The Sontaran ExperimentBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 30 September 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

As the first - and last - two-part Doctor Who story for some considerable time, 'The Sontaran Experiment' works well. Despite one or two tenuous plot points, the story generally holds together well, and with its themes of torture and sadism it continues in the adult theme established by 'The Ark in Space'. 

Firstly, I'll just address the aforementioned tenuous plot points. The only real one is the ease with which the Sontarans back down when the Doctor tells the General that humanity is ready for their invasion fleet and will destroy it; this is undoubtedly due to time constraints however, and the script does address it by noting that the Sontarans are extremely methodical (and they're undoubtedly fighting the Rutans on another front, so perhaps it does make sense that they dare not risk it). The other weak plot point isn't actually an issue in my opinion, but is mentioned in The Discontinuity Guide, so I thought I'd address it. This point is simply that if Earth is abandoned, then there is no need for Styre to test humans anyway. In fact, I disagree; the script informs us that human colonies control "half the galaxy" and the Sontarans are planning a widespread invasion of the entire galaxy, not just Earth. Since this would obviously bring them into conflict with humanity, it makes sense of Styre's ghastly project and since Earth is abandoned it is makes a sensibly secluded location for his experiments.

These debatable issues aside, 'The Sontaran Experiment' is a well-plotted, well-placed and effective little story. The return of the Sontarans is more than welcome and Styre is an excellent villain, Kevin Lindsay once more donning a Sontaran costume to great effect. Whilst I prefer Linx's more closely fitting mask, Styre's is nonetheless impressive and Lindsay is superb as the Field-Major in every aspect. Although he is another Sontaran, Styre is a very different character from Linx; whereas Linx was ruthless and callous, he was an angel compared with the utterly sadistic Styre, whose pleasure in his work seems to extend beyond mere professionalism (from his point of view, he should probably have killed Sarah immediately, but decides to torture her to death instead). Lindsay very well conveys Styre's casual cruelty and also his brutality; the fight scene between Styre and the Doctor is rather good, despite Terry Walsh standing in for the injured Baker, with Styre lashing out with a machete with vicious rage. 

The regulars are up to their usual standards, with highpoints including Harry's utter Fury at Styre's cruelty towards both the dehydrated Galsec colonist and the seemingly dead Sarah; until the Doctor stops him he is determined to go after Styre regardless of the danger. Another great moment is the first meeting between Styre and the Doctor, when Tom Baker delivers the line "you unspeakable abomination" with such conviction that he seems to genuinely loathe his opponent. It is perhaps not the easiest of insults to make sound convincing, but he manages it with ease. 

Completing the ensemble, we have the Galsec colonists, and there isn't a bad performance amongst them. The decision to play them with South African accents is a good one, making a nice change from humans of the future speaking with an English accent. Their costumes are impressive as well, since they look convincingly worn and tatty, as they should do after days spent rough in the wilderness. Pete Rutherford is convincingly tormented as Roth, and Glyn Jones' performance is almost good enough to compensate the fact that he penned the dire 'The Space Museum'! Peter Walshe is impressively twitchy as the nervous Erak, and Donald Douglas completes the group as the treacherous Vural, playing the character like a natural. 

Basically 'The Sontaran Experiment' is a brief but enjoyable story, and benefits from superb location work and solid direction (even Styre's robot, whilst suspiciously flimsy-looking, works adequately). It maintains the high quality of 'The Ark in Space' and nicely bridges the gap between that 

The Mind RobberBookmark and Share

Thursday, 4 September 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I’ve always considered ‘The Mind Robber’ to be slightly overrated, but on viewing it again I realized why it is regarded as a minor classic. It is so different in tone and content that it immediately stands out from the stories around it, and achieves its surreal aims with considerable panache. Of all the Troughton stories, it is perhaps the story the survival of which intact is the most crucial, because a large part of its success lies in its highly distinctive visuals. 

