Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Serial 13: The Web Planet

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companion: Barbara, Ian, Vicki

Written by: Bill Strutton
Directed by: Richard Martin

Background & Significance: "The Web Planet" is just one of those serials. It's oft forgotten by most fans, and, when you look for it on rankings of Doctor Who stories, it will inevitably always be incredibly low on the list. In Doctor Who Magazine's Mighty 200 Poll, it came after "The Gunfighters" in terms of Hartnell, ahead of only "The Sensorites" and "The Space Museum".

"Worse than 'The Gunfighters'", though? Personally, that says good things to me. And I rather did like "The Sensorites" when I watched it, so...

Producer Verity Lambert and script editor David Whitaker wanted to create another successful monster in the way The Daleks had been successful in the previous year. Enter Bill Strutton, who pitched an idea for (essentially) "giant ants" and Lambert and Whitaker loved the idea so much they didn't even request a storyline. They picked up six episodes, which was not a standard practice at the time. And suddenly everyone was off and running, with Strutton figuring out his scripts and Lambert working to figure out how the hell to make this thing producible.

The result is... well... for lack of better term: magic. Again it's widely panned and muchly maligned mostly due to the design and special effects used. As we've spoken of previously, special effects are the aspect of movies/TV/etc. that age worst as time goes on. Today, The Lord of the Rings trilogy still looks pretty good, but is nowhere near the quality of what's coming out today. Hell, look at Alien. Released just a year later than Star Wars and it looks that much better. And with "The Web Planet" being as ambitious as it is, it's no wonder it hasn't aged spectacularly. And yet, perhaps, maybe there's more to it than you might initially expect. I mean, after all, this is the story that Neil Gaiman (having gone back and rewatching EVERYTHING as an adult) refuses to ever rewatch because it scared the pants off of him as a wee lad. He knows it won't hold up, and yet his memory of it holds and he's still a bit scared of it to this day.

A total turkey, then? It does bring the idea into question.

So let's get to it!


Commentary!: 


Part 1:

I feel I say this a lot, but I absolutely understand why people wouldn’t necessarily go for this.

That said, I eat this up. Completely and totally eat it up.

What strikes me instantly is that this episode (like so few others) is carried entirely by our principal characters. Wisely (and perhaps because it was his only option), Strutton makes sure to layer everything in character drama, or at least, the drama of our characters. There isn’t any sort of exterior conflict for them to deal with (not one that’s tangible anyways). And thinking about the way Doctor Who stories are usually constructed (which is useful because this story is so atypical), it’s not long before The Doctor and the companion race out into the story and into the path of some monster. Hell, last week we talked about “The Two Doctors” and the amount of time it took to get The Doctor and Jamie to run into a monster was about how long it took for them to step out of the TARDIS.

Here it’s different. The Doctor and Ian don’t really leave The TARDIS until about halfway through the episode, while Barbara is compelled out of it a few minutes before the end of the episode, and Vicki straight out doesn’t leave. At all.

I know the last time we talked about The First Doctor we talked about a bottle story that took place entirely in The TARDIS. And that’s basically what this episode is. And Strutton really milks the tension, but in a completely different way. With that story it was a big question of “what is happening with our characters?”, which Whitaker was able to milk because of the way our heroes were still not completely defined. They’d only been around for eleven episodes prior to that story. So when Susan picks up that pair of scissors and gets all stabby with them, we’re not sure if this is a fluke or some latent part of her personality we’ve never seen before because she’s never had need to get stabby before.

To contrast, what's up here is a standard Doctor Who question: what the hell is going on outside?

Indeed, for The Doctor and Ian the first half of this episode is basically one big “what the hell is out there?” while for Vicki and Barbara that’s the whole bloody thing.

Sufficiently, then, this “Web Planet” (as we’re calling it because that’s what the title says; we’ll get a better name for it once they actually name it) turns into a legitimately creepy, terrifying, and dangerous place. It has the ability to toss The Doctor and his crew around like they’re rag dolls. Hell, it’s the first time so far in the series that “an outside force” (i.e. not The Doctor or his companions) breaches the sanctity of The TARDIS. It’s not a huge deal to us now that we’ve been through stories where The Doctor will bring the odd non-Companion on board to take them from place to place or even the Nathan-Turner era where the doors are basically a revolving door without any real lock to speak of. Hell, there’s even a gratuitous bit in “Warriors of the Deep” in which the marines (or whatever) breach The TARDIS for no reason.

For reference sake, the next time an “outside force” breaches the TARDIS’s sanctity is Salamander at the end of “Enemy of the World”.

Here, though, it’s perverse. Nothing is more sacred than the TARDIS at this point in time. And it starts slowly. It’s just the way Barbara feels her arm tugged towards the door. And it’s not like a magnet suddenly turns on. It’s like a beckoning or a call and at first she doesn’t even realize it’s happening. But once she does she fights against it and then runs off to talk to Vicki, something, anything to distract her from the fact that she’s being pulled outside. And I think that’s remarkably human. Hill sells the moment completely, the notion that she might be… flawed in some way. Wrong. It’s the same way the victim of a zombie attack will hide that they were attacked: they don’t want to be the weak one of the group. She knows (or think she knows) that no one else had this happen. And it’s embarrassing.

