Monday, 15 April 2013

The Web Planet written by Bill Strutton and directed by Richard Martin

This story in a nutshell: A planet of giant ants, moths and woodlouse…

Hmm: What on Earth was William Hartnell on when filming the first episode? Ajax? The Doctor roams the extraordinary sets chuckling and clucking away to himself, screaming in the vast spaces and taking the piss out of Ian. If this is a cover for him continually forgetting his lines then I wouldn't mind if he never remembered a simple line...he's just so damn entertaining! He is initially very concerned that something might have penetrated the TARDIS and dragged them down to this planet but once he is given the chance to explore a planet as exotic as this he is as excited as a kid in a sweet shop! I was howling with laughter at some of his lines (‘I say Chesterton! What are you doing fiddling and gaping over there? Come over here and learn something!’) and he might have forgotten some of them and be killing time with silliness but it is a delight to watch (‘I must say that if I lived here and I heard you shouting and hollering I’d probably come down and investigate!’). He is completely bowled over by the theft of the TARDIS but I’m not sure why since it happens every other week. The Doctor gets very wheezy when ranting that there must be answer to why the ship has vanished and he always considered it invulnerable. Both the Doctor and Ian show off their knowledge of astronomy as they discuss Vortis’ moon and compare the strange lights in the sky to the Aurora Borealis. Is the Doctor’s ‘come along drop this hairdryer or whatever it is?’ line the first example of the show kicking in the fourth wall? It's very funny but it kind of says to the audience ‘yeah we know it looks like a hairdryer but…’ I wonder if the Doctor fancied keeping Zombo (come on that is a cute name!) because he seems to enjoy wandering about beckoning the obedient Zarbi to follow (‘You may not believe it but you nearly ended up as lost property!’). There seems something very right about the First Doctor - the explorer - breathing in the culture of a race of moth people and remaining intelligently silent during their detailed history. There is a sense of dignified respect for these people that I don’t think any of the others would have pulled off quite as well. He looks magnificent strolling around the temple set and commanding the attention of these most unusual of aliens.

Schoolteachers in Love: I love the fact that Barbara is so gentle with the Doctor these days. During their initial handful of adventures she was decidedly frosty towards him (and with good reason – he was a right bastard back then) but now she is praising his intellect and telling him she is going to have a jolly good spring clean of his messy ship! Hill and Hartnell’s relaxed chemistry is a delight and really shows that the passage of time has brought these two characters (and actors) together. Barbara describes the three Rs - reading, writing, arithmetic – actually only one of those begins with an R but then that's the 60s education system for you. You can begin to understand why Vicki thinks it was a nursery school. It’s a pretty masculine arrangement with the men off investigating whilst Barbara is left to do a spot of cleaning in the TARDIS but she did rather talk herself into it. There is something very frightening about an alien force invading the safety of the ship and dragging Barbara outside against her will, screaming. The scene where the panicked Zarbi knocks Barbara over in the Crater of Needles just to be a total git makes me crack up every time! This gets her riled enough that when they have escaped she starts mobilising the Menoptera and fighting off their defeatist talk. Barbara gets wonderfully bossy in the way only she can when confronting Hilio. Second only to Lalla Ward's Romana, Barbara is one of those companions that gets me all tingly when she gets a strop on.

Ian is stuck investigating with the doddery Doctor and promises Barbara that he will look after him (the Doctor probably thinks it is the other way round). He is appalled to learn that his clothes are going to take part in one of the Doctor’s schemes (its probably what gives him the idea to begin his cardigan escape plan fetish in The Space Museum and The Chase) and when he has to remove the tie around the middle he is scared that his pants will fall down (to which the Doctor replies that is his affair!). There is something very disturbing about Ian stepping into a giant hollow chrysalis. Ian fighting the Zarbi with a floor kick and then pushing it over is very funny but its nice to see that William Russell is game for a laugh. I love the way Vrestin calls Ian ‘Heron!’, it's a cute touch that suggests an intimacy between them.

