Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet DVD review

Andrew checks William Hartnell's final story, newly released and restored, The Tenth Planet...

This review contains spoilers.

The Tenth Planet, Mondas, is a vampire. So are its inhabitants. This vaguely supernatural aspect of the Cybermen is promptly never mentioned again. Author Dr. Kit Pedler – co-creator of Doomwatch – had begun Doctor Who’s glorious tradition of turning scientific theories into fantasy yarns, the pseudo-science in the background just as motivated by narrative necessity as before.

Compared with the titular entity, there’s a lot that’s grounded about the final First Doctor story. Set on an Antarctic Base in the distant future of 1986, the space programme is in full swing, and it’s a multi-national organisation (courtesy of the script and good casting decisions by director Derek Martinus). Sexually frustrated men of all creeds and colours gather to supervise routine probe flights. It’s like a British version of Star Trek: to boldly look at some screens, make pie-charts, and god damn it we aren’t going to be tempted by shapely ankles.

Most frustrated and angry of all the men on the base is General Cutler (Robert Beatty, also the voice of the left door knocker in Labyrinth, fact fans). While the inhumanity of the Cybermen is shown by their sing-song, childlike disregard for the imminent death of the probe’s astronauts, Cutler’s emotional instability threatens to derail the Doctor’s plan to wait things out. His astronaut son’s life is in danger, and an annoying old man keeps telling him that there’s a tenth planet in the solar system and they’re about to be invaded by cyborgs. What’s worse, he keeps being right. It’s interesting that Cutler’s understandable emotional reactions to the situation almost proves the Cybermen’s point. An excellent character, it’s a shame more wasn’t made of his death.

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The Tenth Planet proceeds along at a moderate pace so they don’t run out of story. It’s a matter of keeping plates spinning until the end, and it just about manages this with some capture/escape set pieces breaking things up. The regeneration, the Cybermen’s legacy and the animated final episode all make the story more memorable than the actual plot merits. These ideas are, though, good enough to justify its status beyond a throwaway base-under siege story. The regeneration isn’t merely clever, it’s bravely embraced as a source of danger and suspicion in the following story. The Cybermen are not fully formed here, multiple adjustments would soon be made; imagine if they had continued in this vein, cloth-faced and mocking-voiced?

The animation here is an improvement from Thetamation’s anime-influenced work on The Reign of Terror. It apes Martinus’ camera, though its cuts are still more rapid. The only issue is a sheen that doesn’t blend in with the old, grainier footage. However, their rendering of the Cybermen is excellent. They seem more inhuman, static and imposing. It also enables more dramatic lighting flourishes that cast them into silhouette. Rather appropriately, they loom like Dracula.

Finally, once the Cybermen are defeated, the Doctor returns to his TARDIS to regenerate. The regeneration scene is familiar through the surviving footage of the Doctor, collapsed on the floor, about to change. What this doesn’t convey is the reaction of the TARDIS before he collapses. The animation does great work here, unsettling and eerie.

The Doctor later says he couldn’t survive without the TARDIS, which makes him an interesting reflection of the Cybermen. They collapse and die when Mondas is destroyed – almost like its the main vampire and these are its converts. That’s something that Spare Parts doesn’t mention, favouring brutal pragmatism in its origin story. This fantastical aspect is barely explained, possibly because Hartnell fell ill during episode three and the script had to be rewritten. It leaves things tantalisingly vague, allowing many possible interpretations. Unlike regeneration, no-one has gone back and expanded upon the idea.

 

Extras

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The Making Of Feature – Frozen Out – opens with further animated Cybermen, and unfolds to give us an insight into the situation Doctor Who was in at the time. It sets the overall tone of these extras regarding William Hartnell: melancholy, flawed, and powerful. A recently discovered 1966 interview with the actor complements this: sitting in front of the mirror, ready to perform a badly-received pantomime, before his illness prevented him from doing further work.

Hearing him as himself shows how much of the First Doctor was performance. The interviewer asks difficult questions to the increasingly haughty actor, culminating in the brazenly hilarious ‘Why do you think children like you? Because you’re rather a grumpy sort of person.’

It’s extraordinary by virtue of its uniqueness, and worth the disc alone.

The Golden Age is a very polite documentary that ambles amiably through a variety of things that we already know. Its aims are noble – essentially it says ‘Calm down everybody, it’s all subjective’ – but it’s barely substantial.

Boys! Boys! Boys! features two men – Peter Purves and Fraser Hines – chatting to each other about their roles. Globe-trotting Mark Strickson is incorporated by video link-up to maintain titular verisimilitude, and so everyone gamely nods vigorously and stays quiet while other people are talking. Similarly with Doctor Who Stories – Anneke Wills, it’s mainly a collection of anecdotes rather than anything incisive. The latter is an extended interview with the actress who played Polly, who is possibly the jolliest person who ever lived.

Companion Piece is more weighty compared to these lighter, more conversational features. You think it’s going to be very serious, because Joe Lidster is sitting bolt upright, but it’s about Doctor Who and so can’t help but indulge in its ridiculousness. Also its talking heads range from William Russell to Nicola Bryant to Arthur Darvill, so it’s pretty thorough. A psychologist is on board to suggest that the Doctor is a commitment-phobic narcissist who attracts people with the mindset of a Big Brother contestant. This manages to balance a sense of fun with some more solid points about the role. Also, it explains Tegan’s obsession with planes and why the Seventh Doctor’s treatment of Ace was actually a good thing.

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The commentary (for the first three episodes only) is moderated by Toby Hadoke, and features Anneke Wills, actors Donald van der Maaten, Christopher Matthews, Christopher Dunham, Allan White and Earl Cameron, and designer Peter Kindred. Perhaps realising that Kindred might be drowned out in a sea of actorly chat, his separate conversation is interspersed throughout. Topics cover acting methods, William Hartnell, production problems, and how to meet your future wife by having her stuff fake snow up your nose. Hadoke keeps things ticking over nicely, and it’s another good balance between pleasantries and information.

Also included is the reconstruction of episode four produced for the VHS release in 2000 – a mixture of telesnaps, captions and surviving clips – a clip from Blue Peter (presented by Peter Purves and a slightly bored Petra) for the Tenth anniversary, and the usual photo gallery and Production Subtitles on episodes one – three.

Buy The Tenth Planet on DVD at the BBC shop, here.

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Rating:

3 out of 5