This two-disc set brings together both 1970s Auton stories from the Jon Pertwee era Of DOCTOR WHO. These two being packaged together here is somewhat controversial, since Pertwee’s debut, “Spearhead From Space” -- the first DOCTOR WHO story ever to be filmed in colour (discounting the two 1960s Dalek movies) -- was one of the earliest releases in the classic DOCTOR WHO DVD range, originally appearing way back in 2001. That version has been available ever since, so re-releasing it again in a splendid restored edition with new extras is understandable enough, but pairing it off with the previously unreleased “Terror of the Autons” feels like a crafty way to force the punter (shelves no doubt already crammed to collapsing point with WHO product) to stump up the cash for a story they’ve probably already got, if they desire to add to their DVD collections the Master’s first onscreen encounter with the debonair third Doctor in Robert Holmes’ Auton-based follow-up. Nevertheless, I suspect most fans will eventually be won over when they actually see the beautiful job done by the Doctor Who Restoration Team on what is also the only DOCTOR WHO story from the classic era (besides the made for TV film in 1996 -- which doesn’t really count, let’s face it) to be shot entirely on film.
SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE (1970)
It now seems pretty clear that “Spearhead from Space” rescued DOCTOR WHO from the then looming threat of cancellation, murmurs of which first began to circulate in BBC circles during 1969 as Season 6 drew to a close with “The War Games”. Season 7 only got the go-ahead at all in 1970 because nobody could come up with any better ideas for a replacement. Viewing figures had been dwindling steadily throughout the final months of a weary and soon-to-be-replaced Patrick Troughton’s tenure, and drastic measures were evidently needed if the show was to be rescued from becoming just another footnote in BBC history, of interest only to chroniclers of TV’s past and cult enthusiasts. Outgoing producer Derrick Sherwin came up with the cost-cutting idea of confining the Doctor’s adventures exclusively to Earth after forced exile by the Time Lords. Here, he would reluctantly act as a sort of scientific adviser to a military outfit dedicated to protecting the planet from alien invasion, initiating what became known as the UNIT era: a move that very obviously owed its distinctive tone to Nigel Kneale’s influential “Quatermass” series and its two even better follow-ups. Indeed, it emerges that Sherwin even contacted Kneale at some point about writing for the newly formatted programme, although nothing came of it.
This crucial adjustment to the show’s fundamental premise comes on top of several other factors which meant that DOCTOR WHO instantly felt to audiences like a completely new show when it reappeared on British TV screens on the 3rd January 1970. It may have avoided being cancelled but the ensuing overhaul had been so drastic that pretty much everything about the programme had changed anyway: now it was in full colour for the first time (at least, it was for those who had forked out for their colour licences); the new Doctor was a dashing Adam Adamant-like figure in opera cape and frills, much more the man of action now, almost a superhero codified as a dandified Sherlock Holmes who adored gadgets, vintage cars and the odd bit of karate (or its Venusian equivalent). Comic actor Jon Pertwee went against expectation and for the most part elected to play the role straight despite the character’s eccentricities, in marked contrast to the clownish, comical persona of his predecessor. This era was also the start of the ’single-female-companion’ trend (or “assistant” as the scientific research-orientated third Doctor always preferred to call them) -- up till then the Doctor had always been accompanied on his travels by at least two companions, usually taking the form of a young dynamic male to handle the action duties for the aged lead actor, and a young female to be saved from the monsters each week.
Whether it was intended as deliberate policy or not, these changes give “Spearhead from Space” something of the flavour of the many ITC action-adventure series that were doing the rounds at the time. A scene shifters strike over pay and conditions inadvertently leads to that impression being further consolidated by the appearance of the four episodes concerned, for Sherwin elected to work around the subsequent unavailability of the Studios at BBC Television Centre while the strike was in progress, by shooting the whole of the four-part adventure on film, using real locations instead of studio-built sets. Looked at today, the serial has an aesthetic and a texture quite unlike any other story in the show’s history before or since, thanks to its vivid colours and the particular sheen of sophistication lent it by the exclusive use of 16mm film. Unlike a good deal of stories from the Pertwee era, the film elements have survived the years in good condition, and thanks to the attentions of the Restoration Team, these episodes now look rather wonderful; glossy, slick-looking colours and the particular bucolic qualities of the locations surrounding the BBC’s Wood Norton Training Facility in Evesham (which supplied most of the Cottage Hospital interiors and Home Counties countryside outdoor settings) help make this look and feel as close to the classic ITC adventure series, like “The Champions or “Department S”, as it was ever going to get. It had been Sherwin’s plan to continue shooting the series on film after this experiment, but from “Doctor Who and the Silurians” onwards the show reverted to its usual method of multi-camera shooting in a studio/gallery set up, using video with occasional 16mm film inserts, mostly for outdoor location work.
