The Web Planet

Written by:
Bill Strutton
Directed by: Richard Martin
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1965
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

With the sad death of writer Bill Strutton on the day of the 40th Anniversary I thought it well overdue that I took another glance at The Web Planet. Probably really only one of two Who stories (see also Kinda) to get a major reappraisal, this one was actually still quite popular until its video release in 1990.

Having largely been confined to the archives its reputation couldn't generally be effected. But being exposed to the modern age two and a half decades after it first aired all its datedness was ruthlessly exposed to ridicule. Indeed, there are times when it's not like watching Doctor Who at all - seeing men in giant insect costumes shouting "Zar-biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii" often makes you feel you're watching a Czechoslovakian primary school play performed on crack. But as a historical document it must at least be applauded for its experimentation, which sees a totally non-human guest cast. Well, okay, they are humans dressed up in bits of old foil and papier mache, but at least commend it for its earnest novelty value. This is no "falling over and twisting your ankle" filler, this is someone actually trying to do something original with the series. Okay, it's not very good, but there's an ambition at the heart of it that makes it worthwhile.

As for this first episode, what makes it a work of sheer unbridled genius is not the script, design or plot, but Billy performing my all-time favourite Hartnell fluff. We've watched him blow his lines, changing space into Spain, and drugs into gloves. We've even seen him reinterpret lines so they have absolutely no bearing on their original meaning, and totally confound other actors (Michael Peake particularly) by messing up their cues. But nothing even comes close to the majesty of this one. Any old actor can forget a line - it takes a real pro to forget an entire scene. Just over seven and a half minutes into the first episode, Hartnell - who has been struggling throughout - goes into total mental meltdown. Possibly suffering from a flashback, he flounders and stutters and tries vainly to keep the momentum going, as the scene drags on interminably. Then - he's lost it! He's totally f***ed it! He's staggering around on rubbery legs and he hasn't got a clue what comes next! Vainly he looks in askance at his reliable cornerman William Russell for help, but even he's not getting himself involved in this one. "Eh?" he says, leaving Bill to flounder on alone, and nearly pissing himself as he does so. Now in the throes of utter desperation, Bill tries laughing like a loon to cover it, but frankly he's fooling no one. Ladies and Gentlemen, you have just been willing spectators of pure fluff masterclass.

It's difficult to review these older stories - do you rate them by the standards of their time, or by modern achievements? I think a bit of both. Obviously you can't expect hand-held cams, dissolves and fast edits in this era, that should go without saying. But compare the direction on this one to the better stories of Billy's era, and you have to come to the inescapable conclusion that Richard Martin's shit stinks. Mind you, I defy anyone to tell me that their first thought upon seeing grown men running around as six foot ants in front of a painted backdrop and Vaseline smeared on the lens isn't "What the f***?!!?" In fact, this episode's so shit we even get a "crew pretend to fall over as the camera shakes" scene.

I've often said that Barbara can be a little scary, but she's never more so than here, possibly due to Jacqueline Hill's growing indifference with the role. She's on full red alert, a constant mood machine ready to irrationally yell her head off and then blame it on her hormones. As for the episode as a whole, then it's quite staggering how a single bout of twenty-four minutes can seem to last for roughly three hours. There's no point in focussing on which of the regulars gets the most screentime, because none of them are in shot for as long as a boom mike shadow. It's a story so outrageously, undeniably shit that you can clearly see the fishing line attached to Ian's pen before it "vanishes into thin air". Meanwhile, the Doctor goes totally barmy just because there's a few echoes in the place. On a technical level alone it's appalling. And yet… I love it. Only a cold heart could not thrill at Ian telling the Doctor that he hopes his pants stay up, just after the Doctor has told him he's premature. And when the Doctor remarks that "that's your affair, not mine" you can't help but smile at the interplay. It's a terrible piece of television, really, but its flaws are also the reason it appeals. Is it genius or is it just cack? I'll have to give it an average mark to edge my bets…
* * *

There seems to be some fluff action going on during the first four minutes of this one, but as Bill's doing his "out of breath" acting then it's hard to reproduce what he's saying. For completeness' sake, as well as the classic episode one scene fluff, we also get these: Episode One: "If this is your idea of revenge for that tie, then I sa - I think it's a very poor effort."; Episode Two: "Many light Eart… many light years from Earth."; Episode Five: "Now we know the Tardis is the oppoding - opposing force."

