|It’s genuinely funny to imagine “Space Adventure” playing|
over any of the Auton scenes, by the way. If you were
It’s January 3, 1970. Rolf Harris is at number one with “Two Little Boys,”a version of 1902 song about the American Civil War, which is exactly what you’d expect to be at number one in the UK, yes? Other artists in the top ten include Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell, and Elvis Presley. Rolf Harris holds number one for all four weeks this story is going on for. It’s not that there aren’t other things bubbling under the surface – there are. But apparently January in 1970 was a time for everyone to be mildly obsessed with the idea of American country music.
One aspect of the change to color that happens with this story is that the show cuts itself down to roughly 26 episode seasons, as opposed to the 40+ episode seasons it did for its first six years. This means in turn that the show has much longer summer breaks, having been off the air for six months now. In those six months, the Stonewall riots took place, kicking off the gay rights movement. The moon landing actually happens. Ted Kennedy drives his girlfriend off a bridge. That whole Woodstock thing happens, along with the beginning of prosecution for the My Lai massacre. . The Days of Rage take place in Chicago in a backlash against the trial of demonstrators from the 1968 Democratic Convention. Richard Nixon begins winding down the Vietnam War. Altamont also happens, seemingly trying to split the difference between Woodstock and My Lai. And, for the tech geeks, the UNIX epoch begins, just three days prior to the UNIT one.
And that’s just the setup before the Doctor crashes into the world. In the four weeks over which this story airs, Biafra finally capitulates, ending the Nigerian Civil War, and the Greater London Council announces the construction of the Thames Barrier to prevent flood damage to London.
While on television… see, the last time we did one of these, it was a story with the notable advantage that nobody could see. The Power of the Daleks is a story we peer at, trying to understand this mysterious transition. Being as it’s episodes 2-7 of the joint longest streak of missing episodes running, the transition to Troughton is something we try to figure out in hindsight.
Spearhead From Space, on the other hand, everybody knows – especially since its central iconography was reshaped into the launch of the 2005 series. This is one of the most iconic and classic Doctor Who stories in existence. Normally this means we have to do a lot of reconstruction to undo the glare of fandom, but in this case, watching the story in sequence right after The War Games, much of what is important about this story is extremely obvious, if not exactly the everyday reaction.
Of course, we’ve delayed a week instead of doing that here, but then, the show delayed six months. And anyway, that delay was important because we’re headed into what is, for my money, one of the trickiest eras of Doctor Who to sort out. The next five seasons manage, in popular consensus, the staggering dual feat of being simultaneously one of the most important and iconic eras of Doctor Who and a complete abandonment and selling out of all of the basic principles of the show. Some foresight going in is appropriate.
But not too much. Whatever the UNIT era may become over the course of five years, it is not as though the Pertwee era can be treated as a homogenous block. Yes, any Doctor Who fan knows and, if we’re being honest, winces slightly at the many tics of the Pertwee era, whether it be polarity reversals, “Hai!”s, the Pertwee death pose, Pertwee’s legendary capacity for facial gurning, car chases, an irrationally incredulous Brigadier, or anything else. But only one of those actually appears anywhere in Spearhead From Space, and that only at the very end of the story.
Actually, if we take a slightly broader view, the larger issue is that Pertwee himself is barely in this. It’s two full episodes before he is actually even vaguely attached to the main plot, and it’s not until episode four that he actually gets around to firmly interacting with the plot. On top of that, Holmes, clearly not quite knowing what Pertwee was going to do with the part, clearly wrote most of these scenes with Troughton in mind and figured Pertwee could make it work. (To be fair, there’s a long tradition of this, with the early David Tennant stories largely having been written with Eccleston’s Doctor in mind) But more than that, most of what Holmes writes the Doctor are setpieces. The first two episodes have very little of the Doctor doing anything other than lounging about in a hospital and/or escaping from said hospital.
It’s not until late into episode two that the Doctor gets dressed and starts interacting with people in a manner defined by something other than being unconscious and recovering from a regeneration, and even then he starts out strangely, waggling his eyebrows and talking about the planet Delphon. Oh, and he has two hearts now. All of which is actually very strange. Prior to The War Games, although it had been frequently established that the Doctor was an alien, most of the time the series treated him as a special human. Medical examinations of him were conducted multiple times not only without anyone remarking on his second heart, but without anyone remarking on his physiology at all.
And yet in this story, one of the major plot points is that the Doctor is self-evidently alien. This is a massive shift in the nature of the program. For the bulk of the first six years, the Doctor was presented as, essentially, an idealized human – something to which humanity could aspire. Now he’s throwing around knowledge of alien worlds we’ve never seen and he’s manifestly and completely Other. He’s gone from being humanity projecting themselves forward to being, essentially, a prophet from outer space.
