|A horrible, otherworldly monster that’s nothing more than|
a grotesque parody of humanity confronts a Cyberman.
It’s October 8, 1966. Jim Reeves is posthumously at number one with Distant Drums. The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, The Who, Dusty Springfield, and The Troggs are all charting. Distant Drums will hold #1 for three weeks, before The Four Tops take it. In the news, we have our standard smattering of 60s misfortune with a side of a massive coal disaster that kills 144 people, mostly children, in the Welsh village of Aberfan, and the infamous escape of George Blake, a British spy and double agent for Russia, from prison in London.
But let’s be honest, it’s hard to approach this one from that direction. Which is a pity. There are stories fandom has done some mean things to over the years, but few we’ve been as brutal to as this one. Ask a reasonably dedicated fan, and there are two things to know about this story – it’s the first regeneration story, and the first Cybermen story. And that basically defines it. The trouble is, it’s neither.
It’s certainly not the first regeneration story. Wood and Miles make a compelling case for this, including their observation, much ignored by the rest of fandom, that for years Doctor Who Magazine didn’t even count this story as a regeneration, instead saying it was a “rejuvenation,” and thus a completely different thing from what happens in, say, Planet of the Spiders. Even if you do take the modern viewpoint that what happens at the end of this story is the same thing that happens at the end of Parting of the Ways, though, the fact of the matter is, treating this as the first regeneration story reads it the wrong way. Calling it a regeneration story treats the ending as a defined, known thing. We get to read the story in the context of the other seven regeneration stories (Yes, there’s one I’m not counting, and we’ll deal with it when we get there), and get to define it via a raft of stuff that came later.
The same problem exists with calling it the first Cybermen story. Never mind that the Cybermen never look or act like this again. The real problem is that this means that when they show up, the audience reaction is “Oh, it’s the Cybermen.” Which is a fine reaction, but it’s manifestly not the reaction the story is going for. The Cybermen in this story are not the classic monsters who are returning for another round. They’re the bizarre new villains who are making their first appearance.
It is admittedly a challenge to scrape off the forty-five years of reputation that have been built on this story. The problem is, at this point the reputation is spoiling our view. Read from the future, we see all sorts of cracks. The Cybermen look like men in lycra. The regeneration is unexplained and doesn’t seem a natural extension of what went before, meaning Hartnell gets a kind of feeble sendoff. (Pertwee gets “A tear, Sarah Jane?” Baker gets “It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.” Davison gets “I might regenerate. I don’t know. It feels different this time.” Hartnell? He gets “Keep warm.” He doesn’t even get any carrot juice.) And a legion of slicker bases under slicker sieges make this one look a bit cheap. But all of those cracks are only visible because for forty-five years one of the basic mandates of Doctor Who has been “Take The Tenth Planet and do it again with more modern sensibilities.” Which is, not that The Tenth Planet is as good as Hamlet, kind of like saying Hamlet is rubbish because The Lion King has better songs.
No. If we’re going to come at this one in a remotely sensible manner, we’re going to have to throw the future out and look at this as the 1966 story it is.
Much has been made of the way that the story seems business as usual until the regeneration crops up. Our standard reference books – Wood and Miles and Shearman and Hadoke – insist studiously that it isn’t. The truth is somewhere in between. Certainly nothing in the beginning of the story suggests that it is anything other than a continuation of the cod-Quatermass vibe we got from The War Machines, which is by far the second most important antecedent to this story. The establishing shots of the story are a rocket launch and some mucking about in a control room – as direct a structural quote of The Quatermass Experiment as can be managed.
So when we get a bog-standard sequence of Hartnell and his companions in the TARDIS, we have every reason to expect we’re getting The War Machines redux. The only reason to suspect anything is amiss is if you’ve been reading the papers and know that Hartnell is on his way out.
