Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Tenth Planet written by Kit Pedlar and directed by Derek Martinus

This story in a nutshell: Enter the Cybermen…
Hmm: ‘Emotions! Love, pride, hate, fear! Have you no emotions, sir?’ By no means the insignificant final appearance that many will have you believe, Hartnell gets some commanding moments in his final story. It is only during episode three where his health robbed him of an entire installment that when things start to go awry…because it is abundantly clear that the narrative is getting along just as well without him. Kindly don’t address him as Pop. Hartnell butts heads so dramatically with Robert Beatty’s Cutler makes me play a little game of ‘what if…’ and imagine what the show would have been like had he been well enough to continue long into the Troughton era stories. Imagine him sparring insults with Clent and Robson. Sparks would fly. The Doctor seems to know all about the arrival of Mondas (there is a scene which deliberately points out as much so that his knowledge can be trusted) and so perhaps he knows about the Cybermen too. An untransmitted story? There’s a gorgeous shot of Hartnell looking straight out at the audience and discussing the imminent arrival of the Cybermen, it’s blind luck but it is framed in such a way as though he knows that their entrance is going to bring a whole heap of trouble for his future lives. Note the quiet way he tries to break the loss of the astronauts from Zeus IV to Polly, trying to make the moment as easy as possible for her. ‘Save us?’ he spits at the Cybermen as though he knows exactly what they have in mind. He talks very eloquently about human emotions and despite being from another planet he has embraced plenty of them over the course of his travels. Despite the fact that I would have liked to have seen a little more of him, losing the Doctor for an entire episode does raise the stakes and help to push the notion that his body is without a doubt wearing a bit thin. The Doctor mentions that it comes from an outside influence and when you think back to the previous season it is possible to make an argument that his exposure to the Time Destructor in The Daleks’ Masterplan and his out of body experience and drain in The Savages may have contributed greatly to his rush of ill health and need to renew his body. Even in the worst of health, the Doctor bravely stares down the barrel of a gun that Cutler brandishes, accusing the old man of killing his son. If you found the ending of the story a little unpersuasive (although to be fair to Pedlar he has set up the Cybermen’s downfall via the destruction of Mondas sufficiently) there is an extra surprise waiting for Ben and Polly when they chase the decrepit, raving Doctor back to the TARDIS. Shadows flickering across his face, the TARDIS buzzing with excitement and life and a strange, glowing transformation from an old man into a young one…the show has been quirky before but this is in a league of it’s own. What the hell is going on and just what does it mean for the series?
Able Seaman & Lovely Lashes: Never mind what was going on behind the scenes with William Hartnell behaving like a little Hitler and Wills and Craze trying to tip toe out of the path of his wrath, I still adore the first Doctor, Ben and Polly line up and wish there had been more adventures with them. The contrast between Hartnell’s gruff but paternal Doctor and his sexy swinging sixties companions makes for a very memorable team and I love how respect seems to be naturally built into this trio from the word go. When faced with the artifical nature of Cybermen Polly is suitably horrified, offering a very soulful reaction to such an abhorrent mockery of a human being. She pushes her luck a little too far by getting right in their faces and trying to make them care about the astronauts that could potentially die and gets a good shove for her troubles. We needed a very emotional reaction to the Cybermen’s indifference and Polly and Ben provide that in spades. From their playfulness right through to their terror, they are two of the most human companions the Doctor has ever travelled with. Even more than Steven, Ben seems to be a bundle of aggressive energy at times which really spills on screen when he is given an implacable foe to fight. But look at how genuinely appalled he is when he has murdered one of the Cybermen, another moment of humanity in a story that questions whether we should be stripped of them or not. He only fires when he thinks that he himself is about to die at the hands