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A Tale of Two Plastics Factories
on 16 June 2013
The picture quality is much improved on both of these. I'd no idea that Spearhead was supposed to have so much colour in it, and Terror was badly in need of a clean up.
The story behind it all shot on location is well known, and the result is something pretty damn special. There is something explicitly unreal in a jarring contrast between location filming and studio, but when there's no studio... this must be real, right?
Well... almost. One of the other nice things about Spearhead is the very low key naturalism of the performances, leading to a War Game-ish documentary feel, which sustains the story well into Episode 4 - the first person to get blown up on Ealing High street is a policeman for goodness sake, it must be real! It's only when those silly tentacles come out of the tank that it all falls apart. That bit of the denouement works so much better the way Terrence Dicks and Chris Achillios told it in the book. (The Nestene tank room does not look at all impressive).
But Hugh Burden delivers a first class slice of bloodless villainy as Chaning, with John Woodnutt lending sterling support as Hibberd. If Derek Smee is a touch histrionic as Ransome, Hamilton Dyce more than makes up for it as Scobie - especially the Auton version.
The Autons themselves... I'm not entirely sure; the showroom dummies do just what they need to do in providing the High Street Massacre, and the factory secretary and the hospital orderlies look subtly effective with their shiny faces, but the ordinary `hunting' Autons? I don't know. Maybe tastes have changed since 1970, but I don't think they look particularly scary. Again, Chris Achillios did a rather better job of them. The one that attacks the Seeley House changes its scarf between shots - and why do they have scarves? Nothing is made more frightening by the addition of a woolly scarf. (Those silver boots used to be on Invasion Cybermen, right?)
And for a story shot so well and built so beautifully (the dialogue is pitch-perfect*), the final part is just a touch tame; the High Street scene is brilliant, but the final battle (back in the same corner of the same factory used in Invasion) doesn't quite match it, and the havoc wrought by the Autons - mannequin and facsimile - goes unseen.
And it's a great story for the Brig, in spite of his chocolate soldier uniform, who carries much of the story for the first half, before the Dr properly joins the narrative - the rest being shouldered by Antony Webb, doing fine work as Dr Henderson.
Oh, and it's Jon Pertwee's first story - about which he apparently later confessed a certain embarrassment, and while his performance is highly enjoyable, there's also some fun in guessing which bits caused him the greatest chagrin.
Incidentally, if there are Autons shooting up every high street in Britain by the time UNIT attack the fctory, why are there customers in Madame Tussauds?
*The conversation between Seeley and Monroe borrows extensively from a similar encounter in The Mummy, 1959.
A different kettle of Autons; there's barely a story there at all, let alone an over-reaching concept, and there really aren't many Autons. May be a symptom of Bob Holmes not writing repeat stories for his monsters, which is a shame, because the Autons are such a good idea.
The main non-functioning element is the plastics factory - partly because it was so thoroughly covered in Spearhead - the family business angle really doesn't make it any more interesting. The death of Farrel Senior is melodramatic but very silly, and he doesn't engage much sympathy because Rex doesn't either. Oddly for Robert Holmes, the supporting characters are uniformly flat - though John Bascombe as Rossini is delivering a game performance (shame we only get two episodes of him, then).
The other problem is that no one idea ever properly takes wing, with the result that the subject of the story is never very firmly established; Circus, Radio Telescope, The Master, Autons, Daffodils, Brownrose (!), no sooner is an idea established and played with than it's discarded for something else (interestingly, Terrence Dicks wrote a very good novelette - one of his best - by means of exploring all of the aspects fully)
To re-address the whole thing (and bearing in mind the need to introduce Jo, the Master, and Mike Yates), the circus and the daffodils are the strongest ideas, and there is something in the sheer artifice of circus that suits very well with the intrinsic dissemblance of Autons and daffodils. The whole story could happen quite happily from within the circus, with the factory relegated to the background; we really only need to know where he is making the things if we are to also learn how at the same time - and that would be interesting, but it's not crucial.
But there's the central problem - duff script with, unusually for Robert Holmes, some appalling dialogue - as to the rest, the direction seems focused on the new UNIT Family, rather to the expense of the plot - we simply don't see enough villainy going on (again something Mr Dicks changed in his book) - I want to see hordes of plastic daffodils, not a few handfuls. If I can't see them being given out to anyone that wants one, why should I believe that they're a threat? I'd also like to see the Brig in a proper car - what's he doing in what looks like an Austin Allegro? He should have a jeep.
Far too much is done in CSO - the killer doll, the radio telescope, the museum (the museum scene is far, far too brief) - and the CSO doesn't look real. The killer doll simply isn't credible - I can't believe that Farrel Snr possibly believes that any designer ever sat down and designed that, still less that it really reminded any child of a teddy bear. Terry Walsh does a spectacular fall, and I do like the idea of conveying the Master's plans to UNIT by flashing them in Morse via the coach's brake lights.
It is a good introduction for the three new characters - particularly Jo - but the villains of the title get a very raw deal; not nearly enough seen of the Autons, and the Nestene looks silly again. I think I've some room to be dissatisfied, since my friend Phil and I made better Nestene and Autons six years later, when we were 14.
2/5 To my quite marked annoyance - the book is much better.