Doctor Who – The Tenth Planet

1966 was an important year for science fiction. In America, Samuel Delaney and Larry Niven released their novels Babel 17 and Neutron Star, Fantastic Voyage was a summer hit in cinemas and the first episode of Star Trek was broadcast in September, while in Europe the French director François Truffaut released his adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Britain was in the continuing grip of Dalekmania with Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD, the second cinematic adaptation of an adventure already seen on television, starring Peter Cushing as a time traveller named Doctor Who, released in August of that year.

The following month, on Saturday 10th September, the show which inspired that film began its fourth season with a story entitled The Smugglers. At that point the regular cast was headed by William Hartnell as the Doctor, accompanied in his travels by Anneke Wills and Michael Craze as Polly Wright and Ben Jackson, both of whom had been introduced in The War Machines, final story of the previous season, with Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davies continuing in their roles as producer and script editor.

Despite the ongoing success of the show, they faced a problem in the deteriorating health of their leading actor who had been written out of entire episodes of the previous season to allow a recuperative break, and even when on set had difficulty recalling his lines and was prone to tiredness, his awareness of his condition leading him to be fractious with colleagues. It was unavoidable that Hartnell had to be released, both in consideration of his wellbeing and to allow the show to continue, but as the titular character, their solution had to be inventive.

It was decided that as the Doctor was an alien the production was not bound by normal dramatic conventions, and possibly inspired by the precedent of the Cushing films, rather than have a new actor continue to portray the Doctor as the same character that he would instead transform into an entirely new body, giving both the Doctor and the show a new lease of life.

With The Smugglers having been filmed as the final story of the third season but held over for broadcast to open the fourth, The Tenth Planet was the first new story to be filmed and would be the last to star William Hartnell. It was the debut script by Doctor Kit Pedler, until then a scientific adviser on the show, with the latter two episodes co-written with Davies with whom he would later create Doomwatch.

The TARDIS materialises in the Antarctic near a military base where the personnel are not overjoyed to find the Doctor, Ben and Polly in their midst as they are struggling to safely land the Zeus IV space capsule, off course and suffering an unexplained power drain. The cause of the navigation error is discovered to be an unknown planet, entering the solar system and moving towards Earth, and soon Snowcap base is under attack by the inhabitants of that planet, robotic invaders called the Cybermen.

Viewed on DVD, the black and white photography is crisp and fresh, belying the vintage, though the audio track is a occasionally fuzzy, and while the story may open with stock footage of a rocket launch the sets created for both the tracking station and the interior of the rocket are very impressive, the budget stretched by using existing set dressing from another production. More unexpected is the decoration in the dormitory of pin-up girls, very unusual in Doctor Who and more honest than the sanitised world sometimes presented in what was clearly not regarded as a children’s programme by the production team at that time.

The Tenth Planet was the first appearance of the Cyberman, now second only to the Daleks in their number of appearances on the show, with Kit Pedler scripting their subsequent appearances in The Moonbase and Tomb of the Cyberman and the story outline for The Invasion. In many ways they are more terrifying than the Daleks, as ruthless and unemotional, yet closer to humanity in form and origin, their home planet Mondas the lost sister planet of Earth, their dying bodies systematically replaced with mechanisms to support them.

Despite the primitive cloth mask costumes of the Cybermen, thoroughly redesigned before their return later the same season in The Moonbase, on first broadcast in 1966 the idea of Earth engaged in an interplanetary war, when scientific literacy in the population didn’t run high and with the space race being run by two superpowers between whom Britain was squeezed, they must have been terrifying to the audience. Faceless automatons without emotion, they could not be negotiated with, yet with their processed voices their logic questions the hypocrisy of the humans. With Polly begging to be allowed to help the crew of Zeus IV, the lead Cyberman points out that “There are people dying all over your world yet you do not care about them.”

Considering this is only their third story, Michael Craze and Anneke Wills are both excellent, comfortable in the roles of Ben and Polly and given good dialogue, for example with Polly’s reference to Carnaby Street marking her as a sixties girl at heart and Ben’s comment upon discovering the date is December 1986, “That’s why there’s so few personnel, the computers do all the work.”