But on the other hand, there are at least some things amiss. The base is full of ethnic acting, giving it an international feel, at least when it isn’t busy giving it an “oh god make the pain stop” feel. (I will be the first to admit that the ethnic acting is this story’s weakest spot. Although the worst offender, Robert Beatty’s General Cutler, is probably supposed to sound that way, for better or for worse) The cutting among monitors and space capsules gives this story a global feel only hinted at in The War Machines. And the setting – 1986 – is compelling, in that it is a date that is obtainable within people’s lifetimes. (Remember that The Time Travellers got much of its impact from the fact that it was set at a time Ian and Barbara would conceivably survive into. Its debt to this story, which it overtly recognizes, along with The War Machines, to which it is a de facto sequel, is considerable.) This is not a “five minutes in the future” style contemporary Earth story like The War Machines, but it is still trying something in the same vein – a vision of the future that is of something that the viewers are likely to see.
And then, as the first episode winds on, things get even weirder. One of the basic appeals of Doctor Who is its sheer pluck – the fact that it’s the sort of show that, to pick a non-random example, can give you the Doctor teaming up with Richard Nixon to fight UFO-type aliens despite the fact that this premise is completely mad. This sort of spectacle-based storytelling is a fairly modern invention – the Hartnell stories indulged in it occasionally, but usually only when Daleks were involved. But here we get a whopper – more or less out of nowhere, an entire new planet drops into existence near the Earth.
It’s tough to say how weird this would have seemed in 1966. You’d need someone who was more of an expert on pop astronomy than I am to know whether anyone seriously believed planets might just drop by unexpectedly and say hi. (Let’s be fair, mere months ago Doctor Who was in movie theaters with the Daleks wanting a planet to drive around, so as insane as this seems now, the problem might be us, not them.) But regardless of whether the show blew all credibility with that plot twist, or, perhaps more importantly, when nobody is easily able to recognize that Mondas is very obviously an upside-down Earth (Polly is the first one to get it, because she can identify, of all things, Malaysia, but throughout the story this is treated as a controversial point despite the fact that the audience can see it within seconds), surely the arrival of another planet in orbit is a sign that this is not business as usual.
Especially because, and here’s where things really get wacky, the Doctor knows this is going to happen. We’ve had a lot of “you can’t rewrite history” and the importance of historical inevitability before, but this is the first time that attitude has been projected on our future. This is not merely a story about another planet showing up in the sky alongside ours – it’s a story about how this is necessarily and absolutely going to happen as an inevitable part of human history.
And then from there we get the first cliffhanger – a sort that we actually haven’t seen since The Daleks, at least as an opening cliffhanger. An alien ship lands outside the Snowcap base, and out step strange looking men who butcher the humans. Then we end on a close-up of their expressionless, mummified faces. This is a lot of why I insist on not reading this story as “the first Cybermen story.” Because of this cliffhanger, which is very clearly not “Oh crap, it’s the Cybermen,” but rather “What the hell is THAT?”
Which raises an interesting question. What the hell is that? If we reject reading these things as the lovable robots who faff around in Silver Nemesis, what are we left with? Well now, that’s a good question. Let’s stop here and say that if you haven’t read the post from last Friday about 1966 counter-culture, this might be a good time to do that. Specifically the bits about Kenneth Grant.
The key thing to know here is that there exists a model of spiritual enlightenment in which enlightenment is a horrifying and bleak thing. The adjective I’m going to use for this sort of enlightenment – Qlippothic – is important. Basically, it suggests that there is a form of enlightenment that can be found by encountering and contemplating the darkest parts of humanity. The Qlippoth refer to the hollowed out, vacant, and rotted shells of spiritual concepts. And the whole radical idea of Kenneth Grant is that there’s not actually a difference between those, which are basically the horrible nightmares within humanity, and actual enlightenment.
I mention this because it’s basically 100% necessary to understanding the Cybermen. I’m not saying that Kit Pedler was chillaxing in the Typhonic order with Kenneth Grant (though that would be awesome), but the ideas are clearly similar. Certainly it’s worth noting that Pedler’s original conception of the Cybermen was as a race of “star monks.” Here it is instructive to look at the origin of the Cybermen, as completely and utterly screwed up as it may be. Mondas and Earth are twin planets – the one an inversion of the other. The Cybermen tell us that they and Mondas “drifted away on a journey,” making a sweeping arm motion as they do, and that they went to the edge of space, then returned. In the course of that journey, their bodies wore out and they steadily replaced themselves with spare parts, removing human weaknesses in the process.
