Doctor Who – The Web Planet Review (or ‘A Case of Style Over Substance’)

With there being so many Doctor Who episodes from the Hartnell and Troughton eras missing, you often get the feeling some of the lost ones develop a mystique and reputation they perhaps don’t deserve. A good example would be Tomb of the Cybermen, which – while a classic in its own right – was considered to be the Holy Grail of Doctor Who before it was rediscovered in the early 90s. It just couldn’t live up to how good people said it was.

So it makes me wonder; which stories that do exist would be remembered as better than they are if they were lost to the BBC Archives?

The Krotons is an obvious example. If all that survived were a few photos of the Krotons taken at the right angle (i.e. from the waist up) those who watched it at the time would tell people of these amazing crystalline monsters – a triumph of design and something to scare children everywhere.

But the one that stands out for me here is The Web Planet – The only story in the history of the programme set in a completely alien world with no humanoid characters at all, out-with the main cast!!!

The Doctor & Ian in their Space Anoraks. As you can see, the vaseline works a treat to get an alien ‘glow’

Giant Ants!!!!!!

Giant butterfly men who would fly around the studio!!!!!!!!

A wonderful planet set with amazing use of the camera to make it look like they really are in space!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Martin Jarvis as a Menoptra!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Without question, if this story didn’t exist, people would authoritatively say it was a classic. End of story.

Of course, style doesn’t always equal substance…

Doctor Who – The Web Planet Review: What’s This One About?

Following directly on from the end of the Romans, the TARDIS has been forced down onto Vortis – a barren and dead looking world where pools of acid replace water and oxygen is in short supply.

While the Doctor and Ian go out to investigate what is keeping the TARDIS from taking off again, Barbara ends up under the influence of a mysterious force that puts her into a zombie-like trance and controls her through the gold bracelet she was given by Nero in the previous story. As a result, Vicki is left alone inside the TARDIS.

But she’s not safe there as a colony of giant ants (The Zarbi) have found it and have taken it to the control room of a giant living organism known as The Carsinome.

The Optera costumes have had a lot of work gone into them, but I think they look cheap.

Soon, the Doctor and Ian are also captured by the Zarbi and taken to the Carsinome where the disembodied voice of the evil Animus speaks to the Doctor through a headset that descends from the roof.

While this is going on, Barbara is rescued from walking into a pool of acid by a gang of giant butterflies (The Menoptra) but soon both she and her insect friends are taken prisoner by the Zarbi and their Larvae Guns (half beetle/half gun) and imprisoned in the mysterious Crater of Needles. While there, they plan to escape and to take down the Animus once and for all.

Meanwhile, back at The Carsinome, the Animus has instructed the Doctor to find out about the Menoptra Invasion plans using the TARDIS’s astral map (in truth, Vortis belongs to the Menoptra but has been taken over by the Animus, who has sucked all the life out of the planet and turned the usually harmless Zarbi and Larvae into his soldiers through mind control). While he does this, Ian manages to escape to try and find Barbara. He teams up with a female Menoptra called Vrestin, but along the way they are attacked by Zarbi and forced down into an underground tunnel.

While there, they come across the Optera – wingless descendants of the Menoptra who have evolved to live underground and worship the Menoptra like Gods.

Much like the Daleks Invasion of Earth, where all roads led to Bedfordshire and the Daleks mine-works, in this story the Doctor, Ian and Barbara, and their associated parties all – one way or the other – converge upon the Centre of the Carsinome by the end of Episode 6 where they put a stop to it once and for all.

Sounds exciting doesn’t it?

Appearances can be deceptive.

Thoughts

The Good – Episode 1

There it is folks, the Phallic Web Gun

I love episode 1 of this story – it clearly sets out to be different from anything they’ve tried up until this point. For the first time, an outside force has interfered with the TARDIS, and for the first time they’ve landed on an alien planet where oxygen isn’t available in abundance so they have to wear protective clothing when they go outside (Mega Anoraks!). For the viewer, there must have been a real sense of something unique going on.

We learn more about how the TARDIS operates, we see more of it and there’s also time for some character development for Vicki. I also like the scene where Barbara finally gets the chance to explain to her that she and Ian went to Rome as well in the previous story. Usually Doctor Who stories work in a way where the events of the previous adventure are forgotten almost immediately, so I found that refreshing.

