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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 just  above five  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,  re-establishing  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 arc, 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,  a  quasi-military outfit first encountered by the Second Doctor in “the Invasion.” UNIT is led by  Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)  who  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 fact  turned out to be the Home Counties, subject to a 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 of southern England.

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 having been sold by the end of 1969. By 1976, however, over 1 million had been sold and  the sales of colour sets  overtook those of black and white sets.

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Thirdly,  the series was driven forward by  the new 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   the intellectual,   interested  in subjects such as  Buddhism for instance,  whilst   Dicks is the practical  man of television  dedicated to ensuring that, as he often says,  “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. He  was transferred off the ship by the Captain   for officer training which was  very lucky for him, for, on 24th  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 Jon 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 bur Moody was not available.   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 a 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 as   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 in th ehistory of the series. 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, however,  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 tribute to  a classic era of Doctor Who.

 

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

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

 

 

Time Travel with a Twist: October the First is Too Late by Fred Hoyle (1966)

october-the-first-is-too-late

Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle was a well-known scientist who appeared regularly on television  and  in the press  in the 1950s and 1960s. I have written in more detail about his career in a previous post about  the 1961  television series A for Andromeda.

October The First Is Too late is one of  a series of science fiction novels he  wrote in the 1960s,  which were popular at the time,   but largely forgotten nowadays. In his introduction to this novel Hoyle writes: “The ‘science’ in this book is mostly scaffolding for the story, story-telling in the traditional sense. However, the discussions of the significance of time and of the meaning of consciousness are intended to be quite serious…”

Hoyle’s novels often have a scientist as the main protagonist,  but in this novel  it is a musician  and composer named Dick: accordingly each chapter is named after  a musical theme or style eg “Fugue” and “Coda”.  The novel begins in 1966 when he runs into an old university friend John Sinclair, now a scientist,  and on an impulse they set off  together on a trip to Scotland. Something very odd happens here. Sinclair  disappears   for half a day,  and on returning cannot explain or recall what has happened to him. Later,  when  they are swimming Dick  notices that a birthmark  that Sinclair previously  had on his back has vanished.

The trip is cut short when  Sinclair is recalled to the USA to assist in the investigation of a strange  solar phemonena.  Dick  accompanies him to California where he has a brief affair with a young actress. They  then journey on to Hawaii, where  Sinclair  and others establish that the Sun is somehow being used as a signalling device with an enormous amount of data being transmitted.  Barely have they absorbed this astonishing fact when  all contact is lost with the USA:  it is feared that a nuclear war has begun.

Dick and Sinclair manage  to get  places on a plane sent to investigate what has happened. Flying above Los Angeles there is no sign of  a war: the city is simply no longer there,  just woods and grassland in its place. Journeying on, they see the same across the continent:

Truth to tell I think everybody wanted to take a look  at New York. It was much the same story as we flew over the Applachians in the fading light. But there were far more signs of life here, far more primitive shacks. It all looked as America might have looked around the year 1800. Darkness came on. We saw little more, except twice there were flickering lights below us, fairly obvious camp fires. Then we were out over the Atlantic.

First world warCrossing the Atlantic they find to their relief  that the England of 1966  is still there. After landing they are taken  to meet the Prime Minister and  defence staff  to tell them of  what they have seen. They learn that Britain has lost touch with Europe:  planes sent to investigate did not come back.  Then boats from the Continent  begin to arrive at English ports,  and they discover that Europe has gone back in time  to September 1917 and the First World War is raging.

John Sinclair tells Dick:

..like all of us in our daily lives, you’re stuck with a grotesque and absurd illusion…the idea of time as an ever-rolling stream. The thing which is supposed to bear all its sons away. There’s one thing quite certain  in this business: the idea of time as a steady progression from past to future. I know very well  that we feel this way about it subjectively. But we’re the victims of a confidence tick. If there’s one thing we can be sure in physics is that all times exist with equal reality. If you consider the motion of the Earth around the Sun, it is a spiral in four dimensional space-time. There’s absolutely no question of singling out a special point on the spiral and saying that particular point is the present position of the Earth. No so far  as physics is concerned.

Sinclair suggests that what has happened is that the people in the various time zones are in fact copies,  which explains  the signalling they detected:

It’s as if the present  world were built out of copies of bits of the old world. Do you remember the day on the moor below Mickle Fell?  Don’t you realise it was a copy that came back to the caravan that night. Not quite a perfect copy, the birthmark was missing….Different worlds remembered and then all put together to form a strange new world. We shall find out more as we go along. This isn’t the end of it. 

