"The Tenth Planet", whether it likes it or not, is a pivotal story in the history of the series. I use a term like "whether it likes it or not" because I'm pretty sure the production team, at the time, had little or no idea just how important this story would be. In their minds, they were probably just trying to shoot a good little action/adventure with a neat plot contrivance at its end that would write out its ill lead actor. They seem to have no idea that this story would not only set in place a crucial element of the show's format, it would also introduce one of the most popular monsters the show would ever see.
And that's part of what makes The Tenth Planet such a good story. Oftentimes, deliberate attempts to make things grandiose fail miserably on television. I flinch when I hear terms like "season finale" used to describe an upcoming episode. For the plain and simple reason that good storytelling should not depend on when the story is placed within the context of a series. It should just be a good story. And the fact that this particular tale is slotted second in a new season (rather than placed at the end of a season as most other regeneration stories were) is a good indicator already that this is the production team's genuine intent.
So, did their earnestness pay off?
I'd like to think so. If nothing else, it's a somewhat revolutionary tale in context of the series. We go into the slightly far-flung future in Tenth Planet. And, unlike the UNIT tales of the 70s where we're never a hundred percent sure whether or not these are present-tense adventures, it's clearly established by having the characters see a calendar on the wall that the year is 1986. And, anal fanboy that I am, I'm always glad when an episode states the year clearly like that. It just makes chronology so much easier! Now, because we're definitely in the future, some very clear attempts are made to depict this. International teams and successful space programs run abound in this tale. Along with special bombs and high-tech computers. Of course, many of these predictions are wildly inaccurate - but it's still nice to see the series making a genuine attempt to create an interesting future for our world. It's a bit like what the classic Star Trek series tried to do - but without hitting you quite so hard over the head with it! In Tenth Planet, the conventions are all there but its main intent still focusses more on trying to tell us the latest action tale in Doctor Who rather than portraying highly controversial inter-racial kisses and suchlike! And it was good that the story kept this focus. Cause there is some crackling good action in this tale. Particularly since it was made on the usual shoe-string budget.
There are, of course, many conventions present in the plot that would become quite standard for the show. Particularly in the future stories Pedler and Davis would pen. We have the leader of an important operation creating a plot conflict because of his personality flaws. We have the multi-racial crew (who, often times, are portraying insultingly bad stereotypes). And, of course, the notorious "base under seige" premise. We even have women making coffee! But all these are being seen for the first time in this story and that's what makes it so revolutionary. The show has never really quite gone in these directions before and it's great fun to watch it "dip its toe in the pool" during this story.
Of course, some of the conventions it explores never really get used again. Even though the drama created in those conventions was quite effective to watch. Both the sequences aboard the rocket ship and the U.N. office make for some interesting drama. Especially when you consider how simplistic they are. Especially the stuff with the two astronauts. I mean, really, they're just two guys sitting in chairs with a few moving props and some shaky cameras and mood music. And yet, we feel their struggle and get emotionally involved with it. And, even with Cybermen and regeneration affecting the impact of this story - those two poor schmucks stuck up in space when Mondas comes along is one of the things that remains indelibly stamped in my memory when I think of this tale. Some well-executed drama there.
The other extremely memorable aspect of this story, outside of the obvious first regeneration and first Cybermen appearance, is General Cutler. He tends to work just as much for the story as against. He's a hard-ass with some interesting undertones to him. And his portrayal is very effective in conveying that. But, unlike the leader of operations that we see in the Moonbase, he needed a bit more reigning in sometimes. Cutler does get a tad too "hammed up" in places and we have a hard time believing someone so unstable would be allowed to run such an important base. Still, overall, he's a highly effective element of the story. His character carries a lot of weight on his shoulders. And he does it quite well.
But what about some of the stuff the story is truly remembered for? Is the regeneration as good as the nostalgia surrounding it? Do the Cybermen really inspire menace in their first appearance? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding "yes" to the first question and a somewhat less resounding "yes" to the latter.
The costumes given to the Cybermen are very quickly scrapped and re-invented for the next story they're featured in. This was definitely a good move. Though the costumes aren't complete crap, they are as silly-looking as they are chilling. If nothing else, those chestplates are far too cumbersome! And the voices are changed too. Another move that I felt was smart. The weird warble and "unusual lip action" (as Colin Baker described it in "The Early Years") also work as much against the Cybermen as they do for.
But their on-screen impact is still very strong, overall. And their cold logic is in great evidence. Which is still the strongest impression they make in this story. They are here to wipe out the Earth in order to maintain their survival. There is no desire to gloat or conquer. They're just doing what they do and nothing more. And this is what makes them far scarier than most of the monsters the show has introduced us to over the years. In fact, I'd even go so far to say that I like the Cybermen just a teensy bit better than the Daleks. Cause, if nothing else, it does seem as though much greater thought went into their conception. Hats off to Pedler for that. He came up with a great idea and fleshed it out well.
As for the Doctor's first regeneration. Well, fan reaction to this seems to divide into two camps. One seems upset that Hartnell wasn't given more involvement in the story since this is his swan song. Especially since he spends all of episode three unconscious. The other camp feels this was a good idea since it really conveys the weakness his imminent regeneration is causing in him. I'm a member of the second camp. The First Doctor is dying, and the focus should've been placed on that rather than getting him to single-handledly save the universe like he did in Logopolis or participate in a twenty minute car chase like in Planet of Spiders. Those elements work okay in the context of those stories, don't get me wrong. But here, the Doctor is simply regenerating cause his body has worn out and portraying that is far more important than making him a superhero. And it makes those last few minutes in the console room highly dramatic. Even a bit touching.
So, to me, The Tenth Planet does classify very well as a classic tale. Not just because of what happens in it but because its execution is, overall, highly effective. Even more so, the fact that it doesn't really seem to be trying to be a classic makes it even more enjoyable. It's a good story first. And a pivotal point in the series, second. And those priorities get it to rise above some of the more "intentional" classics the series has produced.