A Cambridge scientist named Liz Shaw is brought to UNIT headquarters where she meets Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who tries to enlist a skeptical Shaw to investigate a series of recent meteorite strikes that could be evidence of an alien excursion. UNIT scientists arrive at the scene of one of the meteorite landings, but the meteorite had already been taken by a local old man, Sam Seeley. Meanwhile the TARDIS materializes somewhere in Buckingham and the Doctor stumbles out and collapses in a new body. He’s taken to a nearby hospital where his physiology mystifies his doctor. Upon recovering his consciousness, the Doctor angrily demands his shoes. Suddenly, though, the Doctor is abducted by two eerily emotionless men dressed as physicians. Even confined to a wheelchair, the Doctor manages to escape, only to be accidentally shot by a UNIT soldier.
Although the gunshot only grazed the Doctor, he falls back into unconsciousness, which the baffled lower case-“d” doctor theorizes might be somehow self-induced. However, the Doctor recovers and frees himself from the hospital, stealing another doctor’s suit, hat, cape, and even car while he’s at it. The Doctor shows up at UNIT’s headquarters and asks to see his TARDIS. Lethbridge-Stewart is reluctant to trust him because of his new appearance (although the Doctor himself warms up to his new looks, especially how “flexible” his face is) and refuses to hand over the key to the TARDIS which he took from the Doctor while he was unconscious, but he gladly lets the Doctor butt into his and Liz’s investigation of the meteorites.
In a plastic doll factory, a suspicious designer, Ransome, investigates the back rooms of a plastics factory whose owner, Hibbert, had suddenly broken off a contract with him and acts oddly when confronted. He finds a closed-off area full of identical plastic men with guns attached to their hands called the Autons and barely escapes before getting picked up by UNIT soldiers. When the Doctor convinces Liz he needs some lab equipment from the TARDIS, Liz snatches the key from Lethbridge-Stewart while he’s interrogating Ransome. After Lethbridge-Stewart angrily barges in, Liz realizes she was tricked when the TARDIS starts to dematerialize…only to come to a stuttering stop. “The temptation was too strong, my dear,” an abashed Doctor explains. “I couldn’t bear to be tied to one planet and one time.” The Doctor realizes that the Time Lords had deliberately sabotaged his TARDIS and left him stranded on Earth.
Sam comes clean to UNIT about taking and hiding away one of the meteorites. While an Auton comes close to snatching it, the Doctor and Liz get their hands on it. Although the Autons do succeed in assassinating Ransome, they do know the Autons are based in the plastics factory. When interrogated by Lethbridge-Stewart, Hibbert gives plausible explanations for almost everything, suggesting that Ransome made up the story because he was disgruntled by the factory switching its focus from dolls to store mannequins. Lethbridge-Stewart’s superior, General Scobie, is replaced by an Auton designed to resemble him exactly. When Scobie orders him to abandon the investigation into the meteorites, Lethbridge-Stewart suspects that Scobie was replaced by a Madame Tussaud-esque imposter. Still, the faux-General Scobie is able to use his authority to take the last meteorite held by UNIT.
The Doctor and Liz investigate the new mannequins produced by the plastics factory, which are all replicas of contemporary political figures, and work into the early modern hours on a weapon that could stop the Autons. They are too late, though. On the streets of cities across Britain, mannequins get up on their own and begin massacring anyone they come across and attacking military and communications outlets.
Still, the alien intelligence behind the Autons, the Nestene Consciousness, which has been assembled through the meteorites starts to see its plans to colonize the Earth unravel. Hibbert, their sole face to humanity, breaks free of his brainwashing and rebels, getting killed in the process. Liz and the Doctor invent a weapon, based on an electroconvulsive therapy machine, that can kill an Auton. When faux-General Scobie tries to have Lethbridge-Stewart arrested, the Doctor destroys it with the weapon freeing the original Scobie. While UNIT battles the Autons on the factory grounds, the Doctor and Liz go inside and confront the Nestene Consciousness, a pulsating, writhering mass of tentacles in a metal cylinder that serves as the hive mind of the Autons. Although it attacks and manages to overwhelm the Doctor, Liz deals it the killing blow. Back at UNIT headquarters, the Doctor agrees to work with UNIT in exchange for a lab and the resources he needs to get his TARDIS working again, all under the name of “Dr. John Smith”.
The Third Doctor’s First Words
“Shoes. Must find my shoes. Unhand me, Madame.”
The big thing is that this is the first appearance and the first adventure of the Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee. It’s also the first time we learn that the Doctor, and by extension all Time Lords, have two hearts. (Don’t ask if Time Lords always have two hearts or if they just develop two hearts after their first regeneration. Or, for that matter, if all Gallifreyans are born that way or develop it as a side effect of becoming bona fide Time Lords. For the love of Rassilon, just don’t.)
I talked about it already when I covered War Games, but it’s worth repeating that this episode marks the biggest revamp in the show’s history, arguably even bigger than the show’s revival in 2005 or the introduction of a female Doctor in 2018. The focus of the show is no longer on the Doctor’s travels but on fighting aliens in contemporary Britain, the show is in color, and while the stories are still split across multiple episodes (in this case, Spearhead from Space is four episodes), you no longer get the eight or nine-episode long serials that you had in the First and Second Doctor eras.
There’s also actually an explanation here as to why the Earth gets invaded so much during the Third Doctor’s tenure (and presumably also from here on out): Earth has called attention to itself by sending out satellites and probes. Funnily enough, this exact sort of thing was a real concern for Stephen Hawking before his death.
Sign of the Times
It’s a bit of a stretch, I admit, but it is kind of striking that there’s nothing sinister or ironic about the Doctor and Liz using an electroshock machine of all things to stop the Autons.
Liz: “What are you ‘doctor’ of, by the way?”
The Doctor: “Practically everything.”
I really do love Spearhead from Space. It captures the essence of the franchise’s appeal in a way that’s just about perfect, with the right mix of campy, sci-fi, and horror. I mean, you do have the Third Doctor wrestling with some tentacles that almost look like papier-mâché, but I do think the scene where the mannequins start their rampage on a nondescript city street is genuinely pretty chilling. Their odd baby doll faces and eyeball-less eyes only add to the sublime creepiness. It certainly helps that this is arguably the first “Doctor Who” story that has a high on-screen body count.
It’s also a delightfully character-driven story, which honestly we haven’t seen much of so far. Liz Shaw is skeptical, matter of fact, and assertive, visibly angered by the small bit of sexism she gets from General Scobie and who develops a believable respect for the Doctor after a tense beginning. General Lethbridge-Stewart is appropriately stern but still has his own unique brand of warmth, which no doubt helped make him become one of the most beloved characters from the entire franchise. And the Third Doctor himself establishes himself as a courageous and caring person, but also one who is simultaneously more arrogant and selfish than he was in his last incarnation. Not just the characters but their relationships are established to a “t”.
Anyway, if you’re curious about the classic era of Who, there are worse jumping-on points than this epic story of the Doctor with the flexible face versus killer mannequins.