The British government makes contact with the armies fighting in Europe and brings about a ceasefire. Meanwhile Dick and  Sinclair  embark on a further flight to see what other time zones there might be.  Where Russia once  was, there  is now  a vast unbroken plain of molten glass,  while  the Aegean is in the time of  the Ancient Greeks  they fly over an intact Parthenon. This  discovery leads Dick to join an expedition of scholars and others  which sails from England  to Athens. He takes his piano  with him.

Atnens

On arrival the Athenians welcome them and accept their story that they are from a far-off  northern land, although they soon take their ship from  them  when they realise how fast it will travel with engines. It is the year 425 BC and Athens is at war with Sparta. Dick’s skill with the piano, an instrument unknown  in this era, makes him a popular guest.

Dick  resumes composing,  and on a visit to a temple comes across a tall,  very attractive young woman, looking quite unlike the other women in Athens. He assumes that she is a priestess,  and their meeting finishes with an agreement to engage in a musical  contest which  ends in a draw. After spending the night with her,  Dick  wakes somewhere  completely different in a room with advanced technology.

Unexpectedly John Sinclair is also there. After searching the world he had  found  this time zone, which is 6,000 years in the future. The “priestess” Melea is in  fact from this time,  and they learn from  her and their other hosts that  after the  C20th the world had gone through a cycle of civilisation leading to war  and  then a new civilisation and then a war  many times until they made a conscious decision to stop the cycle.  The population of the world is just 5 million,  with only what used to be Mexico is inhabited: the rest of the world is grassland.

They tell the two men  that what has happened with  the different time-zones is an experiment by an unknown intelligence, and that only this future time will survive. An elder explains:

Your people exist only in a ghost world. For a little while your world may have a vivid reality, but very soon, now that we have made our decision, it will be gone. It will go in a brief flash, just as it arrived.

Melea  adds:

...the different  time zones of the Earth will change  back to what they were before. The Greece in which me met, the temple, will be gone. It will gone more completely  even more than the ruined remains of your own time. It will be gone almost without trace. It will be gone, except for the records in our libraries. Europe too will be gone, so will the great Plain of Glass. It will only be this zone here that will remain.

Sinclair attempts to explain to Dick  what has happened, that their lives have forked in two directions:

There’s no connexion between them. You’re either in the one or in the other. It’s the sequence all over again. Whichever one you’re in you never know of the other. In this sequence you can never know what happened when you returned to Los Angeles. In that other sequence you can never know even a single thing about this one. The two are utterly separated. In the other sequence neither you and I will know about the future…

Sinclair  decides to leave,  as does Dick, but then  changes his mind at the last minute and decides to stay in the future. Two years later he reflects:

The prognostications were correct. Within a few hours of the departure of John Sinclair, the world reverted to ‘normal’.  The England of 1966,  the Europe of 1917, the Greece of 425  BC, all vanished just as remarkably as they had appeared. I have not seen John again, nor do I think there is the smallest possibility I will ever do so…More and more the old life has become vague and remote, like the memories of distant  childhood. This gradual evaporation of a life which at one time was so intensely vibrant has come upon me with profound sadness…I have no doubt now that it was the real John Sinclair who was sent out from here – into oblivion. The irony and tragedy is that to the two of us it was the world of 1966 that was the real cul-de-sac.

This is first and foremost a  novel of ideas and possibilities.  Hoyle is not a great writer, his prose is often pedestrian,  and  we never feel particularly  engaged with the characters, in fact I found Richard rather smug and self-obsessed.  As a character  Melea seems present mainly  for sex interest. The  central  conceit of a world of different time zones is what  holds your  interest  and keeps you reading, waiting for an explanation,  although in the end  we never get a definitive answer  to the mystery, we never learn who is behind this  experiment.  Also  Hoyle has a habit of bringing the narrative to a shuddering halt while his characters  engage in pages of philosophical  or scientific discussion: at times it does feel  rather feel  like a lecture series disguised as a novel.

You can read the novel online here.

The War Games

One final  intersting point. In 1969 Malcolm Hulke and Terance  Dicks wrote in great haste  a ten part serial for Doctor Who called “The War Games”. In this serial the Doctor and his companions, Jamie and Zoe,  lands in the midst of what appears to be the First World War. The Doctor tells Jamie:”We’re back in history, Jamie. One of the most terrible times on the planet Earth.” But  then  they discover that other wars from history such the Roman invasion of Britain, the Mexican Revolution and the American Civil War are taking place in different zones.  They are not on Earth at all, but on another planet where the war games are being run by an alien race so that they can create an invincible army to conquer the galaxy, assisted by a renegade Time Lord, the War Chief.

There are some intriguing similarites between October the First is Too Late and “The War Games”; the idea of co-existing time zones, one of which is the First World War.  It may be that either Hulke or Dicks had read the novel,  and  that some of Hoyle’s notions fed  into their pool of ideas for writing the Doctor Who serial.

You can read my post about  Malcolm Hulke here.

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.