Truth be told, I’m not a fan of ‘double dip’ releases or indeed of high-definition versions of television shows, even when the show was originally shot in HD. The advance in quality is rarely worth the extra cost, Game of Thrones being the singular and striking exception to the rule. Both issues would appear to be the case here.
But nonetheless, this week I ended up buying the Blu-ray of “Spearhead from Space”, the first story of season seven of the original classic Doctor Who serial that was filmed in 1969 and originally aired in 1970. I have some good reasons for this breach in my home entertainment-buying protocols and am ultimately happy that I did so, but it takes some explanation.
“Spearhead from Space” is a story of so many ‘firsts’ that it surely qualifies as a reboot of the Doctor Who franchise in the modern sense of the word. It’s the first story filmed in colour, the first to star Jon Pertwee, and the first to establish UNIT as the recurring premise of the show after the Time Lords exile a post-regeneration Doctor to Earth, totally overthrowing the series’ previous format of a wandering traveller in time and space. Now he would be lucky to venture outside 1970s English home counties.
The admirably brisk four-parter sees a disorientated Doctor deposited on Earth in the middle of a meteor shower; he links up with a former associate Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) who is in charge of UNIT, a military team on the watch for extraterrestrial threats, who is remarkably quick to accept this tall, silver-haired patrician figure as the same person as the short cosmic hobo that had helped him in the past. Together with UNIT’s official newly-recruited scientific advisor Liz Shaw (Caroline John) they solve the mystery of the meteorite shower and stop an invasion by the Nestene that involves animated waxwork figures and shop window mannequins.
It’s rather remarkable that considering all that this story has to achieve in setting up brand new characters, format and alien threat it chooses to limit itself to just four parts where the rest of the season were all seven episodes apiece. That certainly means that it has to keep its pace up and as a result it could almost pass for a modern-era Who, especially with some progressively stylish direction from Derek Martinus – watch out for the long tracking shot down a cramped wood-panelled hospital corridor in episode one, for example. The plot is a little bare at points and the Nestene masterplan doesn’t withstand much hard scrutiny, but Robert Holmes was always one of the very best writers the classic series was ever lucky enough to have working for it in terms of characters and general construction. All in all it’s a very enjoyable piece of Who and its historical importance within the series – essentially setting the format for the next five years – can’t be overstated. If there’s a classic-era serial that deserves special treatment, it’s arguably this one.
Truth be told, however, the reason that the story is out on Blu-ray is purely of a bit of unrelated serendipity: this is the only classic-era story shot entirely on film (albeit only late-1960s 16mm stock) with nothing on PAL 625-line standard video tape. That’s because industrial action by scenery shifters meant that shooting back at the BBC studios wasn’t possible, and so the producers hastily revised their plans and did the whole thing on location using film cameras rather than VT. With the original film strips still in the archives, it’s therefore the only one of the classic stories that’s possible to go back and rescan at high resolution for a genuine HD master.
In truth, my tenant about Blu-ray releases of TV shows not being worth the extra money still holds true. For sure the picture has greater detail, clarity and sharpness than we’ve ever seen before, but it’s not going to make you gasp or knock you off your chair; the improvement is noticeable but not huge and certainly doesn’t miraculously look ‘modern’ or big budget. If anything, the best thing about this new version is the rather gorgeous colour and also the rich deep blacks, with the people behind the restoration saying they were free to give this one more of a standalone feel rather than be required to make it consistent with the DVD range which tends to use the VT footage as its benchmark.
Even if not totally worth buying purely for the HD, then at least the BBC is marketing this Blu-ray intelligently – rather than being priced at a premium, it costs the same as a regular DVD in the Doctor Who range. Even so there is the question of ‘double dippage’ since “Spearhead From Space” was originally issued on DVD in 2001 and then as a ‘special edition’ produced in 2011 which is only available in a “Mannequin Mania” boxset along with the sequel to the story, “Terror of the Autons”. That means loyal fans such as myself have probably already been coerced into buying two copies of the story already – why on earth buy a third?
In truth, the 2011 special edition is the one to get since it’s the only way you can get the second story and it comes with an enhanced range of extras. Its picture quality isn’t far off the Blu-ray, either. What’s most shocking is just how much better the SE release is over the original DVD as evidenced by some restoration comparisons available on the Blu-ray: the huge leap in quality shows just how much more advanced restoration techniques are now than they used to be. By comparison, the step from SE to BD is far less striking.
So why get the Blu-ray? For one thing, it’s pretty much the only way of getting “Spearhead” on its own (although the “Mannequin” boxset is about the same price now for two stories.) But as always with the Doctor Who range, the real answer lies in the special features: the Blu-ray contains two exclusive documentaries, one on the life and career of Jon Pertwee and another on Caroline John. Pertwee’s story is already well known but the 42-minute retrospective features a lot of new interviews and previously unseen photos and footage; whereas John was a much more private person and it’s only since her sad passing that friends and family have felt able to open up and share some of their recollections in this 30-minute piece. Both of these are exemplary works by producer Chris Chapman that are easily of broadcast quality and indeed do genuinely deserve an airing on the BBC, no mere token ‘extras’ by any means. The only quibble I have is that it’s a shame there wasn’t time and/or funds to produce a similar piece on the third member of season seven’s recurring cast, Nicholas Courtney, even if it had relied on previously-released material from the DVD range – it would have made the perfect celebration of the trio.
As it is, those two special features alone pretty much justify buying the Blu-ray; you just get a tarted-up HD copy of the story to go with them! The other special features are limited – the restoration comparison is interesting as far as it goes but it’s a shame there’s no interviews with the people who did the work talking about what they actually did and the difficulties involved. The final extra is raw material used in the creation of the all-new 1970 title sequence which will be of interest to hardcore Who geeks only. Lacking are any of the ‘usual’ extras found on the DVD range such as an audio commentary, production subtitles and making-of featurette.
On the whole, I’d still say that the special edition DVD is the one to go for. But if you do have a spare 13 quid or so to shell out on a double dip, then the Blu-ray has some of the better reasons I’ve seen to part with your hard-earned cash, and certainly won’t be a disappointment.
Postscript: Writing this I’ve realised that although there are a lot of Doctor Who reviews on this site from the modern era, there are comparatively few from the classic series – and that those tend to be disproportionately from season seven. As well as “Spearhead from Space” we’ve previously covered “The Ambassadors of Death” and a special edition of “Inferno“; the only one not reviewed here so far is ironically perhaps my favourite, “Doctor Who and the Silurians”. Why does this season feature so heavily in my reviews? It’s not because of nostalgia on my part – I was too young to see the stories when they originally aired; I only came along 2-3 years later as a regular viewer. But the novelisations of these stories were so very strong, and there’s something strikingly different, original and comparatively grown-up about the four stories from season seven that just seem to make them tower over their contemporaries and live in the mind. Indeed, in the “Ambassadors of Death” review I pointed out just how comprehensively current show runner Steven Moffat had mined this specific season of Who in his own writings. If you’re new to the show and looking for a classic season to dip into, then any and indeed all of the four stories here are excellent candidates.
Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space is currently available on Blu-ray, having been released in the UK on July 15 2013. The Special Edition DVD is available as part of the Mannequin Mania boxset with direct sequel “Terror of the Autons”. “The Ambassadors of Death” and “Inferno” Special Edition are both currently available individually on DVD. “Doctor Who and the Silurians” is available on the Beneath the Surface DVD boxset which also includes “The Sea Devils” and “Warriors of the Deep”.