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7x01. Spearhead from Space
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Derek Martinus
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Derrick Sherwin

Synopsis: UNIT are searching for a group of unidentified objects that they detected falling to Earth from space when the recently-regenerated Doctor arrives and ends up in the hospital. The objects are in fact essential to the operation of the Nestenes, a collective alien intelligence operating covertly out of a plastics company. The Doctor teams up with the Brigadier and newly hired scientist Liz Shaw to defeat the Nestenes.

Review: It is probably impossible to approach "Spearhead from Space" now with the same point of view as that of its original audience. Fans had been through one regeneration already, but in keeping Ben and Polly around and introducing Troughton with a Dalek serial, the production team at the time were undoubtedly trying to keep things safe and familiar and reassure fans that it was still Doctor Who. That's not the case here: not only do we have a new Doctor in Jon Pertwee, but he's now stranded on Earth, having unwillingly parted company with Jamie and Zoe at the end of "The War Games."

To those of us who followed Doctor Who through seven Doctors (and that's not counting Paul McGann, Richard Grant, Trevor Martin, etc.) and many different variations in style and formula, this still doesn't necessarily seem too momentous. We know that the Doctor eventually returned to his wandering ways and that UNIT gradually faded from view. At the time, however, it represented a serious rethinking of the show's premise, with producer Derrick Sherwin seeking to replicate the success of the old Quatermass serials in mixing science fiction with contemporary Earth settings. This was not without precedent on Doctor Who, and the production team take their cues from serials like "The War Machines" and especially "The Invasion" (more on that later), but "Spearhead from Space" has a slightly different style to it. Locations like Tobias Vaughn's office or the warehouse where the War Machines were prepared, despite the present-day time frame, still felt slightly...well, alien. "Spearhead," by contrast, takes place in such conventional settings as a hospital, a factory, and the British countryside, and the Doctor's presence is greeted with confusion and skepticism by the hospital staff and later by Liz Shaw.

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who is really the only familiar face here, is once again an appealing character, in no small part because Robert Holmes' script continues to avoid the military clichés common to science fiction. The Brigadier is not a closed-minded skeptic, nor is he excessively eager to blow things up: he's a smart, competent officer who acts calmly and decisively to try to unravel this latest mystery and keep the Doctor away from the hospital staff and the media. The role of the skeptic, instead, is assumed by Liz Shaw, who is reluctant to take the position with UNIT and is openly incredulous at the Brigadier's claims of an alien who time-travels in a police box even after she's concluded that there's something unusual about the meteorites. Holmes makes a wise choice in allowing the Doctor to win her over with his scientific knowledge: they clearly respect each others' competence, and this earns some audience sympathy for both the new companion and the equally new Doctor.

Speaking of the new Doctor, his persona is not yet fully drawn, and there are some moments that seem as though they might have been written for a more Troughton-esque version (asking for his shoes while in the hospital bed and then clutching them protectively, for example, or avoiding detection in the hospital locker room by pretending to take a shower). Still, something of the Pertwee persona emerges here: he projects a more overt air of confidence than his low-key predecessor, and his enthusiasm for gadgets and vehicles can be seen in the device he constructs to defeat the Nestenes and his request for a car similar to the one that he stole from the hospital. He displays a touch of the First Doctor's impatience, telling the Brigadier to "go away" when he and Liz are talking science, but there's still an underlying geniality and good humor to Pertwee's take on the role. The one thing I didn't quite understand was his claim to have lost his memory. He seems to remember why he's been exiled to Earth, and my impression is that the Time Lords simply sabotaged the TARDIS rather than taking away his knowledge of how to operate it, so what exactly is it that he's forgotten?

The main weakness of "Spearhead from Space" is that, despite Holmes' skill with setup and characterization, there just isn't much of a story here. The Nestenes and the Autons -- a collective life form that colonizes planets, and a group of deadly mannequins waiting to be activated, respectively -- are disturbing in theory: the anti-individualism of collective intelligence is nicely paralleled by the featureless uniformity of the mannequins, and the use of seemingly innocuous factory products as weapons represents a clever plan to take over human society from within. But somehow, despite the scenes of Autons wreaking havoc on the streets of London, it all just comes off as Alien Invasion 101 on screen. Some elements seem derived from "The Invasion," such as the Brigadier's superior being compromised, but unlike its predecessor, "Spearhead" has no compelling antagonist: Hibbert is an ineffectual, intimidated lackey, and Channing is perhaps deliberately written as a flat, aloof representative of the Nestene intelligence who mostly just glares menacingly and occasionally orders "Total destruction!" The fact that the Doctor doesn't really get involved until Episode 3 also adds to the slightly rote feel, in that it almost seems too easy when he does defeat the Nestenes. I wonder if "Spearhead" could have actually used a couple more episodes, since that might have allowed Holmes to ease the Doctor into the story and still develop a more complex plot.

That said, characterization and setup were, in fact, more important at this point, and it's probably fair to say that, with the change in format, "Spearhead from Space" almost serves as a second pilot. Next up are three seven-episode serials in a row. Hopefully my comment about needing more episodes won't turn out to be a case of "careful what you wish for."

Other notes:

- Another good moment for the Brigadier and the series is when he speculates that Earth is more likely to be targeted by aliens because humans have called attention to themselves by sending signals into space. It demonstrates the Brigadier's intelligence, and it also provides some rationalization for the fact that roughly 510,336 alien invasions of Earth would be attempted before Doctor Who completed its run.

- There are two BBC promo spots on the DVD release that are almost worth the price of purchase all by themselves. One of them is done in the guise of a recruitment film for UNIT, and the other is so hilariously bizarre that it's hard even to describe it. Briefly, it involves fish in a bowl and various toys seeming to lip-synch Dalek dialogue while a young girl watches with a demented smile and an adult cowers in fear behind the couch. (Tagline: "Behind the sofa, no one can hear you scream.")

Rating: *** (out of four)

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