Liz Shaw’s Best Bits: Spearhead from Space

Liz Shaw and the third Doctor

On Friday, we started a new, low-budget, four-part series that aims to show the best bits of premier Doctor Who companion Liz Shaw, who appeared during the first season of Jon Pertwee’s reign as the Doctor 40 years ago.

Last time, we did The Ambassadors of Death, her third story, purely because I think it’s the second-best Who story ever, but this week, we’re going to go back and do things chronologically and look at her – and Jon Pertwee’s – first story, Spearhead from Space.

Spearhead from Space
There are many notable things about Spearhead from Space. It’s Jon Pertwee’s first story and is the one that pretty much sets the template for all future post-regeneration stories (Tom Baker’s Robot, Peter Davison’s Castrovalva, Colin Baker’s Twin Dilemma, Sylvester McCoy’s Time and the Rani, Paul McGann’s TV movie, David Tennant‘s Christmas Invasion and Matt Smith’s The Eleventh Hour all more or less follow the same formula): the Doctor arrives somewhere, usually Earth, weakened, usually in a coma, then all manic and full of energy; he locates a costume, usually by stealing it, usually from a doctor, and he gradually comes to realise who he is, all while defeating an alien menace of some sort. The Eleventh Hour in particular is full of homages to Spearhead, from the theft of clothes to the naked Doctor scene (Spearhead is the only show that reveals the Doctor can regenerate himself a tattoo and has the Doctor pretty much naked on screen and in a shower).

Spearhead was also the first Doctor Who story shot in colour – and it was also entirely shot on film because of a technician’s strike at the time. This means not only does it look a whole lot better than most Doctor Who stories, even ones that came years after it, it also managed to be unique and interesting enough on those grounds to survive the BBC’s cull of its archives back in the 70s.

For the Who-er who loves his or her monsters, this is also the show that introduced us to those shop-window impersonating aliens familiar to nu-Who fans from Rose and (spoiler alert) The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, the Autons/Nestenes.

For the Who-er who’s simply interested in the Doctor, this is the first time we learn he has the ability to put himself into a coma, that he has two hearts and that his pulse and body temperature are odd. It’s also the first time the magic phrase “dimensionally transcendental” is used.

Lastly, but not leastly, apart from introducing us to Liz Shaw, it also gave us “the UNIT years”. While UNIT and Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (aka The Brigadier) had shown up, almost as a trial run, in the two Patrick Troughton stories The Web of Fear and The Invasion, season seven gave us a Doctor confined to the Earth, helping UNIT as its scientific advisor, with the Brigadier a constant ally and occasional adversary. It slowly introduced us to the other members of the UNIT family, including Sergeant Benton, and gave Jon Pertwee’s Doctor an Earth-grounding for much of his tenure, even when his exile to Earth was over.

The basic plot
The plot isn’t going to win awards. It’s certainly not unique, particularly since it’s basically Quatermass II but especially since the first story of the following season, Terror of the Autons, has almost exactly the same plot but with new villain The Master pulling all the strings and new companion Jo Grant being a cretin. It’s also not quite as adult as the stories that followed it that season, with the sub-plot about the poacher better suited to kids’ TV – although if you compare it to Terror…

But, for what it’s worth, some nasty aliens, the Nestenes, have been arriving on Earth inside meteorites that turn out to be plastic spheres. They set up camp inside a plastics factory, where they’re able to create an army of mannequin-like soldiers as well as facsimiles of important people in government. The aim is to take over the world by substituting the Autons, as they’re known, for those in power.

What is notable about the plot is that both the Doctor and Liz Shaw are very much reluctant heroes. The Doctor just wants to leave the Earth as soon as possible, and he doesn’t care about any of those stupid alien invaders. He’ll lie and cheat or do anything it takes to get back to his TARDIS and escape.

Equally, Liz Shaw doesn’t want to work for UNIT. She doesn’t want to be its scientific advisor. She certainly doesn’t believe in “little blue men with three heads”. She has important scientific research to attend to in Cambridge, and helping the army with its bizarre fantasies isn’t in her play book.

But, reluctantly, they both agree to help out, and while both of them spend a fair portion of their time mocking the Brigadier, together, they make quite a dynamic team, both bringing skills to the partnership and having a certain degree of kinship in their love of science.

The Doctor obviously has advanced scientific skills, but Liz is able to understand most of what’s going on, come up with theories, spot things the Doctor fails to see and even use her skills as a doctor to help out with the injured. She’s also very funny, with a caustic, dry wit, and – let’s be clear about this – saves the Doctor’s life and as a result the entire world, using her skills in electronics. It won’t be the last time she saves the entire human race this season, either.

Rock on Liz.

So in another 20 minutes of video clips, we’re going to go through Liz Shaw’s best bits from the four-part Spearhead from Space. Enjoy!

Part one – in which Liz Shaw is introduced, taunts the Brigadier, gets recruited to UNIT, taunts the Brigadier, does some experiments, taunts the Brigadier, bonds with the Doctor over science, taunts the Brigadier and steals a key.

Part two – in which she taunts the Brigadier, tends to the sick, works out where the bad guys are, tells lots of jokes and saves the Doctor and the whole world.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.