blogger_who (blogger_who) wrote,

Doctor Who: The Web Planet (TV Serial N)

Blurb: A mysterious force pulls the TARDIS off course, stranding the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki on the alien world of Vortis. A fierce battle is raging between the moth-like Menoptra and giant insects known as the Zarbi. But what is the dark secret that hides at the center of the Zarbi's lair.

Format: Television drama transmitted from February 13, 1965 - March 20, 1965. Released on DVD September 5, 2006.

Setting: The planet Vortis in the Isop galaxy, date unknown. Lance Parkin's AHistory gives the date as circa 20,000 AD, since this is the date given by the novelization, which was written by the author of this story. However, the televised story does not list a date. Based on the fact that the Animus states that it wants to take mastery of space from man, this would need to be some time after the development of intergalactic travel, so sometime after 4000 AD makes sense and 20,000 AD would be consistent with that. However, the Animus never mentions this until it has started draining Vicki's intelligence, so it may just be reading from her that humanity has a vast galactic empire in her time and may assume that is in its own galaxy. If that's true than any date could be possible.

Continuity: Ian is wearing his Coal Hill School tie, which gets dipped in acid in this story (see An Unearthly Child). Barbara mentions to Vicki that she was in Rome and tells her that she got her golden bracelet from Nero (see The Romans). The Doctor returns to Vortis in his second incarnation (see the novel Twilight of the Gods).

DVD: In addition to the normal commentary, this DVD comes with a nice making-of featurette. There are a few other very basic featurettes about spinoffs on this story, but not much else. The subtitles are particularly bad. The Doctor says "now then" to Barbara and the subtitle shows up as "darling". Then when the Doctor says "obey" it becomes "okay" something that any Doctor Who fan would know that the first Doctor would never say (see The Ark). "Forces" becomes "bosses". More understandably "how" becomes "now" and "Isoptope" becomes "isotope". They also have a problem with the Optera's name for the Animus, Pwodarauk. Instead the subtitle reads "Poidirac".

Discussion: The Web Planet may be one of the most controversial stories ever in the anals of Doctor Who. It's true that every story in Doctor Who has its fans and detractors. Yet usually there's a majority consensus opinion that a particular story is either good, bad, or middle of the road. Yet, the Web Planet has shown in online polls to have all three of those opinions in about a tie. The Web Planet tried to achieve a scope and grandeur that no other story in Doctor Who ever has. It created an entire alien world where the regulars were the only humans on hand. The ability to enjoy this story seems to come from how much you can put aside the difficulties associated with such a vision and just enjoy it for the story and for the sheer conceit of what they tried to pull off.

They really do try and go for broke on this one. The planet Vortis is realized as a giant moon-like landscape. There are jagged rocks, caves, pools of acid, an impressive starscape, giant buildings, and a great web woven across the land. The creators try and give this an even more special look by using special lenses that create a blur effect on the lens making it appear as if we're looking at the travelers through an unusual atmosphere. The overall effect is actually quite good and is only ruined by the fact that no one seems to have noticed that they keep putting the characters to close to the walls, so that they cast their shadows on the painted backdrop. The forced perspective of the wall paintings is actually quite good and would have gone unnoticed if not for that. Still, back in the 60's and viewed on transmissions over the airwaves it probably would not have been anywhere near as noticeable. The Animus' lair also looks pretty good although it is unfortunate that they could not have made it seem more weblike in construction. I also like the dead husk that Ian puts his foot in. It's disgusting and creepy but at the same time is fitting for this place that is having its life sucked out of it. The music is also pretty good, making strange unearthly sounds and trying to convey more of that sense of "other" and putting the viewers ill at ease.

The alien design is another area where they shot high. The Menoptra are a race of humanoid moths (although to me they look more like bees) that have been driven from Vortis by the Animus, which has taken control of the normally cowlike and placid Zarbi. The Menoptra design is really good but their realization is hurt by the fact that someone decided that like insects they should use movement as well as speech to convey meaning. The show hired a special choreographer to play one of the chief Menoptra, Vrestin. From there on we get a lot of speech accompanied by strange dancing, hissing, and hand gestures. I showed this story to a friend of mine's wife once and she just made fun of it through the whole thing and the performance of the Menoptra was something that she was particularly vicious with. Tedious...would be kind of an understatement there. On the upside, their wings are made to actually extend and some wirework is done in this story. The Menoptra in flight actually look fairly decent, so although we see very little of that what we do see is pretty solid. The other major race are the Zarbi. I like their design, which really conveys the concept of an ant. The problem is that they look so impractical with all their weight on their hind legs but hunched over so it looks like they could never get up if you pushed them to the side. Their large size and the studios cramped with locations results in an embarrassing accident at one point as one of the Zarbi knocks into the camera. The fact that this was left in tells you that this story was already overrunning and had its fill of cuts. I do like that the Zarbi can't talk and instead communicate through a series of high pitched sounds that kind of feels right for an insect. The larvae guns seem bizarre and probably work the least of any of the creatures. It's always apparent that their legs aren't really touching the ground although the idea of an insect which shoots an energy blast of some kind is certainly inventive. The Optera are the subterranean cousins of the Menoptra and appear to be caterpillars. Their costumes were somewhat rushed and it's hard not to use the word "plush" when describing them as they appear to be made from the same material as stuffed animals. Their speech is actually quite neat because even though they speak in many ways in the stereotypical stilted caveman speech, there's also some neat concept work at play. They talk about making "mouths" in a wall so that it "speaks light" which is their way of referring to tunneling. The other creature is a singular. It's the Animus. The animus is a spider-like creature that sucks the water and possibly other things from a planet. It's said that it can absorb a culture and it tries to drain the minds of the Doctor and Vicki in this story. The Animus has many more legs than a spider and it has telepathic powers to control the Zarbi or any being in contact with gold. The Animus looks ok although it could have looked more spiderlike for my taste. The real great part about it is the amazing voicework by Catherine Fleming, which gives it this softly androgynous, soft-spoken tone that has a hint of menace behind it. It's performed very well and I really like what she does with it.

