Companions: Ben and Polly
Written by: Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis
Directed by: Derek Martinus
Background & Significance: Arguably, "The Tenth Planet" is the most important Doctor Who story of all time. I mean, really, the only other stories that seem to have this much weight are the original story ("An Unearthly Child") and the recent reboot from 2005, "Rose". But still, even if those are more important ("An Unearthly Child" perhaps more than "Rose" because without it there could be no "Rose"), "The Tenth Planet" is right there at the top, and I defy you to name a more important story. "The Tenth Planet" establishes a paradigm that managed to keep Doctor Who on the air for... forever really. Everything since "The Tenth Planet" has been completely defined by it because without "The Tenth Planet" there would be no other Doctor Who stories. And why, you ask? Cuz who cares?
At the time of his regeneration, William Hartnell was getting quite ill and increasingly more incapable of performing the rigorous day-in day-out routine of Doctor Who. I mean, this even comes after his health being less than perfect before he started working on the show, but it only deteriorated as he went on. Of course, because the show was proving popular enough that the BBC didn't want to cancel it because of the limitations of one ailing actor, producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis sought to replace Hartnell with another actor, putting into motion a notion that had started with the previous production team of John Wiles and Donald Tosh. Then again, they weren't actually thinking about Hartnell. They were more concerned about Hartnell's stubbornness and how he would get in the way and fight their attempts to divert the show's course from what Hartnell had seen as "the show's original vision", which he thought was his duty to uphold now that the original production team (Verity Lambert, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, etc.) had all left him behind.
When approached towards the end of his third season, Lloyd very respectfully asked Hartnell to bow out, citing his illness and increasing fragility as the main cause for concern. Both Hartnell and his wife consented to the choice with the knowledge that the show would go on but with a different actor. Hartnell supposedly only had two stipulations: that the show not forget the work he had done with the character and to honor his vision at the very least, and that they get Patrick Troughton for the job. The latter is a story for another day, but the former is something that has... at the very least... been observed and respected in the forty five years since that first regeneration. It's a testament to what came later that no one ever really forgot Hartnell or his contribution to the show, and that his Doctor is no less recognizable than any other Doctor that came after him.
So that brings us to "The Tenth Planet", the second story of the show's fourth season and the first of the show's fourth recording block (the previous story, "The Smugglers" was recorded at the end of the third recording block that the show might stay ahead of schedule a little bit, at least at the beginning) and it really is a transitionary story. Tag-team written by then-scientific advisor Kit Pedler and then-story editor Gerry Davis, we're left with a milestone, turning point story. Amidst our slowly weakening and dying main character we have a completely batshit insane story introducing one of The Doctor's most famous and enduring foes, The Cybermen. It's also the big transitional turning point for the Innes Lloyd era, or indeed the Troughton era coming up. No more are Lloyd and Davis stuck with stories commissioned by the previous production team. Now they're doing their own stories and suddenly we have a new paradigm: The Base Under Siege.
Can you already tell that this one's a little important? But I suppose the bigger question is, "What else is there beyond that?" If you may allow me to quote the most underrated Doctor who ever lived one last time: "Hmmmm...."
So let's get to it!
It’s weird that that happens. Innes Lloyd hired Kit Pedler to be the production team’s scientific advisor, hoping to introduce a more grounded science realism into the show, which had been (in Lloyd’s eyes) a bit willy nilly with the science. It’s your standard response. Nathan-Turner and Bidmead thought the same thing when Nathan-Turner took over. And then the show gets away from that into the more fantastical. It’s the same old same old. But here it’s differentish. Here, Pedler was around to come up with cool sci-fi ideas they could use on the show. It was he, remember, who came up with the premise for “The War Machines” and it’s he who comes up with the idea now.
If this is the level of Pedler’s writing, I don’t see why they didn’t let him write more. This episode alone is all about The Doctor, Ben, and Polly arriving at the Antarctic mission control base (why there’s a mission control base in the middle of cold-as-frak nowhere is beyond me) and attempting to suss out the impending crisis of the crash landing spaceship. Now, "The Tenth Planet" as a story really doesn’t have much of anything to do with the crashing spaceship (that element will go away slash evolve in the next part and then in the one after that) because the scope of the story gets much much ludicrously bigger, but it’s interesting to note that this episode has nothing to do with the main A-story of “The Tenth Planet.”