Ian and the Doctor get some good lines in too, and their exploration outside the ship combines a little bit of humour (the Doctor thinking Ian was doing a magic trick with his pen when it disappeared) with more of that uncertainty about the situation (the weird echo that comes back onto them when they raise their voices).

And there’s a great bit of direction where the Doctor and Ian march towards the camera in a business-like manner as if they were the Sweeney.

Finally, it’s got a terrific cliffhanger. It isn’t made obvious that the Zarbi have taken the TARDIS, and it looks as though Vicki may have taken off without her companions, so the first time viewer probably shared the Doctor’s shock when he sees that it has disappeared.

The Bad – Plot and Pacing (Specifically Episodes 4-6)

While my description of the plot might sound exciting, I suspect what makes it so is the thought of the concept behind it – giant ants, giant butterflies, a disembodied alien intelligence, pools of acid, an alien world and no humanoid

Triple H and the famous backstage skit from Vortis

characters at all.

However, if you were to replace the ants with soldiers, the butterflies with a young band of oppressed rebels, the alien world with an Earth Colony and the disembodied alien voice with a fat bloke who would bark orders at the Doctor, then you’ve got any number of bland Doctor Who stories that we’ve had to suffer throughout the show’s history – but six episodes long instead of the usual four.

Six episodes is just too long. Apart from Ian & Vrestin discovering the Optera (which happens in episode 4), everything I’ve written about in the summary above happens in the first three episodes. In fairness to them, those three episodes are good – especially the first one as I’ve said – but then it slows down to a glacial pace for the last three. From then on it’s just scenes with Ian & Vrestin talking to the Optera, The Doctor talking to the Animus, Vicki occasionally getting put in a trance by the Zarbi and Barbara & the Menoptra standing around saying they need to do something.

I’ve watched the story quite a few times in my life, but I still couldn’t tell you how the plot advances in Episode 4 compared to 5 or 6. I think the only thing I remember for sure is that at some point there is the cringe-worthy scene where the Menoptra start yelping ‘Zaaaaaaaaaaaaaarbiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-iiiiiiiiiiii” and acting like matadors.

It would have worked so much better if they’d truncated the plot of episodes 3-6 into two faster paced episodes like they did with the Planet of Giants. But they didn’t, so we’re left with a story based around a gimmick which isn’t strong enough to support six whole episodes. And it suffers as a result.

The Good – Alien-ness

I don’t really know how it manages it since there are no facial features to it, but the Animus is looking particularly smug here

People often say that the Web Planet is a ‘brave’ story. They’ve gone all-in on this one setting it on a completely alien world with no humanoids, and from an artistic point of view, it’s terrific. The first thing they do to achieve the appearance of events taking place somewhere completely unusual is so simple and yet so effective that it’s genius – they smear Vaseline on the camera lens. What that does is make things seem occasionally blurry as if the atmosphere is not in any way like Earth. It’s brilliant, and it’s enduring. Whenever my brother or I see any blurry camera work, one of us chips in with ‘This is taking place on Vortis’. Notable examples include a backstage skit with Triple H at Judgement Day 2001 and the highlights of a recent match between Dundee United and Hearts on BBC Alba. Some people might say that’s sad, but I say it’s cool!

It’s not just the camera work that…erm…works either. The music and sound effects hit the right notes, so to speak, and the costumes are – for the most part – superb. The Menoptra look great with their combination of butterfly and bee appearance, and the way they act is very alien. Any Doctor Who fan worth his or her salt knows this is down to the ‘Insect Movement by Roselyn de Winter’. de Winter – who plays Vrestin – has obviously taken time to choreograph the way the Menoptra and the Zarbi move around. In the case of the Menoptra, this is down to hand movement, which is used as the primary means of expression since the costumes they wear prevent their facing being particularly emotive.

The Zarbi move around well most of the time too. On the odd occasion they accidentally bump into the camera, but I think we can forgive them that. It can’t have been easy to act in those costumes.

The work on ensuring they seem alien doesn’t stop there, because there are little touches added to the way they speak. Throughout the story, Vrestin calls Ian ‘Herron’. There’s no clunky scene in which she decides to start calling him this to his bemusement either. She just calls him Herron and we accept it. Similarly, the other Menoptra call Barbara ‘Abara’.

