There have been many milestones in the 50-year history of Doctor Who, but there may be none more significant than what happens at the end of The Tenth Planet. With the words “It’s far from being all over!” the First Doctor (William Hartnell) goes inside the TARDIS and is transformed into the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton). This happens right before our very eyes, so there is no question as to what has happened.
It was one of the boldest moments a television show has ever made, and with it, Doctor Who could theoretically go on forever. Low ratings may have forced a 14-year hiatus for the show (1989-2004), but it has been back since 2005. Thanks to the transformation first witnessed in The Tenth Planet, we are now on the Eleventh Doctor, and the re-booted series is enjoying excellent ratings.
The Tenth Planet has been released in a two-DVD package, just four days before the official 50th anniversary. On November 23, 1963, An Unearthly Child was the very first Doctor Who episode to air on the BBC. Three years later, the producers came up with the transformation to keep the series going. William Hartnell’s health was failing, and he was notoriously difficult to work with. These factors led to a decline in the quality of the show, and a consequent decline in the ratings.
In The Tenth Planet, the problems are obvious. While it is a very good story, the Hartnell situation nearly derailed the production. When he got sick, the Doctor’s lines were given to the rest of the cast as a last-minute solution. Even though this is not a very complicated story, it becomes difficult to follow after the second episode.
While the first regeneration of the Doctor is a huge factor in the importance of The Tenth Planet, it also features the first appearance of the Cybermen. In the opening shot, we see a rocket blast off from what appears to be Earth. Then we see the TARDIS landing on what appears to be Earth’s South Pole. Both are correct, but the year is 1986; 20 years in the future. The Doctor, Ben (Michael Craze), and Polly (Anneke Wills) have stumbled upon the headquarters of the International Space Control (ISC), who are monitoring the flight.
When the astronauts radio back that a large planet has appeared out of nowhere, the ISC officials initially dismiss their reports. Then this “tenth planet” appears on their screens, and seems to be a mirror-image of Earth. The Doctor gets very concerned, but as soon as he begins to explain what is going on, he is silenced by the bull-headed General Cutler (Robert Beatty). The General is still trying to figure out how the trio even got on the high-security grounds, and sends some men out to the TARDIS to see what it is. When they go outside, the soldiers are killed by the Cybermen, who then don their uniforms.
The Cybermen walk in to the main room of the ISC unimpeded, as their uniforms have fooled everybody. The Cybermen explain that they used to be human, but have replaced their “weak” bodies with metal, basically turning themselves into robots. They also got rid of all emotions. Their planet has somehow been “cloaked” for a million years, but they have exhausted their energy supply, and need more. They are on Earth to take every last drop of its energy.
General Cutler’s response is to use the ultimate doomsday weapon, the “Z Bomb” on them. The Doctor, and even members of Cutler’s own staff try to warn him of the dire consequences that would result, but he will not listen. Before going to take a long rest, the Doctor tells Polly to work on the member of the staff who seems the most sympathetic, Barclay (David Dodimead). The Doctor’s “rest” lasts through most of the remainder of the story, until the fateful end. The bomb is somehow sabotaged, and the Doctor figures out a way to “pull the plug” on the Cybermen’s planet. When their planet dies, so do the Cybermen themselves.
As with many of the Doctor Who serials of the ‘60s, The Tenth Planet is incomplete. In this case, it is the fourth episode that cannot be located. To complete the story, the fourth episode has been animated here. Fortunately the original soundtrack still exists, so we hear the actual voices of the characters. The animation is actually pretty good, noticeably better than that of other animated Doctor Who episodes that I have seen.
The bonus features are substantial. The first of these is the behind-the-scenes “Frozen Out,” (29 minutes). This features interviews with Anneke Wills, producer Peter Kindred, and actor Earl Cameron, who describe the experience of working with William Hartnell as unpleasant at best. Cameron describes his role as that of a “black astronaut,” and while he does not speak ill of Hartnell, Anneke Wills says that Hartnell’s racist attitude was horrible.
The other major extra on the first disc is the “Episode 4 VHS Reconstruction” (24 minutes). As the title implies, this is the reconstructed fourth episode that was put together for VHS release. While the full episode remains lost, there are surviving segments of it which have been spliced together with stills to provide the visuals. As mentioned earlier, the original soundtrack is intact, so we hear everyone’s actual voices.
The most important surviving scene is the Doctor’s transformation, and this is nice to see. If asked to choose between the reconstructed version, and the animated version, I would have to call it a toss-up. The "real" transformation is a must. The DVD is rounded out with a photo gallery (three minutes) and PDF materials.
The second disc is all bonus material, much of it focused on the Doctor’s companions. In “Boys! Boys! Boys!” (19 minutes), three of the program’s popular male companions are interviewed together. The subjects are Frazer Hines, Peter Purves, and Mark Strickson, and it is interesting to note the differences in the experiences of the older Hines and Purves, versus that of the younger Strickson.
“Doctor Who Stories - Anneke Wills” (13 minutes) features Wills discussing her years as Polly. The final of these companion pieces is “Companion Piece” (24 minutes), which delves much deeper into the whole role of the companions. Psychologist Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic leads the proceedings, which includes contributions from Louise Jameson, William Russell, Nicola Bryant, and the late Elisabeth Sladen, among others.
Another intriguing inclusion is a three-minute interview with William Hartnell, which is all that survives from a piece for the BBC show Points West. The interview was conducted backstage before a performance, shortly after he had left Doctor Who. Hartnell completely dismisses the notion that he might be best remembered for his role as the Doctor. Only time will tell I suppose.
“Blue Peter” (nine minutes) is from a 1973 episode of the BBC children’s show Blue Peter, in which the cast celebrates the ten-year anniversary of Doctor Who. Finally, in “The Golden Age” (16 minutes) historian Dominic Sandbrook addresses the “myth” that the series was better before the 14-year hiatus. He makes some interesting points about how people’s perceptions change over time, and sums up his opinion with his closing line, “There is a Golden Age of Doctor Who, but it is all of it.”
All of it indeed. What makes Doctor Who so great is that there are so many aspects to it. People have their favorite Doctors, their favorite companions, favorite villains, the list goes on and on. While The Tenth Planet is marred because of the situations surrounding the production, the idea to have the Doctor transform was a stroke of genius. While it may have been an expedient way out of a problem at the time, it has become a hallmark of the series.
Happy 50th, Doctor!