The Cybermen, in other words, are an alternative version of humanity – the dark mirror of humanity, who went on a quest for spiritual enlightenment and succeeded at terrible cost. This is the heart of their debate with Polly towards the start of the episode – one that is very cleverly staged. The audience, naturally, sympathizes with Polly, who has several built-in advantages when it comes to debating the Cybermen, namely that she is a human, a regular character, fairly attractive, and is arguing for fairly intuitive points like “Letting people die is mean.” This is contrasted with the Cybermen, who are cold, inhuman, and all for letting major characters die. But the thing is, the Cybermen get to win the debate with their brilliantly cutting line “There are people dying all over your world, yet you do not care about them.”
In other words, the narrative leaves just enough space for us to sympathize with the Cybermen. The Doctor continually treats them with respect and fear. Polly is shot down by them. Their explanations make sense. They offer a world of positive freedom – a world free of pain and misery and fear. And so when they say that they’ll just be bringing all of humanity over to Mondas to be converted into Cybermen, well, that’s certainly not nice, but it’s not a bunch of Daleks shouting “Exterminate” (or a bunch of Cybermen shouting “Delete”) either.
Let’s pause here also to talk about the look of the Cybermen. These are the most human they’ll ever look in the series history, with still-human hands. It’s easy to view this as a mistake, and to decide that their appearance in The Moonbase four months later is the show going back and doing them “right.” But again, nobody watching this would know that this isn’t how the Cybermen are supposed to look. And they do look terrifying – human but not. Much has been said both praising and mocking the voices of the Cybermen in this story. There’s a certain tiresome nature to this debate. Those who mock the voices correctly point out that they sound absurd, and that they are nothing like the harsh robotic conquerers of later Cybermen. True enough, of course, but when the Cybermen of Attack of the Cybermen or Revenge of the Cybermen are your benchmark, you’re not exactly setting your goals very high. Those who praise the voices appreciate the harsh, shocking nature of them, and are largely on target (certainly Nicholas Briggs does some amazing stuff with them in the Big Finish audio Spare Parts, but then, Briggs has at this point become a bewildering yet amazing voice artist specializing specifically in recreating old Doctor Who monster voices and making them capable of acting), but as Toby Hadoke points out in Running Through Corridors, it’s easy for him and Shearman to praise them because they’re the sort of people who look for the existential body horror in things.
I am, predictably, more on the side of Shearman and Hadoke, but the thing I think they sell short in their praise of the voices is that the entire story interprets very well from an existential body horror angle. The entire point of the voices is to be a grotesque parody of human speech – the Cybermen’s mouths open and the synthesized speech seems to pour horrifically out of their mouths. Given that the show makes the extremely brave decision to let the Cybermen win the ethics debate in this episode, the voices are an important move to make sure we realize just how horrific these people are. Not evil, mind you, but horrific.
Which is a crucial thing about the Cybermen. Wood and Miles have about three solid pages in About Time Volume 2 (available on the spinny widget on the right of the site, and if I haven’t stressed this enough, an absolutely amazing book) about this, but the basic point is that Pedler is extrapolating from a sort of harmful medicine here, combining fears of artificial hearts with anxiety over the use of mood-altering drugs both prescription and recreational and a general ambivalence about artificial goods in general. But he’s not quite choosing to seal the deal, and that’s significant. He could make the Cybermen into the Autons – plastic monsters who are just evil. He doesn’t. Instead, through plasticity and inhumanity, the Cybermen reach a sort of terrible apotheosis. They are at once the best that humans can be and terrifying monsters – a set of anxieties and hopes blended together chaotically.
In the face of these, the Doctor runs into a problem that he’s been having for a while. He starts to drop out of the narrative. He looks out of place in this base. With nobody but a loud American to talk to (and we’ve already talked about how ill-suited the Doctor is to Americans), the Doctor is forced to the perimeter of the plot, with the center being consumed by the Cybermen.
