. Such a thought probably won’t impress those with plans to hermetically seal their wallets once we’ve got the surviving episodes of The Ice Warriors and the recently-unearthed episode of The Underwater Menace out to buy on DVD (the only extant episodes yet to see DVD release in the UK, at the time of writing), but to the growing number of people keen to limit their shelf space and the frequency with which they have to get down on their knees to swap discs in the player, it may be more welcome.
However, thanks to timely industrial action more than four decades ago, classic Who’s first Blu-ray release in its own right (the Tom Baker story Pyramids of Mars is already available on Blu-ray as part of The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Fourth Series release, in tribute to the late Lis Sladen) is presented in true HD. Shot entirely on 16mm film, which has more analogue resolution than even 1080i/1080p digital video, Spearhead from Space presented a unique opportunity for the Restoration Team, who were commissioned to take brand new, future-proof 2K digital HD transfers from the cleaned-up original film for this special anniversary project. The resultant transfer improves further upon the sterling work done in 1999 and 2010 - Spearhead has always had a classy, cinematic feel to it, but now it feels even bigger and more epic, more like an early ’70s Bond movie than a cheap and cheerful Saturday night telly show. However, as expected, Spearhead HD lacks the lustrous finish of contemporary HD television shows, and even other recently film-drawn HD shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Robin of Sherwood, both of which I’ve recently been enjoying on Blu-ray. Indeed, Spearhead is by far the grainiest HD transfer that I’ve come across to date on Blu-ray, probably as much due to the quality of the film used back in 1969 as the chemical stains and other artefacts that have collected upon it since, the laborious removal of which is briefly detailed in the disc’s short Restoration Comparison featurette.
The Real Test: Upscaled DVD vs Blu-ray
If you look at the Restoration Comparison’s side-by-side examples, there is no question that the Blu-ray offers superior picture quality (I couldn’t detect any audible difference in the sound). However, I was interested to see whether I could spot any difference between the two when the DVD was being played on a Blu-ray player that – as most do – upscales SD material to something that emulates HD. After all, if you’re considering buying Spearhead on Blu-ray, you’ve obviously got a Blu-ray player, and so the real merits test has to be upscaled DVD versus Blu-ray. By way of an experiment, then, I got the missus to randomly switch Spearhead’s 2011 Mannequin Mania DVD and the Spearhead Blu-ray to see if I could tell which was which, and pleasingly every time I could tell, but admittedly there wasn’t as much in it as I’d hoped – at least not on a 40' television. The main giveaways to my eyes were shops signs, regimental insignias and the like, which are much sharper on the Blu-ray, and also the colours, many of which are richer in the true HD version. Please bear in mind though that, if your TV is larger than mine, the difference between the upscaled SD and the true HD versions is going to be greater. I daresay that if I can spot the shaving cuts on a UNIT soldier’s chin on a 40' screen, you’ll probably be able to see his blackheads on a 55' one.
The Future: Part-upconverted, Part-HD Revisitations with HD Bonus Material?
Now, as most clued-up Whovians will tell you, all but the last four years of the classic series were recorded on videotape inside the studio, but on film when the cast and crew were out and about, shooting in quarries and the like. As such, I think it’s fair to say that any classic serial lucky enough to have original film elements that survived the Beeb’s archive clearout could potentially be improved upon for a part-upconverted, part-HD revisitation. Whilst the quality of film often used for Who left a lot to be desired, there may still be some mileage in 2 | entertain commissioning further, higher-definition revisitations in the future, depending on how well the Spearhead Blu-ray is received.
Another potential boon of further HD releases would be more bonus material. It seems that there’s always room, and indeed appetite, for more. This disc, for instance, contains two stunning biographies of Spearhead stars Jon Pertwee and Caroline John. Marred only by some bizarre horizontal lines on the archive footage, which doesn’t look like it’s been properly deinterlaced at some point in its lifetime, A Dandy and a Clown is a wonderful forty-five-minute programme that takes us all the way from Pertwee’s (or, should I say, de Perthuis de Laillevault’s) Huguenot lineage and distant parents to his exploits at sea; his mystery tattoo, which seems to be a souvenir from a forgotten, drunken night; his eighteen years on radio’s longest-running comedy series, The Navy Lark; his short-lived marriage to Jean Marsh and subsequent wedding of Ingeborg Rhoesa; his time on Doctor Who; and, of course, his treasured pet project, Worzel Gummidge. Carry On: The Life of Caroline John is fifteen minutes or so shorter and an awful lot quieter, but every bit as fascinating and much more intimate. Having watched the programme, I feel that I’ve really got a sense of the woman – her priorities, her passions, even her vulnerabilities. Both documentaries share a common theme though in that they celebrate the lives of these two wonderful performers, rather than mourn them. It’s just a pity that Nicholas Courtney, the third point in their Spearhead triangle, wasn’t afforded a well-deserved similar feature – I’d have happily sacrificed the twenty-odd minutes of raw test title sequence footage for twenty-odd minutes on the life and times of the Brig.
Out with the Old…
From the perspective of someone whose residence is very much smaller on the inside, it’s frustrating that this Blu-ray doesn’t contain the Mannequin Mania DVDs’ bonus material too – not even the DVD’s commentary appears on the Blu-ray, which wouldn’t have made much of a dent on the disc space. Unfortunately 2 | entertain seem to be taking their lead from Star Wars rather than Star Trek in this regard, which means that, unlike your long-since eBayed TNG DVD box sets, your special edition Spearhead from Space amaray will continue to clog up shelf space next to your battered Star Wars trilogy cardboard box set for a while yet.
