DVD Review: Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet

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With the 50th anniversary this week there is plenty of Doctor Who based merchandise to enjoy out there ranging from DVDs and books to toys and clothing. In light of this joyous occasion BBC America has bestowed upon me some great content for review starting with two standalone DVD releases just in time for the premiere of The Day of the Doctor. We begin with probably the most important story in the show’s history, The Tenth Planet. It’s not necessarily the greatest but the one that without it the show would not have seen 10 years let alone the 50 we have now.

The TARDIS lands at the Arctic Circle in 1986 where a research center is monitoring one of man’s many explorations into space. The Doctor along with Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) make their way into the secret base where they are immediately cast as suspicious individuals by General Cutler, the man heading all operations at the Arctic base. As one of the space capsules begins to encounter a problem, a spaceship has landed close by. The occupants, half man half machine slowly make their way across the frozen tundra for an epic encounter. As these cybernetic beings take over the base, the space mission is in jeopardy and the smartest man in the room is slowly weakening unbeknownst to his friends and allies.

Barring the fact that the title is rather redundant now The Tenth Planet is both the first appearance of the Cybermen and the first regeneration story. It has been stated over the years about how much of a gamble it was to consider recasting the role of the Doctor but because of Bill Hartnell’s failing help it needed to be done. No one higher up wanted Doctor Who to end but how do you keep the show going when you replace the man who helped make it popular? The idea that he could change his appearance and personality is still brilliant and the reason that Doctor Who stands tall as the most original science fiction series ever produced. In the making of- documentary that accompanies this release the process of how they made the first change over happened is explained in great detail and it’s quite fascinating when you consider what they were working with back in 1966.

As many of you probably are aware Episode 4 no longer exists in the BBC archives save for a few short clips including the regeneration sequence itself. With a lot of these releases that feature missing installments, 2 Entertain have instituted animated installments of these episodes reconstructing them from existing clips, telesnaps, and the original audio. Over time they have gotten better at it and their reconstruction here is the best they have done yet and transitions perfectly from the original recordings to animation. It definitely makes up for a lack of an existing episode but even I will admit that I am still holding out for the original film to crop up one day.

The story is kind of a mess (which the crew has admitted) as it falls apart towards the middle of its run mainly due to the absence of William Hartnell in episode 3 who had fallen ill during recording. This forced the production crew to divvy up all of Hartnell’s dialogue to the character of Barkley and the Doctor’s two companions. It’s a lack of consistency and the show kind of meanders because of it but the three episodes we have says a lot about the care put into making Hartnell’s last story special and thrilling. It’s far from a great story but its significance is long lasting. The best parts of this story comes in the work done behind the scenes with director Derek Martinez providing tension on camera by numerous close ups and a constant quick cut motion to everything going on. There are only a few sets here: the Arctic wasteland, a rocket room, a projection room, and the Control center where 75 percent of the story takes place but all are very detailed and given a moody atmosphere.

Despite the wonderful craftsmanship that went into the setting the best part is Cybermen themselves whose original design is only featured in this story. Viewed as something out of a kitchen drawer there are bits and bobs on these costumes that feel overdone but it makes them the most frightening of all of their incarnations. What makes their first appearance here so lasting is they clearly have features that make them more human than machine. Bare hands and merely a cloth face make their first appearance incredibly creepy. Then there is the unique voice that Roy Skeleton provided that was far less machine and relied on a sing song frequency when they spoke.

Beyond the story and the reconstruction the special features are a mix bag but what is great is they focus greatly on the man we only know so much about. In the above mentioned making of- documentary “Frozen Out” people like Anneke Wills and various cast and crew members discuss the making of the story but also focus greatly on the profound effect Hartnell had on the cast as he exited the show. Here the cast and crew discuss candidly about how Hartnell’s lack of progressive thinking showed in his handling of actors of different color and gender. While a constant professional and a good soul if you read other stories about him the elderly Grandfather figure on screen was replaced off screen by a rather irascible individual who cared greatly about his image and his career as an actor.

The real gem of this is a three minute clip from an interview with the man himself shortly after he left the show. There are no other known interviews with Hartnell in existence and this particular clip gives you an idea of how post-Who Hartnell felt he needed to keep his career alive by simply making the next thing big. It’s quite disheartening to hear how the man beloved by millions of children and who adored playing the part felt after he was no longer number 1. This is a great set up leading into the soon to be broadcast An Adventure in Space and Time that will explore the life of Hartnell as the Doctor even more through actor David Bradley.

Additional features on this set are a mix of enjoyable and throw away mainly focusing on the various companions. Anneke Wills in an archived interview talks of her times on the show and a separate feature “Boys! Boys! Boys!” interviews past male companions about what it meant to be on the show. The Tenth Planet is a must have for purists for its significance more than its content. The animated reconstruction of episode 4 almost makes the lack of its actual existence plausible and the above mentioned making of feature and interview with Hartnell are great extra features. The rest is rather throw away depending on what you like but it is still a great addition to the Doctor Who DVD library as we inch closer to the show’s anniversary.