Spearhead from Space was in my top list of serials I avoided like a plague for years. If I was going to watch a Third Doctor story, dealing with the Nestene, I was going to watch Terror of the Autons. With the first apperance of The Master and Jo Grant, plus couches eating people and killer flowers, what wasn’t to love. But, Spearhead? Just, eeewww, no. Boring Liz Shaw, rambling, expositional Brigadier, random old poacher dude? Creepy doll factory? Just, NO!
Looking back on it, I think my negative view of Spearhead stemmed from several places. To begin with, my first viewing came when I had taken ill and was home from work. I was in and out of consciousness, missing half the story, except for aforementioned “boring” expositional points. It was also during a very contrary opinionated point in my thirties. Everything that every famous “superfan” loved, I found something to hate about it. I really was a petulant pedantic pessimist. Okay, so I’m still pedantic, at certain times.
As vague as my “hatred” for Spearhead was, my love of it is much more exacting. It began slowly and out of desperation. Hulu and BBC had parted ways and there was no legal streaming service for Classic Doctor Who in America. My early days of diving into Doctor Who DVD hunting quickly had me run across a copy of Spearhead from Space. Truly, Third and Fifth Doctor serials were the easiest for me to find during that year. You have to understand, just because there was a plethora of Classic Who that had been released didn’t mean it was within my reach. A choice to no longer produce certain stories as well as generally availability made prices skyrocket. To put it in perspective: my favorite Classic serial, The Two Doctors was $260+ on DVD. It was near impossible to track down at an affordable price. With so little to choose from in my library, those Third Doctor serials I could afford became my staples. That became especially true of Spearhead.
Constant rewatches, viewing other stories, as well as perspectives from some amazing podcasts helped change the way I saw the story.
Liz Shaw is brought in as a superwoman of science. Dozens of degrees, all science based, the writers were covering future stories well, to make sure her expositional shortcut ability would work well. That first viewing, it made her seem pretentious and haughty. A skeptic for the sake of being a skeptic, despite what she witnessed for herself. I completely missed how the Doctor was able to play to her vanity and win her over. Liz was the Doctor’s equal on an intellectual level; yet willing to call him out on his hokum. The day when it hit me how much of a bridge or combination of Zoe Heriot ( Doctor’s equal or superior in intellect) and Jo Grant (flatterer who would hold his feet to the fire when he was full of it) I nearly lost it. How amazing, that in 1970, Doctor Who would be so gutsy as to have a companion like this.
Gutsy is a great descriptor for this entire serial: an untrustful and shadowy corporation, a government without all the answers, and companion who saves the Doctor when he can’t save himself (more on that later.) Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty eye squinting in doubt about this story. Every negative that happens to the “little man” seems to be their own fault for being too greedy (the porter, the poacher, the doll maker.) There is also the idea that it takes the affluent to save the masses that can be troubling. However, that is an ongoing theme throughout the Third Doctor’s tenure.
Here is where I will give my general shout-out to TV Tropes website: if you want a blow-by-blow breakdown of the serial and all of it’s cliches or tropes I highly recommend their Spearhead from Space article. It points out the painful and obvious like how in the world does the Doctor only get a burn from getting shot in the head (Regeneration energy.)
What lead me back to Spearhead this week was having just finished my rewatch of Rose. The realization that the latter was a modern retelling of the former gave me so much excitement that I had to go on yet another rewatch. Which brings us to the companion who saves the Doctor and the idea of the elite saving the poorer masses.
Just as a reminder: Rose saves the Doctor, who is being restrained by Nestene Autons. She doesn’t have A levels, but she does have a bronze in gymnastics. Aware of this knowledge and the realization that she’s the only one who is willing to do anything (because Mickey has been reduced to a cowering mass,) she jumps on a convenient chain and swing across and end the violence being perpetrated outside. This isn’t as revolutionary an ending for those familiar with Spearhead before seeing Rose because it’s essentially a more Everyman (woman) version of what Liz Shaw accomplished. The Doctor was being restrained by the tenticals of the Nestene Consciousness, unable to save the day as people were being gunned down in the streets.
There a couple of key differences in the stories. The first is the level of violence spurred by the Nestene. In Rose (2005) the Autons attack during a busy shopping evening. The mall is clearly bustling and full. In Spearhead (1970) it is early in the morning. stores are not open. People who are in danger are either walking on a sparse road or in a que to go to work, for the day. However, in the 1970 episode, we see people more directly hit, with greenish-brown smoke pouring from them. In the more modern Rose, the gun shots can be heard and seeing coming from the Auton handguns. However, the direct hits happen more off screen.
The second big difference is the socioeconomic status of the companion saving the Doctor. In the modern version, Rose is just a shop girl. She could be anyone who saves the Doctor, as long as they’re willing to be brave and put to use their individual skill set. However, in Spearhead, there are few besides Liz Shaw who could have saved the Doctor. Liz’s scientific knowledge, her elite training was what was necessary to save the Doctor. No random person could have walked off the street and been as helpful. The machine that shuts the Nestene down is a complicated piece of equipment. This plays more into the idea of the elite or the intellectual saving the masses. There are two very different types of audiences being appealed to with these stories, with this one story choice.
By putting myself into that mindset, before going into a viewing of Spearhead from Space I am able to enjoy the serial in a completely different way than how I enjoy New Who. It is a story I cannot put on and allow my brain to go into autopilot. Instead, I have to read the smallest of facial expressions, I have to interpret the repercussions of seemingly inocuious choices by side characters. It is much like a Second Doctor story, in that there is a lot of “fluffy” happening to expand the allotted time. However, those “fluffy moments” can have impacts into the characterization and feel of the story beyond just a single episode and can come back later in the serial.
What are your big takeaways from Spearhead from Space? Leave a comment!