Welcome to the Eighteenth instalment of Who Review, my ongoing quest to watch and review all available episodes of SF’s longest running television series, Doctor Who. This week, we look at one of the most important and pivotal storylines in Doctor Who history, The Tenth Planet.
The Tenth Planet (4 Episodes)
08 October – 29 October 1966
The frustration of the lost Doctor Who episodes is no more apparent than in the case of The Tenth Planet. While episodes 1 – 3 have been recovered, the all-important 4th episode is missing. Only the final 40 seconds of the episode remain, due to the final scene being broadcast on an episode of the British children’s program Blue Peter.
Despite this, I thought it was essential that I review this story in full, due to the importance of The Tenth Planet in the development of the Doctor Who mythos. This is a key storyline, not merely because it introduces The Doctor’s second most famous enemies the Cybermen, but because it shows the first ever regeneration of the Doctor.
Thankfully, several industrious fans have reconstructed the final episode using audio recordings, stills photography and/or animation to bring the story to life. Furthermore, they’ve shared their work with Who fans via Youtube. So before I begin my review, I’d like to thank Youtube members Colonel Barker and Timelord1963 for helping to make this review possible. Check out their excellent work at:
Colonel Barker: http://www.youtube.com/user/colonelbarker
And now, onto the review…
The TARDIS arrives at the South Pole in the year 1986, near the Snowcap base. The base, under the command of General Cutler, is monitoring the Zeus IV space capsule, which is running a routine probe of the Earth’s atmosphere. Naturally, the Doctor, Ben and Polly are taken into custody by the soldiers at the base, but their arrival coincides with the Zeus mission going awry. Unusual readings on the spaceship’s instruments lead to the discovery of a new planet careening towards Earth. With the Zeus IV experiencing power losses, the Snowcap crew begin arrangements to abort the mission.
Watching proceedings, the Doctor identifies the planet as Mondas, the mystery tenth planet in our solar system and Earth’s former sister planet. He believes the inhabitants of the planet are coming to Earth.
Almost on cue, three robotic creatures land outside the base, killing the guards and disguising themselves in their victim’s furs to gain access to the station. With the Snowcap crew distracted by their efforts to return Zeus IV safely to Earth, the invaders are able to infiltrate and seize control of the facility.
With time running out for Zeus IV, Polly and the Snowcap crew plead with the invaders to allow them to save the capsule and its crew. The creatures ignore their pleas, revealing that the lives of the crew, and of all humans, mean nothing to them. They divulge that they are Cybermen, the inhabitants of the approaching planet Mondas. Once they were humans, but they gradually replaced their bodies with mechanical parts, including eliminating the weakness of emotion from their brains. They explain their plan; Mondas is absorbing energy from Earth and will soon destroy it, and the villains plan to transport humans back to Mondas and transform them into new Cybermen.
This is our first introduction to the Cybermen and honestly, it’s not what I expected. Being familiar with later iterations of these villains, it’s interesting seeing them in their formative stages. Firstly, they’re more human in appearance, their faces covered in a stocking-like mask rather than the armoured look of later Cybermen. Their armour is more piecemeal and less developed. Most importantly, they speak in a bizarre, modulated tone, their pitch dropping and rising from word to word. The effect is equally strange and humorous, sometimes hilarious but often creepy.
It’s interesting comparing the first appearance of the Cybermen with that of the Daleks. What impressed me with the Dalek’s first storyline was how fully-realised they were as a race; about 90% of what we associate with the Doctor’s most famous enemies is present at the very beginning. The Cybermen, however, are very much a work in progress, with so much still to be added to their character and mythology. In this first appearance, the Cybermen are even given individual names. In all future appearances, they would be identified only by their rank.
After his attempt to take down a Cyberman fails, Ben is imprisoned in the Snowcap projection room. There, he rigs up the projector to blind any Cybermen who try to enter. He manages to overcome his Cyberman captor and steal his weapon. Sneaking back into the main control room, he hands the weapon over to General Cutler, who kills the remaining two Cybermen. Cutler then notifies Space Command HQ in Geneva of the situation. They inform him that his son, astronaut lieutenant Terry Cutler, has been sent on a mission to rescue the doomed Zeus IV.
General Cutler is making plans to secure Snowcap from further invasion when one of his technician’s detects the approach of a Cybermen invasion fleet. Deciding that the time is right to take the fight to the Cybermen, the General decides to employ the powerful Z-Bomb to destroy Mondas. Ben and Polly try to talk him out of it, revealing that the Doctor believes that Mondas will destroy itself once it has absorbed too much energy. Unfortunately, the Doctor is not present to back them up. Feeling weak and ill, he has collapsed unconscious and been taken to a cabin to recover.
Fortunately, Ben and Polly are supported by Dr. Barclay, Snowcap’s chief scientist, who’s concerned that the release of radiation from the exploding planet would cause great loss of life on Earth. Unswayed by their arguments, Cutler orders his men to lock Ben in the cabin with the Doctor.
