Doctor Who reviews: The Tenth Planet

I’ve wanted to watch the Doctor Who serial “The Tenth Planet,” originally broadcast in October 1966, for many years.  However, as the final episode has been missing from the BBC archives for almost four decades, I never had the opportunity until now.  The DVD release of the story features a reconstruction of that missing episode using the original audio track and brand new animation based on the Telesnap photos made by John Cura way back when.

Tenth Planet DVD

So, having finally had the chance to see “The Tenth Planet,” what did I think of it?  Well, to be perfectly honest, while I thought it was a good story, I did not necessarily think it was a great one.  I think that this serial, co-written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis, is significant for the precedents it set for the series as a whole.  One, it is the debut of the Cybermen, now regarded as the second most popular monsters after the Daleks.  Two, it introduced the concept that the Doctor is capable of undergoing a complete change in both his physical form and personality, as William Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton in the closing seconds of the final episode, an aspect of the series’ mythology that eventually enabled the show to last for half a century and counting.  Three, it established the “base under siege” story formula which would be so effectively used throughout Troughton’s three years portraying the Doctor, and which has been revived from time to time since then.

The concepts introduced by Pedler & Davis in “The Tenth Planet” are definitely innovative & creepy.  The idea of a parallel race of human beings that existed on Earth’s long-lost, wandering twin planet Mondas, who found themselves growing weaker and weaker and decided to resort to the replacement of body parts & organs to survive, is a really good one.  As postulated by Pedler & Davis, the Cybermen eventually succumbed to their own technology, becoming more mechanical than organic.  Even the alteration of their still-living brains to remove emotions was seen by them as an improvement.  In the end, the Cybermen did survive, but at the cost of their humanity.  In those scenes where the technicians of the South Pole Tracking Station are desperately attempting to save the doomed crew of the Zeus IV space capsule, there is something very tragic about the Cybermen’s complete inability to comprehend why these humans are expending all of their efforts & energy towards a hopeless task.

I also really like the designs of these early Cybermen.  The cloth-like face with an obviously humanoid head beneath it, the still-organic hands, and the rather bulky, clunky forms of their headgear & chest-units all point to beings who were once human and, over time, were gradually transformed into cyborgs by spare-part surgery.  There is something undeniably spooky about these Cybermen.  Derek Martinus, who overall does good work directing this story, certainly succeeds in making the Cybermen menacing figures, especially in the scenes set on the Antarctic landscape.

On the one hand, it’s a real shame that in subsequent appearances the Cybermen appeared much more robotic than they did here.  On the other, yeah, I can certainly understand why, given a bigger budget, the production team decided to streamline them.  These must have been incredibly difficult costumes for the actors to wear, and in quite a few shots you can actually see the Cybermen’s helmets held together by transparent tape.

Tenth Planet Cybermen

All that said, though, “The Tenth Planet” does have certain problems.  The pacing of this story is poor.  The first invading party of Cybermen is wiped out towards the end of the second episode.  In the third episode, we barely see the Cybermen at all.  Most of the third installment is taken up by the increasingly-deranged General Cutler ordering the launch of a super-weapon known as the Z-Bomb to destroy Mondas, even though everyone keeps warning him that the resulting explosion will probably expose the Earth itself to deadly radiation.  Making matters worse, Hartnell became very ill right before the filming of this episode.  So, via a body double, the Doctor passes out in the opening seconds of part three, and it falls to his companions Ben and Polly, played by Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, to try and thwart Cutler’s mad scheme.  Yes, that gives Ben a lot to do.  But poor Polly spends the episode looking after the unconscious Doctor and serving coffee to the tracking station staff (yeah, okay, this was written in the 1960s, but still).  The episode just seemed to drag on.

Then part four arrives, and suddenly events rocket forward.  The Cybermen re-invade the Snowcap base not once but twice in a plot to blow up the Earth with the Z-Bomb before Mondas absorbs too much energy & dissolves.  After that fails, Mondas does indeed go kaput, and the Cybermen, who were drawing their energy from it, disintegrate.  Ben rescues the Doctor and Polly from a now-abandoned Cyber-ship.  And to wrap it all up, once they get back to the TARDIS, the Doctor collapses and regenerates.  That’s a hell of a lot to cram into 25 minutes!