Realistically, part of this probably came from Robert Holmes trying to solve a straightforward scriptwriting problem – how do you get the Brigadier to the Doctor? Answer – have him be a high profile bizarre alien man that gets reported to the Brigadier. And if we’re being honest, Holmes is the sort of writer who would do something like that – rewrite the series’ mythology to deal with a point about character logistics. He did, after all, in The Two Doctors, and part of why we took that detour was to look at the consequences of that tendency. But it’s tough not to notice that this is a marked change to the character.
Especially because, as I suggested, it’s kind of the only thing the character has this story. As is the norm for Doctor debuts, the show consciously gives the new guy a way to ease his way into the series. Troughton got Daleks to overshadow him for six weeks, Baker would get the entire UNIT crew in a last hurrah, Davison got a reordered production schedule so that he could film other stories before his debut, and so on. In the case of Pertwee, they drop him to the background and focus on the new status quo instead, only bringing him on in full force at the end of the fourth episode, where he proceeds to literally chew the scenery as he struggles with the tentacles of the Nestene, introducing the insane gurning that would be a maddening mainstay of his tenure. From there all he has to do is be a bit impish in a final scene with the Brigadier in which he agrees to work for him, about which more later.
Absent the title character, the show is left to what is probably its more important task given what it’s trying to do – set up its new premise. Which is a bit of a doozy. Holmes has four episodes in which to set up a military organization empowered to investigate the inexplicable, give us a sense of how they operate, and then have them team up with the Doctor to defeat a new menace. Thankfully, Holmes only actually has two characters he has to introduce in any detail. The first is Liz Shaw. It’s tempting to call Liz the new companion – and the official list of companions decides to do so. Certainly she’s more like a companion than she is like any other regular role in the show. But that doesn’t mean it’s quite what she is.
The reason for this is that the companion role, traditionally, is to provide a character who requires the Doctor to explain things for them so that the audience hears them too. Sometimes this is crassly simplified to “audience identification figure,” but that’s not quite right. Some companions – Ian and Barbara most obviously – have been character types familiar to everyday people who we then watch in the “wrong” situations, but the same thing is accomplished with Jamie and Victoria, who are both stock fictional characters constantly thrust into the wrong stories. Rather, it is that the companion is someone whose thought processes the audience is supposed to understand who is then turned loose in the story with the task of understanding the Doctor’s thought processes, thus forcing exposition. (From there, of course, they fulfill important narrative roles in a given plot, but these aren’t the purpose of the companion any more than they’re the purpose of any other fictional character.)
Liz, however, is something different. She’s the Doctor’s partner. The setup is clearly supposed to be a buddy cop show with scientists here. In modern terms, we’d call it the Mulder/Scully setup, but aside from being completely wrong, it’s anachronistic anyway. All the same, the Doctor and Liz are supposed to be working together on cases, with both of them capable of figuring out major leaps of logic. (Actually, the TV relationship it’s closest to is Castle and Beckett on Nathan Fillion’s show Castle, in which both are equally skilled detectives, but Castle has certain extra-detective abilities. Likewise, Liz and the Doctor are both brilliant scientists, but the Doctor has experience with aliens.)
The traditional “But what does that mean Doctor” role actually falls to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, back now for his third appearance and now ensconced as a series regular, appearing in sixteen of the twenty-four Pertwee stories. He’s clearly intended to serve double duty – to both be the guy in charge to whom the Doctor (nominally) reports and to be the person to whom the Doctor explains things, usually to get him to do something only he can do like make the army attack something. Which is the setup the first episode tries to give us – the Brigadier is in charge, Liz is supposed to investigate things, and when she finds something out she’s supposed to tell the Brigadier so he can do something about it. And then the Doctor is to be dropped into this paradigm as a rules-breaking, iconoclastic partner for Liz.
From there, Robert Holmes dutifully shows how this is all supposed to work with a very straightforward, effective adventure. There’s a whole school of thought about Doctor Who – a school defined by Jon Pertwee’s rote recitation of the claim that the scariness of a Zog from the Planet Zog is far less than that of a Yeti in your loo in Tooting Bec. (OK, yes, half of that is actually Russell T. Davies, but honestly, they’re virtually the same mantra, only one is about emotional catharsis and the other is about creepy stuff.) I talk about it more back in the entry on The Web of Fear, and we’ll deconstruct it gleefully down the road (Not sure when yet, but on a guess, what are y’all doing around Invasion of the Dinosaurs?), but the basic idea is that Doctor Who should work in the register of the everyday becoming a source of fear.
