It's Still A Police Box, Why Hasn't It Changed? Part Eight: There's A Stahlman, Waiting By Some Pipes


When Doctor Who returned for its seventh run in 1970, it was almost a different programme. Much like we very nearly drew a line under this series of articles after the end of the black and white era, the BBC very nearly drew a line under the series itself; the details will always remain hazy and open to speculation, but with declining post-'Dalekmania' interest in mind, there were at the very least discussions about the possibility of replacing it with something new and exciting and more attuned to the thrilling new world of colour television. Thankfully, sanity - or more likely paperwork - prevailed, and producer Derrick Sherwin was encouraged to take Doctor Who in a fresh and reinvigorating direction.

Opting to literally bring the series down to Earth, Sherwin came up with a new format that crackled with the energy and freshness of the arrival of both colour television and a new decade; the exact same phenomenon that I touched on in the piece about Chigley in The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, in fact. Inspired by certain recent hit movie franchises and ITV shows, with The Doctor in exile and working with a gadget-friendly military division dedicated to tackling alien, technological and quasi-paranormal threats, this gave rise to a fast-moving, action-packed, visually arresting set of episodes with a more relatable sense of menace, and a stylish new leading man in Jon Pertwee, who it's safe to say was one of the Doctors who enjoyed living the part. It also gave rise to the budget rapidly running out, and cost-consciously lengthy stories that continue to divide long-term opinion. Viewers at the time certainly seemed quite undivided, though, so fire up The Inferno and let's drill down to the real talking points about it...


Was The Opening Of Spearhead From Space Really A 'Shot-For-Shot Remake' Of The Opening Of Quatermass II?


Cash-spillingly made entirely on film and entirely on location, the appropriately-named Spearhead From Space was a powerhouse opener not just for the new series but for the entire new direction; indeed, there's a serious case for arguing that it is the single greatest Doctor Who story ever. Beating the BBC's simultaneously-launched new adult 'sci-fact' drama Doomwatch to the punch - created, possibly not entirely coincidentally, by recent ship-jumping Doctor Who scriptwriters Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler - it exhilaratingly scared the wits out of viewers with four episodes full of fast-moving Carry-On-film-gone-psychotic mayhem courtesy of a plastics factory infiltrated by a malevolent space octopus. And one fact that everyone knows about Spearhead From Space is that it opened with a 'shot for shot remake' of the opening of the revered 1955 BBC science fiction serial Quatermass II. Or did it? While it's established fact that as part of his relaunch strategy, Derrick Sherwin ordered up several episodes of the Quatermass serials from the BBC Film Library to plunder for inspiration, he himself has never referred to a 'remake' of any kind, let alone a 'shot for shot' one, and this appears to have been largely a fan assumption. A well-founded assumption, maybe, but an assumption nonetheless, and one that everyone has long just accepted on face value; how many dedicated fans of either programme could tell you with any certainty on the spot whether this was an accurate observation or not? After all, back when this phrase first became common currency, very few Doctor Who fans could realistically have seen Quatermass II. Now that we can see it, though... The Bolts, the first episode of Quatermass II, opens with spinning radars and dishes on top of military vans, a supervisor doing some trademark Nigel Kneale dry-witted dialogue with a radar operator about his voice going faint due to "the village boozer" and how "I'm going to make ruddy BBC announcers out of you lot if I have to soften up your gullets with my bare hand", reports of an unusual meteor shower that they actively dismiss as 'a jet or a fuel tank', and an interminable sequence with a farmer on a tractor stumbling across said non-jet/fuel meteors in transit. Episode One of Spearhead From Space opens with standard issue 'Earth seen from space' footage, a radar spinning on top of a radar station, a nervy operator calling 'ma'm' in for a second opinion on a weird meteor shower apparently flying in formation, and an impressive shot of the meteors searing through the sky and their mercifully quick discovery by the inaugural Pertwee-era Poacher, Sam Seeley. So not quite a shot-for-shot remake, but a very close and intentional homage, and very much in keeping with Sherwin's stated aim to capture the ambience and realism of the serials rather than just copy them directly. Anyway, if the comparison caused some fans to seek out the Quatermass serials, then there's nothing really wrong with a bit of harmless and convenient conclusion-jumping. Aside from which, there are bigger and more fundamental questions surrounding Spearhead From Space...


