Ahhh, The Web Planet. If I’m honest, this is the moment I have been dreading in my little task of re-watching the entire show from the beginning. This blog hasn’t been updated for a few days for two reasons – firstly, my own personal laptop died a few days ago, with the first part of this entry (eps 1-3) already written. Due to this, there may be a number of typos throughout this entry (if so, I apologise) as the spellchecker is a little dodgy and the keyboard layout is confusing! Secondly, this has always been my least favourite serial of all time. Even now, having rewatched it, I’m not sure why. It isn’t that the effects are terrible – God knows I look beyond that often enough. It isn’t that the sets are bad – they’re actually incredibly impressive considering what was asked for of the script. It isn’t that any of the performances are particularly bad – they’re all at the very least acceptable, if not brilliant. It is simply that it bores me. I don’t know why – I truly do try my very hardest to enjoy it. And this time, being objective and having watched the progression of the series episode by episode, it was more enjoyable. But I think it is still my least favourite serial ever – and to watch all 6 episodes, it took three days. More than 2 episodes a day just seems like too much to endure.
The first episode is by far the strongest, and begins where The Romans left off, with the TARDIS and the crew being dragged down onto an unknown planet, utterly uncontrollable, with the crew flustered and thrown asunder. As they rush around the controls, desperate to find out what’s wrong with the power, there is still a huge sense of camaraderie, and what is most wonderful about it is the way in which Vicki has so easily slipped into her role as the youngest member of the crew. Sadly, Maureen O’Brien’s character is given something of a short shrift here – one gets the impression that the part was written for Susan’s character, particularly in the scene in which only Vicki can here the invasive sounds of the Zarbi crying out, holding her hands to her head to block to sounds out; it is reminiscent of Carole Ann Ford in The Keys of Marinus.
Whilst Richard Martin’s direction is hugely flawed for the most part of this serial – mainly due to his rather formulaic presentation of a serial which was far too ambitious given the restraints of the time – there are some wonderful touches. The use of Vaseline on the lenses specially created for this serial is genius, and creates a truly alien feel to the serial. Through the intercutting between scenes on the planet and scenes in the TARDIS, we really get a sense of the scope of this – outside, nothing is right. Everything is disjointed, with light flaring from anything and everything, and the soundscape, with use of echoes, is equally jarring. The start contrast we get between the interior of the TARDIS, warm and safe and evenly lit, against the exterior shots on the planet surface, with light catching the cast and set at bizarre angles, refracting madly, is impressive.
One would be excused for thinking that Bill Strutton, the author, had never seen Doctor Who before, as some of the characterisation seems terribly off-kilter with what we usually get with the main crew. There is a scene in which Ian damned near dives headfirst into a pool of acid, exactly like Susan did in episode 1 of The Keys of Marinus. Indeed, much of Strutton’s writing seems to echo all of the worst elements of Terry Nation’s earlier scripts – episode 5 is almost scene for scene the same as Nation’s episode 6 of The Daleks, with Ian leading an oppressed people to rise up against the oppressors – we have simply substituted the Menoptra for the Thals, and in the place of the Daleks, we have the Zarbi.
As with Nation’s The Keys of Marinus script, much of the difficulties here arise from the sheer ambition of the script. Where Marinus was let down by too many sets being needed for the 6 episode run, here it is the sheer number of absurdly extravagant costumes which hinders the performance. Given that the set used was only about 64’x67’, and the multiple locations, the entire production hugely overran at every shoot because of the inhibiting costumes, limiting movement and so preventing quick scene changes.
Episode 2 is where this serial really starts to unravel for me, and it is down to one simple thing which should never have been allowed to happen – the costume and movement of the Zarbi and the Menoptra. What baffles me is that only a few weeks ago, the crew landed on modern-day Earth and were surrounded by huge earthworms and flies, and yet, in Planet of Giants, it was magnificent. The sets were incredible, with superb model work. Here, though, the creations have been left to Daphne Dare – who usually does a very good job – but the results are dreadful. Due to the design, particularly of the Zarbi, actors movements were hugely limited. Due to the large number of Zarbi required, the set is cramped and movement for the other cast become less natural. Likewise, in the cave with the Menoptra, the huge wing design means that despite there only being 3 aliens present with Barbara, the set becomes minute and awkward, and movement becomes stilted. Added to this the work of Roslyn de Winter, who also appears as Vrestin, as choreographer of the “insect movement”, with her absurd nuances and inflections, as well as awkward arm movements and head turns, and the entire thing becomes laughable. A number of people say that the most embarrassing moment of being a Doctor Who fan is if someone were to walk in on you watching the scenes from The Happiness Patrol with Bertie Bassett. For me, the most embarrassing thing about Doctor Who is this. The Bertie scene was likened by someone as being caught masturbating – and when this episode is on I can’t help but glance over my shoulder, praying no-one walks in. My partner was in the room for some of these episodes and at random intervals, he looked up from his phone, snorted with derision, and looked away again. Sadly, I find myself doing the very same thing.
