Despite being a fan of Doctor Who for rather a long time now, I’ve only just gotten around to watching one of the classic stories, The Tenth Planet. I won’t be recapping the story here, but it is best known for introducing two things: Cybermen and regenerations.
The Cybermen are very different in this first story than they will be later on. While later incarnations of them feature metal faces encasing whatever is still human, in this story they are wearing a fabric of some kind with holes cut out for they eyes and mouth. A lack of gloves – an accidental oversight in the costume department – shows the viewers that they still have flesh and blood limbs. The effect, ironically, humanises them. While the Cybermen explain to the Doctor and company that they no longer have emotions, there is something tragic about them as you can still see the human within. That being said, there is something uncanny about them at the same time. Their eyes can be faintly seen beneath the mask, and they just blankly stare outwards. Their mouths open with talking, but there is no movement of the lips as the robotic, sing-song voice comes out. This ends up creating a visual image that is disturbing, in a way the Cyberman don’t achieve once they become more robotic and less human.
The story depends on a lot of supporting characters, and William Hartnell’s ill-health meant the Doctor had to have a lie down in episode three, with what would have been the Doctors contributions given to other characters. Ben only seems to become of any use once the Doctor is out-of-the-way and one of the guest characters, Barclay, has more importance than we would normally expect. Compared to them, Polly seems to contribute nothing of worth throughout the episode, save for driving the initial conversation with the Cyberman, screaming and putting the kettle on. All of this results in Hartnell not getting the big, final episode we would later come to expect from regeneration stories like Planet of the Spiders or The Caves of Androzani. Instead of a bang, it’s a whimper – he falls to the floor and turns into Patrick Troughton.
While there are some truly terrible accents on display in this serial, what is nice is the attempt at portraying a more diverse group of people involved in the space programme, suggesting it is an international organisation, and not just a group of Americans of Britons. I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the astronauts was black, as giving such a positive, or even glamorous, role to a non-white actor at this time was rare. It never escaped my notice as a child that Doctor Who very rarely had non-white roles, and when they did they usually fell back on stereotypes – Toberman, the manservant from Tomb of the Cybermen, who was defined by his physical aggressiveness, or Li H’sen Chang, a Chineese, Fu Manchu type, played by a white actor in yellow skin.
The fourth episode being mostly missing, the DVD contains an animated episode using the surviving audio. It actually works very well, as there seems to be an effort to recreate the mood and feeling of the previous three live action episodes. The Cyberman still move and behave the same way and the visual effects match up, creating continuity. There is also attention to the little details, such as Hartnell’s tendency to put his hands on the lapels of his coat, that make the animated episode easy to watch. The animation itself felt a little stiff, but I think this may have just been a result of mimicking the slower nature of sixties television and also being limited by what actions can be heard being performed on the audio.
Some little moments do make for awkward viewing. It’s unfair, I think, to critique a mid-sixties TV show for its cheapness, so I wont. The Cyberman costume may look cheap, but I think it’s still effective. The line, ‘I can see people…and there’s a woman!’ is painfully outdated. And while it’s not the fault of the episode, a setting of 1986, and a reference to a shuttle mission ‘last year’ did immediately make me think of the Challenger, a space shuttle which exploded just over a minute into launch in January of that year.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Tenth Planet. It may not be the grand send off we tend to expect a Doctor to get in his final episode, but there’s still a lot of great stuff in here. The regeneration is really just a thing that happens at the end. The real fascination is the Cyberman and the birth of one of the Doctors oldest adversaries.