Barclay frees Ben, telling him how to sabotage the rocket and prevent it from reaching Mondas. Unfortunately, Cutler catches Ben in the act and tries to launch the rocket, but its engines fail thanks to Ben’s actions. Enraged, Cutler threatens to kill Ben, Barclay, and the Doctor, who has now regained consciousness. Before he can shoot them, however, he is killed by a newly arrived squad of Cybermen.
The new Cybermen commander orders that the rocket be dismantled so that it no longer poses a threat to Mondas. The Doctor suggests that it would be a good idea to go along with this, and tells the others to play for time. He argues that Mondas cannot absorb much more energy now. Ben and Dr. Chapman are decked out in radiation suits and taken to the launch pad to begin work. Their Cybermen guards stay outside the room as they work.
The Cybermen invasion begins in earnest, with the invaders seizing control of Space Command in Geneva. The Snowcap Cybermen, meanwhile, take Polly back to their spaceship as a hostage.
Back at Snowcap, the Doctor comes to the realisation that the Cybermen plan to use the Z-Bomb to destroy Earth and save Mondas, as the tenth planet’s energies continue to build. He communicates this revelation to Ben and the others over the intercom before the Cybermen silence him and take him aboard their ship.
In the radiation room, Ben questions why the Cybermen are using “inferior” humans to dismantle the rocket, and why they don’t enter the launch pad. He surmises that the Cybermen are susceptible to radiation.
Extrapolating on this discovery, Dr. Barclay suggests using the rods from the reactor chamber as a portable weapon against the Cybermen. Having uncovered their enemy’s weakness, they use the rods to regain control of the base. Things look bleak, though, when more Cybermen arrive.
At that very moment, Mondas finally overloads and explodes, disabling all of the remaining Cybermen. Cutler’s son contacts the base from Zeus IV, telling them that his ship is now back to full power. Geneva informs Barclay that the Cyberman threat has ended.
Meanwhile, Ben makes his way to the Cybermen’s ship to rescue the Doctor and Polly. As they make their way back to the TARDIS, the Doctor appears fatigued and confused. Entering the time machine, the Doctor falls to the floor. Stunned, his companions watch as he regenerates for the first time, transforming into a younger man.
While not referred to as “regeneration” in this episode, this is the first time we see the Doctor transform. It’s a powerful moment, and I can only imagine what viewers in 1966 must have felt watching the main character suddenly turn into a new man.
The transformation scene was necessary due to William Hartnell’s failing health and the need to write him out of the show, but it’s a credit to the production team that they developed such an imaginative way to remove his version of the Doctor. They may not have realised it at the time, but this creative decision plays a major role in ensuring the show’s longevity, by creating an in-story way to replace the actors portraying the Doctor.
Mysterious planets, alien cyborg conquerors, hard SF principles with a strong scientific emphasis: The Tenth Planet offers a lot to the hardcore SF fan. It is very much reflective of its era, highlighting the fears and challenges of a world embroiled in the space race and eagerly learning new facts about our galaxy every day.
And so William Hartnell departs Doctor Who, having remained the one constant for almost four seasons. I enjoyed his depiction and development of the Doctor, his paternal relationship with his younger companions, his slightly befuddled and often grumpy nature, his keen deductive skills and inventiveness. It’s a shame to see him leave, but it’s apparent in these last few storylines that Hartnell just isn’t able to continue on in the show.
Fortunately, it’s not the last time we see Hartnell as the Doctor, as he returns almost six years later for The Three Doctors.
Ben grew on me a little during this storyline. While his “everyman” qualities are still more annoying than endearing, he at least showed resourcefulness in battling the Cybermen. With William Hartnell’s health issues limiting the Doctor’s activities during these episodes, Ben is forced to carry much of the story.
I’m not entirely certain what purpose Polly serves, both to the show in general and to this storyline in particular. She spends much of her time doing very little and is often seemingly forgotten by the writers. She lacks the resourcefulness and youthful energy of past Who companions Vicki and Susan, or the knowledge base and individuality of Barbara. Even Dodo seemed more involved in stories than Polly has to date.
Although not fully realised villains, this original iteration of the Cybermen is fascinating. I love the SF elements of their origins: the mysterious tenth planet, the removal of emotions and the physical enhancement through technological means. Unfortunately, the production design on the villains leaves a little to be desired and is at times laughable.
Still, there’s potential apparent in the Cybermen that obviously comes to fruition in their later appearances, especially when they become mainstay villains during the Patrick Troughton era.
Despite some flaws, The Tenth Planet is an engaging SF story, probably the most hard-SF story to date. It is also a fitting send-off for William Hartnell.
A new era dawns as the Patrick Troughton age of Doctor Who begins. Unfortunately, we can’t see it, as the bulk of season 4 is lost. So we skip ahead to season 5, as the Doctor and his companions enter The Tomb of the Cybermen.