March 8: The Tenth Planet Episodes 1 & 2

And so here we are: William Hartnell's final story as the Doctor.  You can't help but feel a little saddened by that.  And look, another story with special credits,  with this time the opening and closing credits getting special "computerized" treatment (albeit different from the version in The War Machines).  And there's apparently something incredibly difficult about spelling writer Kit Pedler's name: having spent all of The War Machines as "Kit Pedlar", here episode 1 sees him become "Kitt Pedler".  But anyway.

The Tenth Planet is business as usual in many ways.  There's no sign of anything untoward as the TARDIS lands at the South Pole in 1986, and the Doctor seems just as spry as ever.  But that said, there are a couple wrinkles on display here.  The first is that this is the first  "base-under-siege" story, where an isolated place is attacked from the outside by alien invaders.  Get used to this; it's going to become a common plot for the next couple years.  But the more interesting twist is how, despite being set twenty years in the future, The Tenth Planet is treated more like an historical story than a "future" story.  The Doctor already seems to know what's going to happen -- he knows about Mondas, and he tells them to expect visitors as if it's an obvious fact.  It's an unusual take, but it's actually quite pleasing -- after all, why should the Doctor's knowledge of events be limited to our knowledge?  Past and future should be the same to him.  It really helps sell the point that the Doctor is indeed a time traveller, and it's such a neat story trick that it's rather surprising that it doesn't really pop up again until 2009, with The Waters of Mars.27  This has the additional side effect of making the Doctor an observer of this event, rather than an active participant: indeed, other than telling the base's crew what it is they're going to see and to expect visitors, the Doctor does nothing but watch things unfold.

For being the first "base-under-siege" story, though, it's surprising how many of the soon-to-be-familiar features are already in play: isolated base with little to no help of outside support, check; international crew, check; commander of the base accustomed to doing things his way and unwilling to listen to anyone else, check.  Really, where The Tenth Planet differs is how it shows us things happening beyond the base.  We get a little look into the headquarters of International Space Command in Geneva, where the Secretary General of ISC tries to deal with this new planet in his own way, even if that primarily means trying to get a hold of the Polar Base.  We also get a newsreader keeping us up to date on the latest events (played by, entertainingly, one Glenn Beck -- presumably not the same one as the American conservative pundit).  And we get a look into the space ship that the South Pole is trying to guide down, with Zeus 4 being flown by an Australian and a black Englishman, a sign of how forward thinking the production team is trying to be.  It's the second time in as many stories that a black actor gets a prominent role, and Glyn Williams seems to be a more thankful role than Jamaica was.

The Cybermen announce that the people on the base will become
like them. (The Tenth Planet Episode 2) ©BBC
And now we come to the Cybermen, who show up at the end of episode 1 and become prominent in episode 2.  This is their first appearance, of course, and they're significantly less sleek-looking than in any future story.  Here they look more cobbled together, yet that's actually a strength: Kit Pedler was exorcising some personal demons as he wrote this, concerned by the idea of people slowly replacing body parts with artificial limbs and organs -- at what point is the result no longer a human being?  The Cybermen are that idea taken to an extreme, and it looks like they've slowly replaced their body parts a bit at a time, such that, other than the general shape, the only human features are the vaguely human face, and the obviously human hands.  (The exposed hands, by the way, were apparently an accident, as costume designer Sandra Reid was going to give them silver gloves but forgot/ran out of time/ran out of money (delete according to which version of the story you prefer), but it's a happy accident as it really helps drive home Pedler's idea.)  Occasionally in episode 2 you can see the actor's eyes glinting underneath the Cyberman's mask -- you're probably not supposed to be able to, but it's nevertheless a creepy effect, seeing a human eye vaguely inside this very not-human face.  They would look more sophisticated in the future, but these Cybermen are really quite wonderful -- even if their "jug handles" are clearly held on with clear tape.  And I haven't even mentioned the eerily inflected robotic voices, made to sound as if they'd learned English from a series of recordings but haven't quite got the stress patterns down.  It's very cool, and very effective -- especially coming from a mouth that just opens, without any visible articulation to show how the sounds are being produced.  And finally, we can't talk about sounds without mentioning the incidental music -- I think this is the first time "Space Adventure" by Martin Slavin is used; it'll keep cropping up in Cyberman stories (and also The Web of Fear), so much so that it's sometimes referred unofficially as the "March of the Cybermen".

So other than the Doctor being largely sidelined from the action, so far this has been an entertaining and memorable story.  Let's hope they can keep it up.

27 And the possible exception of Episode 1 of The Ambassadors of Death, where (jumping ahead here) the Doctor's approach is pitched in such a way that it might be considered foreknowledge, but it could equally be logical thinking, knowing that the alien message will be repeated -- except then you have to explain why the sound of the message is familiar to the Doctor.  But he spends the rest of the story as if he doesn't know how events are going to turn out, so we can probably safely rule out the "it's history to him" theory.