She’s pulled outside anyways. And it’s pure horror. She fights it. And at some point she stops, completely taken over by the thrall of this pull, whatever it is. And she walks outside. Calmly. Into this dangerous outside world.

So let’s talk about the outside. We’ll see this more with later episodes, but the point of this is to show The Doctor and his crew in a completely foreign and alien environment on a completely foreign and alien world. And everything about this is foreign and alien. It’s from the blur-effect on the camera when The Doctor and Ian are outside (I smell Vaseline!) to the spectacle of seeing what this world entails. We already know this is a scary place, but what we’re not expecting is something that legitimately… bizarre like this. The production values might be low (it is Doctor Who, and mid 60s Who at that), but I have to say that I DO rather buy the alien world.

It’s not just the design, it’s the scope. The surface of this planet looks like it’s going on forever and ever. There’s a pool of highly concentrated floric acid, in which The Doctor melts Ian’s tie. And then there’s the massive ziggurat, which looks like a stock photo. And then they get a shot of The Doctor and Ian standing in front of it, completely dwarfed.

Everything is off-putting. This feels like nothing we’ve seen before. The closest we got was the model shot of the Dalek city in “The Daleks”. But this is completely new. This is scope. This is real. But more than that, there’s danger in the air. Ian pulls out a pen for The Doctor and it instantly flies out of his hand and he has no bloody idea where it just flew off to. That’s right. This planet can steal pens through… telepathy? Which is insane. And scary. As if we needed telekinesis thrown onto the pile of “floric acid” pools”, “massive ziggurats”, and “TARDIS-breaching mind-control”.

The other thing that strikes me, and this, I suppose, is the final thing, is that this is quintessential Hartnell. Only Hartnell’s Doctor could be the one in this first episode. Much of the Hartnell era is structured around a first episode of “exploration” or learning about our new surroundings. We see it in all the Hartnell sci-fi stories before this (“The Daleks”, “The Keys of Marinus”, “The Sensorites”, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”) and it persists in the ones after (“The Space Museum”, “The Time Meddler”, and “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, spring to mind). But this blows them all out of the water because this planet is so… well… alien. I know I keep saying it, but it is. The only thing that comes close IS “The Daleks”, and even then “petrified-metal space armadillo and an abandoned model city” pale in comparison to “giant squiggling ant and massive ziggurat”.

Martin enhances the effect by the use of color. Most of the time The Doctor and Ian dress in darker colors (I suppose it’s just “darks” because we’re dealing with a monochromatic era), but here they dress in stark whites, which catch glare off the Vaselined camera lens. It’s quite amusing and The Doctor’s silly little cap (which always looks silly), when turned white and matched with a white frock/suit looking thing makes him look like the nice old man behind the counter at the soda fountain who’ll make you fun and fancy drinks like “Carmel Butterfinger Vanilla Float” and with a wink to boot. But more than that, he’s giddy at the thought of exploration, especially of a locale so… exotic. Yes, The Doctor getting excited about stepping out of the TARDIS is a hallmark of just about every Doctor, but can you imagine any other Doctor giggling like Hartnell does and then shuffle-racing out of there like he does?

No. You can’t. Because no other Doctor gets across glee like Hartnell gets across glee. He loves it. And it shows. And it’s one of the best and most Doctory moments he ever displays.

So…. This episode is terrible? I guess? You’re so right all the time about everything, Doctor Who fans. You’re so right.

Part 2:

And then things started to get a little bit weird.

What I like most about this episode (and I guess we should get this out of the way straight off) is that Strutton doesn’t explain anything. No really. Not a damn thing. He kinda just keeps going with what’s basically the most weird Doctor Who story you’ve ever seen and doesn’t really let up. Sure, there’s some explanations. The Menoptera (or one of the Menoptera, anyway) explain a bit about the Zarbi and that they’re giant ants and that they’re about to drag off him and Barbara off to some slave camp where they’ll wish they were dead. It’s the closest to mythology/world-building in this episode. And admittedly, it’s not a lot. There’s TONS we don’t know. And episode twos are generally where we’d probably get a bit more explanations or what have you. Or at least, it’s where we’d get info on some of the mythology.

Here’s my question, though: do we really NEED an explanation to enjoy this episode?

The answer to that is probably in what you’re going for in Doctor Who. Sure, you could say this is rubbish and you could say it’s boring. But I find myself so impossibly engaged in the situation that I kinda don’t care. Know what matters at this point? None of that. What matters is that The Doctor and his companions are in something of a tight spot. You might even say they’re in way over their heads. That’s perhaps most accurate, because seriously. What the hell is going on? The TARDIS is being carted away by giant ants. There’s giant moths (we’ll say they’re moths) gazing into crystals and talking through a satellite network to other moths we can’t see. There’s a giant tube that fits over The Doctor’s head and has the voice of a sultry woman come out.

If you need to know more, I suppose that’s okay? But there’s something to be said about just going with the flow and trusting the story to fill us in later.

