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The Tenth Planet: The End of an Era

I’ve always wondered how audiences reacted to the ending of “The Tenth Planet.”  The idea of regeneration seems perfectly normal now, but it must have come as a bit of a shock to the viewers back in 1966.  What really strikes me is the boldness of the decision.  Not only did they decide to make the main character of the program become a different person, this new person had very little in common, either physically or personality-wise, with who he used to be.  Thinking about it now, I’m not sure you could have made a much more drastic change than to turn the elderly, crabby, dignified William Hartnell into the younger, easy-going, comedic Patrick Troughton. While viewers would have to wait until the next story to really meet the new Doctor, in the fourth (and final) episode of “The Tenth Planet” Polly and Ben witness the first regeneration in Doctor Who history.

Polly confronting a Cyberman with the Doctor looking on.

Polly confronting a Cyberman with the Doctor looking on.

The Doctor, Polly, and Ben have materialized in the year 1986 at an international space tracking station in Antarctica.  Their arrival causes great suspicion, but everyone’s attention is soon diverted by a space probe (and pilots) that are mysteriously being drained of energy and a new planet that appears in the sky near earth.  Everyone is surprised, except the Doctor, who seems to have anticipated this event.

We soon learn that this planet is Mondas, which was Earth’s twin planet until it drifted off to the far reaches of space.  Earth soon gets a visit from the inhabitants of Mondas: the Cybermen.  The Cybermen are people who, as their bodies grew weaker, had their scientists create replacement (i.e. mechanical) parts for them.  Soon, they became almost totally mechanical, even removing emotions, which they consider to be a weakness. They have returned because they are in need of energy; they are planning to drain the energy from Earth and convert the remaining humans to Cybermen. It’s up to the Doctor and his companions to foil the Cybermen’s plans.

I quite enjoyed the story; it was clever and it kept me engaged.  The behavior of the Cybermen was perhaps a bit inconsistent, but not enough to really detract from the story.  By inconsistent, I mean that they seemed, quite randomly, to decide to spare people’s lives and maybe render them temporarily unconscious, while most of the time they just killed people.  I do, however, get that these were people who disobeyed the Cybermen but had to survive that particular encounter because they were needed, plot-wise, later.

Really, the only episode that dragged a bit for me was the third episode, which was the episode in which the Doctor collapses and spends the entire episode resting and the story suffers a bit for his lack of involvement.  Bizarrely, Polly and Ben seemed to have a complete lack of concern for the Doctor when he collapsed.  I had a problem with the fact that the Doctor collapses (and was completely incapacitated), but they don’t seem terribly worried.  Instead, they leave him to recover while they go back to the control room.  I know they still had the problem of the Cybermen to deal with, but since they needed the Doctor to return to their own time, I would think they would be at least a little worried.

While I’m on the topic of Polly and Ben, I will say that they have a bit more to do in this story than in some of their  other stories.  I still feel that they don’t have clearly defined personalities, but they start to become a bit more interesting in this story.  In particular, Ben is crucial to the action and contributes quite a bit to the plot. I will say that he always seems quick to get into a physical confrontation with his adversaries, but he wasn’t particularly successful in the previous story, “The Smugglers.” This time, he figures out how to disarm a Cyberman (by shining the light of a film projector at him) which allows him to help the base overthrow the first round of cyber invaders.  Later on, he is the one who figures out that the Cybermen can’t stand radiation and comes up with a way to temporarily slow the Cybermen’s plans down (until Mondas takes on too much energy, as the Doctor predicted, and destroys all the cybermen). Polly even stands up to a Cyberman, early in the story, but reverts to being pretty useless again soon after.  Her one contribution seems to be that she makes coffee for everyone (which is, apparently, her way of dealing with Cybermen because she makes coffee again in “The Moonbase”). Of course, the Cybermen choose Polly to be their hostage towards the end of the story (she does seem to make an excellent hostage), so by the end of the story all she basically does is scream and get hysterical.

The Cybermen approach

The Cybermen approach

What makes this story particularly interesting is being able to see the origins of the Cybermen.  They are an interesting villain in their first appearance, even though their costumes aren’t quite as good as they are in later stories.  Basically, their outfits look far more fabric-ish than metallic, and they look like they’re wearing a flashlight on their heads (but I wasn’t bothered by the Monoids in “The Ark,” so maybe I have an unusual fondness for bizarre aliens on a low budget).  I liked the fact that the  Cyberman who was speaking simply opened his mouth; it made it easier to identify which Cyberman was which.  Compared to “The Moonbase” and “The Tomb of the Cybermen” I also felt that it was much easier to understand what these Cybermen were saying. Overall, the combination of the costume and the voice of these Cybermen made them come across as a bit more human.  This first appearance really shows that there is a human at the heart of the Cyberman, unlike that later versions which seem far more robotic to me.

Even though this story is the first appearance of the Cybermen, it is most famous for the Doctor’s regeneration at the end of the fourth episode.   It is a very simple scene, yet it is extremely effective.  The first regeneration is quite gentle compared to the more violent regenerations we see on new Who; essentially, Hartnell’s face dissolves into a kind of white light and comes back into focus as Troughton’s face.  It’s interesting that Hartnell’s Doctor does not explain to his companions what will happen, since he is barely strong enough to open the TARDIS doors for them.  This is also the only time that a violent event does not lead to a regeneration. The idea in this story is that the First Doctor’s body simply wears out and he needs a new one.

“The Tenth Planet” is not the best Cyberman story (I’d probably go with “The Tomb of the Cybermen” for that), but it is enjoyable, as I have found all of Kit Pedler’s Cyberman stories to be.  The Cybermen explore the development of man’s interest in cybernetics and “spare part” surgeries in the 1960’s, and nowhere is this more apparent than in their  first appearance.  Pedler created the Cybermen because he wondered what would happen if mankind became too reliant on artificial parts, blurring the line between man and machine. The idea that they are an alternate version of man makes them a bit more complex than some of the other early aliens.  To be perfectly honest, I prefer the early Cybermen stories to the Dalek stories.  Maybe I just prefer the writing of Kit Pedler to Terry Nation, but I was not a huge fan of the early Dalek stories.  I liked “The Daleks,” even though I thought it could have been at least an entire episode shorter, but the other stories didn’t really engage me.  For instance, I can appreciate “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” as an important story, but it wasn’t one of the stories that I enjoyed the most.

The Doctor collapses as he is about to regenerate

The Doctor collapses as he is about to regenerate

Overall, I found “Then Tenth Planet” to be a worthy story for Hartnell’s final story as the Doctor.  It’s not his best story, since he was obviously severely limited in what he could physically do at this point, but it’s not a bad story for him to leave on. Of course this was not William Hartnell’s final appearance as the Doctor, as he had a memorable return in “The Three Doctors,” but I have to admit that I found his regeneration scene a bit more emotional than I expected.  I was actually very sad to see him go.  I wouldn’t have guessed it when I started watching Doctor Who, but I guess I’ve become rather fond of the cantankerous old man after all.

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One response to “The Tenth Planet: The End of an Era

  1. I’ve wanted to be able to watch this story for many years now. I read the novelization a few times. But from viewing the occasional tantalizing clip of the actual serial on various DVD extras, I definitely felt I was missing out not being able to see the original broadcast version. So I am really looking forward to the upcoming DVD release, with the missing fourth episode recreated via animation & the original soundtrack. That worked really well on The Invasion’s missing episodes, and hopefully we will have similar results here.

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