I think it is extremely unfortunate that Hartnell was absent for a large percentage of what was his last story.  Watching the first two episodes of “The Tenth Planet,” he is in top form, giving a magnificent performance.  You would hardly guess he was suffering from ongoing health problems and was on the verge of departing the series.  But then, sadly, it just falls apart.  Hartnell is completely absent from part three.  When he does return for part four, between the fact that he was still recuperating from bronchitis and the character of the Doctor is written as fading fast, Hartnell does not have too much of a presence in his final episode.

There are also some major flaws with the Cybermen.  The whole notion that Mondas needs to recharge itself by sucking up Earth’s energy, but that it will be destroyed if it drains too much, leaves the Cybermen looking rather incompetent.  They appear to have no plan for dealing with this, other than invading the Snowcap base and using the Z-Bomb to destroy the Earth before that happens.  At least, I’m guessing that is why they landed at the South Pole in the first place, even though they don’t get around to attempting to utilize the Z-Bomb until the final episode.  And that presents another hindrance: the Cybermen need ordinary humans to prepare the Z-Bomb.  Why?  It turns out that, despite having replaced the majority of their organic material with artificial parts, making them super-strong, bulletproof, and immune to illness, the Cybermen are somehow much more vulnerable to radiation than ordinary human beings.  All that Ben and the Snowcap scientists end up having to do is don radiation suits, pull the rods from the base’s nuclear reactor and thrust them at the approaching Cybermen, causing the denizens of Mondas to instantly collapse.

I’m not saying that “The Tenth Planet” is a bad story.  As I explained at the outset, I think it is a good story with interesting ideas.  There are certain flaws that unfortunately keep it from being truly great, problems which perhaps Pedler & Davis could have ironed out if they’d had more time to fine-tune their scripts.  And, of course, there was Hartnell’s sudden illness, which caught everyone by surprise.  No one could have prepared for that, especially given the breakneck speed at which the show was filmed back in the 1960s.

Tenth Planet novelization

Perhaps “The Tenth Planet” was a learning experience for Pedler & Davis.  In their next two Cybermen stories, “The Moonbase” and “Tomb of the Cybermen,” there is a very apparent climb in quality.  In turn, Davis may have taken what he learned co-scripting those two serials and applied it ten years later when, in 1976, he novelized “The Tenth Planet.”  Yes, the plot holes of the televised version are inevitably still there, but they are much less obvious.  Indeed, Davis’ book has a very palpable atmosphere of claustrophobia & menace.

In the end, we can look back on “The Tenth Planet” as a crucial moment of major transition & experimentation for Doctor Who.  The series was taking a tremendous leap into the unknown via the recasting of the main character, the Doctor.  It was also introduced an enduring villain, as well as establishing a story structure that would be very effectively utilized over the next three years, leading to a number of now-classic serials.  By working though the difficulties of this particular story, the production team helped to guarantee the series a long and exciting future.

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2 thoughts on “Doctor Who reviews: The Tenth Planet

  1. Great review, I really like The 10th Planet, its a great episode. Not only because it features the shows very first regeneration scene, its also the debut of the Cybermen as well. You can see a lot of the elements here that would become part of the show during the 2nd Doctor’s era. Its a shame Hartnell is missing for episode 2 due to ill health, but he is brilliant when confronting the Cybermen and those final scenes before he regenerates are superb. The Cybermen are my favourite Dr Who monster, I’ve always like them best, and they are really strange and creepy here. Their odd voices, gaping mouth when they talk, glinting eyes, and human hands, all give the idea of a patchwork creature, twisted by a need to survive by using technology and cybernetic parts. A great story, made even better by the excellent animation on the DVD for episode 4.

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  2. Pingback: Doctor Who reviews: The Moonbase | In My Not So Humble Opinion

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