Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), Polly Wright (Anneke Wills)
It is 1986 (the future, at the time) and the International Space Command is trying to manage an orbital launch of the Zeus II capsule and its astronauts from the Antarctica ‘Snowcap’ base… when a Police Box appears out of nowhere, expelling three passengers, and sending the secure military base into an uproar. General Cutler, the commanding officer, interrogates the newcomers, but is soon distracted as an unknown force is buffeting the Zeus II, heralding the arrival of a new bright point in the sky… the planet Mondas, which appears to be nearly identical to Earth, except for being upside-down (which is 60s hokum, since up and down are rather meaningless in space anyway). The Doctor has predicted these events in advance, for he already knows what occurs on this historical date…
The base is invaded by Cybermen, metallic beings from Mondas- cyborgs who have transferred their living minds into machines- losing their emotions and humanity in the process- in order to survive harsh conditions. They take captive all of the humans, who are forced to watch helplessly as the Zeus IV is destroyed by the gravitational forces of Mondas and Earth’s interaction. (Note from Sarah: I get that it's all about survival, but I do think it's funny the lengths people will go to survive in Sci-fi when they won't even realize they are surviving in the first place really, I just wonder what the point is.) Ben is imprisoned in the projection room for the base’s theater, and the Cybermen reveal their intentions- Mondas is dying, having left its orbit and flown all around the galaxy, expending its energy… now, they have returned to their solar system of origin, and they intend to leach the energy from their compatible sister planet (Mondas once shared our orbit, on the other side of the Sun from us), destroying Earth in the process. But the Cybermen are not entirely heartless (Well… yes, they are, actually, in every sense of the word…), and offer the humans survival via coming to Mondas and being made into Cybermen.
Ben uses the projector in his room to blind and overpower a Cyberman, stealing his weapon (which is also, ironically, a light. Say, you don’t think Steven’s bright idea to replace the life-force-draining-of-cavemen was Cybernetic implants, do you? We never learned the time or place of The Savages… it could well have been pre-historic Mondas!) and is forced to kill him with it when the Cyberman attacks, a decision he deeply regrets. It does, however, earn him kudos from General Cutler- using the stolen weapon, they slay the occupying Cybermen. Cutler has bigger concerns, though- before the Zeus IV’s destruction, a rescue capsule was launched… the volunteer being Cutler’s son, Lieutenant Terry Cutler, whose capsule, the Zeus V, is now threatened with the same destruction that the Zeus IV fell to.
Cutler plans to launch the powerful and deadly Z–bomb at Mondas, hoping that the doomsday weapon could obliterate Mondas with its incredible explosive power- millions of times that of an atomic bomb. However, the resulting radiation at this range would likely sterilize whichever half of the Earth was facing it, killing untold billions. The Doctor urges patience, insisting that Mondas is not prepared for the power it is draining, and will overload itself and burn out, returning the energy to Earth- they will cause their own destruction. However, as he tries to press the issue, the Doctor collapses of exhaustion- the energy drain from Mondas also slowly draining away his life-force (NFS: Why...exactly does it do that? How is he connected to Mondas...that's silly.). As Polly looks after the Doctor, Ben looks towards stopping the launch of the Z-bomb, which Cutler- disobeying orders and slowly descending into madness out of fear for his son- intends to launch, needlessly (if the Doctor is correct) killing billions. Sympathetic Doctor Barclay, another member of the Antarctic base who does not want global genocide, helps Ben, telling him how to disable the Z-bomb rocket, which is housed on-base (!). Ben is found by Cutler, attacked, and imprisoned before he can complete his task.
More Cybermen land, and are annihilated by the captured weapons. The countdown for the Z-bomb commences as the Doctor and Ben awaken, and can only watch in trepidation… (This was an excellent cliffhanger, by the by!)
The Rocket fails to launch- Ben’s sabotage was far enough along to prevent it before he was interrupted. (NFS: COP...out.) Cutler goes insane- also believing his son to be dead- and prepares to kill the ‘traitors’- but a third Cybermen invasion hits the base, and Cutler is killed. The Doctor and Polly are taken prisoner, led to the Cybership to be converted into Cybermen themselves…
Mondas gorges itself and doesn’t feel so hot afterwards, breaking up and burning out, just as the Doctor predicted. The Cybermen, deprived of the energy provided by Mondas that powers them, collapse, inert and dead. The Zeus V is guided home (where Lieutenant Terry Cutler will find out that his mission failed, his colleagues died in space, and his father was just killed… poor kid! Like Spider-man’s John Jameson, it’s not his fault that his dad’s a jerk, but life keeps sucking for him because he acts heroically… And don’t even get me started on what Mary Jane does to him in Spider-man 2…!)