See, instead of giving us tons of focus on the incoming Tenth Planet (more on that coming up) or the arrival/promise of the Cybermen, the episode distracts us with the astronaut space capsule plot, which is something much simpler and easier to convey as far as stakes and drama go in the first episode. Perhaps more importantly, this storyline is more immediately engaging than the slow buildup of the arrival of Mondas and the batshit insanity that’s about to go down in the next few episodes. I like that, though, and it’s something I’d never noticed. And it is a brilliant way of foreshadowing what’s going to happen with Mondas through the rest of the story. So mad props to Pedler on that one.
This is probably the best place to judge Hartnell, because we’re still early on in the story, he’s not in episode three, and episode four is a Reconstruction. But the thing that strikes me about it is the… tone at the beginning of seeing him here. We start with the TARDIS landing in Antarctica and The Doctor taking a look out the scanner for one last time. And… I’m sure this is not something that was intentional, although maybe it was. But I wonder how much of this story was constructed and directed in such a way that the writing team of Pedler/Davis and the director Derek Martinus were insinuating that… tone of foreboding that regeneration stories always seem to have.
I dunno. I quite like this. I quite like the slow revelation of Mondas, and the way The Doctor knows what’s coming. I love that The Cybermen are marching in from the distance already in this, their first appearance, something that won’t ever go away in any Cybermen story that’s happened since. And I love that reveal of the Cybermen at the end, how they brutally kill the entire search party and then kill everyone else, although I have to wonder why they tricked him with that ridiculous cloak gag. NOT THAT I’M COMPLAINING ABOUT IT. I just think it’s bloody hilarious and absolutely fantastic.
That’s exactly what the show should do and this first part, while not the most amazing or tremendously mindblowing first part, is undeniably solid and has me quite interested to continue on. First parts are rarely anything other than “solid”, so it’s good to know we’re at least on course for something watchable and not anything that’s vaguely reminiscent of last week.
Watching iconic stories like this some forty five years later, there’s always two different things that pop into my head. The first is seeing The Cybermen as they first appeared, as the first, real, legitimate monster-threat for the series in… a good long while. Since The Daleks, really. Before this were the War Machines which, while cool, hardly constituted a real lasting threat that could feasibly return. Good one off villains, they were. Before them was The Celestial Toymaker, who was a bad guy, not a monster threat, and before him were a series of one off villains who never really could return. I mean… The Monoids and Zarbi could hardly return as consistently as The Daleks could.
Now, as a point of fact, I appreciate the ambition in creating the Cybermen with that in mind, but I think attempting such a daunting task was…. not going to succeed as much as they would have liked. I mean, The Daleks were almost a complete accident, if you get right down to it, or rather, they worked on a purely serendipitous level, a perfect storm of writing and production design and story and timing and The Daleks definitely propelled Doctor Who into its new direction of sci-fi adventure storytelling rather than being an educational show.
Starting with this episode, The Earth is under attack. The Cybermen and their planet Mondas (more on that in a minute) have started to encroach upon Earth and its resources and the three Cybermen who infiltrate the Antarctic base (Krang, Jarl, and the other one) are heralds of the forthcoming apocalypse by Mondas and (for the first part of the episode) completely overpower and takeover the Antarctic base. Enter the Base Under Siege story, the staple of the Troughton era, a bitter fight of good vs. evil as the good attempts to hold their ground while the evil constantly encroaches on them.
It’s the sorta thing that becomes the norm for just about every Troughton story. “Power of the Daleks”, “The Moonbase”, “Tomb of the Cybermen”, “The Abominable Snowmen”, “The Ice Warriors”, “Fury from the Deep”, “Wheel in Space”, “The Dominators”, “The Invasion”, “Seeds of Death” (and arguably others) are all base under siege stories (or some variation on that theme). But that really starts here, and just like the Daleks created a new paradigm of action and adventure and sci-fi bombast within the language of Doctor Who, so too did the Cybermen create this new base under siege form of story.
