Saturday, 31 January 2015

TV Review 13: The Web Planet, written by Bill Strutton (1965)

Broadcast: 13th February 1965 – 20th March 1965

The Doctor – William Hartnell
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Vicki – Maureen O’Brien
The Menoptera:
Vrestin – Roslyn De Winter
Hrostar – Arne Gordon
Hrhoonda – Arthur Blake
Prapillus – Jolyon Booth
Hlynia – Jocelyn Birdsall
Hilio – Martin Jarvis
Voice of the Animus – Catherine Fleming
The Optera:
Hetra – Ian Thompson
Nemini – Barbara Joss
The Zarbi – Robert Jewell, Jack Pitt, Gerald Taylor, Hugh Lund, Kevin Manser, John Scott Martin

Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Script Editor – Dennis Spooner
Writer – Bill Strutton
Director – Richard Martin
Designer – John Wood
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Make Up – Sonia Markham
Production Assistant – Norman Stewart
Studio Sound – Ray Angel
Studio Lighting – Ralph Walton

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The TARDIS is seemingly dragged down by an invisible force onto the surface of the planet Vortis, and is unable to leave. Upon exploration, the Doctor and his friends get split up, and discover the endangered insect society of the Menoptera, under threat by a malignant, all conquering alien parasite creature, known only as the Animus. This ever-growing and domineering creature has taken over the minds of Vortis’ lesser creatures, the ant-like Zarbi and the larvae guns, in an effort to destroy the remaining free Menoptera for good, and take over their planet.

While the Doctor and Vicki bewitch the Animus creature, Ian and Barbara join forces with the Menoptera’s pre-prepared army (later helped by the Doctor too), and their underground descendents, the Optera; and work to get their new weapon, the Isop-Tope, through to the Animus’ exposed heart. In an exhausting combined effort, they succeed just in time to destroy the Animus. The Time-travellers leave as life begins to return to Vortis, and its civilisation reunites, hopeful in their promising future.

Story Placement
Between The Eleventh Tiger (BBC Books) and The Dark Planet (BIG Finish Audio)

Favourite Lines
Barbara Wright: Oh, so you studied medicine at school, did you.
Vicki: Yes, of course, I did. Didn't you teach it?
Barbara Wright: No. We worked upwards from the three R's.
Vicki: Hmm?
Barbara Wright: Reading, writing, 'rithmetic.
Vicki: Oh, it was a nursery school?
Barbara Wright: It was not!
Vicki: Oh! I wish I'd gone to your school. We had to take a certificate of education in medicine, physics, chemistry...
Barbara Wright: Now, wait a minute. How old were you?
Vicki: Well, I was ten when I took those, and then...
Barbara Wright: Ten! What did you do in your time? Live in the classroom?
Vicki: Live in the what?
Barbara Wright: Classroom. Lecture hall. How long did you study?
Vicki: Almost an hour a week.
Ian Chesterton: I've seen a colony of ants eat their way right through a house. That size, they could eat their way through a mountain.

Prapillus: It must be a Temple of Light. The ancient song-spinners of our race sang of their beauty, but I thought they could never be found again.
Barbara Wright: There are others?
Prapillus: So the legends say – sewn into the craters and plateaus of Vortis, being slowly unwoven by the silence of time, and their entrances long forgotten by our species.

Nemini: The wall is not friendly. We must break it!
Ian Chesterton: What's wrong?
Hetra: A silent wall. We must make mouths in it with our weapons. Then it will speak more light


The Web Planet is one of Doctor Who’s most iconic stories ever, not just in the 1960s, but of all-time, and rightly so. It is a serial of both great imagination and ambitious production; in fact easily the most ambitious since the TV series began till perhaps The Daleks’ Masterplan just a matter of months later. In a way it reinforces how revolutionary and exciting those early years of Doctor Who were. Every couple of months or every other story, the production team would come up with new ideas, approaches and creative ambitions, either on the written page, or in a concerted effort to make the show look visually better on the screen than ever before. Nearly every other story in Doctor Who’s first three years makes an important lasting impact on its long term narrative and genre development, as well as its own maturity and complexity in storytelling.