To call that anything less than welcome would be disingenuous. Sometimes I like not knowing where a story goes. And sure, I know where it kinda goes in general, but it’s been a while since I watched it last so I’m fuzzy on the details. That said, the sheer weird factor of this story is palpable and something that can’t possibly be understated. And that’s not even a “this looks like rubbish” argument (which is actually not true; to say this is rubbish-looking is like saying Star Wars is rubbish-looking). It’s purely a “what the hell is going on” argument. It’s just so weird. SO weird. Barbara is kidnapped by Menoptera, escapes, gets captured/mind-controlled by the Zarbi, gets un-mind-controlled, stays captured. It’s weird. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that there’s giant ants running around.

I love this. Really. Truly. Watching this I’m reminded of why it’s one of my favorite 1st Doctor stories. It’s because it’s trying so hard and because there’s so much ambition being put into it. Yes, you can tell that the Zarbi are dudes in costumes, but it’s… it’s insane to look at it. It’s weird. It’s bizarre. And the horror is palpable. It’s clear to see why this would send a young child scrambling behind the sofa and why Neil Gaiman was scared out of his mind the first time he saw this. Seeing giant ants and giant moths is… debilitating. The Doctor and Ian don’t even know how to react to the damn things. And god knows Barbara gets scared and attacks some of the Menoptera once she’s free of the influence of gold. Hell, even Vicki can’t even scream. She just puts her head down and waits for the whole thing to be over as the Zarbi close in on her, seemingly preparing to devour her. Or whatever.

Other than that, there’s not a whole lot to say. There is the moment where the Zarbi attempt to breach the TARDIS and don’t succeed for whatever reason. It’s not clear, but it reiterates the place of safety it is in the first episode. The Zarbi are not TARDIS crew, therefore they can’t breach its sanctity.

But it’s a beautiful episode. Everything about the design is stellar and while I am a bit tired of all the Vaseline or whatever it is on the planet’s surface, everything about this screams creativity, ambition, and trying something wholly and totally new. Everyone on board is trying to make something that’s surprising and fresh and interesting. In particular, the moment when Ian steps into the larvae (or whatever it is) is a moment of horror. Sure, Ian and The Doctor don’t react that way, but even if it isn’t moving it’s a lot harder to not care about squishing a bug underfoot when it’s the size of a dog.

And finally, the cliffhanger? Yes, we mentioned it in passing, but let’s talk about why it’s so good.

We’ve been on this planet (which we can call Vortis, by the way, cuz they DO mention it in this episode) for two episodes. And the whole time we’ve had remarkably little dialogue. It’s unusual to see, especially on early Doctor Who. As originally conceived, most television was made to look like plays (look at traditional, multi-camera sitcoms) where the focus is on dialogue. Unlike with movies (which are based on images and visuals), plays revolve entirely around their dialogue. We only know what it is the characters tell us. It’s why so many plays take place in rooms with the “major action” (a civil war or what have you) taking place off stage. Plays can’t show that. They tell us it’s happening. Movies CAN show that. They do show that.

So it’s weird to have Doctor Who (especially in an era where television is “mostly new”) go for long sequences of time without dialogue. There’s entire stretches in here where there’s nothing but the bizarre sound of the Zarbi letting out their bleets and bloots.

Except for the end. When The Doctor, Ian, and Vicki are stuck in the middle of a Zarbi camp (the Carsinome) and a tube lowers down over The Doctor’s head and a voice whispers “why do you come now?”. And after two episodes (TWO whole episodes!) of [essentially] no dialogue, to see the monsters of this story (who have been, by the way, up to this point, completely mute/speaking in their own unintelligible language) suddenly given voice is bone chilling. We aren’t expecting it. Wouldn’t they have spoken sooner?? Why now? What changed? Why can’t they all talk this way?

Just the sound of the voice, crisp across the narrative, is enough to make this genius. To ask “why now”? is even geniusier.

So yeah. Total rubbish. Some of the worst Doctor Who ever. Totally.

Part 3:

After two episodes of almost going out of his way to not explain things, this episode sees Strutton slow down the plot (which was already taking its time) to explain to us what exactly is going on… and leave some gaps in our knowledge to let us piece together what’s actually going on.

If I make that sound cleverer than it is, I apologize. But I do find it fascinating just how simple the actual story of this is and how the revelations of the episode unfold. I mean, okay. So the animus is evil just like the Drahvins were evil. And clearly. The good guys don’t hold hostages. The good guys will trust our heroes because trust is a quality for the weak and naïve (and the heroic). Bad guys only understand evil and so behave in the way they’d expect their enemies to act: that is to say, lock them up. So yes. The Animus is clearly evil because why would it treat The Doctor and his companions like this when clearly they’ve done nothing wrong. It also goes to show you that the Menoptera in the first episode were clearly good guys because they ended up not killing Barbara.

So when The Animus demands that The Doctor (whom it thinks working under the Menoptera) tell it everything he knows about the impending invasion, it’s a moment that speaks to its inherent cruelty or what have you.

