Spearhead From Space is one of the very best opening stories for any Doctor. Its the debut of the Autons, one of Doctor Who's most prominent monsters. They are great creations, utilizing the creepiness of animated dummies to great effect. The effect is enhanced by this being the first Doctor Who story to be shot entirely on film due to strike at the BBC and one wonders if the show wouldn't have been improved if all of it had been shot on film from that point on. Although the form that controls the Autons, the Nestene consciousness takes at the end is much less better realized, its pretty much the only effect in the story that's a bit shoddy. Other than that the effects, pacing and direction is top notch.
The story itself is a fairly straightforward alien invasion plot but that's part of what makes it so strong. Its familiarity allows for the story to breathe enough to also serve as an introduction to the new Doctor portrayed by Jon Pertwee and Caroline John's Liz Shaw as well. Not to mention the reintroduction of Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and the concept of UNIT.
In contrast to Patrick Troughton who had to find his way to a consistent portrayal of the Doctor, Jon Pertwee is immediately giving the same performance he delivers throughout his era and is much more comfortable in the role initially. His portrayal is a bit more quirky than usual due to the regeneration crisis but it is still the least quirky of all the Doctors as Pertwee chose to play it as a man of action. Basically the James Bond of Doctor Who without the womanizing. The only flaw in his performance is his comical expression when the Nestene is trying to choke him. Its more like something out of a vaudeville comedy rather than the actual expression of someone with their life in jeopardy. Other than that though, he's brilliant!
Caroline John is also very good as Liz Shaw and its a shame that after this story her character was pushed back to being the mere lab assistant as opposed to the primary scientific advisor she was brought in to be. In this story more so than others she is portrayed as almost an equal to the Doctor which is a big change from most of his companions. Apparently Barry Letts, the producer and Terrance Dicks, the script editor felt the companion needed to be more of a damsel-in-distress type. But then, it was the 70's and the idea of strong females was still new in concept in television particularly.
Nicholas Courtney is absolutely brilliant as the Brigadier and the chemistry between him and Jon Pertwee is already apparent this early on.
Hugh Burden gives an excellent performance as Channing, the Auton leader, especially in his facial expressions and vacant stare. You immediately realize there's something not quite right about him based on that alone.
Derek Smee goes a bit over-the-top as Ransome, drooling in fear at the sight of Autons. But you have to admire him going for it all the way even if its a bit unintentionally funny.
But the only performance that really doesn't work is Hamilton Dyce as General Scobie. He gives such a bland performance that even when confronted with his own duplicate, he has absolutely no reaction whatsoever. The director edited in an off-camera scream when he his captured but its obvious that the actor must have been confused as to which version of him was supposed to be the Auton.
A great start to the Pertwee era and one of my favorite stories of his Doctor. I give it 10 out of 10 TARDISes.
On a side note, I realized that I have probably never watched this in episode format before due to it being on public television in the states and they usually played the stories in movie format. When released on VHS it was still movie format. I must say although I often enjoy watching a story all in one sitting, I prefer the episodic format better with cliffhangers intact.