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Classic Who: The Tenth Planet

The plot of this story has to be one of the most non-sensical Who has ever served up. Apparently, Earth somehow has an upside-down twin planet called Mondas, which wanders at will around the universe (or possibly just the solar system). But this wandering has no discernible effect on life on its own surface, or on any neighbouring celestial bodies. It suddenly appears next to the Earth, and starts 'draining' its energy (again, with little observable environmental effect), while its resident Cybermen land on the Earth for some unspecified purpose - possibly just to gloat a little. While everyone blunders around wondering what to do, Mondas over-charges and explodes, again having no particular effect on any other planet, but conveniently melting all the Cybermen who have landed on Earth's surface at the same time. Whereupon everyone heaves a collective sigh of relief, and lives happily ever after.

In other words, this is a plot which Russell T. Davies would reject as being Just Too Silly, even for a season finale. And you know, that makes me kinda sad. Because when people criticise New Who for ridiculous plotting, it seems to me that there is almost always an undertone in their complaints which suggests that things weren't like this in The Good Old Days. Really, though, this story proves that they were - and also reminds us that you can have worse flaws in a Doctor Who story than a silly plot. Because, overall, this is actually pretty good stuff.

It's the first ever outing for the Cybermen - and I think also one of their best appearances. Well, their costumes need some work. I don't really mind the bare hands and the ski-masks, but I do think the packs strapped to their chests look terribly unwieldly, making them hard to take seriously as an 'improvement' on ordinary humans. Nonetheles, I entirely forGIIVVEEE this for the way THAAAAT they SPEEAAAKK. It's not just the randomly emphasised and elongated syllables, though those are cool. It's also the fact that their vocabulary is noticeably sophisticated and their tone chillingly polite. It differentiates them from the straightforwardly brutal and aggressive Daleks much more than most later versions of the Cybermen seem to manage. And so does the fact that they do things like dress up in cloaks taken from humans whom they have already killed, in order to trick other humans into approaching them. This makes them something quite different from the mindless killing-machines they have become today, and rather more scary in my view.

The story is set in Earth's near-future - 1986, to be precise. Putting this together with The War Machines and its lack of alien invaders only two stories earlier, as well as the (now-nearly-defunct) genre of the 'pure' historical, it looks as though the production team in this period were still working on the basis that stories involving actual alien invasions of Earth had to be set in the future (à la The Dalek Invasion of Earth), and never the past or the present. Glancing ahead through the schedules, it seems like The Faceless Ones will be the first bona fide case of aliens on contemporary Earth - but I'll have to find out for sure when I get there.

Most of the action takes place on an Antarctic base, and although there are admirable attempts to convey a wider frame of action by showing us scenes aboard orbiting space-shuttles and inside the headquarters of 'International Space Command' in Geneva, the Antarctic scenes actually have a distinctly 'base-under-siege' feel about them. I understand from reviews by people like altariel and nwhyte that this is about to become terribly prevalent during the Troughton era, so I'd better get used to it I guess. Which isn't inherently a bad thing, as it can produce some great stories - New Who's Midnight being one of my favourite examples. But at the same time I can well see how it could grow tiring if overdone.

This is Hartnell's last story, and he isn't even in the third episode of it, either. The Doctor faints early in episode 3, and spends the rest of it in bed. I'd assumed at first that this was because the production team just couldn't wait to get rid of him, but Wikipedia tells me that it's actually because he was too ill to work that week, which is very sad to know. All the same, it works well enough in story terms. It lends substance to the Doctor's claim that his body is 'wearing a bit thin', and fits alongside a similar fainting fit in Marco Polo as an established characteristic. And for all Hartnell's failing health, he performs perfectly well to my eye when he is on the screen. He has some good stand-offs with the personnel of the Antarctic space-base - especially the commander, Cutler. And from what remains of the fourth episode (including quite a number of clips of Hartnell specifically), his performance in the run-up to his regeneration seems to have been pretty compelling. Certainly the scene itself gave me tingles, even in its now-incomplete condition.

