Classic Series Doctor Who Top 50

The 50 Best Doctor Who Stories – 43: Spearhead From Space

burned heads

Even though it’s tasked with introducing a new Doctor, a new companion, new Earth-bound set-up, new monster and new pan-military organisation (the UNIT family, set to for the bedrock of the show over the next six years), Spearhead From Space remains one of the most accessible, engaging and relevant Doctor Who stories over 40 years later.

Actor-turned-director Derek Martinus – who worked on several Doctor Who stories including iconic stories such as Mission to the Unknown, The Tenth Planet, Evil of the Daleks and The Ice Warriors – also directed one of the best Blake’s 7 episodes – Trial. Perhaps his most significant contribution, however, is Jon Pertwee’s debut serial.

The first story in season seven is so good that it basically provided the template for relaunching the series in 2005 – huge kudos to producer Derrick Sherwin for that – perhaps more interestingly it’s where a repeat season began in 1999, where it wiped the floor with the competition at the time. Sadly The Silurians and Genesis of the Daleks couldn’t sustain the viewing figures and, though both stories are excellent, it’s easy to see why.

auton fires

Spearhead is one of a very few stories that is sufficiently visually striking and narratively dynamic that you could show it now – with perhaps only some of McCoy’s later adventures, some vintage Tom and the odd Davison also passing muster – without a vaguely patronising filter of nostalgia or oddity.

A heavily-edited trailer for Spearhead aired for a week or so beforehand with some noisy, chugging guitar complementing a series of the show’s more impressive visuals – crash zooms on Autons, battle scenes, shop-window dummies coming to life and Pertwee being irascible and dramatic. But Spearhead doesn’t really need reengineering, thanks to Derek Martinus’ electrifying direction.

The difference from The War Games, also excellent but shot largely on video, in monochrome on the BBC’s trusty four-camera studio set-up, is astonishing. Spearhead has the incredible good luck of being shot entirely on film, in colour and on location, bringing Doctor Who very much into the real world, albeit a distinctly period idiom and a rather muddy colour palette.

On Bluray (it remains the only classic series story on this format) it looks like it could have been shot ten years ago – thanks in part to the nature of the filming but there’s a significant debt to Martinus’ editing. Scenes such as the one where an Auton dispatches Ransome in a UNIT tent (detailed above) are a blur of very quick shots – a dozen in 20 seconds framed by two lengthy scenes that bookend it, leading in with a tight shot on Liz worrying about the creature and moving into a scene where Munro reports that the creature escaped the UNIT platoon. It’s like a slap around the face and is the most dynamic the series has looked so far and gives the impression of a series not just regenerated but completely overhauled.

Martinus isn’t simply a dab hand with editing, however. There are techniques here that we’ve never seen before and probably don’t ever see again – at least in the original series. The real-world setting makes allowance for the kind of shots we might expect to see in modern-day thrillers – shaky hand-held verite-style footage of the The Brigadier under siege from a news pack at the cottage hospital where The Doctor is laid up for instance. It’s unthinkable in any other era of the series – classic or new.

The director presents us with footage that might be taken by one of the newsmen, interrupted by journalists jostling for position, a harsh glare from a spotlight shone on Courtney’s face. It’s totally unlike anything we see on television in this era and another element that moves Spearhead closer to movie territory than a (notionally) children’s serial.

Again, it doesn’t stop at technical and stylistic jiggery-pokery. Spearhead From Space is dramatically frightening, but it’s also eerie. The human-ish faces of the Autons and the facsimiles are right in the depths of the uncanny valley – that space between like and unlike that freaks us out and is where much of the best Doctor Who is based. But it’s more than that. The most human face of the Nestenes is Channing, played wonderfully by Hugh Burden. Channing is odd – almost autistically socially awkward – and played as such by Burden; leering, lurking and boggling.

But Martinus heaps it on with a series of shots of the facsimile silently observing people from a distance, visibly processing information; planning. Best of all is the scene where Channing looks through a glass window at The Brigadier who, upon sensing he is being observed, turns around to see Channing’s fragmented face slowly gliding backwards out of sight.

