The Tenth PlanetBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Sorry for stating the obvious, but The Tenth Planet is one of the five most important stories the show ever did, along with 100 000 B.C., The Daleks, The War Games and The Deadly Assassin (just my list, by the way, feel free to make your own). The reason I mention it is that it’s the worst story of those five: it’s frequently viewed as one of the programme’s most enduring classics but for my money it undershoots ever so slightly. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a strong story and better than the other Doctor’s swan songs bar The War Games and The Caves Of Androzani, but it’s not made of gold. Part of the reason for this was out of the production’s hands and I’ll deal with that later; equally though Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis weren’t quite the writing team yet that made the razor-sharp The Tomb Of The Cybermen, and Davis doesn’t quite do Pedler’s idea justice. That said, it’s still a very good story when not viewed in the context of its slightly inflated reputation. Most of the criticisms are levelled against the second half though, so it gets off to a very strong start.

It begins with some above average stock footage that for once doesn’t look like it was found in a cesspit and some unique titles. They are the only really well made ones of all the specially made titles too, not being tedious, amusingly dated or fit-inducing. However, their inability to spell the writers’ names correctly does give them a certain amateurish, home-made feel.

This is a rare example of a depiction of the future that isn’t half bad, with ordinary dress (we’d have to wait until Planet Of Evil before we got spacesuits with shoulder pads and flares) and a multinational crew of the polar base (a Pedler / Davis trademark). However, I have to hand it to The Discontinuity Guide: they are right to point out that it is an all-male cast save for Polly and Wigner’s secretary (whose one line, “toot sweet”, leads me to wonder how seriously she was taking it). In fact, I should expand on this by pointing out that in all three of their collaborations the writers show women making coffee. It wouldn’t be until The Wheel In Space that a woman would be seen in a position of genuine authority in a Cyberman story. I’m no feminist, but…

The swirly incidental music seems a bit melodramatic now and is the kind of thing I’d expect to find on a comedy programme, although this does have the first use of the awesome Cyberman theme. The girly pictures on the wall of the sleeping quarters are really quite radical for the time (although they don’t do Pedler and Davies any favours), and Tito is stereotyped in the extreme: I wince at every “Mama Mia!” he screams. William Hartnell performs well in this story, belying his illness. Ben and Polly are also good and were a very strong duo, although the hero / damsel in distress characterisations date them badly. Still, they’re a good looking, fun pair and it’s a shame so little of their time survives.

It’s right that a police box wouldn’t be recognised in 1986 (no one was watching Doctor Who by then, you see). The story is generally well-directed although there are more boom mike shadows than usual. The tracking room is an impressive set and location of some very dramatic scenes, although at this stage I’m wondering why the American Sergeant is suddenly their best friend. The moon landing description was an in joke made funnier by future events, although the idea that it would still be continuing in 1986 was strangely optimistic.

The plot’s a latecomer in this story, with the first episode being almost half over before anything other than initial scene setting happens. It’s a great, enigmatic start though, with a mysterious force affecting the crew of a space craft. What could it be? Nigel Kneale’s lawyers would very much like to know. Even in 1966 though the idea of Mondas not being detected until it had almost clonked into Earth like a cue ball is hard to credit and an early example of the flaws in Pedler’s and Davis’s embryonic writing partnership, and the fact that everyone is arguing about whether the continents match Earth when really the planet is simply Earth upside down makes me sometimes feel that this story works better on audio from the start (not to mention that it’s scientific nonsense, which Dr. Pedler should have known). Barclay goes over the plot points in very simple, childish logic (“do you suppose that massive planet might have something to do with the mysterious gravitational anomalies?”), but “we must get them down!” is a dramatic line well delivered by David Dodimead. It’s also interesting that the Doctor knows of Mondas already: it is implied in The Five Doctors that the Cybermen where tried out in the Death Zone in the ancient histories of Gallifrey…[pause while head is removed from backside]…it’s nice how these things unintentionally interlock, isn’t it? (The Tenth Planet and The Five Doctors by the way, not my head and…oh never mind).

The modelwork is good (better than The Moonbase’s), and the Cybermen’s introduction is terrific, with three mysterious figures coming out of the snow, initially too far away to be seen clearly. The final pan up the arm is also good, even if the Cybermen in close up do look a little silly. The only real sore point is the way they shed their cloaks but pause dramatically before killing the humans, which just looks cheesy.