of one of the creatures. With the Doctor out of the action in episode three it is left to relative newcomers Polly and Ben to prop the story up and it is to their credit that they do a very impressive job of it. Ben is smart enough to realise that Polly is a much more attractive prospect (and I don’t just mean to look at) when it comes to getting Barclay on their side. She’s much more of a people person. Can you imagine what Tegan’s reaction to ‘you just keep your mind on making coffee, would you?’ would be? At least he has the balls to apologise to her and quite smartly Polly doesn’t react, recognizing he is a man coping with an terrifying situation. She’s a pragmatist too, identifying that they are going to have sacrifice Cutler’s son to save the lives of millions. What is Ben doing with a knife? Was he a cockney cutthroat or is it handy on board his ship when the fighting breaks out? When he is caught by Cutler sabotaging the bomb my first thought was ‘oh shit…’ and my second was ‘ouch!’ as Ben is thrown backwards over a railing in a move that could probably break his back. The next time we see him he is suitably broken and unconscious. If anybody is going to sacrifice themselves from the action as a hostage it is going to be Ben – I love how protective he is of Polly, even if the Cybermen take her anyway (with the Doctor’s blessing). The War Machines and The Macra Terror aside, this might be Michael Craze’s most impressive story, he effectively takes on the Doctor’s role in the last two episodes by coming up with bright ideas, taking the fight to the Cybermen and rousing the Base personnel into a fighting force. He’s an extremely engaging figure.
You Will Be Like Us: The Cybermen couldn’t have asked for a more impressive entrance; gliding gracefully through the snowy wastes of the Artic like robotic wraiths, cutting down a number of the Snowbase personnel as though they are swatting flies and staring at the camera with those hideous cloth faces as though they are silently screaming straight at us. I don’t care whether the kids in 1966 were frightened, that gives me the willies in 2013. There is something truly stitched together and inhuman about the original Cybermen that really sells the nature of the creatures, humans that have sold their souls in order to survive. D’you know what sells it better than at any other point in the shows history? It’s the human hand and the human eye that are both clearly visible. Remnants of a person wrapped in cold technology. The Cybermen of old are cunning and clever, they know that to wrap themselves up in the base personnel’s anoraks will get them access to the base without resistance. The current mob stomp about as if they own the place and usually get a rock launcher in the face for their troubles. Following the successful template of the Daleks, the Cybermen are first introduced skulking about mysteriously and when the Doctor finally gets a good look at them the first thing they do is shoot somebody down. They mean business. Don’t get me wrong I do firmly believe that the voices that the Cybermen adopt when they return in The Moonbase are perhaps the most effective they ever were but there is something horribly discordant and frightening about their lilting sing-song voices in The Tenth Planet. Buzzing with electricity, playful and slightly camp, their artificial voices juxtaposed with their cumbersome get-up and face masks like a grotesque parody of human features make for a genuinely chilling creation. Even the way they simply open their mouths in a mockery of speech but don’t mouth any words seems like a sick joke. It is no surprise to me whatsoever that the story gained two million viewers from its first episode to its last. Word of mouth spreads fast when there is something as ghoulish as this splayed all over television on a Saturday night. Polly asks metaphorically if the Cybermen has a heart and it coldly remarks ‘no, that is one of the weaknesses that we have removed.’ That’s chilling. The Cybermen falling dead in the snow as the base use their own weapons against them is an iconic image, their fall from grace is almost balletic.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Mondas? But isn’t that one of the ancient names for Earth?’ ‘Yes, aeons ago their planets were twins then we drifted away from you on a journey to the edge of space. Now we have returned…’
‘You’ve sent my son to his death, you realise that, I hope.’
‘What is the Z-Bomb?’ ‘What is it? It’s the doomsday weapon, mister, and rightly primed it could split that planet in half.’

