Doctor Who: Spearhead From Space (s07e01, pts. 1 – 4)

5 out of 5

Directed by: Derek Martinus

The mandate for the incoming third doctor, John Pertwee, was to have his character remain on Earth, as, in story, punishment for his rebelliousness against the Time Lord code in his previous incarnations.  This new direction would seem to be limiting, but with the return of UNIT and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), whose backyard our recently regenerated Doctor winds up in, the setup gets immediate grounding in its own lore – which is a plus – and the switch to color somehow also seems to have completely enlivened the production and shooting, which both get a noticeable uptick.  Everything just works: the quirky affectations that Patrick Troughton employed to counter William Hartnell’s more droll version of the main character were refreshing at first but soon grew tired; Pertwee brings in Troughton’s charm but he’s also, like, a grown up, and not written to just fuss his way through the story.  And Lethbridge-Stewart, alongside likely companion and scientist Liz (Caroline John) encourage this newly instated (relative) maturity, ditching the doofus / genius paradigm of previous companion pairs for two wholly capable people who don’t need to be rerun through the “what’s going on” business – Liz sort of bemusedly takes it all in, but is ultimately happy to be working with someone equally inquisitive.

The story may be another invasion variant – the hive-minded ‘Autons’ are using life-sized dolls to inhabit bodies on the Earth as their “spearhead” conquering step – but the way it’s visualized is damned creepy and exciting, with colorful characters populating the four-part serial along the way who provide valuable roadblocks / expositions without cluttering things up or padding things out unnecessarily.  The sort of backhanded inclusion of the Doctor is also fun: he stumbles out of his TARDIS, mind-wiped, and spends the first few episodes filling in gaps of what’s happened while also half-remembering / half-convincing the Brigadier that they’ve met before, while director Derek Martinus cleverly keeps his face hidden for a good long while from fans who just want to see who the heck replaced Troughton.  It’s definitely purposefully a bit silly, but never at the expense of keeping the plot moving forward, and the Doctor’s status as a something of a prisoner is well used to keep him on scene so that he has to get involved with the Autons business.  In terms of the production, being able to shoot on location – and on 16mm film! – means the serial not only looks great cinematically, but keeps us isolated to realistic locales that are stuffed with more props and details than we’ve often gotten on made-for-episode sets in the past.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining, intelligent start to a new era, that ticks off a lot of marks all at once, maintaining the slightly camp vibe of DW while also acknowledging that a lot of our kid viewers have likely grown up by now, and are ready for something aimed more toward their tastes.