The current series of Doctor Who is coming to its conclusion, taking the Twelfth Doctor with it. Just as when Russell T Davies left the series with an overlong and over-sentimental episode The End of Time where he could wrap up the story threads of his tenure as producer, so Peter Capaldi leaves along with Steven Moffat’s tenure, so that Chris Chibnall can start again from scratch. And arguably, repair some of the damage.
I’ve previously written about the cult of keeping secrets – especially with reference to Doctor Who. This year, I’m really disappointed. I have worked hard to avoid all the trailers. No spoilers, sweetie! Close my eyes when it comes on TV, don’t read articles online or in magazines. Even so, I already knew too much. From external news, we knew that Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez were leaving although I have managed to avoid knowing who the replacement Doctor will be – perhaps no one knows (and may not know until Christmas). This hasn’t had the same pomp and ceremony as when Matt Smith and Capaldi himself took the reins, but again, that might have been something peculiar to Moffat’s style of doing things. And, despite avoiding trailers on the TV, videos flash up on my social media pages, so I already knew that John Sim would return as the Master (friends had speculated that the Master was in the box that it was so imperative that the Doctor guarded), that one of the main characters was likely to be killed off (my money was on Bill – I think it’s more likely that Missy will make a noble sacrifice, thus affirming her intention to be good); and then there were the return of the Mondas Cybermen (a form of Derridean hauntology since it’s not technically a “return” as these characters pre-empt the Cybermen from The Tenth Planet – Derrida would say that this is the impossibility of something being repetition and the first time). These reveals all appeared in Episode 11.
Imagine what it would have been like if you didn’t know John Sim was returning, or if the repaired people in the hospital weren’t Cybermen?
Episode 11 is called World Enough and Time – a line from Andrew Marvel’s poem ‘To his Coy Mistress’. It opens with a foreshadowing of the Doctor’s regeneration as his hands start to glow signalling his end (echoing his “regeneration” in The Lie of the Land). Marvel’s poem is a carpe diem message – take your chances while you can (although, given that Marvel was trying to woo his “coy mistress”, the Doctor should have realised that he had no chance with Bill Potts). We know that the Cybermen are coming. It’s all linked to the “Classic” story, The Tenth Planet, written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. This is one of those stories which has become a myth of itself. The second story of season 4, broadcast in October 1966, it was the last story for William Hartnell incarnation of the Doctor. When the BBC purged some of the Doctor Who master tapes to clear space in their vaults, episode 4 of The Tenth Planet was one that was lost, although the footage of Hartnell’s regeneration into Patrick Troughton remains. (In the early 1980s the movement began to find the missing episodes, there were stories of people claiming to have the final episode of The Tenth Planet and stories about clandestine meetings in car parks, although the contact who claimed to have the episode never showed up.)
The Tenth Planet
Having recently re-watched The Tenth Planet, the images of the regeneration scene and the Mondas Cybermen are all that stand out. Of course, the episode is a product of its time, but it’s not well done. Why would the Cybermen send three troops to the South pole to gain control of a nuclear device (three troops who, after the initial menace, are relatively easily overcome). The story is meant to be claustrophobic – an isolated observation post (that just happens to have a nuclear weapon) which witnesses the (sudden) arrival of a sister planet to Earth called Mondas. Mondasian Cybermen come into the base and kill without mercy or feeling. There is the additional complication of the Zeus IV observational spaceship, which is off course, caught in the gravitational field of Mondas. Mondas is dying, and the Cybermen need the Earth’s energy to revive their planet, which would leave the Earth as an empty husk. As Mondas absorbs so much energy, it’s in danger of exploding. The humans are able to overcome the Cybermen, and the commander at the Snowcap base, General Cutter, discovers that his son has been sent on a mission to rescue the Zeus IV (although the Zeus has already been destroyed).