We also get a quick cut from a photo of Channing to an unnerving sequence of shots where dolls heads are boiled and decorated in the plastics factory. You could make an argument for this being an extraordinarily subversive scene, heavy with symbolism, but even on a visual level it’s peculiar, perhaps unique, in Doctor Who.

Pure mood, pure metaphor, it’s hard to see the justification from a narrative point of view; it’s there just to reinforce how spooky the facsimiles are – like us, but not – later referenced explicitly in Robots Of Death.

Spearhead from Space third doctor

Throughout the serial we do see surprising violence and even gore. A policeman is blasted by an Auton, the Doctor shot with a rifle, the Auton at the Seeley cottage kills a dog (even though the show is too coy to see it offing Mrs Seeley) and the UNIT soldier forced off the road ends up with his face a mass of shattered glass and red-crayon blood. But again, Martinus is more clever than that.

What sells the horror of what’s happening is the way people react to what they’re seeing: Scobie’s horror at opening the doors to his facsimile (sadly missing the dialogue that appears in the book; the facsimile references a previous conversation where Channing promises he will see the dummy soon); Mrs Seeley’s horror at encountering the Auton ransacking her home; the terror of the passers-by on Ealing Broadway as the dummies come to life and begin their massacre. We get a huge amount of POV shots here too, just to reinforce the terror of coming face-to face with the faceless.

This being Season Seven, the UNIT crew are professional and believable. Despite remaining relatively anonymous throughout much of the story, Pertwee gets a strong introduction in his debut story, with elements of the irascibility of Hartnell and impishness of Troughton, with enough of his own character breaking through. The Brig, much as he is in the Troughton stories, is very much the professional soldier here – somehow the sight of him issuing orders while wearing sunglasses and dealing capably with a hungry media pack only serve to root him in the real world – and Liz a capable and believablefoil.

It’s nice than Carrie John is initially sceptical – and even hostile – towards UNIT and is only won over by the Doctor’s charm and intelligence while John Breslin’s Jimmy Munro offers us a tantalising glimpse of what could have been. There are no performances that do not work out: the Seeleys, Scobie, Hibbert, Ransome and Henderson all have enough quirks, asides and tics to make them believable. It’s another reminder of the importance – seemingly ignored by many Who directors – of casting.

the brig and liz shaw

The whole is, perhaps, not quite the sum of its parts. Spearhead, bar one or two efforts from Camfield and Harper, might be the best ever directed Doctor Who story and, like many of the best, benefits from a wonderful confluence of writer, production team, cast and director. Arguably it’s a little slight, with a rather dissatisfying conclusion but what makes it so interesting, so impressive, is that it is basically a template for a series that we never saw.

This is true of season seven as a whole, but the visual style of Robert Holmes’ story marks it out as unique in the programme’s history. The Autons return in the debut story of the next season but it’s a very different series – almost comic-book in its garish, overlit visuals and familiar ambiance. Spearhead feels real and because of that it feels more dangerous. It would never feel quite the same again – Martinus never again worked on Doctor Who, there was never another story shot wholly on film again, nor totally on location until Curse of Fenric in 1989, barring the two-part Sonataran Experiment five years later.

the brig and monro

As such the story remains a curio in Doctor Who history – a fascinating relic of a Doctor Who that was strangled at birth. Sherwin moved on and the series moves away radically from the nascent template: Season 8 takes a sharp turn away from Spearhead and essentially reboots the series again as cosier, more childish, somehow safer. I’m ambivalent on this – the tone the series adopted was wildly successful and produced numerous quality episodes – but the idea of Doctor Who taking Spearhead From Space as its template is intriguing.

Perhaps because of its unique place in Doctor Who history, perhaps because of Derek Martinus’ talent – perhaps a little of both – Spearhead From Space feels unlike any Doctor Who that went before or came since. The director’s other stories have much to praise too, but if you want to know what Doctor Who looked like in an alternative universe, look to Spearhead.

• This post began life as a tribute to Derek Martinus, but it said everything I wanted to say about Spearhead for its inclusion in this top 50, so it’s been adapted.

