Doctor Who novelisations are endlessly fascinating due to their continued necessity. Before Home Video, there were books to let viewers know what amazing adventures they missed. For Who viewers too young to have witnessed the original transmissions of stories featuring earlier Doctors, those previous incarnations were mere myths. If it weren't for the novels, who knows if those Doctors would have been anything more than fading, black and white memories?
In a world where we can pull up any existing Doctor Who episode we want with the push of a button, the novelisations remain just as vital. Thanks to the expense of tape in the early days of the series, far too many William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton stories were destroyed in favor of other programs. Although there have been attempts to give some the animated, or the audio drama, treatment nothing is as crucial to the survival of these stories than the novelisations.
Although I’ve seen the existing clips of The Tenth Planet, I have never known the full story, until listening to this audiobook. I have to imagine that this may be the ultimate way to experience Bill Hartnell’s swan song. Few things can place you right in the center of a tale like a novel, and nothing does it better than an audiobook.
From our earliest years, stories are told to us. Parents and teachers read us books. Friends recount experiences. Stories are best shared through speaking. This particular audiobook, complete with haunting, droning music, crackling sound effects, Nicholas Briggs’ unnerving Cybermen voices, and Anneke Wills’ superb narration, communicates everything to you beyond what can be achieved in prose. Your imagination holds no budgetary constraints, so the bounds of cheap set design can’t restrict you, and the perfectly timed touches of sound give you all the help you need in envisioning the atmosphere crafted within the novel’s pages.
While listening to the reveal of the Cybermen moving through the snow, killing the men in their way, I couldn’t help but think, “What were kids thinking when they saw this in ‘66? They must’ve been terrified!” The coldness of their surroundings, matched with the lack of empathy is wonderfully depicted in the book, making this jaded listener a little nervous, wondering what these monsters I’ve seen numerous times before might be capable of.
I’ve come to place Doctor Who stories into categories. You’ve got the historical, the base under siege, invasion stories, horror stories, and romps. Often times these categories intermingle. You might get a historical horror story, a base under siege horror story, a historical romp, and so on. The Tenth Planet blends base under siege, invasion, and horror. What we’re witnessing is a small element to the larger story at play. A handful of frightening Cybermen are invading this base and killing the men inside, while all over the world more Cybermen are doing the same thing, AND there’s a whole new planet in the sky draining Earth of all its energy!
This is epic storytelling on par with anything the current series would do. You don’t need to see the fleet of Cyberships, armies marching through cities, or the Mondas sucking up all our energy, because you feel it. We know the Doctor, Ben, and Polly, we’ve just met the faculty of the base, and their reactions to the situation are enough to inform the massive scale of what’s going on elsewhere.
That being said, there is a downside. A few too many sentences are spent detailing Polly’s long legs and the reaction aroused in men upon viewing her form. The tendency of summing up a character by their ethnicity is more than tad dated and simplistic. Miss. Wills’ American accent, with all those hard R’s, can get a bit grating, but those are nitpicks. True, I would have preferred if such things were omitted, but the novel is what it is.
The majority of The Tenth Planet is devoted to the men spending their careers in a bunker below the frozen surface of the South Pole. This is something utterly unique to Classic Who. The Doctor may be the title character, Ben and Polly may be his friends and second leads, but the stories aren’t about them. Classic Who stories are about the people the Doctor saves. One would imagine that a show like Doctor Who would deal with WHO this Doctor person is and why they do what they do. Superman isn’t about the various citizens of Metropolis going about their day and being saved by the Blue Boy Scout. Why would Doctor Who be about the people he encounters, rather than the Doctor himself?
The answer, I believe, has to do with another reason the novelisations are so important to the survival of Doctor Who. This is a literary show. They’re not simply interested in giving you a cool new monster. The creators of the show are building a world and a world is populated with lots and lots of people. While making the Doctor the point of view character for every adventure would result in a thrilling good time, it wouldn’t construct a believable world. By experiencing the space these military men and scientists inhabit, getting small insights into their background and personalities (however shallow) and how they treat each other sets the scene for the terror about to unfold. The Cybermen are a scary concept, sure, but what makes them effective is that we know the people in danger. We’re set up to understand who these people are, thus making the threat of invaders that much more menacing. That is a trope you find more in literary storytelling than a visual medium like television.
This story doesn't only launch the legendary Cybermen. More importantly, of course, it is the introduction of regeneration. Without this plot-convenient aspect to the Doctor’s Gallifreyan biology, Doctor Who would have ended in the late ‘60s. Had the producers said, “Well, this Doctor Who concept is wearing a bit thin,” then there would have been no UNIT, tin dogs, long scarves, celery lapel pins, bizarro rainbow jackets, question mark umbrellas, body hopping Time Lord lizards, Time War, lonely gods, cool bow ties, or sonic sunglasses. We would never meet Jamie Mccrimmon, Sarah Jane Smith, Romana, Tegan, Peri, ACE!, Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, The Ponds, Bill Potts, or Nardole. Who would face off against Santaurons, Vervoids, Silurians, or Weeping Angels?
How different would the pop cultural landscape be if William Hartnell was the one and only Doctor? It’s a question too big to be answered in one audiobook review. The importance of regeneration cannot be understated. It is, along with the Tardis, the mechanism which keeps this universe fresh, and it all started with The Tenth Planet.