The fact that this story is Jon Pertwee’s debut as the Doctor soon becomes almost the least significant thing about it. After all, we’d seen the Doctor change his face before – that was actually the most familiar idea on display here, the anchor that grounded the totally new aesthetic in the show’s history. Robert Holmes spends much more time establishing just how different the Time Lord’s surroundings were going to be for the foreseeable future, introducing his new home at UNIT and putting its leader, Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), up front and centre as the main focal point. The character had appeared twice before during Patrick Troughton’s tenure (“The Web of Fear” and “The Invasion”), during which time he’d evidently been promoted. In his new capacity as the Brigadier, Lethbridge-Stewart was to be a series regular, appearing almost every week for the next few years until the Doctor was once more allowed to wander across space and time in the TARDIS.
Meanwhile the Doctor spends most of the first episode of this story sidelined in a cottage hospital bed, recovering from his forced regeneration (although it’s not called that yet) at the hands of the Time Lords. And in the meantime, we see glowing alien meteorites landing in the English countryside and some rum goings on at the Auto Plastics depot: a doll-making factory that’s been taken over by the plastics’ animating Nestene Consciousness as part of its plot to replace the world’s leaders with waxworks Auton facsimiles from Madam Tussaud in advance of the Nestene invasion fleet! Dudley Simpson’s music is full of jazzy cues utilising flutes and woodwind instruments, adding further to the whole film serial vibe, and the Doctor’s new “assistant” comes as close to a Mrs Peel to Pertwee’s John Steed as the series could ever get in the character of Liz Shaw (Caroline John): a Cambridge educated research scientist who’s both independent and intelligent, but still looks good in a trendy plastic panelled top with mini-skirt & leather boots. Of course, she wasn’t to last long before new production/script editing team Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks reverted to type and replaced her with their version of a Tara King novice, i.e. Jo Grant. The fact that such a strong and clearly feminist character first appeared at this early stage at all, suggest that there was on the part of the outgoing team, some unconscious absorption of the norms of the adventure serial format, since eccentric, flamboyantly dressed adventurers who worked for top secret organisations and had beautiful but resourceful accomplices, were an inherent part of the scenery on such shows as “The Avengers” and “Department S”!
The unparalleled sophistication that attends the production values of “Spearhead from Space” never detracts from the sheer creepiness of some of the images and ideas that occur in Holmes’ script: Doppelgängers and unstoppable automatons aren’t anything new in DOCTOR WHO lore, but to take the simple idea of something as familiar as a shop-store mannequin coming to life and proceeding to massacre a suburban high street (well alright -- a bus queue and some bloke on a bicycle), and dress them up in some up-to-the-minute high street ‘70s fashions while they’re doing it, and you have the recipe for what has become one of the most iconic sequences in DOCTOR WHO’s long history. There are other scenes here almost as disquieting: an old woman hears a commotion in the back room of her quaint little thatched cottage and finds a blank-faced automaton in pre-Michael Myers boiler suit tearing up her house, who then turns and pursues her out into her isolated backyard. Major General Scobie answers his front door and finds his own mannequin double staring back at him on the doorstep, waxy skinned and malevolent-looking. This is action- adventure with an added nightmare dosage of the Uncanny. In a season overburdened with extended seven-part adventures (another idea to keep costs down), this is a nicely paced story that actually works better viewed in one sitting, since the main story never really gets going until episodes three and four. Pertwee’s performance is fully formed from the beginning -- at least once he’s stolen his first vintage car and nabbed a frilly shirt and cape from a visiting hospital consultant. There are some uncharacteristic Troughton-like moments of impishness early on in the script, especially when the Doctor tries to nip off in the TARDIS by fooling Miss Shaw into giving him the TARDIS key, but then has to exit looking sheepish in a cloud of smoke after it becomes apparent that the Time Lords have altered the ship’s ‘dematerialisation code’, but by episode four, the dynamic nature of the new Doctor has been established, though we would soon see some more disagreeable sides of this new persona emerging in subsequent stories.