Interestingly, though, the Animus is very forthcoming with its revisionist version of history. As Ian’s new Menoptera best friend, Vrestin tells Ian (and us) later, Vortis used to belong to the Menoptera until the Animus arrived, took control of the Zarbi, and drove the Menoptera off world. So what we’re seeing is the Menoptera preparing for war to forcibly take back their planet. These Menoptera we’ve met so far? They’re a scouting party to get numbers on Zarbi forces and prepare for the war. Which is clever and a great way to actually limit the number of [probably expensive] Menoptera costumes.

What this means, though, is that what we’re watching is a REMARKABLY standard Doctor Who story by future standards. Hell, it’s not so different from “The Daleks” is it? The only difference is that it’s visibly stunning and remarkably ambitious.

Now I say this (and repeatedly) because it’s worth pointing out that this is something that was on Verity Lambert’s mind at the time. When Russell T. Davies showed Lambert “Doomsday” her quote was something to the effect of “we could never have pulled off something so spectacular” or something to that effect. But I’m not convinced that’s actually the case. It’s clear that Lambert was constantly pushing Doctor Who to be the best god damn show it could possibly be. But she was severely restricted by the budget and technological restrictions of the time. So she had to do what she could and hoped the imagination of the viewer would fill in the gaps.

For the most part this works. There’s only four Daleks (and a whole lotta cutouts) in “The Daleks” and there’s five (or six?) in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”. And yet we’re meant to believe that the entire earth has been invaded by Daleks despite the fact we only ever see four and only ever in London or its outskirts.

This, clearly, is a story that pushes up against those boundaries/restrictions. Look at the creatures: this isn’t cheap. Yes the Menoptera are humanoid and basically in body suits with masks and elaborate wings, that can’t have been terribly cheap. But then there’s the Zarbi. Which are giant ants. And there’s six of them. And they’re all in full body cases (fiberglass?). And there’s six of them. That’s not cheap. At all. Sure, the actors were probably cheap and paid “scale”, but… that doesn’t change the fact that this has ridiculously elaborate sets and ridiculously elaborate costumes and outfits. That’s not… that’s not cheap. And Lambert had to know about that going in.

And you know what? I’ll bet you she said “I don’t give a flying fuck how much it costs. I just want giant ants and giant moths. We’ll worry about it later.”

It paid off. In spades. I know that I’m apparently in the minority of Doctor Who fans on this one, but the result is pure magic. Pure. Magic. The first time I watched this I remember being blown away by the sheer beauty and poetry of something so… magic on my screen. Does it look like rubbish? Sure. A bit. They’re giant ants made out of fiberglass and giant moths with wings made of clear plastic. But you know what? I could do that all day. Yeah. It’s a whisk and a plunger. I could see that. But wouldn’t I rather see a real, proper Dalek? Likewise here, I could say “rubbish dude in a rubbish fiberglass suit.” But I don’t want to see that. I want to see Zarbi. And Lambert and Strutton want me to see Zarbi. So I see Zarbi.

Never was that more apparent in the scene in which Ian incapacitates a Zarbi in his mad dash for freedom when The Doctor gives him the opportunity.

See, I had that. There was a moment when I was looking at the feet of the Zarbi. And that’s the biggest reminder that there’s a person in that Zarbi costume. So I was looking at that. But then Ian started wrestling it. And the choreography on the movement on the Zarbi is so… elegant. The way it throws Ian to the ground and then rears back as it prepares to jump on him. It’s gorgeous. And yeah. Sure. I can look at the way Ian prepares to kick it off as a rubbish bit of choreography. But if you start picking apart Doctor Who at that level you’re quickly going to run out of things to enjoy because it kinda is rubbish.

And yet. AND YET. Verity Lambert doesn’t care. She bought this story in the room. She’s going to give it the college try and she’s going to make it shine as best she can given what she has.

Shine, then, it does. And it doesn’t even matter with the Zarbi either. Look at the way the Menoptera takes flight. Is it done on wires? Are you kidding? Do I care? No, I see a giant moth fleeing from giant ants and a giant moth coming to Ian’s rescue and getting him away from the Zarbi at just the right moment. Everything about this is so specific. And it’s like… yeah. They’re taking it seriously, but what other option is there? Would SportsCenter be better if they dressed like the way people do when they REALLY talk about football? In polos and jeans? Or perhaps even worse: in a “I like beer” tee and ratty jeans? No. You want them to wear suits. You want legitimacy.

If I sound defensive it’s because I can’t understand the mentality of people who say this is worse than “Arc of Infinity” or “Silver Nemesis”. Hell, “Galaxy 4” is undecipherable as it existed when the poll was done and people found this “more offensive” than that story. I just… I don’t/can’t understand that. What is this story doing that is so wrong? Is it not entertaining? Is it not enjoyable? Is it not as rapturous as I find it to be? Are there really so many fans who are against the idea that Doctor Who can be wildly ambitious and experimental? It’s sad, really. But it’s their loss because this is truly something to experience and something to behold. You can’t be told that. You can’t say “there’s giant ants” without someone saying “how the hell would that work.”

WELL SPOILERS, YOU GUYS! IT TOTALLY DOESN’T WORK BECAUSE THE EFFECTS ARE BAD AND IT’S CLEARLY A DUDE IN A SUIT WHEN IT COMES TO ALL THE ALIENS IN THIS LOL.

