Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spearhead from Space - "What are you a doctor of, by the way?" "Practically everything, my dear."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Spearhead from Space - Details

Season 7, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #51) | Previous - Next | Index

3 freshens up for a new decade in vivid, living color!
Image via the wonderfully named Dirty Whoers

I love Jon Pertwee. I sometimes wonder if I'd happened to see his Doctor first, before Tom Baker's, if he'd be *my* Doctor. This introduction to Jon's somewhat pompous, earthbound Doctor remains a favorite to this day. The mix of comedy and action works well and Pertwee's flamboyant Doctor is at once larger-than-life and yet so grandfatherly ... surprisingly enough ... he's never off-putting despite his arrogance. This reaction may be a result of my being a child of the 70s, born the year this story was broadcast, and having a hale grandfather who'd served in WWII and was an engineer with Pratt & Whitney. I'm only realizing now that Pertwee was the perfect actor in the perfect role to appeal to a grade school kid who looked up to and was little intimidated by his granddad. (If you fused the Brigadier and Pertwee's Doctor into one character, you might get fellow just like him, actually.) I guess your mileage may vary.

While I'm waxing nostalgic for my grade school days and remembering my late grandfather, I should probably also disclose that I'm so fond of Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier that I named our strutting little dark-haired chihuahua after him. It's all but impossible for me to separate my memories of watching these shows in my grandparents' living room from the experience of watching them now. These Pertwee and early Bakers are like home cooking, nobody else ever gets it quite right in quite the same way.

Our newly regenerated Doctor is exhausted and a bit erratic as he recovers in a hospital bed. His doctor and nurse even wonder if there might be a bit of brain damage. But once the agents of the Autons come to abduct the recuperating Time Lord, he's ready for action, making a daring wheelchair escape from their clutches.

Shortly after, recovering now from his escape and a scalp creasing bit of friendly fire, we learn this doctor has a cobra tattoo on his forearm. Well, we don't reckon it's canon, just a bit of Pertwee's drunken past from the Royal Navy that nobody bothered to try to conceal during his shower scene. If it doesn't tell us anything about the Doctor, it gives us a bit of insight into Pertwee that you can't help but admire him for. That scene is pretty hilarious, especially how he hides his face while showering to prevent being recognized.

In addition to being a must-watch for being Pertwee's first story, and just for being fun, it's also our first time encountering the Autons/Nestene, who'll return in "Terror of the Autons," and again in the first episode of the new Who. They're genuinely creepy in a way that's effective, in stark contrast to the similar menace implied by the wi-fi soup we live in that played a role in the "The Bells of Saint John". Watching that new story, I couldn't help but think the recent ubiquitousness of wi-fi wasn't as successfully made unsettling the way the Nestene did similiarly new-ish (in 1970), weird, and ubiquitous plastic.

Fashionably ascot-clad auton will mess you up.
Image via Flick Philosopher
You really could do worse if, new to the classic series, you started here and watched some of the best of the Pertwee stories before moving on to the Tom Baker years. The list given by the Dirty Whoers strikes me as fairly spot on. I typically recommend younger folks exploring the classic series after getting lured into fandom by the new series start with Tom Baker stories, but watching this one again reminded me how winning Pertwee could be. You mightn't want to try to get through them all, the stories can drag and they don't all hold up as well as this one. (Being shot on film certainly helped this one, it's visually distinctive for this era of the show.) One also wouldn't want to think to hard on what sort of sense it made for the Nestene to preserve in a wax museum the human general they copied as part of their plot of infiltration.

As an aside, it was this story that made me have to look up the word, "gurning." Gurning, as in, Pertwee's gurning while in the grasp of the Nestene is a wonder to behold.

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