Saturday, 16 November 2013

WHO REVIEW: The Tenth Planet

The Tenth Planet is a serial that, more than any other, is now impossible to view from a non-fan's perspective. It's a big one: William Hartnell's last story, the first regeneration story (after a fashion), and the first Cyberman story. We just can't view it as the audience would have done back in 1966. The weight of the future bears down upon it, distorting its shape. Which is perhaps just as well, because it really isn't especially good.

That's not to say that it's bad, but The Tenth Planet is a story that suffers from being in a transitional period in the series' development. It's not quite sure what it's supposed to be at this stage. The sheer unpredictability of the series first couple of years had begun to dry up by 1966, and it had begun to settle into a groove. The historical stories were soon to be phased out, in favour of more sci-fi milieu. The Tenth Planet is a case in point. It is, as well as its other firsts, the first story that can be described as “base-under-siege,” a dry run for the story type that would become, by the following year, the mainstay of the series.

As a base story, it's a bit of a mess. It's possible that Hartnell's Doctor just isn't suited to this style of story, but it's more likely that this is an example that hasn't been very well produced. The regular features are there: the arrogant commander, the alien threat breaking through, the hostile environs. It just doesn't gel, in spite of some very effective individual elements. Frankly, much of this is appallingly directed. When confronted with the pig-headed chief, Robert Beatty's General Cutler, the Doctor is reduced to shouting for much of the proceedings. It's a pity, for there are some good moments between them. “I don't like your face – nor your hair!” jokes Cutler, the sort of petulant jibe the second Doctor would shrug off, but is guaranteed to aggravate Hartnell's original. The overall scenes are chaotic, though, with characters stepping on each other's lines, major characters – and monsters – turning up in the background and suddenly being included in proceedings when required. It's a mess.

Yet there's so much to love here. That's what makes it so frustrating. Ben and Polly really work in this story. Once Jamie was introduced, Michael Craze's character became surplus to requirements, but here, in spite of some dreadful cod-Cockney dialogue, Ben makes a great focus for the story, particularly in the third episode, in which he takes on much of the Doctor's role. Polly is reduced to making the coffee for much of the running, and is later relegated to Cyber-abductee, but when given the chance, Anneke Wills is a fine heroine. In spite of the difficult working relationship the Wills and Craze had with Hartnell, Ben, Polly and the first Doctor make a fine team, and it's a pity we never got more than a handful of episodes with them.

One element that works particularly well is the near-future setting. Broadcast in 1966 but set in 1986 – a glimpse of a possible future for the audience of the time. This was the first time the series had really done this, with all previous futuristic stories occurring centuries hence. This was the first story that depicted a future the audience would actually get to see. Indeed, this caused some minor problems later on, when Doctor Who, surviving for longer than expected, reached this point in real time. The result was Attack of the Cybermen, which made rather a sorrow show of clearing up the continuity. Watching it now, and considering the developments the show would bring in the next few years, you've got to wonder what UNIT was doing while the Cybermen invaded Earth. This is all silly, after-the-fact stuff, of course. For the kids watching in 1966, this must have been thrilling. Seven-year-olds sat watching a base in the Antarctic, crewed by young men who could easily be them some day. Of course, the novelisation appeared so late that a 1986 setting was out of the question, and it was revised to 2000 – now a full thirteen years in the past itself. The future ages quickly.

An admirable aspect of the production is the attempt to make this future seem truly multi-national. The base crew, while strictly male in its make-up, is populated by citizens of Australia, Italy, Britain, and whatever part of North America Cutler is supposed to be from (Beatty was Canadian, but what's going on with his accent in this story is anyone's guess). Some of it's hokey, yes, especially young Tito - “Mama Mia, Beleeeeeseeemmaaaa!” - but at least they were trying. We even get a glimpse of the International Space Control, a UN organisation complete with various nationalities. When the Cybermen arrive here, breaking the rules by stepping into an entirely separate story space, the threat feels genuinely worldwide. The casting of Earl Cameron as astronaut Williams is a further nice touch, preventing the mission from being a wholly caucasian affair, although the documentary 'Frozen Out,' included with the DVD release, makes clear how difficult Hartnell found working with a black actor.