Other than that, there's not a lot to say. The excitement of the crapness of the first has faded, and we're left with the realisation that we've still got five weeks of this cack to sit through. I'm going to have to keep taking breaks, I can't manage it all in one go. Barbara's captured by a group of men in black cardboard bodysuits, with felt trims and cellophane "wings". They float on wires and are supposed to be giant butterflies. The concept of giant insect life evolving on a planet isn't actually a bad idea, but the overall naffness, including a two-dimensional backdrop and a lens so smeared it obscures the actors' heads drags the whole thing down. The sound is also terrible, though I suspect this isn't a fault with the story at the time, and more the poor way the film was preserved and presented onto tape fourteen years ago. As the story is now extremely unpopular I imagine we'll have to wait a long time to see it cleaned up for a DVD release.

Ian even draws attention to the limitations of the story by speaking to the Doctor about the "strange lights in the sky", but no amount of off-camera crashes and bangs can disguise the magnificence of Hartnell when he goes into righteous fury mode. The unfortunate upshot of all this is that it jars badly with his characterisation - he's just spent he last half an hour giggling like a loony, now he's an angry young man kicking out against the system? The Menoptra even have a radio transmission system, though - and I can't remember what I wrote next. Probably not important, just a wrap up, but it was at this stage that my computer decided to crash. Had it had enough of The Web Planet as well?
* * ½

The opening of this episode sees some self-consciously "ethereal" acting from Billy, where he seems as surprised as us that he managed to say "astral plane" without blowing the gaff. Meanwhile, there's a "gun" that's quite obviously a hand puppet and is, by any definition, feeble.

Incidentally, after writing the first two parts of this review I was reminded by Craig "friend of the Anorak Zone" Hinton that it was a popular belief that Vaseline was really used in the making of this one. So to set the record straight a special filter was used for some of this serial - when I mention Vaseline I'm just taking the piss, okay?

Anyway, five minutes (or 5'21m in to be exact, Anorak fans) and we get the infamous scene where a Zarbi smacks into the camera, knocking it in the air with a large crash. This is one of the many reasons that reviewing The Web Planet is far more problematical than it's at first thought. Because this is a television production where an absolutely enormous goof is left in when it clearly should have been edited out - it's atrocious. Yet on the other hand, it's not just plainly bad, but genius, piss-your-pants until you cry funny bad. F*** me, it's absolutely hilarious!! So for a five-star rating it gets a score at the extreme end of either scale and is forced to meet somewhere in the middle, satisfying neither convention. The Web Planet isn't average, it's a rock bottom story and a sensational laugh riot that should be a cult favourite - both at the same time.

Also featured in this one is the Astral Map of the Doctor's which is connected to the Tardis by a plug socket. The fact that it rolls along the floor so easily further enhances the fact that it's a studio set. This is charming, though - nowadays a series would have CGI ants, but here we get Ian wrestling a man in a giant ant costume to the ground, in a scene that made me frankly piss myself. Then we get the lame Larvae pulled along by a wire, and the Menoptra landing on a tow rope. Perhaps the weakest part of this episode is that almost constant attention is drawn to the fact that Jacqueline Hill is on holiday, with Barbara being mentioned about ten times. Yet another plus sees Bill apparently ad-lib his "hairdryer" line.

