The Tenth Planet

I wasn’t sure exactly how to begin reviewing this particular story. In my start to finish Doctor Who marathon I’ve finally reached the final tale in William Hartnell’s era of the show, and it’s strange to think that in four more episodes, he’ll be gone. A remark from Paul Clarke’s review stands out in my memory, that of “feeling a (slightly embarassing) pang of regret” at the loss of the Doctor as Hartnell played him, and oddly enough I felt much the same sadness, minus the embarassment. It’s strange that I’d feel slightly sad, considering that I can go back and watch the old episodes any time I like, but there you are. My intention not to skip around and to continue watching in a linear fashion means I won’t see Hartnell again apart from his brief scenes in “the Three Doctors”.  I’ve come to really appreciate the Hartnell years more than before after watching them all in order, and it’s easy to enjoy an absolutely excellent leading man playing a wonderful character. He really did set the standard for those that followed.

I’ve seen “The Tenth Planet” before of course, several times. I remember being absolutely delighted to find a copy on the shelf among the Doctor Who videos a few years back. I had no idea it was coming out, and therefore it was a delightful surprise. Like so many stories from the black and white days that are now lost or incomplete, I have a certain fascination with these episodes, since they give us a glimpse into a time during our favorite show’s history that will always be somewhat beyond our reach, even with telesnaps and soundtracks. Nothing is quite a substitute for the actual episode, and so many of these stories still seem unfamiliar to me, even after I’ve heard them and watched the reconstruction. At least with “The Tenth Planet” 75% of the story exists, but frustratingly the crucial fourth episode does not. A few off-screen clips tantalize us, and thankfully those include the lead-in to the regeneration scene, with the fascinating sight of the TARDIS seemingly operating itself and the Doctor standing frozen over the controls before collapsing to the floor and changing. It’s unlike any regeneration since, and also unexplained in any satisfactory fashion, adding to the mystery of the Doctor.

The trend of “sidelining” Hartnell for the middle of a story continues here, with General Cutler dominating the first three episodes. I’ll return to him in a moment. There are plenty of good character moments from the Doctor in episode one as he scolds his companions for their flippant attitude as they are about to exit the TARDIS, and as he tells the very loud sergeant “Why don’t you speak up? I’m deaf!” He also rather oddly writes down a description of Mondas and tries to warn Cutler about it, and then after having shown himself to know far more about the situation than he should, expects to be allowed to leave. I don’t think he quite thought that plan through. The poor fellow seems out of his depth surrounded by the military personnel of Snowcap Base. He gets little to do in episode two other than debate the Cybermen. Episode three sees him collapse and be written out entirely as Hartnell was too ill that week to work. There is a last glimpse of the Doctor’s old confidence and ability to take charge in episode four as he becomes the primary negotiator with the Cybermen after they kill Cutler. The Doctor stands up to them and works out their plan to destroy the Earth with the z-bomb, warning Ben not to trust them. Only when he is imprisoned on the Cyber ship does he once again seem tired, as though he summoned the last of his energy to confront the Cybermen, and having done so has nothing left. His hasty retreat to the TARDIS is a quiet moment as Ben and Polly wonder what’s happened to him before the final dramatic regeneration scene.

Like Steven before them, Ben and Polly have the job of carrying a large share of the plot, and they both do well with their story strands, though Ben clearly gets the lions share of the action. Polly is the subject of some humor in part one since she’s the only woman in the base, and being quite attractive she is the subject of attention from the men at first. Critics of this story often bemoan the fact that Polly is left making the coffee, but they forget that she offers to do so as a pretext for remaining in the tracking room to try and sway Doctor Barclay into sabotaging Cutler’s efforts to launch the Z-bomb. And she’s successful in her attempt. Polly also exhibits the very outspoken moral indignation that will later show up in “The Highlanders” and “The Faceless Ones”. She stands up to the Cybermen and demands that they justify the deaths of millions that the Cybermen will cause. That’s no small act of courage on her part, considering that the Cybermen have already killed one man and incapacitated Cutler for defying them. Sure she’s scared when trapped on the spacecraft in episode four, but who wouldn’t be? As a side note, she and Ben seem more like passengers of the Doctor’s than friends at this point, having had little time to develop the close relationship with him that Ian and Barbara or Steven had.

