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Category Archives: Robert Holmes

The Doctor who fell to Earth: looking back at the classic Doctor Who serial, “Spearhead From Space” by Robert Holmes (1970)

Opening titles

With the departure of Patrick Troughton in 1969  Doctor Who  teetered on the edge of cancellation  as the ratings had  fallen  to not much above 5 million for his  final  ten part serial, “The War Games”.  In the end the BBC decided to give it  another  season, which some suspected might well prove to be the last.  Against the odds the series was re-invigorated and re-established itself as a Saturday teatime must-see  for another generation of young people, including myself. This was brought about by four  key factors:

the Brigadier

Firstly, the producer Derrick Sherwin –  who bridged the transition from  the Second to  the Third Doctor – opted for a new story line, anchoring the Doctor on Earth (having  been exiled by the Time Lords at the end  of “The War Games”)  where he becomes  the scientific advisor to UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), a  quasi-military outfit first encountered by the Second Doctor. UNIT is   led by  Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)  who  had first appeared as a regular army officer in “The Web of Fear” and then as the commanding officer of UNIT in “The Invasion”.

The programme makers felt that the format had become tired and wanted to show the Doctor battling his enemies on Earth, rather than on far distant planets. The Earth in question  in fact  turned out to be the Home Counties, subject to an surprisingly high number of alien invasions. This format  harked back to the Quatermass  serials of the 1950s in which  Professor  Bernard Quatermass  also grappled with alien  invasions.

Secondly,  the new serials were filmed in colour,  which allowed a fresh  look (although it was not without problems when the screen showed less than convincing monsters and  questionable  sets). Of course,  to begin with  many people would still have watched  Doctor Who  in black and white as colour TV sets were very expensive to begin with: just  200,000  sets had been sold by the end of 1969. By 1976, however, over 1 million had been sold and  the sales of colour sets  had overtaken those of black and white sets.

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Thirdly,  the new series was driven forward by  the script editor, Terrance Dicks, and the  new producer, Barry Letts,  who took over  from Sherwin  when he departed after producing  the new Doctor’s first  serial, “Spearhead in Space”.  Letts and  Dicks  formed a very close professional working relationship which was instrumental in popularising Doctor Who to a fresh  audience. From the interviews they seem quite different characters:    Letts is  the intellectual,   interested  subjects such as  Buddhism for instance,  whilst   Dicks is the practical  man of television  dedicated to ensuring,  as he says,  “that the screen doesn’t go blank at 5.30pm”.

And finally the inspired choice of Jon Pertwee as Troughton’s replacement, whose selection  was  a surprise to many.  Jon came from a “clan” (as he termed of it) of writers and actors.  When the Second World War started he joined the Royal Navy, avoiding  the RAF as,  according to Jon,  he had a fear of being trapped in a burning aircraft. If you look closely at his arm  in some episodes you can see his naval tattoo of a scarlet and green cobra, acquired after a very drunken night out.  Jon  served  for a time on HMS Hood, where he was a spotter up in the spotting top.  Jon  was transferred off the ship by the Captain   for officer training which was  very lucky for him, for, on 24 May 1941,    HMS  Hood was attacked  by the Bismarck and exploded  within minutes with the loss of 1, 415 men.  Just  three  crewmen survived.   Jon says, “It was such a dreadful thing to happen. I lost all my friends, all of my mates. All of them…You never really escape things like that. They stay with you all of your life”.

Jon Pertwee in navyLooking back Jon  was adamant about the horrors of  war:

“War is terrible. Anyone who tells you different is a liar…I realise I was very lucky to survive the war. There were a lot of times I nearly died. Once I was with some shipmates on leave in London and there was an air-raid. I had premonition and went down into the underground station to take shelter, but my shipmates wanted to get home to loved ones. …Next morning, I made my way back to my barracks, horrified by the damage done during the attack. It really was all smoke and ruins. I was the only one who got back to barracks. All of my mates had been killed during the bombing…A lot of nights it really did feel like the end of the world.” Doctor Who magazine, 457, March 2013, Interview with Jon Pertwee, p.25.

After the war Pertwee forged  a career as  a comic actor mainly on the radio,  his most well-known role being that of  Chief Officer  Pertwee  in The Navy  Lark  from 1959 to 1977  (which is still  being repeated on Radio Four Extra, by the way).  Jon was offered the part of Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army  but turned it down  as he was appearing on  Broadway in A Girl in My Soup. When  the role of the Doctor  came up Pertwee asked his agent to apply for the role,  and was surprised to find he was already on the shortlist. He was actually the second choice,  Ron Moody being  the first,  but was unavailable.   Jon had not watched the series much before taking the role.

