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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Tenth Planet”

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“The Tenth Planet” (Season 4, episodes 5-8. Originally broadcast Oct. 8-29, 1966.)


Especially looking back at it now, “The Tenth Planet” gives us a lot to talk about. It’s the first appearance by the Cybermen, the only Doctor Who monsters to come anywhere close to rivaling the Daleks for longevity and iconic importance. It’s also the exit of William Hartnell as the star of the show, and thus also the first regeneration story.

It’s a story about a man secretly fading away into death, who chooses as his final adventure to confront men who have turned themselves into horrific monsters as a way to avoid fading away into death. But there’s also a surprisingly long stretch during which neither the Doctor nor the Cybermen appear, and the story instead becomes, for a while, a thriller about the madness of defending yourself with a weapon that will probably kill you too. And “The Tenth Planet” also marks a major turning point for the series, not just because of the regeneration—though that was important enough, ushering Hartnell out the door and making him no longer the Doctor but merely a Doctor, the first of a replaceable series—but because this story was the vanguard of what Doctor Who stories would be about for the remainder of the 1960s, and to a large extent beyond that as well. In an important respect, “The Tenth Planet” is an early start to the Second Doctor era, a progression begun the previous season in “The War Machines” that turns Doctor Who into a show almost entirely about the Doctor fighting alien monsters in various isolated outposts and space stations. Just as the Second Doctor’s “The Invasion” presages the Third Doctor era, “Tenth Planet” is the First Doctor era’s window into the Second’s. It’s the first base-under-siege story.

Before I get into the story itself, a bit of behind-the-scenes back story is probably necessary first. Hartnell, of course, originated the role of the Doctor back in 1963, and over the course of the next three years he’d cemented himself as not just the series’ title character but its primary hero—remember, back in “An Unearthly Child” the Doctor was a man of morally dubious character, a fugitive who kidnapped people to protect his secrets and nearly murdered an injured man out of dishonorable cowardice. Some of these bad qualities are still part of the Doctor’s character in 2014. He still lies, he’s still irresponsible, arrogant, eccentric. But over the course of the stories between “Unearthly Child” and “Tenth Planet,” there’s a subtle, gradual but definite change in the character from a purely self-centered rogue into someone who has seen enough of the universe to decide that there are things worth defending out there, and which he’s in a unique position to defend. I’ll come back to this point, but what I’m getting at right now is that although there might have been a time in 1963 when you could have had Doctor Who without the Doctor—if Hartnell had left when Ian and Barbara were still his main companions, perhaps—in 1966, without the Doctor you had no show. And without Hartnell, you had no Doctor.

But there were problems. Hartnell was old. (Relatively speaking, anyway—Peter Capaldi, 55, is the same age Hartnell was in “Unearthly Child.”) He was also increasingly ill and infirm with arteriosclerosis and memory problems that made it hard for him to get his lines right or to handle the physical demands of the job. At least partly because of his illness, he was also increasingly difficult to work with. (His colleagues are remarkably frank about this on the making-of documentary on the new “Tenth Planet” DVD. Designer Peter Kindred calls him “a very hard little creature [who] gave out orders all the time.” And Anneke Wills, who played his companion Polly, mentions being ashamed of his disapproval that a black actor, Earl Cameron, was cast in an important role as an astronaut. Cameron, for his part, is forgiving about it, saying “it was his problem, not mine.”)


Plus, ratings were declining. So for a lot of reasons, it was time for a change. But how do you replace someone who has become impossible to replace? We all know the answer, so I won’t belabor the point: You say that since the Doctor isn’t human, there’s no reason that he can’t change his face and his personality when he needs to. But it’s worth noting what a gamble this was. If story editor Gerry Davis had not come up with the concept of regeneration, and if Patrick Troughton hadn’t successfully won over viewers as the new Doctor, Doctor Who would have died in the 1960s.  Regeneration is now one of the core concepts of Doctor Who. But there was no reason to think that viewers would have bought it in 1966. Having said that: Because the actual change between the First and Second Doctors doesn’t happen until the very last seconds of “Tenth Planet,” the ramifications of this are largely a story for the future. What’s important here isn’t who comes in, but who goes out. So let’s go back to “The Tenth Planet” itself.

This is another one of the partially lost serials from the black-and-white era—episode four is missing, and has been restored via animation on the new DVD. The main cast is the one that coalesced in the season three finale “The War Machines”: Hartnell as the frail but wily First Doctor, and Michael Craze and Wills as Ben and Polly, two young Londoners he tricked into coming with him on his travels. Unlike Ian and Barbara, Ben and Polly trust the Doctor and follow his lead, though a careful look at his actions shows he’s keeping secrets from them. His health, for one thing, at least until he can’t hide it anymore, but more besides…


They’ve landed at the South Pole in 1986—20 years into their future—where an international science team led by the gruff American Gen. Cutler  is guiding an orbiting capsule, Zeus IV, manned by two astronauts. Cutler takes an instant dislike to the TARDIS crew, who as usual can’t explain how they got there. And the timing of their arrival proves even more suspicious when Zeus IV reports it’s being pulled off course by the gravity of some unknown new object in space, which is also draining power from anything that comes near it.

