There’s something inherently odd about the concept of a Doctor Who coffee-table-style DVD compendium, as if those people who wear hats indoors have been identified as an untapped market ready and willing to critically examine Time and the Rani as a Kierkegaardian polemic. Still, it’s a nice shiny binder, and it’s got The Tenth Planet in it.
Previously unreleased on DVD, The Tenth Planet is presented here with the other regeneration stories (though no extras), and episode four is entirely animated to complete one of the more important stories in the show’s history. The animation is easy to accept, blending in well with the existing footage and providing us with some striking images of the Cybermen (here in their Spare Parts, hulking relic stage of development). It’s certainly much better than listening to the audio version. Animated William Hartnell still has a twinkle in his eye, even if it’s fading.
This story is many things: a depiction of future space travel from the optimistic foundation of 1966; there’s a base under siege but the scale of the story is galaxy-wide (We see International News programmes broadcasting about the events, cut back to a UN-allegory’s headquarters, and stock footage aids some tense space sequences), and also somewhat personal: the apparently homicidal General Cutler is trying to protect his astronaut son, companions Ben and Polly are concerned by the Doctor’s deteriorating health. There’s a lot going on, and that’s without mentioning the whole ‘Cybermen invading and a new planet appearing in the sky’ plotline.
The Tenth Planet largely overcomes its problems – there are obvious plot holes – with plenty of ideas and well-defined characters. For a story co-written by a scientist the resolution is unexplained, the stuff of fantasy. This is intriguing rather than irritating, leading to a tantalisingly vague realisation of the Cybermen as vampiric cyborg symbiotes, and their destruction begs many questions, linked as it is with the fate of the First Doctor.
The first regeneration is still shocking. The Tenth Planet features sparse use of stock music, but the final few minutes are all the more eerie for the drop in volume. The acting and dialogue carry the sudden impression that something is very, very wrong. The TARDIS itself seems disturbed, the credits roll with no shred of comfort offered.
The War Games follows with equally stunning revelations. The Doctor wins, but only at a great cost to himself. Given the story’s setting, this isn’t exactly triumphant, with the restored time-lines involved not guaranteeing anyone’s survival. It feels like a defeat, almost as grim an ending as The Dalek Master Plan.
With a surprising number of nods to the show’s recent past in The War Games, first-time viewers could be forgiven for thinking that Doctor Who celebrated and expanded its mythology every week. From Lamia-esque planets to the games gods play with men, to the Third Doctor’s spiritual quest to confront his own flaws and the funereal Logopolis’ science monks vs Ragnarok stylings, there’s a sense of scale to the first four regeneration stories. The show now knows it has an event on its hands, and has acted accordingly.
The Caves of Androzani, then, feels like a reaction against these galaxy-hopping epics. It’s almost a reaction against Doctor Who, but it too has been prepared for. The Fifth Doctor has seemed unable to prevent mass slaughter in the past, and that’s still true here. Despite this, it’s triumphant for showing us everything that the Doctor isn’t, in the face of consistent aggression in a small, unheard of, backwater part of the universe. No great stakes, no great foes, no planets to save or universal destructions to avert – just one girl who the Doctor hardly even knows, followed by a blunt statement of intent in the form of Colin Baker’s final line. The Caves of Androzani is one of those rare, happy anomalies in television programme making where it looks like nearly everything went right (and anyway, the Magma Beast isn’t in it much).
Then we have Time and the Rani.
It’s not fair really. With hindsight, the Sixth Doctor shouldn’t have had a regeneration story, but I imagine it felt necessary, the legacy taking priority. Time and the Rani has The Horns of Nimon‘s correlation between entertainment and wine consumption, but it lacks a good central concept and feels like it should be momentous due to the regeneration. It isn’t. It also isn’t insane enough to compensate for its other shortcomings, as most of the madness lurks in its first episode. Despite some nicely played moments hinting at a deep sadness beneath the clowning, I fear for the general public’s perception of the McCoy era being exacerbated.
Paul McGann doesn’t really have much choice in his representation, obviously. His sole outing in the 1996 TV movie certainly goes all out for a place in the show’s mythology (parts of it were still being explained in 2013 episodes), but perhaps this is not the best idea for a pilot episode. Imagine Russell T. Davies had elected to write The End of Time instead of Rose. Fortunately, history records that he did rather well in 2005, culminating in Christopher Eccleston’s fantastic regeneration in The Parting of the Ways – the catharsis of a rock-solid morality. Plus we have thousands of Daleks horribly killing a cuss-ton of people. It’s an immensely satisfying conclusion to the Ninth.
The End of Time comes after the show has a new legacy, and has a larger playground to explore. When it’s good, it’s brilliant, but its indulgences can irk. Still, Timothy Dalton plays Rassilon. Just typing that sentence makes me cackle. And if Bernard Cribbins is looking sad, then by god, I’m going to feel sad along with him.
Watching these stories in this context is interesting. It shows how the series has often referenced its recent history, and there are intriguing patterns to notice: the relationship between the Doctor and the Master in The End of Time echoes that of Logopolis; the Tenth Doctor’s flaws are as ruthlessly examined as the Third, only without redemption. The Fifth Doctor and the Ninth overcome their recent trauma, their heroism highlighted in contrasted to their surroundings.
At a time when Doctor Who is using the idea of the Doctor as a legend, and his legacy, this boxset is a vastly entertaining reminder that William Hartnell and Matt Smith are playing the same character; that every single moment of the show is part of the one long story.
The Regeneration collection will be released on the 24th of June only in the UK and is available to pre-order at the BBC shop, now.
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