Who Was Channing?


When the Nestene Consciousness attempted to destroy mankind and take over the Earth, it did so with the assistance of specially created plastic human-ish figures with ray guns hidden in their wrists who did its space octopus bidding. At the most basic end of this artillery were a small army of skinheads in boiler suits whose efficiency would appear to be questionable at best. Next up the scale were the disconcertingly David McCallum-esque shop window dummies that smashed out onto the high street on cue, casually annihilating old women, members of The Bluetones and a not at all over-reacting man on a bike in a hat, and worse still causing disruption to poor old Wally The Workman's lunch break. And then there were the waxwork-usurping plastic replicas of politicians, world leaders, high-ranking military officials, and Auto Plastics' mysterious new manager, Channing. Hardly exactly somebody worth going to the trouble of replicating, you might think, and if you did then you'd be even more right than you thought. Not only is it never explained who the sinister figure given to Pearly Spencer-esque glares through frosted glass is supposed to be a replica of, it's even actively implied that there was nobody that he could even potentially have replaced; neither of his colleagues-by-proxy Ransome or Hibbert (with whom he forms an unnervingly Gilbert And George-esque double act) seem to associate him with any known figure from Auto Plastics management past or present, and there are even a couple of direct references to his just having arrived from nowhere. It's entirely feasible that the Nestene Consciousness might have simply plasticed him up from nowhere, but if that was the case, why not just replace Hibbert with a replica? It can't even really be argued that they needed the human staff of the factory under their control to 'make' Channing, as he appears to have pre-existed any of the actual untoward petrochemical-driven activity. One angular theory is that he may actually have been Hallam, Hugh Burden's character from the 1966 Michael Caine film Funeral In Berlin, whose defecting-to-the-East-to-steal-Nazi-gold chicanery would at least have made him an idea candidate to install as the head of a plastics factory bent on the destruction of humanity. Sadly, we may never know as, like all good Cold War double-agents, he melted at the end of the story. But at least he was something approaching a convincing mimicry of an actual identifiable human...


How Many Voices Did Radio's 'Man Of A Thousand Voices' Actually Have?


If there was one thing that Jon Pertwee was not short on, it was unlikely and frequently incoherent anecdotes that existed primarily to emphasise how brilliantly talented he was. From being offered virtually every part in Dad's Army at one point or another, to the endless pranks pulled by, with and on his 'old sparring partner' Tenniel Evans, to his frequently trotted out excuse about not having seen any of the subsequent Doctors because "I've been very busy working on another show called Worzel Gummidge", to the amusing mis-spellings of his name that weren't, to the proud proclamations that The Ghosts Of N-Space was 'Number One in the Hit Parade', to whatever that bewilderment was about bareback horse-riding in drag as 'Madam Pertweeova', he would offer each and every one of them uninvited if you gave him half the chance, and usually even if you didn't. And then there was his - and conspicuously few other people's - claim that he was known as Radio's 'Man Of A Thousand Voices'. Perhaps mercifully, he never really got to use any of them in Doctor Who. But he almost did. In episode five of Inferno, Pertwee utilised these self-proclaimed vocal talents to essay the part of a radio announcer reporting on the state of emergency imposed after the Parallel Earth's crust was penetrated by Project Inferno. To further cunningly conceal his identity and prevent anyone from suspecting a thing, Pertwee was actually seen on screen listening to his own announcement. Thankfully, producer Barry Letts saw sense and cut the brief scene before transmission, arguing that it was too obviously the series' lead actor doing one of his 'many' (it says here) voices and nobody would be fooled for a second. As sometimes happened in those days, though, this cut was actually enacted after duplicate copies of the finished episodes had been made for overseas sales, and when a full colour copy of Inferno was located in Canada in the mid-eighties, it turned out to have the missing sequence intact. Despite the best efforts of the cast and their 'concerned' faces, it has to be said that the voice issuing from the radio sounds absolutely nothing whatsoever like any newsreader in the entire history of news ever, and very much indeed like Jon Pertwee doing an effort-deficient impression of a Ray Alan-depleted Lord Charles in the middle of a maelstrom of static and crackles, giving rise to the possibility that Pertwee might actually have been responsible for the infamous 'Vrillon Of Ashtar Galactic Command' hoax. Mind you, it wasn't even the silliest line he delivered in that story...