Visually, ‘The Mind Robber’ is something of a tour de force, deftly overcoming budgetary limitations and making a striking impact. Episode One is the most obvious example of this, which is ironical considering that it was written at short notice with no available set. Rather than looking like an empty set, the white void instead looks eerily convincing, and this is helped by the White Robots, which are recycled from an Out of the Unknown episode and despite therefore being second hand props they look suitably creepy, an effect heightened by the weird noise that they make. In addition, the TARDIS exterior appears white whilst in the void, which is such a subtle but fundamental change to one of the series’ greatest icons that even in black and white the difference has considerable impact. The effect of the TARDIS breaking up at the end of the episode follows the same principle and even though I’ve seen the story before, I always find it disturbing. The rest of the story maintains the same high standard for the most part, with the labyrinth set and the exterior shots of the castle (fairy tale style, of course) especially noteworthy. The clockwork solders are much more sinister than the White Robots, again partly due to the noise they make, and the fact that are warped children’s toys made menacing. When Jamie climbs away from one of them in episode three, it’s single-minded marching into the wall, as its bayonet futilely scrapes the cliff face, makes it seem as implacable as any Cyberman. 

The Unicorn and the Medusa are both very well realized, the stop-motion effects used to show the movement of the snakes on the head of the latter looking on a par with many of Ray Harryhausen’s in films such as Clash of the Titans. Presenting her as an animated statue is an excellent idea, since it avoids rubber mask type make-up and instead allows the use of a static, but sinister, mask. The Minotaur is rather less convincing, but the director wisely keeps it out of shot except for a very fleeting appearance. The visuals are not perfect however; at the end of episode two, as the Unicorn runs at the TARDIS crew, it is painfully obvious that they are standing on a black set, which is shame since the white void in episode one looks so good. When Jamie climbs a “tree” in the forest of words to look at it from above, the model used is obviously a set of flattish letters on white card. In episode three, as the Master monitors the progress of the Doctor and his companions through the labyrinth, three moving lights on a small diagram of the maze plot their movements and show them advancing along a long straight tunnel from the entrance; the scene then cuts to the three of them in the labyrinth, with Zoe telling the Doctor that they have been following a pattern of left and right turns, only to then cut back to the Master and show that they have in fact only progressed further along the long straight section. Nonetheless, these are all fairly trivial criticisms. 

The plot of ‘The Mind Robber’ is, if you’ll excuse the pun, novel and highly effective. The danger of being transformed into fiction is surreal (and of course ironic, given that Doctor Who is fiction), but the horror of the fate confronting the Doctor and his companions is well conveyed. In terms of Doctor Who, the story’s closest precedent is ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, in that the Doctor and his companions are trapped in a world where nothing is as it seems and reality cannot be trusted; in that story however, the TARDIS crew managed to navigate the Toymaker’s world without falling prey to it, whereas here at various points Jamie and Zoe at least find themselves falling victim to the rules of the Land. This scenario is used to unsettling effect; on this occasion, all three of them find themselves facing a menace that cannot be fought with conventional means, and they must solve riddles and puzzles and face challenges to survive and hope to escape. Jamie’s literal loss of face is a disquieting example, as he automatically reacts to a threat that he understands (a Redcoat) by fighting, and is reduced to a cardboard cutout, which then loses its features. Due to the Doctor’s (comic) mistake in reassembling his face from the identikit provided, he ends up looking like somebody else (a bit of emergency recasting that is a stroke of genius just as much as the changeover from Hartnell to Troughton was). As the story progresses, all three of them start to learn how the Land of Fiction works and how to avoid becoming fiction themselves, but by the end of episode four even this is of no avail as Jamie and Zoe are forced into the book by the White Robots and become part of the Land. This bizarre threat looms over them right up until the end of the story, with the Doctor nearly transforming himself into fiction twice without thinking. 

On a smaller level, ‘The Mind Robber’ is full of nice thematic touches. Gulliver, only speaks in lines written for him by Jonathon Swift, as the Doctor realises in episode four; once the viewer knows this, it becomes obvious, but still works very well and the way in which writer Peter Ling manages to select appropriate quotations to suit whatever question the Doctor asks Gulliver is quite fascinating. Consequently, Gulliver speaks in a very elaborate fashion, and Bernard Horsfall delivers these lines with such aplomb that it makes for a memorable and striking performance. Zoe’s battle with the comic strip hero the Karkus is suitably over-the-top and reminiscent of the Batman TV series. I like the fact that having managed to frantically convince Zoe that Unicorn, the Minotaur and the Medusa were fictional and therefore could not harm them, the Doctor finds himself unable to do the same with regards to the Karkus, because he has never heard of him. 