This turns out to be, essentially, Earth’s evil twin: Mondas, whose continents are an exact match for ours except flipped north-to-south. Though it once shared Earth’s orbit, it somehow drifted away many years earlier, wandering through space, and has now returned. And it’s brought visitors: the Cybermen.


If you’re only familiar with the later appearances of the Cybermen, their first incarnation might throw you a little. They look and sound much different than they will later, with strange singsongy voices and awkward mechanical implants that look like someone’s strapped an air conditioner to their chests. But the key difference is more conceptual. Cybermen are cyborgs, part human and part machine, and part of what makes them scary is that they replicate themselves by converting humans into Cybermen. But for the most part, later Cybermen stories  like “Earthshock” don’t really stress that angle, and depict them largely as just evil robots who happen to have some human parts. Mondasian Cybermen are one or two steps closer to human, and they’re far more horrifying for it. These are creepier, wronger, more inhuman monsters than any Cybermen that came after them, because they are still us. Their hands are still human. Behind their silver face masks, you can still see human eyes dart back and forth. They still have individual names. There’s a much more powerful sense that these are not merely monsters, but people—people who have willingly committed atrocities against their own bodies, and want to do the same to us. The reason why is Mondas itself, which in some vaguely-explained way has been draining the life energy of its people for years, to the point where mechanical implants were needed to survive. Their planet is like a gigantic vampire, and it’s turned them into something similar. They’ve come back to us to save themselves from their own home, and their plan is to siphon the Earth dry.

They conquer our planet with astonishing rapidity, but in the end the Doctor’s winning gambit against them is simple delay, like tricking a vampire into staying up past dawn—their real problem is Mondas, which will soon destroy itself, and the Cybermen with it, as long as it’s left alone. Although Mondas’ malignant energy drain is constantly in the background of the story as a threat, Earth would only have been in serious danger from its evil twin if the Cybermen had been able to act sooner. The Doctor’s mere presence here changes the encounter. Any delay is enough to stop them, and all the Doctor has to do, basically, is show up.


That might have been all he was able to do anyway. Almost as soon as they arrive in Antarctica, the Doctor begins to go into serious decline, fading away before Ben and Polly’s eyes. Most alarmingly, he collapses at the start of episode three and is missing for that entire section of the story. (That had a similar real-life cause: Hartnell himself was too sick to go to work.) The great unanswerable question is whether he was dying before he encountered Mondas. There’s certainly a thematic parallel between the vampiric effect of the planet and the slow winding-down death of the First Doctor. But is there a stronger link? Does Mondas actually kill the Doctor? The only one who might know, who even has the slightest understanding of what’s happening to him, is the Doctor himself. And he keeps it private for the most part, offering only vague but intriguing statements to his friends. That’s very much in character—the First Doctor, more than any of them, is a secret-keeper. It’s not clear that he knows for sure why he’s dying, telling Polly that he’s been affected by “an outside influence. Unless this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin.” The Cybermen themselves do not directly harm the Doctor, or even recognize that he is not human and perhaps a threat to them. But the timing of his two collapses suggests that Mondas has something to do with it—the first collapse comes when the main Cyberman fleet is near arrival, and the second is when Mondas is destroyed.

Does it matter? I think so, because it dovetails with the question of why the Doctor is there confronting the Cybermen at all. Let’s back up, past the beginning of this story and to the end of the previous one, “The Smugglers,” which led directly into “Tenth Planet.” That’s when the TARDIS actually lands at the South Pole in 1986, and the Doctor implies to Ben and Polly that they have arrived at random: “I have no idea [where we’re going]. I have no control over such matters,” he says. I think he’s lying.


Almost as soon as they get inside the rocket base, we discover that the Doctor knows much more about what’s about to happen than he’s saying. He admits to Ben that he knows what Mondas is. To win the trust of Cutler and the scientist Barclay, he’s even flashier, proving that he knows Mondas by writing down a description of it before it can be seen—a classic magician’s trick, equivalent to correctly stating that you’ve pulled the four of hearts out of the deck. He may know of the Cybermen already as well. He does not act as if he is surprised to be there; on the contrary, he casually mentions things that suggest he knows what’s about to happen. He even chuckles a little when he tells Cutler he’s about to have visitors from Mondas. The Doctor gives every indication that he has come to the South Polar base at this specific time and place on purpose to disrupt the Cyberman invasion plan. He intends to save Earth.

