Spearhead From Space:
Jon Pertwee’s first appearance as The Doctor
By Steven Harris
Patrick Troughton’s final appearance as the Doctor had seen him spinning off into the void having been punished by the Timelords for crimes against the recorder, or something like that. When Spearhead from Space was first screened on 3rd January 1970, not only the actor playing the Doctor was noticeably new. For a start the series was now being shown in colour, the opening title sequence had changed and the Doctor had been stripped of certain knowledge about operating the Tardis by the Timelords. Thus Pertwee’s Doctor spent several seasons stuck on Earth and working for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s UNIT. This series also brought a new assistant, Caroline Johns, as Liz Shaw.
Directed by Derek Martinus, who was a veteran of Hartnell and Troughton stories, Spearhead From Space was written by one of the most regular contributors to the show in its entire history, Bob Holmes.
Rather like the first ever episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor himself is not seen until the plot has already begun to unfold. An initial shot of the Milky Way pans across to reveal the Earth before the scene changes to a Jodrell Bank type institute (though presumably military) where a sweaty scanner operative is figuratively rubbing his eyes at what his machine is showing him. He calls his boss – a woman (Women’s Lib given an early 70s boost by the show? – but she believes the anomaly to be meteorites. The sweaty man is not so certain – meteorites do not normally descend in formation.
Meanwhile, out in the country, an old poacher is laying rabbit traps when a falling object forces him to duck out of the way. The man returns to the object once it seems safely embedded in the ground and pokes at it. It is evidently flashing and making spooky BBC radiophonic department noises. The poacher covers it over with a sly look on his little yokel face.
It is at this point that we finally see the Tardis, landing in some scrubland. The door opens and a man who is not Patrick Troughton falls out and hits the ground. There is no time to reflect on this as we are whisked off to the interior of a diplomatic-looking vehicle in which a young woman is being driven through underground tunnels to an obviously secret location.
At last there is a familiar face: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, sitting behind a desk waiting to greet the young woman from the car. She – Liz Shaw, an expert on meteorites, we learn – moans about all the unnecessary security she has had to pass through to reach the Brig’s office. He thinks it amusing. Liz does not and demands to know what UNIT do.
“We deal with the odd, the unexplained.” replies the Brig, not exactly explaining.
As if the scriptwriter has attention-deficit disorder we are given yet another new location in the next shot, the lobby of a hospital. The man from the Tardis is being stretchered in, having been found by Captain Munroe, who just so happens to work for UNIT (presumably they had already been scouring the area where the meteorites came down). Back in the Brig’s office an incredulous Liz Shaw wonders why UNIT should imagine Earth is at any more risk of extra-terrestrial attack now than it has been for the past fifty-thousand years.
“We’ve drawn attention to ourselves, Miss Shaw,” says Lethbridge-Stewart. He refers to satellites and probes that have been sent out into space over the previous couple of decades. This is neatly echoed some thirty-five years later during David Tennant’s first appearance as the Doctor in the conversation he has with Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (yes, we know who she is) after he has finally woken up and defeated the Sycorax. The Brig’s phone rings – Munroe to inform him that they have found a mysterious man in the woods near a police box.
Interior, hotel room, a nurse and a doctor are examining a patient’s X-ray and wondering if it isn’t a joke. The image shows two hearts. Hmm, now who do we know with a dual-cardio-vascular system? That tall Pertwee man in the bed, surely? A moment or two later the doc (the medical one, not the Timelord one) is having a bit of a cross conversation with the blood lab from a phone in the hospital corridor. The lab insist that the blood sample he has sent them, which he himself extracted from the Pertwee man’s arm, is not human blood. A porter, supposedly hoovering the corridor but actually eavesdropping, rushes straight to another phone in the lobby and calls the local press.
Back in the woods our sly poacher friend has returned to the site of the fallen object with a sack and a spade. He digs it out and pops it in his sack hurriedly as he can hear the sound of UNIT soldiers searching nearby.
Back to the hospital once again. The Doctor (the Timelord one, not the medical one) is awake and looking for his shoes. He does not find them and falls back into sleep. In the lobby the press are crowding around the Brig, who has just arrived with Liz in tow. They want to know about the man found in the woods, about the meteors, about whether his moustache is glued on (well not that but it is). At the back of the press scrum stands a po-faced man who manages to simultaneously appear like he is up to something and yet also as though he is the winner of the Most Vacant Clot in the World Contest 1970.
The Brigadier arrives in the Doctor’s side ward but does not recognise the Pertwee man in the bed. The sleepy figure opens one eye, however, and exclaims, “Lethbridge-Stewart! My dear fellow, how very nice to see you again.” Confusion reigns for a short while before the Timelord realises that his appearance has been altered by his people as part of his punishment. He asks for a mirror, just as Troughton did four years earlier, and stares, initially aghast, at his new features. “Oh no! Well that’s not me at all,” he decides before changing his mind almost immediately and thinking that actually he looks rather distinctive. The Doctor then drops back to sleep but he’s faking it as his eyes open as soon as the others leave the room.
