Airdates: October 1966 (4 episodes)
Written by: Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis
Screen Credit to: Kit/Kitt Pedler (Episodes 1 & 2); Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis/Davies (Episodes 3 & 4)
Directed by: Derek Martinus
The Story So Far: A tenth planet arrives in the skies in December 1986, and silvery robotic figures soon menace a secret aeronautics base at the South Pole. Can the Doctor save the day before his old body wears a bit too thin?
Novelization by: Gerry Davis (February 1976)
Looking back on it, you have to wonder just how this story ever got scripted, let alone produced and broadcast, in little old 1966. Kit Pedler, the program’s new go-to science writer, was asked to draft a story based on his personal fears of science running amok. His original pitch involved a bunch of Star Monks invading the Earth. Seriously. I am not making this up. Fortunately, his boss was Gerry Davis, and Gerry Davis was wise enough to say “Try again.” At some point, Davis added the directive to include a new (marketable) alien race, to compensate for the looming loss of the Daleks. And that’s how the Cybermen were born. Not through a spontaneous vision, but by committee.
And then, if that wasn’t hard enough, Pedler fell ill before writing Episodes 3 and 4, and Davis had to finish writing the story himself. No sooner were the scripts finished then did William Hartnell get fired, and a new draft had to replace the originals. This time, introducing not only the Cybermen, but also… a new Doctor.
The Tenth Planet was the first story made for the Season 4 production block, with William Hartnell back for only four weeks, essentially guest-starring on what was about to become The Patrick Troughton Show. And, shades of The War Machines towards the end of Season 3, this one is a palpable game-changer for Doctor Who. You can tell this story is special from the first few moments. Caveat: It’s aged terribly from a visual standpoint, and the science, Kit Pedler or no, would certainly not pass the Neil deGrasse Tyson laugh test (otherwise, we’d be watching The Ninth Planet instead); also, the Doctor is barely in it. But I don’t think any of that matters, not when you’re watching the show in sequence; when this comes along, it turns the previous story, The Smugglers, into a sad little irrelevancy.
The international scope is probably the first thing you’ll notice — before the Cybermen show up, before the Doctor collapses on the TARDIS floor. American accents (authentic, some of them). Australian accents. A comedic Italian. Greek actor Steve Plytas playing a Swiss aerospace administrator. The American TV reporter in Episode 2 is played by Glenn Beck — an actor whose accented speech sounds as labored as the other Glenn Beck’s delusional thought processes. There’s also a black astronaut — an actual well-rounded, dignified, minority character, which for Doctor Who is, at this point, a first. I will say that, for years after I first saw this story (via bootleg VHS in the mid-1990s), I complained about the ludicrously bad New York accent on the “American Sergeant” — the Snowcap Base security officer who becomes the first Cyberman murder victim. “Yeah! An expedition just retoined!” I couldn’t take him seriously. I mean, even my accent ain’t dat thick.
But, come to find out, actor John Brandon really is a New Yorker, and has made a decades-long living playing cops and sergeants. He’s probably the only actor in history whose resume blends Doctor Who, Frasier, Diff’rent Strokes, and (oy) Melrose Place. Not only that, but he’s the same guy who interrogated Al Pacino at the beginning of Brian DePalma’s Scarface, asking him if he got that beauty scar by … eating watermelon (at least, that’s how the U.S. network broadcasts presented that line). So. An illustrious actor. It’s not his accent that’s bad — it just sounds so atypical for the Doctor Who of that era, that it sounds phony.
At the end of Episode 1, the Cybermen land, and everything about them is slow. The model prop representing their spaceship takes forever to land. More effectively, they deliberately lumber across the Ealing Studios soundstage to kill John Brandon. When they enter the Snowcap base in Episode 2… well, you can see right away why the Cybermen were to Doctor Who in the late ’60s what the Daleks had been in 1964 and 1965. The enormous costumes, with headlamps and boots and accordion-sized chest units; the distinctive walk; Roy Skelton’s melodically atonal voiceovers… kids must have loved imitating the Cybermen on the playground. They are an instant success, and all the previous pretenders to the Daleks’ throne — the Chumblies, the Zarbi, the Mechanoids, the War Machines… forget all about them. There is no question that you will be demanding more, more, more Cybermen, long before this serial is even over.