Part 4:

So in the last part I went on a bit of a rant about the show having ambition and how that ambition should be savoured and cherished because it’s a hallmark of good Who.

Perhaps I ranted too soon?

As you might expect, this episode splits time between the three different teams of TARDIS crew, with each team dealing with a different aspect of the indigenous peoples of Vortis. The Doctor and Vicki are still stuck at Zarbi Prime and spend their portion of the episode figuring out that the Animus/Zarbi(?) have the ability to mind control anyone who is wearing gold. Ian and his new Menoptera best friend Vrestin stumble upon a gang of grub-like aliens (whom we’ll just call Optera now because that’s what they’ll be called). And then somewhere else Barbara and HER Menoptera friend (who is not named because he’s not important? Only he is important, so…?) escaping from the Crater of Needles to warn the invading Menoptera army that they are about to be ambushed.

We’ll start with The Doctor and Vicki first, because that’s the easiest to take care of.

With The Doctor and Vicki we’re in the midst of a Doctor-figuring-stuff-out plot. As far as things go, it’s fairly mostly standard and some traditional Doctor Who wheel-spinning. But the thing that makes it interesting to me is the way Martin shoots it. I love the way The Doctor uses his cane to slide the golden bridle around the Zarbi complex. It’s a wonderful touch and a fantastic use for Hartnell’s signature item (as it were). But Martin also shoots it from an unusually low angle, going for what is (essentially) a cliché of “feet shots”. But on this alien world and on the-usually-eye-level Doctor Who it comes off as visually arresting and really puts the audience into an almost Zarbi mindset: this golden bridle thing and The Doctor and Vicki are all equal. By that I mean the Zarbi view them both as objects, means to an end.

Which is a fascinating shift. In a world of giant ants, they look down on the humans. Fascinating.

And then there’s Ian and Vrestin. I didn’t mention this before, but the previous episode did devote some time to introducing Ian and Vrestin as new best friends in the midst of this chaos/insanity. And structurally it’s a good, smart move. Ian needs someone to bounce off of, and pairing him with Vrestin is a way of delivering exposition. As Ian learns more about the Menoptera, so do we. But it also gives Ian a valuable ally on the strange world of Vortis. Vrestin is someone who understands the rules and mythology of the land and helps make the world feel less alien. And that’s why the sudden appearance of the Optera is so surprising and oddly comforting. With the previous creature introductions it was always jarring and terrifying to see.

Here it’s different. That the Optera (themselves weird-looking etc.) weird out the Menoptera is strangely… comforting. There’s comfort in Vrestin being in the same shoes as us. She doesn’t know about the Optera? Neither do we. We’re on the same page.

The Optera themselves are wonderful in the way the Menoptera and Zarbi are but in entirely different ways. I love the sketchings of mythology that Strutton puts into this, and the design work on the Optera where they have to hop (but clearly don’t always) is a fabulous choice, isn’t it?  It accentuates their weirdness, and the fact that they can emote under those ridiculous eye masks and stringy stringy hair makes it all the more impressive. I love that we’re in episode four and the reveals/surprises have not yet stopped coming. It’s… wonderful and may it never end for so long as the story goes on.

Finally, we come to Barbara and her Menoptera friend.

There’s some great stuff to this. The return of Barbara after an absence across episode three feels welcome and exciting. We haven’t seen her since she was carted off to the Crater of Needles, and our time away from her sees her return in something of a dark place. She’s so weak she can barely stand and her vision is blurry and the oppressive atmosphere is clearly getting to her. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that the time apart has really taken its toll on our poor companion. But to counterbalance this Strutton turns all of the Menoptera slaving away in the Cave of Needles into compassionate allies in Barbara’s cause. The Menoptera are humanized despite the fact that they’re not given much characterization at all. Hell, Barbara’s Menoptera doesn’t even get a name even though Ian’s clearly did.

It’s also an opportunity to flesh out the Menoptera and learn about how they came to be on that moon and what is at stake. This offensive of theirs is a life or death situation. No matter what they’re screwed. Best go out fighting.

The tragedy of it is how much the Menoptera are oppressed and tragic figures. Besides the fact that they’re dying out, there’s also the fact that the Menoptera relegated to the Crater of Needles are all stripped of their wings. Theoretically, this is okay, and Barbara points out as such. They can always grow their wings back. But the Menoptera are quick to point out that their wings have been stripped of them. They will never grow back. They will never fly again. And it’s… sad. Because the Menoptera are completely majestic when their wings are spread (Vrestin is proof of this as the Optera ogle her wings once she reveals them; so too when the spearhead leader lands at the plateau). It’s like… god. Can the tragedy get worse? Hearing them talk about how they’ll never fly again is the most heartbreaking thing. Their beauty has been stripped of them. And for what?

Not only that, but the final action set piece of this episode is marvelous in the way this whole story is marvelous. There’s been goodness before this and shows of ambition, but this is… This is what we’ve been waiting for. A Menoptera invasion of Vortis as they establish a locale from which they can attack the Animus and reclaim their planet.

