Brilliance, rubbish and The Tenth Planet (1966)

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Let’s go straight to the opening of Episode 2. It’s the reprise of a cliffhanger I love. The descriptively named ‘American Sergeant’ (John Brandon) lies dead in the polystyrene snow. A human hand clutches at his chest. The camera pans up for our first good look at the alien assailant, to reveal that the creature’s not human at all. It’s a bizarre simulacrum of a human, encased in plastic and covered in tubing. Its face is stretched white fabric, with gaping holes for eyes and mouth. It’s a weird unsettling sight. Suddenly, a slight camera wobble to the left, and there in the corner, we can see the edge of the set’s cyclorama. Boom! Illusion shattered!

It’s just one moment, but it epitomises a question I found myself asking a lot while watching The Tenth Planet: is this brilliant or is it rubbish? The ghoulish Cybermen, here in their earliest incarnation, are a case in point. They are ramshackle, to say the least. Their heads are visibly secured with sticky tape. Their guns are the size of skateboards, and sit sideways across their crotches. And when they speak, their mouths open into one stationary circle and snap shut when discordant words escape. To mostly comic effect.

But… But… There is something undeniably creepy about them. It’s those stretched fabric faces, as if they’re recovering from hideous facial injuries. In close ups, those eyes aren’t inky black holes – you can see human eyes moving beneath them. These Cybermen aren’t nightmares in silver or men of steel. They are flaring white presences on screen, towering over the rest of the cast.  Ghostly giants.

Anyway, let’s backtrack. The Doctor (William Hartnell, in a reduced role here in his final story) arrives at the South Pole with companions Ben (nuggety Michael Craze) and Polly (dolly bird Anneke Wills). Their arrival is observed by the men staffing a military base beneath the surface, via a periscope. It’s been some long, cold months since these red-blooded young soldiers have caught a glimpse of female beauty, so naturally they focus their male gaze keenly on Polly. ‘Hey, hey!’, says Latin type Tito. ‘Mama Mia! Bellissima!’

It’s an important moment; Doctor Who pointing out to its audience ‘Look! We’ve got sexy girls now.’ Pre-Polly the Doctor’s companions included attractive ladies, but they were not explicitly positioned as objects of desire. Only short-lived sidekick Sara Kingdom, a catsuited security agent from the future, bucked this trend. But Polly kicks off the long line of girls employed to keep the dads watching, and we’re invited to join in.

Such matters are of no interest to the sexless Cybermen, who shortly arrive at the Antarctic base to launch their plan to destroy the Earth. The polar base setting is mostly irrelevant to the story, but by marching around unprotected in icy blizzards, the Cybermen demonstrate their difference to us ordinary humans. That and their voices like teenage boys navigating puberty.

Spooky (or rubbish) as their appearance and voices may be, they’re not half as bewildering as their tactics. These monsters wander into the base every so often to blurt out their plans. They disguise themselves as soldiers by temporarily donning parkas, even though they have to stretch these over the oversize lamps atop their heads making them about as tall as the TARDIS and just as inconspicuous. My favourite though is the odd moment when they seem to stop everything to take a survey of the base’s personnel. ‘Age! Name! Occupation!’, the lead Cyb grates haltingly between exposition. ‘Postcode! Annual Income! On a scale of 1-5, how do you think the invasion’s going?’, I hope he eventually gets around to.

It’s a lot of effort to go to when really, all they have to do is wait. The main plan is to let the vampiric planet Mondas, Earth’s recently rediscovered twin, drain Earth of its energy. It takes a while for everyone on the base to work out what’s so familiar about Mondas because it’s basically the famous BBC globe upside down. That has everyone stymied, except Polly, who has been doing some continent spotting. ‘That bit looks just like Malaysia!’, she cries. It always amuses me that Malaysia’s the one she notices. I’ve been to Malaysia; lovely place but not one with a particularly distinctive shape. Certainly I’d struggle to identify it on a monochrome, inverted BBC globe. South America or Africa, yep. But Malaysia? Anyway, nicely spotted Polly.

