On the planet Vortis, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki are swept up in the struggles of the butterfly-like Menoptera, the original denizens of Vortis who were forced to flee the planet for the moon Pictos to escape the encroaching web of the Animus and its mind-controller minions, the ant-like Zarbi, and their living weapons, the larvae guns.
I am probably going to come down quite hard on aspects of The Web Planet, so I think it’s only fair to say that is is an incredibly ambitious and imaginative story, setting up a planet with two (and a bit , if we count the Optera as a separate species to the Menoptera) distinct alien creatures which are not humanoid in nature, that production teams today would struggle with bringing it to life. The problems can largely be laid at the door of Richard Martin, whose direction is poor to say the least including some basic poor decisions from the outset and it does suffer, as many other better stories do, with the six-part format.
Before coming down too hard on this, I would also like to say that the costume department did a fantastic job bringing the alien races to life here. I cannot imagine that the purse was particularly full when it came to this story, but anybody involved in making the costumes for the Menoptera and the Zarbi should be pretty pleased with the results. The Optera costumes aren’t quite as good, but still made to a high standard. I was particularly impressed with the moth-like Menoptera costumes, especially the wings which looked fantastic. The Zarbi costumes are perhaps more obviously men in suits and the Optera costumes do betray the lack of budget to a certain extent.
Something that I cannot criticise The Web Planet for is it’s imagination, which is certainly extensive. Strutton has done great work here to give Vortis a viable backstory which feels quite well thought out, with the Zarbi being an invading species, forcing the Menoptera into exile. Despite all of Strutton’s efforts, it does suffer from being stretched over the six part format and would potentially have been a better shorter story – there’s probably enough plot to cover a four-part story nicely, which would cut down on a lot of the Doctor and Vicki standing around in Zarbi captivity.
The worst aspect of this story is certainly Richard Martin’s direction, which is really bizarre. I think I overlooked it for The Dalek Invasion of Earth largely due to the iconic moments and being swept away with that story, but here, the story hits lulls and it is hard to ignore them. There are scenes like the bizarre and irritating distraction of the Zarbi (insert high pitched yell of ZARBI! here) which are just bewildering, and there are a couple of baffling decisions, such as including the laughter over the recap of the end of Part 3, which just encapsulates what a bizarre and confusing ending that is anyway. Then there is the seemingly liberal smearing of Vaseline over the lenses of the cameras, meant to convey a sense of an alien mist but it just makes it look like the camera was never in focus, like in the picture below. What is even more infuriating is that the Vaseline doesn’t seem to have been applied evenly or with any forethought, as at points it seems to be applied with no thought as to where the action will be. This leads to problems where you have a member of the main cast acting opposite an alien, as it does mean it’s difficult to see the performances as the actors intended them. With Richard Martin’s direction, there is a sense of ‘that’ll do’ rather than proper care and attention.
The main cast are a bit of a mixed bag here. William Hartnell is on top form as the Doctor, especially in the first episode where he seems utterly entranced, amused and curious about the planet of Vortis. He chuckles to himself and seems to be having a genuinely lovely time exploring at the outset of this story, which as mentioned above, is probably the best part of The Web Planet. Hartnell is solid throughout this story, and it is difficult to imagine putting another incarnation in this story in his place. He is respectfully silent when he is being told the history of Vortis, and lets his face do most of the work in some scenes – like Hartnell (played by David Bradley) in An Adventure in Space and Time says, he can do it all with a look. He seems completely perplexed when the TARDIS is taken away and does well generally through the story.
We very nearly had the remnants of a Coal Hill School teacher in there instead of this wretched old, raggedy tie!The First Doctor
The companions seem ill-served, with some of them given very much to do, and it seems to me that this is almost an indication of the problem of having three companions two decades before the mistake was repeated for Peter Davison. Ian seems to have completely forgotten all his experiences with the Doctor when they’re out exploring, apparently willing to drink an unknown liquid on a planet surface which turns out to be acid, and increasingly we see that Ian tends to be off to one side in a cave working with some aliens or some disenfranchised humans in most stories of this era. Russell does his best, but it is certainly evident that this may be why he started to think of his future away from Doctor Who. Barbara and Vicki seem to spend most of their time quite passive or possessed, although Barbara does get some good moments when she convinces the Menoptera to stage a distraction as they plan to move towards the Animus damaging Vortis, and Vicki has glimpses of promise when she helps to free the Doctor from the control of the Zarbi’s necklace.
Verdict: The Web Planet is certainly ambitious, but let down by direction and the six-part structure. 4/10
Cast: William Hartnell (The Doctor), William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright), Maureen O’Brien (Vicki), Robert Jewell, Jack Pitt, Gerald Taylor, Hugh Lund, Kevin Manser and John Scott Martin (Zarbi operators/The Zarbi), Catherine Fleming (Animus Voice), Roslyn De Winter (Vrestin), Arne Gordon (Hrostar), Arthur Blake (Hrhoonda), Jolyon Booth (Prapillus), Jocelyn Birdsall (Hlynia), Martin Jarvis (Hiio), Ian Thompson (Hetra) & Barbara Joss (Nemini).
Writer: Bill Strutton
Director: Richard Martin
Parts: 6 (The Web Planet, The Zarbi, Escape to Danger, Crater of Needles, Invasion, Centre)
Behind the Scenes
- The story was originally called The Zarbi and had the working titles of The Centre of Terror and The Webbed Planet.
- The creatures of Vortis were designed to be memorable, in an attempt to rival the popularity of the Daleks.
- This was the first Doctor Who story to have a trailer, which irritated Richard Martin who felt it gave away too much of the plot.
- To date, this is the only story to feature no humanoid characters in its supporting cast.
- Episode 5 shares a title with the first episode of Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Despite the fact that individual episode titles had been scrapped by this time, the first episode’s title was shortened to avoid spoiling the reveal.
- Episode 6 was originally intended to titled Centre of Terror, which was restored in the novelisation.
- Jacqueline Hill does not appear in Escape to Danger as she was on holiday during the week of recording and is not billed in the closing credits. Hill complained to the production team about this, however, her credit was not reinstated for overseas sales of the story.
- It was during production of this story that William Russell decided to leave the show, feeling that his enthusiasm for the series was waning.
- Peter Purves auditioned for the Menoptera but was turned down by director Richard Martin, who believed that he was too talented to play a rubber-suited monster. Purves would later play Morton Dill in The Chase and new companion Steven Taylor.
- The Zarbi were played by a number of the show’s Dalek operators, a number of whom had also had other roles on the show:
- Robert Jewell played Bing Crosby in The Daleks’ Master Plan;
- Jack Pitt played a Mire Beast, a cabin steward and a Mechanoid in The Chase;
- Gerald Taylor played Machine Operator and the Voice of WOTAN in The War Machines; and
- Hugh Lund played Matthews in The Android Invasion.
- Roslyn De Winter was the Grey Lady in The Chase.
- Arne Gordon played an Empire State Building observation deck guide in The Chase.
- Martin Jarvis would go on to play Butler in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, the Governor of Varos in Vengenance on Varos and Nigel Rochester in the Big Finish audio drama Jubilee.
- Ian Thompson played Malsan in The Chase.
I thought that the conversation between Barbara and Vicki about education was quite an interesting detail to throw into a story – I don’t think that an episode made now with a companion from the future and a companion from the current day would necessarily have a conversation like that. It’s quite a small moment, but I thought it showed the amount of thought that Bill Strutton had put into his script.
History doesn’t mean anything when you travel through space and time.The First Doctor
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