So, the Cybermen. One of the two really big firsts of the serial. The monsters who would go on to plague the Doctor throughout the Troughton era and become second only to the Daleks in longevity and popularity. Except, they aren't really the Cybermen who will appear in following stories. These are Cybermen true to the concept: horrific parodies of humanity, altered beyond recognition by surgery and organ replacement. They're certainly Kit Pedler's greatest addition to the series. Quite what co-writer Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd expected to get from their new scientific advisor isn't clear. He was brought in to provide some real science, and what he came up with was a story in which a planet that looks exactly like Earth appears out of nowhere, proceeds to drain the Earth of its energy, and then explodes. Oh, and there's a nuclear bomb that can turn a planet into a supernova. Not quite hard science...

Oh, but the Cybermen are a triumph. For me, these Mondas Cybermen knock the spots off their robot-like successors. Those blank cloth faces, hollow-eyed, staring out from under a huge mass of mechanical equipment balanced on their heads. Mouths that open abruptly, words tumbling out in a disquieting, synthesised, sing-song stream. The conspicuously human hands, only visible because they forgot to get the gloves ready on time, but reminding us that once these were people like you and me. And the sheer, logical, inarguable truth they come out with when Polly accuses them of not caring about the deaths they are going to cause: “There are people dying all over your planet, but you do not care.” Monsters who were once men, fighting for their survival and the need to make the rest of us better, just like them. The Troughton Cybermen, the Cybus-men of the new series, the Borg – they're just snazzy remakes of these terrifying creations.

The problems suffered by this production behind the scenes are well known, and almost scuppered the whole thing, but in an odd way, they provide some of its strengths. Hartnell had already been written out – indeed, this was the first production of a new recording block, and he was a guest actor, rather than the lead. That his illness forced him to remain absent from the third episode caused all sorts of problems and last minute rewrites, but it actually works, giving some build up to the Doctor's eventual demise. He collapses once, sits out an entire episode, and then, finally, in the chaotic mess that is the final instalment, rallies. The Doctor is back and, suddenly, he's more commanding than ever. It's such a shame that this, Hartnell's final performance, is lost, but in a way, it's fitting, since the last episode is very weak. Hartnell saves it.

The old VHS release came with a decent attempt at a reconstruction of the last episode, while the new DVD includes both this as an extra, and an animated version as the main replacement. The animation is a mixed bag. The challenge of making the characters move fluidly while also looking like the actors proves too much on some occasions. The Cybermen work brilliantly, though, their translation to cartoon form given an almost anime look. While it's great to have a completed version of the story to watch, you'll want to go to the extras to see the final scene. Thankfully, the clip of the regeneration survives.

Of course, it's not a regeneration – not yet. It'll be retconned into being the same process that leads the fifth Doctor to survive spectrox poisoning, and the eighth Doctor become a soldier, but this is a different process altogether. This was the Doctor, the Doctor, suddenly transforming into a new man. This was unprecedented. The main plot with the Cybermen having burnt itself out along with Mondas, the Doctor suddenly panics and flees back to the TARDIS. Ben and Polly barely catch up with him. Again, he collapses, and in a straightforward but absolutely perfect effect, he glows and transforms. He is renewed, and there's someone new in his place.

Hartnell's body may have been wearing a bit thin, but the series was about to gain a new lease of life. One thing that fans have overlooked for decades is why the Doctor changes. He's not just getting too old, although it's implied this is making it worse for him. No, it's Mondas' draining of energy, something that effects the Earth, the astronauts in orbit, and finally the Doctor. It's an alien influence, and under it, the Doctor is first weakened, then altered. How bizarre, and how frightening, that must have seemed to young viewers at the time. Of course, it would pave the way for years and years of new Doctors to come, and that is The Tenth Planet's legacy. It's impossible to view it now without seeing it through that prism, but that's fine. This serial isn't the greatest, but it represents the undying spirit of Doctor Who as a whole.

It's therefore fitting to have this DVD release so close to the series' fiftieth anniversary. As well as the animation, documentary, and the usual features, this release includes a never-before-seen interview with William Hartnell, conducted shortly after his leaving the series. Sadly, Hartnell does not come off very well here. He's arrogant, and quite unpleasant to his interviewer. Combined with the difficulties Anneke Wills describes in the accompanying features, the problems of Hartnell's bigoted attitude to fellow actors, and his increasingly uncompromising stance during production, this release does not provide a very flattering portrayal of the man. And yet, in the documentary, we here of an unexpected moment when, just showing off, the ailing Hartnell tap-danced off the set. It's a little moment of magic that reminds us that it's wrong to focus purely on his less likeable traits. There was something of the Doctor to Hartnell, and without him, this series would not be here today.

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