Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 029—The Tenth Planet


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 029—The Tenth Planet

By T. Scott Edwards

Before I start this blog, I'd like to apologise in advance—I had written 6 pages of wonderful rhetoric, filled with insightful points of interest and fascinating observations... but then my computer deleted it. As such, I've had to rewrite the entire thing, and as such it will be nowhere near as effective—I watched the serial more than a week and a half ago, and have since listened to the next two serials, as well as the series finale of the reboot, so my memory is a little hazy, and my notes make little sense. So, sorry.

And so we come to the end. Season 4, serial 2, sees us bid a heartfelt farewell to the Doctor—Hartnell's moving on, and Troughton's taking over the reins. But what a way to bow out—the introduction of the Cybermen! The first ever regeneration! (Although of course we don't know that that is what it is just yet.) But after a long and dedicated service to the character, Hartnell's swansong is both wonderful and a tragic shame.

The Tenth Planet is regarded by many as the holy grail of Doctor Who, and episode 4 is the most eagerly-sought episode to be returned to the archives. It is a fantastic serial for any number of reasons, and from the opening of episode 1, we can tell that this is something special; the unique opening sequence lets us know that this is something special, as computer scrawl fills the screen, gradually transforming into the episode titles. The sequences in Snow Base are equally impressive, and help to create a global sense of scale for the proceedings; as with The War Machines with its use of news broadcasters and American journalists, we are thrown into a world filled with people of every culture, albeit a number of them are racial stereotypes—from the Italian opera-chanting lothario with the sexy girl posters to the bullish brute of a General, barking orders in his brisk American accent—and we can genuinely believe that there is a danger for the whole planet, not just a suburb of London, as becomes the norm once Pertwee takes over. Again, the use of stock footage here helps to create a sense of scale, making it all the more believable. In a time of space exploration, the shots of rockets must have seemed magnificent.

The arrival of the TARDIS is lovely too—the barren tundra is wonderfully realised, and the materialistion is faultless. The costumes, too, are noteworthy of praise, as Ben, Polly and the doctor step out into a landscape as alien as any we've seen. Set in the not-too-distant future of 1986, it allows the action to be carried by the performances, rather than being distracted by space-age costumes. All of the characters are dressed in such a way that we can tell where we are, both physically and in a chronological sense.

Considering this is Hartnell's swansong, and that he has gradually been removed from serials as a focal point, he is on top-form here again as always; his incredulous reaction to Cutler's constant "pop"-calling is magnificently delivered. In fact, all of the performances are top-notch, as though the crew are aware that they are making history here. Craze, as Ben, is his typical self, heroic, disgruntled yet respectable. Wills, as Polly, is clearly loving being the only female on show, and plays her part with a girlish glee which warms even the coldest heart.

Perhaps the best performances, though, come from the astronauts, Williams and Shultz, on board the Zeus 4 shuttle, played by Earl Cameron and Alan White respectively. Whilst the scenes in the cockpit of the ship have a great potential to be hokey and boring, occurring as they do in one small, claustrophobic space with no dynamic camera work, instead they become riveting, and their performances gradually become more panic-laden as they realise that the ship is slowly slipping from their control. Each movement becomes a chore, and it is a true pleasure to watch.

The incidental music is superb, too—released on CD back in 2000, it creates a genuinely palpable threat as the chords become heavier and tenser, and accompany the visuals magically. The final scenes of the first episode, as Mondas is revealed, are superb—again, the excellent model work helps to sell the realism (although the planet is spinning far too quickly upon its axis!) and as Hartnell warns of the impending "visitors" from this identical planet, we get to see them approach through the snow, with twanging chords and frantic pulsing sounds on the score. The appearance of the Cybermen is fantastic, and is one of the best cliffhangers we've seen yet—the slow march is something we'll see again in The Wheel in Space and The Moonbase, but for now it is original and fresh. The scene in which one of the Cybermen swiftly deal with a scientist with a blow to the back of the head is horrifically violent, particularly as the camera feels like it has lingered on the shot just a moment too long before cutting away. Also wonderful is the final scene, as the camera shows a close-up of the human hands of the Cyberman, impervious to cold and utterly without feeling, as it shifts the corpses uncaringly aside.

As with The War Machines before it, the use of news reporters in episode 2 helps to create a sense of scale, as the world wonders what on earth the new planet could mean. The sequences in Wigner's office at Geneva also help to sell this idea, as they desperately try to deal with the situation. The presence of multi-national characters in non-speaking parts furthers this idea.

In fact, much of the direction is wonderful—the scenes of the Cybermen's arrival are spectacular, and the framing of them with snow on the camera lens is smashing. Likewise, the use of the panning shot across the snow base as Barclay gives his speech is wonderful, showing each of the actors with nuanced characteristics, paranoia and fear etched onto their faces.