The Cybermen, of course, don’t look like this anymore; gone are the nylon stocking masks, Saran wrap, and lampshade-cover guns. And even the 1966 production crew asks us to strain our credulity a bit; there’s a scripted explanation as to why there are so few people at Snowcap Base (never minding that A) the base also houses an unseen doctor and a Major; and B) International Space Control is somehow headquartered in Geneva instead of, say, a country that actually launches rockets and men into space). The thing does look cheap, and not at all as atmospheric and claustrophobic as Gerry Davis’s novelization, which was an early example of greatness in the Target line.
But the director is Derek Martinus, who we already know to be an expert from his previous Doctor Who serial, and what’s most impressive about his work on The Tenth Planet is that he doesn’t go back and merely recycle his visual tricks (flashbacks, soliloquies to the camera) from Galaxy 4. Instead, he makes the technology a character in the story. The three astronauts who communicate with Mission Control in the story are mostly seen via video monitors built into the set. There’s lots of rocket launch stock footage (most notably in the Episode 3 cliffhanger), and of course all that Cybermen marching — set to the music of “Space Adventure”, which over the next 3 years would do for the Cybermen and the Yeti what Tristram Cary’s soundscapes had done for the Daleks. And, in addition to his loving the computers and lights and rockets and video screens, Martinus makes intensive use of extreme close-ups on the human characters, allowing their emotions to offset the Cybermen’s (literally) blank white face-masks. When William Hartnell moans “It’s far from being all over!” in Episode 4, we know from the surviving off-air 8-millimeter recording that he first approaches and then nearly bumps into the camera — only this time, unlike with that rogue Zarbi, it’s clearly a deliberate choice by the director. (The animated Episode 4 on DVD has a first-person POV shot of Polly losing consciousness, although I wouldn’t know if Martinus planned for this in his camera script.)
This is not a great script. As with Galaxy 4, Derek Martinus’ visual flair masks some problems. For those of us who read the novelization before seeing the surviving material (all of the first three episodes, and the surviving footage from the last five minutes of Episode 4), we were expecting greatness. Gerry Davis, who chose to novelize the original scripts rather than the final product, wrote Cybermen attacks, death scenes, visual and special effects, and character descriptions, which are far superior to what could have been realized on TV in 1966.
Outside on the Polar surface, the wind had dropped, the moon had come out and a strange, unearthly silence dominated the crackling, cold landscape. The moonlight added a silver sheen to the Antarctic plains, giving them a dreamlike, shimmering appearance. The long, ugly, torpedo-like shape of the Cybermen’s spacecraft broke the silence as it gently came to rest.
The drifting snow had completely covered the dead bodies of the Cybermen. The Polar scene had an incredible purity and innocence — like a dream landscape.
Because the book was based on earlier scripts, the Doctor is still present for the Episode 3 material — in real life, Hartnell fell ill with bronchitis and had to be scratched late, with his lines reassigned to Ben and to base physicist Dr. Barclay — and there’s more time for Davis to telegraph the character’s debilitation and looming “change” (as it’s called here). The changeover from Hartnell to Troughton happens off-screen as scripted — on-screen, the transfer effect was conceived late, and serendipitously, thanks to faulty vision-mixing equipment at Riverside Studio 1. Troughton also gets some introductory dialogue here, so Troughton-esque that you can practically taste the words.
So the flaws that come through on TV are a letdown from the book. Tito, the Italian soldier from Episode 1, is ludicrous; while it’s a nice touch that he has busty model pinups by his bunk, and is reading a Sergeant Fury comic (pre-Samuel L. Jackson), the endless “Mamma Mia!”s and the singing arias (badly) from Rigoletto seem a bit patronizing. The death scenes will also seem a bit rushed and cursory to modern audiences. And, while the surviving telesnap of a melted Cyberman from Episode 4 looks great as a still photo… well, we saw liberal use of empty Cyber-suits in The Tomb of the Cybermen, so we already know that they look awful in live-action. With most of Episode 4 still missing, we can only guess how the actual melting of the Cybermen and the dissolution of their planet Mondas would have looked on TV; while I’m sure Martinus did his best, Davis in the novelization painted a word picture that would probably be difficult for even the most skilled director to match.
