Saturday, 16 January 2021


First transmitted: October 1966
Written by Kit Pedlar & Gerry Davis

Plot spoilers happen!

”What did you say, my boy? It's all over? That's what you said... but it isn't at all. It's far from being all over...”

- The First Doctor's last words (well, nearly)

The Scenario From Another Movie

This story is of course doubly memorable for fandom, for marking both the entrance of the Cybermen and the exit of first Doctor William Hartnell. But that's to look back at it from a historical perspective. Contemporary audiences would have been focusing on other elements. Something which would doubtless have jumped out more to them would be it's stylistic similarities to previous outings by Gerry Davis and Innes Lloyd, most particularly the story-before-last 'The War Machines'. Kit Pedlar returns from there as co-writer, while this was Davis' first script credit.

Perhaps there is a little less of the poetry to the poetic realism, the stuff that made 'War Machines' so iconic. Yet there's the same realism, the same insistence that what we are watching is located on this Earth. (If projected a few years into the future). Many of the same devices recur, the computer-font lettering over the titles, the inserted faux-docu footage, the electronic-effects soundtrack, the newsreader appearing on-screen. It's bizarre to think these episodes belonged to the same series as the uber theatrical 'Web Planet' or the self-consciously metafictional 'The Gunfighters'.

And not un-coincidentally, like 'War Machines' there's a strong 'Quatermass' influence – something which had previously been notably absent from 'Who'. The rocket launch opening could scarcely make the copy more direct. The story's chiefly set in the Antarctic Snowcap base, where General Cutler and Dr. Barclay mirror the military /science split found between Quatermass and Breen in 'Quatermass and the Pit'. It's the same opposition of the scientific enquiring mind to the blinkered, blast-it military mentality. (Or, if we wanted to get really meta about it, the US General Cutler allows for a distinction between the English Quatermass, played by Reginald Tate in the original 1953 series, and the more hubristic American Quatermass, played by Brian Donlevy in the 1955 film.

But of course there’s another influence. Both scenario and setting are borrowed from Hawks' 'Red Menace' picture 'The Thing From Another World' (1951). (Cunningly relocated from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to throw us off the scent.) As the Troughton years continue, they would reproduce the movie with more and more shameless literacy. But that this new formula should be introduced the very same time as the shows' second-biggest foe, the Cybermen - that seems striking.

Critics sometimes claim the Daleks and the Cybermen are identikit bug-eyed monsters, distinguishable only in their look (ear handles versus sink plungers) and catchphrases. Admittedly both are characterised by, in Ian's phrase, “dislike for the unlike”. And it's true, in the series' low-points they do come to be used interchangeably. But if we compare their first appearances we can see how much this was a degeneration, how their initial conceptions could not have been more distinct.

You don't win many prizes for noting that the Daleks are in many ways stand-in Nazis. And indeed, as we've seen frequently, they heralded a whole host of blackshirted types throughout the Hartnell years. You could barely move for space-goose-stepping. While American popular culture had quickly moved on to the Cold War bogey of sinister Soviet collectivism, if Hartnell 'Who' was anything to go by parochial Britain was still stuck in a cultural Forties. Even when it wasn’t mentioning the War by name, it was entirely failing to shut up about it.

Perhaps that was to be expected. Western Europe's role in the Cold War was somewhere to store American missiles and troops. Once we were brave Spitfire pilots, now virtual damsels needing defending. It was probably more pleasing, more self-affirming to look back on the days Britain had singlehandedly resisted the Nazis. This 'defiant plucky Brit' image is best summarised by the opening titles of another popular TV show of this era, 'Dad's Army' (first broadcast 1968). Of course it's largely mythical. But the point is that the myth was potent.

But we've already seen how as the Sixties went on 'Doctor Who' tried to update itself, and how it would chiefly try this through introducing more contemporary companions. Now there was the chance to have a new Doctor, to replace the fusty Edwardian lapel-twitcher with a younger model. So why not borrow a few tricks from Hollywood? And bring with them a new enemy of assimilationist cyborgs, marching in ranks and thinking in unison, intent on invading Earth and wiping out individuality.