A random landing seems wildly improbable in this case anyway. (As Cutler caustically puts it: “You turn up out of nowhere, a routine space shot goes wrong, a new planet appears and you tell us you know all about it. That puts you slap bang in the hot seat, right?”) It’s much less easy to think that the Doctor just happens to show up at this exact moment, right in the nick of time, than that the TARDIS was landed there deliberately.  Of course, it’s possible that someone else was actually in control—later scriptwriters like Robert Holmes and Neil Gaiman have suggested that the Time Lords or even the TARDIS herself guided the Doctor’s early journeys more than he knew.


But in this case, I choose to believe it’s the Doctor himself. Here’s why. For a story that ends an era, “The Tenth Planet” is markedly un-nostalgic. There are no callbacks to Hartnell’s past adventures, no naming of previous companions, none of the ceremony we expect now, perhaps because the show was only three years old at the time. But “The Tenth Planet” does serve as a capstone of the First Doctor’s career by completing his turn from heel to hero, from someone wandering time and space for selfish reasons to someone who actively tries to change history for the better.

I suspect that the First Doctor’s character arc happened as much by accident as conscious design, but a look back through his three seasons shows a definite pattern. He starts as nothing more than a selfish troublemaker and learns that he should be the hero. He also learns not unimportantly, that he’s allowed to be the hero. In season one’s “The Aztecs,” he insists that changing history is impossible, and that he’s powerless to stop injustices. But by the next season’s “Dalek Invasion Of Earth,” he steps up and declares himself a defender of humanity. In “The Romans” and “The Time Meddler,” he learns that you really can change history, though it’s reckless to do so. And by the end of season three, in “The War Machines,” he actively works to defeat WOTAN, which he recognizes as a threat to humanity. If “The Tenth Planet” is a deliberate confrontation with the Cybermen, that completes the transformation.  He’ll always be a rogue, but now he’s our rogue.


The Doctor’s final moments are quieter, a mysterious but intimate tragic fall, and all too human. His last line is “Keep warm”—hardly heroic, just an expression of gratitude for Ben’s offer of his sweater. It’s a heartbreaking, almost pathetic statement—the feeble reply of a very old man whose life is ebbing fast. But this isn’t really his last conscious declaration. His real last line is this enigmatic statement to Ben: “What did you say, my boy? ‘It’s all over.’ ‘It’s all over.’ That's what you said. No, but it isn’t all over. It's far from being all over.” Nobody else realizes that the Doctor is dying, so nobody realizes the significance of the line. But in retrospect, we know what he’s saying: The show must go on.

Stray observations

• The new “Tenth Planet” DVD includes two different reconstructions of the fourth episode, of which only the audio track, some still shots, and a few snippets of video are known to exist. The primary reconstruction is completely animated, and in the absence of the real thing is the easiest way to follow the story. But the second reconstruction, tucked away on the DVD special features, is worth a look too, since it incorporates the surviving images and video from the original episode and is thus the only way to see some of Hartnell’s last actual performance as the star of the show, including the crucial “it’s far from over!” line and the regeneration itself.


• Of the two companions, Ben has by far the better innings here, largely because he gets to take on the heroic role in episode three due to Hartnell’s illness. Though he takes his lead from the old man’s advice, he’s capable of figuring out the Cybermen’s weakness to radiation and form a plan on his own. Polly’s actions, though, are somewhere between useless and inadvertently destructive. Given the task of charming Cutler to try to make him realize that using the Z-Bomb no better than anything the Cybermen might do, she can only lamely offer to make him coffee. She also antagonizes him by suggesting he’s a bully who enjoys harassing people, and casually accepts, as a consequence of stopping the Z-Bomb, the death of Cutler’s son, which we will later learn is Cutler’s greatest fear and the thing that finally makes him homicidally dangerous. It’s not unthinkable that he might have been drawn back from that brink if Polly had been able to get him to talk about his feelings.

• Cutler, on meeting the Doctor: “I don’t like your face. Or your hair!” Don’t worry, that won’t be a problem soon.


• A TV newscaster reports on Mondas: “Some observers have reported that its land masses resemble those of Earth, but this is being hotly disputed in top astronomical circles and no general agreement has yet been reached.” So the world’s top astronomers haven’t thought of turning a globe upside down, then.

• Michael Craze, who plays companion Ben, met his wife Edwina, then a behind-the-scenes crew member, during the filming of “Tenth Planet” when she threw fake snow into his face and accidentally injured his nose.


• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):

• Jan. 25: The Fourth Doctor and Leela finds something nasty in a lighthouse in season 15’s “The Horror Of Fang Rock.”


• Feb. 8: Into the abyss, my friends: the first part of season 23’s “Trial Of A Time Lord,” the Robert Holmes-written “The Mysterious Planet.” The other parts of this infamously terrible season will follow in subsequent weeks, alternated with stories from other years, including, when it’s out on DVD, the upcoming restoration of Patrick Troughton's "The Moonbase."

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