A decade ago I wrote a review of The Tenth Planet, and here’s what I had to say about the Cybermen:
The Cybermen themselves are superb creations: the often-criticised design is in fact genuinely creepy, and the face masks and human hands are somehow more disturbing than the metallic look that would follow in later stories – a clear indication of what the Cybermen once were.
I was not exactly a lone voice in that opinion, but it is true to say that the original Cybermen design used to be viewed with amusement. Most documentaries about the Cybermen tended to be apologetic about the original ones, as if they were a mis-step. Spare Parts from Big Finish did a lot to enhance their reputation, but I think it is fair to say that this year with World Enough and Time we can finally stop being embarrassed by the Mondasian Cybermen and let’s all finally acknowledge how brilliant those originals really were. Yes, their hardware is BIG, but look at those face masks, disturbingly reminiscent of criminal disguises (e.g. tights over the face), or face coverings of burns victims, both associations that create a frisson of fear in the viewer. In fact, these Cybermen are the closest to a horror movie approach to Doctor Who that it had ever been at this point. The only difference is that a horror movie would actually show the conversion process in all its gory glory, but that’s not necessary to generate the fear in the viewer. We can see those human hands and we know what that signifies. Those things used to be flesh and blood. It’s a chilling concept.
…which is why I think the Cybermen are the greatest monster that Doctor Who ever produced. I know that is an opinion few would agree with, but for me they are far more interesting a concept than the Daleks and strike much closer to home. They have only failed to have the same level of success because they were almost completely fudged by successive writers, designers and showrunners for more than four decades. But in the late 60s they were the Doctor Who monster. The Daleks were given their “final end” send off, and the series was happy to write them out, apparently for good, and let something more promising in storytelling terms take centre stage for a few years: the Cybermen.
It is not just their appearance in their debut story that is so effective. The way they speak is very creepy too, and was sadly not repeated in later stories. Part of the reason for that might have been because the mouths opening and closing are not always synchronised with their voices, a bit like the problems with the Dalek lights. And let’s not be too rose-tinted specs about this. It is hard to believe these Cybermen are not emotional. They talk like bullies: ‘take him out and look after him,’ and having names undermines the concept of stripping away humanity. Their weapons are huge and easy to snatch. Surely they would have been better with ordinary guns – lethal to humans, but turning them on Cybermen would have no effect.
500 words into the review and I have only written about the Cybermen, and no other aspect of The Tenth Planet. I don’t want to do this story a disservice because I do feel that it is one of the most significant ever to be made, but I am in danger of writing a dissertation here, so I am going to do something that I rarely do in reviews, and go through some points that I want to make as a bulleted list. But we all love a list don’t we – it’s ingrained in us – the fan gene!
- There are some marvellous one-liners: ‘I don’t like your face, nor your hair!’
- It is December 1986, obviously the era of the novelty telephone!
- Why does the Cyberman want to know Barclay’s age so badly? He is really, really persistent. And the way he holds up a microphone like an interviewer is unintentionally amusing.
- William Hartnell gives as good a performance as ever. There has been little sign of his work deteriorating, which makes you wonder about some of those stories about him. Things said about people when they are no longer around to give their side of the story should always be taken with a pinch of salt.
- Cutler’s bottom lip has such a life of its own that it should have received its own credit.
- ‘Well, I could make some coffee or something.’ The days of Rose Tyler never seemed further away.
- A countdown cliffhanger is always effective. It was later used very well in Inferno.
- The First Doctor ends his adventures as he began them – with his hat on!
- The Cybermen are killed almost instantly by radiation, which is rather too convenient.
- ‘Resistance is Useless’. What a great catchphrase. It would be futile for another sci-fi series to copy it.
- The snow-covered TARDIS is a lovely image of calm before the storm of the regeneration.
- ‘Kitt’ Pedler’s name is misspelt at the beginning of Episode 1, and it is the turn of Gerry ‘Davies’ at the end of Episode 3!
- ‘Mama mia! Belissima!’ The most unconvincing Italian ever?
- ‘That bit looks like Malaysia!’ Of all the places to spot. And she is like a dog with a bone: ‘and that is Malaysia!’
- ‘We saved their grotty plonet Mandas for what?’ Michael Craze is keen to carry on the Hartnell fluff tradition.
- The TARDIS helps the Doctor’s renewal, but is it essential? Let’s look at the evidence. The Third Doctor collapses from the TARDIS, the Fourth ditto; we see Fourth become Fifth outside the TARDIS but then he is brought inside to stabilise; Fifth to Sixth is inside, as is Sixth to Seventh and Ninth to Tenth onwards. The only real exception is Seventh to Eighth, as we don’t see the aftermath of Eighth to War.