The Master is also nicely handled; having been glimpsed from behind as a typical gloating megalomaniac manipulating the Doctor from behind the scenes, he is actually revealed to be a jovial old man who is as much a prisoner of the Land as the Doctor and his friends. Emrys Jones acts he part very well, effortlessly switching from his plaintive and rather sweet old man portrayal to a much harsher characterisation as the Master Brain takes control. The fact that a computer is actually behind the Land of Fiction and that we don’t learn who built it (at least until ‘Conundrum’ was published) is potentially disappointing and frustrating, but the story is so stylishly done that it manages not to matter. 

It has been reported that Troughton grew tired of the base-under-siege monster based stories of Season Five, and if so he clearly relishes getting a rather different script to play with. His performance here is full of marvellous moments, such as when he has to answer the riddles fired at him by the children in episode two, and the guilty look on his face when he is forced to admit that he was responsible for giving Jamie the wrong face. His finest moment however is when the Doctor is connected to the Master Brain and he determinedly announces, “You’ve given me equal power. It’s now a battle of wits between the two of us!” The ensuing scenes are hugely entertaining, as the Doctor and the Master summon up fictional characters including Lancelot, D’Artagnan, Cyrano de Bergerac (sic), and Blackbeard. The other regulars do well out of the script as well; Jamie rises to the challenges presented by the Land with his usual stoic determination, and takes in his stride having a change of face, climbing a “rope” only to find Rapunzel at the top, and seemingly losing the TARDIS for good. Frazer Hines is his usual reliable self, and Hamish Wilson doesn’t do too badly in his brief stint in the role. Wendy Padbury gets to prove that she can scream as well as Deborah Watling could as she clings to the TARDIS console in a silver catsuit in episode one, but during the rest of the story she continues in the resilient streak that she exhibited in ‘The Dominators’. In addition to dealing with the Karkus when the Doctor cannot, she also gets perhaps her finest hour, as she overloads the Master Brain computer and thus not only saves herself, Jamie and the Doctor, but also destroys the Land in the process. 

In summary, ‘The Mind Robber’ is a highly unusual but very effective Doctor Who story and a great example of just how flexible the series’ format can be.

The Mind RobberBookmark and Share

Thursday, 4 September 2003 - Reviewed by Jake Tucker

The Mind Robber is one of the most unique serials in the history of Doctor Who. It’s a strange mix of 60’s psychedelia, fairy tales, pop culture, and literature. The story is the square peg of season six. Season six is mostly composed of standard science fiction fare such as The Krotons, The Invasion, and The Seeds of Doom. The Mind Robber is a nice alternative to the alien invasion story.

One of the most beloved aspects of this story is the wide array of characters that the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe encounter. Giant toy soldiers and Medusa, the gorgon, menace the TARDIS crew. The Doctor and co. also meet the famed traveller Gulliver, the futuristic superhero Karkus, and the great romantic Cyranno de Bergerac. This story features one of the show’s most interesting concepts. Writer Peter Ling created a world of pure concept where the Doctor’s will and cunning are put to the ultimate test.

Patrick Troughton is of course amazing as the Doctor. Frazier Hines and Wendy Padbury are entertaining as always. Emrys Jones plays the controller of the fantasy world, bringing to life one of Doctor Who’s most unusual villains. Doctor Who guest star extraordinaire Bernard Horsfall is delightful as Gulliver. Horsfall would also guest star in the epic The War Games and the landmark serial The Deadly Assassin.

While the cast and script of The Mind Robber are both excellent, I do have two small reservations about the story. I felt that the story was a little too slow moving towards the beginning. The white void of episode 1 was an interesting visual concept, but not for long. The story is also “padded,” a familiar affliction of Doctor Who which affects many classic stories, i.e. Genesis of the Daleks and the previously mentioned The War Games. There are too many scenes of the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe wandering around the dark, drab set. Those problems are small and do not diminish The Mind Robber’s status as one of Doctor Who’s most creative stories. 

After viewing our favourite Time Lord vanquishing alien after alien and robot after robot, it is nice to find him meeting Rapunzel and Cyranno De Bergerac. The story also has a very trippy late 60’s vibe which I found very enjoyable. All in all, The Mind Robber is required viewing for those Doctor Who fans that wish to see something different.

