Twilight of the Gods
The Web Planet
|Dates||Feb. 13, 1965 -
Mar. 20, 1965
With William Hartnell, William Russell,
Jacqueline Hill, Maureen O'Brien.
Written by Bill Strutton. Script-edited by Dennis Spooner.
Directed by Richard Martin. Produced by Verity Lambert.
|Synopsis: A powerful force has turned the peaceful inhabitants of the planet Vortis into soldiers who enslave the moth-like Menoptra.|
A Review by Paul Williams 3/6/19
The Web Planet is ambitious but dull. That's the first time I've used the D word to describe a whole story, thirteen stories in. There is a distinct lack of pace as a four-part story, at best, extends to six. The concept of a world without humanoid characters would deter many sci-fi novelists, so credit goes to the production team for commissioning the attempt and creating five different species. The Menoptera are impressive and laden with individual traits, unlike the clumsy Zarbi, the awful Optera, and the unnecessary lava guns.
The Zarbi needed their own weapons. We don't see the Animus until the final episode. Until then, it speaks through a cheap tube that even Hartnell makes fun of. Revealed, it is a formidable opponent in need of better slaves and a tight script.
The Longest Web by Matthew Kresal 29/6/20
What is the quintessential First Doctor story? Is it the first Dalek tale? Or something like The Aztecs? Perhaps it's The Web Planet, the story that marks the mid-way point of this opening era for the series. It is, after all, a serial that features so much of what makes this era what it is, for better and for worse.
Definitely for worse.
It's the ambition of producer Verity Lambert and director Richard Martin that's most on display. Here is Doctor Who as a series, barely a year old at this point, betting that it can bring to life not only an alien world a lot like the Moon but populate it with beings who aren't just humanoid but creatures that include giant ants, grub creatures, anthropomorphized moths and something akin to a Lovecraftian Elder God. All of which was a tall order, but one they attempted anyway.
It does all of that inside a story that, fundamentally, is a science-fiction version of the Second World War epic The Longest Day, released as a film in 1962 from the Cornelius Ryan non-fiction work published in 1959. As with the account of the Normandy invasion, The Web Planet features an invasion force dropping out of the sky, scouting parties sent to gather key intel, a literal underground force, and a pervasive enemy trying to discover both when and where the invasion is coming due. That its writer, Australian Bill Strutton, had served in the war and even been a prisoner of war suggests that this allegory was likely very intentional indeed. As with The Reign of Terror's French Resistance atmosphere before it, the idea that The Dalek Invasion of Earth was Classic Who as its most influenced by the events of the war twenty years earlier is very much a mistaken belief, as this story shows.
On the other hand, it's over-ambitious to a fault. It's hard to imagine Modern Who, with all of its resources, being able to bring this story to life convincingly, let alone a feature film of this era with the budget of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey. With the budget of 1960s Doctor Who, it was practically a fool's errand. The Zarbi, those aforementioned giant ants, look like precisely what they are: actors wearing an ant over from the waist up. That's without forgetting the moment that one of them crashes into a camera, a sequence left in presumably due to the pressures of recording episodes "as live". Elsewhere, the grub-like Optera are just downright laughable, with actors shouting and hopping around, as if in a sack race, despite shots revealing their legs are very much apart. Of the various aliens, its the moth-esque Menoptra who come across the best as pieces of design, but, even so, the attempt to make them alien with their hand gestures and speech patterns renders them laughable instead. As commendable as the effort to expand what the show could do was, it was something that created many of the cliches that would be invoked against it later on.
It doesn't help that, despite Strutton's interesting thematics, the script didn't match the ambitions of those making it. After stories such as The Reign of Terror and The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Strutton's script feels like it's aimed at children with some laughable technobabble, such as the Isop-Trope ("isotope" with an extra letter and hyphen thrown into it). Pacing is also an issue, something that the script is as much at fault for as the production is, with even individual episodes feeling short of incident at times, particularly in the early installments. Indeed, the script feels like one written by a writer with no real experience of science fiction as a genre, something that a look over Strutton's other credits suggests was very much the case. Perhaps it's no wonder he wouldn't write for the TV series again, with the 2013 Big Finish Lost Story adaptation of his outline for The Mega featuring the Third Doctor being the closest he would even come to writing for the series again.
In the end, The Web Planet is something of a failure. Yet it's a noble one, speaking to the ambition, and over-ambition at that, of the people making it at the time. Rarely again would those making the show take quite a throw of the dice and stretch the capabilities of the series they were making, though perhaps that was due to seeing what had happened when they had done so here? It's just a shame they didn't put those efforts behind a script that one of this era's best directors, and the talents of all involved, couldn't keep interesting.
For, as the Fifth Doctor would observe in another story famously let down by the production values, "There should have been another way."