In particular, The Web Planet brought us the most alien location ever depicted in the TV series up till at least Full Circle fifteen years later, or it could be convincingly argued to be the most alien ever. Vortis, the planet featured, is a vast, cold and barren world, full of crags, valleys and craters, like an exaggerated version of our own Moon, made ever spookier by the cunning artistic blur on screen, efficiently realised with a camera filter fitted to the lens. Then there’s it’s even more fascinating residents.

The idea of giant insects may be an unoriginal staple of the Hollywood B-movie horrors of old, but writer Bill Strutton’s invertebrate civilisation defies all the clichés by giving us an intricate and multi-layered society, with each species cleverly written, not just in concept, but also in dialogue, thought patterns, and background history. Even the director, Richard Martin, tries hard to convey this visually by hiring choreographers to craft special movements and physical mannerisms as they manoeuvre themselves on camera. The striking costume designs for the creatures are also very imaginative and impressive for their day, helping to add to the layer of surrealism that permeates this serial.

There are five distinct species, most with their own unique character outlook, and yet also quite cleverly on the part of Bill Strutton, share a poetic language and philosophy, that dresses up its actions and history like the myths of a fantasy storybook, full of metaphors and lyrical description that sets the imagination ablaze. The Menoptera, while obviously men in giant Butterfly costumes, are articulated and realised quite effectively with their irregular speech intonations, nervous natures, and choreography, although their excessive hand waving can be a bit silly and distracting at times. The Zarbi on the other hand, are visually impressive on screen, but rather refreshingly don’t speak, or at least not in terms of speech, nicely emphasising the starkly alien World in comparison. The noise the Zarbi make is equally imaginative and starkly alien, but after four episodes of it, let alone six, I can guarantee you’ll be screaming for it to stop, as the constant stream of noise started to give me a headache come the end of the story. The Larvae Guns meanwhile are far from impressive, but as they’re clearly supposed to be living weapons anyway, their total absence of character is perhaps to be expected.

The Optera are somewhere in-between the species in the quality of execution, having an average visual realisation, but also with a fascinating and unique characterisation of their own. Their species seems to have devolved from a group of Menoptera who hid underground from their powerful foe, the Animus, becoming stuck in a religious cult, now worshipping the forms of their earlier missing selves. Interestingly, this also hints at how long the planet Vortis has since been occupied by the Animus, indicating several years, if not centuries. During that time, the Optera have lost all the shared history, knowledge and skills of their past, partly through a lack of education, but maybe also due to the sheer number of years of isolation they have endured. As a result of these circumstances, they have developed an unsentimental and relatively utilitarian character, which has helped them survive in their harsh conditions; but furthermore their language and intelligence has also evolved into an entirely new form as well. The Optera characterise their world and surrounding as if they were living things, or at least describe them in the same terms as they would describe themselves. Therefore holes in the walls and ground are called “mouths” and stalagmites and stalactites are called “teeth”. The most striking example of the Optera’s utilitarian outlook is when one of their number fearlessly, and without any second thought sacrifices themselves in a burst opening from the acid pools in order to save the others. The moment is so dark, surreal, and without any prior explanation, that it’s actually mildly shocking on first viewing.

The ever-present and lethal influence of the Animus meanwhile, is just as interesting, but more from a stylistic point of view. As a concept it represents an impressive, foreboding and unstoppable cancerous parasite; draining and destroying all life on Vortis and leaving just dust and poison in its place. The visual realisation on screen of the Animus is equally imaginative and creepy; an ever growing and expanding mass of weird foliage and grotesque weeds and tendrils, with an eerie giant spider-like creature at its centre. As a character though, the Animus is merely just another one-dimensional villain, with a single-minded desire to conquer all. I suppose it fits in with the conceptual metaphor of the Animus being a near-indestructible cancer, but by the end of the story, I was left yearning for a more satisfying protagonist to justify six episodes of struggle and plot (well, maybe four episodes judging by the padding).