Ben leaves the base to go and rescue the Doctor and Polly, but the Doctor is weak to the point of collapse again, babbling and feverish, his life leached away by Mondas and his old body failing him… he stumbles into the TARDIS one last time, de-materializing the ship, and collapses to the floor. As Ben and Polly watch, his features glow, then emit a blinding light… and fade away to reveal the features of a younger, different face. (NFS: Plus hotter. :-D)
You can't be this stupid on purpose. It takes effort to fail so heavily. The one missing episode of this serial IS THE FIRST EVER REGENERATION EPISODE?!?!?!
That said, this is an interesting serial with an interesting set of guest characters. While the future predictions are problematic (yup, we just landed a man on the moon for the first time... in 1986! Hardly Star Trek’s prophetic Moon Landing date prediction, here…) and the sci-fi plot is questionable (see, the upside-down Earth duplicate that used to share our orbit flew off into space, ran out of energy, converted its people into emotionless cyborgs, and now it's back to somehow suck our energy into them, only they botched it and it's gonna blow up their planet anyway, we just have to wait for it... what, why are you looking at me like that?), the story- and the setting- remain interesting, more a thriller about a doomsday missile launch a la Crimson Tide (with bookending Cybermen-invade-the-base opening and closing) than anything, with Mondas and all of its questionable backstory as one great big inhabitable Macguffin.
Okay, so the general was a little nutso- but as the Tenth Doctor's (and probably many others) era would prove, if Who is going to show the military (except in WWII, because even hippie-peacenick-military-haters can't badmouth WWII), they're going to be stereotyped blood-hungry, violent cardboard cutouts that kill because THEY ENJOY IT.
By that standard, this guy is practically nuanced.
Meanwhile, the lead scientist is a multi-dimensional character and sometime-ally with fears and foibles all his own.
The Cybermen are well-played, with a good design (well, minus those ski-masks), an excellent voice, and a good, very chilling, efficient, emotionless characterization- going about their pre-planned business even as everyone around them is asking agitated questions- pausing just long enough to answer and then returning to their business. While a few times they slipped and seemed a little too 'human'- such as the Cyberman lured into to Ben's projector trap- overall, they came across very strongly, making an excellent first impression (one that would sadly not last, as they were rather a joke by the 7th Doctor's time, I think- now considered second-fiddled low-rent alternatives to the Daleks- which their inferior physical strength vs. the Daleks in the new series hasn't helped. However, at this time of their introduction, they are quite the equal to the Deadly Pepperpots, and... dare I say it? ...A good deal more nuanced, better characterized, and to me, more menacing than their more famous, less limbed, extermination-obsessed cousins in villainy. (NFS: Plus they have a cooler backstory)) and a strong villain- even if, surprisingly, this story is really more about the human villains and a prolonged battle of wits- with the Cybermen serving more as the driving force than the primary antagonist, save for bookending invasions.
The notion of a planet on the other side of the sun, exactly in our orbit but always with the sun in between us and them so that neither knows the other exists, has been a part of science fiction since it was first written by Sir Philip of Bristolshire in the trenches of the third crusade in 1188 A.D. (though all film portrayals of Sir Philip since the 1990s have, of course, portrayed Philip as a condescending, ignorant war-monger who stole the concept from the noble and peace-loving Turks and their advanced culture.) Regardless, it’s yet another sci-fi convention that has been around since before the dawn of sci-fi, is older than dirt, and yet again is used by Doctor Who as a setting for their story instead of the story itself. This is a talent of Doctor Who (as I will again note in 'The Macra Terror' when we get there)- they take hoary old sci-fi clichés, but they don’t use them as a story, they just use them as an element of the story, a familiar convention that’s been done to death a backdrop for the story to play out against, building on it and expanding upon it. And at least this planet-on-the-other-side-of-the-sun story is FAR less depressing than “The Planet On The Other Side Of The Sun”- even WITH the rampant deaths and the loss of Hartnell.