Alien Orphan: I always had the impression that Vicki was little more than a teenage whiner very much in the Susan mould. Subsequent viewings of her stories have proven this to be far from the case and as a replacement to Susan she wins me over in practically every way. It's so easy to forget that Vicki is from the future and her description of aspirin as medieval and akin to covering somebody in leeches really sells the idea that she and Barbara are from different times. She was ten when she took her certificates in literature, physics and chemistry and had to study almost an hour a week. This is essential background about Vicki because we really don’t learn that much more about her but it paints a picture of a world obsessed with development. It is something that would be built on much more effectively with Zoe in The Wheel in Space and subsequent stories. What an ungrateful cow Vicki is wanting to be taken somewhere with lots of lovely things to buy and eat and wear which is exactly what she got up in Rome in the preceding story, dressing up in Roman clothes, attending a feast and visiting a thriving market. And in that story she was moaning that things weren’t exciting enough!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We very nearly had the remnants of a Coal Hill School teacher in there instead of this wretched old, ragged old tie!’
‘Apart from rubbing our legs together like some kind of grasshopper I doubt we could get on speaking terms with them.’
‘History doesn’t mean anything when you travel in space and time!’
‘You demand my secrets? Yield yours…’
‘I’ve seen a colony of ants eat their way through a house. That size they could eat their way through a mountain!’
‘It must be a Temple of Light. The ancient song spinners of our race sang of their beauty…’ – you can really see what effect Strutton was going for with the dialogue.

The Good:
· A quick word about the picture restoration quality which on the DVD which is of an extraordinarily high quality and must have taken the restoration team and age to get to this pristine standard. I remember watching the VHS and it was like trying to watch the story through a snowstorm. Now we can actually see Vortis and its glorious inhabitants! Although the Vaseline does try and spoil that in places.
· People have been spoilt by post Star Wars effects and it has clouded their judgement on just how phenomenal this story looked at the time it was made and with the time and resources available. Vortis is an enchanting world of crags and craters with a starlit sky full of moons and webbing and acid pools strewn about. That’s how I see it and if you choose to see a BBC studio with a painted backdrop you are watching the wrong show. It's atmospherically designed and when we get to see the Doctor and Ian shuffling about on this very alien surface the audiences at the time must have been enchanted. At the same time the TARDIS sets feel bigger and more like home than ever in this hostile environment. You can see what they were going for with the Centre sets, this veiny, fibrous material suggesting an organic structure although they go a little too nuts and it does have the look of Saturday morning children’s TV set at times. There’s a gorgeous shot of the Crater of Needles from the distance and then the reality of it, wading through disgusting, stinging seaweed is deeply unpleasant. I have never seen anything like the Animus so I simply don’t know how to judge it but it certainly looks like a nasty piece of work!
· The Zarbi have become the comedy clunker aliens of the Doctor Who universe where every man and his dog has had a pop at them. Well I’m here to promote justice for Zarbis because I happen to think they are beautifully designed aliens that have the feel giant ants whilst still being a costume that an actor can get into an operate. That wretched noise they make gets on my nerves after a while and they are clearly cumbersome to manoeuvre in but from a purely designers point of view they look gorgeous with their sparkly, fractured eyes and shiny carapaces.
· I will be quite hard on the director at times during this story so it seems only fair to praise him when he does something genuinely innovative and the sequence where the TARDIS is ensnared by webbing which is overlaid with a striking shot of the Zarbis eye and then cuts to the four travellers crowded around the console as the central column dies really tells the story without a single word being uttered is very creative.
· There is a real emphasis that this is a serial television show of continuing adventures and the mention of Nero giving Barbara the bracelet is a healthy reminder of last weeks high jinks.
· Whilst they make terrible warriors (hitting the Zarbi ineffectively on their carapaces with their odd chunks of crystal) the Menoptera are one of the most striking alien races the Doctor has ever encountered. Everything about them is balletic and delicate, they each have different facial markings and their wings can jut out if they are in danger and they can take to the sky. The shots of them gliding down angelically from the starry skies onto the mountains landscape of Vortis are really pushing the boundaries of what Doctor Who could achieve visually at the time. I love how the actors are all committed to playing the Menoptera in the same way offering a uniformity that convinces you this is a race of giant moths under siege. Vrestin having his wings torn off by the Zarbi doesn’t need to be seen – Barbara’s horrified reaction is all we need. Certainly the weirdness of this story is capable of winding you on occasion; the dizzying shots of moths flying down into an atmosphere of moons and crags is astonishingly vivid.
· Maureen O’Brien is perfectly right in the documentary that the ideas of this tale are extraordinary not just for the time but they would be today too. A cancerous evil that has gripped the heart of a planet and turned the native populace evil dragging the TARDIS down and into its poisonous clutches.
· Crushing that Venom Grub against the walls is surprisingly nasty and the climax to episode four with Vicki and the Doctor consumed in a cancerous webbing really sticks in the mind.
· I walked away from this story for a couple of busy days and coming back to episode five is like starting a completely new story. The contrast between the random moments of weirdness in episodes two to four is suddenly replaced with some genuine world building (Strutton paints pictures with words in his Temple of the Light sequences) and proper characterisation (Vicki is suddenly in fighting form, the Doctor is deviously clever and Barbara is assembling an invasion force). Its like the writer and the director suddenly realised that they needed a plot to resolve! Even Richard Martin seems to be trying a bit harder with lots of long shots and high and low angles. The end of episode five is the best of the serial with some ghoulishly unknowable happening to the Doctor and Vicki (covered in a stinging, sticky web) whilst two Zarbi indulge in a head banging victory dance.
· Give the actors some credit. They really try and make something alien of the dialogue. What other story offers such gems as ‘Heron’, ‘Hubada!’ and ‘Annie-Moose’? The poetic metaphors in operation really help to sell the Grubs where their visualisation falls flat. I loved stalagmites being referred to as ‘teeth of stone’, tunnels ‘breathe vapour’ and a wall is described as ‘silent’ until they make ‘mouths’ in it with their weapons until it ‘speaks more light’. Clever stuff.