Above: Katy Manning remembers A Dandy and a Clown in classic Doctor Who's first HD documentary
New Look, Same Care
More pleasingly, the Blu-ray packaging is very stylish indeed. The shopfloor-facing sleeve stands out beautifully in its starscape black, but those keen to lose it amongst their DVDs can easily reverse it to display a roundel-framed design that harmonises with the rest of their digital Who videos. It’s also gratifying to find that the Blu-ray comes with a booklet that gives the same sort of contents information as the much-loved Who DVD booklets do, as well an informative little write-up on the serial’s significance - particularly when such things are seldom seen these days. You’ll pay the better part of £50.00 for a full-season Star Trek: The Next Generation Blu-ray set, and the best you’ll get by way of an accompaniment is a disc-obscured and hard-to-read contents menu printed on the underside of the cover.
Above: Geoffrey Beevers shares his memories of love and life with Caroline John in the HD Carry On
Final Thoughts: Blu-ray... or iTunes?
Whilst Spearhead from Space didn’t face any stiff competition for classic Who’s first Blu-ray slot – only the 1996 TV Movie could be presented in true HD as, like Spearhead, it was entirely shot on film – I still think it’s quite a fitting that it was chosen to spearhead a possible Blu-ray range as, titular puns aside, it was Doctor Who’s first regular DVD release (following the experimental, no-frills release of The Five Doctors’ special edition) – and it just happens to be one of the most noteworthy stories in the canon (as to why, see my special edition DVD review, above). Whether Spearhead from Space will prove to be the first and last classic Who-ray will no doubt be the source of fervent debate and speculation over the months to come, but if a range is launched, the only title that I’d really be interested in buying on disc is a true HD version of the TV Movie. Part-upconverted, part-HD iTunes / Amazon Instant Video files would be another matter entirely though, provided that the price was right.
Whilst it’s true that, thanks to its huge capacity, Blu-ray offers the highest bitrates and best-quality sound and pictures, personally I find disc-based media to be extremely limiting - you can’t watch it on your phone or tablet; can’t keep a copy in the Cloud to download or stream from anywhere where there’s free Wi-Fi. Don’t get me wrong, low-quality digital copies of the sort generally bundled with DVDs / Blu-rays are seldom worth the paper that their codes are printed on, but it needn’t be that way. If 2 | entertain offered for video Who what Big Finish do for audio Who, that’d be me happy a punter. I appreciate that, much like the magpie Time Lord himself, most Who followers are fervent collectors of physical things, but in the absence of a Big Finish-style disc and good-quality download bundle, I’d prefer to have bought my copy of Spearhead HD from iTunes, from where I could’ve downloaded a 480p copy to my iPhone; a 720p copy to my iPad; and a 1080p copy of near-Blu-ray quality to my Apple TV.
And so, whilst I’m duly thrilled by the novelty and spectacle of HD Who from yesteryear, the overall experience isn’t as expansive as I feel that it should have been. Doctor Who may be a time travel show, but that’s no reason to live in the past. Bring on the downloads!
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2013
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
This story sees the new Doctor sport a cobra tattoo on his right forearm, which in reality belonged to actor Jon Pertwee. The novels Christmas on a Rational Planet and Alien Bodies would later imply that this tattoo is an example of the Time Lords branding their criminals.
When is now? This serial is set shortly after the Cyberman invasion depicted in The Invasion, which in turn is set four years after The Web of Fear. One school of thought places The Invasion in or around 1975, in line with its Radio Times billing, dialogue in both stories and the Pertwee-era production team’s original intention, with this story following shortly afterwards. However, such a placement is at odds with novels such as Who Killed Kennedy, which suggest that the Auton invasion occurred in 1970, when the serial was first broadcast.
The duration of the Doctor’s employment with UNIT has never been determined. We know that, from the Time Lord’s perspective, he was on the organisation’s payroll for the entirety of his third incarnation, but how much time passed for UNIT is another matter entirely. Indeed, as so succinctly demonstrated by Colony in Space’s bookends, the Doctor could disappear off into time and space only to rematerialise a few seconds later. This effectively allows for years’ worth of adventures taking place within a few seconds of UNIT time.
Most people generally infer that around six years passed for UNIT between Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom, broadly in line with how many years had passed for viewers, but this is difficult to reconcile with “classic” UNIT dating, which is predicated upon The Web of Fear taking place in 1971 (as set out above), because Mawdryn Undead made it explicit that the Brigadier retired from active service in 1976.
Assuming that the Brigadier did not retire until late 1976, all the UNIT stories between Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom (in which the Brigadier is last referred to being in active service) must therefore take place within the space of, at most, two calendar years, meaning that this story is set in early 1975.
However, in order for this theory to even come closing to holding up, we’d have to swallow the premise that the Brigadier did not retire until very late in 1976; the events of Seasons 7 to 13 occurred within two years, despite being broadcast over six; and that Sarah Jane Smith’s throwaway “1980” line in Pyramids of Mars was exactly that – a throwaway line, perhaps even rounding up on her part.
Please see the UNIT Dating Dossier for further information.
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