24 March, 2015

Spearhead from Space: 40 Years Ago

40 years ago this month I watched Doctor Who for the first time. My earliest exposure to the series occurred between 6:01 and 6:30pm on Friday 14 March 1975. The episode was the first part of Spearhead from Space, Jon Pertwee's debut story. I was aged six-and-three-quarters. 

Spearhead from Space marked Doctor Who's return to New Zealand screens after a protracted absence lasting three and a half years. The programme had last screened in September 1971 when the Patrick Troughton story The Wheel in Space was transmitted. (New Zealand missed out on seeing all of Season Six). By the time Spearhead from Space screened in March 1975, New Zealand was more than five years behind; at the time UK viewers were watching the Tom Baker story Genesis of the Daleks.

I was of course oblivious to all of this. As far as I was concerned, Doctor Who was just another new thing to watch on television (four months later, in July 1975, I discovered Thunderbirds and was immediately hooked, but that's another story...).

I have Mum to thank for noticing that Doctor Who was on that evening, and calling me over to watch it with her on our black and white television (we didn't get a colour set until many years later, but at this stage it wouldn't have any difference as Spearhead from Space was broadcast here in monochrome). Mum recognised Jon Pertwee's first story as one she'd seen five years earlier and she thought I might enjoy it.

As parents often are, Mum was concerned about which television programmes were suitable for her young children to watch, but she knew and approved of Doctor Who. Mum had been a teenager in London in the 1960s when the William Hartnell stories were broadcast on the BBC. She had watched the series with her older brother. I was born in London in June 1968, mid-way through a seven-week repeat screening of The Evil of the Daleks. Mum had continued to watch Doctor Who after I was born. I may have even caught sight of some episodes when I was younger and simply not remembered them. Our family emigrated to New Zealand in June 1973, the week of my fifth birthday, between the end of Frontier in Space and the beginning of The Green Death.

My memory of watching Spearhead from Space for the first time is understandably patchy. I believe I probably missed watching the beginning of the first episode. I have this memory of Mum describing to me how the Doctor had arrived on Earth and fallen out of the TARDIS. For many years (up until I saw the story again, or perhaps when I read the Target novelisation), I had this remarkably vivid mental image of the police box appearing in an ornate garden and the Doctor pitching face-forward from the doorway on to a paved pathway between two flowerbeds.

The earliest memory of the series that I can be sure of comes from near the end of the first episode. The Doctor is in a wheelchair, with a bandage stuck over his mouth. He is being loaded into the back of an ambulance outside a hospital when he springs to life and takes off, rolling down a path in his wheelchair at speed. As absurd as it sounds, this sequence gave me nightmares, and is probably why it has stuck in my memory.

That's the only scene I remember clearly from the first episode, but I recall various other bits from later in the story, most notably the boiler-suited blank-faced Autons stalking through the woods (cue more nightmares), Sam Seeley's cottage, and the Doctor and Liz working side-by-side at a laboratory bench, which I think might be from the fourth episode.

I have seen Spearhead from Space many times over the years but each time I do it I find myself transported back to my childhood. It will always have a special place in my affections as the point at which I began watching Doctor Who, 40 years ago.