TERROR OF THE AUTONS (1971)
One year later, and with the new format having been a huge success and viewing figures back at an all-time high, Robert Holmes was recalled to serve up a sequel to his Nestene/Auton series debut, while putting a few finishing touches to the formula that was now to dominate the series for most of the rest of Jon Pertwee’s time as the third Doctor. This was really the beginning of producer Barry Letts’ influence on the content of the series, since most of season 7’s had already been determined some time before his appointment by producers Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin. Hench, hyper-assured Liz Shaw is already back in Cambridge come the start of episode one, without so much as a goodbye, and Katy Manning’s Josephine Grant -- a nervous young ingénue barely out of training – has been re-cast as her replacement. In answer to the Doctor’s bad-tempered contention that he needs a proper trained scientist as an assistant not a girl, the Brigadier seems to be echoing the assumptions of the all-male production team at this time when he asserts that on the contrary, all he really needs is for ‘someone to pass you your test tubes and tell you how wonderful you are!’ Thus the series took a step back from the strong female companion of Liz Shaw and away from giving the Doctor a full grown woman rather than a generic screaming girl for his companion. Nevertheless, Katy Manning’s spirited performance imbues a new energy to the thankless role, and the character of Jo Grant does a great deal to humanise and round off the jagged edges to the increasingly techy and superior third incarnation of the Doctor over the course of her three years at his side. At the start of “Terror of the Autons” Pertwee’s Doctor comes across as incredibly bullying and arrogant. Not knowing she’s been assigned as his new assistant he explodes with blustering fury after she meddles in one of his experiments by putting out a fire he’s just accidently started in his laboratory. Once he realises who she is the Doctor does everything he possibly can to get her sacked; the crafty Brigadier does agree to give her the push … but only if the Doctor tells her himself, which of course he finds impossible to do! By the end of the story, Pertwee’s Doctor has already begun to take the girlish Jo under his wing and their ensuing paternalistic teacher/pupil relationship is also leavened by the sense that they are kindred spirits and outsiders (Jo stands out in UNIT as much as the Doctor) who share a similar robust sense of adventure. She fulfils the script writer’s function of asking the necessary questions that allow the Doctor to explain the plot, but Manning always brings such a likable charm to Jo, undercutting the Doctor’s occasional pomposity with her enthusiasm and her cheekiness. She’s also the Glam face of early- to mid-seventies DOCTOR WHO, exemplifying with her glittery fashion sense the primary coloured face of the otherwise dismal 1970s.
Another important factor in locating Season 8 as a product of the early seventies, with all its attendant Glam trappings, is the by now ubiquitous use of a primitive form of early green screen technology called Colour Separation Overlay (CSO) to create not just effects but, in the case of “Terror of the Autons”, to replace whole sets! Producer Barry Letts seems to have been addicted to the process and after experimenting with it the previous year, lets it run rampant over the production here. Letts was also the director on this story and in getting carried away with the idea that he could save money by using CSO to get rid of the necessity for complicated sets, ends up creating a weird, almost unintentionally avant-garde cut-&-paste and collage aesthetic in which the actors are often seen against flat backgrounds that are meant to be standing in for, say, a space museum facility or a complex computer room, all of it looking achingly artificial and primitive of course, especially to a modern audience. But by a stroke of luck this also fits in with the story’s attempt to find horror in the ubiquity of tacky, then-contemporary consumerism based in synthetic materials and mass manufactured goods. In the previous Auton story, Robert Holmes only really hinted at the underlying themes inherent in the notion of everyday objects becoming ‘possessed’ and coming to life. The shop store mannequin sequence only appeared in the very last episode. Here, the Nestene menace takes on some truly terrifying incarnations which find their terror in the very domesticity implied in their being based entirely in everyday objects: an inflatable plastic chair swallows a man whole and slowly suffocates him to death; a telephone cord wraps itself around the Doctor’s neck and attempts to throttle him; plastic daffodils spray a congealing plastic mesh over the nose and mouth of anyone who comes near them, instantly choking them to death … this is all really unpleasant, utterly terrifying stuff!