The Seeds of DeathBookmark and Share

Thursday, 4 September 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

‘The Seeds of Death’ is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is an entertaining, well-directed story with good use of monsters; on the other it drags in places and features several plot contrivances that are hard to swallow. 

The return of the Ice Warriors is both welcome and well handled. In their debut story, they were a small group of stranded aliens, aggressive and ruthless but motivated by survival above all other concerns. Here, they are a well-organized invasion force operating from a position of strength, and this makes a considerable difference. In ‘The Ice Warriors’ their leader Varga was a bully; here, their leader Slaar is positively sadistic. He clearly enjoys psychologically tormenting the terrified Fewsham and deals out casual death to anyone who stands in the way of his plans. In episode three, his decision to kill the Doctor by T-matting him into space is pure sadism; it would be quicker and easier to have him shot by one of his warriors, but instead he chooses an elaborate and unpleasant means of execution simply because he can, and he relishes the opportunity to force Fewsham to accept his part in the Doctor’s apparent death. Alan Bennion plays the character well, making Slaar both commanding and thoroughly unlikable. As a result, the Doctor’s smug revelations about just how thoroughly he has been defeated in episode six are extremely satisfying. Slaar’s distinctive slim-line costume also makes him stand out from his warriors, and is an impressive addition to the Ice Warrior mythology, demonstrating the hierarchy within their ranks. The Grand Marshal also serves this purpose, and contrasts nicely with Slaar in that he seems far more pragmatic than his cruel subordinate, concerned purely with the survival of his fleet and reprimanding Slaar for his casual slaughter of Fewsham, which necessitates the acquisition of a replacement human and thus jeopardizes the Ice Warriors’ plans. It is also a nice detail that the Grand Marshal, safely ensconced in the atmosphere on board his ship, does not rasp and wheeze like the warriors on the moon base. For the most part, the other Ice Warriors are little more than muscle, but during episodes five and six, the lone Ice Warrior sent to Earth does plenty to enhance the Ice Warriors’ reputation, proving as he does almost unstoppable; he literally shrugs aside bullets and dispatches numerous guards as he makes his way to the weather control centre and retains control of it. In short, the Ice Warriors make for truly impressive monsters and are very intimidating. 

The supporting cast is generally very good, with Terry Scully’s convincingly frightened Fewsham worthy of special mention. His eventual stand against Slaar, essential to the denouement and resulting, inevitably, in his death, is a touchingly noble moment, and works doubly well because of his fear-motivated acquiescence up to that point. Having almost been responsible for the success of the Martian invasion by T-matting the seedpods to Earth, he manages to redeem himself to a degree in his final scene. Ronald Leigh-Hunt and Philip Ray make for a likeable pair, both with different motivations and a bitter past history between them, who rekindle their old friendship and respect in the face of adversity. Louise Pajo is also memorable as Miss Kelly, who is highly efficient and a rare (during this era) strong female character, who is nowhere near as icy and impassive as some reviewers would have us believe. Christopher Coll’s Phipps, a man who has seen most of his friends die but who struggles on in the fight against the Ice Warriors is also well acted and contrasts nicely with Fewsham, whose response to the warriors is far less admirable. The one flaw in this otherwise excellent ensemble of supporting characters is the thoroughly irritating Sir James Gregson, who is a walking bureaucratic cliché. 

This is starting to sound repetitive, but the regulars are, of course, excellent. Troughton gets some great moments here (although his fluctuating sideburns are extremely distracting). The Doctor’s quick decision to offer to pilot Eldred’s rocket is typical of the character, whose first instinct is always to help those in need. In comparison with the terrorized moon base personnel, his casual confidence in his ability to handle the Ice Warriors is even more impressive than usual and indeed the Doctor is very much the hero here, more than he ever is; without the Doctor, Eldred’s rocket would probably have never reached the moon, and the Ice Warriors would probably have been successful in their invasion attempt. He also gets some typically marvellous moments, including his “I’m a genius” line and his amusing but never quite over the top buffoonery with the foam at the end of episode five. The ease with which Jamie takes space-travel in his stride is typical of the character’s usual capability and also his almost tangible faith in the Doctor. As with the Doctor, his bravery in tackling the Ice Warrior in the solar energy room contrasts brilliantly with the (entirely understandable) terror of the T-mat staff, reminding us once again just who the stars of the story are. Zoe too continues to impress, remaining relatively calm when problems arise on board the rocket, with which she demonstrates considerable expertise. Her insistence at going to change the temperature settings in the control room, which almost proves fatal, results in one of her rare losses of composure as an Ice Warrior trains its weapon on her, but she quickly recovers, once more demonstrating how much better suited to travelling with the Doctor she is than Victoria was. 