Which brings me to Mondas.
Okay. So. I haven’t really talked about it on this blog before because… why would I have? Mondas as a story is really only integral to two Doctor Who stories (and one of those is a Big Finish audioplay) so it’s really only important here. Anytime the Cybermen show up after this it’s never featuring Mondas (the why of that we’ll discuss in part four) because the Cybermen are looking to take over Earth or they’re on a different planet (Telos) or hanging out in space on space stations. Mondas only appears one time (the first time) and only really stays relevant as a mythological touchstone through which The Cybermen have an origin story.
Mondas, to me, is one of those totally out there, bizarre, batshit crazy ideas that sometimes show up in Doctor Who. To make it more unbelievably entertaining, the whole thing is presented by the era’s scientific advisor under the guise of it being “real believable science”. Now, that’s not a slam against the Cybermen here. I love the Cybermen, I really do, and they’re almost at their most breathtakingly effective here. They’re cold and calculating and they're composed of “spare parts” which, if you understand what that means, is horrifying. And I know that the idea is that “humans could become this” if we ever decided to completely discard all of our emotions and became cold and calculating and devoid of that which makes life important or meaningful.
But back to Mondas.
To illustrate this concept of The Cybermen and how they could be us, Pedler doesn’t do a “go into the future and bring them back so they can take over the world” story (that would be too depressing; something about the inevitability there is… overwhelming). Instead he creates a twin planet to Earth, identical in terms of land mass and such, a planet that was once in the sun’s orbit, but which somehow spun off and flew off into the galaxy “to explore” and has now returned to absorb the Earth’s energy, draining it so that Mondas might survive.
The Silurians” points out to the Silurians that the meteor the Silurians saw, the one that they thought would wipe out all life on the Earth was eventually stopped by Earth’s gravitational pull and turned into the moon. This, of course, is not our understanding of the Moon or where it came from as of today, but it is what they thought back in the 70s and that’s the theory they immortalized in an episode of Doctor Who. So here is an example of the batty batty science that doesn’t really make all that much sense that is the planet Mondas.
But I must say I quite love this episode. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s got some neat twists and turns and it is a marvelous introduction to the Cybermen (not with Mondas, but you get the idea). It also kills off the astronauts and introduces a new one, one with more stakes (he’s the son of the guy in charge of the Antarctic base) that could prove to be absolutely disastrous the longer that situation goes before it’s defused… It just works, and it ends with the promise of the arrival of more Cybermen as Mondas launches an invasion fleet towards Earth to help the process of energy transfer to Mondas.
Ugh. Energy transfer. Is that even real?
I find that my interest in ”The Tenth Planet” starts to wane starting with this episode. It starts to get a little messy and a little less focused. The first two parts had the initial drive and promise of being fairly well grounded in some head-wrap-aroundable concepts, like the astronauts in danger of bad things happening or the arrival of three dangerous Cybernetic Zombies who herald the coming of some great evil. These, at least, are the sort of thing that aren’t quite in the abstract land that Doctor Who tends to go to from time to time, at least in the Classic series, when they can’t show me all the things they want to show me because they quite simply don’t have the time, money, or technology.
The craziest thing it does is further the storyline of the General in charge of the Antarctic base. Now his son is the astronaut in danger of being blown up because he’s in space (it has something to do with the Mondasian power drain or something) and he’s ready to move heaven or hell to make things happen. And I appreciate that. I see where they’re coming with the whole deal and how it gives the story emotional stakes and it gives this character something big to lose. At this point I don’t even care if it’s one hundred percent completely contrived. Why did they send up another astronaut when the first two were in such danger? And how did they scramble someone into space THAT FAST? It doesn’t quite make sense, but it gives us something so I’ll forgive it and applaud them, because I at least care about this astronaut more than I care about the other two.
Enter the Z-Bomb.
