Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Phantom Who: Spearhead From Space

Sorry for the lack of post yesterday - as I predicted it has become increasingly difficult for me to find time to write. I'm still going to post as much as I can and the odd missed day here and there will be over in time for my Dragon*Con coverage at the latest!

Welcome to Phantom Who, a new feature designed to go along with the Earth Station Who podcast, which I co-host. There I am known as “Dave” because “Phantom Troublemaker” takes up too much room on the stationary. Every other week there will be a new podcast discussing all things Doctor Who, with a central discussion about a particular story.
For the first year we are covering regeneration stories. Starting with An Unearthly Child and wrapping up the current regenerations with The Eleventh Hour, we’ll be covering the first and last stories of each of the first eleven Doctors.

Last time on Phantom Who…

We endured enjoyed the final adventure of the Doctor in his second incarnation. 
Accompanied by Jamie and Zoe, the Doctor landed in the middle of an alien plot to recruit Earth soldiers from across time into a massive army meant to enforce peace across the galaxy through the might of a galactic empire. Yeah, seriously – they said “Galactic Empire”.
The Doctor and his companions went through a cycle of being captured by and escaping from so many different factions that it was almost hilarious. Once the Doctor stopped the War Lord in charge he realized that things were such a mess he had no choice but to contact his own people – the Time Lords – to clean up. We learned that the Doctor was a renegade Time Lord who had stolen his TARDIS to escape the eternal neutrality and resultant inactivity (and general boringness) of his people.

As punishment for his theft and desertion, the Time Lords forced the Doctor to use one of his remaining regenerations and exiled him to his seemingly favorite planet - a small, blue sphere known as Earth…

This time around the TARDIS materialized in a forest on Earth and the Doctor stumbled out, wearing his old clothes and a different body. The Time Lords disabled the TARDIS’ dematerialization circuit to enforce the renegade’s exile, so it won’t be going anywhere under its own power.

The Doctor arrived in the midst of a meteor storm that has deposited several strange, pink spheres across the countryside. UNIT – the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce - is investigating these strange meteorites and has managed to recover very few of them. Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge Stuart is the commanding officer of UNIT and is doing his best to deal with the irritating members of the press that have descended upon the town nearest the meteor strikes (don’t get the wrong idea from my use of the term “meteor strikes”; they’re small meteorites impacting with a minimum of drama). The Brigadier is also interviewing for the position of UNIT scientific advisor. His current prospect is Doctor Liz Shaw, who is basically Scully except before Scully existed. Dr. Shaw poo-poos the Brigadier’s claims that UNIT was formed to deal with extraterrestrial activity on Earth. She’ll see, won’t she?

Before UNIT can make it to the final meteorite, some good-for-nothing local scalper finds the crash site and digs it up. He likes shiny, pink, glowing things so he takes it home and hides it in a chest.

Meanwhile, a UNIT patrol has come across the Doctor. They take him to a local hospital and phone the Brigadier, who tells them to have a patrol guard the TARDIS. The doctors at the hospital perform some tests on the unconscious Time Lord and discover that he not only has alien blood, but two hearts as well. Naturally, the head doctor then walks all over the hospital talking loudly about the “man from space” in front of janitors, the press, and everybody else. This is the sort of doctor that you would not want handling your more intimate, delicate medical problems. Like, you wouldn’t go to him about a rash in your personal areas. The man has no discretion.

One particularly waxy and sinister-looking member of the press hops into a phone booth and informs the person on the other end about the Man From Space.

The Brigadier and Dr. Shaw arrive at the hospital to retrieve the Doctor, but the Brig is shocked to find he does not know the man in the hospital bed. The white-haired man does know the soldier, though. He demands a mirror, criticizes his new appearance, and falls back asleep. This is starting to feel like a first Doctor story.

Out in the woods the poacher has run into a UNIT patrol. He acts so suspicious you’d think the soldiers would just shoot him on the spot, but instead they just let him go on his merry way.

Back in the Doctor’s room – which is a very nice room for some indigent somebody found in the woods – our fresh-faced Time Lord is mystifying the staff by moaning about his shoes. It takes the expertise of the head doctor to figure out that the man’s shoes are in a locker with the rest of his possessions. A nurse is dispatched straightaway to retrieve the footwear because doctors certainly can’t be bothered with such things; what with being so busy running all over the hospital relaying sensitive, secret information to the public. Once the Doctor has his shoes back he hugs them and falls asleep, as though they were a cherished teddy bear. Time Lords are weird, man.