Letts and Dicks were attempting to create a faced-paced, relentlessly entertaining show after being tied down by lugubrious seven-parters the previous year, but they perhaps didn’t realise the impact their ideas might have on a young audience. “Terror of the Autons” is undoubtedly a thrill ride from start to finish, with action sequences galore, explosions and noteworthy moments occurring throughout every episode. It’s also one of the creepiest, most horrific stories ever made. The surrealistically cruel suffocating plastic chair sequence would never be shown in today’s Nu-Who for instance, and the faceless living mannequin Autons themselves are even more unnerving here than in “Spearhead from Space”, let alone in 2005’s “Rose”. One of the most terrifying sequences in the programme’s history occurs in this story when the Doctor and Jo are apparently rescued by two policemen in a squad car after being set upon by a threatening mob at a circus, only for one of the officers to turn around and face the pair, his face falling away to reveal the blank-eyed automaton beneath! One of the most macabre sequences involves Mr and Mrs Farrell, the senior head of the plastics factor the Master has taken over, and his wife: minor characters both, but they’re given just enough backstory and a few scenes of recognisable home life before an ugly-looking troll doll with bulging eyes and horrible drooling fangs comes to life, scurries across their living room carpet and strangles Mr Farrell to death while his wife is making some tea in the kitchen. We get to see his slippers twitching on the carpet as he undergoes his final death throes! This mixture of the synthetic, the gaudy and the colourfully macabre reaches its zenith when the Autons dress up in garish yellow blazers with over-sized grinning plaster heads topped by boater hats to distribute their death-daffodils in the street (this idea does have the unfortunate side-effect of leaving us with earnestly delivered dialogue along the lines of ‘watch out for those daffodils!’) and culminates in a curiously small-scale final battle when the Master takes them all on a coaching trip!
While “Spearhead from Space” was a fairly linear story about UNIT seeking to destroy the threat posed by aliens who had infiltrated the doll manufacturing process at a thriving plastics factory in order to take over the Earth, “Terror of the Autons” is a much more wayward and bizarre adventure, primarily concerned with introducing a new element of the series that would go on to dominate all five stories of Season 8: that of the rivalry between the Doctor and his Time Lord Nemesis, the Master. Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks had realised that the relationship between the brilliant, flamboyant Doctor as portrayed by Jon Pertwee, and the dependable but straight-laced Brigadier as played by Nicholas Courtney, had developed into a Holmes and Watson double act. It occurred to them that the Doctor should also have his own Moriarty style arch-enemy; a villain who was intellectually the Doctor’s equal but who was also completely evil. The Master is played by Roger Delgado as a charming, suave but ruthlessly cunning silent movie villain with hypnotic eyes and a decidedly evil-looking goatee beard. The two characters are two sides of the same coin, both having stolen their TARDISs and both having subsequently been made renegades who are essentially estranged from their home planet. They grew up together there, and when the Time Lord emissary visits the Doctor (another touch of painterly surrealism here, as he appears dressed in a bowler hat and suit to ‘blend in’, but happens to be levitating fifty feet off the ground at the time) to tell him of the Master’s arrival on Earth, we learn that the Master even got better exam results than his rival (‘I was a late developer!’ mutters the Doctor). Indeed, the Master’s sole raison d'être appears to be to get the Doctor’s attention and to prove that he is more intelligent and worthy of respect than him. Thus, the Doctor finds himself under attack from beginning to end in this story: elaborate booby traps are set, bombs are delivered to UNIT, and Auton attacks in various guises aimed at killing the Doctor (in a sort of lackadaisical, half-hearted manner), occur practically every ten minutes at the Master’s behest. Like all movie villains, he never seems entirely bothered that none of his attempts on the Doctor’s life ever seem to work; the two almost appear to be engaging in a sort of game, with the Earth and its population made innocent bystanders in the private grudge match between them. Ultimately, The Master only bothers helping in what becomes a succession of alien plans to invade Earth because he knows that the Doctor has a special regard for the planet.
The Doctor is by this point firmly ensconced in the UNIT hierarchy, with his associates Jo and the Brigadier now joined regularly by John Levene’s Sergeant Benton and Richard Franklin as Captain Yeats -- who also makes his first appearance in this story. The Master attempts to mirror the Doctor’s new-found ‘family’ by entrenching himself in a series of institutions with each new attempt to destroy the Earth. The main difference between the Doctor and the Master is best seen in the light of their relationships with the people they surround themselves with from now on. Suave and polite he may be (while the Doctor can often seem grumpy and pompous in comparison), but the Master’s relationships are always based exclusively on domination and force. He seeks out and breaks the will of those most easily influenced in order to force them to do his bidding, then discards them and moves on to someone else come the next outlandishly convoluted plot. In “Terror of the Autons” he subjugates the population of a circus and takes over the weak management of a failing plastics factory, murdering anyone who won’t let them self be influenced by his powers and usually delivering a casual caustic quip as he does so.