Which is what Holmes does here. The story is about finding a potentially cool threat – evil plastic people is an excellent choice – and then exploring its consequences. Most of the attention in this regard goes to the iconic sequence in episode four where the mannequins attack, and that sequence is extraordinary, but overt focus on it leaves us to ignore the delicious creepiness of the sequence in episode two where characters are walking through a factory for doll parts. The doll parts are never made overt objects of horror, but the camera gleefully lingers on the production as we watch plastic representations of human bodies – of babies, specifically – produced in industrial bulk. This is a better representation of the point of Yeti-in-the-loo theory than anything actually involving monsters. As I said way back the first time we came anywhere near Yeti-in-the-loo, the point of all of this isn’t to make the monsters scary. The idea is to make the everyday surroundings into which the monster is injected scary. Making a giant furry death beast scary, anyone can do that. Making a toilet scary, apparently, requires Jon Pertwee. Likewise, this story is about making an everyday object like plastic children’s dolls strange – not because they might suddenly kill you (That’s the next Auton story), but because they’re made weird and strange.
From there Holmes builds out, creating an assemblage of people who are impacted by the plot. And here we really start to see the questions raised by The War Games answered. If the point of The War Games was that the Doctor needed to engage with people instead of just monsters, it’s hard to imagine a better story than this one, which begins hitting walks of life we simply haven’t seen on Doctor Who before. The story, clearly taking its cues from Quatermass II (as about 80% of the plot here is), opens with a man in rural Britain stumbling upon a meteor. We later get plot of him hiding the meteor from his wife. Yes, he turns out to be an obnoxious stock character of the Pertwee era – the comedy yokel – but on the first appearance of this trope the remarkable thing is not that rural Britain is played for laughs, it’s that it’s played at all.
More interesting, perhaps, is Ransome, whose entire motivations in the story come down to being upset over an unjust firing and concerned about his friend and former partner who is acting a bit strangely. This is a character that there’s no obvious analogue for in any of the earthbound stories to date – a character who is thoroughly involved in an alien invasion plot for reasons that have nothing to do with wanting to fight or help the aliens. It’s a brilliant addition to the box of tricks Doctor Who has. Holmes has, in the first outing, thoroughly nailed the new direction in the way that counts – he’s shown what it can do that other forms of Doctor Who couldn’t. By starting in a world known to the audience, the show can go into depth showing the sorts of people you can’t show when you have to introduce the rules of a world in order to do anything.
Except for one tiny thing. This isn’t our world. It can’t be. Even with the slightly deferred “near future” lens the UNIT stories ostensibly had, not that this was ever made explicit, our world isn’t just one where the evacuation of London due to evil cobwebs, the possession of the entire planet by Cybermen, and now the unleashing of homicidal mannequins has ever happened. And more to the point, it’s one in which these things seem unlikely to be capable of being covered up, as the Brigadier asserts the Cybermen incident was. Yes, coverups happen, but the fact of the matter is, it’s a tough pill to swallow that coverups in which massive numbers of people are killed do.
But beyond that, as we already suggested back in The Invasion, it’s tough to treat this as near future given that all of the styles are eminently current. In terms of someone actually sitting down and watching the UNIT stories, as opposed to someone who is carefully analyzing lines of dialogue from stories across three seasons now in an attempt to determine a firm UNIT chronology, given that the episodes say nothing about their dating and look like contemporary of Britain, the UNIT era is pretty clearly around the time of transmission.
This is crucial, given the obsession people have with the UNIT era and its supposed “realism.” The UNIT stories – especially if we start counting from The War Machines, which is a UNIT story in approach if not in actual references to UNIT – are remarkable in part because they are the first stories to establish that Doctor Who is not in our world. Ian and Barbara fell out of what we (naturally) assumed to be basically our world. Liz and the Brigadier are walking around a world that looks like ours, but isn’t quite.
Which brings us back around to the Brigadier and Nicholas Courtney, and, in a larger sense, to what we talked about on Friday about the UNIT era coming pre-parodied. Much of Monty Python’s parody comes from the fact that the UNIT stories, especially in season seven, are fairly close remakes of the Quatermass serials, and are thus a known quantity. Courtney is thus cast in the unfortunate role of having to be in charge of a situation that is obviously insane. His role is written straight, but it’s written as a character who is calm, collected, and in control. Fine – a military leader character is easy enough to play. But Courtney has to play him in a world that is ridiculous.