Only there’s a problem: they are betrayed (unwittingly by The Doctor and Vicki) and the Zarbi know of their plans, prep an ambush, and massacre the Menoptera as they land. The Menoptera land back and attempt to use their stun guns (which are basically just bug zappers in gun form WHICH IS HILARIOUS) to repel the Zarbi. But to no effect. It’s a slaughter. And it’s mayhem. And it’s chaos. Tragic too, because it really looks like all hope is kinda lost. The Menoptera invasion is crippled almost before it can even start. How awful!

But the sequence itself is majestic. Watching the Menoptera fly adds to the majesty and the wonder of the story. I don’t even care. It’s awesome to see. And watching the Menoptera land in droves like they do is just… it’s just the best. It feels like airplanes flooding through the sky on a bombing run. It feels like epic. It feels like war. And the way there’s strategy on every side, the way Barbara and her Menoptera friend KNOW there’s some bad shit to go down, it’s hard to think of it as anything but vicious and insane. And what we’re watching is basically a bunch of moths landing on a small hill and ants swarming the hill and attacking and killing the moths. It’s… it’s an image you can totally understand if I tell it to you. But there’s nothing quite like watching Menoptera wrestle with Zarbi and Zarbi spar with Menoptera. What’s not to love? More than that, this is spectacle on an impossibly ambitious scale, and watching Barbara and her Menoptera buddy flee from the scene of the carnage is impossibly intense and impossibly imaginative.

As with it, it takes a touch of imagination to fill in the edges and corners, but my god is everything about this stunningly beautiful. Exquisite, even. My god.

Part 5:

Now the Menoptera got their asses kicked and it looks like a full scale invasion is out of the question, this episode sees everyone gather the pieces and prepare for a suicide run to take out the Animus once and for all.

Again, I love Strutton and his sense of story. In episode four we got a giant fight between a bunch of giant ants and a bunch of giant moths. The ants slaughtered the moths. It’s devastating. And it looks like everything’s done and dusted. And that’s it, isn’t it? The Menoptera who managed to survive and escape into a Temple of Light (which is awesome as a mythology thing. Underground Temples dispersed around Vortis? That’s phenomenal. Sure, the Meoptera are not perfect, but you can see that there’s at least some real attempt to give them a full culture and history) speak candidly about the idea that they will now have to live underground for the forseeable future as the Zarbi surely have assured control of the planet.

Fun fact: this is EXACTLY what happened to the Menoptera who turned into Optera. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s fascinating that we suddenly have the giant moths devolve into something more acclimated to the underground and the confined spaces.

I suppose we should also talk about The Optera here. Yes, they’re an evolutionary convergence from where the Menoptera are and I love seeing Ian and Vrestin wrestle with this entirely new alien culture. And yes, it’s a bit more wheel-spinny (this whole episode is). But what makes it interesting is how it matches tonally with what’s going on above. Yes, there was a wholesale Menoptera slaughter going down at the end of the last episode and we lost a lot of good Menoptera up there. But so too Ian and his merry band of Men and Optera are beset upon by a pocket of acid. It creates a vile gas and one of the Optera sacrifices itself to make the acid stop.

As a moment, it’s completely horrific and one of the best things about the Lambert era. Not only was Lambert going for more ambition and more spectacle, she pushed the series into new and darker directions. It’s under her supervision that what’s-his-name almost raped Barbara in “The Keys of Marinus” and same with the Vikings and the Saxon woman in “The Time Meddler”. And watching the Optera sacrifice itself and die screaming is pure horror. All we get is Ian’s face as he watches not only this tragedy but also the Optera allow it to happen because they know it has to happen. Like with everything else, the culture and its ethics are… not what you’d expect, let’s say. I mean, if they had given the Optera more character and made it clear that she (like Vrestin the Menoptera) was important, her sacrifice could come in a moment of blind “I have to do this.” But it is premeditated and coordinated with the other Optera who think only of the greater good and all that.

And we also have The Doctor and Vicki managing to create a gold-plated bridle that will not affect them. Or at least, they make one that allows The Doctor’s to turn the tables on Zarbi as The Doctor takes one under his power.

Vicki calls it “Zombo”.

Far be it for me to mention this is Vicki having one installment of naming things that ought perhaps not be named (It’s kinda her thing, you guys), it’s a wonderful small victory for our heroes, especially after the complete “all is lost” of the previous episode. With Zombo’s help The Doctor and Vicki are able to find the plateau and the Temple of Light in which Barbara and her small squad of Menoptera are hiding. There, they concoct a plan and The Doctor and Vicki return to the Carsinome to prepare to undertake their respective parts in The Doctor’s plan to take the fight to the Animus and the Centre in one final suicide mission to free Vortis from its influence once and for all.

More than anything, though, isn’t this just thematic? All of everything that happens in this episode, I mean. It’s almost like this whole story is a treatise on how life is circular. Things go as they are. Civilizations are torn down and they are built back up. One day the Animus arrives and decides it’s going to take over Vortis and kicks the Menoptera out. And no matter what the Menoptera do they can never take the planet back. They claim this is the first invasion, but who’s to say it is? Perhaps they tried before and failed miserably and no Menoptera lived to tell the tale? Clearly the Menoptera have been off planet long enough for an entire new species of them to divergently evolve into wingless, subterranean grub critters. So the Menoptera have been off the planet for a long time. Clearly.

