Doctor Who – The Tenth Planet

The Tenth Planet is a landmark story for several obvious reasons (it’s the final regular outing for Hartnell’s Doctor and the Cyberman make their first appearance). It also introduces a story type that will become very familiar over the next year or two (base under siege) as well as anticipating the science heavy format of season seven (the numerous scenes of Snowcap personnel attempting to talk down the doomed capsule could have fitted snugly into The Ambassadors of Death, for example).

There’s a lot going on, not least a bullish performance by Robert Beatty as General Cutler. Like several future base under siege commanders, Cutler takes no nonsense (to put it mildly) and as the stakes grow higher his sanity begins to crumble. So by the end of the story he poses as great a danger as the Cybermen (cf Jarvis Bennett in The Wheel in Space).

Beatty’s not only the serial’s leading guest star, he’s pretty much the lead until the beginning of episode four. That means that William Hartnell, in his final story, has been relegated to guest star status in his own series.

As ill health forced him to miss episode three and the last episode is missing, the first two episodes are where we get our final opportunity to see Hartnell in action. And he doesn’t have a great deal to do – the Doctor, Ben and Polly, once they’re brought into the Snowcap base, are largely passive observers.  The Doctor does attempt to share his knowledge with Cutler, but he’s rudely rebuffed and forced to sit on the sidelines.

Ben gets a little bit of action in episode two when he destroys a Cyberman (and is the recipient of some of Hartnell’s lines in episode three) whilst Polly joins the Doctor in attempting to confront the emotionless Cybermen.

Ah yes, the Cybermen. Visually it’s fair to say that they’re unforgettable, although it’s easy to understand why the costume was swiftly amended for later appearances (that lamp on the top of their head must have been very uncomfortable). But although they look rather comic and hastily flung together, there’s also something deeply disturbing about the Cybermen Mk 1 – the voices especially.

Their conversational tone (“that was really most unfortunate. You should not have done that”) is one reason why. Plus when would you ever again hear the Cybermen using the word please? And the scene where their leader stalks around the command centre asking everybody their name and age, etc is another of those odd moments that really stands out.

Kit Pedler seems to stick pretty close to scientific fact during the early Snowcap tracking room scenes. But when Mondas makes its first appearance we’re firmly in the land of science fantasy. Mondas, the twin of Earth, somehow broke free of its orbit and has been zooming around the galaxy for some considerable time. Now the Cybermen have returned (how?) as their planet is dying and they decide that Earth should supply the energy they need.

And as a nice bonus, they’ll take the entire human race over to Mondas and convert them into Cybermen.

Many Cyber stories feature madcap plotlines that make very little sense when you examine them closely, so it’s good to see that The Tenth Planet begins this tradition very securely. Attack of the Cybermen did make a half-hearted attempt to explain how Mondas could move at will, but it’s best not to worry about it too much (after all, the Moon did very much the same thing in Space 1999).

The Snowcap base is a pleasingly international one. The far off setting of 1986 (twenty years in the future) helps to explain this – no doubt it was hoped by then that the world’s top nations would have pooled their resources in order to explore space. Mind you, it’s impossible not to notice that the top dog is an American (I know Beatty was Canadian, but I think it’s most likely he was playing a US character) whilst the Russians are nowhere to be seen ….

But although an American is in charge, I feel a sense of national (British) pride when observing that the chief scientist, Barclay (David Dodimead), hails from the UK. We may not have the big bucks of our American cousins, but plucky British know-how is clearly still valued in the future (it’s somehow fitting that Barclay wears a comfortable cardigan rather than a futuristic overall).

The accents come thick and fast. The soon to be bumped off Tito, played by Shane Shelton, is clearly an Italian (he’s fond of singing La donna è mobile and saying ‘Mama Mia’ just to hammer this point home). An American sergeant (played by John Brandon) is equally strident, but since Brandon was really an American we’ll have to cut him some slack.

By episode three, Cutler’s sanity is ebbing away at a rate of knots. The tipping point is the realisation that his son, Terry (Callen Angelo), has been sent into space in a doomed attempt to rescue the Zeus 4 probe (which, due to the influence of Mondas, has already been destroyed). I like the way there’s a slight softening of Cutler’s implacable nature when he first speaks to Terry – he begins informally (“hello son”) but instantly seems to stiffen and become more business-like.

It’s the last human touch we see from him, as he then decides that Mondas has to be destroyed with the Z-bomb (“It’s a doomsday weapon, Mister, and rightly primed it could split that planet in half”). Denied authority to use it by Geneva (I wonder if UNIT were just down the corridor from Space Control?) he elects to do so anyway.

The fact it might cause millions of deaths on Earth seems not to worry him (an obvious pointer to his disturbed mental state). By this point he’s got tunnel vision – if Mondas is destroyed then his son has a chance of life and anything else that happens will just be collateral damage.

The small advance party of Cybermen were destroyed in episode two and reinforcements don’t feature greatly in the next episode (apart from a film sequence where they’re easily beaten off).  This, in addition to the way they’re dispatched in the final episode when they do reappear in force, means that – as yet – they’ve yet to establish their reputation as a powerful or implacable foe.  Indeed, it’s probably best to regard The Tenth Planet as a tale somewhat divorced from the Cybermen’s later exploits – the Cybs, as we’ll grow to love them, don’t appear until The Moonbase.

The absence of the Cybermen, not to mention the Doctor, helps to explain why episode three sags a little. But the pace picks up again at the beginning of the final episode as Cutler, on learning that the rocket has been sabotaged, now totally flips and the re-emergence of the Doctor doesn’t do anything to cheer him up ….

Finally, the Doctor begins to take control (typical that his best scenes are mainly confined to the one episode that’s missing) after the Cybermen reappear and kill Cutler. For the first half of the episode the lapel-clutching Doctor of old takes his final bow, assuming temporary command of the Snowcap base with ease and entering into negotiations with the Cybermen.

These scenes are bittersweet, especially since we know that the end is now so near. The second half of the episode finds the Doctor weak and disorientated, suggesting that he’d had to summon up all his remaining energy in order to confront the Cybermen.

His penultimate line (“It’s far from being all over”) is a strangely prophetic one and would have been apt final words for him (“keep warm” lacks a little something, but it’s still quite touchingly delivered).

As for the Cybermen, they’re all destroyed when Mondas disintegrates, which is exactly what the Doctor predicated earlier on. Had Cutler taken his advice, he might have lived to see his son again (the destruction of Mondas meant that Zeus 5 was able to return home safely).

There’s something very touching about the Hartnell/Troughton handover. Unlike all his successors, Doctor Who was really Hartnell’s last hurrah. He’d have a handful of stage and television roles during the next few years, but a mixture of ill heath and disillusionment with the parts he was being offered means that Doctor Who stands as his career epitaph.

It was by no means the whole of his career though – anyone who’s ever enjoyed his time as the Doctor would be well advised to investigate his film work as there’s plenty to enjoy there.

We often hear that it was the Daleks who secured Doctor Who‘s long term future. They certainly played a part (and I’m sure the BBC enjoyed all the merchandising money) but they weren’t in the show week in and week out. But William Hartnell was (apart from the odd occasion when he was enjoying a well-earned holiday) and had the series lacked a strong central character able to engage the interest of the public it’s doubtful whether Doctor Who would have run past its initial 13 episodes.

Thank you and goodbye, Bill. I’m going to miss you.