In addition to the dreadful movements and costume of the Zarbi in particular, the sound effects are possibly the most frustrating things ever heard in Doctor Who. Whilst I understand the point – the Zarbi all look identical, and so by not having them able to communicate in English it makes them seem even more threatening – the use of the high pitched klaxon constantly, along with bizarre undulating chords throughout, made me nauseous.
The cliffhanger to episode 2 is quite interesting, then – after all of the awful noises, and silly dancing, the communicator is lowered onto Hartnell’s head – and the voice that rings out is beautiful. It is cold and emotionless, but soothing too; as the voice of the Animus, Catherine Fleming plays the part perfectly, creating a sense of danger in the most human sounding part of the entire serial. Even the TARDIS crew sound distorted on Vortis, but the Animus is crystal clear.
Again, due to the design and the set expectations, further embarrassments happen throughout the remaining 4 episodes – in episode 3, a Larva gun stands idly by in the background as we cut from Ian, captured, to the approaching Zarbi – purely because, due to the design and the size of the cameras, the same Larva couldn’t get to the right location. Likewise, during the battle sequences of episode 4, Zarbi’s run head-first into cameras; sets jolt as camera lenses smack into the plywood frames through which they are shooting. Usually, these sorts of blunders would be forgivable, and you could laugh them off. Here, though, they add to the comical, farcical nature of the entire serial, making it look even shoddier than before. Where long shots would have sufficed to hide the imperfections of the production, instead Martin’s direction keeps the camera up close, allowing us to see each and every failing. That said, there are some nice touches – the scene in which the Zarbi attack the captured Menoptra, chewing off her wings, is disturbing, and is made all the more shocking because the camera cuts away to Barbara’s face, and the revulsion Jacqueline Hill portrays is wonderful.
Episode 4 works to some extent based on the interesting set – the Crater of Needles is wonderfully realised with 450kg of seaweed specially shipped in. Shot through the Vaseline covered lenses, the light sparkles and dances across this abstract set – although what causes the majority of the flickering light has little place in a children’s TV series; since the seaweed was collected fresh from the shores down south, a large number of condoms are mixed in with the vegetation!
To add to the misery of this serial, episode 4 also introduces a third species to Vortis – the Optera, centipede-like creatures who move as though their legs are wrapped in a sleeping bag. With 3 sets of arms – only one of which move, with limited feasibility due to the costume – they look as ridiculous as the Zarbi. These speak, but their aggressive, grunting delivery is reminiscent of Reece Shearsmith’s character Papa Lazarou from The League of Gentlemen. There is, much like in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, an embarrassing lack of consistency to some of the aliens however. As with the Robomen, the non-speaking parts shamble around in far less restrained manners. Some don’t keep their legs together, simply meandering around on set. De Winter’s choreography, which would be more at home in some abstract physical theatre performance, obviously didn’t sink in for all of the cast.
The fight sequence at the end of episode 4 and the opening of episode 5 is, like much of the action throughout, a miss-match of angles which sow little of any consequence. Due to the restrictions, the movements are a mess, and the bumping and knocking is dreadful to watch. What is amazing is that whilst Strutton never wrote for the series again, Martin managed to continue directing. This is like a car crash, intriguing but horrific at the same time. Episode 5 is by far the most painful of these to watch, as little of consequence happens – again, as with Nation’s The Daleks, it sees the group separated, each heading to the same location via pointlessly dangerous routes – and when we get to the climax of episode 6, it turns out that Ian wasn’t even needed anyway! Episode 6 contains the dreadful screeching of the word “Zarbi” in any number of ways, with enunciation being placed on random non-existent syllables throughout.
In fact, I’m still not really sure what does happen at the end. Ian certainly doesn’t help – he just climbs out of the floor in time to witness it. The Doctor and Vicki don’t help – they’re laid on the floor, wrapped in tentacles, and Hartnell is silently giggling to himself. Barbara saves the day, using the Isoptope created to destroy the Animus, but the direction is so bad that it is impossible to be able to tell exactly how it all happens.
But, the Animus is defeated, and that’s all that matters – the serial is finally at an end! Only it isn’t – there’s another ten minutes of the bizarre speech patterns and discussions of light between Optera and Menoptera alike. It is strange – when the Optera were first introduced, their speech was interesting. The use of similes and metaphors was intriguing. Now, though, it just seems awkward and disjointed, almost entirely filler.
But then it really is over. I sigh a gentle breath of relief. Whilst I am a huge Doctor Who fan, and nothing will ever change that, this is, for me, the worst the series has to offer. It was courageous, particularly considering that it is still early in the second series, but it did it. Maybe the reason it looks so dreadful is that it has dated badly. If that were it, I’d feel like a dreadful cynic for disliking it. But everything about this is so sloppy that it just fails to engage me on any level. I’m embarrassed by it.
Why, oh why, does this story exist in its entirety when serials like The Web of Fear, Fury from the Deep and Marco Polo don’t? It just isn’t fair...