Cutter decides - against the orders of Space Command in Geneva – to use the ominously named Z-bomb to destroy Mondas. However, the base’s scientific officer is concerned about the radiation fallout and its effect on Earth, so he helps to Doctors’ companion, Ben Jackson, to sabotage the bomb (seemly only needing a Philips screwdriver to achieve this). Cutter is furious when the bomb fails to launch. The Cybermen re-invade key places around the world, including Space Command. They want to turn the Z-bomb back onto Earth, to destroy Earth to prevent Mondas from absorbing more energy. They take Polly, the Doctor’s other companion, hostage so the Snowcap scientists can restore the bomb (which makes perfect sense: the Cybermen are saying “we’ll kill her if you don’t help us to kill everyone!) The humans manage to ambush and defeat a second wave of Cybermen, and when Mondas explodes, the Cybermen around the world are disabled. The Doctor returns to the TARDIS to regenerate.
This episode has the hallmarks of being a great story, but perhaps more because of the later films that are in a similar theme and that have done it better: the concept of the monstrous in the Antarctic is reminiscent both of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness and John Carpenter’s The Thing; trying to help a spacecraft is like Apollo 13. The Tenth Planet could have been about General Cutter saving his son who is also on an ill-fated, and, on its successful completion, General Cutter stops being the shouty unempathetic soldier and mellows a bit at the end. But because there’s no character development, equally, there’s not an empathetic story behind it (this might have been “base survives but the Doctor perishes”). Consequently, it loses a lot of the effect it might have had. Also, it’s a product of its time. The characters are one dimensional. The Cybermen come in with stockings over their heads, like spoof of bank robbers with ghetto blasters attached to their chests. (That said, there are moments when the Cybermen ARE sinister – particularly the silent scenes outside in the Antarctic wilderness where the Cybermen club the humans to death with a single blow. Remember this was 1966. This was the first appearance of the Cybermen and nothing like them had ever been seen on TV.) And, the narrative had to be so much slower: it takes a long time to explain a simple premise – we are the generation of the 24 TV series where we can watch four plots simultaneously. In short, it doesn’t really deliver except as a part of the Doctor Who mythology.
The Myth, the Departure and the Regeneration
The mythology of the story is greater than the actuality. I read the novelisation when I was a child, and I must have seen The Tenth Planet when it was released on VHS in 2000. But my memories didn’t correspond with what I thought I remembered about this story. In my mind, I had the Doctor facing this terrible foe, and then, having defeated the Cybermen and saved the Earth, exhausted, he staggers back through the Antarctic wastes to regenerate. The reality was so much less. In fact, for no reason whatsoever, the Doctor suddenly reels and doesn’t participate in the third episode at all. (This was because Hartnell had written to the production team to say that he was too ill to work. His lines were given to other characters). In the fourth episode, he is taken hostage along with Polly and locked away. He returns (apparently healthy) in the final scenes as the menace is defeated, but then staggers away, across Antarctica, and gets into the TARDIS with just enough strength to open the doors to allow Polly and Ben to enter before falling to the ground and regenerating into Patrick Troughton.
By many accounts, Hartnell was difficult to work with. Being tetchy, impatient and intolerant meant that he had difficult relationships with both cast and crew. After the departure of Verity Lambert – who was one of his more ardent supporters – as well as Hartnell’s own deteriorating health, his leaving seemed inevitable. The BBC’s website says, “A combination of ill-health and changing production team influenced William Hartnell’s decision to retire from the role that had made him a hero to millions of children”, although the ‘retirement’ was more likely a euphemism.
Hartnell’s departure from the role was sudden – two stories into the fourth season. The biography of Kit Pedler, The Quest for Pedler by Michael Seely, discusses the original script of The Tenth Planet: the draft was written in June 1966. It included a subplot that the Cybermen wanted to convert the Doctor and Polly into cybermen, hence the reason they were taken hostage. For obvious reasons, the original draft did not include the regeneration. The decision for Hartnell to leave the series was taken in July, and The Tenth Planet broadcast in October, which arguably demonstrates how sudden Hartnell’s decision to leave was. Anneke Wilks, who played Polly, said that the news about Hartnell’s replacement was abrupt, along the lines of “Actually next week, Bill is going. and we’re having another … Another guy’s coming on” and she had no idea who it was going to be.
