The Tenth Planet…. Or, the ninth planet, now that Pluto has been reclassified. Or would it be Niburu/Planet X, the “Wandering Planet”? If it’s not, strictly speaking, part of the solar system, can it really be assigned a numeral? Can we, in fact, get past the name of the story to actually talk about it, perhaps?
Can I stop talking to myself?
Well, lets start with the facts, first.
It’s the last story with William Hartnell. The last episode is missing and only watchable via recon (apart from a few small clips). It’s the first time we see the Cybermen. It’s set in 1986, and it’s almost a kitchen sink drama, bearing in mind it has four locations and a total of six sets (I counted:
- the base control room
- the base sleeping quarters
- the base rocket silo
- the interior of the capsule
- International Headquarters
- The cybershop interior.
It has Ben and Polly as companions.
Right, them’s the facts. But what can we say about the actual story being told?
Well, firstly, it’s an interesting character study for Doctor Who since the story spends quite a lot of time revolving around two astronauts, whose capsule is gravitationally drawn off course by the unexpected appearance of Mondas and the attempts to return them to Earth, and then two episodes in, it kills them. Doctor Who doesn’t often do this – make us care, then mindlessly kill people. Oh it kills a lot of people, but most of the time they are basically fodder and it’s the fact that they are killed that we care about, not the who that is being killed. This is one of the first times I’ve seen the series genuinely set up those-who-die as someone we are supposed to relate to and empathize with.
It actually sets up some real drama.
Similarly, when General Cutler gets quite het up about his son being killed, and wants to use the Z Bomb on Mondas, it’s all very understandable and we, as viewers, can understand that and possibly even empathize, just a bit.
For Doctor Who, particularly at this time, The Tenth Planet is actually pretty heavy in character development and hopefully draws attention away from the woefully silly and aimless plot.
Indeed, given the time this was made – 1966 – there is quite a lot to like. The camera work – while a bit abrupt – is good, the blocking is well laid out, there’s adequate direction, the actors are engaged and all the characters actually have motivation and thus behave at least somewhat believably. There’s a very deliberate attempt by someone who’s obviously never been part of either the military or a space shot to make it believable, via dialog and team makeup, even when its obviously not – it’s all a very creditable effort.
Now, having said all that, there’s quite a lot of flaws in the story too. Why there is a base at the south pole for capsule control is never established, nor why the Doctor, Ben and Polly would actively want to visit there – at the beginning of the story it’s apparent the Doctor is attempting to return Ben and Polly to their own time. Why, in that case, are they venturing outside at the South Pole, even if they don’t know it’s the South Pole? Wouldn’t a quick glance at the monitor, a visual that it’s snowing and a hearty “Screw that, too cold, lets try again?” be in order here?
Similarly, it’s never really established why the Cybermen are landing at the South Pole first, either. Seems a strange place to be starting an invasion/population grab?
As I mentioned, it’s set in 1986 and as someone who came of age around that time, I’m here to tell you there is also a distressing lack of new romantic pop music, Amstrad computers (the technology employed here is lacking enough cables out of the back of the boxes, that’s for sure) and the girlie pictures up on the wall of the enlisted men’s bunk beds are for the birds.
Plot wise, most of the story appears to be attempting to figure out what to do with the marvelous situational idea’s that Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis bring to the table – the concept of the Cybermen, of parallel development of a duplicate world, of that world returning whence it came and what happens when it does (although I can’t help noticing there’s quite a lot missing when it comes to gravitational effects on our world, as Mondas comes wandering home again). There are various sub plots – capsules drawn off course, angry, jingoistic generals and a sabotaged Z Bomb rocket launch – but most of it appears to be there simply to fill time and try and do something with these marvelous cyber creatures.
And what awesome creatures they were, and have turned out to be in the long term. The sing-ong voice employed here – sadly never used again in the show, except in some of the audio adventures – and the fact that it’s deployed by a Cyberman just opening his mouth and keeping it open while they speak, then shutting the mouth once they are done – is just great. The whole costume, designed to make the point that these were once human but are now significantly both more and less than that – the big lamps on the head, the chest units – it’s all fantastic stuff. It’s worth pointing out that the original brief for the Cybermen was to have heads coming out of the chest, and arms sprouting out at pelvis level – obviously not doable at the time – but what was produced more than did the job.
There is some quite ropey motion acting going on by some of the Cybermen actors mind you – remarkably fluid motion for what is supposed to be a robotic race. And some of the dialog given to them is just abominable – “Take him away and take care of him”. Really? Shall we make him some hot chocolate while we are at it, too?
Really? Shall we make him some hot chocolate while we are at it, too?
William Hartnell is definitely showing his age in this story – in fact he’s completely absent from episode 3 entirely, having fainted at the start of the episode and tucked up in bed the rest. He’s not his usual vigorous self, but that’s all the better for the finale, where that astonishingly clever plot device, regeneration, is employed for the first time (we DO get to see this; thankfully that clip survives). Given this, most of the episode rests on Ben and Polly and they do a creditable attempt at carrying it – particularly Ben, even if his “Gor Blimey Guv’nor” east London barrow boy act is laid on a bit thick at times.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that as a Doctor Who story, featuring and revolving around the Doctor, this is a bit of a non-starter – it’s a story where things happen to the Doctor, rather than the Doctor making them happen. It’s almost a “Doctor Lite” story, before that concept was codified by RTD. There’s some dialog where the Doctor reveals knowledge that is to come – i.e. what Mondas is and possible implications, but it’s never clear if that knowledge comes from having seen the future, or if it’s just that he’s worked out what will happen. Indeed, once the knowledge is displayed, nothing is ever done with it – it acts purely to keep the Doctor and his companions in the frame and involved, as otherwise they may not be.
As an introduction to the Cybermen and also the reveal of the concept of regeneration, however, The Tenth Planet serves fine. As a story to be told in the traditions of Doctor Who, it’s a bit lacking, but is still very watchable – if only for seeing the Cybermen’s first outing and for the strong characterization’s.
I still say it would have been made better by some Depeche Mode, which was all the rage in 1986, but that’s just me.