The Good:
  • It’s Doctor Who’s first take on the space travel from the Earth and if I’m brutally honest it is probably the most successful. Kit Pedlar ensures that all the terminology and technology is present and correct and Derek Martinus is a competent enough director to ensure that the story kick starts with some impressive stock footage and quirky graphics to give the indication that this is a contemporary and naturalistic drama. This was made three years before the moon landing but predicts that it would be a common occurrence in the eighties and Pedlar should be applauded for his accurate and optimistic future vision for space travel.
  • It is the first instance of the base under siege story that would become so prevalent during the Patrick Troughton era and most of the money has been poured into making sure that the Snowcap Base looks as authentic as possible. The control room is an impressive split level set filled with banks of computers and is manned by a hefty amount of extras and I love the little touches like the pin ups of half naked girls above Tito’s  bunk that make this place feel inhabited by real people. To pull of an artic storm in a studio is quite some feat but with copious amounts of wind and polystyrene plus the visually benevolent nature of black and white television and you might just pull the blankets a little tighter around you as the Doctor, Ben and Polly fight their way through the blizzard. It’s very atmospherically done and Martinus isn’t afraid to move the camera about and cut to extreme close ups to keep things moving.
  • Even actor Earl Cameron was shocked to learn that he was going to be playing an astronaut in Doctor Who and it is a smashing indictment of the forward thinking nature of the show in the late sixties to include a black astronaut. It almost makes up for the dreadful racial stereotype that is Toberman in Pedlar’s Tomb of the Cybermen a year later. There’s nice banter between the two astronauts and they are suitably sweated up and filmed in cramped conditions.
  • The idea of a tenth planet is a very exciting one and it is easy to see how this story might have been commissioned on the strength of the notion. If such a revelation were to occur it would be one of those moments when we are confronted with the possibility that everything that we have ever established about the universe at large might be erroneous. A tenth planet, one that can move through space and that brings with it a race of human beings that have turned themselves into cybernetic zombies…that is science fiction gold. The Cybermen have spoilt their own world and now they have returned to their twin planet the Earth sap the rock of it’s natural resources. Faced with the Cybermen, it is a glimpse into our own future and the lengths we will have to go to in order to survive their energy drain.
  • I honestly cannot decide whether I like the shots of the Cyberman ship landing or not. Martinus has gone to the effort of having a miniature of the snowy wastes built and has the ship glide gracefully into view in the distance. Unlike the skilful miniatures featured in The Daleks’ Masterplan it does feel like model work though  and take you out of the story for a moment. Despite that, I do acknowledge the effort that has gone into making the Cybermen’s arrival as detailed as possible.
  • Something that Russell T Davies gets a lot of credit for post 2005 (and rightly so since it was a skill all but forgotten during 70s and 80s Who) is the use of the newsreader commenting on the latest calamity to befall the planet Earth. It is a great way to show the information being relayed to the whole world and to skip the action along at a fair old lick and it was first seen (as with most of these things) in a William Hartnell story. The War Machines made excellent use of the device and so does The Tenth Planet. Suddenly the show is making a statement, the threats are no longer contained to the location where the story is set, they are worldwide disasters.
  • Is Robert Beatty giving a deeper performance than I have given him credit for in the past? In the first two episodes Cutler is an overworked man dealing with an impossibly fraught situation into which three strangers and a bunch of cybernetic ghouls intrude upon. That would be enough to make anybody a bit grouchy and inflexible. Add in the danger that his son walks into and the possibility that he might lose him and it is no wonder that he loses his mind before curtain call. Beatty isn’t giving the most complex of performances (compare him to Petr Butterworth in The Ice Warriors) but he certainly has the presence and the authority that it requires. He is the sort of man who will bully and insult his way through a situation, turn his nose up at good advice and praise somebody for taking a life it furthers their cause. Taking the Doctor away from the story in the third quarter gives Cutler the opportunity to have some gentler moments with his staff to fill the time and it greatly enhances the believability of the character. In the last episode he is practically the villain of the piece, but in his own mind behaving in the most rational of ways in order to save his son. Take away that element and he would be just another base commander that has lost his marbles but Pedlar ensures that the audience is at least half on his side because they would probably act in the same way under the same circumstances. To answer my own question no, not really, but he acquits himself rather well regardless. It’s certainly not a poor performance by any means and by the end of the story Cutler is a genuinely frightening, psychotic figure and the transition is entirely believable.
  • You might think that losing both the Doctor and the Cybermen is episode three would render that episode useless but instead it forces Pedlar to focus on the remaining characters and make this drama about people coping with an impossible situation. It keeps the story grounded. In the midst of the Cold War we are suddenly talking about dropping bombs and nuclear fallout. It’s very topical. It also means that the last episode is a triumph with the stars (Hartnell and the monsters) of the show returning to see out the era in style.
  • Is this the only Doctor Who story where the heroes only have stall the monsters and they will be wiped out be their own inadequacies?
  • The first appearance of the Cybermen. The shock appearance of the Cyber fleet. The countdown to a bomb being detonated that will crack open Mondas and release radiation that could destroy half the Earth. The Doctor’s death and rebirth. That’s four for four as far as cliffhangers are concerned, all excellent.
  • As fans we can be a right bunch of curmudgeons at times. Here we are with one of the finest DVD ranges in the business with possibly the most impressive set of special features collectively of any TV show ever brought to digital media and given the gift of being able to watch stories with episodes missing in their entirety…and we complain about the style of the animation. Okay fair dues, you have paid money for this item and you are perfectly within your rights to criticize but in a case like this where we would be forced to watch an incomplete story otherwise I find the negativity directed at the enterprise a little churlish. Yes there are some facial drawings that are a little lumpy and misshapen (it looks like clay-mation at times) but on the whole it is a stunning job and much like the other stories that have been brought to life through animation there are some incredible mood opportunities with the atmospheric light and shade of black and white images. The Cybermen look resplendent in animation and check out the agonizingly painful sequence where Cutler is shot dead. The destruction of Mondas is brilliantly realised with seas of lava erupting and entire continents breaking free as the planet cracks open like an egg.
  • The Tenth Planet resists a Cyberman invasion until the very last minute with ships landing across the globe and the creatures attacking the planets political centres. It’s precisely what Russell T Davies achieves in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday but with much less fuss and noise. There is an acknowledgement that Cutler was right that I welcomed and that the Cybermen aren’t quite the innocent victims that they claimed to be. They really are a sneaky bunch, this lot, using their tragic backstory to their advantage to distract the human race whilst they sneak their invasion force onto the planet. 
 The Bad:
  • There are perhaps a few too many scenes on Zeus IV in episode one that slacken the pace too much. It’s not that these scenes are badly done but the story has so much more to offer in episode two once Mondas and the Cybermen have arrived and it is natural to be eager to get the goodies.
  • I really appreciated the appearance of Wigner to give the story an international feel and as a realistic way to instead the threat to the wider population of the Earth (otherwise a contained threat in the Antarctic is very isolated). However Steve Plytas doesn’t have the most impressive screen presence and you have to work at translating his dialogue at times.  
The Shallow Bit: Michael Craze is still a hottie. And Anneke Wills is sex on legs. Together they make the ultimate pin up companions.

