Sunday, August 31, 2008

Random Who Report: The Web Planet (1965)

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DOCTOR WHO’s early black-and-white years hold a unique fascination; in some ways it’s the most fantastical that the show ever was, with a surreal quality only emphasized by the uneven production values and cramped sets. Nowhere is this more evident than in THE WEB PLANET, an ambitious conceptual experiment for the series that, though it doesn’t work, has more than a few treasures. This six-part epic is one I can’t quite recommend to non-fans (and its reception at the time was less-than-kind), but if you’re willing to tough your way through the slower bits, it’s kind of fascinating.

The TARDIS is caught in a mysterious barrier that traps it on the planet of Vortis in a far-away galaxy. There, the Zarbi, near-mindless giant ants, have overrun the planet once dominated by the beautiful butterfly creatures known as the Menoptera. They do so under the direction of the Animus, a mysterious force from another world that has corrupted the land, turned the water into acid, and constructed a giant dome for itself and its Zarbi slaves. After some attempts by the Animus to possess the TARDIS crew, the Doctor (William Hartnell) and Vicky (Maureen O’ Brien) are captured by the Zarbi and taken to the dome structure, while Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) fall in with separate groups of a Menoptera reconquest force.

It takes a while for the full premise of this story to unfurl itself; the first couple of episodes try to preserve the same kind of mystery that accompanied the introduction of the Daleks, and though the Zarbi are seen early on, what precisely they’re doing is unclear for a time. Unfortunately this makes the early part of the story very slow indeed, as the exposition of what has happened is slowly doled out. Not helping matters are our main participants; the Zarbi cannot speak (instead communicating in ENDLESS electronic chirps), the Menoptera can but very slowly and with lots of hand gestures, and the Animus (voiced downright seductively by Catherine Fleming) is no faster.

The obtuseness of the story is also part of what it does very well; we are dealing with a truly alien environment with few obvious analogues to ours, and that’s the sort of thing that takes setting up. The Menoptera speak in very strange poetic tones, and are convincingly trained to move in a deliberate, insect-like fashion.

Of course, there are no two ways about it; these are very clearly men and women in suits. While the Daleks had been conceived and built to hide any suggestion of a human shape (no legs, no arms), the Menoptera have visibly human faces with large bug eyes and ears, the Zarbi have two human legs that do all the actual running, and the grub-like Optera, encountered later, also have human faces with some hilariously limp extra hands at their sides, clearly made of cloth. It’s rather like watching the stage version of THE LION KING; you have to imagine what the aliens are really meant to look like, but can admire the artistry at work.

The environment of Vortis is quite neatly realized. It’s a planet with thin air, seeming to hang in eternal night- the stars are always visible, and the surface resembles what we used to think the moon looked like before we actually landed there. The “web” element is underplayed, apparently for budgetary reasons, but there are some nice touches, like the Valley of Needles and a ruined temple.

The major problem of the story is just that it moves so sluggishly; six parters were often prone to this, and between the insect performers’ slow movements and the obtuse dialogue it takes a long time for this story to get where it needs to go. At heart it’s not much more than a straightforward good vs. evil story, which shouldn’t take as long as it does to tell. There’s a nice twist down the line involving the Doctor and Vicky “domesticating” one of the Zarbi, and the Optera do liven things up a bit, but counteracting that there’s a subtle somnambulistic tone which threatens to lull you into peaceful slumber. That they smeared vaseline at the camera lens at some points for no apparent reason doesn’t make things any easier.

This same dreamishness does work in the story’s favor, too, and in some ways this story epitomizes what DOCTOR WHO was like in its early years. The shaky effects force your own imagination to fill in the gaps, and the claustrophobia of the sets results in an almost theatrical intimacy. The performers work to sell it as amiably as ever; in its first couple of seasons, the show was an ensemble piece, with Ian and Barbara often being as vital to the story as the Doctor, to say nothing of the younger companion.

I remind you all, the grading system I’m using for this is a bit different from the one I use elsewhere. Overall, I think THE WEB PLANET is good television- it’s imaginative, atmospheric, and highly ambitious. But it’s also a bit of a drag, and you have to already love the show and know its shortcomings to put up with some of the needless corridor-running and truly shoddy effects to get to the good stuff. So it’s a middling grade by WHO standards, but bear in mind- that’s still pretty damn good.

Written by Bill Strutton
Produced by Verity Lambert
Directed by Richard Martin
Grade: C

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