Then comes episode three, and we get what is frankly a happy accident – William Hartnell falls ill, and is abruptly written out of the episode. Not that I don’t like Hartnell. Hartnell is absolutely fantastic. But given that he’s already being pushed to the margins of this story (as he has been for several stories in a row), having him actually drop out entirely is, ironically, the best thing that could happen to his character. When the Doctor is present but sidelined, he appears to be a weak character, but as soon as he is actually removed from the narrative we realize something we haven’t been able to see clearly in some time – we do actually need him.
I said that The War Machines is the second biggest antecedent to this story, and left it deliberately vague what the biggest one is. But since this is the last Hartnell story, there’s never going to be a better time to dust off the Hartnell’s Greatest Hits reel, so let’s go ahead and link to The Chase. You may recall that I created an elaborate interpretation there based on the idea of narrative collapse – i.e. that the Daleks are not merely threatening the lives of the TARDIS crew, they’re threatening the entire ability to tell Doctor Who stories. It’s a very interesting mode of storytelling, and one that Doctor Who is very good at, because it is basically the only mode of fictional storytelling where the stakes in the story are actually stakes that directly impact the audience. If the audience is watching, presumably it is because they like the show they are watching. So if you threaten to destroy not some alien colony or a single character on the show but the very means of storytelling in the show, that’s a real threat.
The problem is, with The Chase, it’s never quite possible to tell whether the narrative collapse reading is a fun deconstruction or what’s actually going on (and I largely suspect it is the former, though it’s a very fun deconstruction and I don’t rule out the latter). But here, that’s absolutely what is going on. The Cybermen represent a completely different form of humanity, and they have a real ability to impose that new vision upon us. It is not merely that they are going to destroy all humans. That would be a scheme that is clearly not going to happen. Rather, it is that they are going to destroy the basic idea of humanity and replace it with something else.
So when the Doctor and his companions are increasingly pushed to the fringes of the story, and then when the Doctor drops out of the story entirely, it’s scary because suddenly it seems like there are no rules. The tension stops being “how will this Doctor Who story turn out” and instead becomes “wait, what sort of story is this?” Again, to a modern viewer, it’s easy to miss this, because we’re so convinced we know what kind of story it is – a Cybermen story and a regeneration story. But 1960s viewers wouldn’t have known this, and as a result, couldn’t possibly have seen it that way.
And suddenly, in amongst all this ratcheting of tension, the Doctor’s collapse highlights just how much the show has quietly thrown overboard. Our characters are in the hands of a psychotic American, humanity is confronting its dark mirror and the dark mirror looks better than us, and, for good measure, something called a Z-Bomb is about to be launched and possibly destroy the entire planet. And then the Cybermen land again, and this time they seem a force of nature, marching with calm relentlessness. (Plus there are so many of them! Seven usable costumes! We never have seven of a Doctor Who monster! There might as well be seventy!)
Again, the present screws us over. We know that the Doctor is absent because an increasingly frail Hartnell fell ill. We know that Hartnell was bullied/eased out of the role over the summer, and that he came back to this as a guest star. We know the entire script was already written to minimize the strain on him. So we view this as an irritation – especially because it means that our last glimpse of Hartnell is a fairly thin scene in episode two, and thus his illness combined with the missing episode four means that we lose out on the end of his tenure. And this becomes part of the overall fan tendency to pretend that Hartnell’s regeneration was being built to over multiple stories.
But as we’ll see shortly, it wasn’t. Yes, there were some murmurings in internal memos that regeneration is simply something that happens ever 500 years or so, but that’s markedly not how it’s written. In fact, let’s go ahead and formally bust this myth that the Hartnell to Troughton transition is arbitrary. Not that it’s the same process as we’ll see in later regenerations – it’s not, largely because it’s not presented as routine. But it is something that happens for a plot-related reason, and that follows specifically from the previous episodes of The Tenth Planet.
So, we’re up to episode four now. And as it opens, crucially, 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.