In the 'New Statesman', Andrew Harrison describes them as “faceless new men, Leninist monsters to mirror the fascist Daleks, the iron men from behind the Iron Curtain.” And what could be neater? The Doctor's two great enemies reducing into Nazis and Commies.

It's true that the story makes great play over the internationalism of it's cast. In 'War Machines', it's very much London under threat. But the recognisable BBC newsreader is here replaced by someone from International Television News. True, this chiefly consists of a bunch of absurd stereotypes, such as an Italian solider who like-a da girls. And a Frenchman who, in case we haven't got the point yet, sits in front of zee big world map while making zee long-distance calls. But the point remains... in fact it couldn't be more underlined, the world's variety is under threat from dehumanising conformity.

Except as soon as you try to go past there it doesn't work. Of course the Cybermen only need be caricatured stand-ins for the Soviet model. (Already pretty much a caricature in and of itself.) But they actually make very poor communists, even given that great wedge of leeway.

It's rarely remarked that these episodes were broadcast a full fifteen years after 'Thing From Another World'. And while Red Menace films had been a staple of Fifties Hollywood, they'd almost completely petered out by the Sixties – let alone by the time of 'Tenth Planet.' If Red Menaces were their intent, the BBC were tailing a convoy no longer in motion.

It's generally thought that Russia conducting their first atomic test in 1949 launched the cinematic Red Scare. They frequently vented the fear that the Soviets were winning both the space and the arms race, hence the conceit of superior alien technology. So their launching Sputnik, the first ever satellite, in 1957 should surely have induced another panic and reinvigorated the genre. Instead Wikipedia gives that year as the end date. Clearly, other factors were afoot.

As Tom Whyman has pointed out “in the 1940s and 1950s the Soviet threat was precisely that it constituted an alternative world order.” However absurd it might seem in hindsight, for much of the Fifties large sections of the Left had held to an uncritical pro-Soviet stance. The catch-phrase 'Really Existing Socialism' encapsulated the claim that, not only was there an alternative to the iniquities of Western capitalism, it was a material reality – occupying a full third of the world. Think of Fred Kite in 'I'm All Right Jack', (1959) eulogising over “all them corn fields and ballet in the evening.”

By chance, the standard world map seemed almost a diagram of the Cold War. The USSR and the good ol' USA were placed in opposite corners, like boxers in a ring. But that wasn't distance enough. Really Existing Socialism, even in concept, needed throwing off the map altogether, the dangers of collectivism made literally as well as culturally alien. The Cold War needed restaging on a more cosmic scale, the Earth versus the flying saucers of... well... 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' (1956). (The circle was perhaps completed by the Posadists, a fringe Trotskyist group who believed communism would be brought to us from outer space. (Not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary story.))

But, with the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Empire in 1956, such notions became discredited. Tanks crushing workers’ limbs were tricky to explain away as teething troubles. And the Sixties had led to rumblings afresh...

The teenager, when he appeared in Red Menace films, tended to be at root a square-jawed kid. He may use weird slang, comb his hair funny and listen to that jungle music. But beneath the haircut he'd prove himself a valiant patriot by joining in against the enemy. Yet by the Sixties he often become the enemy. The new bogeys became the youth in revolt, the children (in Dylan's phrase) “beyond your command”. The ’Star Trek’ episode ’Miri’, first broadcast the same year, reflected this generational conflict. 'Who' itself had already reflected such themes, principally with ‘The Space Museum’.

(Of course none of that is to suggest the Cold War was dead in drama, merely one particular way of representing it had been closed. Which is something to come back to...)

So in short 'Tenth Planet' had no need to go back to the yesterday's politics of the Red Menace era, even if it borrowed many of their elements. And indeed, what's the precipitating event that happens in the first episode? The one telegraphed in the title? A planet flies into our solar system, which turns out to be our twin. (Our upside-down twin. Which way up something is, that's clearly important in space.) It's inhabitants, however strange or even terrible they seem, clearly they're not them - they're us. It couldn't have been more a reversal of the 'Red Menace' trope if they'd tried. (Which, for all I know, they might have been.)

