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 Doctors 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 Doctors 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 Doctors 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 doesnt 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 Doctors 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 Munros 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 Woodnutts tortured Hibbert, Neil Wilsons shifty Sam Seely who unwittingly holds up the Nestenes invasion plans by hoarding the swarm leader to make a quick profit, Antony Webbs perplexed Doctor Henderson, baffled by the Doctors 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 its painful, and the Nestene monster at the end is crap, but these are such minor criticisms that they vanish under the weight of the storys 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 Doctors importance in UNITs operation. Spearhead From Space shows us the new direction for Doctor Who and it shows it to us with tremendous style.