"What Did You Expect? Some Kind Of Space Rocket With Batman At The Controls?"


In Inferno, The Doctor manages to get himself stuck in a parallel universe where he is able to observe what would happen if the drilling project in his own reality was allowed to continue unrestricted, and also if Benton shouted his lines with a slightly different inflection. While attempting to get back in time to warn everyone of the dangers of allowing furious toxic red sludge to seep corrosively all over the globe because a couple of self-satisfied men with bad hairstyles thought climate change was a myth, The Doctor has cause to show the detatched Tardis console to the alternate reality version of decidedly lava-averse drilling safety consultant Greg Sutton, whose bewilderment at this method of cross-dimensional transportation prompts The Doctor to ask if he was expecting "some kind of space rocket with Batman at the controls". Even aside from the logistical implications of acknowledging the Caped Crusader as a fictional element of the Doctor Who 'universe', and the question of exactly how much time he spent at the controls of space rockets of any sort, there's no swerving the fact that this is a quite comprehensive and authoritative slight aimed at a longstanding rival, and one whose big television adaptation had only recently been pitched directly against Doctor Who by the 'other side' to boot. Was this the new production team announcing that the days of furrowing brows over whatever ITV could throw at them were over, and the 'ratings war' was won before it had even started? Possibly, but what is more interesting still is that this was the start of what would turn out to be a very bleak decade for poor old Bruce Wayne. A long way from anything resembling an organised 'rebranding', Batman spent the seventies as little more than a quasi-comedic piece of iconography, with all manner of untamed licensing arrangements leading to everything from a bizarre early seventies 'tour' by Adam West accompanied by Nicholas Young from The Tomorrow People as Robin, to the seemingly endless procession of mind-hurting 'Bugs Bunny Meets The Superheroes' touring stage shows, and all the while repeats of the sixties series swirled around the schedules to the 'delight' of an audience who were perhaps slightly more cynical than those who watched it the first time around. While the actual comics tried their best to return the franchise to its darker roots, which in turn would ultimately lead to the late eighties reinvention, the most sophisticated take on Batman that the wider seventies public saw was the Filmation series, and that's not necessarily as impressive a yardstick as it might sound. Anyway, regardless of how familiar the production team may or may not have been with what actually happened in Batman, Doctor Who had reason to be bigging itself up, not least on account of some of its decisive breaks with its recent past...


They Like Intelligent Strong Sensibly-Dressed Female Lead Characters And They Cannot Lie