The direction is excellent, especially during the scenes of the rocket take off, as the countdown is superimposed on Miss Kelly’s face (a simple, but effective technique), and the model work is generally of a very high standard. There are some very impressive shots during episode three, as the Doctor finds himself reflected in bizarre ways in the walls of the moon base; corridors have never looked so interesting. In spite of all this praise however, there are problems with ‘The Seeds of Death’. Firstly, some of the costumes are awful; whilst the female characters’ costumes are all passable, the male T-mat staff members look ridiculous, due to the strange decision to make it look as though they are wearing underpants on the outside. The Perspex helmets worn by the security guards look ridiculous too, and rather impractical. Then there is the excessive use of labeling; everything is labeled in big letters, which say things like “Dry”. Firstly, surely weather control is more complicated than just being wet or dry, and secondly this just looks ridiculous. The worst example is the sign that says “rocket homing beacon operative” in big letters over the door. I can’t think of any specific logical objection to this, I just think it looks daft. 

The eponymous seeds never look like anything other than balloons, and the fungus is painfully obviously being sprayed out of a foam machine. I don’t normally criticize Doctor Who for its effects, but in a story this well directed I find this rather disappointing. A far worse problem is the fungus’ susceptibility to water. This is fairly implausible for several reasons; firstly, when attempts are made to destroy the fungus early on, T-mat personnel are clearly seen to be spraying it with pesticides. I’d be very surprised if these weren’t solutions in, well, water. Citric acid certainly is and the Doctor pours this over a pod in episode five. If absolutely pure water is necessary to kill the fungus, I hope they don’t have acid rain in the future… I also find it hard to believe that weather control is so efficient that a single warrior sent to London can stop it raining all across the Northern hemisphere by sabotaging a single control panel. And surely the Ice Warriors must have noticed that the majority of the Earth’s surface is covered in water? Surely they could have come up with something a bit less desperate. My other major criticism of the story is that although for the most part it doesn’t feel padded, it does rather drag during episode two, as the rocket makes its journey to the moon. Ironically, such a rapid journey is beyond the realms of current technology, but I still find the rocket subplot dull. I also can’t believe that everybody on Earth besides Eldred has totally lost interest in space travel thanks to the development of T-mat and that no provision has been made for unexpected emergencies on the moon. Finally, I can’t help but cringe every time I see the temperature gauge needle creep up past sixty degrees centigrade at the end of episode four and the start of episode five; raising the temperature is one thing, but this is totally implausible and is such a trivial mistake that there is no excuse for it. 

Overall, ‘The Seeds of Death’ is flawed but always entertaining. I wouldn’t call it a classic, but it has much to offer and its always fun in a sad fanboy sort of way to spot the TARDIS’ astral map from ‘The Web Planet’ in Eldred’s museum and the drill from ‘The Dominators’ in his lab. That’s quite an impressive collection he’s got…

The Space PiratesBookmark and Share

Thursday, 4 September 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Robert Holmes is probably my favourite Doctor Who writer. He was great at characterisation, usually devised excellent plots, and had an unprecedented grasp of what, in my opinion, makes great Doctor Who. The unfairly maligned ‘The Krotons’ showcased his burgeoning talents, but unfortunately his Doctor Who writing career took a mercifully brief nosedive with ‘The Space Pirates’; frankly, tedium is only one of its many flaws. 