But here’s where things get interesting. I mentioned way up at the start of the entry that this story has a global scope. One aspect of that was a set that was used as an office in Geneva, allowing people on the opposite side of the world to comment on and weigh in over the action at the Snowcap base. So we have the Snowcap base – the base under siege by Cybermen – and Geneva, the place far away that is commenting on what goes on at Snowcap. And then, suddenly, a Cyberman shows up in Geneva and kills the characters there. It’s a fantastic violation of the rules of the story – because we treated Geneva for so long as a distant location, it seemed safe from the invasion, which was mostly threatening the Snowcap base. So when the Cybermen show up there, it’s a decisive sign that things have gotten very bad.
And from there, the Doctor says and does something truly strange – he, out of nowhere, deduces that the Cybermen are planning on destroying the Earth. There’s little setup for this, and it does not really seem like a rational deduction at all. But it makes sense. Many commentators take this as the point when the Cybermen’s interesting motivations go away and they become generic monsters. It’s not. Quite the contrary, it’s the logical extension of everything we’ve seen. We’ve already been told Mondas is draining the Earth’s power. In other words, Mondas is effectively a vampiric planet. It and Earth are not peacefully coexistent twins, but parasitic twins, and one of them has to consume the other. So when the Cybermen are accused of being bent on destroying the Earth, it’s simply a confirmation that they are the dark mirrors we initially took them for.
But crucially, they don’t actually change their behavior much. They still offer a peaceful resolution in which humanity just gets converted, and we see people who want to take them up on it. It’s only when that’s shot down that Plan B – murder everyone so they survive – comes to the fore. But at the end of the day, this is not a straightforward alien invasion at all. If we read the Cybermen as the qlippothic parodies of humanity, this is simply its natural endpoint. They have ascended, and now it is our turn to follow them.
But what’s really odd is that the Doctor’s re-emergence in the narrative suddenly crumbles. He’s taken off to the Cybermen ship, where he immediately starts to feel the effects of Mondas’s energy drain, fading by the second as his own energy is sapped by the Cybermen. The Cybermen sweep to center stage again, and the plot becomes about Ben’s attempts to hold them off and ensure a stalemate. Which he does, for a while. And then…
Mondas explodes. Pretty much out of nowhere. And the Cybermen explode with it, suddenly becoming withered plastic shells of people (much like they alway were). Humanity is safe, not because it saved itself, but because it lasted long enough that Mondas destroyed itself. The essential conflict between Mondas and Earth, where they are both dark reflections of one another, resolved itself. One world lived, the other died, and that was that. Game over, back to the TARDIS, on to another adventure.
And again, now we complain. The Cybermen just disintegrated. There’s no satisfying resolution. We’ve been cheated. All the good ideas of this story have turned rubbish and disappointing.
Nope. Not at all. Remember, in The Chase, that the Doctor ultimately defeats the Daleks by luck. Eventually the Mechanoids happen by and kill all the Daleks, and he escapes, but at a terrible cost – Ian and Barbara leave him. That’s the same resolution we get here. The Doctor manages to hold on long enough that Mondas takes care of itself. But what’s the cost?
The answer is chilling. When next we see the Doctor, he is, quite simply, dying. Frail, unable to follow what’s going on, and stumbling around, he gathers himself up and says he needs to return to the TARDIS, telling his companions to keep warm. It’s scary. Something is clearly wrong here. The qlippothic energy of Mondas has spared the world, but…
It hasn’t spared the Doctor. He’s been drained too far. Perhaps because he’s old and his body is wearing thin, but this adventure was simply too much for him. Being drained of life energy by a hideous parody of humanity was fatal.
And so when we return to the TARDIS with Ben and Polly, we see something terrifying.
Back in The Chase, we formulated the basic rules of the narrative collapse story. The entire storytelling apparatus of Doctor Who is threatened, then it spontaneously reforms itself, but at some cost. And the cost is this: Doctor Who gets cancelled.
What that means changes from time to time. Certainly the Doctor Who we knew from the first two seasons – the one that did weird, inventive experimental theater, pseudo-Shakespearean comedies, and existentialist drama in rapid succession – went away with Ian and Barbara. But that’s a subtle change to what we get here. We’ve been talking about how the format is changing out from under William Hartnell, and here that becomes inexorable.