On the regeneration itself, New Who watch was quite surprised to note that it bears more comparison with the Nine-Ten and Ten-Eleven regenerations than I would have guessed - all three take place aboard the TARDIS, and essentially consist of one Doctor's face being obscured by a blinding light, and then another's fading in to take its place. Even the Doctor's planned final line, which allegedly was intended to be something like "No... no, I simply will not give in!" would have been much in the same vein as Ten's "I don't want to go". Apparently this had to be left out in a rush to get the scene recorded, but unless you know this, it doesn't feel as though it has been skimped on. I felt that it had plenty of appropriate drama and mystery. And I especially liked the way that the Doctor had put on the same cloak and astrakhan hat for this story as he wore way back in An Unearthly Child, recalling where we first met him and creating a sense of coming full circle at the end. I've said before the details of what the First Doctor wears are important, and that's another good example of why.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of room for Ben and Polly to shine. Ben pretty much takes over the Doctor's normal role in episode 3, arguing with the base commander, working out how to overcome the Cybermen, and putting in plenty of action-hero business along the way. Polly, meanwhile, deploys her feminine wiles in an interesting little exchange with General Cutler. While Ben is imprisoned for having shown himself too inclined to interfere, she gets to remain in the control room, and engages in the following piece of dialogue:
POLLY: Can I stay and help?
CUTLER: What do you think you could do?
POLLY: Well, I could make some coffee or something.
CUTLER: Oh all right, I suppose we could do with some.
The next thing we see is Polly using the opportunity of coffee-making as a ruse to engage in conversation with the base's chief scientist, Dr. Barclay, who has already shown some reservations about General Cutler's plans, so that she can convince him to change sides. On one level, this is quite subversive, because it shows General Cutler up as an idiot for underestimating Polly, and assuming that she can safely be treated as subservient and won't interfere as Ben has been doing. On another level, though, it really isn't subversive at all, because it indulges the comfortable idea that women don't really suffer from being treated as mindless domestic servants, because they always have the option to play the system to their own advantage anyway. The logical conclusion to that position is that feminism is unnecessary: there is no need to put any effort into addressing social inequalities, because (some) women are already subverting them. So, maybe not so great after all.

Amongst the secondary characters, two stand out on the Antarctic base - Dr. Barclay, the morally-minded scientist, and General Cutler, the unstable base commander. Cutler basically degenerates from a no-nonsense military man to a dangerous megalomaniac over the course of the story, but there is at least some attempt to give a reason for this. I never quite understood the ins and outs of why, but somehow he finds himself facing a situation in which the most sensible action for the sake of the Earth - that is, sitting tight and waiting for Mondas to over-charge - will endanger the life of his son, who is in a space-ship up in orbit. It puts him in a similar position to Agamemnon, asked to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia to the goddess Artemis so that the Greek fleet could get the winds it needed to sail to Troy. But where Agamemnon chose to put the interests of the Greek fleet over the life of his daughter, Cutler chooses his son, and prepares to fire a deadly Z-bomb at Mondas which will also destroy life on one half of the Earth's surface. I'm not saying he's a magnificently-crafted study in the essential dilemmas of the human condition - but he's definitely a bit more than your average one-dimensional villain.

Meanwhile, up in space, the story begins with two astronauts above an orbiting rocket, one of whom is black. This isn't Doctor Who's first black character - we've already had one of the delegates in Mission to the Unknown / The Daleks' Master Plan, and a pirate called Jamaica in The Smugglers. I can't remember now whether the delegate ever says anything - it may be a non-speaking role. But the pirate and the astronaut between them add up to an interesting insight on where Doctor Who stood on race issues at this time.

The pirate is a subordinate character, probably meant to be a runaway slave, who does jobs like guarding the prisoners on Captain Pike's ship. He isn't particularly bright, and gets tricked by the Doctor as part of an escape plan. In a story set in the 17th century, though, it wouldn't have been very realistic to show him occupying a more powerful social position, even on a pirate ship. Meanwhile, in the near future of The Tenth Planet, the black astronaut appears to be operating on entirely equal terms with his white colleague. In addition to being black, he also seems to have an American accent - but that seems to be part of an overall attempt to portray a multi-national involvement in the space programme, so I don't think it's meant to limit us to understanding him as representative of black Americans only. Between the two, then, we seem to have a recognition that black people have been socially disadvantaged in the past, but a hopeful vision of this no longer being the case in the future.

Which would be great. Except that back at International Space Command in Geneva, a different hierarchy is in operation. Here, the guy in charge is a white European, with an accent that suggests he is meant to be Swiss or something. Around him, we see black and Asian characters in what appears to be ethnic costume, and who I assume we are meant to understand as representatives of other nations. But they never speak or show any kind of agency of their own. They are totally token characters - just set-dressing for the important white guy, really. So, again, maybe not so great after all.