And yet, despite all the imagination of Bill Strutton’s concept, and the inspired creative touches of costume design, make-up, visual effects, as well as a few directorial flourishes; The Web Planet is also one of the most divisive Doctor Who stories of the 1960s, or at least for many non-contemporary, post-1960s viewers, including myself sadly. To me, the reasons for this I would suggest are mainly down to just how excessively padded the serial is, accentuated by some rather slow and flat studio direction. Despite how good Strutton’s ideas are; The Web Planet only appears to have enough plot and narrative to last over four episodes, not six. Whether Bill Strutton had to produce six episodes as a condition of his commission from the BBC, or just thought he could, perhaps we’ll never know. However, the serial seems to spend a lot of episodes 3 and 4 going nowhere very fast, with companions getting reunited, split up, or recaptured, and the status quo of events on Vortis staying very much the same as when the story began. The mystery of the surroundings as well as the life on Vortis, mixed with the alien and surreal atmosphere, help sustain the viewers interest across the first two episodes; but when the detail and substance fail to turn up, any further stylish and creative flourishes will only go so far in making up for it. What makes things worse is that even basic scenes seem stretched and full of wordy procrastination, especially for the Menoptera. The overall effect this creates is one of very little actually happening, even on a character level. The problem with this is that, for me, I stopped caring about the characters, and the scene-to-scene events of the story, which is a shame, because episode 5 is where Bill Strutton injects some sudden wonderful character development, and background depth to Vortis’ alien characters, which I partly described in the above paragraphs. However, by this point in the serial, it feels almost too little, too late, as the two previous episodes were both tedious and a struggle to get through. Episode 5 does save the story in my view, but not enough for me to love it, like I did in the opening episode.

However, what in my mind, ends up adding an extra negative and risible vibe to watching The Web Planet is Richard Martin’s mixed studio direction. Now I don’t mean daft things like a Zarbi running into the camera, or William Hartnell clearly forgetting a complete line of dialogue. Innocent mistakes are easy to ignore and overlook, and matter not one jot if they don’t disrupt the flow of the production. No, I’m talking about creative mistakes onscreen. Despite the fascinating hand movements and mannerisms that the actors had to memorise and perform while in their difficult costumes, the direction of their presence in Lime Grove studio, often seems rather laid back, and at times even confused and chaotic. I understand that these early Doctor Who serials were shot on a tight time limit as well as a tight budget, but when you see the quality of direction in the stories immediately around it, like The Crusade, The Romans or even The Space Museum; it’s clear that Richard Martin was struggling as The Web Planet’s production progressed, which is a great shame, considering how great some establishing and creative shots are throughout the early episodes, and the magnificent film work shot at Ealing Film Studios which makes the Menoptera spearhead landing in Episode 4 quite an amazing sight compared to the tight studio set at Lime Grove. Maybe Richard Martin is clearly at his best with film, when the camera is choreographed more than the actors; and where studio work in the BBC environment of that time is more akin to directing in Theatre. Perhaps the worst of Martin’s directorial mistakes though, is the Menoptera’s dummy attack on the Zarbi in Episode Six, where the Menoptera actors embarrassingly jump around the Zarbi, making squealing noises, like kids on a school playground. This scene is without a doubt one of the most awful and uncomfortable moments I’ve ever had to encounter in Doctor Who, even if it’s more out of embarrassment than for any worse reason.

Another unfortunate weak point of The Web Planet is Vortis’ alien characters, which is quite perverse considering how great their conceptions are. Without exception, they all communicate in two-dimensional terms, always following simple lines of thought, feeling and motivation, with little depth in characterisation. Even when Bill Strutton’s puts in his great character development during Episode Five, this is mainly developed background and history, explaining the different philosophies of the species themselves, which while clever and fascinating to find out, giving the audience a more complex understanding of their World, doesn’t actually create any depth in the aliens’ individual personalities. You might as well label the Menoptera characters as “the wise one”, “the arrogant one”, or “the flighty and sensitive one” for all the level of difference and individuality between them. Even the Animus, despite its imaginative appearance and all pervasive presence, is just another all-conquering monster, seeking dominion over all.

