The Tenth PlanetBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Back when I reviewed 'The Mutants', I said that it was a story that I'd always underrated and that watching it again I appreciated it more than I ever had before. This is also true of 'The Tenth Planet'. Furthermore, I've noted on several occasions that I wish I could have watched several Doctor Who stories without foreknowledge of what is to come, and this is very true of this story. 

'The Tenth Planet' is a first in that it is the first real “base under siege” story in Doctor Who; the action takes place almost exclusively in the Snowcap base, which is under siege from the Cybermen. This scenario is an effective story-telling device, creating a sense of claustrophobia, since the base personnel have nowhere to escape to and the Doctor and his companions also remain trapped, isolated from the TARDIS, which remains outside the base, with the Cybermen. The base personnel are unfortunately fairly forgettable, and there are some dodgy accents on display in episode one, but fortunately Robert Beatty's General Cutler more than compensates for this. Initially just hard-bitten and with a no-nonsense attitude, he eventually becomes an internal threat to the Doctor and his companions as he blames them for the apparent death of his son and intends to have them shot. Whilst I have doubts that a man willing to risk irradiating half of the planet to save his son would have been allowed to reach the position of power that he occupies in any military organization, he is nevertheless an excellent character; for all his short-sightedness and obsession with saving his son, his motivations are always understandable (if not entirely sympathetic) and Beatty plays the part with conviction. His frank confession to Dyson that he is scared in episode three helps to make him more than just a paranoid megalomaniac willing to go to any ends to achieve his own aims, in defiance of direct orders. Dudley Jones' Dyson and David Dodimead's Barclay provide adequate support, although neither is particularly memorable, and the rest of the base personnel are little more than cannon fodder. 

Ben and Polly continue to impress, with Ben again taking the majority of the action, especially in episode three when the Doctor falls ill. Of particular note is his confrontation with the Cyberman in the projection room, which he is forced to kill with his own gun. The look of anguish on his face at the fact that he has had to resort to this tells the viewer more about his character than any amount of dialogue. Later in episode four, it is Ben who realises that the Cybermen are vulnerable to radiation, a discovery that allows the base personnel to defeat that particular wave of Cybermen and buy enough time for Mondas to burn up. Polly unfortunately gets very little to do and even gets relegated to the role of coffee maker, although she is instrumental in persuading Barclay to help Ben sabotage the rocket and therefore (probably) save the Earth. 

Of course, 'The Tenth Planet' is particularly notable for the debut of the Cybermen, arguably Doctor Who's second most popular monster. 

The Cybermen are chillingly effective in this story, due to their towering stature and their clear vestiges of humanity. At this point, they resemble far more than just marauding alien robots, with human hands and the implication of a skull beneath their cloth-covered faces. I've never noticed this before, but the whites of the actors' eyes are visible through the eye sockets in their masks; this may be unintentional, and probably wouldn't have shown up on a 425 line television set, but it is curiously effective, showing a stark glimpse of lost humanity in the midst of their impassive faces. They even have individual names. Appearance aside, they are also impressive as a species. Their lack of emotion is conveyed well here and most crucially, they seem neither cruel nor vengeful. They calmly inform the humans in the base that they will take them to Mondas to become Cybermen and later they explain that Earth must be destroyed so that Mondas can survive. Their matter-of-fact statements of these facts make them all the more chilling, and emphasize the horror of the potential fate of the base personnel and the TARDIS crew. Polly's almost hysterical response to Krail's announcement that their emotions will be removed perfectly conveys the horror of dehumanizing technology that inspired Kit Pedler when he created the Cybermen. What also fascinates me about the Cybermen here is their scientific interest; Krail is genuinely puzzled when Polly asks him why he doesn't care about the fact that the astronauts are going to die, simply pointing out that people all over the planet die every day, but Polly doesn't care about them. It's a perfectly logical response, which only an emotional perspective can rebuke and is the first, and most effective, demonstration, of just how different from humans the Cybermen have become. This characterisation is maintained throughout the story, even when Mondas is nearing saturation point; the Cybermen become slightly more urgent in the execution of the their plans, but this always seems true to their logical imperative to survive, rather than becoming panic or anger, which it so easily could have done had they been less well scripted. 

If I have any criticisms of 'The Tenth Planet', they are of Mondas and the Z-bomb. The idea of a twin planet to Earth drifting through space and of a bomb capable of destroying either planet just sitting in the basement of Snowcap base feel too much like they have been lifted from a comic book. In particular, I'm suspicious that, even if Mondas had the same continental structure as Earth, it would have undergone such similar patterns of continental drift after floating around out of its orbit for so long. These are minor quibbles however. 

Finally, there is the Doctor. For the first two episodes of 'The Tenth Planet', the Doctor is his usual self, imperious and commanding whether dealing with the obstreperous Cutler or the Cybermen. Interestingly, he knows of Mondas and it seems also the Cybermen, perhaps hinting at the unseen adventure mentioned in Keith Topping's 'Byzantium!'. Even when he asks the Cybermen questions, he gives the impression that he already knows the answers and is merely teasing them out of Krail for the benefit of everybody else. Then suddenly, at the start of episode three, he collapses without explanation. Whilst not originally planned for this episode, his sudden illness and absence from the story during this episode (brought about by Hartnell's real life illness) sets the scene perfectly for episode four, as he briefly recovers and challenges the Cybermen once more, only to rapidly deteriorate once on board the Cybermen's ship. By the time the Cybermen have died and Ben arrives at the ship, he is a mere shadow of his former self. Having never watched this era of the series in order from the beginning before, the impact of what follows has never really been impressed upon me before. Since I started watching '100,000 BC' all those weeks ago, William Hartnell has been “the Doctor”, rather than “the First Doctor”. I actually felt a (slightly embarrassing) pang of regret as, during the superb final scene in the TARDIS, he collapses to the floor and changes his appearance. For the first time in the series history the program's star changes, leaving the TARDIS itself as the only remaining constant from the first story. It is a hugely effective moment, particularly since it is not explained here, but instead fades straight into the closing credits. I really wish I'd seen it at the time. 

In summary then, 'The Tenth Planet' as well as being memorable for introducing the Cybermen and ending William Hartnell's tenure as the Doctor, is an effective and gripping story in its own right and a fine end to the era.