Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet

Recently released on DVD, William Hartnell’s final story is also the debut of a striking new enemy. Both have rarely been better.

Its weird hearing William Hartnell speak. This DVD of his final story includes snippets from a back stage interview he gave in late 1966 after leaving the programme which provides an insight into something we may not have always realised. His portrayal of the Doctor was a total immersion; not only did he affect the mannerisms of a man considerably older than he was but even the voice was put on. In real life his tone is remarkably similar in intonation to Tom Baker at his most pernickety. He shoots the rather pushy interviewer’s assumptions down with a quick dismissive “No” as if the question was rubbish. It is the most fascinating Doctor Who extra there’s been since they coloured `Day of the Daleks`. 


The journey William Hartnell’s portrayal has made amidst fandom is remarkable. Once, he was a sainted figure viewed with rose tinted nostalgia whom some still maintained set a standard never eclipsed. As younger fans gained access to some of the episodes either via illicit copies or eventually video releases opinions changed. Distracted by the slow pace of the stories viewers would soon pick up on the mistakes, the stuttering, the so called Billy fluffs. Later information about his medical condition only made us imagine these things were the result. More recently though another theory has emerged; that all these tics were part of the act, that Hartnell was giving a far more energetic, imaginative performance than we thought.

I tend to think the truth lies somewhere in between. Some of the mistakes are the inevitable consequence of the way the show was filmed and he was not the only cast member by any means to misjudge lines. He was working most of the year as well. I love the idea that he saw this role as a way out of his typecasting, that he worked hard to incorporate as many of these Doctorisms as possible. And why not- every Doctor since has done it. Here at the end of his reign Hartnell spends two episodes being superb before real life illness forced him to sit out part 3. Sadly part 4 is unavailable in its original form but he sounds weary and worn somewhere on the brink between real life and fiction. The script perhaps uses his real life incapacity to foreworn us of what will happen though of course 1966 audiences would have been taken totally by surprise,

`The Tenth Planet` is of course an iconic story simply because of what happens at the end and because it marks the debut of the Cybermen. By general consent what happens in between is not really that good an opinion exacerbated by the absence of all of Part 4 except some wobbly footage of the regeneration. You can see how people reached this conclusion but it blurs what is a sometimes starling slice of Doctor Who. For one thing the Cybermen are far more effective than photos make them appear. These are the Cybermen that Kit Pedlar surely enviaaged; still retaining visible human parts yet driven by machine parts and without emotion. In this undiluted form the Cybermen are truly horrifying. The fact we can see their hands, though not intended originally, only adds to their creepiness. The voice too is amazing being a weird combination of human intonation and mechanics while they speak far more colloquially than in any of their following stories. The way Martiunus introduces them is so low key it works so well. They almost stroll into the now familiar snowscape and become more visible through the snow. After this they started to be treated as robots and have never been quite as effective as they are here. They are the stuff of nightmares, an exceptional realisation of writer Kit Pedlar’s fear of cosmetic surgery and limb replacement. For a long time it was received fan opinion that the original Cybermen were not that good and would be improved in later stories. However watching `The Tenth Planet` afresh suggests otherwise.

The Doctor appears on the sidelines in his final outing. Yet if you catch him carefully William Hartnell is tremendous. His face is so expressive, listening, evaluating and Derek Martinus’ cameras capture it all. When he does speak Hartnell carries authority. It makes you realise how Patrick Troughton subsequently captured some of these mannerisms. It is such a shame Hartnell had to be absent from episode 3 but it does allow Michael Craze to shine. In fact he is excellent throghout this story, exactly the sort of fearless, instinctive character that plays well against Hartnell’s Doctor. He and Polly keep busy and are often proactive at key moments. It’s interesting that when the Cybermen first appear in the base it is Polly who engages them in debate. Both Anneke Wills and Michael Craze occupy a strange hinterland in the series’ history. Other companions are generally seen as the most significant TARDIS passengers for both the first and second leaving Polly and Ben a little ignored. It’s a shame because as well as being capable actors both are potentially interesting characters.

William Hartnell in `The Tenth Planet`: "terrific"

The idea of regeneration apparently came from Peter Bryant and Gerry Davis and what an idea it is. It sets the series off on a journey we are still seeing today but imagine what would have happened if nobody had thought of it. Doctor Who’s brother? His cousin? Or just someone pretending to be William Hartnell (which in the 1980s they tried with terrible results) Gerry Davis showed remarkable ingenuity to think of this and deserves the credit. The scene itself is handled in the no nonsense style with just a hint of the bizarre that 1960s Doctor Who did very well. Whereas successive production teams have built and built the regeneration until it has become a huge media event, this simple version possesses all the strangeness you need. It is alien too- whereas the change has been written increasingly around the Doctor’s human responses to imminent death this first one remains removed from our experience. It also adds an extra jeopardy to the show in that we know the Doctor is not invincible.

This is not so much a story as an idea but it’s such a good one that it sustains the running time. Key to the feel of proceedings is a mostly successful attempt to show a world socially and technologically diverse from what viewers in 1966 might expect. It goes part of the way in each respect. The cast are  multi racial (apart from the Italian who is clearly not Italian!) yet except for Polly, all male. We see manned space flight yet the control room is very nuts and bolts containing nothing that would look strange in the 60s. You have to admire the attempt though and there is some believability in the tech side. The time scale is another matter. While the inference seems to be that the events take place across a day or two, the availability of rockets and bombs seems remarkably handy.

The big problem with the narrative though is really General Cutler. He oscillates from practical leader to xenophobic maniac depending on the scenario and is rarely challenged by the rest of the team nor does he seem suitable for the job. For example one minute he praises Ben for taking action, the next he has him locked up implying he’s been a nuisance from the start.  Robert Beatty plays him without any subtlety and this stands out the more matters proceed. By the end he is close to the Zarroff scale of villainry.

It’s true there is a bit too much tech speak and people being procedural but underneath is a horrific idea and an attempt to maintain the modernising of the series that had begun with `The War Machines`. The animation in part 4 works extremely well because we’ve had three episodes to become familiar with the cast and the likenesses are well drawn. The direction does betray the occasional modern touch but on the whole is faithful to what we’ve seen Derek Martinus do. There is something special about this story both in what it represents and how it gets there. And right there, centre stage, stands William Hartnell giving it his all and that’s a lot.

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