Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Tenth Planet

Previous viewings - one

Wow, is that the Hartnell era over already?

I'll say nothing about what went on behind the scenes, and the question of whether or not Bill Hartnell was pushed. What's relevant is what's on screen, and here writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis offer us another in a line of experimental stories, albeit of a type that seems more like an attempt to find a reliable formula than the more esoteric one-offs like The Celestial Toymaker or The Web Planet. Although the base under siege format of The Tenth Planet will quickly become old hat, even tiresome, it's all new here, and with the chilling original interpretations of the Cybermen thrown in, the First Doctor can only be bound to go out in a blaze of glory.

Conceptually, the base under siege format is a Doctor Who classic; it has a B-movie monster/horror formula ripe for behind the sofa viewing and I enjoy stories with confined settings, but like any story type, it's not guaranteed to deliver the goods every time, it needs the right ingredients. It demands scares, it demands atmosphere. The Tenth Planet certainly has a terrific premise: an underground base in Antarctica where rocket launches are monitored, picking up the approach of a new planet, and besieged by its inhabitants. The snowy setting is new for the show and gives the early scenes of the story a cinematic feel, with the Doctor, Ben and Polly leaving the TARDIS and being brought down into the base.

The year is 1986 - likely an attempt to give us a near-enough present day story but not so close that Ben and Polly would want to stay behind at the end. Away from the cities and the fashions, this passes as 1986, so that's all good. The first episode is the buildup, introducing viewers to the base personnel as they work to ensure the survival of some astronauts. General Cutler provides an early source of frustration for the Doctor as he tries his best to ignore the strangers, even when the Doctor works out some calculations for him. As an international installation, there are American accents to be heard, and they're far less offensive to the ears than what we were offered in The Gunfighters, although most of the base personnel are merely ciphers anyway which is disappointing as we spend four episodes in their company. The two main guests here are the irrational base commander Cutler and scientist Barclay, Barclay being the more likeable of the two as being a scientist he at least is on the same wavelength as the Doctor, even if he doesn't get to do much.

Unfortunately the TARDISeers also don't have much to do, and are relegated to observers for the early part of the story. As the new planet approaches, the Doctor allows himself to be dismissed by the base personnel, quite disappointingly so as I expected him to stand up to them as he usually does. As the first episode ends, the invaders the Doctor warned us about appear, attacking some men outside the TARDIS - our first glimpse of the cloth-faced Cybermen.

The Cybermen steal the story in the second episode, easily infiltrating the base and taking control. Their plan is to take the humans to their planet, Mondas, before Earth disintegrates from an energy drain caused by the proximity of the two planets. They're imposing robot-like creatures, although by today's standards their appearance is rather silly: massive chest units, car headlights on their heads, bizarre sing-song voices, less threatening than later incarnations but as we learn Mondas is Earth's former twin planet, and thus the Cybermen used to be human but converted themselves into Cybermen to survive, there is a tragedy in this imperfect, unrefined look. The glimpse of human eyes and real hands really hits home that these are humans, not robots, and as silly as the overall effect is I think we get a good impression of the humanity they've lost, which makes these the most effective incarnations of the Cybermen.

Of course the look is not the only definitive aspect of the Cybermen, there's also the "improvements" they've made to themselves by getting rid of emotions, I like to think because what they've done to themselves is too emotionally painful to bear. They don't let the base personnel save the rocket crew, and their cold, logical minds can't comprehend why saving them is so important when people all over the world die every day. The Doctor poses a few questions, but they are poor villains for Hartnell's Doctor, who is less of a moral crusader than later Doctors and Hartnell is best when allowed to integrate comedy into his sparring with villains, and obviously there is no opportunity for this with the Cybermen. Clearly the Doctor thinks they are too far gone and doesn't make any attempts to save the Cybermen, but the second episode is largely one big explanation of who the Cybermen are and where they come from, with the other characters merely reacting in horror. Cutler is incapacitated when he warns his superiors that the base is under attack, and Ben gets a chance to shine by killing a Cyberman, though I was surprised and delighted to see him not reacting with thrills, but horror that he has taken a life. Character-wise this is the most interesting thing Ben has done so far, it's a shame we don't see anything like it again. Luckily the Cybermen's weapons can be used against them, which allows the human to retake the base.

An unplanned absence of the lead actor puts the Doctor out of Episode 3 - damn! With the exposition out of the way this should have been his big moment. Unfortunately in the third and fourth episodes the story is less interesting. The Cybermen barely appear, as they take forever to send more troops to the base, Polly is reduced to making coffee, and Ben is imprisoned for trying to stop Cutler making rash actions to ensure the survival of his son, who is in another rocket. It's entertaining enough, but pretty ordinary compared with later Troughton stories and the irrational Cutler is especially yawnsome. The biggest problem is the knowledge that this is William Hartnell's last story, and he is nowhere in sight, and even when he is, he isn't doing anything. It's like the First Doctor's era has already ended and the production team are moving ahead with a story that he doesn't fit well in, and thus has little to do. However, judged on its own merits it holds up better, probably because despite there being similar stories to follow, this is the first.

The destructive Z-bomb is introduced to the plot in Episode 3, which is to be aimed at Mondas which if destroyed when also kill many on Earth. Ben enlists the help of Barclay and sabotages its launch.

My copy of The Tenth Planet included the fourth episode as a reconstruction, but I don't know who made it. Anyway, the Doctor is back but he's behaving quite oddly, like a feeble old man about to collapse at any moment. Then he gets stuck in a cupboard with Polly until the end of the episode. It's often said that the Doctor regenerates from old age, but it's made very clear that the energy drain is having an effect on him and it's this that causes the regeneration.

The conclusion sees the arrival of a new batch of Cybermen, but Ben is able to devise a new radiation weapon to kill them, giving the humans the time they need to let Mondas disintegrate on its own. The Earth saved, its time for the even bigger finale. The Doctor is very ill and insists on returning to the TARDIS. Hartnell plays the Doctor as confused and dazed. In the TARDIS, the Doctor collapses and changes into Patrick Troughton with a close-up of his face being enveloped in a bright light and convincingly changing. The special effects for this are pretty decent for 1966 and in fact the transformation is less jarring than some later ones. I've hated Hartnell being sidelined in his last story, but in an odd way him being out of sorts from half way through has allowed this twist ending to seem like a natural conclusion rather than coming out of nowhere.

The Tenth Planet is a difficult story to come to a judgement on. It's exciting because it's a new kind of story and we're entering a new era, but so many superior base under siege stories are still to come and Patrick Troughton's Doctor is much more suited to them. We got some great Cybermen, although they're not as scary as later versions - and that's another flaw of this story, it's not scary or tense. Polly might as well not have been there for all she did. In light of later stories, it's badly flawed, with the lack of Hartnell especially disappointing, and ultimately it leaves me feeling like he went out not with a bang but with a whimper.

Still, I'm about to embark on a new era and I'm very excited.

Horror quotient - The Cybermen provoke more laughs than scares, although I stand by my comment about this being the closest they've come to effectively presenting them from the original concept. I never feel the Earth is in danger and all we see of Mondas is a still image.
Comedy quotient - Very little.
Drama quotient - Plenty of excitement when the Cybermen are around, but Cutler makes a poor villain. It's decent enough material, but has been eclipsed by what followed.

A story with plenty to enjoy, but its flaws - the lack of Hartnell, the boring base personnel, not scary enough - are big ones, and Episode 3 is dull. William Hartnell deserved better.


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