Over the past couple of instalments, we've seen plenty of evidence of just how fond the Doctor Who production team were of casting shapely young ladies as series regulars - and in supporting roles whenever they got the chance, which was more or less all of the sodding time, basically - and what delight the cameraman took in angling their shots around certain prominent physical features. Good lord, have we seen it. So much so, in fact, that there have been a couple of complaints, almost as though someone writing about television made in the sixties from the perspective of an entirely different century should have had some say over exactly how it was made. Or indeed should ignore how it was made. Well, I'm not taking the blame for some blokes in suits speculating on what might get 'the dads' watching back in 1967 for a moment longer, and thankfully it was at just this point in Doctor Who history that Derrick Sherwin decided that he'd had quite enough of the dolly birds getting in the way of telling a thumping good scientifically veracious story too. Given that the relaunch involved Earth-exiled The Doctor teaming up with military counter-alien task force U.N.I.T., and bearing in mind the example set by previous one-off proto-feminist characters like Ann Travers and Isobel Watkins, he took the opportunity to ditch the traditional assistant and pair him up instead with level-headed long word-spouting Cambridge-educated academic Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. Rational, deductive, and never prone to panic even when being chased over railings by weirdly crouching stuntmen or whacked on the head by bipedal lizards in a barn, Liz was a breath of fresh air both in character and in appearance, favouring sensible hairdos and with-it yet presentable clobber over a self-consciously 'sexy' look, and some would argue actually ending up looking more sexy as a consequence. Perfectly suited to the longer form and more cerebral approach of Series Seven, Liz gave reinvented Doctor Who a depth and a level of dialogue that did an enormous amount to tackle the 'lol you can see the strings!!! oh no hang on that's Stingray' sneery misconceptions that were already haranguing the show and make it into a relevant and widely enjoyable series again. It's just a shame that, due to a number of reasons, the character was amicably written out after the end of the series and never really seen again. It's also a shame that nowadays buffoons spend too much time splitting hairs over whether she was an official 'companion' or not because we never saw her travel in the Tardis or something; no but she was in The Ambassadors Of Death so stick that in your wilful refusal to consider the conventions for crediting regular cast in BBC shows around the time The Daleks' Master Plan was made and smoke it. While Liz definitely had a new look, though, was she actually part of a wider one...?


Was There Actually A 'New Look'?


It's entirely reasonable to say - as people quite often do - that Series Seven represented a new direction for Doctor Who. It's slightly more questionable to claim - as people equally often do - that this also involved a 'new look'. Although there's a definite unity of style, direction, ideology and indeed overall approach, it's less accurate to say that there's a tangible visual unity. On face value, the four stories would seem to have little in common with each other outside of being made in colour, and ironically it was precisely because of the use of new-fangled colour television technology that they ended up appearing so visually disparate. Due to industrial action over the deployment of new studio equipment, Spearhead From Space ended up being made entirely on film and entirely on location. The others used the traditional combination of filmed location and videotaped studio work, but the overspend on the first story meant that the amount of sets they used varied from several to, essentially, one big massive one. The new image-combining effect Colour Separation Overlay, still very much an untested and experimental process at that point, is effectively used for different purposes in all three. The Ambassadors Of Death plays around with elements of postmodernism, from the opening on-the-spot reporting incongruity to Jon Pertwee more or less walking off the set at the end. This isn't exactly helped by the fact that all four stories now effectively survive on different formats; the original colour film prints, a restoration made by combining black and white film prints with the colour signal from an off-air video recording, an alarming yet outstanding Frankenstein-esque hotchpotch incorporating elements of black and white film, electronically recovered colour, hand-colourisation, and an off-air afflicted by severe interference, and a conversion back from not-very-well-converted-in-the-first-place 525-line NTSC video masters respectively, with only the first episode of The Ambassadors Of Death still surviving on its gloriously glossy original videotape. Let's not split hairs about this, Series Seven is one of Doctor Who's absolute highpoints, but to suggest that it represented a solidly-defined vision of, well, vision is a bit of a stretch. In fact we'd have to wait for the next series for that. But while we're on about all of those minor yet significant differences...


