Whatever power has got hold of the TARDIS has taken your pen! Of course, ha ha! Now then, there’s something for us to solve!
No sooner do our temporal travellers extricate themselves from a web of Roman palace intrigues then they find themselves in a literal web, with the TARDIS trapped by an unknown force on the planet Vortis, better known as “The Web Planet” (Story Production Code N).
From the start, this story attempts to break new ground by creating an entirely alien world, both physically and narratively, with uneven results. One can see obvious seam lines in the background flats, and in an effort to provide a sense of space, the camera occasionally pans a bit too high, revealing the two-dimensionality of the background. Plus a man in an ant costume (a Zarbi) runs into a camera.
There’s plenty of running through corridors, multiple scene changes in each episode (since, of course, Ian gets separated from the Doctor and Vicki, and the three of them are separated from Barbara, all by the third episode), and often the scenery is jostled by actors. But given the limitations of studio shooting—not just spatial but temporal and financial as well— one can only applaud their willingness to go for it. In particular, the sound work, with an ominous chirping whenever the Zarbi appeared, helped strongly to carry off the ambitions of the visual effects team.
Speaking of the second episode of the story, “The Zarbi,” producer Verity Lambert noted:
This was an extremely difficult episode to do technically, in that there had to be a tremendous amount of scenery in the studio, and apart from the breaks necessary because of scene changes, there was the added problem that we had not used the Zarbi, except briefly in episode one, and it was impossible to tell until we got into the studio the kind of difficulties we would run into with dressing them and moving them from one scene to another.
(Quoted in Howe-Stammers-Walker, Doctor Who: The Handbook: The First Doctor)
They were, essentially, making it up as they went along in terms of putting an ambitious science fiction show on air in a tight time frame and an even tighter budget. So we can rightly forgive them any wires we see pulling the butterfly-like Menoptra through the air or the odd extra limbs on the pillbug-like Optera.
But can we forgive them for the plot?
We’ve got an evil Animus (essentially a spider in the center of a web that has engulfed the planet Vortis) that has mentally enslaved the unintelligent Zarbi (the ant things) and driven off the original sentient inhabitants of the planet, the Menoptra, who are planning an invasion with ineffective electron guns at the very moment the TARDIS is somehow drawn to the planet.
It’s standard fare, but just as the effects team attempted to create a fully alien world, going so far as to create a lens flare effect to simulate the play of light in the thin atmosphere on the surface, writer Bill Strutton creates a narrative lens flare by creating so much distracting back story for the planet Vortis and its many inhabitants that what should have been a four-episode story becomes six, with quite a few very static scenes given over to worldbuilding.
While I applaud a desire to create a cohesive world here, the focus is not on developing the Doctor and his companions but on a throw-away planet-of-the-week that we’ll never return to. Now, perhaps, given the runaway success of the Daleks, Strutton was hoping the series would return to Vortis at some point, but there’s just too much exposition for too little reward.
Still, there’s some nice character and continuity development tucked into this story, particularly as regards the TARDIS.
To date, the TARDIS door has been seen usually to the left of the screen, but in this story, the door is on the right, giving viewers a different take on the TARDIS interior, mostly to showcase a laboratory area where several props essential to the narrative can be found. Here we find an astral map (with a very long cord that must always be connected to the TARDIS), a first aid kit, and the doctor’s pinned insect collection, complete with a pinned spider that scares the heck out of the Zarbi. And here sits the emergency TARDIS door opener, activated by the Doctor’s invaluable ring.
Those get-ups the Doctor and Ian are wearing? Atmospheric Density Jackets to help compensate for the low atmospheric pressure, equipped with Respiratory Compensators that will provide sufficient oxygen, but only for an hour. That’s world-class technobabble a few years before Star Trek makes it a stock in trade.
Barbara continues to exhibit a real strength of character, not flinching at being captured by the Menoptera and, as she demonstrated in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” possessing a keen strategic mind, this time planning the assault on the Animus. She loses the gold bracelet given to her last story by Nero, as gold enables the Animus to mentally control anyone in contact with it. It clashed with her jumper anyway.
Strutton doesn’t do much with Vicki in this story, casting her essentially in the helpless Susan role, though she does try to stand up to the Animus’ mental control and gives a “cute” captive Zarbi (long story) the nickname “Zombo”—in light of her pet sand monster from “The Rescue,” not odd behavior at all from this twenty-fifth century companion who recoils at the drudgery of spending an hour a week as a child hooked up to a learning machine.
There are points in the story where one can see William Russell wondering just why Ian is crawling through another cave or clambering about a flare-lit set. Wood and Miles suggest that this story is when Russell decided to quit the series, and Howe-Stammers-Walker note that draft scripts produced prior to the end of filming for “The Web Planet” have plans to introduce a replacement for Ian.
Given Ian’s role in this story, I can’t blame him. He spends most of the story digging through tunnels, only to pop up in the Animus’ control room just as Barbara is almost finished killing the hideous thing. It’s a lot of running around to no end other than to have the Menoptra and the Optera talk about the history of their planet.
William Hartnell, by comparison, has a blast with this story, much as he did in “The Romans,” throwing himself into the costumes and plot with gusto. He’s laughing all the time, even as he fluffs more lines than usual. The Doctor is supremely confident in his ability to outwit the Animus, even though he inadvertently reveals the location of the incoming invasion force and winds up a captive at the end, where he has to be rescued by Babs and the Butterflies.
The Doctor continues to function as a fount of all knowledge in this story, able to identify Vortis solely on the basis of its rock formations. He appears with his walking stick from “Marco Polo” again, and he reveals the depth of his attachment to the TARDIS when it has been dragged away by the Zarbi, declaiming, “My ship! My TARDIS!”
Curiously, by the end of the story, he’s essentially a hanger-on, having done little to defeat the Animus and with no bold words to help the Menoptra rebuild their newly freed planet. He just banters with Ian about Ian’s ruined old school tie and hops on the TARDIS. Places to go, people to see and all that.
And so off they go, serenaded by the Menoptra who promise to weave songs about the Doctor and his companions. They’re headed back to Earth, where they meet not an ant, but a lion . . .
(Previous Episode: The Romans)
(Next Episode: The Crusade)
Post 13 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project