BlogtorWho was lucky enough to be in attendance for a very special screening of Doctor Who ‘Spearhead from Space’ at the BFI Southbank. It was unlike any other screening we’d been to before and a truly unique experience.
Over the last few days the British Film Institute (BFI) hosted the Film on Film Festival. This festival celebrates the art of watching moving images projected from a film print. As technological advances have been made, the opportunity to experience classic films projected from film prints has been rapidly declining. For decades iconic moments in cinema history were first seen by audiences using this technique. Opening the festival was a screening of Mildred Pierce starring Academy Award winner Joan Crawford using an original 1945 35mm nitrate release print. Closing the festival was a screening of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed movie Jaws again using an original 1975 35mm technicolour release print.
But it wasn’t all about the big screen as on Sunday afternoon four episodes of Doctor Who were screened using film prints and a projector.
Spearhead from Space
The debut story of the Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee has a unique place in the history of Doctor Who. ‘Spearhead from Space’ was the only full story of the original run to be recorded and edited entirely on film. Typically productions would use a combination of location work shot on film and studio sessions recorded onto video tape. However, due to impending strike action at the BBC producer Derrick Sherwin elected to record the entire story on location. This was therefore all done using film cameras. That’s why the story is presented in stunning quality on a Blu Ray disc.
However, ‘Spearhead from Space’ was recorded in colour. Yet the version screened at the BFI was in black and white. This would actually have been in keeping with how most of the UK population experienced the story on original broadcast. Although colour television sets were for sale to the public by 1970 they weren’t commonplace in household living rooms. Irrespective of this fact, the original colour prints of the story were telerecorded onto 16mm black and white prints for overseas sales. Again, colour broadcasting was limited abroad so sales prints remained in black and white for Doctor Who. And this is where the print screened at the BFI comes from; an original sales print on 16mm black and white film.
These 16mm overseas sales prints have been vital in the quest to restore the Doctor Who back catalogue in the BBC archive. Basically all of the 1960’s episodes of Doctor Who now only exist because of 16mm film prints. So the opportunity to watch one, even for a story which we have other colour copies of, still remained exciting.
As a fan of film, watching ‘Spearhead from Space’ at the BFI was a genuine thrill. Hearing the whirring of the projector. Seeing the image flicker onto the screen was wonderful. Imperfections added to the experience. Film prints are akin to pieces of art. Fragile and vulnerable film needs to be cherished and handled with care. Yes we have crystal clear, high definition discs with these episodes in colour. But there was something frankly magical about this particular experience.
I’ve seen that story plenty of times. BBC2 repeat screenings. Edited movie and unedited versions on VHS. Two DVD releases. A Blu Ray and subsequent steelbook release. But I’ve never experienced ‘Spearhead from Space‘ like that. It truly is one of writer Robert Holmes‘ best scripts. Jon Pertwee is hits the ground running as an impressive new incarnation of the Doctor. Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney establish a wonderful dynamic with Liz Shaw delivering some zingers at the Brigadier’s expense.
Of course, the iconic sequence of the Autons attack on shoppers remained a highlight. In black and white it seemed grittier than the technicolour version we are all so used to. The final battle between UNIT and the Autons also evoked similar battles with the Yeti and the Cybermen. Monochrome really is a wonderful medium, especially on film. As much as I always enjoy ‘Spearhead from Space‘ somehow it has never been quite as exciting an experience as it was watching it at the BFI yesterday.