Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Original Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet (Story 29, 1966)

We've reached the end of our journey with the original Doctor Who. This 29th serial marks the final ongoing appearance of William Hartnell as the Doctor and an overall changing of the order.

It's been a long time since Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright followed an unearthly child to a junkyard in Totter's Lane, a long time since Coal Hill, Skaro, Cathay and Marinus. It was three years worth of television and five years of reviews on this weblog. In that time, we were introduced not only to the gruff, grandfatherly Doctor and his granddaughter Susan, but also to the villainous Daleks whose arrival always seemed to herald the loss of one companion or another. Susan stayed behind on Earth in 2165 after the crew of the TARDIS foiled the Dalek invasion. When the Daleks tried to chase them down across the fourth dimension, Ian and Barbara commandeered their ship and made back for London. In the course of unravelling the Daleks' masterplan, two companions - the Trojan Katerina and special agent from the future, Sara Kingdom - were killed.

In The Tenth Planet, we get better acquainted with the Doctor's newest companions, the flavourless and generic Ben and Polly. We also meet for the first time another of the Doctor's most enduring villains, the Cybermen. We also briefly meet a whole new Doctor, as the Time Lord regenerates for the first time. It is just so unfortunate that, besides being one of the serials purged from the BBC archives, it is more of a swan song than the kind of triumphal and heroic climax that practically every Doctor has enjoyed since. We are indeed a long way from the wonderful historical pieces and inventive Science Fiction of those first seasons.

Following their encounter with 17th century smugglers, the Doctor, Ben and Polly land in the middle of Antarctica in 1986. There they happen across a United Nations base charting the course of an orbiting rocket. Something goes awry, as something always does, and the rocket is pulled off course by the arrival of a new planet to the solar system... A planet that appears to be an carbon copy of the Earth. Not only that, but the strange new planet is draining energy from our own planet, which further endangers the life of the son of the base general, who has been sent up to the stratosphere to rescue the previous mission.

Only the Doctor knows what is up, and he is in fine form through the first episode of this four-episode serial. He is well aware that this new world is Earth's twin planet of Mondas and that it is home to an invading army of cybernetically-enhanced beings known as the Cybermen. The base discover this for themselves when the machine men land and take over the complex. Talking with an unnerving robotic sing-song voice, these faceless monsters are devoid of emotion and coolly discuss their plans to render the Earth a lifeless husk and its citizens into beings like themselves.

However, in this first episode we already see the Doctor falling into the background. The real actors on the stage are Ben, Polly and the soldiers and scientists of the UN. At the outset of the second episode, the Doctor falls suddenly and mysteriously ill and is persona non grata through the middle of still-missing fourth episode. He only revives for long enough to be captured by the Cybermen and rendered ineffectual once more.

Hartnell gives what little he has been given his full attention. Compared to the drab characters and the new style of Sci-Fi that is inaugurated with this serial, he practically leaps off the screen. He is so boisterous and authoritative that incapacitating him with a "worn out" body is practically the only way to prevent him from stealing the show. Given that it is his own show, though, one would have preferred it.

It is quite unfortunate that he is sidelined so quickly and thoroughly. He does not even get to play a meaningful part in the downfall of the Cybermen. Rather than doing anything to halt their apocalyptic invasion, he merely utters that Mondas will explode of itself by overloading on Earth's energy, leaving the rest of the cast to prevent the launch of a Z-Bomb that could potentially destroy both planets. Otherwise, everyone waits. Certainly the Doctor is right, but that is all. The new villains don't even get an opportunity to claim his life as a notch in their belt: he dies of old age. In the end, Ben runs along to the Cybermen ship and rescues the Doctor and Polly in enough time for the Time Lord to stumble back to the TARDIS. Collapsing on the floor, he begins regenerating into his new body.

By this fourth season, perhaps a new Doctor really was necessary. Gone is the surly, aged figure who matched wits with cavemen, Aztec priests, Robespierre, Kublai Kahn, Caesar Nero, the Time Meddler, Celestial Toymaker and the Daleks, an artifact of a different time. In his place is a recorder-playing space pixie more suited to the different sort of Science Fiction that the Cybermen brought with them (and would again in numerous serials). Patrick Troughton gives a run at a straightforward historical in the 32nd story, The Highlanders, but it's just not his cup of tea. From then on it's Cybermen, Yetis, more Cybermen, moonbases, Krotons, Space Pirates, the Void, and finally the admission that the Doctor is a member of a race known as the Time Lords. It is really here that modern Doctor Who begins.

Nevertheless, the original Doctor Who, his companions and his unique brand of adventure will always remain in my heart as the quintessential version of the Time Lord from Gallifrey.


Dave Wilks said...

I really liked the Cybermen in this. With their bulky attachments, gaping mouths and disco voices. About as inhuman as they ever got.

After this, they got more streamlined and lost some of what them such effective monsters in "Tenth Planet".

Cory Gross said...

My favourite version of them are the 2006 redesign... The really heavy, Art Deco looking ones. But I totally agree that their original form with the gaping mouths and voice is creepy as hell.

Thanks for the comment!