Up until 'Spearhead From Space,' which marked not only John Pertwee's debut as the Third Doctor but also 'Doctor Who's first color episode, the series used a mix of videotaped footage (primarily for interiors) and film footage (primarily for exteriors). The videotape operators and film operators were not only different employees at the BBC, they happened to be in different unions as well. As luck would have it (although I'm sure none of the producers felt lucky at the time) when it came time to videotape the interiors for this four-part season opener ('Doctor Who's seventh season, for the record), the videotape operators had decided to go on strike. A decision was made to film the interior shots as well, making 'Spearhead From Space' the only set of episodes from the 'Who' series to be shot fully on film (16mm) with the exception of the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie (shot in 35mm).
Although 16mm isn't the ideal film format for an upgrade to HD, the release of 'Spearhead From Space' should put to rest any arguments (assuming any still exist, although it used to be a big debate when the format was first introduced) that 1080p transfers of such footage don't result in a superior image worthy of the HD format. 'Spearhead From Space' looks great on Blu-ray, and even those who already own one of the DVD releases will want to upgrade once they get a look at this new disc.
John Pertwee's first appearance, being shot fully on film, and 'Doctor Who's first time in color aren't the only reasons to add this release to one's collection. 'Spearhead From Space' is also the first time it's mentioned that the Doctor's anatomy is different than human beings and the first time we learn he has two hearts (and, apparently, a heart rate that can be as slow as 10 beats per minute). The episode is also the first time we run across the villainous Autons – essentially killer mannequins – who were also the primary villains in the first episode of Russell T. Davies' reboot/continuation of the series in 2005.
The overall plot of 'Spearhead From Space' is basically an alien invasion story, although those used to viewing present-day 'Doctor Who' episodes may be surprised at how low budget and quaint the series used to be. It actually became even more low budget with Pertwee's debut, as the BBC was looking to cut costs. This resulted in a storyline where the Doctor was exiled on Earth by the Time Lords, which meant that money was saved on special effects and set designs. By current standards, the storyline may also seem slow-moving (one of the problems with the first episode of this four-episode arc is that the Doctor is barely in it), but it still proves to be a strong start for the very likable Pertwee, who remains the favorite Doctor of many fans (I've always been a Tom Baker man, for the record).
Any incarnation of the Doctor is only as good as his companion, and 'Spearhead From Space' introduces one of the more interesting ones in 'Who' history – scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John), who proved to be more of an educated assistant to the Doctor than the series' typical prototype for a companion (usually a young girl who spent a lot of time running and screaming). Alas, the producers decided not to renew John's contract at the end of her first season on the show, although we learn in the extras on this release that John was pregnant at the time and would have had to leave the series regardless.
Also along for the fun in this story is Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), who is usually just referred to as 'the Brigadier'. He serves as both an additional companion to the Doctor while he is on Earth, as well as a tie-in to the previous incarnation of the Doctor, having already appeared in episodes starring Patrick Troughton. Courtney would continue to be a recurring character until his final appearance during Sylvester McCoy's run (although Courtney never appeared in a episode with McCoy's predecessor, Colin Baker).
Since this is likely the only HD release of classic 'Doctor Who' that we're likely to see in the immediate future (unless and until the BCC decides to do the same with the 1996 TV movie), it automatically ranks as a 'must-see' for any fan/follower of the series. When you add the fact that the BBC has provided some excellent and exclusive extras to this disc (detailed in our 'HD Bonus Content' section below), 'Spearhead From Space' lands squarely in the 'must-own' realm.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Doctor Who: Spearhead From Space' warps onto Blu-ray in another one of those eco-friendly keepcases, minus any inserts. I believe the UK release of this Blu-ray included both a booklet and a reversible cover slick, but buyers get neither of those with this version. The region-free 50GB dual-layer disc is front-loaded with a trailer for Doctor Who: Series 7, Part II and a promo for BBC America. The main menu consists of selections along the right side of the screen, with a circle on the left side of the screen that showcases a video montage of footage from the episodes. Each episode can be watched separately, or be viewed back to back, although no 'movie-length' version (a version with only one set of opening/ending credits) has been provided.
For those who may have already purchased the UK version of this Blu-ray, please note that the bonus materials are exactly the same on this disc as that one, so you're not missing out on anything (other than perhaps the front-loaded BBC America promo).
It's hard not to be impressed by the high-def update to the original 16mm print. While the picture has gotten a DNR scrubbing from the BBC, it's been done carefully, so the grain hasn't been washed out, nor have the details of faces, objects etc. Color correction has been done to remain consistent with the look of the original episodes, and thankfully isn't over-saturated (if anything, they lean to the slightly-muted side of things).
The most impressive part of the new transfer is that the majority of dirt, defects, and scratches on the print have been removed. Viewers will occasionally see a dark stationary piece of film dirt at the top or bottom of a frame in a sequence, but other than that, this is a great-looking print.
'Spearhead From Space' is presented in its original 4:3 framing.
The DTS Master Audio 2.0 track is actually just a dual mono track, with the same audio coming from one's left and right front speakers. The quality of the audio often depends on the scenes in the episodes. I found a lot of the indoor sequences to have an 'echoey' sound to them, particularly in the spoken dialogue. Outdoor sequences and dialogue come off as much more natural. Of course, these issues all have to do with the original recording and are not flaws in how the audio was rendered for this release. If there were any problems with popping, hissing, dropouts, etc. on the original track, they've been taken care of here, as I could detect no noticeable issues.
Subtitles are available in English SDH.
All the supplements on this Blu-ray are exclusive and detailed in the 'HD Bonus Content' section that follows.
It's hard to imagine any 'Whovian' who wouldn't want this release as part of their collection. The BBC has none a very nice job with the restoration, and the exclusive bonus materials – particularly a new documentary on Pertwee – make this a must-own disc for fans. Recommended.