“Come to Mondas and you will have no need of emotions. You will become like us.” – Cyberman
A very important story for introducing the Cybermen and the concept of regeneration but unfortunately not the most exciting one. The plot could actually have been a very tense one if the storyline and direction were tweaked a bit—all the elements are there for a good ‘base under siege’ story. (These would pretty much come to rule the show during the Troughton’s reign so it’s interesting, therefore, that it comes in at the end of the Hartnell era.) Yet the moments when the Cyberman are massing at the door are not built up—they simply walk in and the actors are left to signal a sense of confusion instead by all yelling and talking at once. Our worry for the fate of the astronauts is undercut by slow pacing and miscast actors (hard take the danger seriously when the supposed ace pilot sounds and talks like a teen character from “My Three Sons”.) Also, we’re already told the ultimate conclusion halfway through the story that Mondas will absorb too much energy and explode, so it doesn’t come across as the last minute salvation that it is presented as.
All that said, I saw many elements on this viewing that I hadn’t noticed before. Like how many times the Doctor sees through the Cybermen’s plans through pure reason—from seeing through their ruse of invincibility to especially how, upon hearing them use the word ‘evacuate’, he immediately connects the dots and knows that their request to deactivate the warhead by moving it below ground is just a trick to get it to a level where detonation will destroy the Earth. It’s also interesting that he already knows about the appearance of Mondas and the arrival of the Cybermen—presumably from a knowledge of history from future earth. (But the show missteps having the leaders ask the Doctor to explain things before having reason to trust him and the Doctor having to tell them to look at the note he wrote about it to confirm. It would have been much more effective for them to see the planet on their own, discover to their amazement that he had already written about it, and thus suddenly come to his in recognizing his authority.)
Even though the costumes of the first wave of Cybermen leave much to be desired (amazing that the new series brought them back!), this is one of the few stories that show them as not cruel but just callous due to emotionless logic. (To Polly’s questioning of their lack of concern for the dying astronauts, the one honestly replies “I do not understand you. There are people dying all over your world yet you do not care about them.”) The process of how a planet can ‘absorb’ energy or how the Cyberman can simply fall apart without their planet is not explained which does make things a little murky.
Even murkier is the Doctor suddenly going under the weather (due to a real illness by Bill Hartnell). Ben and Polly have to step in and carry the third episode. They do start to take on their familiar roles: Ben is a rash and headstrong action-taker; Polly is over-emotional but quick to think and use her ability to win over others. It’s nice that the rest of the crew are shown to be quite an international bunch even if it is signaled in some rather stereotypical ways. (It’s hard to believe they get away with introducing us to obviously woman-crazy Italian Tito by panning from his barracks wall full of pinups!) Other reviews have already pointed out that Barclay is a bit of a cartoon and it’s unbelievable that someone that high up would be so irresponsible in protecting a family member. I do have to smile broadly at Ben’s line when finding nothing but tools to use as weapons: “Oh, I can just imagine trying to tackle one of them geezers with a screwdriver.” How prescient for the future of the show indeed!
And so we come to the end of the time of the first Doctor. It’s unexplained what’s happening beyond an “outside influence” (presumably Mondas drawing of power affects the energy of the Doctor just as much as the spaceship power cells [perhaps his Time Lord energy was crucial to the overload that destroyed the planet?]) and that the Doctor’s body is “wearing a bit thin”. Hartnell is either tired or plays it very well because you can hear a heaviness and slowness of age in his final conversation with Ben and Polly. We only have a dim, flickering version of his last moments at the controls but it does build the tension well—and thank goodness we have the actual regeneration scene itself well preserved (thank you Blue Peter!). How great that they used what was a rather innovative technique for the time of turning up the white contrast into a blinding peak, thereby making the unexplained change that much eerier and fitting with the importance regeneration would later hold in the series.
Best unsettling moments:
It should be that the death of the pilots in the spaceships is horrifying, but it’s played out so slow and dispassionately that it lacks impact. Instead, I find the brief sight of poor silly Tito lying dead under the quickly burying snow to be much more disturbing.
- Earth base under siege
- Multi-national crew (many more to come in the Troughton era—but the women are still secretaries!)
- As the secretary general points out, Earth’s “first interplanetary war”
I wish Hartnell’s last story had been stronger as noted above—it’s especially sad that illness kept him sidelined for a lot of it. Unfortunately, the first Doctor loses his chance to shine in the third episode when much of his plan is put into play because of Hartnell’s absence. They try their best to keep him at the forefront (with Ben saying lines like “The Doctor said…”) but really it lacks his presence.