So okay, having established what the Cybermen aren't, what are they?

Clue coming up...

”Terrible Human Beings”

One contemporary parent said of her daughter “when I asked her why she was frightened of the Cybermen but not of the Daleks, she replied that the Cybermen look like terrible human beings, whereas the Daleks were just Daleks.” (Quoted in James Chapman's 'Inside the Tardis', LB Tauris, 2006). It's actually awesome the way a child's eye can see through the clutter like that.

Like the Daleks, the Cybermen were once like us but became monsters in order to survive. But what kind of monsters? When we blithely say the Daleks are like Nazis, what does that mean? Okay, they try to conquer, ruthlessly suppressing all opposition. But what then? Though there'd been four Dalek stories before this first Cyber-showing, for both good and ill their formula hadn't yet evolved. It was actually at it's clearest in their second outing, 'Dalek Invasion of Earth', where they make some humans into compliant Robo-men and for the first time force others to labour down a mine.

But if not always with Daleks commander/drone stories of this nature were common through Hartnell's tenure. Think for example of the Animus and her Zarbi serfs in 'The Web Planet'. Or, with exquisite irony, Wotan the super-computer's mind control in the already-mentioned 'War Machines'. Not being hemmed into 'proper' science fiction, 'Doctor Who' had greater reign to rework folk fears in a quasi-technological setting. And not just the Daleks but many Hartnell stories were functionally zombie stories. They found horror in magnifying the distinction between mental and manual labour to the ultimate degree, the antithesis to the liberal consensus that at least ostensibly marked post-war British history. The leader did the thinking while the rest were reduced to obedient limbs.

Its not Nazis vs. Commies at all – it's zombies vs. vampires. What the Cybermen really are is technological vampires. When their planet Mondas first appears in the sky, it commences draining the energy from the Earth. But this first becomes apparent on a nearby space rocket, where it sucks – most importantly of all – both power from the craft and the physical energy of its crew.

As with vampires, the curse is sealed with a blessing. With the change, you trade up. You become stronger, you live longer if not forever. Just at the cost of your humanity, that’s all. As with vampires the Cybermen have tried to cheat death, and through this have fallen into a state of un-life. When they 'die', like Dracula before them, they collapse into withered husks. Their lack of emotions is merely a symptom of this life-without-living.

The Daleks were an inherited fear, the nightmare stories your parents told you of wartime, reflected through a distorting mirror that gave the goose-steppers flying saucers and exterminators rather than aircraft and guns. The Cybermen are very much about the modern condition. Their guns are like headlights which fire bright white light, after 'War Machines' another motif to signify the white heat of technology.

But Vampires are feral animals who haunt gothic castles and graveyards. They're often presented as relics of an aristocratic past, part-Count part-beast. But the Cybermen are monsters of the machine age. In perhaps the most brilliantly chilling moment of all, they simply announce everyone in Snowcap will be taken to Mondas to be converted, then get everyone to neatly line up stating their name and age. They're chillingly monstrous, sociopathically oblivious to the notion we should have some say in our lives. And you've worked for people just like them.

Readers steeped in fandom fixations will already be aware of the 'dating controversy' of the later UNIT stories, over whether they were set in the same day or in the near future. Its a good job fans care about this, because no-one else does. Whereas this story has to be set in the near future. The standard low production values, combined with the passage of time, obscures this. But we are supposed to see the base, with it's screens and fancy phones, as futuristic. Ben even comments on how computerised it is, how small a head count it needs.

And Mondas' twin-earth status combines with this. This might seem like trimmings, a bolt-on to the basic alien invasion story. In fact, it's central. The futuristic Snowcap acts as a Mondas-magnet. Just as Snowcap is the future to Ben and Polly, so Mondas is to it. Mondas' appearance is a literalisation of the return of the repressed. In a sense, we've summoned them. There's no direct connection between the stated moon landings and Mondas' appearance, but clearly there's a subliminal association.

