Caught up in the struggle to free a once magnificent world from the cancerous clutches of a life-sucking spider, the Doctor and his companions are set upon and aided by four species of outer space insect-people…
The Web Planet is Doctor Who Marmite (Garmite? Maramite? Kate O’Maramite?) – some love it, some hate it. This, as if you didn’t know, is the story that probably had Sydney ‘No BEMs’ Newman choking on his Camp because it’s the only Doctor Who story ever made in which every ‘non-regular’ character is a ‘monster’ in full monster suit, with monster mannerisms, monster dialects, monster shuffles and monster bleeps. Apparently it’s a tough watch if you think Doctor Who should be more like Star Wars or Star Trek (or any other inappropriate comparison series with ‘star’ or ‘space’ in the title).
It’s also been alleged that the costumes look stagey and theatrically literal; the performances seem over-the-top and strange; the sets look cramped and flat. But The Web Planet – what a title! – is quite possibly the most outstanding and expressionistic example of imagination and creativity in the series’ black and white period, and everything about it is designed to scream ‘alien’ or ‘bizarre’.
From the opening of the eponymous first episode, it is clear that this is something the series hasn’t done before. The ‘atmosphere’ of Vortis is made visible on screen thanks to liberal smearings of Vaseline across the camera lenses (allegedly), lending a glaucomic otherness to the place; there are strange aurora borealis-like lights in the sky; voices echo oddly across the landscape; stock music sounds like it has literally been beamed in from another world (the music sounds so like Vortis that when it turned up the 1973 series The Lotus Eaters, this reviewer fully expected giant ants to enslave the ex-pat populace of Crete!).
John Woods’ planet sets suffer slightly from being painted backcloths and flat-looking outcrops, otherwise there is much to see and enjoy here. The Carsenome is fittingly dark and claustrophobic, while the temple of light is modestly but effectively realised, with director Richard Martin shooting actors through apertures in the set to allow for weird pictures (with some shots seemingly taken from above). There’s also a huge TARDIS control room the likes of which we haven’t seen for a while and the menacing hum of its environs is actually quite unsettling.
On the subject of the TARDIS, it’s worth mentioning the stuff that no longer grabs our attention but should be noted for its inventiveness. We take for granted the ease with which the Doctor and Ian bring the Astral Map from the Ship, but in reality it’s too cumbersome and large to fit through the police box prop doors, so Martin achieves the transition by use of a clever, but unfussy camera angle (the kind of thing that will be employed all the time when K9 joins the series). This sort of thing gets lost because we’re too busy watching poor John Scott Martin bump into the cameras (What’s that? You’d condemn a whole story for that?!).
Of course, what we’re really looking at in this story is the ‘monsters’. The Zarbi (bi-Zar – get it?) are stunningly realised gi-ants with mammalian hind legs who look their best in film sequences, most notably when the TARDIS is stolen. The weirdest thing about them is that Richard Martin chooses to reveal them so early. Then again, he has more than one card to play and the first sight of a Menoptra is all the more startling for being full-on.
These part-man/part-bee/part-caterpillar/part-moth people are a triumph of Daphne Dare’s expressionist costume design (foreshadowing the work of such later luminaries as Jim Acheson) – and Sonia Markham’s make-up design is also beautiful. The Optera are also excellently costumed – with compound eyes no less! Both of the more ‘humanoid’ races benefit from Roslyn de Winter’s quirky ‘insect movement’ and the accompanying vocal tics which see the aliens use innovative bastardisations of the lead characters’ names and speak in evocative and metaphorical language patterns.
Throughout this story it’s just as much the spectacle you can’t see as the spectacle you can – writer Bill Strutton paints great mental images: a sky full of moons; thousands of bee-people massing a space fleet above Vortis; long-lost flower forests. There is some genuine world-building going on, both on screen and in the dialogue (‘light was our god’; ‘silent walls’; ‘speak more light’). Even so, there are plenty of action sequences. The best part of the whole story comes when the Menoptra attack force lands. It’s a great battle sequence and the Menoptra look incredible in beautifully designed cowls and silvery facial close-ups.