Good lord, the Z-Bomb is kooky. As if Mondas wasn’t enough of a tip-off, Pedler and Davis introduce the newest and most insanest concept they can possibly come up with. The Z-Bomb, for those who don’t know, is a big ol’ nuclear(?) warhead that has never been tested and there’s only three of them and to fire it you need Geneva's approval, but it’s so big and massive and dangerous that no one actually knows what it does (Omega 13, anyone?) because they can’t ever test it. One scientist goes so far as to say “it could create a supernova” which, yeah, it so totally could.
Ummm… I’m sorry, what? This is out there. Way out there. We’re talking about some massive, massive damage, obliterating an entire half of the earth simply to get your son back? Dude. Come on. That’s a lot of love this guy has for his son because he’s willing to sacrifice some two and a half billion people to get him back. Geez. And he even goes so far as to say “make sure my son’s not in the blast zone when the detonation happens” which is… dear lord. What the hell. So much for “real, actual science.” And this is only 1986.
To add insult to injury, The Doctor isn’t even in this. That’s right. Right at the finish line Hartnell had one last stumble and couldn’t be in one of the episodes in his own final story… Which… man that’s rough. And I don’t really fault him for that (you gotta do what you gotta do) but it really does hurt this story, especially because this is the last time we’re going to see his Doctor in action etc. and the final part of this story doesn’t exist because it’s a reconstruction, so episode two is really some of the last Hartnell that exists… But he’s going slowly towards his death, and sure it helps to describe that The Doctor’s fallen ill and he’s not doing so good, but removing him for an entire episode really robs one of our major touchstones into the story and makes it that much harder to hold onto.
Again, it can’t be helped, but it really hurts this story and at a point when the story was going really strong.
I have to give props to the Companion team of Ben and Polly, though. Michael Craze (Ben) and Anneke Wills (Polly) really carry the episode as best they can, or rather Ben does. Polly is reduced to getting coffee. But they pull through and make it so that The Doctor’s absence isn’t noticed super much. I mean, were this any other story I don’t think I’d mind Hartnell’s disappearance, but here it’s… it’s ALMOST unforgiveable. Were it any other Doctor or actor, it would be unforgiveable, but now that we’re here and Hartnell is sick and we just need to make sure he’s okay, I’ll allow it.
Not that they need my permission.
I think one of the biggest failings of "The Tenth Planet" is the notion that The Doctor’s “death” comes from… out of nowhere. Aside from his collapse and “illness” in the previous episode, there isn’t really any other indication that this sorta thing is happening. That’s not a bad thing, persay. There’s very little hint that The Doctor’s going to regenerate when he faces off against The Great One and The Eight Legs, but it still feels earned and like it was heading to that point. In ‘The Tenth Planet”, it’s different and speaks more to… “Power of the Daleks” than it does to this.
Mostly, these last two parts have felt like echoes and/or repeats of the first two parts. Part one was largely focused on the astronaut crisis and what everyone was going to do about that; part three is that but with bigger emotional and global stakes. Part two is about the infiltration of the Cybermen and expelling them; part four is exactly the same. The only difference here is that it feels much more focused and moving forward. The Cybermen here are very much in a “we have a plan this time” mode as opposed to episode two where it feels like they’re in the base just to be in the base (and for exposition).
Now the Cybermen are in the base, there’s more of them, and they’re taking hostages and forcing people like Ben to work hard on prepping the Z-Bomb for detonation and destroying The Earth. Destroying the Earth, of course, will wait until after Mondas has absorbed all of The Earth’s energy and then Mondas can be declared the victor in this… battle of the planets? I’m not quite sure what it is. It’s very shaky, this plot. I mean… Mondas is absorbing Earth’s energy? How? That doesn’t really make much sense. One of the Cybermen says it’s because “they’re occupying the same area of space and they’re opposites”, but that doesn’t… quite make sense, does it?
Going through this episode I see nothing but a wasted opportunity, especially here. Having The Doctor on his last legs is something that they easily could have played with more as they were going through the story, and it would have made everything seem that much more dramatic, especially in retrospect. I mean, everyone walking into “Caves” knows The Doctor’s going to regenerate and that makes every dangerous beat or moment mean that much more because The Doctor’s next step very well could be his last. But they weren’t really going for that here, which is… again… kind of a waste. You’re [for all intents and purposes] killing off The Doctor and then throwing out a giant left turn screwball to the audience.
