Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"The Tenth Planet"

Aired Oct 8– 29, 1966

4 Episodes

Story 29

Written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis

Directed by Derek Martinus


The TARDIS materializes in December 1986 at the entrance to a South Pole Space Tracking Station commanded by General Cutler. The scientists there are experiencing problems in controlling the return of a manned space capsule, and the Doctor uncovers that the problem is caused by the gravitational pull of another planet which has entered the solar system and is now heading for Earth. His theory is proven when the base is invaded by a force of alien Cybermen.

The Cybermen's world, Mondas, is draining energy from the Earth, and the situation will soon become critical. Although Ben and Cutler manage to destroy the first wave of attackers, the base is then overrun by a second. However, the scientists suddenly realize that the invaders are susceptible to radioactivity, and this suggests a means of fighting back. Using hand-held uranium rods, Ben and a group of the scientists are able to hold off and kill a number of Cybermen. In the end, Mondas disintegrates after absorbing too much energy, and all the remaining Cybermen collapse and die, having been totally dependent on their planet’s energy.

Throughout, the Doctor has become steadily weaker, and after the defeat of the Cybermen he hurries back to the TARDIS. Polly and Ben follow, and find him collapsed on the floor of the control room. As they watch, his face is transformed into that of a much younger, dark-haired man.


For obvious reasons, The Tenth Planet is one of the most important stories in the history of Doctor Who. Not only does it introduce antagonists that are one of the series’ most memorable, it also introduces the concept of regeneration; that amazing idea that the Doctor can renew his physical form when his current body is fatally damaged or worn out. Of course, that concept is a stroke of absolute genius, one that has allowed the series to continue for 50 years, and one that has allowed Doctor Who to constantly revitalize itself.

But, is The Tenth Planet any good as a story? Yes and no. The Cybermen are clearly a great concept for a villain. They represent humanity’s inherent distrust of technological advancement; the idea that our continual invention will dehumanize us over time. That is a resonant theme, and when you add the “body horror” aspect of a race of people who have replaced organics with the technological, and who want to do that to us, it ups the creepy factor significantly.

Some people have regarded the appearance of the Cybermen in this serial as not as impressive as they would be later, and I’m not sure I agree. The human hands and eyes and the cloth covered faces all indicate that there is something still organic under there, and I for one wondered what kind of nightmare existed under that cloth mask? What were those hands attached to? Were those eyeballs bolted into some sort of fleshy circuitry? I would in fact argue that with their subsequent increasingly robotic appearances, they lost a lot of the patchwork body horror component that works so well here.

The story is directed with Derek Martinus' customary energy and verve. This story feels miles away from the slower-paced stories of Hartnell's earlier seasons, and much like The War Machines, it acts like a harbinger to the zippier pace of the series moving forward.

That being said, their plan is not all that great, and the concept is filled with shoddy science. The idea of a new planet suddenly showing up in our solar system, and that planet being a sort of twin to Earth, is a really great concept. However, I have to wonder what kind of havoc that would wreak on our own planet to suddenly have a new celestial body so close, and that aspect is never even mentioned. Also, the Cybermen's plan ultimately fails because it was fated to do so. If the protagonists had done nothing but waited, then Mondas still would have been destroyed. That's hardly proactive storytelling.

The most common criticism hurled against this story is the fact that the First Doctor is such a minor participant in the story. How you feel about that largely depends on whether you take a Doylist or a Watsonian view when looking at these stories. Derived from the Sherlock Holmes stories, a Doylist view looks at storytelling from a real-life point of view, while a Watsonian one looks strictly within the universe of the story itself.

So, a Watsonian would be less likely to be disappointed with the Doctor's role, or at least would see how it makes sense. The Doctor is weakening throughout this story, eventually collapsing and regenerating. He even says his "old body is wearing a bit thin." The reduction of his role in the plot, though it's hardly satisfying, does make sense within the framework of the story.

The regeneration begins.
A Doylist will be more disappointed. They are going to view this as Hartnell's final story, and find his lack of a role in the story hugely unsatisfying given the regeneration stories to come. Comparing this to the celebratory atmosphere of Planet of the Spiders or The End of Time reveals a very shabby final outing for Hartnell. And that view point is not entirely wrong. However, if you take the Doylist view, then there's two other points to consider.

First, Hartnell was supposed to be much more involved. In the televised story, the Doctor collapses at the beginning of Part Three, and is unconscious until the following episode. Originally, Hartnell was supposed to appear in full in Part Three, but he called in sick and the production team wound up giving much of his lines to Ben. So, Hartnell's reduced role is not entirely the decision of the production team to deny him a swan song. It's more the result of a punishing production schedule that couldn't allow for a missed week of recording.

Second, the concept of regeneration was new and not entirely defined. From the Third Doctor forward, the production teams used the regeneration story to send out the respective Doctors in a blaze of glory, pitting him against an insurmountable threat that would force him to sacrifice himself. After the series came back in 2005, the Ninth Doctor referred to it as a way of "cheating death", implying that regeneration happens only when the Doctor is mortally damaged.

But none of that is implied here. The word regeneration isn't used in this story, or in the subsequent one. It's not used during the Second Doctor era. It's first used in Planet of the Spiders. The process that happens here, as described by the Second Doctor in the following story, is a form of "renewal." It's a subtle distinction, but one that suggests more of a healing or rejuvenating process rather than the almost literal rising from the dead of later stories. Of course, the subsequent approach is far more dramatic, so it makes sense that this is the one that became the standard.

My point here is that looking at The Tenth Planet in comparison to other regeneration stories may be unfair for a variety of reasons. As a story on its own, there's much to like. It's by no means perfect; I would never place it in the top ten Hartnell stories for any reason other than its historical qualities, but the Cybermen make a huge impact, the international flavour of the base works (aside from the complete lack of any women), Ben is terrific and while Polly is stuck making tea, she does get some good material when she tries to convince Barclay to act.

And Hartnell is great in the scenes that he's in. It's an absolute crime that no footage exists from the final episode, as we're prevented from seeing what I think would be some really great work from Hartnell. His wonderfully idiosyncratic performance as the Doctor was so iconic it's amazing that the series could survive the loss of such a powerful leading man. His interpretation of the character was so intertwined with his own personality, no other actor would ever play the Doctor the way he did, and he will be missed.

If anyone could follow William Hartnell, they would have to be a completely different performer, and one of the highest calibre, in order for the series to survive this momentous transition.

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