This is the latest in a series in which I choose one serial per season which is unusually well-made and/or innovative. It’s also intended to serve as a recommendation of where to start for people unfamiliar with the show in general or with the classic series in particular. Today I’m discussing the first appearance of the Cybermen in the final story of the Hartnell era.
It seems incredible now, but until The Tenth Planet appeared on TV screens in 1966 both regeneration and the Cybermen, concepts which now seem fundamental to Doctor Who, were unheard of. What’s perhaps even stranger is that both of them play only a minor role in the serial.
The Tenth Planet introduces a format which would go on to be common in the Troughton era: an isolated base, staffed by a diverse crew, under threat from some kind of monster. I should point out here that Doctor Who’s idea of diversity wasn’t the same as Star Trek’s: the Polar Base’s crew mostly consists of British people and Americans, with an Australian, a stereotypical Italian (“Mamma mia! Bellissima!”) and one (1) black person.
The principal guest character is Cutler, a Dr Strangelove-style belligerent American general. Halfway through the story his own son is sent into space to rescue a pair of astronauts who have been stranded after the Cybermen’s planet of Mondas drained their fuel, making him even more dangerous and warlike. At one point he even threatens to blow up Mondas (and risk radiation fallout on Earth), and is only stopped thanks to the Doctor’s companions’ sabotage.
Kit Pedler had recently been hired as Doctor Who’s scientific advisor in order to bring an element of ‘hard’ science fiction to the show. He had previously contributed to the Season 3 finale The War Machines, and now he was being given his own script (bar some rewrites by script editor Gerry Davis) to play with. Pedler had a fascination with the idea of humans giving up their humanity as medical science advanced and injured body parts or organs could be replaced with technology. The Cybermen were this idea taken to an extreme.
In a way there was no other serial from Season 4 I could have chosen for this series, as The Tenth Planet is so interwoven with the Series 10 finale (“World Enough and Time”/“The Doctor Falls”) and Peter Capaldi’s final episode “Twice Upon a Time”. Towards the end of “The Doctor Falls”, Capaldi’s Doctor monologues about the Cybermen’s rise being inevitable, as every race wants at some point to preserve their lifespans through technology.
The finale also heavily deals with something which few other Cybermen stories have touched on: that they invade planets and concoct schemes not because they are evil, but simply because they believe themselves to be the ultimate form of life and want to spare everyone else from physical and emotional pain. This is also the Cybermen’s plan in The Tenth Planet: their world is dying due to its proximity to its twin (Earth), so they plan to destroy our planet and rescue all the humans: rescue them both from their planet and from their vulnerable, fleshy existence.
William Hartnell was written out of the third episode due to illness; when he returns in the final episode (now lost from the archives, but reconstructed as an animation for the DVD) he has a new lease of life and an extra burst of energy as he confronts the Cybermen. From the very start of the serial he seems to know a lot more about Mondas and its inhabitants than anyone else, and we never find out why. In some ways, it’s fitting that the First Doctor ends his tenure with the same element of mystery with which he began it.
The Doctor speculates that “this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin” and once the action is over he disappears quickly from the Polar Base, heading towards the TARDIS. When his companions Ben and Polly enter the ship they find him lying on the floor, in a similar pose to the Twelth Doctor as he started his delayed regeneration. As they watch, his face blurs and he slowly changes into Patrick Troughton.
The Tenth Planet is one of those serials you wish you could watch after erasing your memory of all subsequent episodes. It’s hard to know what contemporary viewers would have thought of the Cybermen, and how they would have reacted to the Doctor’s metamorphosis. Regardless of this, this serial probably had a greater influence on the Doctor Who mythos than any story since the very first one.
Next week: the introduction of another classic monster in The Ice Warriors.