It’s 1986, and the release of “Crocodile Dundee” isn’t the only thing that’s noteworthy. An international space agency has just launched the “Zeus IV” rocket on a routine mission from its base in Antarctica. Afterward the base’s crew are shocked when they spot the Doctor, Ben, and Polly sightseeing the wasteland of Antarctica. They have them brought to the base and detained. The official in charge of the base, General Cutler, wants to interrogate the Doctor, but is distracted by the mission Zeus IV is on, especially once the crew on board spot a brand new yet strangely “familiar” planet that’s near Venus and the ship suffers an abrupt and unexplained loss of power. The Doctor proves his credentials by accurately predicting exactly what the scientists will discover: a planet that resembles Earth, but Cutler is still hostile and skeptical. While the base’s crewmen investigate the TARDIS outside, they are killed by a group of cyborgs who then disguise themselves with the crewmen’s coats.
The Doctor tries to warn the scientists about the danger the crew of Zeus IV are in and about invaders from the twin Earth, but they’re too busy trying to save the ship to listen or notice as the disguised cyborgs effortlessly take over the base. One of the cyborgs explains that his race are the Cybermen. They come from Mondas, a planet that shared Earth’s orbit millions of years ago but some cataclysm caused it to drift into deep space. In order to survive, the surviving human-like Mondasians, the Cybermen’s ancestors, had to use “spare parts for their bodies.” Another improvement made by the Cybermen was in removing all emotions. By threatening to break off all contact with Zeus IV, the Cybermen force the base’s scientists to tell the space agency that nothing unusual is happening at the base even though knowledge of the existence of Mondas has become public and power across Earth is slowly being drained. Ben tries to grab a gun and attack the Cybermen, but only ends up locked in a room. The crew can only talk to the crew of Zeus IV as the ship is pulled into Mondas’ orbit and explodes. The Cybermen coolly explain that what happened to Zeus IV is also happening all over the Earth; Mondas, which has been dying, is draining Earth’s energy, but before the Earth dies the Cybermen will “save” humanity by bringing them to Mondas and converting them into Cybermen. Meanwhile Ben manages to use the equipment in his prison to devise a makeshift weapon which, to his horror, he uses to kill a Cyberman. Still, Ben hands the weapon to General Cutler, who uses it to kill the Cybermen and take back control of the base. Cutler gets into contact with the international space agency in Geneva and learns that they just sent his son on a mission to save the doomed Zeus IV.
The Doctor becomes severely ill, so ill he becomes unconscious. Meanwhile Cutler plans to use the Z-Bomb, a literal “doomsday weapon,” on Mondas, now that a Cybermen invasion force seems to have been launched from Mondas. Even though Cutler’s superiors and one of the base’s scientists, Dr. Barclay, are concerned that blowing up Mondas with the Z-Bomb will cause a wave of radiation that would kill much of Earth’s population and Ben tells Cutler that the Doctor was certain that Mondas would absorb too much energy and become destroyed, Cutler is determined to see Mondas obliterated. Polly convinces Barclay to turn against Cutler and he then tells Ben how to sabotage the Z-Bomb. When the bomb fails to launch, Cutler immediately blames the Doctor, Barclay, and the others. A conscious but still ill Doctor appears and defends Polly and Ben. After one more broadcast reveals that his son’s ship is almost out of power and is drifting toward Mondas, Cutler goes insane and threatens to murder the Doctor. Suddenly Cybermen invade the base again and, when Cutler tries to attack, he is killed. The Doctor tries to warn the Cybermen that Mondas is doomed and offers to let them live on Earth. As a guarantee the Cybermen take Polly hostage and promise to return her once the Z-Bomb is taken underground by Ben and Barclay. The Doctor figures out that the Cybermen really want to use the Z-Bomb to destroy the Earth in order to save Mondas and manages to warn Barclay and Ben about the Cybermen’s real intentions.
Ben figures out that the Cybermen are reluctant to handle the Z-Bomb themselves because they are vulnerable to radiation and tries to threaten the Cybermen with the bomb. In retaliation, the Cybermen take the Doctor hostage. Ben and Barclay use radiation rods taken from the base’s energy core as a weapon against the Cybermen and get a front row seat as Mondas literally disintegrates. This has the handy side effect of killing all the Cybermen on Earth. Ben rescues Polly and the Doctor, who has fallen unconscious again, from the Cybermen’s ship. The Doctor desperately demands that Polly and Ben take him back to the TARDIS “at once.” Polly and Ben are locked out of the TARDIS, but a very weak Doctor barely manages to open the doors. As soon as they reach the console, the Doctor collapses on the floor and his body flashes with light as the TARDIS teleports, leaving behind a younger and seemingly new man.