But that doesn’t mean that the crew here need to go out of their way to pretend that everything’s fine. Why not play up the dread? Why not make it a big deal? Bring the audience along for the sheer terror you’re experiencing. Your audience is engaged enough as is, aren’t they? They’ll come back next week if for no other reason than to find out what the fuck just happened and why The Doctor collapsed so suddenly and is suddenly all lights and changing faces. It’s dramatic. It’s powerful. Play it. Hit it. Love it.
Honestly, I love what he did with this and the role. It’s a great performance and a great attempt to make the story as awesome as possible in his final minutes. He chooses to go with the frail perspective and it’s hard to listen to (this episode doesn’t exist so it’s all audio reconstruction) because by the time that Ben and Polly release him from his cell on the Cybership he’s just… trashed. He’s already given up and he’s probably already started the regeneration cycle. His final words feel belabored, scattered about and defeated, and they’re the final words of a man who’s no longer able to function properly. He’s doing his best and in his moment of weakness, he leaves his two companions behind.
And so the 1st Doctor has come full circle. What once was a man who refused to experience a life with anyone, who wanted to travel alone (and/or with his granddaughter, although there is the implication that even she was in some ways expendable), who was willing to advance human civilization by giving them technology they had not earned (fire) in order to save his own skin, who didn’t give two shits about the innocent school teachers who had stowed away along for the ride, who was willing to kill in cold blood an innocent and wounded man because he was in the way, who recklessly endangered both himself and his companions on numerous occasions, who let his granddaughter go because it was the thing he needed to do, who was damaged by his first friends bailing on him at the first chance they got…
For that man to allow these two people into his TARDIS, his holy sanctuary and allow them to witness his first, incredible transformation and potentially help him through this… complicated process and transition.
It speaks wonders. And intended or not, the youngest-oldest Doctor passes away and fulfills the story arc laid out for him three years previously, before anyone could have even thought about such a dramatic thematic change.
That, alone, is fantastic.
Final Thoughts?: This is a serial that I have nothing but mixed feelings on.
More than anything, whenever I think of "The Tenth Planet" I inevitably end up thinking of it as something of a disappointment and a wasted opportunity. When I first heard of it, I always thought of it as some super great fantastic, legendary, and mythical story that I absolutely could not wait to experience. But the problem with it at the end is... it's only really famous for the two things it's famous for: Cybermen and the regeneration. It's honestly no better than a number of Hartnell stories because it... it really gets away from them. It's also clear that they are, at times, flying by the seat of their pants in the way that they're having The Doctor regenerate. Why he does is not even that clear. Is it because of the power drain or some radiation thing?
It suffers a bit from dramatic irony and how we know forty something years later that this is coming... But it still doesn't quite work, I don't think. Which is unfortunate.
All in all it's a legendary story, and deservedly so, but only because of what's coming next. It's the first of five Cybermen appearances, as they would go onto appear four more times within the next two and a half seasons and the Cybermen endure to this day and still remain one of those monsters I absolutely love. Not only that, but it really is a tremendous first outing and really gets to the creepy, skeevy nature the Cybermen tend to not have later on, especially when they're reduced to mindless walkers who march and don't represent the true body horror they have when they're here. It's a great design and the Cybermen have never (as far as I can remember) been more creepy and chilling. Sure, they've been AS good and creepy and chilling, but never more than.
We care about Hartnell. We care about his Doctor. Watching this is heartbreaking and sad. Just break us as much as you can and we'll care about him that much more. We'll get over it, we promise. Troughton turned out really good.
Next Time!: 7th Doctor! Pip'n'Jane! 360 Vision Bats! The horror the horror! A gorgeously wonderful beautiful scene! And then more and more endless horror. And not in a good way. Next week, let's talk some more regeneration by delving into the 7th Doctor's first story "Time and the Rani!" Coming next Tuesday!