Ben gets to be both a soldier and a saboteur. Lest we forget that he is a military man, he snaps to attention when Cutler demands his name, telling him “Able Seaman Ben Jackson, sir. Royal Navy.” Later when the Cybermen have taken control of the base he unwisely attempts to take the fallen soldier’s weapon, getting himself locked up for his trouble. He’s resourceful enough to draw the guard Cyberman into the room and disorient him long enough to take his weapon, and though reluctant to kill him, he does so. He’s clearly shaken about the incident, and later shows no satisfaction in the killing, telling Cutler “I had no alternative.” It is his actions and capture of the weapon that allow the first wave of Cybermen to be killed, and the capture of three weapons allows the second wave to be destroyed. Ben also sabotages the rocket successfully, and together with Barclay holds off the Cybermen long enough for Mondas to absorb too much energy and destroy itself. In short, he is a huge factor in all the events that occur. It can be argued that Ben plays a larger role in the defeat of the Cybermen than the Doctor does, though the Doctor certainly plays a crucial part.

General Cutler is not what I’d call a villain, but he is certainly an antagonist for the Doctor, Ben and Polly. Characterized as a tough, no-nonsense general, he’s generally well-acted by Robert Beatty. A few lines don’t come across as natural, but much of his performance is quite good. The things that convince me the most are the less bombastic lines, or actions that seem like natural behavior such as a reassuring hand on a subordinates shoulder when the countdown to launch is going on, or the wordless vocalization when Dyson tells him that Barclay’s probably gone to check the rocket. His accent is mercifully pretty good, because if it had been as poor as the ones in “The Gunfighters” or “Tomb of the Cybermen”, it would have killed the character’s credibility completely. Cutler is well motivated throughout the story, first by the need to bring the endangered astronauts down from orbit, and later by the need to take action against the threat posed by Mondas as well as to save his son’s life. Only when he becomes willing to chance the destruction of half the lives on Earth and when he is ready to shoot the Doctor and Barclay does his characterization become unconvincing. It’s as though the writers need to get rid of him quick to allow the Doctor to take center stage in the last episode, so he snaps in a rather unlikely manner and is gunned down by the Cybermen. It’s not really a fitting end for the general, who is a decent character, all things considered.

The Cybermen make their first appearance here. Honestly, I ought to find them absurd. They look as if they are made of cobbled-together bits of prop and ski-masks. But I’m almost always in a generous mood when it comes to Doctor Who’s effects and costumes, and so I find myself enjoying the fact that for the only time in their history, thanks to the costumes, the Cybermen actually appear partially organic. Their eyes and of course the outlines of their face can be seen behind the cloth mask, and human hands are still visible. The odd manner of speaking where the mouth opens, words come out and then the mouth closes is conceptually interesting even if it isn’t pulled off in an entirely successful manner. The characterization of the Cybermen works fairly well, though they are a very talkative bunch at first. It seems to me that if they were governed by logic they would talk less and act more. The threat they pose to all life on Earth is a suitably grand menace for the first Doctor to defeat in his final adventure.

The manner in which the regeneration is handled certainly adds to the mystery of the character. We’re three years into the program at this point, and still have very little idea about the lead character, something I’m not sure that today’s audiences would stand for. Without any warning or explanation, he becomes an entirely different man who neither looks nor acts like the Doctor. It was no doubt a risky move on the part of the production team to recast the lead and write that into the narrative, and then not even explain the change very well! It’s also a pretty successful visual effect for the time, with the brighter screen helping to wash out some detail as Hartnell’s face fades into Troughton’s. I understand that they spent a good bit of time trying to get the sequence to look right, and it pays off.

To sum it all up, the scale of the story allows the original Doctor to go out in grand style, saving the Earth from what would become recurring foes almost as implacable as the Daleks. There are some bad accents and some iffy characterization here and there, but this is a solid story with some big ideas. Well worth seeing.

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Posted in 1st Doctor - William Hartnell

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