Thursday, 25 March 2010

"Keep warm"

Written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, directed by Derek Martinus, 1966

Watched alongside The Next Doctor and Attack of the Cybermen in an inadvertent cyber-fest, it’s fascinating having a chance to directly reconcile these wildly disparate periods of Doctor Who. These stories couldn’t be more different (despite all featuring the Cybermen), but are comparable in that none of them are very good examples of their eras.

Of the three stories, I actually found Attack the most enjoyable (bizarrely, as it is rubbish). It’s gratifying to see the Sixth Doctor – magician’s outfit and all – in an urban environment (a relatively unsanitised one, to boot), while Colin Baker’s dangerously unhinged joie de vivre comes across particularly well when combined with how compelling he is playing it straight.

Where Attack is infamously unfocused, with too many elements crammed in, The Tenth Planet is altogether more lacking. It has a status verging on the legendary, but this just isn’t deserved.

As a huge fan of the sixties, and of Hartnell in particular, this story is a massive disappointment. It feels like what I guess non-fans’d expect Doctor Who of this era to be like: dull and naïve and humourless. Which is ironic, as it barely feels like Doctor Who at all; it has a very fifties mentality (making a mockery of its then future setting), while the Doctor, Polly and (at least initially) Ben, are barely involved. There are plenty of Doctor Who environments which would be perfectly compelling sans regulars, but unfortunately this isn’t one of them.

The dynamism of The War Machines’ extreme angles and crash-zooms is replaced here by choppy editing and an impetus-less story. Much as I love Ben and Polly, even they seem depressingly at home in this shlocky situation – they seem like the arbitrary young couple archetype they normally surpass. Polly is saddled with some particularly dubious B-movie expository dialogue, while Ben is reduced to narrating aloud what he’s doing (though Michael Craze’s likeability and evident devotion to the character still carries the part – that he’s a fox and looks good with a machine gun undeniably helps).

The story itself is undermined by clichéd characters like the tediously intransigent Dyson, and hokey science. (The idea of a mirror-image planet rolling up is stupid enough to work on Doctor Who terms, but patently inaccurate scientific ideas such as said planet turning into a sun, and the boring-as-sin space programme, are rather more unforgivable.) Although mainly due to the upside down globe used to represent Mondas, that it takes everyone so long to realise why the planet looks ‘so familiar’ makes the production seem particularly moronic.

On the other hand, General Cutler is quite threatening because rather than being ‘bad’ per se, he simply has no respect for the Doctor (the blunt line, “I don’t like your face. Nor your hair,” is surprisingly shocking for its relative crudeness). He’s still rather tedious though, and that’s the most memorable character of the lot!

As a late video release, The Tenth Planet isn’t an established bastion of Doctor Who in the way the earliest VHS releases are (your Arks in Space and Day of the Daleks; the ones which invariably turn up in car boot sales). As such, the Cybermen here feel like retrospectively-devised Hartnell-era parodies of the Earthshock and Troughton versions. And you couldn’t make up a more sixties-looking version of the Cybermen! However, they work, if mainly in concept over realisation (though my appreciation of this design does owe a lot to Adrian Salmon’s DWM Cybermen strip, which made them look fantastically low-tech, chunky and powerful).

Though not my favourite Cyberman design – that’d have to be the sleek Wheel in Space wetsuit-and-garter look – I’d take these over the noodley ‘high-tech’ eighties version any day. There’s something grotesque about their crudeness, which is lacking in all later versions: the sense that they really are corpses with technological additions bolted on. With their creepy, doll-like faces, the Cybermen are arguably at their most potent here. (Helped by their booming theme, which sounds pleasingly – if unexpectedly – like something from Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead album.)

Though due to unavoidable rewrites, it does seem somewhat inexcusable that, in the swansong of the original Doctor, Hartnell gets very little send off. It’s certainly no finale; it’s only episode three in which he is completely written out, but even when present, he barely gets anything to do. (Has the Doctor ever been so passive in scenes where he’s present? At least his apparent prescience is interesting.) It’s fortunate then that when he does appear, Hartnell is on great form – both playful and exuding great authority (he is especially at his commanding best in episode four). He genuinely enlivens the scenes he’s actually in, and is the main source of enjoyment in this lacklustre story.

It’s hard to judge the first regeneration on the basis of The Tenth Planet, as it is only actually addressed in Power of the Daleks. I like the mysteriousness of the Doctor’s change – but still wish there were more build-up to it. God knows David Tennant’s exit from the show in The End of Time was cringeworthily overblown, thanks to Russell T Davies’ all too keen awareness of the expectations surrounding it - so maybe it’s best to appreciate the low-key nature of this initial, ground-breaking change. In fact, the poor-quality footage of the build-up to the regeneration used in the VHS reconstruction – grainy, strobbing images; all throbbing menace – is rather glorious; the whole thing has a climactic feel despite its lack of build up. There is an eeriness to this regeneration which is unmatched by any of those to come, where it would become a somewhat flashier, more crowd-pleasing (and obviously, expected) occurrence.

There is pathos in Hartnell’s last weakened handful of lines, increased by their understatedness (“I must go now”) – in comparison to a speech contrived to show how ‘fantastic’ he was. In fact, there is a wonderful weary sadness to his final dialogue, despite how little light it sheds on what is about to happen. I suppose, viewed in this way, even the Doctor’s marginalisation from the story adds to the poignancy of what amounts to his death.

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