The Cybermen themselves are quite magnificent—whilst they are nowhere near as polished looking—pun intended—as they appear in Revenge of the Cybermen, and certainly nothing like as chilling as in the newer series with The Age of Steel, here, they are unnerving because they look so temporary. Rather than perfect robots, identical and lacking any identity, instead the aliens look like they have been assembled from spare parts and junk. The cloth faces are horrifically devoid of all human characteristics, and they tower over the crew of the polar base, chinks in their armour and all. The speech patterns are the most horrifying thing about them, though; the actors performing the Cybermen open their mouths at random intervals whilst the voices, provided by the ever-reliable Roy Skelton and Peter Hawkins, are played in. The modulation of the voices is terrifying—"You call them E-e-emotions"—as emphasis is put on the wrong part of the sentence, inflections fluctuating. With the appearance of the creatures, mouth open and vacant eyes staring, it creates an horrific image of alien-ness. Physically, the Cybermen are intimidating too, and not just because of their height. Their sheer brute strength is displayed in a show of power when one Cyberman takes a gun and bends it as though it were made of rubber.

The claustrophobia of the shuttle scenes is swiftly cut short, as Zeus Four explodes—and the lack of emotion of the Cybermen makes it all the more horrifying, as they simply shrug it off as inevitable. Their understanding of human emotions is terrifying, as they simply consider them to be a "weakness." Emotional power is quickly resumed, however, when the bullish Cutler discovers that his own son is now on a suicide mission, sent by his superiors on a pointless crusade. His inner turmoil leads to him making a number of irrational choices, and allowing Ben to become the moral centre of the story as he tries to defuse the situation, and the Z-Bomb intended to be fired.

Episode 3 is my biggest bugbear though—not only is it the last moving images of Hartnell we'll see, he doesn't even appear in it! As his health rapidly deteriorated, he called into the office to inform the crew that he was unfit to film episode 3, leading to swift rewrites. What is incredible is that the previous serial, and the opening story of season 4, The Smugglers, had been filmed as the last block of season 3. Hartnell had voluntarily come in to film The Tenth Planet, despite his ailing health, to provide closure for his portrayal of the character and to help usher in Patrick Troughton's Doctor. And really, he gets a raw deal of the whole thing. After months of relegation, this serial should have been his grand exit, his outstanding swansong. Whilst his illness was untimely but unavoidable, even when he is on screen, he is vastly underused.

However, Hartnell's loss was Craze's gain, and Ben becomes the key player in this episode, crawling through ventilation systems and saving the day. After the Doctor collapses, he is ushered into the bedroom and placed under the covers, unseen for the rest of the serial. Ben talks to him endlessly, muttering in fact to himself about the situation, and again it is a testimony to the power of Hartnell's Doctor—even when unconscious, he is there to provide guidance to the companions. The camera work in the air-duct system is wonderfully handled, creating claustrophobic setting and a genuine sense of danger. The incidental music is also wonderful, all strings and drums, rattling away as the tension is ramped higher and higher. Ben is able to get to the control room with the Z-Bomb, but is swiftly dealt with by Cutler and his men, and we are left unsure whether his sabotage has been successful as the countdown flickers across our screens.

Of course, the rocket fails to launch, and Ben has saved the day. Cutler's threat is horrifying, as he tells Ben that he's doomed for interfering with the launch, and of the Doctor, warns "he's gonna get worse." The fourth episode sees both the Doctor and the Cybermen return to the foreground after their absence for the most part of episode 3. Sadly though, as mentioned earlier, this episode is missing, save for a few poor-quality recordings made by fans who clearly knew that this was going to be something special. In these brief clips, though, we can see just how magnificent Hartnell still was—in the face of his illness, he still stands tall against the Cybermen, with the power and disgust we have come to know and love of this incarnation.

The biggest threat to the Doctor and his companions, though, seems to come in the form of Cutler, whose emotional state threatens his sanity, and his desperation is what drives him to such acts; Robert Beatty is magnificent in these scenes, as he fluctuates from his boorish self to an emotionally-wrought man fuelled by paternal concern. It is this very desperation which ultimately leads to his death—blinded by his concern for his son, he fails to fully appreciate the danger within the base.

Polly is swiftly taken hostage by the Cybermen, ensuring that Ben and the Doctor do as they are told, and the Doctor's final comment to her as she leaves—"Don't forget your coat!"—reminds us of his grandfatherly ways. The Doctor quickly realises the Cybermen's plan, though, and as such is also taken hostage—again, removing him from the main thrust of the action to sit in a chair, where "this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin". Again, this foreshadows his final bow, once more removing him from the crux of the action and instead allowing Ben to take centre stage and, ultimately, to save the day. It is Ben who realises that, despite their brute strength and metal exterior, the Cybermen are impervious to radioactivity, and so the survivors use the radioactive rods to fell the remaining invasion force as Mondas burns itself up and melts, taking all of the Cybermen with it. Snowcap is able to resume radio contact with Terry Cutler in space, and the Doctor and Polly are saved from the Cybermen's ship.

The final scenes are unnerving, though—after all we've seen of the Doctor over the last 3 and a half seasons, he returns to his original form, crabby and unapproachable, and as he makes his way back into the TARDIS, we are left believing, just for a moment, that he intends to leave Ben and Polly in the South Pole. They manage to enter, though, and we witness a transformation, as the creased, white-haired old man suddenly transforms in an explosion of white light into a small, spritely looking fellow. The effects are pretty flawless, and no explanation is given—after the Doctor's collapse and his weakness in the chair, we are given no reasoning (although it can be presumed it was to do with Mondas, and there had originally been an explanation in the first script) for the change. Hartnell's last speech before this transformation is in retort to Ben's statement—"It's all over? That's what you said—but it isn't all over!"—and how right he is. The adventures don't stop with a change of image. The Doctor lives on…

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

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