Man, that was one depressing movie.
As for the characters…
Polly... makes coffee. In fact, she isn't even told to by some condescending military man who doesn't realize what she has to contribute to the situation... she offers to.
That's about it. (NFS: wellll....she looks after the Doctor too...I mean...that's something right?)
Ben is pretty much the protagonist. An active, kicking-tail-and-taking-names, bomb-sabotaging, gun-stealing, film-projector-weaponizing type of protagonist who really has an extremely strong showing- and his military training and youthful energy are contrasted well with his remorse for having been forced to kill... if that had been an attempt to show a 3-dimensional military man instead of the more likely oh-yeah-we-forgot-he-was-in-the-navy-this-is-just-what-companions-do scenario, I'd be impressed. Either way, Ben gets about as much action and development in this serial as some companions got in their whole run- heck, more-so than Susan or Dodo! (NFS: Was that supposed to be a joke??? A dead Quark gets more action than Susan or Dodo!)
The Doctor doesn't have much to do, at times- an intentional writing bit to account for Hartnell's failing health and the possibility of his unavailability- one seen in action by his collapse and absence from the third episode... which, factoring the forthcoming regeneration, could have been more smoothly incorporated as foreshadowing. Regardless, this sudden 3rd-episode-absence renders the story a bit uneven and confused. Even so, the Doctor remains strong and principled, and a stalwart presence in his final serial, even if he is less of an active story component than usual.
And that brings us to the regeneration itself. For the first time, the Doctor has regenerated- and the face that we, Ben, and Polly know and love will never- save for crossovers- be seen again.
The foreshadowing is not there the way it ought to be, and the reasoning (since clarified to be the energy drain from Mondas affecting him coupled with weakening by exposure to the Time Destructor (The Daleks Master Plan) and a life-force drain (The Savages)) is not especially clear. And the loss- due to filming schedules- of Hartnell's dramatic final line- "I shall not give in... I shall never give in!" is unfortunate. (NFS: Oh...so that's how they explain him losing energy-okay) It would have been a GREAT line.
Yet, for all of those flaws... it is a powerful moment! A throbbing, powerful soundtrack that doesn't descend into cacophony, a building inter-cutting of shots that comes through even in the stills version, and a sense of mystery, coupled with the tragic-yet-hopeful (to those of us in retrospect that know what's happening, of course!) prone form of Hartnell on the TARDIS floor all combine to make the first regeneration a tour-de-force powerhouse even in its fragmentary state, a testament to the excellent work that went into crafting this historic television moment! It is a worthy handoff, a sterling sendoff, and a tragic farewell to a beloved actor all at the same time- it exceeded my expectations, and was all that anyone could ever ask for to usher in the era of Patrick Troughton. And it is also farewell to the first, the original, the only William Hartnell, the Doctor, a beloved figure and an iconic originator.
And as to the reconstruction... much as its necessity galls me, it is very well-constructed, shrunk to 3/4 screen size and shown atop an ever-moving radar screen (an element from the episode) that gradually and subtly changes color- it gives a needed sense of motion and variety which helps to spice up the plentiful stills. The regeneration itself exists as video only for the face-fading shot itself (a happy accident of overexposure inspiring the video editor to use this technique- otherwise, we would have had the far less powerful, ultra-cheesy, not-fitting-at-all ending of Hartnell collapsing face-down with his cloak over him, and the cloak being lifted to reveal Troughton at the beginning of the next serial)- but again, the reconstruction is expertly edited- along with the soundtrack, while the loss of motion video is unfortunate... you hardly miss it.
Though it doesn't feature the photo-trickery or CGI Daleks or manipulated elements that some other reconstructions have had, this one's style makes it top-notch.
(As an aside, for those interested there is also an excellent 3D-model reconstruction available on Youtube.)
The Regeneration – a cliché choice, but oh-so-true! The first appearance of the Cybermen is pretty classic, too.
4 out of 5 Deadman's Keys to this serial- lowered to 3 by the uneven tone, but raised to 4 simply on the strength of that fantastic regeneration and the excellent Cyberman origin episode- and 5 out of 5 for the polished reconstruction.
(NFS: Can I just say I am so excited to be going into the Patrick Troughton era??? I will probably have a lot more to say on those!)