… which brings us to the ‘renewal’. Just when we think things cannot get any more exciting, the Doctor collapses, and his face changes. Having seen this happen so many times since, it is easy to forget how incredible and inexplicable this must have seemed to the viewer of 1966. But the Doctor collapses for no real reason. Couldn’t his death have been integrated into the plot better? I wonder if we will ever find out just why the Doctor’s first life comes to an end at this point… RP
The view from across the pond:
It’s impossible not to follow in Roger’s footsteps by discussing the Cybermen’s original design when talking about The Tenth Planet. It was, in a word, inspired. These Cybermen were far more frightening than their successors and I would concur with Roger that they beat the Daleks for fear-factor, (ungloved) hands down! Last year, I was at my younger son’s science fair where one of his classmates presented a unique and brilliant project. It was based on what makes things frightening and took people’s photos and put them next to slightly distorted images of other people. The concept was that things that look “almost but not quite human” instills fear or at the very least, a sense of disquiet. Something H.P. Lovecraft knew well. It’s probably why people don’t like clowns – they are clearly human but altered. These Mondasian Cybermen have human faces covered in simple cloth, human hands completely uncovered and voices that don’t quite sync with their mouths, which is perfect, actually. Between the lack of synchronization with their voices and the fact that they have names creates the impression that these are very early Cybermen; they still have lingering vestiges of their humanity but just not enough. And that is terrifying. Sadly, we lose some of that in later stories in favor of a more machine-like Cybermen, but at the time of The Tenth Planet it was an inspired design, regardless of the things like cumbersome weapons…
Most of the story has the Doctor standing around, ancillary to the action. It is carried by the tension of the astronauts’ plight and the creatures that have taken over the base. Ben and Polly too are of little use. At least Polly tries to make them coffee! But the cast doesn’t carry this story; it’s the disturbing images of these creatures and their wonderful, sing-song voices that keep us watching. Until something amazing happens…
Growing up, Doctor Who was always the show people teased about here in the US. I’m lucky enough to be able to say I was a fan before it was cool to be a fan. The sets and special effects seemed to be a big thing for people and they couldn’t get past that. But the writers behind Doctor Who had a stroke of genius long before even I was watching that has never been done before and could never be done again. And The Tenth Planet was the episode that chanced it all. Regeneration was introduced. In the middle of the season, the Doctor staggers into the TARDIS, collapses and changes. Audiences had to wait to see what it all meant. The idea created a renewable format for the show. It became a show that made change a part of its very nature. The show could now outlive any actor who starred in it. Nothing else on television could do this without changing the essence of the show. Since companions already were coming and going, it was down to the Doctor to keep audiences viewing but now even he could change, and that change always brought more excitement to the show.
In one single episode, Doctor Who broke the mold and created history with a new villain that would instill fear and a new format to keep the show going for at least another 50 years! There are a lot of good shows out there these days but there are few legends. And that’s something to be happy about because, to quote the Doctor himself…
“It’s far from being all over…”
Read next in the Junkyard… The Power of the Daleks
It’s somewhat ironic that Twice Upon A Time could potentially dethrone The Tenth Planet as the 1st Doctor’s regeneration finale story. Thanks for your review.
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Thanks Mike – it certainly looks that way but we will have to wait and see! You never know if there’s going to be some kind of a twist in the tale.
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What’s particularly worth noting about The Tenth Planet is that its story was set in 1986 (2 decades after it was actually filmed) which depicted ahead of its time an interracial and intercultural mix and teamwork for the ensuing space age, including a black man (played by Earl Cameron) playing one astronaut in command of a space shuttle, and this was synchronous with the debut of Star Trek. I think that (aside from the first regeneration-finale story and the Cybermen-debut story) makes The Tenth Planet even more pivotal for Dr. Who.
Also among the cast is Canadian actor Robert Beatty who worked much in the UK. Two other SF credits to his name were 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Blake’s 7 pilot episode: The Way Back. Beatty gives this one an unforgettable human-villainy element as the tragically obsessed General Cutler.
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Actually that I’ve mentioned General Cutler, it’s interesting how he was villainous because of how overwhelmed he was by his emotions, understandable as his reasons were, when the Cybermen were villainous for the lack of emotion. That was quite a dramatic clash of villainies for a Dr. Who story.
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