The regulars are all over the place here. Hartnell apparently wasn't feeling well while this one was being made and it seems like he can't get a single line out correctly in episode two. Ian seems baffled half the time that the Doctor talks to him as he's clearly going off script. One time William Russell has to go so far as to prompt the Doctor for the next line "what galaxy is planet in, Doctor?" as if it's something that Ian asks all the time. Russell also seems to be phoning in his performance. In one particularly dramatic scene he's supposed to watch in horror as one of the Optera sacrifices its life to save the others by shoving its head into a hole in the wall that is leaking acid. Now this already raises the question of why the acid doesn't just eat through the optera and come pouring out anyway, but putting that aside we just have William Russell staring blankly into space. Some commentators have said that you can almost see the moment in this story when he decided that he'll want to leave the show. Barbara is great in this one and even though she takes a vacation for one episode they do a great job of hiding it by having her as a prisoner in that one so there's no requirement for her to appear. I really like that when she comes out of a hypnotic daze and first sees the Menoptra that she doesn't scream. It shows how far they've come as travelers and it also is a subtle way of showing her strength by showing that she can take in the truly alien environments and they don't terrify her. In contrast to Ian, her look of shock and horror as one of the Menoptra has its wings torn off its body is suitably horrified and I think that she does a good job of investing the necessary believability into the scene. I also like how when the Menoptra ask her if the Doctor would help the Animus that despite her protests she looks worried. It's such a wonderful nuance that she fears the mercurial Doctor of old who'd do anything to get his ship back while also trying to deny to herself that he'd really do such a thing. Maureen O'Brien also comes into her own here. I love her conversation with Barbara in the TARDIS in episode one and her complaints about our 20th century medicine being like witch doctoring to her. Then when she complains about having to do a whole hour of schoolwork every week and Barbara's incredulous expression it's hilarious. I also like that she continues her habit of taking on alien pets by naming their enthralled Zarbi, "Zarbo". She seems to be really enjoying the adventure and her enthusiasm helps to ride out what would otherwise be some really tiresome scenes. Of the guest cast, only Joylon Booth who plays the Menoptra, Prapillus, is really worthy of note. Of all the Menoptra he gives the part the most verisimilitude and I really like his portrayal as a wise and thoughtful member of his race.

There's a lot of neat ideas here. The idea of the Animus slowly sucking a planet dry like a parasite is a neat one and it's no mistake that its lair is called The Carsinome. I like the idea that like a spider it has its prey come to it and that by harnessing the forces of a planet it can attract other worlds to itself. I also like how the Menoptra know that if they stay on one of these smaller satellite worlds of Vortis that they will become weak as their bodies and wings atrophy from the lower gravity. There's a wonderful scene when they first encounter the Zarbi and the Doctor tries communicating with them with hand gestures. It makes so much sense and he does it with such conviction that its lovely to watch although it ultimately fails to do anything. There's this whole idea that as aliens the Menoptra can't pronounce the characters' names properly so Ian becomes "Heron" and "Barbara" becomes "Abara". There's a scene in episode 4 where they have to kill one of the larvae guns. The characters pick it up and smash it across a wall and then scrape it down like when you have to scrub your shoe against a rock to get an insect off the bottom of it. It's so gross in context and so beautifully done that I really liked it. I also liked how the Optera has another name for the Animus. I also think that the idea of being devoured and having not only your body but your mind being digested is a suitably horrible one and while the idea comes up again in science fiction this is a pretty neat first instance of it.

Then there's the stuff that doesn't make sense. Why does the TARDIS console spin when under the control of the Animus? In the Edge of Destruction the Doctor seems to think that it holds down the entire power of the ship and that if it slipped it'd leak out and destroy them all. Here it spins like a top and even slides around the room. What the heck is going on? Is this some sort of prop room? Episode four begins with Ian and Vrestin falling through the ground and possibly to their deaths. Yet you can hear Barbara laughing pretty loudly even though she's not in the scene. The story expects us to believe that the Animus forced some Menoptra underground who weren't able to flee to Pictos and that these eventually evolved into the Optera. Yet, the Animus has only been on Vortis for about one hundred years and that is nowhere near enough time for these guys to change into a whole other species.

Final Rating: 5/10

Recommendation: You really have to admire what they tried to do here. The Web Planet is full of high concept and you get some great stuff from the regulars. Yet the whole thing is very uneven with a lot of poor planning, mistakes, bad costumes, and unfortunate performances that make you cringe as you're watching it. Yet even that wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't so tediously dull. The story moves at a snails' pace and you really feel like the whole thing could have been made into a tighter four parter by removing a lot of the unnecessary action. I give it some credit for the stuff that it got right and for being just a truly ambitious piece of work but you can definitely skip it.
Tags: an unearthly child, ark, barbara wright, bill strutton, doctor who, edge of destruction, first doctor, ian chesterton, jacqueline hill, maureen o'brien, romans, season 2, tv series, twilight of the gods, vicki pallister, web planet, william hartnell, william russell

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