The best cliff-hanger comes at the end of the best episode, Invasion, and sees the Doctor and Vicki mummified in alien web – one of Doctor Who’s most horrifying images so far. And this is another thing those who don’t rate this story tend to forget: it can be scary; it can be horrifying. Yes, the Carsenome sounds like an end of the pier amusement arcade where someone’s always scoring three cherries; yes, the site of Menoptra leaping about yelling ‘Zar-bi!’ is a bit silly, but a lot of what happens here is quite mature and well thought out. The clipping of Menoptran wings is very disturbing; the death of the Larvae Guns (Venom Grubs to you Target fans!) when crushed against walls or under other creatures is quite grisly; Nemeni’s dutiful self-sacrifice is particularly moving and comes as a shock on first viewing; and let’s not forget the deliciously remote and horribly voracious vocal talents of Catherine Fleming as that proto-Great Intelligence, the Animus.
William Hartnell’s Doctor remains wonderfully charismatic. He might seem odd to modern audiences who like their heroes young and pretty, but his definitive Time Lord is truly alien, truly mysterious. His reactions in any situation are amazing and never by the book (see the scene with Ian’s pen). Hartnell always does his own thing, pushing his character in strange and alien directions. He’s clever enough to know that even though he’s not always line-perfect (there are many Billy-fluffs in this story) he will win the battle to convince us of the Doctor’s deep and powerful intelligence by skilful use of his darting eyes. And he does. Oh, and his despair when the TARDIS is ‘lost’ at the end of episode one is tangible.
Ian is brilliant, as usual. William Russell is a master of intimate naturalism and is wonderfully tender and supportive when encouraging the Doctor to remove his Atmospheric Density Jacket; taking the smallest scene and bringing it to life. He is a great, great actor. As always, he gets to do plenty of action hero stuff, but his finest moment comes at the start of ‘The Zarbi’, when Ian emerges from his web-weed induced slumber. He is clearly disturbed by the experience and seems, for once, oddly un-heroic and it is fascinating to see his vulnerabilities exposed like this.
Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) is also as splendid as ever. Her resourcefulness knows no bounds as she leads the Menoptra to victory and one cannot help but feel that the spirit of Yetaxa lives on in her. She is the heart and energy of this TARDIS crew and it’s lovely to see that her need to spring clean the TARDIS’ instruments shows how much the Ship has become her home. Early on, there are lots of lovely character moments between Barbara and new girl Vicki (Maureen O’Brien), highlighting their cultural differences and picking up on matters left over from the last two stories, re-emphasising Doctor Who’s on-going serial nature.
At one point, Ian refers to Vicki as ‘that kid’, making you wonder if he actually likes her yet – or maybe he’s just jealous of her instantly special place in the Doctor’s affections? She is, after all, a better foil for the Doctor than Susan was.
All the regulars play to their strengths and get something meaty to do, each one contributing something valuable to the liberation of Vortis.
So would The Web Planet be better if it had been filmed in a quarry? No. Would it be improved by having humanoids rather than alien insects? No. Now if you’re of a mind to do so, it is possible to interpret this adventure as more like Lewis Carroll than Arthur C Clarke and use that as a stick to beat the story with. But it was possible for Doctor Who to come to a place like this in 1965. And how original and brave is this even then? Perhaps we just don’t give The Web Planet the love and respect it deserves because we’ve always had it. If we hadn’t seen it since 1965 and it turned up tomorrow in a boot sale we’d be evangelists praising its originality and its verve. We might have been all along – and let’s be honest, if nothing else, it’s always going to be better than The Celestial Toymaker. Given the scope of its technical ambition, it’s a miracle that it’s as good as it is.
Its images and textures, its electronic sounds, watery music and expressionist performances are actually very beautiful – if you allow them to be. We sometimes run away from it because everything about it is ‘alien’, but isn’t that what the series set out to be? And it’s BIG – actually BIG – on the screen BIG, in the TARDIS BIG, in the Carsenome BIG; in its ambition BIG. And, by and large, it all works. In the context of all of Doctor Who, The Web Planet is unparalleled. It is quite possibly the most imaginative Doctor Who story ever made and sometimes, when no-one’s looking and it can just get on with being brilliant, it might even be the best.