“That’s not me at all.”
The four-part “Spearhead from Space,” from 1970, was the first color episode of Doctor Who, as well as the first episode to be shot on film, and the first to air on Fridays instead of the usual Saturday time slot. Therefore, it’s only natural that this is the first episode of the original series to be released on Blu-ray.
The Doctor (Jon Pertwee, Worzel Gummidge) is a Time Lord, traveling the whole of time space—but not any more. Just having regenerated, the Doctor learns he’s been stranded on Earth, unable to leave, by order of the Time Lords. In this new situation, the Doctor befriends scientist Liz Shaw, (Caroline John, Love Actually) and is reunited with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney, French Fields), who knows a thing or two about aliens on Earth. Good thing, too, because the Autons are on the loose, bringing mannequins and wax figures to life with an evil plan.
Re-watching Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (Blu-ray), I couldn’t help but notice the many similarities between this and the first episode of the show’s 2005 revival, “Rose.” Both episodes have a recently regenerated Doctor duking it out with the Autons, but, more importantly, both are carefully written as to introduce the series to new viewers, patiently taking time to define just who the Doctor is and what he’s all about, all seen from the eyes of an outsider. The brainy, upright Liz doesn’t have Rose’s youthful energy, but her inquisitiveness easily opens the door to newbie-friendly exposition. It’s the Brigadier, though, who’s really our audience surrogate. This episode feels like the pilot for some sort of The Brigadier Adventures spinoff, as he’s introduced as this man of action, charged with protecting the Earth from secret alien invasions.
The Doctor, meanwhile, spends most of the episode in a post-regeneration haze, leaving the alien-fightin’ in the hands of the supporting cast. The bonus features reveal that there was a lot of uncertainty about Jon Pertwee, known only for comedy, taking over the role of the heroic Doctor. So here we have him slowly easing into the role. The truth is that Pertwee is much better in later episodes, and we only get fleeting glimpses of his talent in this one. Fortunately, the Autons are on hand to provide sci-fi action. These mannequins come to life are damn creepy, and the scene where they first spring to life on a city street is well-deserved as a signature moment in Doctor Who history.
The big question is, how does classic Doctor Who look on Blu-ray? Answer: Not bad. It’s been well documented elsewhere how the Doctor Who restoration team goes over these old shows with a fine tooth digital comb, and that’s true here. There’s a level of grain over the picture, most noticeably in the outdoor scenes, but the picture is also free of any flecks, scratches or other marks, with natural looking skin tones, and bright, vivid colors. The accompanying featurette reveals that the original negatives were stained with chemicals, leaving miscolored splotched all over the picture. The restoration team has since gone through and removed all these as well. Audio has been re-mastered in DTS-HS Master Audio, but in 2.0, for an improved track, but one that’s still not too far removed from the original.
The bonus features contain a pleasant surprise. The documentary “A Dandy and a Clown,” despite that name, is excellent. It’s a retrospective of Pertwee’s life and career, and it’s loaded with all sorts of great anecdotes and information for fans. If this disc was nothing but this doc, it’d be worth a purchase. A second, shorter featurette, “Carry On: The Life of Caroline John” does the same for John, with an emphasis on her long theater career. While not as exhaustive as the Pertwee doc, it too is worth seeing. From there, we get above-mentioned before and after look at the high-def and raw footage of filming the opening title effects.
The 2012 special edition DVD of Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space contained numerous bonus features not on this disc, most notably the commentary track with Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney. While it’s great to have these new features, and some fans might grouse about have to buy the same extras twice, the commentary deserves to be preserved, especially now that both actors have since died. Its absence is felt on this disc.
Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (Blu-ray) doesn’t quite succeed as entry for first time viewers, as it was intended, but it nonetheless has some great moments, thanks to fine performances by the actors and those goldarn terrifying Autons. Anyone with any interest in Doctor Who will want to pick this one up for the Jon Pertwee documentary.