It’s the little things that count.

The Bad – The Optera and William Hartnell’s Wig

The one area where the story is let down from an artistic standpoint is the Optera. The costumes look very amateurish – you can tell they are made with a cheap foam-like material – and their acting and overall portrayal (for which we should probably blame de Winter unfortunately) is like something out of a school play. I just didn’t like it at all. They are a big part of what makes the latter half of the story mind-numbing.

And while we’re on about costumes, what is up with William Hartnell’s wig? It seems to change in length from episode to episode. Sometimes he looks smart, other times he’s like a scraggy old tramp.

Random Observations

If you’ve seen the story, maybe you can answer this one…

  • Why is it even called the Web Planet? Is it from when the Doctor and Vicki are shot by a rather phallic looking web gun in the cliffhanger at the end of episode 5. Or – come to think of it – is it that because the TARDIS has been forced
    And there's all the supporting cast together at the end. You can't argue that it looks good, but the story itself comes up short.

    And there’s all the supporting cast together at the end. You can’t argue that it looks good, but the story itself comes up short.

    down onto the planet and stuck there like the proverbial fly in a spider’s web? It probably is the latter because The Web Planet is only the name of episode 1, and as with all these old stories, they had individual episode titles rather than one all encompassing name for the story.

  • Speaking of the phallic web gun, I have to give a lot of credit to Maureen O’Brien for her the scream she lets out when she’s shot by it. Some companions – like Susan – would scream at the drop of a hat, but the character of Vicki wasn’t like that. So when she screams, it works on two levels. The first is that you know this isn’t a scream of terror, but rather a scream of pain, and beyond that, you can tell it isn’t just a little bit of pain – she’s in agony. Great stuff.
  • On that note, William Russell deserves credit for his own scream of pain, when the Optera plunge his hands into what we can assume to be a vat of boiling wax.
  • As much as I’ve criticised the Optera, the bit where one of them saves Ian’s group by plunging her head into an erupting volcanic hole in the wall is pretty grim.
  • I just don’t get the Larvae Guns at all. How is it they are deadly under the control of the Animus but are friendly plant-watering pets when they have their free will?
  • While the Menoptera look good – and especially so in the film inserts with their more advanced costumes – it’s not so easy to distinguish between them. So while I know who Roslyn de Winter plays, I couldn’t tell you which one was Martin Jarvis
  • I just love how they use the word “Electron” as if it’s something new and exotic. Maybe it was at the time?
  • While they make a good effort with The Doctor & Ian to show that it’s a thin atmosphere on Vortis and it’s therefore difficult to breath unaided, they don’t seem to bother with this for Barbara. Maybe she’s got stronger lungs?
  • It was only when I took a minute to think about it and read the subtitles that I realised the Doctor shouts “Echoes, dear boy” in episode one. For years I thought it was “Of course, dear boy” and I felt mildly confused.

Doctor Who – The Web Planet Review: Should You Watch the Web Planet?

The only way I would recommend this is if you manage to find a way to watch Episode 1 and 2, and possibly episode 3 without having to pay for all 6 (check the websites like youtube or daily motion – I’m sure you can find them)

But as a whole, I wouldn’t recommend this story, unless you are looking for a cure to insomnia. Beyond the first few episodes, it’s just so dull it’s unbelievable. But I guarantee if this story was missing, it would be considered a classic.

What I would recommend though is to watch the youtube video below. It’s done by a guy called ZillakYT and I think it’s hilarious and makes the whole thing far more bearable and exciting. Hopefully he doesn’t mind me linking the video on here – all credit goes to him (although he makes the story look exciting enough that one poor sod says ‘I can’t wait to watch the story’ in reply to him)

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3 Responses to Doctor Who – The Web Planet Review (or ‘A Case of Style Over Substance’)

  1. David Barrow says:

    Great review – I particularly like how you’re including videos at the end! Please keep posting them if they’re available, this one almost had me in tears! 🙂

  2. […] Yellow Arc Of Fragrance (unmade) Planet Of Giants The Dalek Invasion Of Earth The Rescue The Romans The Web Planet The Crusade The Space Museum The Chase The Time Meddler Galaxy Four The Myth Makers Mission To The […]

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