Martinus does get great work from his actors, though. This is the first “base-under-siege” story, and it’s almost as if Martinus knows he’s creating a mold to be endlessly re-used, so he effectively sets a mood with dozens of tight close-ups on sweaty, anxious actors. Robert Beatty, the principal guest star, plays General Cutler, the American in charge of Snowcap Base, and he’s the first of many, many Doctor Who commanders who lose their grip on sanity over the course of a serial. Cutler is given good lines and, until the end of Episode 3, when he loses it, Beatty milks every ambiguous beat from the script — every ruthless command decision, every humorous insult (including the ad-libbed line to Hartnell, “I don’t like your face — nor your hair!”), and every small moment of humanity. I love his quick suppression of emotion when he’s talking to his son, the stranded astronaut, before remembering that he’s at work and quickly puts on his Professional Voice. Plus, Cutler’s insanity is triggered by the presumed death of that son, so at least the script earns his insanity (unlike later base-under-siege stories).
The slow demise of astronauts Schultz and Williams is also affecting. Think of their subplot as the movie Gravity, only done in a miniscule studio on a 1966 budget. These two astronauts are on a “normal atmosphere testing probe”, when their capsule is drawn-off course by the influence of the rogue planet Mondas. They burn up all their fuel just trying to maintain their re-entry flight-path, and die horribly when their capsule explodes (without any fuel, we’re never quite told how this happens).
This occurs over the course of two full episodes, and even though the actors are merely sitting in chairs in a corner of the studio, their sweat and labored exertions make it look as if they’re truly suffering. The moment when they burn up is partially conveyed on-screen, but their capsule’s explosion is rendered only by the monitor in the Snowcap base silently cutting to black. Creepy! Earl Cameron (who is 96 today, but sounds 30 years younger in the DVD-release audio commentary recorded in 2011) is a strong presence as Doctor Who takes its first tentative steps into giving important and non-stereotyped roles to minority actors. Alas, it’ll be decades before he’s joined in this pantheon.
We’ve already talked about how William Hartnell was absent from Episode 3, but he’s not much of a presence in the rest of the story either. He has a few strong moments playing off a shouting Robert Beatty in Episode 1 (“Why don’t you speak up? I’m deaf!”). But when the Cybermen first appear in Episode 2, he barely interacts with them — it’s Polly who carries the weight of humanity’s moral arguments against the Cybermen. This is great for Anneke Wills, at least, who’s brilliant with the material. The much-mocked moment of Polly volunteering to stay in the control room to “make some coffee or something”, actually makes plot sense — Polly is using that as an espionage cover so she can recruit Barclay into preventing Cutler from launching the Z-Bomb. Wills also gets an interesting ad lib in Episode 1; while Mondas is simply the Earth upside-down, the first land mass that she recognizes is Malaysia… which, as of 1963, was the name of the country that Wills’ then-husband, The Celestial Toymaker, was born in.
Hartnell’s exit occurs in Episode 4, and his performance is weird. He starts off with several thundering lines against the Cybermen, lines that Hartnell practically lives to deliver: “Your plan is foiled, sir!”, and “You will regret this!” But then the Doctor falls ill again, and when he’s rescued by Ben from the Cyberman ship, his performance becomes very dissociated. Hartnell overacts his last lines, which is an odd way of showing that his character’s been drained of energy and is dying of old age.
What are we left with? A very visual story whose effects would have been much better done today. But it’s still chilling when the Cybermen are slaughtered in Episode 3 — the first of many times that they succumb to balletic massacres in the classic series. And, now that all regeneration effects have been made uniform, Martinus choosing to zoom in on the TARDIS controls going berserk as the first Doctor dies, is something almost scary and dangerous — the likes of which we’ll literally never see again.
I’ve spent eleven months, on and off, engaged in this marathon watch of the William Hartnell era. Later today is when I start on The Power of the Daleks. And, while I know that I can’t stop with The Tenth Planet … I’m not ready to leave Hartnell behind just yet. His era was just too good. To quote both David Bradley and David Tennant from the 50th anniversary specials… I don’t want to go!