Review – Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet (Writers: Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis)

For me, this was going to be THE “Doctor Who” DVD release of 2013 – that was until last week’s big story which announced the return of the Patrick Troughton story “The Enemy Of The World” along with the near complete return of “The Web Of Fear” to the BBC archive (I still get a fanboy thrill when lost episodes are returned).

Anyway – back to “The Tenth Planet”.  The word “iconic” is bandied around a heck of a lot in Whovian circles, but if ever a story deserves this tag, “The Tenth Planet” does.  I mean, first appearance of the Cybermen; it’s the prototype for the type of story known as the “Base Under Siege” story which was primarily synonymous with the Troughton era with stories such as “The Moonbase” or “The Ice Warriors” but which have also been seen in the show’s current incarnation of the show with stories such as “Dalek” and last season’s “Cold War” (to give newer Whovians a bit of context); the last episode is still, unfortunately, missing from the BBC archive… oh, and it features the first change of leading actor from William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton in a process then described as a rejuvination of the Doctor.  (The term “regeneration” wasn’t mentioned until Jon Pertwee’s final story, “Planet Of The Spiders”, in 1974).

The story itself is set in 1986 in the secret International Space Command base in the South Pole.  Following the arrival of the Doctor, along with his companions Ben and Polly (who joined “Team TARDIS” two stories previously in “The War Machines”), at the base, a mysterious planet is spotted near Earth which is draining the energy from an orbiting space capsule.  However, this a prelude to an invasion as the Cybermen seek to take all of the Earth’s energy for it’s dying twin, Mondas, and the humans for conversion into their own kind.

The first thing that fans of the new version of the series will notice is the pacing of the story.  The start is very low key with no immediate inkling of the threat to come – both from the Cybermen and for the Doctor.  What would be firmly kicked off in the pre-credits sequence of a “NuWho” story takes roughly ten minutes into episode one to even start to get going with the first mentioning of the energy drain on the space capsule and the appearance of Mondas.  However, this is just a pre-amble for the story “proper” – the Cybermen themselves don’t appear until the closing shot of Episode 1 and are only mentioned by name in Episode 2.

But for it’s difference in pacing, there are similarities.  Once the Doctor, Ben and Polly arrive at the base, they are treated with the same suspicion as the eleventh Doctor and Clara are treated to from the Soviets in “Cold War” – although “Eleven” and Clara are treated better by Captain Zhukov than the first Doctor and his companions are treated by the base’s commanding officer, General Cutler.

General Cutler, as portrayed by Robert Beatty (who has credits such as “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Blake’s 7”, “Captain Horatio Hornblower” and a couple of the Christopher Reeve “Superman” films in his CV), is, like the plot itself a prototype for the “Base Under Siege” commanding officer.  However, Cutler is hard-nosed, uncompromising and rails against, rather than accepts, the Doctor’s assistance and guidance.  This puts him at odds with other characters in his position such as Hobson in “The Moonbase” or Zhukov in “Cold War” who accepts the Doctor’s support.  However, to be fair to the character, this is understandable once he finds out that he has a personally emotional stake in the story.

The nearest person to be described as reasonable with the Doctor and his friends is the character of Barclay – the scientific “second in command”, as portrayed by David Dodimead.  Once the story shifts from the survival of Earth into the destruction of Mondas through Cutler’s interpretation of using all possible resources to destroy the Cybermen, he is prompted to help Ben and Polly into preventing the general from using the “Doomsday weapon” of the Z Bomb.

The Cybermen are on the one hand recognisable from what follows stylistically in the show’s history, right up to their most recent “upgrade” (sorry, couldn’t resist that) in “Nightmare In Silver”, but on the other hand, they display out in the open what must have been our fears in spare-part surgery, which was in it’s infancy in the 1960’s.  Like the best versions of the Cybermen, these are cunning strategic planners, with logic as their doctrine and their emotions removed to the point where they understand emotions, they just don’t have them to acknowledge.  However, these Cybermen have vestiges of their human form on display with human hands shown and dark, almost soulless eyes behind their masks.  (Yes, I understand that BBC budgets in 1966 for the programme were nowhere near as generous as into 2013 (even taking into account inflation), but the effect is still chilling).

As for this being the last First Doctor story, this is one where the Doctor takes a bit more of a back seat, with the Doctor himself not featuring for the majority of Episode Three.  This was due to William Hartnell falling ill prior to the recording of this episode.  However, this does allow his two companions to take more of the forefront.

Anneke Wills as Polly is given more than being the stereotypical screamer or following the fan myth of simply making the coffee (which she does in this story at one point) as she challenges the Cybermen about their inability to feel human emotion, much as Peter Davison’s Doctor does in 1982’s “Earthshock”, and to move Barclay into action by getting him to help Ben in sabotaging the launch of the Z Bomb in Episode 3.

But it’s Michael Craze in the role of Ben who really does get the acting laurels in the TARDIS crew, as the character becomes proactive in seeking to stop the Cybermen from when he threatens to kill the Cybermen with a machine gun, to his attempt to escape from the base’s projection room and, in the absence of the Doctor, taking on the role of the Doctor by seeking to stop Cutler from using the Z Bomb and working out the Cybermen’s lack of resistance to radiation which leads him to formulate a plan based on the impasse that this lack of resistance causes.  That said, Craze doesn’t portray Ben as a one-dimensional “man of action” by imbuing the role with humanity, such as when he regrets using the Cybermen’s own weaponry against them and then apologising for his actions later.

However, although Michael Craze gets the acting laurels, it’s ultimately the last real chance that we get to see William Hartnell (or an animated version of him with soundtrack to cover for the missing Episode 4) and how I like to remember his portrayal of the role.  Granted, we do see him in “The Three Doctors” in 1973, but ill health curtailed his participation into providing his dialogue on a monitor to his successors in the role and the Time Lords.  Even to his last regular episode, he provides an incarnation of the Doctor that is caring towards his companions (which seems a long way from his first story in 1963 where he basically kidnaps schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright once they discovered the secret of the TARDIS), but a spiky and fiercely intelligent opponent to his adversaries.  This though is tempered with the foreshadowings of what is to come with his references to this particular incarnation being old and on the point of failing.

With it’s oblique references to contemporary events such as the “Moon Race” and the previously mentioned fears in spare-part surgery and it’s setting up of a new race of villains which will go on to challenge, but not surpass, the popularity of the Daleks and the introduction of the dramatic device of regeneration, which has become as much as a staple to the Doctor as the TARDIS, the monsters and the companions, we as Whovians owe a great debt to this story.

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