Doctor Who And The Doctor Who And The Doctor Who And The Silurians


If you want concrete evidence that the production team had difficulty establishing exactly what this 'new look' should be, look no further than the fact that all four stories in Series Seven essentially had different opening titles to each other. Despite the 'title zooming out' business, Spearhead From Space at least has the early seventies opening titles more or less as we know and love them, even if they do somehow bafflingly manage to look 'on film' despite actually being on film in every single other episode they were used in anyway. Inferno goes for a mid-sixties-esque gambit of appending appropriate scene-setting stock footage - in this case rampant spewings of lava - to the end of the titles and behind the actual story title. The Ambassadors Of Death tries out a weird and not remotely successful stop-starty 'sting' approach with a recap of the previous week's cliffhanger intrusively shoehorned into the middle. And then there's The Silurians. Or, as the pedants would frowningly have it, Doctor Who And The Silurians. The whys and wherefores of this diversion from the norm and indeed from anything resembling logic may well have been endlessly speculated and debated on, but there's no getting away from the fact that that's exactly what it says at the start of all seven honkingly-soundtracked episodes. So is that how we should refer to it? Well, there's a thorny question and a half. Normally we're all for point-proving pedantry around here, but this just seems like a pedantically proven point too far. It looks wrong, it sounds wrong, it disrupts episode lists like nobody's business, and anyone who interrupts anyone else's perfectly valid and well-made observations about The Silurians to condescendingly chortle that it's actually called Doctor Who And The Silurians should be forced to write out 'I Must Remember To Occasionally Actually Enjoy Doctor Who As An Actual Television Programme Instead Of Looking At Huge Long Lists Of Nothing In Particular And Going 'Aaaaaahhhhhhh!' With A Big Self-Satisfied Look On My Face' ten thousand times whilst being forced to watch the episodes of The Tripods set in the vineyard on a loop and edited into 'movie format'. Seriously, in similiar circumstances, would you voluntarily refer to Blake's 7 And The Space Fall, Rising Damp And The Come On In The Water's Lovely, Trumpton And The Pigeons or Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) And The Ghost That Saved The Bank At Monte Carlo? Probably yes, knowing some people, but that's by the by. It's a fascinating production slip-up - and one that feels oddly in keeping with the whole reinvention of the series to boot - but to use it to score imaginary points in your own head is just crackers. In any case, there were much stranger anomalies worth commenting on about The Silurians. Or were there?


The Music In The Silurians Isn't As 'Weird' As People Seem To Think


Aside from Channing looking through a frosted glass window, the big television event of 1970 was BBC1's adaptation of The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, famed as much for the towering central performance of Keith Michell as the divorce-behead-friendly monarch as it was for the honkingly dronethentic soundtrack provided by 'early music' firebrand David Munrow. Not far behind were the similarly Munrow-bolstered follow-up Elizabeth R and over in the cinema Ken Russell's The Devils, and Munrow himself could regularly be heard on Radio 3 introducing youngsters to the delights of the crumhorn in the storytelling slot Pied Piper. Prog Rock fans were thrilling to the adoption of medieval instruments by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Gentle Giant, Gryphon and The Roundtable, the last of whom coincidentally featured a certain David Munrow in their lineup. While it may well have been largely down to the efforts of one particular clavichord-wielding evangelist, the fact of the matter is that there was a significant resurgence of mainstream interest in 'early music' as the seventies rolled around. So when Carey Blyton opted to emphasise the earthy prehistoric nature of the primary antagonists of The Silurians by marking their appearance with something somewhere between Chris Morris' 'Answer Prancer' music and a minuetting goose, it wasn't quite so much of a deviation from normality as the average 'programme guide' might seem to suggest. Yes, it might be repetitive, distracting, and at a massive seven episodes' worth of it even verging on annoying in places (although, let's be honest about it, the sound made by that Silurian tracker detector thing was way more irritating), but suggesting that this was some crazy uncontrollable experiment in audience torture that got out of hand is a suggestion that could be disproven by Okdel in six seconds flat. And in any case, this was far from the only infiltration of the series by Progressive Rock...


Who Were The 'Heads' On The Production Team?