Not perfect, then, but overall a pretty good story. And with that in the bag, I have now seen all of the First Doctor's televised stories - at least as far as that's possible today. That makes him the third Doctor for whom I've reached that position, the previous ones being the Fourth and the Sixth. I've really enjoyed this era of Doctor Who - the historical stories, the character of Barbara and Hartnell's Doctor himself have been particular draws, but really it has been consistently good on almost every important level. I think it deserves a proper overview eulogy post, just as I did for the Fourth Doctor. But this has been quite enough for one entry!

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 23rd, 2010 07:54 pm (UTC)
I haven't actually seen The Happiness Patrol yet, but I'm hugely looking forward to it. It's kind of iconic in its badness.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 23rd, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
In that, I believe, you were not alone. ;-)
Aug. 24th, 2010 12:20 am (UTC)
Lots of people like The Happiness Patrol, though, so you may find yourself pleasantly surprised. I personally can't stand it, though I think there is a good story buried in there. But then I have a generally low opinion of McCoy's tenure.

As for weak plotting, of course you're right that RTD didn't invent it, even in the context of Doctor Who, but I would argue that his era was particularly egregious in that area. And for what it's worth, yes, it does bother me quite a lot that The Tenth Planet makes no sense, and it saddens me somewhat that Hartnell's final (regular) story is so feeble in its logic.

(Upside-down continents? For God's sake! There's no up or down in space...)

Despite all that, I do like the cybermen, though perhaps more for the concept than the execution (though that's true of pretty much all their stories). And Hartnell does gove a good final performance, as you said. And I'm oddly pleased that the strangely complementary couple of Ben and Polly should be the ones to help him through this difficult time...
Aug. 24th, 2010 08:04 am (UTC)
I guess part of the reason The Tenth Planet makes so little sense is that they were taking on a very ambitious concept. The involvement of Earth suddenly requires standards of plausibility that far-off planets like those we've met in previous stories haven't, but at the same time the story is also trying to tackle what is almost more of a fairy-tale concept, really - the idea of Earth's opposite, populated by weirdly-distorted humans. It's no wonder it all got a bit tangled, but then again I think the fact that people were trying to think along these lines at all gives the story a lot of excitement.

I know what you mean about Ben and Polly, too. They are both quite gung-ho and ready for anything, so perhaps more fundamentally equipped to cope with what happens to the Doctor in this story. By contrast, I think Ian, Barbara and Susan would all have found it almost unbearable in their different ways.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 25th, 2010 10:39 am (UTC)
Hmm. I think it's awful because I find it unwatchable -- literally. I've never managed to watch the last episode, though I've read about it so I know more or less what happens. What it was trying to do is not lost on me, but it's still appallingly badly done. IMO, of course.
Aug. 24th, 2010 09:22 am (UTC)
I did at the time and still do defend "the happiness patrol". As a scary monster that goes rar, the candyman is not so good but as a symbol about compliance and enforced conformity he was very good. If you look past the ropey effects (particularly at end) and the fact that the villain looks comic I think it remains a good episode.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 24th, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
I was never so keen on 1984 myself. The construction (book read within book) was ugly and, of course now the society of 1984 seems rather irrelevant (we can't say that western society is mainly characterised by scarcity, sexual repression and an outer party who deny themselves pleasure for the betterment of others)... and, I know, I know, he was satirising his present not predicting his future... Also don't get me started on new speak which is totally incoherent as a creation.

In any case, I think it's harsh to compare a Dr Who script with an acknowledged literary masterwork (no matter what *I* might think of it, but give me Brave New World any day, now that is a prescient book).

I know what you mean with Happiness Patrol. The effects were bad enough that it was hard not to snigger. I felt that the underlying script was actually pretty strong.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 24th, 2010 05:54 pm (UTC)
Aw... I just loved Brave New World as a book. It was the quality of writing which shone for me.
Aug. 24th, 2010 03:47 am (UTC)
I love the Cybermen in this one. They're the undead: mummies wrapped in cloth whose heads fall to one side when they speak and whose voices come from somewhere else. In later stories their impassiveness becomes something less otherworldly, more like guardsmen at the Palace and a frustrated colonial ruling class, scary because they're hard to stop but not scary because they might be like us. And then in the Saward era they're hard-bitten mercenaries because everyone is in the Saward era. Tomb of the Cybermen made with the Tenth Planet Cybermen and their Tenth Planet voices, now that would have been scary.

