Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space Special Edition DVD review


Having been critical of some of the recent classic Who Special Edition DVDs, it’s great to be in a position to bestow some kudos once again, as “Spearhead from Space” is a story absolutely deserving of some double dip love, especially given that, alongside “The Five Doctors” and “The Robots of Death,” it was one of the first three stories released on DVD back in September of 2001. First is a word that’s used frequently when talking about “Spearhead.” It’s the first story of the 1970’s. It’s the first story in color. It’s the first tale of Season Seven. It’s the first story of Jon Pertwee’s era, as well as the first story with Caroline John’s Liz Shaw. It’s the first story to feature the Autons. It’s the first story to explore in some detail the process of regeneration, and the Doctor’s physiology (we’ve got your first mention of two hearts, right here!)

Now that’s a lot of firsts, and yet what to my mind overshadows them all is the fact that “Spearhead from Space” is the first - and only - story from the classic series shot entirely on film[1] and on location. If it weren’t the sole instance, that fact would likely be lumped in with all the other firsts, but since visually this tale is such an anomaly, its filmic aspects tower above almost everything else. Once one sees “Spearhead,” one cannot help but wonder what the rest of Doctor Who might’ve been like if everything that followed had been produced in this manner.

One major criticism that all too often gets lobbed in the direction of classic Who is that it frequently looks cheap, due to how much of it’s shot on videotape. One thing unlikely to ever be said about “Spearhead” is that it looks cheap; dated, perhaps, but not cheap. Shot entirely on 16mm, this thing looks like a coolly classic horror sci-fi flick from the early 70’s. It has such a different style that much of it is borderline unrecognizable as Doctor Who. (Obviously, your mileage may vary.) As for why this happened, and why it never happened again, well, let’s leave a few mysteries for you to discover via the DVD.

So, all these firsts tend to dominate any discussion of “Spearhead,” to the point where the story itself doesn’t get talked about nearly as much, but then again the story isn’t necessarily one of its strongest aspects. It’s a good, old-fashioned alien invasion yarn, sure, but it’s not exactly bathed in brilliance from a plot or character standpoint. What is its greatest strength, however, is in how perfectly Robert Holmes’s script reinvented Doctor Who from what it was before. In one fell swoop it became virtually a different TV series from the six seasons that preceded it, and laid down a new template that would be followed and/or experimented with over the next few years (though in fairness, credit also needs to be given to “The Web of Fear” and The Invasion.”)

Further, an argument could easily be mounted that it was here, within the confines of “Spearhead,” that the seeds for modern Doctor Who were laid. You’ll find inspiration from “Spearhead” in no less than “Doctor Who: The Movie,” “Rose,” and “The Christmas Invasion,” and what those stories all have in common is that each of them is a “starting over” point, and they all seemingly had the good sense to reach back to this tale as a means of doing just that.

There’s loads of talk and info on this DVD about how and why Doctor Who was very near the brink of cancellation at the end of the Troughton era, and that the only reason it was given another season is because the higher ups at the BBC couldn’t come up with a worthy replacement. In this instance, thank goodness for their uncreative minds, because if not for the greenlighting of another season with a new Doctor, and for Derrick Sherwin’s bold reinvention of the series, it’s highly unlikely we’d be talking about Doctor Who today. Sherwin’s a guy who doesn’t often get a lot of credit for his contributions to the series, but he did some really important stuff in regards to Who (or at least he claims to have). While “Spearhead” is a story of many firsts, in the case of Sherwin it was his last, for it was after the production of this serial that he was moved off of Who, and Barry Letts was brought in as his replacement. 

If there’s a star of “Spearhead,” it’s undoubtedly the Autons. Simply, the series had never seen anything like them before, and children raised on steady diets of Cybermen and Daleks must have been truly and genuinely terrified by the shop window mannequins coming to life, and going on a killing spree across London. These creatures didn’t feel like fiction from outer space, but seemingly a tangible threat kids could understand and relate to in a way that few Who monsters before them achieved. But alas, shop window dummies proved to be something of a one-trick pony, as the sequel to “Spearhead,” “Terror of the Autons,” proved by being considerably less effective than the original, and the Autons wouldn’t threaten the Doctor again until 2005, in the aforementioned “Rose.” (Due credit must also be given to Steven Moffat for his own reinvention of what an Auton can be via Rory the Roman.)

As far as double-dips go, “Spearhead” looks as clean and perfect as ever I’ve seen it (and boy have I seen some crappy looking versions of this over the years). I don’t know if it’s quite a night and day difference from the 2001 DVD. I attempted to do some screengrab comparisons for this piece, but ultimately decided to not go that route as I couldn’t see major, breathtaking differences via frame by frame comparisons. That said, this serial’s been cleaned up considerably in contrast to the old DVD, and the new extras more than make it worth returning to the well. Besides, the bit of the excised Fleetwood Mac song “Oh Well, Part 1” has been reinstated into the factory scene. (For purists, this is great news. For Mac freaks like me? A long overdue necessity.) My only complaint? If ever there was a classic Who story that begged for a Blu-ray release, it’s this one, and it sure would’ve been nice if a chance had been taken, as this would be a treasure in 1080p.

[1] The only other Doctor Who story shot entirely on film was the aforementioned TV movie from 1996, but this writer doesn’t consider that part of the classic series, because, well, it’s not. It stands on it own. I’m not saying it’s not part of continuity, just not part of the classic series.


DVD Extras: Aside from the now dated “Who’s Who” featurette, everything from the 2001 DVD, including the commentary with Nick Courtney and Caroline John, has been ported over for this release, so you can pass your old disc on to a Who newbie with confidence. New to this disc is a second commentary track featuring Sherwin and Terrance Dicks, which is lively, informative fun. Sherwin’s something of a blowhard, but that’s part of his charm. He reminds me far more of an American producer than a Brit. “Down to Earth” is a fine, proper making of doc, even if at 22 minutes it feels a little short. It includes bits from a vintage interview with Jon Pertwee, which is a nice bonus. “Regenerations: From Black and White to Color” feels as if it’s an extension of the first doc, and its title is fairly self-explanatory. Additionally, there’s a nice selection of Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a trailer for “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.”