It's not the one-by-one stealth recruitment of 'The Body Snatchers' scenario, as seen in 'Quatermass II'. It's much more a hostile takeover. But it's a similar deal. The Cybermen are our shadow selves. Shadow selves in bright silver with flashing lights, but still shadow selves. As El Sandifer put it at Tardis Eruditorium, “they are at once the best that humans can be and terrifying monsters - a set of anxieties and hopes blended together chaotically.”

Which is why they talk the way they do. Later Cybermen say things like “Kill them! Killllll themmmm! Did I remember to mention we don't have any emotions?” Here they talk in-a-clipped-annnd-in-to-na-tory-wayyy, nicknamed 'Microsoft Sam' by fans. Some mock this as an early error, akin to their clunky appearance. But while it can sound like they're auditioning for a particularly bad Kraftwerk tribute act, conceptually it's perfect. They don't talk like panto villains because they’re not. They're coldly logical. They can say things like “kill them at once,” but with utter calm. When they kill its not out of malice or hostility but calculated indifference.

The true horror is that to their tin minds conversion is doing us a favour. They are not killing but saving us. Mondas conforms to the most basic rule of a dystopia – it thinks it's a utopia.

Later, Cyber disdain for those dumbass emotions will become a rehearsed debate. Yet here, in his set-piece ethics debate with Polly, the Cyber-leader comments “I do not understand you”. He's not being disingenuous or rhetorical. Her prizing of life is as inexplicable to him as his indifference is to her.

For the first Dalek story to happen, we needed to go to their city. Whereas the Cybermen come to us. One of the most striking things about seeing that story now is the number of intra-Dalek scenes. They talk things over. To a degree, they're still individualised. There's no equivalent of this with the Cybermen, we get not one scene on Mondas. We only see their spaceship through the Doctor and Polly being prisoners. The nearest we get is them all silently marching along.

But the biggest difference lies in how we fight them. A major plot point of 'The Daleks' is Ian galvanising the reluctant, pacifist Thals to fight back. While a major plot point of 'Tenth Planet' is the Doctor talking a fully armed military base out of action. The only way to kill the Cybermen is by seizing their own weapons to use against them, which seems like a metaphor if ever there was one. Firing a missile at them is like trying to punch out the guy in the mirror because you don’t like the look of him.

The big cheese who orders this is even called General Cutter, surely intended as a homonym for Custer. And his plan is foiled by a young working class geezer dismantling the bomb. Not many Red Menace pics used that plot element. (I wonder if any fulminating Tory MP wrote into the BBC after that?) Cutter is perhaps another indication this is not a Red Scare story. Because his role is essentially to keep insisting that it is, accusing the Doctor and Ben of being that staple of such stories – saboteurs. In this way he's similar to Colonel Breen in 'Quatermass and the Pit', and his equally wrong-headed, simple-minded insistence he's in some kind of World War Two story.

This is another way the Cybermen are unlike classical vampires, who are destroyed by oppositional symbols – crosses, sunlight and so on. Effectively, here they're defeated by an excess of similarity, by (at least ostensibly) giving them what they want – by holding fuel rods from the reactor up to them. In Fifties Hollywood, radiation created monsters. Here it dispels them. The story’s ultimate message is “power will destroy itself”.

The Last of the First

In short, the Cybermen are functionally perfect. Eee-ven their fun-eee talk-innng is right. Better, in fact, than their adversary. There's no denying the Doctor's role in the story is ill-defined and frustrating. Even the smart, non-fannish writers who try to rescue him, such as El Sandifer or Andrew Hickey, have to resort to imagining more than they recount.

This was admittedly worsened by Hartnell falling ill for the third episode, forcing the Doctor to approximate the same behaviour on screen. But this merely exacerbated an existing problem. The Doctor doesn't just counsel inaction – he is inactive. He seems remote to events. You feel at times they could occasionally crack open a fortune cookie, and get much the same effect. (For example, how he's able to predict so much about Mondas is rather spectacularly ill-explained.) 

Even the classic clash-of-values debate, which would become a show staple, gets devolved to Polly. (Partly, of course, to allow the Cybermen the ability to make their own chilling but unanswerably consistent rejoinder. But the problem remains.)