And look at what happens at the beginning of this. The Menoptera with Barbara prepare to stay underground indefinitely. Isn’t that what happened with the Menoptera who evolved into Optera? Didn’t they flee underground and stay there until their wings went away and they forgot about it?

That’s why The Doctor returning to the Carsinome at the end of this is so powerfully resonant. He’s back where he started the episode, only this time he’s affected a hell of a lot of change. Barbara and her Menoptera are preparing for a special ops assault on The Animus rather than a “spearhead assault” (to borrow a Menoptera phrase). Only this time the Zarbi are more vicious than ever. They bring Vicki and The Doctor to their knees, spray them with web, locking them in place, freezing them and stopping them from living, affecting more change, continuing.

As a cliffhanger, it’s beautiful. The Animus loves the status quo and so permanizes it. The way to stop the Chaos from continuing is to strap it down in a sticky mass of order so it can’t be chaotic.

That it does it to The Doctor tells everything about how it handles him and what have you. It recognizes the threat more clearly than ever before and acts accordingly. Note that it doesn’t kill him (because it’s a Doctor Who story? I dunno. I didn’t figure that bit out) but webs him. It’s… god. It’s such a powerfully striking image to see The Doctor and Vicki encased as they are. It fulfills the promise of the title of the first episode (or if you please, the title of the first story). It’s a planet that drags you down and slows you down and hopefully traps you. So, too, The Doctor and Vicki are trapped.

Only the problem is, we still have another episode and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Thermodynamics it’s that you can’t stop Entropy. Ever.

Part 6:

Now that we’re at the end and I’m looking back on this, it’s remarkable how standard this story has been, especially when you look at it from a structure standpoint.

The big reason I’m thinking that now is the tone. There’s something in the way that Martin shoots this episode that makes the whole episode feel like a massive, giant “this is it”. Everything feels like it’s rocketing towards its specific climax at the Centre and against the Animus. It’s paced remarkably well (or not? I suppose I should talk about this later?) and the ending is surprising and thrilling. There’s all is lost moments (The Doctor and Vicki under the Animus’s thrall) and the Han Solo moment (Ian breaking in and distracting the Animus long enough for Barbara to throw the dangerous isotope into the Animus, destroying it once and for all). And of course there’s the massive denouement.

Honestly, I can’t think of the things I don't like. Even here when he’s in wrap-up mode Strutton is constantly adding or improving the mythology in some small way. I mean… it’s ridiculously silly and kinda dumb, but what’s more fun than watching not one but TWO games of keep-away? No really. The Menoptera (holding god knows what) taunt and yell at a Zarbi (screaming ZARRRRRRRRRBBI!”) and toss it around to distract and confuse said Zarbi. And they do that once to bring out the Zarbi in droves. And then they do it again once they’re in the Carsinome to keep the Zarbi away from them. When one gets too close they throw it to the next person. And this distracts the Zarbi long enough for them to get into the Carsinome. It’s shocking it works, but from a perspective of fun and games it just… works. The Zarbi are worker ants, aren’t they? They don’t understand it’s a game. Hell, I’d go so far as to argue that the ants have NO idea what a game is or how to play. Which is brilliant, isn’t it?

And suddenly they arrive at the Centre, to the room with the Animus, which is impressive and sufficiently weedy. Holding the isotope that will destroy it, they find The Doctor and Vicki are under its control. They’re being dragged under too. It all seems lost.

This is a good moment to talk about the Animus because… my god, what is it? It appears to be a giant weed or a fungus infecting the heart of the Carsinome. So it’s a sentient weed/fungus. And yet the first time I saw this I thought it a massive, giant spider. Yes, that perhaps violates Eight Legs continuity, but who’s to say there’s not room for two different species of giant spider in the universe? There has to be, right? But regardless, the Animus is this all-powerful being who warps light into a hypnotic thing that can possess and control you.

In the last episode I talked a lot about how there’s circle-of-life stuff bleeding through all of this story. There’s a lot of death. One of the few Menoptera hanging around Barbara is killed in the assault on the Carsinome. They leave him behind. Life goes on.

So taking that into account AND thinking about how if Vortis itself is really just a landcape of nature (the Menoptera mention that water used to run and flow freely on Vortis and it used to be bristling with life for as far as the eye can see, a stark contrast from the desolate wasteland we’ve seen since episode one), then isn’t the Animus a perfect evil for all of these life-based creatures to fight? It’s basically the planet Vortis fights back. And yeah, it means the giant spider thing doesn’t work (even though I WISH we got to see that…), but at what expense? The Centre is a fantastic room and the fact that it’s all covered in vines and tendrils is yet another achievement of production design in a story FULL of phenomenal production design.

But the Animus is defeated.

And then we get a huge denouement, with the Zarbi, Optera, and Menoptera coming out to the surface to reclaim their planet. The Menoptera are returning. The Zarbi are freed. The Optera are moving back out into the light and into the surface.