The most obvious problem with ‘The Space Pirates’ is that it is dull. At six episodes, it is way too long, and although this is apparently intended to convey the vast distances involved in space travel, it makes for a horrendously padded story. The plot is simply, which is not in itself necessarily a problem, but when everything else is lacking, more complex storytelling would have been welcome. Basically, Cavan’s pirates blow up some beacons, Milo Clancey is chief suspect in the eyes of General Hermack of the Space Corps, Hermack spends most of the story chasing Clancey (and a false trail to Lobos), whilst Clancey teams up with the Doctor and his friends to track the pirates to Ta, where they are secretly being funded by Madeleine Issigri. The truth is revealed, Cavan gets blown up, and everyone goes home. There is not enough plot to justify four episodes, let alone six. Apologists for ‘The Space Pirates’ argue that it is impossible to fairly judge it since we are denied the excellent model work of the various space ships. This might be a valid point, but I remain unconvinced by it due the evidence of the surviving episode two. The model work in this episode is indeed very good for the era, but I don’t think it is so good that it alone could maintain my interest for the whole story. 

With the exception of Milo Clancey, who I’ll come to further below, most of the supporting characters, usually very well served by a Robert Holmes script, are rather forgettable. The Space Corps officers are especially dull, and suffer even more from woefully wooden acting and some dodgy accents. Hermack teeters on the edge of being portrayed as a complete moron; it is painfully obvious from the moment that he finds that Madeleine owns several Beta Darts that she is involved with the pirates, but he is seemingly blinded to this by the fact that she is a young woman. For the rest of the story, he blunders about in space chasing Clancey and Cavan, getting increasingly irritable and taking it out on the annoyingly cheerful Major Warne. At least he gets to give the order to blow Cavan up at the end. The villains of the piece, the eponymous space pirates, are equally forgettable. Dudley Foster tries hard as Cavan, who is scripted as a really nasty piece of work, but the character is so lacking in charisma that he is utterly forgettable. Unfortunately, whilst Cavan is portrayed as quietly psychotic, by the final episode the script calls for him to switch to full-blown megalomania, as he attempts to blow up his entire base (and ultimately, himself – “we’ll all die together!”), but it doesn’t ring true. Every time I watch/listen to the story, I can’t help thinking that it would be more in character for him to just bugger off to safety. The only other pirate of note is the weak-willed Dervish. He gets some potentially important characterisation, as we learn that he was blackmailed by Cavan into working for him and would really rather not be, but this embryonic subplot doesn’t go anywhere, since he’s so terrified that he simply won’t risk betraying Cavan. The trouble is, although one or two scenes demonstrate his fear of Cavan, there are also scenes in which Brian Peck seems to forget about his character’s motivation and talks to Cavan as though they are drinking buddies. 

Madeleine Issigri is passable, but I’m never entirely convinced by her motivation. Originally not realizing that Cavan, a wanted criminal and budding space pirate, might at some point kill people, she is revealed to have joined forces with him for profit. But she’s already rich and she’s made out to be basically soft and fluffy at heart, so this is rather unconvincing. If Cavan had been using her father as a hostage from the start, it might have worked better, but she doesn’t even know that he’s still alive until episode five. And there’s another thing; we’re told that Dom vanished ten years previously, and the implication is that Cavan has been keeping him locked in his study all that time. I don’t care how tough or resilient he was when he was locked up, but I don’t believe that anyone can endure ten years of solitary confinement in a small room without becoming extremely ill. Even if his sanity held out, he’d be lucky if he could walk when he got out, let alone hobble speedily along with Milo to get to the LIZ. 

The chief success of ‘The Space Pirates’ is Milo Clancey. Despite a suspicious accent, Gordon Gostelow runs with the role, making the most of Holmes’ script. Clancey is very entertaining, from his first appearance in episode two, when he has a rather amusing and disrespectful audience with General Hermack, right up until episode six, when he helps to save the day. Unfortunately, Holmes writes him so enthusiastically that he becomes a Mary Sue character; Milo gets more to do than anyone except the Doctor, who is just about on an equal footing with him. ‘The Space Pirates’ is the only Troughton story that I can think of in which the Doctor and his companions are not separated at all during the story. This reduces Jamie and Zoe to their most basic possible role, used purely so that the Doctor can explain things to them, and therefore the audience. Jamie suffers the most, because he’s essentially replaced by Milo. Even the Doctor doesn’t much to do. The TARDIS arrives quite late in episode one, the Doctor and his companions spend all of episode two trapped on the beacon segment, and after that they follow Milo’s lead to Ta where they get locked up twice, and run along corridors. The Doctor is responsible for diffusing the bombs at the end, but almost everything else in the story could have been achieved without him being there. Yes, he opens the cell door, sets up an electrical booby trap and comes up with the plan to escape from Dom’s study, but it all feels like window dressing. Despite this, all three regular actors do what they can with the script, and to the story’s credit, the plight of the TARDIS crew in episode two is genuinely nightmarish and claustrophobic, as they slowly run out of air, which is convincingly acted. 

