December 19th, 2011
What do you get if you cross Doctor Strangelove with The Thing From Another World?
The Tenth Planet is the subject of more argument than any other Doctor Who story from the Hartnell years. For years the simple summary of it was “first base-under-siege story, first Cybermen story, first regeneration story”. But then a revisionist type of fan has come along and said “no, when they made it they didn’t know about any of those things, let’s look at it for what it would have been seen as at the time, not what Peter Haining thought it was in 1983”.
But strangely, most of those revisionists have gone little further than saying “well, the Cybermen were scarier in this than afterwards, and a bit different”. What is actually going on here?
Well, what we’re seeing here is an attempt to subvert the whole idea of Doctor Who, and one that would in fact introduce elements that would warp the series from then on.
I’m not talking here about the ideas of the Cybermen or regeneration themselves, but rather how they’re used.
Up to this point, and in general from here on, Doctor Who has been an Enlightenment text. Its hero is a scientist, it values exploration and experimentation over dogma, it’s humanistic, and it’s Liberal in the best sense of the word.
But from here on in there are two new elements, elements that are present as recently as the Big Finish audio drama that came out last week – a belief in Free Will, and a horror of immortality and life extension – that cut completely against the grain of that Enlightenment belief system. The tension between these two viewpoints will dominate much of the rest of the series’ run, especially when Barry Letts is producer, and is the principal reason that so much of the series ends up reading like a Buddhist parable. And it’s here that it starts.
In fact the whole thing seems to be built around tensions, often ones that wouldn’t have been intended. The fact that a story written by the series’ scientific advisor, brought in to give the series a hard science edge, features a travelling planet that’s an exact twin of Earth and that nobody notices til it’s practically on top of us, and which has no effect whatsoever on the Earth’s orbit, is just one of the strange things about this.
(To be fair to Kit Pedler, there was a history of travelling planets in Doctor Who already, with The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, and he was an opthamologist so celestial mechanics was hardly his strong point.)
But this makes sense when we think about the principal associations that would have been conjured up in 1966 by the idea of a twin planet for Earth travelling into its orbit with catastrophic effect – Worlds In Motion by Immanuel Velikovsky.
Velikovsky argued that almost all of the miracles in the Bible could be explained away by Earth having had a twin planet, and various bodies in the Solar System ricocheting around for a few thousand years, causing tidal waves, darkness, earthquakes and so on. The fact that his ‘explanation’ required such minor things as conservation of energy and conservation of momentum to be violated didn’t stop his book selling in huge numbers, and being a huge influence on pseudo-historians such as Erich Von Daniken (of who more, sadly, in later essays).
So in 1966, the viewing audience is keyed up to think “twin planet of Earth in the sky = Biblical-style miracle”. And how does the story end? With the main character dying and being born again.
This is something that a lot of people have missed. There have been so many complaints that in a literal sense this story doesn’t make much sense (and it doesn’t – it’s trying to bash together too many different ideas about different things to make any kind of sense. The director thinks he’s making Doctor Strangelove for ten-year-olds, the writer thinks he’s telling a horrifying parable about the evils of technology, the script editor is trying out the new format for the programme, and the producer just wants to get rid of the star as quickly as possible. Making sense was not a high priority for any of them) that people seem to be ignoring that on a symbolic level everything fits perfectly.
Critics claim, for example, that the Doctor’s regeneration is tacked on to the end. Nonsense. Who are the villains of the story? The Cybermen – a race we’ve never seen before, but who are evil because they use technology to extend their lifespans beyond what is natural, altering themselves drastically in the process. So what happens at the end (and in the first scenes of the next story, The Power Of The Daleks)? The Doctor dies, and comes back to life with the aid of the TARDIS, but completely changed.
The Cybermen, therefore, are what we’re expected to fear the Doctor has become. In the same way that Mondas is a dark mirror of the Earth, the Cybermen are a dark mirror of the Doctor, and we’re meant to be horrified that this odd thing has happened to the Doctor. Patrick Troughton has to prove himself in the next story, so this whole story is set up to make us as anxious as possible about him, so we want him to prove himself.
But of course the big difference between the Cybermen’s life extension and the Doctor’s regeneration is that the Doctor changes – and grows younger – when he regenerates, while the Cybermen preserve themselves at the cost of being unable to change. There is a good way and a bad way to fight entropy, and this becomes clearer once Barry Letts becomes involved with the show and makes regeneration explicitly a metaphor for various Buddhist ideas. But it’s there right from here.
So we have a story which introduces some reactionary elements which are later successfully incorporated into the overall Liberal flavour of the series, and which has a successful set of symbols which are actually talking about some rather interesting ideas. But what about the plot?
There are, of course, several whacking great plot holes in the story, but the biggest one is why the Cybermen would try to steal all the Earth’s energy when this causes their own planet to blow up (and why indeed this seems to leave the Earth largely unaffected). There’s also the suddenness of the Doctor’s regeneration.
We can explain this rather elegantly, in fact, though I’ve never seen anyone do it. And while this is clearly not the author’s intention, nor does it contradict anything on screen.
The Doctor knows that Mondas is coming before we see it. It’s the first time, in fact, that we’ve seen him know anything in our future before it happens. So this is a big event in Earth’s history. And the Doctor can steer his TARDIS at least a bit, sometimes, by this point.
And the TARDIS is nearly infinite on the inside – much bigger, certainly, than a planet like Earth.
So the Cybermen have steered Mondas to Earth in order to just steal Earth’s relatively meagre energy resources, but instead find themselves sucking up far more than they can cope with, because they’re getting it from the TARDIS. It’s like turning the tap on to make a cup of tea and having the Pacific Ocean suddenly appear in your kitchen.
And because the Doctor has a symbiotic relationship with the TARDIS, the massive drain on the TARDIS’ power saps his already-weak body and kills him, forcing him to regenerate.
See? Simple. That makes sense of the whole thing. Just don’t ask me why Mondas has the same continents as the Earth, or appears to have a day that lasts about two seconds, or how you can talk about something in space being ‘upside down’, or any of the other interesting science ideas from Kit Pedler.
And so we say goodbye to William Hartnell, the man who created the character of the Doctor and who is still, as far as I’m concerned, the definitive portrayal of the character. I wonder what the new bloke will be like?