The late John Pertwee played Doctor Who for the first time in this four part storyline which ran through the first few weeks of 1970, Dr. Who: Spearhead From Space, the first of the series to be shot on color film. Directed by Derek Martinus and written by Robert Holmes, the story begins when a bunch of meteorites hurtle through space and crash in the charming English countryside. A local man named Seeley (Neil Wilson) comes across them just as the TARDIS pops up and the new Dr. Who (Pertwee) steps out... only to basically fall flat on his face.
With the Doctor promptly shipped off to the hospital, UNIT steps in to see just what exactly is up with these meteors. Complicating matters is the presence of a local factory that specializes in manufacturing mannequins. As they've needed to change with the times, they've shifted from manual to automated labor but this has come at a strange cost. The mannequins coming out of the factory lately have been armed to the teeth and appear to be able to operate under their own power. Thankfully the Doctor is starting to feel a little better and with some help from his new companion Liz Shaw (Caroline John), he soon starts digging around to see what he can see - and what he does see points to a scheme courtesy of some alien invaders intent on replacing the population of the Earth with death dealing automated mannequins!
Dr. Who: Spearhead From Space is classic Who through and through. Pertwee hits the ground running and seems very comfortable in his role from the outset of the program. He exudes the right amount of confidence to make the role his own and never feels like he's reaching too far with his take on the Doctor. He also has a great on-screen chemistry with the lovely and charming Caroline John and some good humor comes out of the relationship the two characters share in this storyline. The supporting cast are all game here as well, but Pertwee and John really do steal the show - and rightly so as they're given quite a bit more to do than everyone else involved and its' interesting to note that here, the Doctor's accomplice is very much his equal.
While automated mannequins may not sound like such a menacing foil for the Doctor to have to go up against, the fact is that the mannequins in this storyline are quite a bit creepier than the Daleks or any other aliens that Who had gone up against in the past. They've got this soulless quality to them and such a macabre appearance to their very human like features that there's just something not quite right about them. They also slightly resemble concepts later explored in The Terminator films in many ways - while they're not the same sort of cyborgs that those creations were, they have similarly merciless qualities to them that make them interesting villains.
The first of the four chapters opens up with a bang and the series manages to hold that pace throughout the next three chapters. There's a lot of good suspense here and quite a bit more action than some of the other storylines have offered up. As such, it all goes by quite quickly and at a good pace. As it was all shot on film there seems to have been a bit more attention paid to the production values this time around as well, meaning we get a nicer looking series with Spearhead From Space than we do with many of the other Who entries made around the same time. Really, this is one of those entries in the long running series that just all comes together on every level that you'd want it to. It's fun, fast paced, reasonably intelligent and plenty entertaining - and it's also a very creative and genuinely different storyline for The Doctor and his companions, one that stands the test of time surprisingly well in the grand scheme of things. Of course, every Who fan will have his or her favorite storyline and this might not be it but it is generally a 'universally loved' four parter and after revisiting it by way of this excellent DVD release (more on that in the next few paragraphs), it's very easy to see just exactly why that is.
Dr. Who: Spearhead From Space arrives on DVD in a very nice good looking 1.33.1 fullframe transfer, just as it should be. Fans should be quite pleased with the picture quality here, colors are nicely defined and bold without looking oversaturated while skin tones look lifelike and natural. Some mild grain is present but that's not a problem so much as it is an observation while detail is fairly impressive throughout. There's really nothing to complain about here, this is a nice, strong film like presentation, the BBC have done right by this title.
The only mix here is an English language Dolby Digital Mono track. It doesn't fare quite as well as the transfer does but it's perfectly acceptable. Some scenes do sound noticeably more flat than others but overall the dialogue is generally easy enough to follow and understand and the levels are properly balanced.
The extras kick off with the first of two audio commentaries. Here script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Derrick Sherwin discuss the influence of the Quatermass series on this storyline and note how they tried to go in a new direction with Dr. Who this time around. They discuss the contributions of the various cast and crew members in the show and evaluate their performances both good and bad, but also get into the changes that the series was undergoing at this time in its history. Though the pair occasionally go off topic from time to time they have a great chemistry here and this turns out to have the right mix of humor and information delivered in a really enjoyable and easily digestible way.
The second commentary features actors Caroline John and Nick Courtney and it covers a pretty wide range of topics including everything from how Caroline John had to get foxy bikini pictures taken for her portfolio to get into the acting business to what it was like working with Pertwee on the series. They go into some details about preparing for the roles they play here, about what it was like on set, and their thoughts on this particular storyline as a whole. They too have a nice chemistry together here and a genuine warmth comes through in the track that makes it a nice listen for fans of the series.
Also of interest is the featurette Down To Earth - Filming Spearhead from Space, which spends just over twenty minutes with input from Derek Sherwin, Jon Pertwee (in vintage interview clip form, obviously), Christine Rawlins and a few others and some great vintage clips and photographs doing a great job of telling the story behind the story. We also get a four minute Unit Recruitment Film that was originally done for the show's thirtieth anniversary but which is appropriate as an inclusion here. Another featurette entitled Regenerations - From Black And White To Color lets some of the team involved in the show and some Whophiles discuss the shift to color TV for the series.
Rounding out the extras are trailers for a few other Dr. Who releases, a Production Notes subtitle track that pops up various bits of trivia as the series plays out on screen, and a still gallery. Animated menus and both episode selection and chapter selection options are included. For those with a DVD-Rom drive, some PDF materials are also included that you can access on your computer including some radio times listings.
Dr. Who: Spearhead From Space remains a highlight in the early seventies run of the series and one of the best episodes that John Pertwee was involved in. It's an odd, sometimes even eerie story that goes in directions you probably won't expect it to which manages to be quite involving and a whole lot of fun. This remastered DVD from the BBC looks fantastic and if the audio isn't anything to write home about, it's also loaded with some seriously good extra features. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.