Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Tenth Planet"

Okay, first off, yes, now that Pluto has been demoted from planetary status the title doesn't work anymore.

As for the rest. Well, this episode marked one of those other 'great leaps forwards' for the show. Just as the introduction of the Meddling Monk (in "The Time Meddler") introduced the idea that the Doctor had a 'people' and that others of them could time travel too "The Tenth Planet" introduced the idea of regeneration... the thing that has allowed the show to survive and reinvent itself periodically in order to stay fresh.

This episode would also introduce the series' second most famous repeating villains... the Cybermen.

The first 'regeneration' (although it wasn't termed that at first -- that and the limitations to it would come later) was not without it's controversies.

By 1966 Producer Innes Lloyd had repeated clashes with William Hartnell -- so much so that Lloyd considered replacing Hartnell earlier -- halfway through the 1965-1966 season with the episode "The Celestial Toymaker". As it was, after much discussions, Hartnell agreed it was time to leave and the second serial of the 1966-1967 season was chosen for his departure. There are some rumors that Hartnell was forced out by Lloyd because of their personal disagreements. Officially it was Hartnell's declining health led the production team to convince him it was time to retire from the daily grind of episodic television. The truth of the matter will probably never be known but it was probably a matter of it being a combination of the two. There was no question that Hartnell's memory and health problems caused by his arteriosclerosis were worsening and he frequently missed filming for health reasons. In point of fact, even this, his swan song, suffers due to Hartnell being ill at the time of filming... but more on that later.

The big problem was the question of how did one replace the lead actor in a program like Doctor Who? And make no mistake, the show's popularity had the BBC quite interested in seeing it continue on instead of being cancelled outright.

The writers eventually stumbled onto a simple but genius idea -- since the Doctor was an alien it was simply his nature to change his appearance. At the start the writers envisioned this process as being termed a "renewal" and it would actually involve the Doctor shedding years -- not just changing his face. In this case, the idea was that the Doctor would actually de-age several hundred years during the process.

The next hurdle was to find someone to replace Hartnell. Many actors were considered and a couple were approached but indicated they had no interest in the role. One actor who was high on the list, however, was veteran character actor Patrick Troughton. Troughton was interested but he had one condition -- that he not be asked to try to ape Hartnell's style. Troughton felt that this would be an insult to Hartnell and the work he had done. The production team agreed and the new Doctor was set.

After leaving the show Hartnell continued to act -- particularly on stage where the pace of production was not as taxing as television -- and he reportedly also enjoyed meeting fans who had grown up on his portrayal of the Doctor right up to the end of his life.

Meanwhile, the production team was interested in coming up with new ideas -- particularly ones rooted in real science. They became exposed to the work of scientist Kit Pedler and Pedler became an unofficial scientific advisor to the show as well as being an 'idea man' to generate new concepts to turn into stories. The recent advances in artifical limbs as well as speculation about future advances triggered Pedler to create the Cybermen -- one of his most enduring creations.

So, shall we go and say "hello" to the Cybermen and say "good-bye" to our first Doctor?

The Plot: The Doctor, with companions Ben and Polly, land at an international space agency tracking station at the South Pole in 1986. As they observe a routine flight orbiting the Earth a strange planet suddenly appears near Earth! As the planet wreaks havoc with the space flight and begins draining energy from Earth some of the planet's inhabitants arrive to take over the South Pole station. Part flesh, part robot, but wholly without emotion, the Cybermen have a message for the people of Earth.... "You will be like us."

My Take: This is, again, one of those stories partly missing. The good news is that three out of the four episodes are still in existence. The bad news is that the missing episode is the fourth one with the Doctor's regeneration.

Back in the 1990's the episode was released on VHS by the BBC with the mission fourth part filled in by a condensed reconstruction of the episode using still images and the original audio track. The story was also released as an audio drama with descriptive narration provided by Anneke Wills, the actress who played Polly. I have seen the VHS episode but I own the audio so the audio is what I based this review on. The story has yet to be released on DVD by the BBC but there are rumors that the missing episode might be replaced by animation synced up to the surviving audio.

As for the story... I do have a problem with stories which are set in "the future" which includes my lifetime. Certainly to the writers of the time they had no idea that this story would be still being watched long after 1986 but here we are and seeing their vision of 1986 does give me a chortle to two.