The concept of regeneration had (almost) never been done before, and it was a gamble as to whether the audiences would accept the explanation for introducing a new character. (Actually, it had been used in the Tarzan films: Johnny Weissmuller became Buster Crabbe, for example). The producers had some clever ideas to ensure there was maximum continuity for the series. Ben and Polly stayed with the Second Doctor until the penultimate episode of his first series, The Faceless Ones (broadcast May 1967, six months after Hartnell had left). In addition, the Second Doctor’s first story brings back the Daleks in The Power of the Daleks (The Daleks had appeared in each of the First Doctor’s three series – twice in the second series!) and the Second Doctor would face them once again in his final story of his first season The Evil of the Daleks, as well as another encounter with the Cybermen in The Moonbase. All of this served to ensure that the viewers accepted Troughton as he faced regular, favourite, foes.
Hartnell returned to play the Doctor in the Tenth Anniversary story The Three Doctors which was broadcast between December 1972 and January 1973 during Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor (The First Doctor refers to his successors as “a clown and a dandy”). Originally the three doctors were to have an equal role in the story, but because of Hartnell’s failing memory and health, his wife insisted that his role should only require him to be seated, as well as using cue cards for his lines. This story is another important piece of Doctor Who mythology, and it was Hartnell’s final work as an actor. (The First Doctor has appeared in more recent episodes, played by Richard Hurndall in The Five Doctors (1983) and most notably with colourised clips and clever CGI in episodes such as The Name of the Doctor (2013) and The Day of the Doctor as well as a brief appearance in The Witch’s Familiar (2015). Hartnell’s own story is told in An Adventure in Space and Time (2013), starring David Bradley. (It would be interesting if the BBC could commission a Doctor Who story starring David Bradley as the First Doctor, Reece Sheersmith as the Second Doctor, and Sean Pertwee as the Third Doctor [and perhaps Jon Culshaw as the Fourth Doctor - let's go mad, we could have all of the regular doctors]). The Hartnell and Troughton CGI moment in the BBC Children in Need 3D episode Dimensions in Time (1993) does not need to be mentioned. In fact, Dimensions in Time should not be mentioned except in hushed tones and behind locked doors. One commentator likened it to the Star Wars Holiday Special, but perhaps that’s a bit harsh.
The Doctor Falls
It’s a shame to be losing Peter Capaldi. He had so much potential. But then he didn’t deliver what I had hoped. As he was a more mature actor, I had hoped he would bring a gravitas and return some seriousness to the series, rather than the silliness that had been seen in some of his predecessor’s stories. It had taken Capaldi – and the writers and the producers – quite a lot of time to establish his version of the Doctor, and there was a point in the current series where a friend observed “that’s it, there’s no more playing around episodes”, and the stories after that have (mostly) been of a calibre that I’d hoped for, leading towards this climax. But then, if you look at it, most of the doctors only stayed in the role for three years (although the earlier doctors’ seasons were considerably longer).
Episode 12 is an hour-long episode. Will it have enough time to explain more satisfactorily why he looks like Lobus Caecilius (from The Fires of Pompeii) and John Frobisher (Torchwood: Children of Earth)? I’d thought this would be a much more prominent theme as the Doctor reference Caecilius in his first episode, Deep Breath “Why this face?”, rather than the reason being “To remind me. To hold me to the mark. I’m the Doctor – and I save people.” There was a missed opportunity in the Twelfth Doctor visiting his “past faces”. (The reason for the similarity between Caecilius and the Twelfth Doctor that “the same actor plays both roles and it’s not real” is not considered a satisfactory answer). Stephen Moffat was asked about this and he replied, “Stop talking to me when I’m cross”.
I had thought that the return of the Mondasian Cybermen would mean that this would be the only time that the Doctor would have been defeated on multiple occasions by the same enemy at the same time. But it’s not as I’ve seen from revisiting The Tenth Planet. Capaldi’s Doctor will meet his end in whatever way Stephen Moffat chooses, however it is more likely to be a noble sacrifice, than simply feeling that “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin”. And hopefully, the new team will regenerate the franchise.