In short, Patrick Troughton’s penultimate Doctor Who story is a huge disappointment. The best thing that I can say about ‘The Space Pirates’ is that it heralds the end of missing episodes, as from here on in everything survives in the archives.

Spearhead From SpaceBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 2 September 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

As début stories go, ‘Spearhead From Space’ is one of the best and far better than Jon Pertwee could ever have hoped for. This is only partially because it was recorded entirely on film; whilst this undoubtedly benefits the production by giving it a unique slick appearance, it is not enough to rescue a mediocre story. Coupled with fine acting, superb direction and a marvellous script, however, it helps to make ‘Spearhead From Space’ a true classic.

Firstly, the new Doctor has to be mentioned. Pertwee makes an impressive Doctor, debonair, charming and immediately commanding. During the first two episodes, he is given little opportunity to make an impression, since the Doctor is suffering somewhat form his regeneration and spends most of the time bed-ridden and unconscious. Even here though, Pertwee makes the most of the script and is immediately charismatic enough to maintain viewer interest. His performance really starts to shine in the latter half of episode two, as the Doctor awakens and makes his escape from the hospital, gaining a new costume on the way. By the time he reaches UNIT HQ in London, his performance hits the pattern that he will stick to throughout his era, occasionally waspish (note his treatment of the speechless guard whom he demands take him to Lethbridge-Stewart), often charming (his first meeting with Liz), and commanding, but above all likeable. For all that he is far more intimidating than Troughton was, he is still very much the Doctor. His rueful performance on leaving the smoking TARDIS and shamefacedly admitting to the Brigadier that he tricked Liz into stealing the TARDIS key so that he could escape shows the Doctor’s vulnerable, almost human side, which shines through the rest of his persona, even when he is irritable and bad-tempered. In this respect, he recalls Hartnell more than Troughton, but also establishes the Third Doctor as a distinct character in his own right as a rather dashing man of action; he leads the raid on Auto Plastics during episode four, heading for a meeting with Channing with Liz whilst the UNIT troops remain outside, despite the danger. The final scene, as the Doctor agrees to remain with UNIT whilst he tries to repair his TARDIS and escape from his exile, sets the pattern for the rest of the season, and of course most of the Pertwee era. And it is also worth noting that for all his desire to escape Earth, once he realises the true threat posed by the Nestenes, he focuses his entire attention on defeating them. 

The other regular cast members of Season Seven also make an impression here. Lethbridge-Stewart is of course a familiar figure, and Nicholas Courtney falls back into his role with great aplomb. The Brigadier seen here is intelligent, commanding, and also diplomatic; despite his military rigidity, which will later be used as a source of fun, he is not portrayed as some hard-nosed stereotypical soldier, but rather a trustworthy and eminently likeable authority figure who listens to those around him and smoothly deals with the cynical Liz Shaw, the terrified Ransome with his seemingly ridiculous story of killer manikins, and later the Doctor. In fact the Brigadier is admirably broad-minded (understandably so after the events of ‘The Web of Fear’ and ‘The Invasion’) and quickly accepts the idea that this tall, debonair, white-haired stranger is the same man as the small, scruffy dark-haired man whom he encountered previously. He also takes Ransome and the Doctor’s theories about the Nestene energy unit seriously, and this plays an important role in defeating the menace he is facing. His relationship with the new Doctor is also quickly established; there is mutual respect between them and the impression of a budding friendship carefully disguised by occasional banter. The Brigadier is clearly prepared to humour his old friend in episode four by agreeing to his various demands in exchange for his help, indicating just how much he values the Doctor’s help. His relationship with Liz Shaw, and her relationship with the Doctor, are also cemented here. Initially, Liz is the voice of cynicism; the rational scientist confronted with the unusual and alien and forced to come to terms with it. To her credit, she does not try to fly in the face of evidence and having been forced to accept that an alien invasion is underway, she pitches in to help, gradually gaining respect for both the Brigadier and the Doctor. Whilst Zoe was highly intelligent and open minded, Liz combines both of these attributes with considerably more maturity, which gives a rather more grown-up feeling to the regular cast and enhances the more adult feeling of Season Seven compared with Season Six. She is able to talk to the Doctor on a more equal footing than many of her predecessors and yet is sufficiently unknowledgeable about the unique problems faced by UNIT that she still provides somebody for the Doctor to explain things to, and thus to the audience. 

