The Tenth Planet: Episode One
If The War Machines was the first dawn of the more straightforward approach of Lloyd and Davis, The Tenth Planet forms something of a template for the next couple of years; base under siege storyline, memorable monsters, a ’60s vision of the near future and an (at times) endearing indifference to plot logic and scientific principles. TPP remains arresting for a number of reasons.
In part, it came first so it has aspirations that its more stir-and-repeat successors lack. It also stands out for throwing Hartnell into a milieu that is foreign to his Doctor. Then there’s Derek Martinus’ direction, which makes the most of a limited budget in a story where epic events are occurring. More than these elements, I think it’s the premise that is so arresting. It’s not just the first Cybermen story, or the last Hartnell. It has a dazzling hook; the Earth’s twin planet has returned. It creates a mythic footing that would be repeated with The Tomb of the Cybermen (and a number of other Troughtons). An irresistible combination of the far distant past enmeshed with a one-time future.
The computer code titles are quite groovy; I like this kind of non-uniform approach to presenting a story. I was surprised that the same thing is done with the end titles; is that the only instance where this happens?
While the production team have gone to town on the Arctic exterior (particularly in the blizzard), the base interiors are very much on the threadbare side; the rocket cockpit is similarly cheap. It makes you appreciate what Martinus does to make this work. It could have been a laboured Richard Martin hash-up.
There’s a curious mix here; while the actual storytelling has become less thought-provoking than the Hartnell era at its height, there are contrasting attempts to make this feel more “adult”. The military trappings are part of that, and the glamour poses on the wall next to the bunks in the probe station. To some degree it’s the kind of approach Saward would embrace in the ’80s, but more extremely. It also puts one in mind of the “action first, script later” attitude of Hollywood. Because this is really a disaster movie on a BBC budget. Complete with ill-equipped British actors attempting an international range of accents. At least Robert Beatty is authentic (coming across like a Canadian Ronald Leigh-Hunt). The star turn of the episode goes Earl Cameron as Williams, who invests huge conviction into his imperilled astronaut (I saw him in the ropey Kidman/Penn vehicle The Interpreter the other day; easily the best performance in the film). You almost believe he’s not stuck on a shitty set.
Most annoying is Shane Shelton’s priapic Italian Tito (“A woman!” “Mama Mia! Bellisima!”). He’s like a young Silvia Berlusconi. And, since there are Americans present, the Doctor is nicknamed “Pop” (I much prefer Sawbones). The impulse to show off a multicultural future is commendable, but when it’s instantly dragged down by the performances you begin to question the wisdom of the process.
The Secretary General at least looks and sounds vaguely authentic, although his HQ includes an African ISC officer wandering about in traditional African attire (what, he does this at all times?)
The dynamic between the TARDIS crew is much the same as it was in The Smugglers; Polly is upbeat while Ben’s brashness earns the occasional reprimand from the Doctor. Although, Ben’s “We’re still at sea” on realising that they haven’t returned to their own time made for a nice turn of phrase. And these being a very modern-day couple, 1960s referencing is never far away.
Polly: Hey, Doctor. You’ve got the most fantastic wardrobe… Where do you shop? Carnaby Street?
Ben: Who do you think you are? Nanook of the North?
The Doctor: Now, now. Stop being so flippant.
Polly looks adorable in her fab winter gear, and shows off a lovely muff. Discussion of the Arctic conditions gives us the first intimation that this is an adventure first, science much later approach. Which I’ve always thought ironic given Kit Pedler’s name is on the script (ditto The Moonbase). With the benefit of hindsight, the Doctor not worrying about the cold is one thing (The Seeds of Doom), but a line like,
Polly: The Doctor was right about this being the coldest place on Earth. I’m freezing already.
Feels like desperately trying to make up for a lack of verisimilitude.
Continuing from The Smugglers’ strong showing, Hartnell is on good form here and there’s a through line from the characterisation of the Doctor as someone who shows up, seems to be known and have respect (The War Machines) to this story, where he has an almost clairvoyant ability to predict what is happening with minimal information provided (not to mention the kind of insight due to prior experiences that would later become all-too-common), to the Troughton of Tomb who displays similar faculties and discerning overview.
It seems fitting that Billy should be positioned as a font of all knowledge in his final story. He observes more, and understands more than those around him, which lends him an almost soothsaying edge. About Time construes the situation as the Doctor treating an alien attack like it’s any other historical event; he notes the date, and then writes on a piece of paper when he confirms it to himself. Tat Wood then tries to bluff explain the Doctor’s later offer of shelter on Earth as “Why the hell not?” (Why would he if he knew the outcome of events?) I’m not convinced of that reading; I prefer to see his knowledge as illustrative of the Doctor’s insight and deductive reasoning.
I particularly like the touch of having him write down his answer on a piece of paper before the crew of the base learn that he is correct. His interaction with General Cutler is also well scripted, the latter being such a cock that we’re all-the-more behind the Doctor.
Cutler: I haven’t got time to deal with these now.
The Doctor: I don’t like your tone, sir.
Cutler: And I don’t like your face, or your hair.
What a bastard. Cutler’s a bit too off-and-on with the TARDIS crew, dismissing them, then paying attention, according to the needs of the scene. When the Doctor begins to explain the appearance of the unnamed planet, Cutler cuts him off.
The Doctor: You see, millions of years ago, there was a twin…
But then he sends some men to break into the “hut”, fixing on the Doctor being somehow mixed up in what is going on in space. In short, he’s not displaying the level-headed temperament the situation requires. He also mentions penguins. Twice.
The Doctor: Pretty soon we will have visitors.
Ben: Who d’you think’ll be bringing them? Father Christmas on his sledge?
The Doctor: Oh, quiet, boy. Quiet.
Too right! Tell him to STFU. This isn’t the Doctor setting a plan in motion à la McCoy era, but there is an air of omniscience to the way he imparts his understanding here.
Back to the appearance of the planet, and how convincing is it that it is only been detected when the astronauts sight it? Jodrell Bank gets a mention when data is requested, but shouldn’t they have been aware of it way earlier? Cape Canaveral also gets a oblique reference from Polly, and the Moon landings have taken place at an unspecified juncture in this 1986, but from the casual response Ben’s enquiry gets it’s probably a good number of years earlier. There’s also a condition known as Space Fatigue. No doubt it was first identified in a Terry Nation script and has spread like wildfire ever since.
It’s ten minutes into the episode before the threat is identified, and less than five minutes from the end that the Cybermen’s spaceship lands. As such, it’s a very well-paced opener, setting the scene and then piling on the mystery. The incidental music is effectively eerie, too.
The Cybermen don’t speak in this episode, which is something of a blessing in terms of their impact. Martinus frames them skilfully, first in long shot in the blizzard and then “revealing” them (because their parkas are a highly convincing disguise) proper at the cliffhanger. What’s most striking is how physically imposing they are; these aren’t skinny blokes in moon boots as per the ’80s. They’re big bastards wearing expressionless stockings over their heads. I think it’s their size that really sells how sinister they are, because, in and of themselves, the costume elements are fairly rudimentary.
A superb scene-setter. Some of the performances and sets are variable, and some of the plot elements are already creaking, but Derek Martinus absolutely sells it.