The reincarnation itself is an obviously inserted coda. There are a couple of suggestions the energy drain to Mondas may be in some way responsible. But these make... wait for it.... scant sense, with the Doctor getting inexplicably better at the start of the final episode, then collapsing after Mondas has been destroyed. By which point you really might think of it's influence as waning.

Perhaps making Mondas a ticking bomb in reverse, meaning you can wait and the problem will just go away by itself, was always going to be too neat a trick to be truly dramatically effective. But the problem is partly due to a strange inversion. Normally, a new Doctor would initially be saddled with scripts prepared for the old. Yet, for his first ever reincarnation (so new they hadn't yet even coined the term), this is in many ways an honorary Second Doctor story. Which of course is to say a base-under-siege story. As Tomb of the Anorak comments: “it doesn't actually feel like a Hartnell story at all, but a new era about to begin.”

Which is quite a shift. Hartnell had appeared as a “wanderer in the fourth dimension”. Whereas from now on where the Doctor and his companions end up will be in a series of boxes twelve foot square, pressed up against the uniforms of some distrustful military types busily battening down the hatches. True, it could be argued that Hartnell had slowly been morphing from the original astral traveller, as he got himself into more and more scrapes. But from now on the Doctor will almost give up exploring. He'll just find somewhere new to stand and the menaces will come to him.

And Hartnell’s old wine simply doesn't fit the new bottles. While he rages impotently at military intelligence and the lack of it (“I don't like your tone, sir!”), the more impish Troughton would treat medalled chests and stuffed shirts as his straight men.

Yet at the same time it feels typical. We're used to genre fiction as something which, on the surface, resembles a set of easily assemblable functioning parts. To get to the fun stuff, the symbolism, the coded messages, you need to get past that – like lifting the bonnet from an engine. But here the front story is so flimsy you simply fall straight through, like knocking on a cardboard door, and bash straight into the symbolism. Effectively, lack of any other option forces you to read the thing iconographically. Inevitably, some will see this as a failing, others as a boon.

Having distinguished the first Cybermen from the first Dalek story throughout, let's close on a point of comparison. As they extemporised how the new monster would look and act, both are functionally awkward on screen - to the point that today they look clumsy and (there's no getting away from it) comical. But at the same time their purpose back then was not to create a scary new monster, who could come back once a season and spawn a successful merchandising range.

The stories work more as parables, and the monsters need to be seen as symbols to make that parable effective. This frequently dampens their ability to provide action, adventure or just plain scares. But the initial ambition was a loftier one. If they were furthest away from making the adversary workable for genre purposes, they were the nearest to what the monster was about. Alasdair Wilkins of i09 gets it right, they “have possibly been more intimidating in other stories, but they have never been creepier than they are here.”

Arguably, Sidney Newman's initial assessment of the Daleks as “bug eyed monsters” was proved right in the long run. And as the Daleks often became no more than killer robots, the Cybermen would degrade from silver shadows into tin soldiers. But at their inception that was not on anybody's mind. If execution was often poor, intent was normally grand. And that intent had nothing to do with setting up a manageable franchise that could last fifty years. If there's a better way to close on the Hartnell era than that, I can't imagine what it is.

Further reading: If the holy grail of ’Who’ fandom is finding the missing episode of ’Tenth Planet’, among us critical types it might be coming up of the most plausible theory for why the Doctor regenerates. And so far Jack Graham is in the lead, even if he has to sneak up on the thing via ’The Three Doctors’ to do it…

Coming soon! Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who. (But not necessarily very soon...)


  1. Well, that was fascinating, as always. I have thoroughly enjoyed this series, and I would be interested to see you follow the Rilstonian path of making this set of essays into a book.

    Most of all, I am delighted to find that you intend to go on and do Troughton!

  2. Not enough audience engagement to justify a book, I'm afraid. Will be doing *some* Troughton. No promises as to the whole of it, at least as yet.

  3. It's a fair point on audience engagement. Honestly, I think it's ridiculous that this blog isn't much more read (and commented on!) than it is, but the facts are as they are. Sorry.