After six seasons of stories in which the Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space, the concept of restricting him to Earth during a specific period of time is potentially limiting. Robert Holmes quickly dispels any such fears by establishing the new template for the series with an impressive and memorable threat. The Nestenes are truly alien, a disembodied and utterly malevolent alien intelligence in the mould of the threats from The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II. Despite the merciful brief appearance of the unconvincing Nestene monster at the end of episode four, this allows for an alien invasion of Earth that doesn’t resort to rubber monster costumes, and further adds to the adult feel of the new season. The Autons are extremely sinister and creepy monsters and still look great thirty years on. ‘Spearhead From Space’ contains some of the most sinister sequences in the series’ history, including the Auton coming to life behind Ransome at the end of episode two, the Auton advancing remorselessly towards the terrified Mrs. Seely in episode three, and most notably of all, the classic sequence in episode four as shop window dummies come eerily to life, break out of the shop windows, and silently slaughter members of the public. These sequences capture the same sort of impression as those of the Cybermen marching through London in ‘The Invasion’ and earlier the Daleks in ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’. Suddenly, the threat faced by the Doctor is on Earth in the present and it makes it all the more frightening. Suddenly, the benefits of the Doctor’s exile become clear. The Autons are simply terrifying, more so even than the Cybermen because whilst they are also remorseless, seemingly unstoppable, and bulletproof, they are also silent. 

So much adds to the success of ‘Spearhead From Space’. The use of colour is an obvious difference, and adds to the slick new look of this film-only story. The incidental music is suitably chilling, and enhances the menace of the Autons. The location work is gorgeous, especially the quaint interior of Ashbridge Cottage Hospital, and of course that shower. The direction is exemplary, with an impressive shot in episode one of the Brigadier and Captain Munro walking towards camera along a corridor. In comparison with modern television programmes it seems almost pointless to mention this, but it signifies such a technical advance compared with the previous Season that in the context of the series it really stands out. Most of all however, ‘Spearhead From Space’ benefits from acting and characterisation. Hugh Burden is almost as sinister as the Autons as Channing, looking remarkably cadaverous and ghastly. Most of his best acting is with his eyes alone; witness the way that they widen with excitement as he orders the “total destruction” of first Ransome and then later Hibbert. There is also some very impressive “Frightened” acting on display; as Ransome, Derek Smee looks genuinely terrified as he gibbers and dribbles tea in Munro’s tent, and Betty Bowden as Meg Seely looks equally frightened as the bullet-proof Auton advances on her in episode three. Then there is John Woodnutt’s tortured Hibbert, Neil Wilson’s shifty Sam Seely who unwittingly holds up the Nestenes’ invasion plans by hoarding the swarm leader to make a quick profit, Antony Webb’s perplexed Doctor Henderson, baffled by the Doctor’s alien physiology but determined to help his patient… the list goes on. 

I could make a couple of criticisms of ‘Spearhead From Space’. The switch from the model shot of the TARDIS materializing to location footage of the Doctor emerging and collapsing is so obvious that it’s painful, and the Nestene monster at the end is crap, but these are such minor criticisms that they vanish under the weight of the story’s good points. Finally, there is the ending, as the Doctor defeats the Nestenes. Yes, it is a deus ex machina ending, the Doctor cobbling together a contraption to defeat the invaders, and it could have been better, but crucially it entirely depends on the Doctor. Without his machine, the Auton invasion would probably have succeeded. Frankly, that exonerates it in my eyes, serving to establish the Doctor’s importance in UNIT’s operation. ‘Spearhead From Space’ shows us the new direction for Doctor Who and it shows it to us with tremendous style.