While the line may be spoken by Ben, the thought is Pedler looking to the future, and while the central conceit of the plot does not bear scrutiny – the issue of why “Mondas drifted away on a journey to the edge of space” or how it has so swiftly re-entered the solar system undetected is never addressed – with the Earthbound setting, invaders from space, questions of the morality of humanity and a subplot of lost rocket missions the feel of the story is very close to the benchmark set by Quatermass.

Conversely, the Doctor is pompous and condescending, and while his compulsion to ensure that everyone is aware he’s the smartest man in the room remains half a century later, none of his later personalities have been so brusque, nor does he actually contribute much to the story to justify his attitude.

This is largely due to Hartnell’s succumbing to bronchitis during filming, his stand in collapsing in the opening moments of the third episode before being ushered offscreen, the Doctor’s dialogue distributed between Ben and Polly with Doctor Barclay, played by David Dodimead in the style of a typical Open University lecturer of the time, inheriting the more scientific lines. While Barclay is an interesting if underexplored character, it is Ben who provides the solution to the immediate threat,
deducing it from the behaviour of the Cybermen, the example of the scientific method demonstrating how Doctor Who still functioned in an instructional capacity.

Led by the General Cutler, his bravado and bluster carrying him forward when he has no answers, the military officers tend to shout a lot and achieve little. Ben expresses regret when forced to destroy a Cyberman but Polly points out the General seems to be enjoying himself, and while actor Robert Beatty does his best, the subplot of a possible suicide mission is contrived to push him to unprofessional behaviour, placing his own son above the survival of the planet.

The military mentality is depicted as aggressive and uncompromising, unwilling to listen to the advice of the scientists, and while it fuels conflict it is more to slow the story than to advance it, culminating in the threat to use “the z-bomb,” a doomsday weapon of which “There are two or three at strategic positions around the globe” (apparently an accurate count wasn’t performed), echoed forty two years later with the Osterhagen Key of The Stolen Earth.

It is unfair to criticise for the budgetary and technical limitations of the story; the launch preparation of the z-bomb is more impressive than the pitiful landing of the Cybermen ship, and on several occasions the cast are forced to pretend they haven’t noticed the Cybermen sneaking up on them until the script allows them to, but more disconcerting is that many scenes don’t conclude by establishing a dramatic point, they just wither away and fade to black, the most obvious being that where the Cybermen demand names and dates of birth from the Snowcap personnel.

With the fourth episode lost to time, here it has been replaced by an excellent animated version combined with the original audio track, and it is hoped that when The Moonbase is released next year that the two animated episodes match this superlative quality.

That is not the only new material in the double disc package, which also features a commentary track featuring Anneke Wills and many of the supporting cast, moderated by Toby Hadoke, an informative documentary focusing on the production of The Tenth Planet entitled Frozen Out and some broader pieces on the second disc, opening with an archive interview entitled Doctor Who Stories where a vibrant Wills reminisces about her time on the show, discussing how working with William Hartnell, very set in his ways, could be difficult, but with clear affection for Patrick Troughton.

Each of the pieces is entertaining and insightful, from Frazer Hines commenting in Boys! Boys! Boys! that it was tacitly acknowledged that he (and in particular his kilt) was there for the girls in the audience while Wendy Padbury and Deborah Watling were there for the dads, a trend that reached its peak with Louise Jameson’s Leela, the thought echoed in Companion Piece where it is stated that the job of the female companion is to be sexy and not as smart as the Doctor while the job of the male companion is not to be as smart as the Doctor.

Historian Dominic Sandbrook’s Golden Age offers a celebratory overview of the series, containing the following observation: “In its effort to do more with less, to entertain and amaze us, the show has often been a pioneer of new techniques, but being in the vanguard means you’re effectively practicing in public, and everybody gets to see your mistakes.”

Curiously absent is any overview of the Doctor’s regenerations, and upon viewing this first occurrence it is indicated that the process is facilitated by the TARDIS, with the Doctor returning to his vessel before collapsing. Indeed, the majority of subsequent regenerations have taken place in or near the control room, the exceptions of the 4th to 5th and the 7th to 8th Doctors being the ones where he has experienced complications, and it is worth noting that despite the Time Lords exiling the Doctor to Earth and forcing a regeneration upon him, they ensured his TARDIS travelled with him, albeit disabled. With the fall of the Eleventh almost upon us though, perhaps this will be forthcoming on a future release.

In the final words of the first Doctor, “It’s far from being all over.”

Doctor Who – The Tenth Planet is now available on DVD

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