The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"The Death of Doctor Who": The Tenth Planet


Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
“Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolv’d
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”

And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge:
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have liv’d my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure!

I have to start with an insight garnered from Phil Sandifer's essay on this story: trying to scrape all the history of the show and its mythology from this story is very hard, but worth doing. Ideally, you want to watch the story that aired, and not retroject the future of the Cybermen and regeneration as staples of the program. (Sandifer's essay is excellent by the way, and I'll try not to cover too much of the ground he did--but at a minimum we must begin with fresh eyes). Or, in the words of the somewhat germane Mr. Roboto, "forget what you know."

Why do I bring up the 1980s "Mr. Roboto" with its rather nastily stereotyped-faced robots? Because the 1980s, not unlike our own era--and the mid sixties, for that matter--was an era where the vitality of pop culture, like Doctor Who, like "Mr. Roboto," like The Handmaid's Tale (the novel from which it was drawn was published in the 1980s), came from the paranoia and fear of change, of an impending breakup of an established social order, to be succeeded by something far worse. As we snapped back into the long 1980s, the forces trying to move beyond them revisit the fears of that era, and so it was in 1966--long held verities (sorry!) were collapsing and fears of what would fill the void were rampant, reflected in books like A Clockwork Orange (1962), and the ambiguity toward both authority and protest displayed by The Prisoner (1967-1968).

Look at the changes in companions--from Barbara and Ian (twinset and pearls (metaphorically, at least), suit and tie, received pronunciation) to Ben (a cockney sailor) and Chelsea girl Polly. The old order changeth, yielding place to new, Tennyson wrote, but not easily, not without pain, and not without fear. Ben and Polly are the acceptable faces of the Youth Revolution, meant to reassure that "the kids are alright," but the verdict in England at the time was still very much out.

"The Tenth Planet," then, is a response to a fear of loss of humanity through technology changing the very nature of humankind. (No, really--that's what was the catalyst of the story and the Cybermen. But if General Cutler puts you in mind of Dr. Strangelove (1964), remember that Doctor Who was engaging with nuclear war and its potential for devastation as far back as its second story arc.

Sandifer notes that the Cybermen are "an alternative version of humanity - the dark mirror of humanity, who went on a quest for spiritual enlightenment and succeeded at terrible cost," and points out that they win the debate with Polly over "caring." And he's right. They are body horror because of their human origins and remnants, and they are spiritually horrific because they have a point of view that is not easily refuted. Indeed, they offer twice--the second time after the first wave of Cybermen have been killed by Ben and the staff of the base--to save humanity and bring them to Mondas. They just want to guarantee their own survival (and do not reject out of hand the Doctor's offer that they stay and share Earth with humanity). They are horrific because they reject what makes humanity good by pointing to its shadow side.

They have a point of view, as I said. And Polly can't quite muster a defense why "caring" about General Cutler's son is noble and human-defining when There are people dying all over your world, yet you do not care about them."

Meanwhile, General Cutler is preparing to use the "Z Bomb" (Which sounds awfully reminiscent of the "Q Bomb" in The Mouse that Roared (1955), filmed 1959, starring, like Dr, Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers and featuring William Hartnell, by the bye).

We're in body horror territory with the Cybermen, a genre that "arguably can be traced 1950s horror/science fiction hybrids," but we're also in the uneasy land of Leonard Wibberly, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens.


"But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst—if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)—
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.”

Arthur's words to Bedivere are the last words he speaks in Idylls of the King. Wounded, confused, the old hero is unsure, unheroic; he is weakened unto death.

And so too is Doctor Who--or, if you must have it so, the Doctor. The effect of this last adventure has been the sapping of his strength--his "old body is wearing a bit thin," he says. And, after Polly wraps him in his cloak, he hurries back to the TARDIS, acting up in a way it hasn't since The Edge of Destruction. After managing to let his companions in, he collapses, they rush to see him, to see the old order changing, giving place to new.

Doctor Who is dead, but not Doctor Who. And just who is this new man, and what will the new order be?


Love is very fruitful,
Both of honey and of gall

--Pautus, as translated by Barnaby.

I'm a little suspicious of the old story that Hartnell was fired for ill health. His performance in "The Gunfighters," in "The War Machines," "The Smugglers" and in "The Tenth Planet" itself are vintage Hartnell--he's funny, he's powerful, he's angry--to steal great characterization from Sandifer, in Episode 4:
Hartnell rumbles back into the story full of fury and passion. The strong sense is that he stopped the Z-Bomb (though all reason says Ben did) and saved the day. He gets, in other words, the hero's entrance, full of terrible rage. This is absolutely the same man we see at the end of, for instance, The Family of Blood - a man who, when put with his back against the wall, roars back even stronger.

But there's a sense that something isn't quite right as well. The Doctor complains of an outside influence effecting him, and murmurs that his body is wearing a bit thin. Still, that is quickly set aside as the Doctor manages to finally completely unhinge General Cutler (who is quickly gunned down) and take over the situation. It's a fantastic sequence, and it's tough to remember when we last saw Hartnell this in control and decisive.
I agree with this, except for the last sentence. He was this decisive in The Savages, furiously rejecting the Elite's exploitation of the outsiders. His standing up to the War Machine creates a template that the show has returned to again and again. The Doctor may be sick, but Hartnell, when not sidelined by the producers or the script, delivers until his very last scene.

The infamous "Billy fluffs" don't strike me as worse than those any other actor on the show, when you consider the amount of lines Hartnell had to deliver. He's often considerably less gaffe-prone than the guest stars 9watch "The Gunfighters" again). And yet--1n 1973, he was indeed very ill, barely able to participate in the anniversary show.'s "Doctor Who Essentials" quotes Hartnell:
We did Doctor Who for forty-eight weeks a year but I loved it. I couldn’t go out into the street without a bunch of children following me, like the Pied Piper. People used to take it terribly seriously. I’d get letters from boys swotting for exams, asking me complicated questions about time ratios and the TARDIS. I couldn’t help them. A lot of the scriptwriters used to make The Doctor use expressions like “centrifugal force” but I refused. If it gets too technical, the children don’t understand and they lose interest. I saw The Doctor as a kind of lama, one of those long-lived old boys out in Tibet who might be anything up to eight hundred years old but only look seventy-five.
Perhaps the theory suggested there that he wore himself out, and wore out his welcome with the production staff too, is true.

The Cybermen, with the organic body parts, singsong speech, cloth masks, either work for you or they don't. They did for me, except on the combat scenes in the snow where they were required to use there arms as clubs. But that strange, unexplained visage gazing into the camera at the cliffhanger for episode 1? Genius. The voices, so distorted, and yet so logical, so musical, yet so inhuman--much more creepy than the standard deep voices later used. These Cybermen are weird. And that makes them scary.

Finally, two production notes. This story begins to build the order that will house UNIT--a world-wide cooperative system between nations, with people of all races and nations sharing authority. It's not flawless, as presented (the Italian stereotypes are pretty over the top), but it's clearly an effort to envisage a future of international cooperation, and treats its nonwhite characters, especially Earl Cameron's calm, measured performance as Williams, who keeps his white counterpart Schultz from panicking at least twice.

Finally, critics often mock the American accents of General Cutler and his son, and they do seem pretty off-base in 2017. But Robert Beatty was born in Canada and lived there until he was 37. Born in 1909, he played Americans and Canadians throughout his career, including a highly regarded portrayal of Ronald Reagan in Breakthrough at Reykjavik in 1987. Beatty may have been recalling an earlier era of American history, the Damon Runyon New York of his youth, made famous in film and literature. But whatever he was doing, it was an American doing an American accent, not an Englishman.

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