5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE TENTH PLANET
The Tenth Planet is an adventure that's famous in both the good way and the bad way. First Cybermen! First regeneration! Pretty ground-breaking stuff, right? But on the other hand, a William Hartnell too ill to make as much of a contribution as would be ideal, and the very first base under siege, which isn't a bad thing in itself but would be thrashed in future episodes until it squeaked. We'd certainly agree it's jam-packed with flaws. But we liked it anyway.
Although it's 1966 in real time, we're in 1986 here. This only goes to prove just how rubbish humans are at imagining the future, because this is sixties sci-fi to its very core. Both the space exploration theme and the emotionless enemies coming to destroy are, we think, a pretty accurate reflection of the preoccupations of the time: the bomb, the cold war and its subset the space race. But while they're agreeably forward-thinking about the internationalisation of space exploration, the same can't be said for the role of women. Sigh.
The Doctor and crew land in Antarctica. In this timestream the 1961 treaty banning military activity there seems to have been torn up, as they're storing a whacking great bomb that can break planets in half amongst the penguins. Lovely. Since this is the good old days, instead of instantly clasping the Doctor to their bosom the Antarcticans instead point guns at him and threaten to lock him up, which is not only rather refreshing but, considering the bomb, kind of a good idea. Turns out something weird's going on in space, as the astronauts in orbit are getting completely drained of energy. Then whoa! What's that ship that's landing? Why, it's a CyberRoomba (so useful for hoovering your Cybermats). And the very first Cybermen heave into view.
The Cybermen in their later incarnations tend to bore us into an astronaut-style coma, but these Cybermen are very, very interesting indeed. They're much more human than they later become: they have names, they're very chatty, they're even sneaky. In order to survive Mondas, they've deliberately shed their humanity, but itheir origins are still so very visible.
They've divested themselves of all emotion, and as a result they're mystified by the humans' priorities in a way that's sometimes hard to argue with. Why, they ask, are the humans concerned about the astronauts when there are other people dying all over the earth they don't care about? Um, yeah, well, good point, well made. But their lack of emotions also trip them up: they hope to fool the humans into cooperating with them, lying about saving the humans by making the humans like themselves. However, their emotionless state means they've failed to take into account the humans' horror at this suggestion.
Unfortunately, while the Cybermen's lack of emotion is what makes them such powerful characters here, the writers failed to think it through. A lot of the plot of the latter episodes is driven by the Cybermen taking hostages, but to figure out that hurting people they care about is a good way to make someone do what you want, you need emotions.
Nevertheless, these are Cybermen at their most intriguing. The one-note killing machines of the future seem light years away.
As for the Doctor, William Hartnell's health dictated that he had much less to do than would have been desirable, particularly in the third episode where he doesn't appear at all other than in body double form. As a result, there are long stretches of the adventure where his presence makes zero dent in the plot. Even in the first two episodes when he's at his most active, although the Doctor proves with a here's-the-card-you-first-thought-of flourish that he knows what's going on, all this achieves is to get him whisked away into captivity (which, frankly, is entirely reasonable). In fact, pretty much his only contribution is to tell the others to play for time until Mondas explodes. Although kind of underwhelming plotwise, this does in fact accidentally have a lovely thematic resonance with the Doctor's own increasing weakness and his efforts to stave off his own regeneration for as long as possible.
The regeneration itself is far from the rock-'em sock-'em scenario set about with portentous hoopla it's become in recent years. Instead, it has a unique power of its own: the Doctor's veiled pronouncements about it being far from over, the hurriedness, the silence, the desperation, the mystery: it all packs a hell of a punch. We can only imagine the original audience's jaw dropping as out of nowhere the Doctor transforms into a completely different person.
As for the rest of the TARDIS crew, it's an unexpected bonus for Ben as he gets all the hero-type stuff the Doctor would have had. Polly, on the other hand, screams and makes the coffee, which is all you can expect from a sixties companion so there's no point in getting too upset about it. What's really striking about these two here is the way they treat the Doctor, which is at times little short of patronising. "Wakey, wakey!" Ben screams in his ear: it's a far cry from the respect he's used to commanding in his later years. Although it's arguable that the Doctor as he is in his first incarnation, with his ruthlessness, abrasiveness and selfishness, actually deserves much.
Because the Doctor takes a back seat, the rest of the plot falls more heavily on the shoulders of the supporting cast. Unfortunately, they draw the character of the General with crayons, and since he drives much of the plot, that pretty much kills it. His dilemma of Son vs The Whole World is actually a really good one, but instead of handling it with any subtlety, they make him a frothing-at-the-mouth character constantly handing out threats until in the end he tips right into insanity. What a wasted opportunity. Imagine if he was a good man torn between the two, or if he'd secretly decided to put his son first but was trying to conceal it. Instead, he clearly lists his priorities, putting his son at the top even if half the rest of the world has to die to save him. Why nobody relieves him of duty by clonking him over the head with a spanner we have no clue. He's also one of those excessively annoying characters who refuses to believe anything anybody tells him even though the proof is staring him in the face. And his idea of handling an invasion is to tell everybody to stick to their places. How did he get promoted this far? What's more, once the General goes, Dyson is drafted in as Second Irritating Person Who Never Believes Anything.
And the plot itself isn't exactly sturdy. People stand still and wait as the Cybes oh-so-slowly trudge up and zap them. Why are they so sure they can handle a further invasion? How do they detect the Cyberfleet effortlessly when they missed the first ship? Why does the rocket silo vent into a cabin? Why can't they figure out what Ben's done to the rocket when they saw exactly where he was standing? Why do they need Ben to help with the warhead when they have a baseful of people who actually know what they’re doing? Just what energy is this that Mondas is draining? Isn't whether the Cybermen are bluffing about the Doctor and Polly kinda irrelevant with the whole world at stake? They stop the Cybermen from detonating their Z bomb, but didn't they say there were another two elsewhere?
On the other hand, we admire the way they kill the first pair of astronauts. We've spent time with them, we're pulling for them, and whoops, there they go, winking out of existence. Hard core. We also love the sheer scienciness of it all. And for all its faults, the plot manages to be pretty gripping.
The flaws might be glaring, but too bad. There's too much on the good side of the ledger to make Tenth Planet anything less than a winner.
TIRED AND EMOTIONAL
"Probably just space fatigue." Space…fatigue?
YOU KNOW NOTHING, JON SNOWCAP
The cloaks are convenient for the Cybermen, who wouldn't be able to fit into human coats, but they do add an amusingly Game Of Thrones-ish flavour to the proceedings.
Like we said, we love the way that the space programme's so international, but oh dear, that menagerie of accents…
TILL DEATH DO US PARTICLE
Don't the men look enchanting in their nuclear bridal veils?
In the fourth episode, Ben calls Mondas Mandos.
We love the way the men hold the fuel rods a foot away from themselves with barbecue tongs. Dudes, that is not going to make a difference to the danger of the radiation.