Result: The Tenth Planet shocked me by being…really rather good. I have never been particularly enamoured with this story and have always considered The Moonbase to be a superior version of the same template but after this re-watch I may very well have to revise that opinion. What I could see now the picture has been spruced up for DVD is how much effort everybody is going to to make the setting as realistic as possible and director Derek Martinus deserves some real kudos for pulling off a functioning mission control in the Artic. The highlight of the story is clearly the introduction of the Cybermen and whilst they quickly undergo a redesign in their next story they were memorably ghoulish enough to put Doctor Who on the map once again, the viewing figures leaping back up to acceptable levels with their appearance. Conceptually, psychologically and physically these creatures are quite frightening and tailored with a playful, sing-song voice we have never seen anything quite this successfully weird and scary introduced since the Daleks. It is clear they are here to stay. There are plenty of other treats to be unearthed from this four part adventure that I have dismissed in the past; General Cutler’s descent into madness with the very rational motive of trying to save his son keeping his actions on the comprehensible side of lunacy, some lovely moments of emotion to highlight the story’s central theme (the loss of the astronauts, Ben’s reaction to killing a Cyberman), a race against time pace in the final two episodes to try stop the bomb from dropping and of course the haunting prelude to the Doctor’s death in episode four. In fact the only thing I could find to truly complain about was the pace in episode one with several interminably long sequences aboard Zeus IV and the occasional creaky guest performance. The ideas are exciting and dramatised in an interesting way, the story keeps one foot grounded in reality through the setting whilst heading off to explore the terrifying notion of body improvements gone mad and the ending blows your mind with the apparent death and rebirth of the Doctor. It’s a story that keeps on giving and spruced up on DVD with the fourth episode animated it can now be enjoyed as it was always meant to be. Rather than the disappointing cap to the Hartnell era, this was a bold new beginning for the show with the base under siege adventure and the Cybermen booked in for a return appearance in just four stories time. The first Doctor era innovates right up to it’s last gasp: 8/10


TF80 said...

Maybe I'm weird, but I find this first Cybermen desing the most spooky and terrific of 'em all. I know they were men with a cloth on their faces but... still... them chills me to the bone. I prefered thes cybermen to the eighties ones... and the voices!! these and Troughton's era voices are my fav

Ulkesh said...

I definitely sympathize with TF80's opinion, and indeed yours, Joe: these Cybermen chill to the bone!

An absolutely superlative review as always, Joe, but I would like to (pedantically? nitpickingly?) call attention to your use of the word "indictment". It's used in several of your reviews to basically mean "indication", but I have the nagging feeling that indictment carries with it a firm negative connotation. As a staunch believer in the power of words ("The Shakespeare Code", anyone?), it's just something that stands out to me.

Cheers and keep up the excellent work!

Joe Ford said...

I too believe in the power of words, very much so. I had completely the wrong impression of this one however! I thought it to mean 'as proof of' in the positive sense when it had a wholly negative one! Whoops! Oh well, you live and learn.

Thanks for the kind words, I have the loveliest of readers on the blog :-)