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The Tenth Planet

Just some thoughts on the BBC video release of The Tenth Planet. First up, the grainy quality of the surviving three episodes really showed what good work the BBC Restoration Team did on The Gunfighters, the last Hartnell I sat down and watched. By comparison, this looks pretty bad - especially in the Arctic scenes outside the base with all that snow flying around.

Secondly, the 'reconstructed' episode 4 works rather well... while I'd have preferred the subtitles over the images, rather than the picture shrinking, the overall effect is rather impressive. I didn't really forget that I was watching some stills with audio, but never really got bored with the approach. It gelled nicely into the handful of surviving clips [some from a fan's off-screen cine camera recordings, which didn't look bad] for the episode.

The story itself was a bit more mixed for me. This was the first time I've seen The Tenth Planet, aside from a couple of clips. The biggest problem is the Cybermen for me. Occasionally in conversations in the past with people who had seen it, I took cheap pot-shots at the balaclavas, and got promptly told these Cybermen are actually quite spooky in the finished product. Sadly, it's not so. Some elements of the costumes I do like - the bare hands and occasional glimpse of an eye work well with the theory that these Cybermen are less modified than those we later meet, and provide a decent illustration of their link to humans [well, Mondasians, but you get my point]. However, the main covering is far too obviously fabric to work. The chest units are ludicrous too, far too bulky, and you can't quite escape the idea of actors huffing and puffing while staggering around with these monstrosities.

Then there's the voices.

I like the basic idea of the Cybermen opening their mouths to speak, and them remaining open until the end of the line, even if the voices have a habit of starting first. But the voices themselves are terrible. Vocally, the Cybermen have worked well in two different ways - the flat electronic tones used in Tomb of the Cybermen amongst others, and the 1980s' filtered version, used from Earthshock onwards. Here we get the Cybermen's voices totally changing speed mid-sentence, and I honestly can't see why. The effect starts off as comical, before becoming deeply irritating.

The plot's fairly straightforward, with the Doctor [William Hartnell], Ben [Michael Craze] and Polly [Anneke Wills] landing outside an Arctic base in the far-flung future of 1986. Their visit coincides with the return of Earth's long-lost twin planet, Mondas. The inhabitants of Mondas have upgraded themselves to Cybermen, and promptly try to drain Earth of its energy. The base's commander, General Cutler [Robert Beatty] believes the Doctor and company have something to do with this.

The base's personnel are pretty faceless, aside from Cutler, who's an irritating, bombastic stupid general [notably, prioritising the life of his son, in orbit around Earth while all this is happening, over that of Earth]. There are some horrid accents on display too as people try desperately to convince us that the Arctic base has a multinational crew.

Overall, the Doctor doesn't actually get to do too much. He spends most of the first two episodes being regarded with suspicion by Cutler, sleeps though Episode 3 [William Hartnell fell ill before recording] and then isn't really fully involved. This means Ben carries a fair bit of the story, and having only seen the character in The War Machines before, I was very impressed with Michael Craze. When he's locked in the projector room, menaced by a Cyberman and forced to shoot it with its own gun, Craze nails the moment perfectly, and it's one of the best scenes in the serial. Anneke Wills is rather wasted as Polly, basically serving as a tea lady for the base's crew. Despite his limited role, Hartnell's watchable. I've never been a huge fan of the first Doctor, but he's alright here overall, and I do like that, for once, the Doctor seems aware of an event like the return of Mondas. Hartnell conveys the Doctor knows everything before it happens, even if the script doesn't make it explicit. Seeing as Earth's the Doctor's favourite planet, it makes sense if he knows the rough events which took place at this time, even if he is unaware of his own role.

Of course, as well as the Cybermen, The Tenth Planet saw the Doctor's first regeneration. I felt a pang of sadness that, being aged minus 15 at the time of transmission, I missed out on the full mystery of a staggering concept which we take for granted in Doctor Who now. It's well-played, with a few references to the Doctor being "worn out", and Hartnell missing Episode 3 actually fits with this. It's a very well-conceived sequence, especially as the Doctor single-mindedly heads to the TARDIS at the end.

In summary, despite a lot of problems, I did rather enjoy The Tenth Planet. It's certainly rather over-rated [perhaps unavoidable given the twin debuts of the Cybermen and the regeneration] and has dated pretty badly [and I don't just mean that 1986 sounds like ancient history now], but it doesn't get too bogged down as Hartnell stories are wont to... Generally, whenever the scenes inside the base start heading towards talky padding, something interesting happens to wrench it into forward motion again.

Flawed, but interesting.

Review by Tom Prankerd

You visited the Whoniverse at 3:38 pm GMT on Sunday 12th February 2006