Jon Pertwee

Jon was given a wardrobe which exactly suited his character and patrician personality, cutting an Edwardian dash in frills, velvets, hat and cape. They also gave him a retro car, Bessie.  In contrast to Pat Troughton quixotic clowning, Jon is very much the  action man. He often uses  Venusian Akido, felling his opponents with a single  touch.  In “The Time Warrior” he fights  the   medieval knights  with a sword,  and even swings across the room on a chandelier,   Errol Flynn style.  In  “The Curse of Peladon” he fights  the King’s champion, Grun,  in single-combat –  and wins.  In “Colony in Space” he fights off an attack from the Primitives who are armed with spears. The Doctor is launched into space in  “The Ambassadors of Death” and goes on a space walk  in “Frontier in Space”.  Jon never  missed an opportunity to include a gadget or some mechanised  method of transport  into the role.

He is also presented as a scientist. The serials often open with the Doctor sitting in a laboratory conducting an experiment or tinkering with sa piece of the Tardis,  as he tries to overcome the Timelords’ prohibition on his leaving the  Earth. In “The Silurians”  he works to find a cure for the plague spread by the Silurians. In “The Sea Devils” he rejigs a transistor radio to transmit a distress signal.  In “The Time Monster” he rigs up a Heath Robinson gadget which he calls a “time flow analogue “ to interrupt the Master’s experiments  with time.

The Third  Doctor is  an anti-authority figure,  impatient with red-tape or bureaucracy,  and very short-tempered  with the establishment  figures  he comes across such   Whitehall civil servants in pin-stripes,   army generals, businessmen  and scientists.

There are occasional flashes  of Jon’s  talent  for comedy.  In “The Green Death” he dresses up as  milk-man with a Welsh accent  to infiltrate the headquarters of   Global Chemicals,  and later on in the same serial  masquerades as  a char-lady in a scene straight out of a Carry On film.

Barry Letts says:

“Jon was a kind and unselfish man as well; indeed, his sensitivity was extended to everyone else. He did a lot to turn our casts and crew into a cohesive and happy company. For example, when a newcomer (even playing a small part)  arrived in the rehearsal room, he’d wander over  and introduce himself. ‘Hello,  I’m Jon Pertwee, I play the Doctor’. He made good friends of all the stunt men and other actors who were regularly cast. He was amusing and charming,  and could surprise you with flashes of unexpected humility”. Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007) , p25.

Robert Holmes

Jon was introduced as the Doctor in “Spearhead from Space”, written by Robert Holmes, probably the most influential writer the show has ever had. After serving in the army  during the war in Burma where he became an officer and joining the police on returning to England, he started working as journalist. He then progressed to writing for television including scripts for The Saint, Public Eye and a science fiction series, Undermind. Holmes  began writing for Doctor Who,   working with Terrance Dicks on  “The Krotons” to fill a gap in the schedule,  and then wrote “The Space Pirates”.

Caroline John

Jon’s  companion  for his first season was Caroline John, who plays a  Cambridge scientist, Dr Liz Shaw.  Caroline had worked mostly worked in the theatre and had struggled to get any roles on television.   When she went for the interview they talked  to her about The Avengers and how they wanted to make it more sophisticated with Jon Pertwee taking on the role as the Doctor. Caroline says that when the filming started for the first serial she was “a bundle of nerves”. She recalls Jon as being totally  professional  and an excellent actor and says they got  on very well “in a sort of father-daughter relationship”. As a character Liz  is clever, self-assured, cool, not at all  over-awed by the military men or male scientists with whom she is  usually  surrounded,  and sticks up for herself when neccessary. She never gets to travel in the Tardis, or even see inside.

“Spearhead From Space”   opens with  meteorites falling to Earth, part of an invasion by the Autons, a collective intelligence, which has seized control of a plastics factory and is creating replicas in readiness to take over the Earth. At the start of the first episode the Doctor is shown falling out of the Tardis and spends much of the first  and second episode in a coma, recovering from his regeneration. Meanwhile Lethbridge- Stewart has recruited Liz Shaw  to advise on the scientific implications of the meteorites. The Doctor finally wakes up, escapes from hospital in borrowed clothes,   steals a car and makes his way to UNIT HQ,  where he convinces the Brigadier that he is indeed the Doctor, despite his new appearance.

The AutonsThe invasion begins when shop dummies spark to life and terrorise the high streets of England  in a classic scene (although to Derrick Sherwin’s chagrin, the BBC budget did not stretch to the dummies being shown smashing their way through the shop windows). Finally the Doctor puts together a device  with Liz’s help which defeats the Autons. The serial ends with the Brigadier offering the Doctor a job as their scientific advisor  as “Doctor John Smith”

Unusually “Spearhead from  Space”  was shot entirely on location in 16mm  without the use of studio sets because there was a strike at the BBC,and the studios could not be used. This meant that the direction  is  fluid and  dynamic (just watch the press scrum scene at the hospital),   and  looks great more than forty years later.

Overall it’s a great season opener and harbinger of  even greater things to come. When  Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who in 2005, out of all the possible alien threats  from Doctor Who’s past, he chose the Autons to appear in the very first  serial, “Rose”, his  fitting tribute to  a classic era of Doctor Who.

In future posts I will be looking back at other Third Doctor serials.

Further reading and useful links

Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007)

Richard Molesworth,  Robert Holmes: A Life in Words (2013) published by Telos publishing

interview with Caroline John (1990)  Wine and Dine

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