Once the Doctor does wake up, we finally see what the big deal was with his shoes. That’s where he hides the TARDIS key. Which might explain why he’s been as grumpy as he has up to this point. Seems like a terrible place to keep a key if you ask me. Just as he’s about to leave the hospital, a bunch of ruffians show up and kidnap him. They stick the still-recovering Time Lord in a wheelchair and attempt to bundle him into an ambulance when the still-recovering-but-wily Doctor escapes. In his wheelchair. The ruffians know that they have no hope of catching the man on foot (really?), so they hop in the ambulance to pursue him. This prompts the UNIT soldiers to fire on the ambulance. So, as a note, if you are an ambulance driver and get an emergency call while at the hospital you had better make sure there are no UNIT soldiers around before you go tearing out of the driveway. Because they will shoot you.

The clearly-in-better-shape Doctor hops out of the wheelchair and makes his way back to the TARDIS, where he is promptly shot in the head by some other UNIT soldiers.


I thought this was an odd way to end the whole Doctor Who franchise, but it did make an interesting statement about the nature of not only the military, but reality in general. I mean, as many times as the Doctor has been shot at, it was bound to catch up with him someday, right? It’s not like he was going to just happen to run into terrible marksmen for the next fifty years, right?

HA! Just kidding!

Being shot in the head isn’t enough to keep our adventurous Time Lord down, silly! But he does end up back in the hospital, once again under the care of Doctor Discretion.

The Brigadier shows up and there is an odd amount of confusion about how the Doctor collapsed. I suppose nobody wants to admit to having shot the boss’ buddy. I’m not entirely clear on how the Doctor went unharmed. Could be that he was still in the regeneration process, kind of like later on when he got his hand cut off during an alien invasion and it just grew back and then later grew a whole new Doctor on its own. But we’ll get to that.

For now, the Brigadier retrieves the TARDIS key from the unconscious Doctor and orders his men to take the craft itself to UNIT headquarters. One of the UNIT soldiers shows the Brigadier a meteorite that broke when it impacted and the Brig orders it taken back to the HQ as well because he likes pink, shiny things as much as the next guy.

Meanwhile, strange things are afoot at Auto Plastics, a nearby manufacturing plant. A man named Hibbert is deflecting an employee named Ransome who is asking questions about the plant. After Ransome leaves, the boss – Channing - shows up to have a word with Hibbert. And by “have a word” I mean use his mysterious powers of HYPNOSIS! Clearly Channing is part of a devious alien plot to do something naughty to the Earth.

Speaking of naughty, it’s about time for the Shower Scene! The Doctor wakes up and decides he’s had about enough of laying around doing nothing, so he hops out of bed and goes to take a shower:

Once he’s all squeaky clean and the Sexy Level of Doctor Who has been dialed up about 1000% from what it previously was, the Doctor steals some fancy clothes and an antique automobile and heads for UNIT headquarters.

If you recall, the TARDIS was taken there earlier and the Brigadier is currently trying to get in using the key he took from the Doctor. Liz Shaw is looking on, unimpressed. General Scobie – from Her Majesty’s Armed Forces – shows up and Liz explains that they are trying to get into this big, blue police box because it is a spaceship in about the same way you would explain that your senile old grandmother was trying to make a television out of Pop Tarts. General Scobie is oddly unfazed.

Side Note: I absolutely hate General Scobie’s name. It’s so odd as to be distracting. I understand you can’t go around calling everybody Johnson and Andrews, but Scobie is just terrible. It sounds like “scabies” or “Scooby” and it bugs the heck out of me every time.

Out in the woods, we see our first Auton and it is super-scary. Autons are basically store mannequins that move around and murder people. And search for glowing, pink orbs. They are easily one of the scariest and most cost-effective Doctor Who villains. This Auton has detected a meteorite in the area that just happens to be in the back of a UNIT truck. It decides the best way to retrieve the meteorite is to just step out in front of the truck and it totally works. As soon as the driver sees the Auton he swerves off the road into a tree. Not because he was afraid of hitting a pedestrian, but because he just saw the scariest thing he had ever seen in his life and lost the ability to think. The Auton grabs the orb and hot foots it back to Auto Plastics.

Once the Doctor arrives at UNIT HQ he sweeps in and informs the Brigadier that he is, indeed the Doctor and that furthermore the Brigadier should give him his TARDIS key back and let him be on his way. The UNIT CO is not having it, especially with all of these mysterious, pink orbs laying all over the countryside. He tells the Doctor that if he takes a look at the remnants of one of the orbs he might consider giving him the key back. Naturally the Doctor can’t resist a bit of odd phenomena, so he takes a look at the pieces and deduces that they are, indeed, weird. He wants to know where the rest are and the Brig says that by the time UNIT got to the crash sites they were all gone.