I see your point about Polly presenting and also undermining a feminist case. Hadn't thought of it that way before. Wait for The Moonbase where she neither presents nor undermines one, just makes coffee...
Aug. 24th, 2010 08:19 am (UTC)
The undead is an excellent comparison. I've not seen Tomb of the Cybermen yet, but Earthshock and Attack of the Cybermen both have similar 'bursting out of hibernation chambers' scenes, so I can get the general vibe. And yes - if they'd kept this tone of voice and general manner in their later stories, I think they would be one of my favourites types of Who villain ever. As it is, I'm pretty lukewarm about them.

As for Polly's coffee-making scene, on its own terms and in the context of the time when it was made, I'm inclined overall to be quite impressed by its feminist credentials. But yes - viewed retrospectively, there's a case for saying that it only gets so far.
Aug. 24th, 2010 08:23 am (UTC)
Oh, and I meant to add - how depressing about The Moonbase! I suppose the very fact that that could happen only a few stories later reinforces the point that what we get in The Tenth Planet is indeed pretty impressive by the general standards of the time.
Aug. 24th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
I think you're a bit unfair to Saward there! It's true his Cybermen don't have much in common with these, but he wasn't the instigator of that, he was just following they way they'd been done in the previous story. And they're not mercenaries, they're just trying to survive (as in Tomb).

However, what his cybermen do have, for me at least, is a wonderful sense of menace and relentless ruthlessness. They might be over-emotional, but they actually feel scary for the first time in ages. And in "Attack" he does reintroduce the point about Cybermen converting unwilling people into themselves, though it's passed over a bit more quickly than I'd have liked.
Aug. 24th, 2010 07:55 am (UTC)
You see this is where women have gone wrong - if we just continued meekly making the coffee instead of being all demanding and less of a doormat we'd be okay *grin*

Lunch at Fanoos on Thursday would be lovely - what time were you thinking?
Aug. 24th, 2010 08:19 am (UTC)
Yes, Fanoos - I can never remember that name! Shall we meet at 1pm?
Aug. 24th, 2010 08:43 am (UTC)
Sounds good to me - see you then :-)
Aug. 24th, 2010 12:10 pm (UTC)
The chap who plays the black astronaut was at the Nostalgia event in Brum last year. He's getting on a bit now, and according to his Wikipedia entry has had a long career in acting, being possibly one of the first black actors in the UK.

Aug. 24th, 2010 12:15 pm (UTC)
Ooh, thanks for that! He's obviously been a pretty busy guy. I'm impressed that he turns up at fan events in his 90s, too!
Aug. 24th, 2010 12:25 pm (UTC)
That was an interesting read as ever -- but I was hoping you'd be giving us an "Alaric 1600 years on" post today. After all, it was on radio four this morning and we don't often get Roman news on the Today program.
Aug. 24th, 2010 12:43 pm (UTC)
I missed the feature, but a Classicist friend did post a link to it on Facebook. We've been arguing there about whether the comparison drawn in the piece with the 9/11 attacks in New York was valid or not. I think the consensus is that the similarities don't run particularly deep, but that it's a reasonable way of conveying the sense of shock which some people felt about the sack of Rome at the time.
Aug. 24th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
The same comparison was on the Today program. The commentator pointed out, quite rightly, that 9/11 probably will probably not be viewed in the same way (or perhaps even remembered much) in 1600 years.

Hey, after all, it's not even two hundred years since invading enemies last burned down the US capitol building so they've got a while yet before they look as stable and long lasting an empire as the Romans.
Aug. 24th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
Oh wow, I didn't realise it was 1600 years ago today that Alaric sacked Rome! Cool.

Geek confession: some many years ago now, I ran a game of Vampire: the Masquerade in which the characters met and ultimately allied themselves with Alaric, still "alive" in the modern day as a vampire. (Basically I always thought his death sounded a little suspicious, so I came up with the idea that the Ventrue of Rome had been so impresssed with him they decided to make him one of them!) I portrayed him as imperious, but otherwise a good guy (inasmuch as a vampire can be expected to be).
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 24th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
Hehe! Actually, I might not mind too much getting into a run of samey stories. I've found that the Hartnell era has demanded some very detailed write-ups, and while I have enjoyed doing them, it also gets in the way of me just, y'know, watching and enjoying the stories. My rate of watching has slowed to a trickle partly for this reason, and I kind of like the idea of being able to just write a few reviews which basically say "Yup, more of the same!" for a while...
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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