The Tenth PlanetBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Eddy Wolverson

“The Tenth Planet.” One of the most famous Doctor Who stories of them all, and why? Not only do we have the introduction of the legendary Cybermen, but we also have the first regeneration – the importance of which can never be overstated. On top of all that, of all the four episodes, it just had to be the pivotal final episode that perished in the 1970’s archive clear out, leaving us with only three existing episodes of William Hartnell’s swansong, and, just to rub salt in the wound, Hartnell is in only two of those! Episode 4 was even reported to have been found back in 1992, but sadly that proved to be inaccurate. History certainly hasn’t been kind to “The Tenth Planet,” but fans, on the other hand…

Doctor Who fans tend to love “The Tenth Planet,” and with some justification. Dr. Kit Pedler’s story of the dangers of technology and dehumanised medicine really raises the fear factor to fever pitch; not only are viewers scared of Cybermen, they are also scared of becoming Cybermen. Their design in this story is certainly original; the cloth masks are particularly impressive as they remove any vestige of humanity from the face, yet it is still obvious that what lies beneath was once human. However, they certainly don’t look cybernetic by any stretch of the imagination, and they are far too front-heavy to be practical. The voices, on the other hand, are absolutely superb. They put the Darth Vader rip-off Cyber voices of the 1980’s to shame! Their high-pitched, disjointed, ‘Microsoft Sam’ voice suits them perfectly – I was absolutely thrilled when Big Finish used it in their ‘Genesis of the Cybermen’ story, “Spare Parts”, in 2002. It isn’t just how they say it either; it’s what they say. You don’t get any of that “Excellent” nonsense from these original Cybermen; they are completely and utterly devoid of emotion, and their application of cold logic is often frighteningly reasonable! One of my favourite scenes in Episode 2 sees Polly remonstrating with a Cyberman about how he doesn’t care that two astronauts are going to die. The Cyberman replies by simply saying that people are dying all over the world every day, so why doesn’t she care about them too? It’s wonderfully written, thought-provoking stuff. Strangely though, despite their complete divorce from emotion the Cybermen in this story are far less uniform and far more individual than the ones the Doctor would encounter later in his life. They even have names like ‘Gern’ and ‘Krang’ – something never repeated other than in the prequel, “Spare Parts.”

I should also say that I love the romantic notion of a dead planet – and not just any planet, Earth’s twin ‘Mondas’ – drifting off through space on its own. It might not be the most sound scientific premise from Doctor Who’s unofficial ‘scientific advisor’ Dr. Pedler, but it makes for one hell of a story and moreover, it makes things interesting by implying that if the inhabitants of Earth’s twin planet could do this to themselves, then so could the inhabitants of Earth…

The Polar setting of “The Tenth Planet” is recreated incredibly well in the studio; often these black and white stories look more realistic than some of the early colour stories – colour seems to be far less forgiving than good ol’ monochrome! The high quality of the stock footage and the unusual, unique titles and credits also make the story feel special and different – for once, it looks like the programme actually had some decent money spent on it (which I’m sure it didn’t!) One of the areas where the realisation of the story falls down though is in its depiction of the ‘future’ – 1986 to be precise – though the programme makers can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee the future with any sort of accuracy! I found it amusing that Ben and Polly thought they had arrived back home in the 1960’s, because that is exactly the decade I would guess that I was in were I to materialise in this story’s South Pole Base! 

The commander of the base, General Cutler (Robert Beatty) is a great character, and one that it is hard for the audience to get a handle on at first. The sub-plot involving his son and how far the General is willing to go to save him is brilliantly done, and actually manages to salvage the desperately poor third episode. Cutler is one these brilliant human antagonists that Doctor Who tends to do so well – although he’s a pain in the arse and a menace, he has his reasons for everything that he does… and that’s what makes him such a disturbing character. He’d sacrifice the world to save his son…

As I mentioned earlier, we only have about fifty (surviving) minutes of William Hartnell to enjoy in this story – seventy-five or so if your lucky enough to own the BBC Video featuring the spectacular full-length reconstruction of Episode 4! The Restoration Team have to be praised for creating such a brilliant approximation of the missing episode; much like ‘Loose Cannon’, they have used telesnaps, clips, 8mm off-screen footage, linking text and a recording of the soundtrack to create probably the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Bill Hartnell’s final episode. My only possible gripe with it is that it isn’t full screen, but I’m sure they had their reasons for cropping it down slightly. Even though he’s definitely my least favourite of all the Doctors, I have to say Hartnell goes out guns blazing here! I didn’t notice one single fluff in any of his three episodes, and even more importantly he is as intense and has focused as he has ever been. I really liked how the writers make the Doctor the man with the knowledge in this episode – he’s not just a traveller, blundering into trouble. He knows of Mondas. He knows of the Cybermen before they even show up. He knows that they will come. Of course, this begs the obvious question – how? – but with hindsight there are any number of answers. He probably knew of the Cybermen from the legends of them being used in the Death Zone on Gallifrey in the Dark Times… though of course, that would lead one to question how he couldn’t have known of the Daleks before he first visited Skaro…

“This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin.”

Hartnell’s absence from Episode 3 really screws up the story. This isn’t a criticism, it’s a fact. The writers and producers do an admirable job of working around the illness-enforced absence of their lead man, and in a weird and wacky way it kind of links in well with the Doctor’s impending regeneration. In Episode 3, he’s totally spent; in Episode 4, he summons all his strength for a sort of “once more unto the breach” finale… then he collapses and regenerates. I’ve always wondered what actually killed the first Doctor, and I’m still unsure. Old age seems the most likely cause of death; after all, the Doctor’s first incarnation could be anything up to about 400 years old at the time of “The Tenth Planet.” For an incarnation of the Doctor, that’s damn good innings!

“It is far from being over. I must get back to the TARDIS, immediately! I must go…”

Thankfully, those folks at Blue Peter used a clip of the regeneration sequence in one of their programmes and so it survived the fires and hence rounds off the reconstruction of Episode 4. It’s not quite a morph, it’s more like one flash of light, a twitch and then…. Patrick Troughton! It all begins again, and in one brilliant master-stroke the producers give the best television programme ever virtual immortality…