Back at Auto Plastics that incorrigible rapscallion Ransome has returned to further investigate. He sneaks into the main workshop and finds it packed with a bunch of strange, futuristic electronics and some kind of giant tank. There’s also a row of mannequins clad in blue coveralls and ascots lined up against a wall. As Ransome is poking around, one of the mannequins steps away from the wall and approaches him from behind. Really, if you’re a horrifyingly creepy automaton I think that’s about the only way you could approach somebody. Just as the front portion of the Auton’s hand flips down to reveal a blaster, Ransome turns around, catches sight of the aberration, and screams hysterically. The Auton fires its weapon and Ransome takes off.

The reporter makes his way out of the factory with the Auton in hot pursuit. Things look bleak until Hibbert and Channing round a corner with General Scobie, just missing catching sight of Ransome. The Auton, clearly knowing it should not be seen, retreats back inside. This allows Ransome to climb the gate and escape into the woods where he collapses, presumably to be found by UNIT; who are capable of finding anything in the woods unless they are looking for it. Let’s just hope they don’t shoot him.

General Scobie is at Auto Plastics to approve a dummy of himself that is being made for an exhibit of world leaders. More on that later.

Back at UNIT HQ the Doctor talks Liz into swiping his TARDIS key from the Brigadier because he’s just smooth that way. She does because to her it’s still just a police box and the second he has the key the Doctor steps inside to leave. Which is when he discovers the Time Lords’ hatchet job on the dematerialization circuit and the huge cloud of smoke that results. He exits his craft to find Liz and a perturbed Brigadier , who proceeds to recruit the hapless Doctor into further helping out with the whole meteorite thing.

Which, surprisingly, the UNIT patrol is making some headway on. They did, indeed, find Ransome in the woods and managed not to shoot him. The poacher also showed up and was cajoled into admitting he had one of the meteors and was sent to retrieve it from his home.

Which is where his wife has just discovered an Auton rummaging around in the dining room, knocking over the fine china and just generally being inconsiderate. Infuriated, the poacher’s wife grabs a shotgun and unloads both barrels into the Auton’s chest. The Auton marches on, unfazed, and wifey passes out. It’s just then that UNIT arrives and finally gets to shoot at something that needs shooting. The Auton manages to escape, though, and happens across Ransome recuperating in a UNIT tent. Hibbert and Channing are observing from afar and order their servant to vaporize the man. When Auto Plastics terminates an employee, they really terminate an employee! (rimshot)

By this time just enough weird stuff has gone on involving Auto Plastics for the Doctor to want to go and check it out. He takes Liz with him and they meet up with Hibbert, who clearly has something to hide. He deflects their questions and insists he has nothing to hide. Then he shoos them out of the plant.

That night, General Scobie is on the phone with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart. The Brig asks Scobie for support in further investigating Auto Plastics and the General agrees to meet the UNIT commander there in the morning. After he hangs up, his doorbell rings. He opens the door to find not a Kiss-O-Gram, but an exact duplicate of himself!

We cut to the next morning at UNIT HQ, where the Doctor and Liz are examining the meteorite they recovered from the poacher. The Time Lord has determined that there is a brain inside. Obviously this requires some snooping around. At the same time the Brigadier receives a phone call from Not General Scobie informing him that Auto Plastics is off-limits and he’s got better stuff to do, anyway. This prompts the Brigadier to approve the Doctor’s proposed snooping.

At Auto Plastics, Hibbert is finally being let in on the Big Picture. He and Channing are in the workshop with all the fancy equipment and the big tank. We see that there is a big, disgusting, pulsating thing in the tank and Channing explains that it is the Nestene Consciousness; the thing that controls the Autons and has conquered many a civilization over the eons. He tells Hibbert that Autons have been placed all over the world and will be activated that night to reveal themselves… um, attack and take over.

While that bit of exposition is taking place the Doctor and Liz Shaw are snooping. Through the magic of breaking and entering they discover that the mannequin of General Scobie is actually General Scobie and also that there are an awful lot of mannequins of world leaders just sitting around. The Doctor deduces the Auton’s plot from this evidence.

Just as they are about to leave the Auto Plastics storeroom where the mannequins are being kept, Hibbert walks in and discovers the duo. The Doctor tries to convince the man that he is taking part in something awful and should help them stop it, but the brainwashing is too strong. Channing walks in a moment later and the Doctor and Liz hide behind a curtain. Oddly, Hibbert does not betray them to his master. This is good, because it means our heroes are able to get back to the Brigadier and tell him he needs to move on Auto Plastics pronto. It is decided the force will head out in the morning and the Doctor begins work on a device to destroy the Nestenes.

Meanwhile, Not General Scobie delivers the final meteorite to Channing. He took it directly from the lab at UNIT HQ. It’s easy to do stuff like that when you’re a general. More bad guys should whip up prosthetic generals to work for them. Channing takes the pink orb and places it in one of the pieces of machinery, which seems to bring the nasty thing in the tank fully to life. It would appear that the poop has hit the fan.