Interestingly, this tag at the end is… ritualistic. So yes. Even though we’re at the END OF THE STORY Strutton throws out yet another piece of mythology. In this case a native ritual celebrating the return of life to a planet previously devoid of it. It’s… I dunno. What the hell more can you ask for when it comes to this story? It’s one last chance to see all of these amazing creature designs and the opportunity to cleanse and rejoice after a long-fought battle. It’s jubilant and uplifting and remarkably outstanding in the grand scheme of things. What’s not to love about a party thanking the gods for the return of a home? I just… I dunno. I guess I have nothing to say about it only that it’s a beautiful, fantastic end to a fantastic, beautiful story.

Final Thoughts?: I hate it when Doctor Who fans can be this wrong.

Now, I get people not liking it. I really do. I get people not being able to see the Zarbi for dudes in fiberglass ant costumes. And I get people not being impressed by the Menoptera.

But, as I was discussing with my podcast co-host/writing partner Scott Carelli, if you don't like this story why on earth do you watch Doctor Who? Like seriously. If you say you care about bad special effects, I don't see how you can like anything going back more than five years from where you are right now. Special effects NEVER age well. At the moment they can look good, and I can tell you numerous things I thought looked good as a kid that today would be... well... laughably unwatchable. And "The Web Planet" is a story that's almost fifty years old. So of course the effects don't nearly as good as they'd look today.

Part of what makes Doctor Who good, though, is liking it despite its effects. Doctor Who has NEVER had a sufficient budget to work with. But they always do what they can and make do.

Sometimes that means they have to get creative. Sometimes it means you have a spaceship that's just a giant wooden box. Other times that means you try and make giant ants and giant moths. There is no alternative for this. They can't just "black up" someone's face and say "PRETEND HE'S A MOTH". They have to actually put wings and a costume. But they try and sell it. They really work to meet you halfway, giving you entire mannerisms and cultures to work with. Yes, the way the Menoptera move their hands while they talk is silly. But would you rather they didn't try? Would you rather they didn't do it? Would you rather they didn't take it seriously? I mean, stories like this are what rocket Doctor Who into new and interesting directions. That's what "The Mind Robber" is. That's what "Curse of Fenric" is. And isn't Doctor Who richer for that?

So really, no, there is no apology for this story. It's one of the most ambitious Doctor Who stories ever made  and probably has my vote for "most ambitious" in terms of production. This is way beyond the realm of what Doctor Who SHOULD be able to do and yet the production team doesn't care. And they're going to do their best to put on the best show they can. Strutton writes the hell out of it. Lambert produces the hell out of it. Martin directs the hell out of it. The cast sells the hell out of it. There's not anything about it that's... not trying to be the best Doctor Who story ever. It's dark and violent. It's joyous and rapturous. It's hopeful and beautiful. The image of Menoptera standing tall and spreading their wings is burned into my memory as an image of powerful majesty and awesome wonder and the images of the Zarbi rearing high and chasing people are quintessential Doctor Who monster terror. They just look SO alien.

And it only coulda happened in the Hartnell era. The Hartnell era is constantly pushing the boundaries of "What is a Doctor Who story?" Other eras "figure it out," as it were. The Troughton era has its bases under siege. The Pertwee era has its UNIT stories. The Tom Baker era has its Hinchcliffe horrors and its Williams romps. The Davison era breaks against this, giving us the wonderful Christopher Bailey stories, but sticks in a realm of high adventure and excitement. Colin Baker has his violence. Hell, even the Moffat era stories have started to feel more procedural as of late. But the Hartnell era is full of the promise that, once you turn on the TV you could have anything. You could be in a farce in Ancient Rome or a Shakespeare in the Crusades or a time-hopping Dalek story (and you've two choices for this one) or a story that ends halfway through and picks up thousands and thousands of years later or a story in which The TARDIS crew doesn't even appear.

And "The Web Planet" stands out as one of the ones that most fulfill the promise of this "anything" premise. It's bizarre. It's majestic. It's wonderful. And I'm sad it's over because it's one of the best Hartnell stories they ever did. And easily too. It's why I watch Doctor Who and that people are slowly coming around to it is perhaps my favorite thing ever.

Now if only we could get everyone else on board...


Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Sarah Jane! Frankenstein and his monster! Witches! And a brain! Our final 4th Doctor story is "The Brain of Morbius!" Coming Next Tuesday!

3 comments:

  1. What a wonderful post. I, too, came to Who only a few years ago (having been born while the classic series was gasping its last breaths), and "The Web Planet" was one of those stories I simply loved and admired on my first (and now second) watch. Glad to see it getting the praise it deserves, and that we're able to acknowledge its ambition, insight, and world-building even if it does in many ways not stand the test of time.

    Really looking forward to your remaining posts of the year.

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  2. Sorry- I just find it silly. I don't see any of the subtext that you do (and possibly invented :-) ). It's not about the effects, as I love this era of Who (though the costumes are jarringly school-play, which is hard to get past)... for me, it's just that the story is too silly to be taken seriously. I can't get into it. And I certainly don't see any richer levels. Hartnell's era is awesome... but I would not number this story as a reason why. :-)

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