The first scene with the Cybermen is well written, dramatic and possibly the most important of the story (barring the regeneration scene) as it establishes backstory that makes the Cybermen such good monsters, and also that plays a significant role in most subsequent stories featuring them. Here is the major problem with them though: their costumes, while innovative, are cumbersome and too delicate to be practical meaning that they are largely reduced to standing around talking. Their voices, while original and unique, do get irritating after a while. The idea of their mouths hanging open while the words stream out is brilliant, but the synchronisation is off a bit. One of their best features however is technically a goof: the actors’ eyes can be seen behind the black gauze, making it appear that their vestiges of their human form are trapped beneath far more effectively than David Banks’s silly silver chin in Earthshock. However, in terms of visuals the sellotape round their heads thoroughly torpedoes their credibility. What really makes them here is their motivation: they are interested only in their survival, not conquest like their caricatured 1980s versions. Their total lack of malice makes them all the scarier; this is what led to their downfall in their colour stories. The Cyberman’s line of “that was really most unfortunate” seems a bit out of character with their later versions (but David Banks’s book Cybermen justifies this excellently. No pun intended.).

Locked up, Ben talks to himself: an example of poor writing, where they can only get a character out of trouble by having him exhibit signs of insanity in order to advance the plot. Davis might have been a good script editor for quality producer Innes Lloyd, but at this stage he struggled a bit when (co) helming an entire story. Also, the Cyberman’s intolerance to light undermines their claim to physical superiority somewhat.

The destruction of the spaceship shows the power of understatement. Cutler’s son affects the plot only indirectly, instead being important mainly for the purposes of characterisation. It does turn General Cutler into an ‘insane leader’ cliché though (okay so I ripped that off The Discontinuity Guide as well, but a good point is a good point). The cliffhanger to part two also shows the importance of dialogue and radar screen in Doctor Who, making things that could never be shown – it also shows how effective it can be, and the power of the imagination (although I don’t call that a formation).

Episode three is where it really starts to falter. While a lot of this is down to Hartnell’s illness and so not something I should really criticise, I can’t get away from the fact that it does affect the story regardless of the lack of blame. For example, Barclay’s sudden acquisition of a backbone points to a very fast rewrite that didn’t have time to iron out the wrinkles. There are lots of minor fluffs in this episode, as the cast struggle with lines they have had to learn and rehearse too quickly. 

The Z-Bomb would be extremely poor if it was actually used; instead through its underuse it becomes an effective, omnipresent threat in the name of a saviour. Even given this though the episode is still very much an episode three, filling the gap betweens set up and climax. The Cybermen, for example, are superfluous and only in it to fulfil some sort of need to have them in the episode no matter what. There are some good stunts though, particularly Ben falling over the barrier. The countdown to launch is a good moment of tension, but countdowns usually are. They are a cheap thrill, but they do the job.

The Doctor’s sudden arrival out of nowhere at the very beginning of episode four shows the crudeness of the rewrite further – although he really goes to town for his last performance, and some clips still exist of some iconic lines. In a very out-of-character scene though, he thanks the Cybermen for killing Cutler. Also of not is Ben’s pronunciation of Mondas as “Mandos”; is this a fluff I wonder, or intentional?

The Cyberman that takes over from Wigner has the most annoying voice I’ve ever heard (the one at the base is just about bearable). Also, it’s retrospectively annoying to see they have a different weakness in every story: radiation, gravity, the cold / shoddy batteries, quick-set plastic, emotions and of course gold. Radiation makes particularly little sense as surely they could augment themselves with material that would block it from their organic components.

The Uranium rods, that just happen to be in the same room as them, are a contrivance. When the heroes escape they sit round and talk, waiting for the plot to resolve itself. I don’t have a problem with the Doctor not being involved: people complain that Hartnell should have more to do in his “epic” finale, but that is based on the standards of what came later and doesn’t therefore hold much water in my mind. My problem is that nobody at all has any fundamental involvement, which I can’t even say about Revelation Of The Daleks. The destruction of Mondas was apparently a rubbish effect, but I’d like to have seen it anyway. 

After this we have the fantastic line of “it’s far from being all over” followed by the first regeneration, and I’m truly glad that clip exists. Simple but good, miles better than the rubbish Pertwee – Baker one in 1974, while not as visually impressive as the 1980s ones it has the added bonus of being completely unexpected and unexplained, surely one of the craziest ideas ever inserted into any narrative. Without it the show would never have survived, and it’s still as mind-boggling a concept today as it was forty years ago.

Well, what can I say? The Tenth Planet is a strong story, providing a good introduction for the Cybermen, a good departure for Hartnell and a better foundation for Patrick Troughton – not to mention a hundred minutes of generally solid entertainment. But an absolute gem? Sadly, no.