In some ways, Series Seven was quite 'Prog' in itself, with its lengthy stories, abstract concept album-friendly themes and storylines, and combination of mythological and futuristic concepts with slow-moving and refreshingly unspectacular scientific veracity. It's reasonable to assume that this was a fortuitous coincidence of timing and budget, and at the very most - and not unlike the 'early music' business - a background influence from the general popular-cultural mood of the time rather than a deliberate attempt to distract the far-out types who meant it, man, from their fourteen thousandth listen to Nice Enough To Eat. Though, that said, there was enough direct infiltration from actual Progressive Rock into Doctor Who to raise the odd retrospective eyebrow. The appearance of a short but prominent burst of Fleetwood Mac's Oh Well - Part 1 in Spearhead From Space can just about be explained away as being due to the fact that it was rocketing up the charts at the time the story was filmed, although it does seem a tad incongruous when they could have opted for something less hard and heavy - and probably easier to license for commercial releases later on - such as Early In The Morning by Vanity Fare. What can be less easily waved away, however, is a scene recorded for the next series story The Mind Of Evil later in 1970, wherein The Master is seen listening to The Devil's Triangle, an instrumental suite from King Crimson's top five LP In The Wake Of Poseidon. While this was undoubtedly one of the top sounds of the year, it was only really that amongst a certain audience of tuned-in album-leaning prog types, and somebody must have intentionally picked it out and argued the case for dubbing it on to a television programme with an audience made up primarily of people who probably thought that Yellow River by Christie was a little on the loud side. So who, if anyone, was wandering around the Doctor Who production office waving around copies of Space Hymns, May Blitz and Three Parts To My Soul? Although he probably would have loved Quintessence, it's doubtful that Barry Letts was first in the queue for the nearest A-AUSTR gig. Terrance Dicks would probably have said that Progressive Rock was fine by him "as long as they progress as far away from me as possible!". Jon Pertwee has been described by both of the above as a 'middle-aged teenager whose musical tastes ran to heavy rock', but although they certainly indulged his demands to perform 'funny voices' and dress up as a washerwoman every three minutes, would he really have been insisting on communicating his latest musical discoveries to the masses like some frock-coated John Peel? Can we assume, then, that it was the various directors assigned to the various stories? Or might this even be a silly and scarcely convincing contrivance to fill up a bit of space because with all of the stories being so long there's comparatively little to say about them? Or - hey - maybe they were all so stoned that they can't remember. LOL teh drugz etc. Anyway, whoever it was, they played their own small part in making sure that we actually got more Doctor Who...


What Did We Nearly Get Instead Of Series Eight?


As successful as the relaunch of Doctor Who may have been from the outset, both internally and with viewers, there was still no guarantee that it would actually return the following year until very late in the day. Not, in fact, until the incoming production team, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks (who we'll be hearing a lot more about soon, incidentally), were just about to start work on Inferno in March 1970. Needless to say, both Letts and Dicks were sufficiently concerned about what they might do or ineed not do next that both had been actively developing other potential projects for the BBC, both of which have been extensively namechecked despite surprisingly little actually being known about either of them. Letts had done some quite extensive groundwork for Snowy White, an action serial about an Australian based in London, which is usually quite lazily described as sounding 'like Crocodile Dundee' when in fact it was more than likely influenced by Barry Humphries' massively popular 'Barry Mackenzie' comic strips, and would probably have had more in common with contemporaneous BBC offbeat crime dramas like Spy Trap and the updated take on radio favourite Paul Temple, as masterminded by one Derrick Sherwin. Dicks meanwhile was working on Better Late, a programme idea that he has seemingly never described in anything other than "well it wasn't better and it was late!"-type witticisms, though we can take a guess that it was probably about Ian Better who was always late, and Ian Late who was better at turning up on time, and the zany events that took place between the two arriving. Thankfully, neither series ever actually had to happen, and we all got to thrill to the small-screen adventures of Bert The Landlord and The IMC Robot instead. As for Derrick Sherwin, he moved on from Paul Temple to create the legendary Skiboy... but that's another story.

So join us again next time for fans getting confused by diphthongs, a Sensorite falling down a lift shaft, and polite and considered speculation on the intelligence level of viewers who actually believed that the BBC might have blown up a church...


You can find the full baffling story of Skiboy - along with features on Glam Rock, Hanna Barbera, Animal Kwackers, Seventies Film And TV Soundtracks and plenty more besides - in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society.