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18 September 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 261: Spearhead From Space, Episode One

Dear diary,

Spearhead From Space makes me sick. You know how sometimes you can associate certain episodes of Doctor Who with certain memories? I've got a friend who assumes he must have cut his knee at some point while The Stones of Blood was being shown, because he always associates the Ogri with the smell of disinfectant, for example. Well for me, Spearhead From Space is the Doctor Who story that brings back the strongest of feelings.

The very first time I ever saw this story, I'd just had an operation. Nothing major, but it required me to be dosed up on pretty strong painkillers for a week or two afterwards. I can recall sitting in the hospital just after the operation, and asking mum to pick me up a copy of this story on DVD when she was in the city. At that point, I was still picking and choosing which Who stories to buy, rather than being all caught up and just buying them as they hit the shelves. A few days later I was sat home alone and decided that the time had come to watch the Third Doctor's very first story.

I cued the DVD up in the player, made lunch, and prepared my paracetamol. Thing is, I was pretty stupid when it came to anything medical (I'm not a fan of medication. Even now, I don't have a doctor), so I didn't realise that you weren't supposed to mix co-codemol with milk. For some reason, at the time, I was drinking a lot of milk. Anyway, tablets crushed and mixed into the milk (they were huge round 'discs', so there was no way I'd swallow them normally!), I settled down to watch the story.

And I was sick as a pig for the entire time. Spearhead, being the only story of Doctor Who's 'original' run to be shot entirely on film has a very distinctive look to it. Ever since that day, just the sight of footage from this story makes me feel a little queazy. The second DVD version was a little better because things had been sharpened up, but still there was something about it all that made my stomach twist. Even typing about it is having the same effect!

Then they announced that Spearhead From Space was to be remastered and released on Blu Ray in full HD. To be honest, I had absolutely zero interest in it. A story that made me sick on a format that I didn't own. When things came to the HD revolution, I switched over to iTunes downloads. Often cheaper, pretty immediate when I wanted to pick them up, and the Mac couldn't read blu ray discs anyway. It was the 'Coming Soon…' article about the release in Doctor Who Magazine that swayed me. It spoke of giving the release a very individual look, and went into a bit of detail on the way that they had changed the grading of the piece to look 'more like a one-off filmed drama' with more of a darkened tone. Could it be that this new format might rid me of the 'curse' of Spearhead?

I picked up a cheap external blu-ray drive, bought the blu-ray and it's been sat on the shelf waiting for me top reach this point for about a month. I'm pleased to say that having sat through the first twenty-five minutes, I'm still feeling fine. Hooray! It's meant that a story I've never been able to particularly enjoy suddenly has a shot at being fairly evaluated.

I'll talk more about the quality of the HD remaster in a later episode (but suffice to say, 'oh my God. Stunning'), because today I want to focus on the story itself. It's rather good, isn't it? I've never noticed just how much the 2005 relaunch borrows from this one. The opening shot, in which we pan from a starry sky into the Earth is fab, and I have to say that I think I prefer this one! It just looks more impressive than the CGI version that kick-starts Rose. There's the Autons, of course, but they haven't really arrived on the scene yet. The Doctor spends most of the episode tucked up in bed having promptly collapsed upon leaving the TARDIS, just as David Tennant does in The Christmas Invasion. We've even got a familiar face in the form of Lethbridge-Stewart on hand to help the change-over.

It's fair enough that you'd use this story as a template when reintroducing the series after a lengthy hiatus. At the time, Spearhead followed the longest gap in broadcast that Doctor Who had ever experienced. It returned in the first week of the 1970s with a brand new Doctor, a brand new assistant, and in colour! Forget replacing the original Doctor with Patrick Troughton - there you've got Ben, Polly, and the Daleks to tide you over. Forget about Tom Baker leaving the role after a record run. Even forget the sweet (effete!) Fifth Doctor giving way to one who strangles his companion! This is the biggest shake up that the programme experiences in the 'classic era.

I've made no secret of the fact that I've never been all that fond of Jon Pertwee's incarnation of the Doctor, but he's actually off to a pretty good start here. Despite spending much of the episode drifting in and out of consciousness, the times he spends awake are spot on, and I love the way he draws out his simple line: 'shoooeeeesssss…'. His conversation with the Brigadier, in which he reacts to his new appearance for the very first time is also great fun. When I think of the Doctor's checking out their new appearances, I often go right to either of the Bakers or Davison looking into the mirror, but this one is just as brilliant, and quite clearly the template for all those to follow.

We're off to a good start, and I'm hoping that this new release will help me to appreciate the story all the more. I'd desperately love to start this new era on a real high…

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