Classic Series New Series

Caves and Twins: Rose

Russell T Davies, not a man given to modesty, remarked recently how he’d dug out Rose – the story that relaunched Doctor Who in 2005 – and rewatched it for the first time in years.

He had feared that it would not look that impressive but, blow him down with a feather, it was wonderful and funny and clever and lovely!

Was it? I don’t think I’ve rewatched Rose since 2005 either but it was on the telly the other night. I loathed Rose at the time and was not keen to rewatch it either, but I thought I’d give it the RTD test.

Rose is a funny one, because a couple of years before it hit the screen I’d mused that a rebooted series could do a lot worse than a rehash of something like Spearhead From Space. Fast, simple, scary. Maybe RTD had the same thought, or maybe he just wanted an established monster with a neat set-up that could frame a knockabout story and act as a bone thrown to fans.

Whatever the case, I nearly went upstairs and burned my copy of Doctor Who – The Unfolding Text afterwards, back in March 2005. Weirdly enough, I loved The End of the World the next week and got back into the swing of it.

So, what did I make of Rose on a repeat viewing. Was it Spearhead From Space or was it, well, Rose? I was eating a bowl of soup at the time so simply jotted down these thoughts on what was playing out on sceen.

The start

That’s not the theme tune!
Terrible bontempi Randall and Hopkirk (Rebooted) music to start
Micky established as complete arse by eating a sandwich in a funny way at Rose

Rose doesn’t like her job
Ponderous shots of Billie in lift
I can pinpoint the exact Graeme Norton moment here

The next bit

Thankfully music drops off but there’s no spooky music in place when the Autons threaten Rose, unless it’s a Harry Potter/Midsomer Murders interpretation

“Run!” Good opening line for the new Doc but the dreaded music kicks in again.

Eccleston ponders two more seasons of this shit

Beans on toast – there’s a meme we’ll be seeing a lot of over the next five years

“Run for your life!” – like that bit

The inescapable music is almost like a soundbed, chuntering away underneath a 14-year old Radio 1 Newsbeat presenter

Moments of Rose just standing around while she waits for a bomb to go off, like a startled cat working out what to do next following a loud noise

Really bad SFX of the burning building – remember reading Bonnie Greer on the Newsnight Review commenting on how cheap it looked. This is what she was thinking of. It was also at the point that, allegedly, a flaming sofa nearly killed a harmless Welsh pedestrian.

Trademark ‘people running around, wacky camera’ thing that’s a constant of Nu Doctor Who that renders any action sequences instantly laughable

The first proper introduction to two really annoying characters – Micky and Jackie.

Thoughts at this point

Fast. Really fast. But like a Big Mac and strawberry milkshake. Empty calories that leave with a sugar rush and subsequent crash – all headache and nausea and guilt.

It’s not frightening. Almost everything is played for laughs. It’s no coincidence that Moffatt’s were best received for years. His episodes were scary.

RTD makes another mistake. He mistakes not being too scary with ‘not taking itself seriously’. So any potentially scary moments are full of mugging or people laughing or silly sound effects or silly music.

For a long time Doctor Who was very careful to be the show that was aimed at children but didn’t patronise them. At times during the RTD era – Rose for example – it blundered way over that line in a way that’s often hard to watch. Seriously, what age group is this aimed at?

Is stuff like Rose a deliberate kick against the po-faced US sci-fi dramas of the time? With a liberal sprinkling of Joss Whedon through a British kitchen sink lens.

Chav culture references embed this firmly in the mid 00s and already serve to make the programme feel dated.

Rose’s flat

We get a Yeti in a toilet in Tooting Bec moment that turns out to be Ecclestone in a tower block peering through a catflap. If I were Ian Levine I’d probably assume this was a cast iron reference to Survival.

Jackie quickly established as a slag and the Doctor as asexual. Pity it didn’t last.
Eccleston gets his cards

Gay and alien. Heat. Little Britain. 2005.

An ears comment. I once caught sight of Eccleston’s email address – it had the element ‘MrPunch’ in it. Nice.

Regeneration trauma?

Eccles mugging just wrong; he looks unhappy doing it.

Why does Rose ignore what’s going on right in front of her when the Doctor is being attacked by the Auton hand?