But has anyone ever tried to seriously review this story? With its tale of "militants" overtaken by the "dark power" and enslavement, it's a veritable parable of the race issues that have always troubled the world. And get this - Khazenome, probably a play on Carcinoma (cancer), while Animus means life force. So the Doctor's on a planet undergoing a biological battle. Am I a genius to pick up on that or what? (Actually, I'm not… it was Craig again, and I ripped him off).
* * * ½

For some reason someone can be heard laughing at the reprise of this one. We meet the Optra, a primitive form of Menoptra, who look ridiculous and fare badly when their leader decides to speak in a French accent. But out of them all the Larvae come off worst. What are they supposed to be - cockroaches? So like butterflies, the Menoptra fly. Like ants, the Zarbi run around. Like cockroaches, the Larvae blow an explosive charge out of their noses?!!? A major query is to how they came to be known in fan circles as "Venom Grubs" when this name is never spoken on screen or referred to in the credits.

This is probably the most tedious of the six, with the world's slowest revolution taking place and even Barbara joining in by wrestling a Larvae. It's also quite violent when you think about it, with a Menoptra trying to stab a Zarbi in the throat. Only the fact that both are dressed up as giant insects lessens the shock value.
* * ½

Barbara describes the Temple of Light - an old box with some crayon on it - as "beautiful", while the Doctor has taken to leading a Zarbi around by showing it his ring. Come on, leave it, it's a cheap gag…

You know, though, I think everything would be alright with the world if every middle story of a Doctor Who season featured giant ants. While accusations of Who losing its inspiration and opting for gimmickry in the second season can be upheld, (The crew reduced to an inch high! The Daleks come to Earth!) the lack of imagination cannot be criticised here. (Besides, the two examples I just gave were in the first production block anyway, but held back until after the gap). Despite what I said about last week's episode, this one drags even more and goes nowhere. There are times when Martin tries with his direction… just look at 19'04m in, where Hartnell, Hill and a couple of Menoptra are shot through a bit of scenery. Then the camera slowly and stylishly pans round… only to bump into said scenery and shake the picture. He does the best that he can, but he's not Douglas Camfield and he's not Christopher Barry. Having said that, there is also a nice aerial shot towards the end. Another bore though, with sole laugh coming from Billy, insisting on the "untold value" of his ring.
* *

Am I missing something in this story or is there a reason that the Tardis crew decide to join the side of the Menoptra? Sure, they've been enslaved, but it still seems extreme and judgmental of the gang to act like this, bearing in mind there are no real definitions of good and evil on either side. I actually feel rather sorry for the Zarbi here, captured and humiliated. The Doctor rages against slavery, yet inflicts the same torment upon one of their number.

There's good and bad in this episode. I remember staying up late to watch this one once, and, as I was nodding off anyway, then the climactic scene with the sleep-inducing Animus seemed to work on me. And this is an ideal time to mention just how superlative Catherine Fleming is as the voice of the Animus, an area where actors frequently go over the top. Just look at the ambition here - when Doctor Who attempted a confrontation with a giant spider nine years later it was crudely dubbed on by CSO. Here they've actually created the thing and have it in the studio so it can interact physically.

On the downside, then the "Zar-biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii" scene is painful, as are all the battle scenes. Maybe the story is set in the future as Earth is said to have a "mastery of space", though solar systems and galaxies seem to be a little mixed up here. The Animus (which is destroyed by radiation) comes to its end 16 minutes in, meaning we get an unusually long coda to fill the remaining runtime. Seven minutes of further punishment play out, with, unusually, 2 minutes after the main cast has departed. Here we get Zarbi, Larvae and Menoptra as pals, the feminine Menoptra looking on as the masculine Larvae seem to produce ejaculate over the ground. I mean, I can understand 'em being pleased they're free, but there's no need to get that excited. And if you're watching this on the official release tape, you'll see some really crap fake end credits so the BBC could remove the "Next Episode" tag…
* * *

Any television production from four decades ago that tried to create giant insects has to, by default, be dated. But The Web Planet has an earnest ambition that makes it far from the worst Billy, and there are many, many funny moments… it's just a shame none of them are intentional.
* * *