The Fella: Simon (my hubbie) always amazes me when he watches Doctor Who. He loves the New Series, but then he adores flashy, fast-moving television. I can never anticipate what his reaction will be to classic stories which is what makes watching the show with him so enjoyable. He hates anything with McCoy and Aldred (season 26 is possibly his least favourite!) and yet he loved Remembrance of the Daleks. He can’t stand anything Davison. He loved The Claws of Axos and The Gunfighters. He adores all of the fourth Doctor’s companions (except the three introduced in his last season). He fancies Jamie, but Ben doesn’t register. He fell asleep during Androzani but wanted to watch all of season sixteen. Colin Baker makes him laugh, but for all the right reasons. Peri makes him groan. He wonders why we ever climbed out of the primordial slime if creatures such as Tegan could be created. He can still say 'England's peerless premier Professor of Pathology!' and 'I would have propelled him onto the pavement with a punt up the posterior!' despite the fact we only watched Talons of Weng-Chiang once eight years ago. The last time I watched The Web Planet I remember he was ironing and happy to watch episodes of Hartnell with me. I begged and pleaded with him not to but he always seems happy to watch Hartnell and was doubly pleased it didn’t have ‘that screaming wench’ (Susan) in it. I remember as we watched he was doing the funny Menoptera hand signals every time he asked me if I wanted a cuppa. He thinks Hartnell is the Doctor so laughed at the ‘hairdryer’ line and found a lot of his antics in the first episode very amusing. He snapped at Vicki, saying he doesn’t want her to end up like Susan always grabbing her head as though it is about to fall off and he laughed his head off at the Venom Grub who walked across the stage with human legs visible underneath. He loved the madness of it all and whilst he could see the shoddy mistakes on show he thought The Web Planet was an example of quintessential Doctor Who because it is brave, insane, slightly embarrassing but proud. I remember feeling quite ashamed of myself for trying to hide this story from him at the time – Simon doesn’t mind a story not quite coming up to scratch as long as it looks as though some effort has been put into it and he could see that in abundance here. He so often teaches me to throw the fanboy opinions and reputations out of the window and simply enjoy watching the show. It’s a lesson that a lot of us could do with learning.