In the lobby some press men are blathering on about the meteors and the man in the woods. They wonder who the po-faced bloke in the lobby phone booth might be and hassle him for use of the phone, causing him to exit, quite sharpish, still vacant and devious all in one package of facial expressions.
The poacher has come upon the two UNIT guards posted by the Tardis. Diverting them from what he may or may not have in his sack he offers them a rabbit. They tell him to clear off but he hangs around asking questions about the meteorites and whether they would be valuable if found.
In the hospital room the Doctor is peering under his bed for his shoes. The nurse tries to persuade him to calm down when the doctor (the medical one) arrives and says he doesn’t see why the Doctor (the Timelord one) can’t have his shoes from his locker. Pertwee snatches them from his hand and cuddles them into his chest in the bed. While the medical man checks a chart across the room the Timelord finds what he is actually looking for in one of the shoes – the key to the Tardis.
Suddenly the medical doctor is knocked unconscious by one of two shiny-faced men who have entered the room. The other shiny-face gags Pertwee and manhandles him into a wheelchair whereupon the pair steal him out of the hospital. Outside we learn that their accomplice is the po-faced, vacant man. They attempt to get the Timelord into an ambulance but he wheels himself out of their clutches and is off like a dog after the proverbial hare. UNIT soldiers have worked out something underhand is going on with the shiny-faces and the po-face and open fire on them as they escape in the ambulance. Meanwhile two other soldiers have given chase to the Doctor. They find his wheelchair abandoned round a corner and we next see him emerging from some undergrowth near the Tardis. One of the two guards by the policebox opens fire and Pertwee falls to the ground. End credits.
This opening episode of a brand new era of Doctor Who, then, does not reveal a great deal about what other changes the Timelord’s regeneration might have brought about (the process is still not referred to as regeneration, incidentally. The term does not occur until Pertwee’s final story, Planet of the Spiders). What it does ground the viewer in, however, is the supporting cast and a sense of the shape of the Pertwee years right from the off. The Brigadier’s pompous good intentions are already to the fore. The weekly threat to Earth itself is going to be a given seeing as how The Doctor’s third incarnation has been exiled to Earth and his memory of key Tardis codes wiped. Guest stars and even cameo actors like the comically devious poacher are allowed full rein to imbue their characters with greater depth. Doctor Who would never be quite the same again.
For me personally this is the moment when I began to emerge from behind the sofa (yes I literally did watch Troughton from behind the sofa as I was tiny and terrified of the theme tune, let alone anything else). Although I consider Tom Baker to be ‘my’ Doctor, re-watching many of the Pertwee stories years later drags up memories of sitting and watching them first time around.
What Spearhead From Space would go on to reveal is that the Third Doctor is a man of action, a sort of alien James Bond figure if you like. He is also often to be seen tinkering with clever scientific things, either to try and bypass the erasure of Tardis codes from his mind or to save the day in an elaborate and sometimes utterly implausible manner.
Pertwee’s debut was watched by 8.4 million viewers, half a million more than watched Troughton’s first episode, and the viewing figures remained pretty consistent for the entire story. They were to dip quite dramatically towards the end of the season, however, which might explain in part why Liz Shaw was unceremoniously written out – many saw her character as too clever to be a decent assistant but that never stopped Zoe being a good foil for Troughton’s Doctor.
When the show was revived in 2005, Russell T. Davies looked to Pertwee’s opener for inspiration in various ways. Most strikingly of all the first foe faced by Eccleston’s Doctor is also the Nestene Consciousness and there are echoes of Spearhead From Space in the crashing of shop window dummies through the sheet glass fronts of their department stores. Also, as well as reiterating the Brigadier’s 1970 statement that mankind has drawn attention to itself in terms of the wider universe, Tennant’s first outing, The Christmas Invasion, sees him largely asleep or incapacitated for a considerable length of time. Steven Moffat has also taken from this storyline – Matt Smith’s ransacking of, oh guess what, a hospital cloakroom, for new clothes in The Eleventh Hour is very much a nod to the way Pertwee acquires his own, rather ostentatious costume.
So if Spearhead From Space is not the most brilliant of stories, it is well directed, well acted and lays down a marker for future regenerations both in the classic series and its revival. It is probably truer to say that Pertwee made the role his own in the following story, Doctor Who and the Silurians, than in this one, but he must have had fun, muttering silly things to himself in bed and clutching at shoes before stealing a car and other people’s clothes in order to ready himself to save the world. The Dandy Doctor had arrived.