Early bit of squirming about between Doc and companion on the floor.

Outside the flat

“See ya” “Hello!” “Sort of, yeah” – do these lines even sound good on paper?

Running and bad music – one of a number of traits that could have formed a mission statement for the next five years.

Eat chips, goto bed and watch telly – another one to get familiar with.

Peter Moffat-esque long shot from Boak.

Earth revolving. Bad but well played by Eccleston – his Doctor remains one that was difficult to pin down.

The Clive bit

Internet bit well played – we nearly get a moment of dramatic tension.

“She’s a she” – heh.

Mark Benton playing himself again – is he an Ian Levine cipher?

Appalling Photoshop on Kennedy pic.

Nice speech from Benton.

Wheelie bin = nice idea in promising a set up (plastic=death!) that has remained frustratingly unexplored.

The burp is the TV equivalent of shovelling e-numbers down a kids throat.

Bad bad bad CGI.

Why doesn’t Rose notice that her BF looks like Theo Walcott, only knows one word and inexplicably drives his car all over the road?


Things almost get a little frightening here with Noel flashing an unnerving, unnoticed smile but then immediately goes back to ‘idiot’ for no apparent reason. And Rose doesn’t notice at all. Brilliant, brilliant Rose…

Silly wrestling and silly music and silly screaming as it’s played for laughs again.

Nice TARDIS reveal.

First properly decent Doctorish moment in the TARDIS as Eccles stops jamming and mugging and shouting for a second.

First appearance of ‘stupid ape’ meme.

“Lots of planets have a north!”

Anti plastic – something you can get away with precisely once (or not – see also Boomtown, TEOTW, The Parting of the Ways in this season alone).

Ecclestone quintuple take on the London Eye doesn’t come off at all due to poor scripting and poor direction – and then we’re back running through treacle with Murray Gold – terrible music that sounds like an off cast from the Vic and Bob reboot of Randall and Hopkirk while we see more running on a bridge.

Nestene HQ

All Auton/Nestene things that are interesting (plastic comes to life, automata, facsimiles) are dealt with in throw away comment.

The Nestene Consciousness is a vat of liquid that can talk -apparently, as none of the sounds it makes could be recognised as speech – that is ‘terrified’ of TARDISes and parlays with other races via the articles of a galactic constitution. What next? Sutekh at the UN?

Weird one-sided conversation that is meaningless without knowledge of story arc and gibberish as we can’t understand from the Nestene.

Auton invasion

Back to dreary Jackie who survives about ten thousand autons not shooting her for some reason – bad direction.

Autons break out and promptly… shoot out the back of a minicab, numerous plant pots and a fat bloke. Curiously unthreatening. The fan/Levine cipher is killed off. Hmm.

The action of the Auton invasion is conveyed through a cameraman having a fit. Eventually Jackie gets her cue, having stood still for about a minute looking confused, while people are gunned down by walking shop-window dummies, and runs away screaming – having spent the last 40 seconds looking like she’s trying to solve a particularly hard puzzle.

A scene that last for three hours where Jackie is menaced by bride Autons, the Doctor does nothing, Micky establishes just how useless he is and Rose – for the first time among billlons of subsequent times – saves the day by swinging on a chain. Awful, leaden direction.

A scene that could have been great shows a couple of twitching Autons. The sum of the Auton invasion includes a backlit double decker, two tiny fires and some rubbish. That’s even less impressive than hijacking a bus.

“You were rubbish” – that’s the Doctor firmly emasculated for the next three years.

The end bit

“Work and food and sleep” – yes, we get it.

Micky mugs like a twat.

Weird slomo final shot.


Moffat said he puts in scares for the kids and jokes for the adults, but RTD never seemed to bother with scares. Everything in Rose says ‘jokes for kids, different jokes for adults’. It left me feeling completely cold.

Here’s something I read recently from Moffatt’s 2011 series press launch, which sums up how I feel about Doctor Who.

“You put the jokes in for the adults, and you make it scary to appeal to children. They absolutely rank the best Doctor Who episodes in order of frighteningness.”



Eccleston does OK with some shonky stuff
Confident start for Billie


Everything else

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