Doctor Who Reviews: The Tenth Planet

Imagine the scene. 2010. No DVDs. No alternative channels. Not even repeats. Say that The End Of Time was shown to a rapturous audience, and then it wasn’t heard of again. Now imagine that the master tapes are deleted some years later, with only Episode One turning up at a Bring ’n’ Buy sale in a musty old church hall in 2059. All that’s left of Episode Two are screen shots, the soundtrack (complete with Murray’s Pompous Choir drowning everything out) and narration from a wizened David Tennant.

That’s what The Tenth Planet is like. A landmark story in the Doctor Who canon, and the last episode has sadly gone AWOL.

Admittedly, there is footage of The Doctor’s regeneration (well, change - in those days, regeneration was unheard of) and creaky poor-quality frames of the lead-up, but it’s such a shame that the all-important preceding 20 minutes are reduced to stills and a soundtrack. We’re told that The Doctor isn’t his usual self, and that even by his standards, he’s feeling the strain of the years: “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin,” he tells a concerned Polly. This recurring theme of the last episode contributes much to the tension of the last episode. Normally, The Doctor’s always got out of any scrapes, but this time, it’s devastatingly different.

Still, if you can get past this annoyance, then The Tenth Planet holds up considerably well. Not only does Hartnell’s final bow mark this out as an all-important Who story, the Cybermen also make their début. The emotionless metal meanies are a terrifying, seemingly unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Today, I guess the Cybermen are taken for granted. Their power has been slowly diminished over the years. In the 1980s, they were reduced to slightly over-emotional stooges. More recently, they’ve just been reduced to stomping about with that ever-annoying catchphrase of “Delete!” It’s hard to tell whether they’re the new Daleks or emotionless Simpsons characters.

Back in 1966, though, they certainly had more impact, partly because they were a brand new, innovative concept. And partly because of those blank-eyed, skull-like features, which apparently reduced Peter Davison to a screaming wreck behind the sofa.

At the age of 15.

The Cybermen are unsurprisingly up there with the Daleks for the Doctor Who baddies that everyone remembers. Whereas the Daleks fall back on their inherent, terrifying racism as the reason for destroying other races, the Cybermen merely fall back on logic. Once human, the Cybermen have since lost all traces of emotion, and so simply stay alive by threatening the humans with extinction. In the case of The Tenth Planet, this is a result of the Cybermen’s home planet Mondas draining the life out its twin planet Earth. At least the humans are offered some sort of life line, although if it’s a choice between being converted into a Cyberman or death, any sane person would take the Six Feet Under option any day of the week. The impact of becoming a Cyberman has always been suggested in stories such as Tomb Of The Cybermen, but it was only recently in The Age Of Steel that we saw how devastating this actually is.

The Cybermen of The Tenth Planet are certainly different to what we are used to. They are a lot more cumbersome for one thing, as they balance whopping great lanterns on their heads. Good thing they don’t feel pain, since the weight of those lanterns would make for very sore heads. The accordion chest devices are also a lot clunkier, so much so that I keep thinking the Cybermen are going to break out in a quick burst of The Irish Rover. Coupled with their slightly off-kilter sing-song voices, I’m surprised that there was no SingalongACybermen long player doing the rounds in time for Christmas 1966.

They are still an impressive dummy run for what was to come, as is The Tenth Planet as a whole. The story’s a template for the now-familiar 'Base Under Siege' adventure that would become a recognisable mainstay of the Troughton era. It’s a simple pattern: baddies threaten base that controls weather or gravity (in this case it’s a space tracking station at the South Pole). Doctor and his friends become embroiled in the battle. Fighting and death ensue. Doctor devises a neat solution. Doctor defeats baddie. Doctor goes home. The simplicity of this is what makes this kind of tale work, especially for the more casual viewer - and while this sort of tale would be told too often in the future, here, it’s a welcome novelty.

The Snowcap base also paves the way for things to come in that the staff always tend to be the same. There’s always a shouty, angsty boss, who’s about as diplomatic as Gordon Ramsay during high-peak restaurant service. In this case it’s General Cutler, a man that can presumably be heard on Mondas, such is his abrasive, shouty attitude. That said, he’s clearly a family man at heart, since he always puts the welfare of his son (who’s been conscripted into the whole shenanigan) first - this character trait contrasts nicely with the Cybermen’s lack of emotion, and Robert Beatty is very convincing as a man who, above all, puts family before duty, even if it means endangering others.

In addition to Cutler, The Tenth Planet also features a worthy, if mixed attempt at a multi-racial crew, another hallmark of some of the future Troughton stories. While Earl Cameron does a superb job, regrettably there is also Tito the Stereotyped Italian, whose reaction to his first sighting of Polly is about as subtle as Alf Garnett guesting on Question Time. “Beleeeeeseeeemoooo!!!” They might as well have brought in the gondolier man from the Cornetto adverts and have done with it.

Mercifully, there’s no attempt to make 1986 look vastly different in terms of dated fashions or trends. There’s not one Bono-esque mullet to be had, so thank your lucky stars. Sadly, though, none of the other Snowcap staff really stand out, coming across as a faceless bunch, although David Dodimead is very good as Barclay, a desperate man who’s even reduced to disobeying his crazed boss’s instructions in order to save lives. There’s always a rubbish boss who’s reduced to an off-screen voice on a tinny speaker or a small TV screen. Wigner is the first example of a boss who plainly does naff all work - apart from finding the time to bark misjudged orders to his hapless employee. The rest of the time, he’s presumably lounging around swilling Cognac and puffing on the most expensive cigars that a 'Base Under Siege' boss can buy.

Ben and Polly get to handle much of the action in The Tenth Planet, and Michael Craze and Anneke Wills continue to impress. Which is sad in a way, because The Doctor’s not exactly the centre of attention here. He does get a good face-off with the Cybermen (“Emotions. Love! Pride! Hate! Fear! Have you no emotions, sir?”) but apart from this, Hartnell gets a raw deal. The Doctor hardly gets anything to do in the first episode, he’s absent throughout the third and is reduced to sitting around and looking worried in the final part. It’s taken for granted today that Doctor actors get loads to do in their swansongs, so to see Hartnell get such a small slice of the action is a big disappointment.

Mind you, the forthcoming Twice Upon A Time looks set to fill in some of the gaps by the looks of things...

I wonder what 1966 audiences made of the final moments of The Tenth Planet. Maybe they thought that The Doctor’s new face was a trick, just like his disappearance at the end of The Ark. It’s really only in The Power Of The Daleks that we feel the implications of what’s happened. For the moment though, savour the transformation sequence, because for its time, it’s very impressive indeed. A classic case of serendipity, as Shirley Coward, the vision mixer, chanced upon a faulty screen, which caused that now-familiar distorted flare as Hartnell’s features blur and explode into a distorted whiteness before settling down into those of Troughton’s.

Just when you thought that Doctor Who couldn’t surprise you any more, along comes that all-important last scene of The Tenth Planet to yank the rug out from under your feet. A fabulous climax to an enjoyable, well-directed adventure yarn.

Now if only we could have the final episode back…

* It's the end of the road for the 1st Doctor's incarnation. Read all about the 3rd & 4th here!