In the morning, all across the world mannequins are coming to life, busting out of their displays, and straight-up murdering tons of people. It’s horrifying.

Hibbert and Channing are watching from the Auto Plastics workshop and Hibbert has finally had enough. He attempts to attack Channing and disable the tank holding the Nestene Consciousness, but is vaporized by an attending Auton, much the same way Ransome was.
Outside, UNIT is mounting its assault on the plant. The Doctor has his Auton Disruptor (or whatever) and Liz Shaw is following behind him carrying the device that powers it. Just as they are about to enter the plant, Not General Scobie shows up with a platoon of soldiers. He tells them that UNIT are traitors and must be stopped. The Doctor tells them that Scobie is an impostor and then goes on to prove it by using the disruptor on the Auton replicant and melting him. You might think this would cause the soldiers to shoot the Doctor, but instead they decide to start following the Brigadier’s orders. This is for the best because right about that time is when Autons start coming out of the woodwork and blasting everybody. The Brigadier and his newly-reinforced squad fend off the attack while the Doctor and Liz head deeper into the plant.

They arrive at the workshop to find Channing and the Nestene Consciousness in its tank. The Doctor tells Channing his device will kill the Consciousness and Channing is all like, “Well, go ahead then, because nothing can kill it! HAHAHA!” so the Doctor runs over and aims his Nestene Disruptor at the tank and…

Nothing happens.

And as much as I love Jon Pertwee and enjoyed this story, the next five minutes or so are pure comedy gold.

While Liz Shaw fumbles with the power source for the Nestene Disruptor, the Doctor is attacked by the Nestene Consciousness; which has grown many sucker-covered tentacles. The mugging that Jon Pertwee does as the Consciousness attempts to strangle him makes Patrick Troughton’s performance from the end of The War Games seem downright nuanced. Pertwee bugs his eyes out, squints, gasps, and pants as though… well, as though he were a Japanese schoolgirl being attacked by a tentacle monster. If you know what I mean.
Finally Liz manages to plug the loose wire that was causing their problem back in and blasts the room, dissembling the Consciousness and melting Channing, who was an Auton all along! As the Nestene Consciousness is dispersed, we see the Autons outside the plant and across the world collapse.

Back at UNIT headquarters the Brigadier offers the exiled Doctor the position of Scientific Advisor (which Doctor Elizabeth Shaw seems to have no problem with, oddly, as she was the one originally up for the job). The Doctor tells the Brigadier he needs an assistant – in the form of Dr. Shaw, new clothes, a lab, and a car similar to the one he stole… er, borrowed. The Brigadier acquiesces as long as the Doctor agrees to stick around. The UNIT commander then finally gets around to asking something – the Doctor’s name.
Smith… Doctor John Smith,” says UNIT’s brand-new Scientific Advisor.

  • The actor who plays Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart – Nicholas Courtney – mentioned on The Five Doctors commentary that it was the only time his mustache had been real. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Spearhead From Space. It was filmed during a particularly hot summer and apparently sweat and mustache glue don’t mix.
  • During the shower scene, we see that Jon Pertwee has a tattoo. This tattoo is never seen or spoken of again, though I think the only other time we see quite so much of the Doctor is when Matt Smith takes over. And he has no tattoo. I think it would’ve been a nice touch to throw it in there.
  • The scene of the Autons coming to life and slaughtering humans is one of the more genuinely disturbing things I’ve seen in Doctor Who. Lots and lots of people are killed and the Autons just keep marching around. I found the solid, lingering camera work of this scene to be so much more effective and chilling than the shaky, constantly-moving, MTV-inspired work seen in “Rose” and other modern media. I find all the fast movement and lack of focus on particular scenes or characters distracts from the story horribly. How am I supposed to feel the impact of anything when I am constantly being directed to something else? I can’t stand the modern method of filming action sequences. One single shot or multiple slow, steady shots are much better.
This is the third time I’ve experienced this story. The first was a couple of years ago when I purchased a “special” collection of all of Jon Pertwee’s stories at Dragon*Con and watched most of them over the course of a week or so. The second was when I listened to the audio book version that came packed in with the Pandorica Series of figures. That was tough. The lady narrating was about as exciting as a robot reading math problems.

But anyway, I really enjoyed Spearhead From Space this time around. I found it a bit slow the first time, but that was before I had watched as much of the first three Doctors as I have now. I have definitely seen a lot of stories that were slower and much more padded out with nonsense. It was also before I had really grown to love Jon Pertwee as the Doctor. He’s in my constantly rotating top four of McCoy, Smith, and Tom Baker (with the latter as a constant #1).

Come back next time for Planet of the Spiders, which is the next story in the series and the last story for Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor! It’s one of the more complex narratives of the Pertwee era and also features giant, icky spiders.

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