All that aside, there are people who have a problem with the Cybermen's voices in their first appearance. They tend to find them laughable. I don't. Oh, sure, in a couple of places they get a bit too sing-song but other than that I really like the concept that there is still a trace of the organic voice but with an electronic overlay. It reminds the viewers that, chillingly, these were humanoid beings which have now become something other... something horrible.

The voices are both human and inhuman at the same time.

Another nice touch is the fact that the mouths on the Cybermen don't actually move when they speak. Their mouths open and the voices emerge -- as if the voices are coming from something other than their throats.

And the costume design here so nearly works. The ski-mask like face coverings are suitably chilling. They make the Cybermen faceless, anonymous; human in form but with individuality erased. The coverings also put one in mind of mummies and we are invited to wonder what might be underneath -- what horror or inhumanity do these masks cover? Or is there anything left there at all?

The headlamps, however, look like a miner's lamp gone wrong perched on top of some sink pipes and the chest units look like space-age accordions. It's all just a bit too silly looking. I will, however, award points for at least trying something that looks a little different.

Sadly, this is all the best parts of the story. The adventure dissolves into a flawed base-under-siege' plot weighted down with cement bricks in the form of the actors doing bad foreign accents. The "Italian" makes you cringe as they pull out pretty much every stereotype in the books and the "American", General Cutler is so "cowboy" it's nearly beyond words.

And the flaws just go from there. While Pedler may have had a brilliant idea with the Cybermen the rest of the psuedo-science on display is ridiculous. Okay, more ridiculous than usual for Doctor Who. A planetary body coming that close to the Earth would almost certainly impact things like weather and tides not to mention gravity. And that's getting past just the idea that a planet... the size of Earth... can just... appear without someone seeing it coming. Even the telescopes and technology available in 1966 would have been able to see something the size of a planet making it's way into the solar system! I'm willing to suspend a lot of disbelief but this story pushes the weight load past the breaking point.

And then there are the characterization holes. Granted, Hartnell was ill during at least part of the filming and perhaps most of it. He was not able to make it into the studio for the filming of the entire third episode and as such they had to write his character out of the scenes and the Doctor does not appear at all there. Still, the Doctor just simply doesn't do anything in this story. There are no grand speeches, very little taking the moral high ground, little showing off in his traditional role of 'smartest guy in the room', etc. And in point of fact he shows a ridiculous trust that the Cybermen will keep their word. At one point rather cheerfully sending his companion, Polly, off to be a hostage.

It is the other companion, Ben, who gets to save the day. Multiple times actually. Ben isn't stupid but the point of the character is that he was supposed to be a Cockney, Merchant Seaman -- someone who was born without a lot of advantages and who had a basic education. Suddenly here he turns into Sherlock Holmes. He pieces together the tiniest of clues into brilliant deductions and comes up with great plans for saving the day.

And Polly? Polly gets to offer to be useful by making coffee and then later becomes 'girl hostage'. *Sigh*. So much for women's lib. At least she doesn't do a lot of screaming.

Then there is also the fact that the very message of the story ends up being undercut by the character of General Cutler. The character starts out as a petty autocrat (whom viewers are apparently not meant to like) and he quickly slides downhill into a maniac. When his own son is put in harm's way Cutler schemes run the risk of irradiating the Earth to destroy the Cybermen's rogue planet. Seriously, he wants to use a bazooka to swat a fly and he doesn't care if he blows up the house in the process as long as the fly dies. Oh, and he intends to do it with the most silly, sci-fi sounding, deus-ex-machina superweapon I think I've ever heard... a "Z-Bomb". I guess since an atom bomb used to be abbreviated "A-Bomb" the other end of the alphabet needed a bomb as well.

But the point is that we, as the viewers, are supposed to be horrified by the idea that the Cybermen have eliminated emotions and consider them troublesome but then Cutler rushes headlong into the act of a madman because of his emotions! Therefore Cutler essentially proves the Cybermen right -- emotions do cause trouble!

Really, if it were not for the Cybermen and the regeneration I would advise skipping this story. It's not well put together and much of it is silly instead of the tension-filled nail biter it was obviously meant to be. The Cybermen are fascinating here though (or at least they are to me) and Hartnell does get a few good scenes in and his regeneration still manages to be filled with mystery and wonder as his Doctor holds onto his life to the bitter end.

No comments:

Post a Comment