Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet
Encased in bodies of plastic and steel, aliens from Earth’s twin world have arrived to drain the planet dry of its energy. Only the Doctor stands in the way of utter destruction on a scale never before seen. But his success comes at a cost. After a lifetime of battling the forces of darkness, the Doctor makes the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the protection of the human race.
After establishing the character of the Doctor, William Hartnell endured several supporting cast changes, production team shifts and many other differences during his tenure. Doctor Who may have started as light children’s entertainment with a direction toward education, but in short order it transformed into a national institution, joining the many icons of the literary world. The program had grown into an international success and in his third year, Hartnell, a wise man recognizing the financial value of his contribution to the BBC, demanded more money. When this was refused, his third series was also his last, resulting in one of the most interesting developments in TV history.
The Tenth Planet was written by Dr. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis and is a wonderful example of Doctor Who in the 1960′s when cutting edge science was combined with imaginative fiction resulting in a near-timeless TV adventure serial. The Tenth Planet is a bridging story that marks the end of one era and the beginning of the next. What has since been referred to as a ‘base under siege’ is an unusually nail-biting piece of drama. The second most successful ‘monster’ after the Daleks, the Cybermen are truly terrifying in their first appearance. The action may be incredibly spare making this story appear far duller than it actually is, but the tension is prevalent in nearly every scene. The Doctor’s disappearance in episode 3 and triumphant resurgence in the final part is something that must be seen. Unfortunately, watching the Tenth Planet asks a lot of the viewer as much of the story’s conclusion exists only as still images and an audio track.
As a fan, I had come into Doctor Who in the 1980′s when the old order had changed- welcoming the youngest actor at the time, Peter Davison, into the leading role. In the spirit of the program’s 20th anniversary celebration, past adventures were screened showcasing the many faces and eras of Doctor Who’s past. Many of the episodes from 1964-1969 were sadly lost, making the experience a limited one. As such, my exposure to the 60′s era was very limited until much later when the local PBS station took a chance and purchased crusty black and white episodes to be screened on Saturday evenings. Hartnell’s Doctor took some time to grow on me, but when he did, the cranky yet alien eccentric became one of my most beloved heroes. It wasn’t until much much later that I had the opportunity to watch this story, his last outing in the part of the Doctor… but it is one his best.
The plot of the Tenth Planet is actually very simple. The Doctor and his two companions Ben and Polly arrive at Ice Station Snowcap in the future year 1986. The military instillation is monitoring a space expedition that has gone awry just as a new planet appears, the theoretical twin of Earth named Mondas. The Tenth Planet launches an assault on Snowcap base with a small guerrilla force of Cybermen, enhanced cybernetic inhuman beings without emotional capability. The Doctor and his companions are suspicious from the outset but as the very planet Mondas drains the Earth of energy, they are suspected as traitors to the human race by General Cutler whose son’s life hangs in the balance, his space capsule trapped between the warring worlds.
Famous for the introduction of a new monster and the staging of the first time the Doctor regenerates, the actual story of the Tenth Planet is rarely talked about. As a fan, I have been going through something of a Cyberman craze of late, unable to stop watching this story and the four subsequent adventures featuring the metallic creatures. In their first appearance, the Cybermen are quite horrifying. The design of a simple cloth outfit covered in plastic sheeting with metal accents at the joints enhances the concept that these were once human-like beings. The ghastly moment in which the Cyberman utters its first words is just bizarre. The actor’s mouth gapes open waiting for the voice actor Roy Skelton to speak his lines into the modulator. The result is chilling, completing the zombie-like status of the Cybermen. These are monsters that chose to become what they are, modifying their bodies with mechanical enhancements to cheat death ands losing more of their humanity with each alteration. Yet the Cybermen are a race of scavengers, forever looting what they need, be it raw material or human converts, to keep their race alive.
The crew of Snowcap are understandably tense and emotional, offering the perfect counterpart to the cold mechanical Cybermen who calmly arrive with a message of annihilation. The companions Ben and Polly are likewise emotional and react with disgust and horror at the Cybermen. They are also determined to survive, despite the overwhelming odds. When it becomes obvious that in order to stop the Cybermen General Cutler’s son must be sacrificed, the tension levels increase. Now the heroes not only have one enemy but two as Cutler is reticent in his desire to save his doomed son.
The common formula of Doctor Who four parters is the establishment of the setting in part one, the conflict or threat in part two, a run around in part three and a conclusive final fourth installment. Due to Hartnell’s illness at the time, much of the action of the Tenth Planet’s third episode is taken on by Michael Craze (Ben Jackson). Introduced just a few weeks before, Ben is a hot-heated cockney sailor who has more nerve than brains. Nevertheless, he is responsible for the most crucial plot point of the adventure in sabotaging Cutler’s ICBM aimed at Mondas.
When the Cybermen first arrive with a message of absolute death toward those not destined to be transformed into members of their race, Polly is distraught. The Cyberman points out that many all across the planet are dying every day yet no one does anything about it, pointing out that their overt inhuman cold composure is not that different from the conscious ignorance that the human race accepts as normal. This is ‘old school’ Doctor Who when the program was poignant, significant and entertaining all at once. Much like the Daleks, the Cybermen are dark reflections of ourselves if we forget what makes us human.
In the final installment, Hartnell roars into action like a lion, meeting the bravado of General Cutler in kind. It is the Doctor’s theory that the correct course of action is to wait for Mondas to disintegrate while it attempts to drain the life from the Earth. This goes against every instinct for survival that Cutler represents in his aggression as well as the cold logic of the Cybermen. In the end, the Doctor’s life force is drained as well, causing him to retreat to the TARDIS where he undergoes a rebirth into a new body (this is long before the process was named regeneration).
As much as I adore the Tenth Planet, I must admit that it is not for everyone. Much of the action is implied and with the loss of the final part, much of the enjoyment relies heavily on the patience of the viewer as still images and text streaming by the bottom of the screen attempt to make up for the loss of original material. Nevertheless, this is a crucial part of the Doctor Who mythos and as it is currently only available on VHS and online, a rare piece of of the puzzle.
William Hartnell took a part that forever changed both his career and the landscape of UK TV and crafted it into an iconic legacy. His last outing in the Tenth Planet is a noble exit that the current incarnation of the program should recognize. I heartily recommend seeking this story out and hope that it will be made available on DVD soon.