Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.
The Tenth Planet
Starring William Hartnell as the First Doctor.
Companions: Michael Craze as Ben Jackson and Anneke Wills as Polly.
Written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. Directed by Derek Martinus. Produced by Innes Lloyd. Script Edited by Gerry Davis. Animation produced and directed by Austen Atkinson.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: October 1966 (Episodes 5-8 of Season 4).
For multiple reasons, The Tenth Planet is one of the most significant stories in the whole history of Doctor Who, introducing both the show’s second most popular adversary, and the concept of regeneration (although what is going on in never actually identified). In spite of all of this, I have never seen it before just recently. Indeed, until 2013, one couldn’t actually watch all of it, as that is when the missing episode 4 was animated.
It’s possible that The Tenth Planet is the last classic Doctor Who story that I had never seen at all, aside from random clips that were reused or shared elsewhere. Though there are other stories that I have only watched on a fuzzy black & white UHF TV in my childhood basement, or that I have seen some episodes of but not all, I think this was the last one that I had never seen at all (at least, out of the stories are that are fully extant). As such, it’s not a bad story to “go out on”–The Tenth Planet is a fun adventure that hearkens to both the “base under siege” and the “team-up with the modern military to defeat the alien” story templates, both of which were actually still pretty new to Doctor Who.
William Hartnell’s poor health led to not only him leaving the show all together but also a reduced presence in this serial. He is absent completely from Episode Three thanks to the Doctor having an unexpected fainting spell, which as a side benefit helps to build up the idea that something is wrong with the Doctor.
As a result, Michael Craze gets quite the part to play as Ben Jackson, who drives a lot of the serial’s action and heroic activities. There is also a great deal of attention given to the story’s guest stars, especially Robert Beatty’s General Cutler and David Dodimead’s Barclay.
These characters all work fine but it is a little odd to be farewelling the First Doctor in a story that gives him so little to do. He’s not completely absent, and he gets in a few good angry speeches, but it’s a far cry from what we’re used to these days with the Doctor’s final story being a giant celebration of an era, complete with flashbacks to prior companions, a massive sacrifice and some emotionally meaningful final words.
In fact, one of the most remarkable things about The Tenth Planet, especially when viewed through modern eyes, is how little set-up there is about the Doctor’s regeneration at all. Basically, the Doctor is just a bit unusually tired the whole way through, and at one point mentions that “this old body of mine is wearing a little thin.” The story’s plot involves the Cybermen draining the earth of energy, so it’s not clear at first if the Doctor is just somehow feeling those effects physically. But then when it is all over (without the Doctor’s actually doing very much), the Doctor just hurries to the TARDIS, nearly disregarding his companions, struggles to press a few controls, and then finally collapses. Ben and Polly enter, there is a bit of a glow, and then presto–William Hartnell is gone and there lies Patrick Troughton instead!
In those pre-internet days, this must have been as baffling as anything that had been seen on the show before! Indeed, more than anything, the so-called regeneration sequence simply looks like a particularly surprising and energetic cliffhanger. Even today, when I finished the story I felt compelled to go on to the start of The Power of the Daleks (which also exists only as an animated re-creation) just to see how the story would continue (where it turns out the same refusal to give clear explanations continued!). So in essence, there is no referral to “regeneration”, there is no obvious physical trauma that the Doctor receives to trigger the process, and there’s no character-defining speech or sacrifice aside from the Doctor’s defiant cry that “It’s far from being all over!”
And yet somehow in spite of all of this, or maybe because of it, it’s a great sequence–a singular innovation in what was presumably a harried production schedule that was perfectly in line with the aura of mystery that the show kept around itself. which has allowed it continue for decades since.
The Cybermen are also introduced in The Tenth Planet and like regeneration, this earliest presentation is quite different to what we’ve come to know in the years since. First of all, the Cybermen have individual names. Second, they have unusually expressive and lilting voices which are not heard for the creatures again. This makes them sound almost polite, even while they are threatening the destruction of earth to ensure their own survival. And third, the Cybermen don’t have that nigh-indestructible quality that they later possess. Multiple Cybermen get taken out by their own weapons (wielded by humans) fairly easily, and later their vulnerability to radiation is discovered and exploited pretty handily (a weakness that makes waaaaay more sense than saying they are allergic to gold, incidentally).
The Cybermen design in this first story is a bit more slipshod than were used to seeing them, but in a way that I think makes sense considering these are refugees and survivors–beings attempting to ensure they have a future–and not the galaxy-conquerors that we later hear about.
But the Cybermen of The Tenth Planet are still effectively menacing, partly because there are so many of them (the show hadn’t presented us with that many invading armies before) and partly because the individual Cybermen are just so huge. I don’t know if it’s actually more of a thing here than in later stories but somehow I don’t remember any other Cybermen stories where it was so obvious that these guys physically towered over normal people in the way that they do here.
In spite of the story’s many limitations, I quite liked The Tenth Planet. The setwork for the Snowcap Base is quite good, including all the fake snow which is not easy to achieve to this day. The initial Cybermen attack into the snowstorm is very effective, and the international cast of characters are done well (Earl Cameron is apparently the first black actor to play an astronaut on-screen). The Doctor’s limited role is balanced out by the closing moments of the story and the absolute mystery of the regeneration sequence. Though the Doctor himself is moving slowly, the show itself blazes through its final minutes with a breathless sense of mystery that has rarely been matched.
And it doesn’t hurt that I quite like the animation style of this reconstruction–better than some of the others I’ve seen.