There is something undeniably comic-book about this era of DOCTOR WHO: The Master is clearly a comic-book villain in the vein of Fu Manchu, able to disguise himself as anyone he chooses just by donning a rubber mask, habitually cackling ‘no one can stop me now!’ at moments of high tension, and then bungling his apparently unassailable plan for world domination at the very last second. The colours are bright and gaudy and there’s usually a thin yellow line around all the on-screen characters while a preponderance of flat-background CSO lends almost every scene even more the appearance of a Glam-styled comic-strip panel. When it works – as it does in “Terror of the Autons” -- it’s DOCTOR WHO at its most satisfying, exciting, scary and entertaining. When it doesn’t work it can be the most embarrassing spectacle imaginable. These two stories, the one with its elegantly filmed traditionalism, the other with its mad, gaudy, colourful comic book world of uncanny pantomime horror, tell similar stories in such radically different ways it’s almost hard to believe they are both a part of the same programme. But that’s the secret of DOCTOR WHO’s perennial success: constant innervation and experiment leading to frequent renewal of the format. The Master would eventually become overused as a foe and the Earth-based adventures would eventually start to seem limiting, at which point the third Doctor would be allowed back the control of his TARDIS and yet another phase would begin, with stories like “Carnival of Monsters” (another Robert Holmes tale) taking the series into new dimensions of comedic satire and wild fantasy. For now though, these stories provide us with two of the most diverse examples of the UNIT format at the peak of its excellence and this set is an absolute essential purchase for WHO fans. It’s time to find some more space on those creaking DVD shelves for “Mannequin Mania”!
The two-disc set comes with the usual commentary tracks, comprehensive (and updated) text information tracks, photo galleries and Pdf files of Radio Times listings. “Spearhead from Space” features the original commentary with Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney recorded for the 2001 release, plus a new one by former producer Derrick Sherwin and script editor for this period Terrence Dicks. “Terror of the Autons” features producer and director Barry Letts, Nicholas Courtney and Katy Manning in an entertaining appreciation of this vintage action-packed scareathon.
The new documentaries for “Spearhead From Space” includes a fairly straight re-telling of the production of the story in “Down To Earth”, which, thanks to the unusual circumstances surrounding its recording is quite an enthralling tale. A large part of the documentary is concerned with the casting process for the new team, including of course the brand new Doctor, with footage of Jon Pertwee talking about his casting in an extensive interview session during which he further adds to his reputation as rather a rapacious character by relating how he attempted to purloin an antique table he took a fancy to down at the BBC’s Wood Norton Training Facility. “Regenerations – From Black And White to Colour” is an interesting look back at the BBC’s switch from black & white to colour recording, examine the history of the development, which in fact stretches back to test recordings made in the 1950s. The documentary looks at some of the challenges encountered during the change over and includes interviews with several previous BBC Controllers.
“Terror of the Autons” features a ‘making of’ documentary which starts out in a fairly predictable fashion with an account of the casting of Katy Manning, Richard Franklin and Roger Delgado, but then switches tack completely. Taking the decision to bring back the Autons for the very first episode of the re-launched 2005 version of DOCTOR WHO with Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper as its cue, the documentary moves on to examine in detail the differences in both the production methods and the sensibility of 1970s DOCTOR WHO in relation to its modern-day 21st Century counterpart. Phil Collinson, executive producer throughout most of the Russel T. Davies era of Nu-Who, takes part in this along with Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks, the team behind the Pertwee era. Both of the latter are flattered by the influence their original ideas had on the new series but it’s really interesting to see what both parties make of the contrast in their respective approaches to DOCTOR WHO and how the old school production team view the shape and tone of the modern series.
“The Doctor’s Moriarty” is an in-depth account of the reasons for introducing the Master into the series as a regular character in 1971, which then moves on to give an overview of the character’s subsequent role in the show after the death of Roger Delgado; first, appearing in a mutant, misshapen form in “The Deadly Assassin”, and then re-emerging in his familiar pantomime guise, with the casting of Anthony Ainley, throughout the latter half of Tom Baker’s tenure and throughout that of Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Finally, the documentary goes on to consider how the character is dealt with and developed in the new series, as played by Derek Jacobi and John Simm. Finally “Plastic Fantastic” is a short documentary looking at the development of plastic and its use in modern culture, as well as what it signifies in the two Auton DOCTOR WHO stories.
There is a lot of interesting new material included as bonus extras here, for what are two excellent but very different examples of storytelling that illustrate Pertwee’s era of DOCTOR WHO at its very best. Highly recommended.