Put another way, the Brigadier feels like a character in a Spike Milligan sketch, and, to a lesser extent, in a Monty Python sketch. He’s got to play the usual part of taking absurdity very seriously. Except that once the Doctor shows up, he’s got the opposite part – the Carry On problem, where he has to be the not-entirely-capable leader who couldn’t get by without their nutty and eccentric scientific advisor. In other words, Courtney has the job of playing two distinct but related comic parts. And in response to this, he turns in what is probably the only acting performance in Doctor Who thus far to rival Patrick Troughton’s.
Nicholas Courtney was, through his life, rightly considered something of a treasure by Doctor Who fans. And yet if you asked most of them what it was about the Brigadier that was so amazing, I suspect most would give an answer along the lines of his steadfast loyalty and friendship with the Doctor. Which, while possibly true, has next to nothing to do with why he’s so memorable a character. No, what makes the Brigadier so memorable is that he’s played in such a way as to split the difference between the two comic turns in a way that is not quite a comic turn in and of itself.
The best way to understand how Nicholas Courtney plays the Brigadier is as follows. Imagine a show set in a mental institution. Then take one of the stock characters of a mental institution – the guy who believes he is a historical figure (Usually Napoleon, for whatever reason). Think about how someone would play that part – generally with an exaggerated straight-facedness with a focus on showing you that this person has fully inhabited the role of Napoleon. But crucially, that part is also played with a sort of continual awareness that the person is not Napoleon. They take their role completely straightforwardly, but play only what people expect Napoleon to be like as opposed to actually playing the part.
Now imagine that instead of Napoleon, you have Brigadier Aleister Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, head of UNIT, and dedicated to protecting Britain from alien threats. That is how Courtney ends up playing the Brigadier. Except that instead of playing the part in a mental institution, he plays it in a world where he actually is the character he believes himself to be. The effect is remarkably subtle. One gets the sense that the Brigadier is not so much a capable soldier as a man playing at being a soldier. But he’s playing at it with such all-encompassing totality that it ends up working in a way that the actual soldiers in the story never can.
The result is that the ambiguity intrinsic to most Monty Python sketches is at play with the Brigadier as well. He takes the “sane man in a mad world” stock character of British comedy and then plays him without ever wavering in his sanity. As a result, one is never entirely sure, watching the Brigadier, whether the character is the bumbling straight man for the Doctor’s wit or whether he’s the one rolling his eyes knowingly at the insanity of the world.
It turns out to be exactly what the program needs. For one thing, as Pertwee grows more comfortable with the part and begins playing the Doctor with a confident larger-than-life quality, the Brigadier becomes the person in the story who can stand up to the Doctor, treating him as just another completely insane thing not to react to. No matter how far the story stretches to insanity or the people around him act like lunatics, the Brigadier remains an anchor of sanity. And the show repeatedly takes it well past the point where sanity is a remotely reasonable reaction.
To some extent, equal credit here is due to Robert Holmes, who writes the part in a way that is dead-on perfect for Courtney’s approach. And there is a sense that the presence of someone like the Brigadier has freed Holmes up in the scripting. As good as The Krotons and The Space Pirates were – and both were quite good scripts – Spearhead From Space represents a major step up for Holmes. And a lot of that is that Holmes has a newfound confidence in ambiguity.
This lets him get away with things like the story’s main setpiece, the mannequin attack in London. There’s a lot in that setpiece. It’s a massive Yeti-In-The-Loo climax, yes. But it’s a joyfully low rent one. After sequences of Cybermen, Yeti, Daleks, and giant robots marauding London, we get one in which London is under attack from something as mediocre and unheralded as mannequins. This is not some great, gleaming alien invasion. This is homicidal clothing stores. Yes, that makes the threat more immediate and scarier, but it also makes it more ridiculous.
On top of that, embedded in all of this is a snide consumerist backlash. One thing we did not note about this story is the establishing shot of a picture of Earth from space. Through the Troughton era we looked up at space from the Earth. Now we look down from space at the Earth, signaling the transition from the space age to the environmental age. Embedded in any story about plastic people and evil mannequins is a critique of consumerism. But that critique’s high point comes in the most consumerist, superficial, spectacle-oriented scene in the story.
But note that the ambiguity inherent in that is the same ambiguity that Courtney is bringing to the Brigadier. This is a world that is, on some level, aware of its own foolishness, but not aware in a way that lets it offer any external comment on the foolishness. It’s the same approach, then, as Monty Python.
And so it’s only fitting that the story ends with the Brigadier finally pinning the Doctor down and forcing him to do something he’d never really done before – have an official name. Yes, the name the Doctor throws back is obviously fake and a joke. But the Brigadier knows that as well as the audience. The point isn’t to get the Doctor’s name. It’s to establish that the Brigadier is a powerful enough figure to make the Doctor have a name in the first place.
Now all that’s left is to find out who this new Doctor is, exactly.