And this is part of being a Doctor Who fan. You are absolutely guaranteed to see the show die in front of you, and then get replaced with a strange, different show using the same name. Eventually, everything that Doctor Who is comes to a crashing halt and something new happens instead. Sometimes it’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. But it’s inevitable. It’s why one of the few sections of fandom I get actively angry at are the “bring back David Tennant” crowd. Because, frankly, you only got David Tennant because nine previous versions of the show got cancelled. You knew your turn would come. You don’t get to pull a version of the show other people enjoy away from them and replace it with your own. If you did, we’d bring Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor back.
Yes. The Doctor. Because what is about to happen is not the end of the First Doctor’s tenure. No. It’s the end of the Doctor. William Hartnell only played the First Doctor once, in 1973. Otherwise, he was always simply the Doctor. And what is about to happen is not the replacement of the first version with the second. It’s the replacement of the only version with something completely new.
And we know that the moment Ben and Polly return to the TARDIS, as the Doctor, silently, desperately, flings switches around while other switches flick on and off themselves. And the TARDIS screams. That’s the only way to describe it – harsh, metallic noises unlike anything we’ve seen the ship make. It’s scary. It’s scary in a way not even An Unearthly Child was scary.
And we know why it’s happened. It’s happened because the Doctor came into contact with horrible, qlippothic forces. It happened because the Doctor encountered these horrible, dark parodies of humanity. And the question we have to ask is, what has happened to him? Because suddenly, he collapses. He collapses, and we can see it. In the past, we’ve seen some man in a silly wig fall over from behind. It’s a bit of a joke, spotting the lame Hartnell duplicates. But this is unmistakably William Hartnell crumpled on the ground. The Doctor. Our Doctor. The silly old wizard with a terrible fire within.
Dying on the ground of his magic box, which screams around him.
He doesn’t get last words. He just dies. And we know why. We know full well it is Mondas that destroyed him. That his energy was drained by that monstrous other world. And it’s stark and horrific. It’s the sort of cosmic, psychological horror we associate with Lovecraft – that this dark, qlippothic energy stalks the universe like a cosmological vampire and has now taken our hero away form us.
And as the TARDIS dematerialization sounds, now harsh and mechanical and scary like it hasn’t been for three years, the Doctor fades away, and some new face sits where he used to be.
And here is where our second error happens. Just as we misread the Cybermen, who in fact never reappear after The Tenth Planet, although their name and home planet are recycled for some very silly looking robots, we misread regeneration. We know what happens at the end of this episode, and it’s almost comforting to us – here comes Troughton! He’s fun!
That’s not what we’re watching. Not even a little bit. This is not the rise of the Second Doctor. It is nothing whatsoever except the death of the Doctor. The only Doctor. And we forget that. We forget that the Hartnell era goes out on an astonishingly bleak cliffhanger, that The Tenth Planet feeds directly into The Power of the Daleks a week later, and that all of this is terrifying, not a triumphant moment of the show’s history. We treat this scene as something that ends the book on an era. And it is that, but it is so much more.
Yeah, this entry marks the end of a major period of Doctor Who. When I pack the Hartnell stuff into a book for you all to buy, this is going to be where it ends. (Well, actually it’s going to end with a bonus essay called “Now My Doctor: William Hartnell”) And tomorrow you’re all going to enjoy watching Doctor Who rocket off into a new era. And Monday we’ll be back here popping between realities and coming home in time for tea, and it won’t be until Wednesday that we pick up here.
But for all of that, on Wednesday, this is where we pick up, and it’s going to be important to forget everything you think you know about this show. Because Doctor Who is over. The Doctor is dead. The horrible plastic monsters offering a grotesque parody of spiritual enlightenment have destroyed him, and replaced him with something else, just as they wanted to replace us with them. The operating assumption, given that the Cybermen wanted to help us ascend to be like them, and given that the Cybermen did in fact kill the Doctor, that he is now going to “ascend.” And whatever this terrible, awful man who replaced the Doctor is, the odds are very, very poor that it’s going to be a good thing.