The Bad:
· Smearing the Vaseline on the lenses might have been a sound idea in theory but it rather blurs our view of the out of this world sets rather than creating an alien mist to obscure our heroes in.
· The Venom Grubs are a far less successful design because they look like something that has been cooked up on Blue Peter with paper strips to obscure the actor hiding underneath!
· You’ve got to give them some credit for having the cheek to try and pull off the ADJ’s. Suggesting that a space anorak can help you breathe in a rarefied atmosphere is such a hilariously cheap idea.
· Why is it on Richard Martin directed stories you can see more production mistakes than on anybody elses watch? It’s the same on The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Chase and yet in stories such as The Crusade, The Romans and The Time Meddler they are often obscured by some very slick directorial skill. Here you can see plenty of boom mike and camera shadows, people walking around behind the sets, Zarbi’s hiding behind boulders in shot waiting to jump out, Ian literally has to pick up the trap to ensure he is caught inside it, you can see the feet of the Venom Grub operators, famously a Zarbi walks directly into a camera, one of the Venom Grub performers is literally seen walking across a rocky set with the costume being worn like a hat, he tries shooting through the temple set but winds up bumping into it, sets wobble precariously, one of the Menoptera has to literally stand stock still in order to be shot by the inoffensive Venom Grubs and as for the Vaseline... When Martin complains about the conditions that he is under he forgets that he is preaching to Doctor Who fans who have scrutinised all of these stories to within an inch of their lives and similarly made science fiction blockbusters like The Daleks’ Masterplan and The Ark are slick and visually stunning and don’t contain half as many production errors. At some point you have to accept it is the director and not the usual excuses (time, money, etc).
· I would accuse the pace of this story of being slow but the truth is it simply doesn’t have any pace. No wonder The Crusade feels like it is chasing a whippet because it races through its narrative compared to this. The Web Planet never really picks up much steam so it is either lose yourself in its quirky atmosphere or surrender yourself to borderm.
· The end of episode three is one of those truly dreadful Doctor Who moments where you just want the ground to swallow you if anybody catches the screen while you are watching. The mountain flats wobble precariously and Ian vanishes in a cloud of dust. Its not at all clear what is happening which provokes a massive ‘eh?’ rather than ‘oooh.’ The reprise is even worse with somebody (probably Jacqueline Hill) laughing at the absurdity of it all.
· The hopping grubs underground with their cartoon drawings on the walls might have been a step too far into surrealism. Or childishness. Mind you Nemini blocking the acid leak with her face is really nasty and for a moment no matter how absurd they look you feel something for these strange little creatures.
· The attack on the Zarbi in episode six has to be seen to be believed. It's one of the all time most butt clenchingly embarrassing moments of Doctor Who as the Menoptera perform an effete ballet around their prey whilst screaming ‘ZARRRRBBBIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!’ God knows what the director was thinking of but if any moment of this serial deserved a serious re-shoot it was this. Mind you had it been excised I would have been deprived of several really good laughs over the years showing friends this seminal moment of television.
· Much like the end of The Mind Robber there is completely unnecessary talk of invading the Earth which is so completely out of place with the rest of the story that you wonder why they bothered.

Result: I admire the production team for having the balls to attempt something on this scale and some of that ambition pays off with some imaginative imagery and quirky ideas. Having the four regulars as the only human characters in a six part story must have terrified the designers but they rose to the challenge to create a fascinating world in Vortis and its insectoid inhabitants and with only a few serious missteps (the Optera, the Venom Grubs) they valiantly create an intoxicating fairytale world. Had this been brutally edited down to three episodes (you can pretty much watch episodes one, five and six without missing anything too important – try it and see) it would have made a much slicker, enjoyable experience but at six episodes the novelty wears off too soon and you are left with a long slog of episodes with very little pace or excitement. When I first saw the story I was bored senseless and agonisingly plodded through the whole thing in one go which is suicide. The Web Planet works best if you save one episode a night (preferably when everybody has gone to bed to avoid humiliation and have that blissfully naughty moment of just Doctor Who and you) and turn the lights out so you can be drawn into its eerie, alien atmosphere. I admire it much more than I like it and there are moments when I can really see Bill Strutton’s incredible vision being brought to life. I would never recommend this to a non fan but I would suggest that every Doctor Who fan needs to see this story simply for the aspiration and bravery of the original production team. I can only imagine what this would have looked like inDouglas Camfield’s hands because I hold most of the stupid mistakes at Richard Martin’s door. Insane and atmospheric, daft and imaginative, The Web Planet deserves to be applauded and jeered at. For its conception and moments of alien genius I would give it a 9 but its slack pace and embarrassing production errors warrant a so I will round this up to an even: 6/10

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