However, even the seasoned TARDIS crew, have less characterisation than we’ve come to enjoy over their twelve Television adventures so far. All four of them, get wonderful moments throughout episode one, only to quickly revert to their basic role stereotypes throughout the rest of the script. It’s also hard to tell, how much of the good regular characterisation is down to talented script editor, Dennis Spooner. Given The Web Planet’s long running time, the simplistic characterisation is a clear missed opportunity for Strutton, and one that may have made the serial a whole lot more interesting had it been taken.

Equally simple and basic is the serial’s plot, made all the more straight-forward, by the singular dimensions of its characters. In fact, the overall plot seems to me, to be a simplified variation on the one used in The Daleks, which feels partly ironic and unnecessary considering how similar the two stories’ runtime are. A far simpler narrative, especially on a 2-and-a-half-hour adventure, certainly helps contribute to the amount of padding in The Web Planet, as the plot has to be put on long pauses, so it can save up its meagre developments for later episodes. Once again, if Strutton had filled these gaps with interesting character studies/moments, then the slow pace wouldn’t have been a problem, but their absence plus the drawn-out narrative development just ebbs away much of the enjoyment the production otherwise generates. Once you get past all the weirdness and visual flair of Vortis and its inhabitants, then the story very clearly boils down to The Doctor and his friends, joining forces with the planet’s native peoples to bring down an unfeeling, powerful and destructive monster. The plot even sounds like a generalised and basic version of The Daleks.

One thing that does try to bring the story out of its doldrums is the actors’ wonderful performances and hard work. All the Menoptera cast try their best to inject as much individual personality through their performances as possible, trying to build on the little they have to go on. Perhaps they even invented the individual characters, behind the Menoptera names themselves, no doubt helped, and led, by Roslyn De Winter’s striking choreography and character performance.

Despite whatever dialogue that gets ‘fluffed’, missed or garbled, it’s clear the regular cast is enjoying some of their time on the story, creative and production stresses aside, as all are on fine form throughout. William Hartnell relishes his small comedic moments, and shines in dramatic confrontations with the Zarbi, and the voice of the Animus. Hartnell also peppers his performance with a brilliant subtlety, whether it’s the warm gentleness that suits the Doctor’s more mellow and paternal nature, or a quiet flash of coldness that sparks across his eyes, reminding us of the character’s former demeanour.

Jacqueline Hill meanwhile absolutely sells Barbara’s plight, first at her complete loss of self-control, under the power of the animus; and second, her horror at the conditioned Zarbi’s sadistic treatment of the Menoptera. Hill even gets to have fun with a witty repartee with Maureen O’Brien as Vicki, who continues her fun, endearing and quirky performance from her first two stories. Sadly, O’Brien doesn’t get the chance to continue it for long, before Strutton turns Vicki into the two-dimensional scared damsel, for much of the story; although O’Brien successfully counteracts this in part, with a show of bravado. William Russell sadly ends up with the typical back-to-basics action man stereotype, that has plagued him throughout much of the series, but the determined sincerity in his performance, saves many a scene, and is always convincing. Russell’s only consolation is when he’s able to comedically play off William Hartnell, during some of the TARDIS scenes, where he can at least demonstrate the depth of the characters’ long friendship, when the development in the script is mostly lacking.

The Web Planet was possibly the most ambitious Doctor Who story ever made for Television. A complete alien world, imaginatively conceived, with impressively shot, and surreal visuals; and an intricate alien civilisation, filled with a striking mix of original alien creatures, all cleverly thought up by experienced TV writer, Bill Strutton. However, for all his experience, Strutton’s plot is so slight it can be barely stretched enough to fill the running time, and his characterisation is fairly two-dimensional at best. Add to that some rather chaotic and misjudged studio direction by Richard Martin, and suddenly the whole production turns into something of a chore to watch. The strength of the concept, plus the sterling efforts of the cast and designers should make this a gem of 1960s Television, but the faults at various stages of production, water it down to such an extent, that sadly to some people and fans like myself, it’s more of a curiosity, than a regularly-viewed favourite.

Score: 5/10

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