There are a couple of big ones here; the biggest is that we have William Hartnell, who originated the role, leaving the show and the first regeneration, which is probably the ultimate example of television necessity becoming a major plot point. Naturally the showrunners had no inkling that “Doctor Who” would keep running until the year depicted in the serial and beyond, but they knew they at least had to find a way to work in the Doctor’s replacement. According to interviews, the original idea was that Mondas’ energy drain on Earth had the side effect of causing the Doctor to revert back to youth, but once we had a third Doctor it was retroactively declared that the Doctor regenerated here as well. This does leave open the question of why exactly the Doctor needs to regenerate in this case. Despite the old suggestion, which isn’t conveyed clearly at all on screen, that Mondas itself is the culprit, the usual fan explanation seems to be that the First Doctor simply needed to regenerate due to old age.
The other big one is that it’s the first appearance of the Cybermen, who are undoubtedly second only to the Master and the Daleks in the Doctor’s rogues gallery.
Like quite a few things in this episode, it isn’t made clear, but if you squint your eyes you might see the writers hinting that the Doctor was involved in whatever event threw Mondas out of orbit. At the least you could argue that the episodes show that the Doctor encountered the Cybermen or their Mondasian predecessors before.
The Doctor: “I don’t like your tone, sir!”
Cutler: “And I don’t like your face. Or your hair.”
The Doctor: “Hmph!”
Sign of the Times
Once he realizes that he’s in 1986, Ben asks if people have been to the moon yet. Unfortunately, the answer he gets suggests that expeditions to the moon happen frequently.
During the tense scene where Cutler tries to get the Z-Bomb launched against Mondas, Polly helpfully offers to make coffee for everyone.
Days of Future Past
First off, in 1986 there is a fully functional space base in Antarctica, capable of sending ships to at least the moon. Also there is an international space agency with its headquarters in Geneva. Plus, given that the head of the space agency is Russian and is working well with General Cutler, who is American, the Cold War is apparently long over.
The Last Words of the First Doctor
The Doctor: It’s over, it’s all over. That’s what you said. No, but it isn’t all over. It’s far from being all over! […] I must get back to the TARDIS…immediately! […] I must go now.
Ben: Don’t you want to go back and say goodbye or anything?
Doctor: No, no, I must go at once.
Ben (handing the Doctor his cloak): Oh well. Better wear this or you’ll catch your death of cold.
Doctor: Oh yes. I forgot…keep warm.
To be honest I never really liked the Cybermen. They just seemed like a reiteration of the emotionless, psychotically pragmatic Daleks. Still, I was pleasantly surprised with these episodes. Somehow the Cybermen are more effective in their most primitive form in ’60s sci-fi glory, with simply distorted and silly yet vaguely menacing voices, still recognizably human mouths and eyes, surgical bandages wrapped around their heads instead of sleek helmets, and unrecognizable, chaotic mounds of metal and plastic on their chests. It really drives home the idea of these as designer cyborgs, created not methodically but by a desperate people looking down at darkly slim odds of basic survival. Also I have to admit they got quite a nice introduction. When Polly asks them why they don’t care about the lives on Zeus IV, one Cyberman simply retorts that “there are people dying all over your world right now and you do not care about them.”
As for the story itself, it is sublimely ridiculous, even by ’60s “Doctor Who” standards, from digging up the old idea of there being a Counter-Earth to the weird idea that Mondas is somehow draining power from Earth to the unexplained plot holes (like how and why Mondas came back into Earth’s orbit in the first place). Admittedly it’s a bit much, especially if you have a low tolerance for camp, but the whole serial just captures the very essence of a ’60s sci-fi film so well it almost feels like you’re watching something that came out of a young Roger Corman’s studio. The impression is definitely sealed by the inclusion of General Cutler, who represents one of sci-fi’s most beloved tropes, the barking military man. The fact that he’s basically a bundle of American stereotypes naturally makes him even more fun to watch. I simply enjoyed this one, and it probably does the best job of tapping into a cinematic atmosphere since “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.”
Now I just have to talk about the First Doctor’s final appearance (well, sort of, but we’ll get to all that). I plan to write up a retrospective on the First Doctor era, but I have to say I am disappointed that William Hartnell didn’t get more of a send-off. I suppose, if the stories about Hartnell’s health problems are true, it was inevitable, and a quiet, subtle close to the First Doctor’s era does fit it best. However, Hartnell’s Doctor always worked best when he was facing off against a rival mastermind, as in “The Time Meddler,” “The Celestial Toymaker,” or, in a way, “Marco Polo,” or when simply poking around and getting into trouble in some alien or historical milieu. In action-oriented stories of alien invasions like this, which seem to belong more to the Pewtree era or even to the coming Troughton era, Hartnell was a bit more out of place. So while it is nice that the Hartnell took a bow on a strong note, especially after a couple of mostly lacking seasons, it did leave me with the feeling that the “real” end of Hartnell’s time on the show had already long passed. Nonetheless, even if it is mostly from hindsight, there was something rather sad, and very appropriate, in the First Doctor’s muddled last words.