But I digress. Mondas hangs heavy in Earth’s sky and its portentous influence robs spacecraft and spacemen alike of their energy. It’s worth remembering here that one of The Tenth Planet‘s co-authors is Kit Pedler, brought onto the show to lend it scientific credibility. Now I’m no Brian Cox – hell, I can’t even spot upside down Malaysia – but I think Doctor Who should have asked for Kit’s fee back. At least the part that went to thinking up peripatetic planets with eerie power eating abilities. On the other hand its nice to see the show at least shooting for some scientific credence. But it would never get away with such implausibility these days. *Cough! The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. Double cough! Kill the Moon. Full emphysemic fit! In the Forest of the Night.*

Things are far more down to earth inside the base. The rag tag group of army personnel and scientists are led by Grade A nutbag General Cutler (Robert Beatty). Cutler is a loud brash military bully, who resorts to deploying nuclear weapons (others might have had an A-bomb, he has a Z-bomb) when his own son is threatened by the Cybermen. Cutler’s the embodiment of a very real fear, as scary in the 1960s as now, that some mentally unstable buffoon somewhere is the one with his finger on the button. It is a stark reminder that amongst all the implausible events taking place, the greater threat of destruction comes from ourselves, not from twisted allegorical versions of us.

But personal destruction awaits the Doctor, who has, it seems, been affected by Mondas’s life force draining ways, although none of the humans around him have. At story’s end, with the Cybermen defeated as their planet sucks away too much voltage, he collapses to the floor of the TARDIS and begins to change. And this is a story about what people change into; humanity turns into Cybermen, Generals under pressure turn into madmen, ordinary people turn into heroes to stop them both. So it’s not so weird that the Doctor turns into a new man, in a white flare out which looks a fairly basic special effect to our 21st century eyes. Is this brilliant or is it rubbish?

The answer’s clear. The execution’s a bit rubbish. But in the Cybermen and regeneration and the original base under siege and even the inclusion of sexy girls,The Tenth Planet has big, series changing ideas. And that’s its claim to brilliance.

Link to The Robots of Death: big mechanical bad guys.

NEXT TIME… I’m not so sure that this so-called adventure was such a good idea after all. We submit to The Dominators. Command accepted!

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4 thoughts on “Brilliance, rubbish and The Tenth Planet (1966)”

  1. Definitely more brilliant than rubbish. Yeah it has the odd production glitch, but fewer than many of its contemporaries (I’m looking at you ‘Web Planet’/’The Chase’). ‘The Tenth Planet’ earns bonus points for colourblind casting of a major role – rare enough today, and astonishing for 1966 (what a pity the show didn’t keep this up).

    An important but often overlooked aspect of this story, is that I’m pretty sure it’s the first time the series acknowledged ‘the history of the future’, as it were, in that the Doctor clearly displays foreknowledge of the return of Mondas in 1986. This is pretty groundbreaking stuff, as one of the (justified) criticisms of 60s Dr Who is that ‘history’ is frequently described as immutable, whereas conversely the Doctor’s shown mucking about in ‘the future’ with gay abandon. In this serial he knows what is about to transpire, and desperately tries to – prevent – actions being taken by General Cutler that would change the course of events (killing a ton of people in the process). And another thing, having the Doctor advocating ‘doing nothing’ is a pretty mature stance for an adventure serial in the 60s, and we don’t really see this again until such existential serials as ‘Warriors Gate’ & ‘Kinda’.

    1. Perry, thanks again for the comments. Keep ’em coming!

      Point taken about the colourblind casting of Earl Cameron and it’s particularly important when you consider the most recent black character in the show at that point had been Jamaica in The Smugglers. But in other ways, The Tenth Planet falls back on nationalistic stereotypes (the lusty Italian, the brash American). Always a danger in these stories featuring bases made up of international crews.

      And as for the ‘do nothing’ aspect of the plot… Very interesting. Too much to say about it here, so will save it for a future post – maybe on Warriors’ Gate. But in general, I think it’s a difficult trick to make a story work dramatically when the hero doesn’t take any positive action to resolve the plot. Historicals might be a special case but… Will think about it some more.

      But I wouldn’t categorise Kinda as a ‘do nothing’ plot. Isn’t the evil defeated when the Doctor traps that big pink snake in a circle of mirrors? That’s doing something!

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