Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Original Doctor Who: The Web Planet (Story 13, 1965)

The 13th Doctor Who story, The Web Planet, is an admittedly guilty pleasure. From the beginning, this 1965 story has been panned by critics and the public alike. In fact, viewership of the series was at its peak at the beginning of this six episode story and dropped halfway through, from which it wouldn't recover for another 10 years!

The truth is, though, that its greatest faults can also be considered its greatest blessings, depending on one's point of view. The story itself is ambitious retread of the previous story The Daleks (1963/64), this time involving overgrown moths and ants rather than Daleks and Thals. A mysterious force has pulled the TARDIS down to the planet Vortis, which is embroiled in a war between the mothman Menoptera and the antcattle Zarbi who are under control of the malevolent Animus. Coming to Vortis from somewhere out of space, the Animus took control of the mindless Zarbi, stripped the planet of its lush vegetation, built its ever-growing web city, and enslaved the Menoptera by tearing off their wings. Thrown once more into the civil war of an obscure planet, the Doctor and his companions Ian, Barbara and Susan's replacement Vicki spend equal amounts of time being captives of the Animus or underground resistance fighters with the Menoptera before leading the final, covert assault on the enemy citadel.

The guilty pleasure of it is that I enjoyed this story a great deal more than The Daleks, which follows essentially the same story structure. While watching The Daleks, one does get the sense of watching history unfold as one of Science Fiction's greatest villains sent countless British schoolchildren hiding behind the couch. The truth is, though, that as a story, The Daleks tends to drag around the middle to the point where it almost loses my waning attention for modulated talk about radiation or bushwhacking through alien swamps.

The Web Planet, on the other hand, is utterly insane, captivating fun. It is Sci-Fi cheese on a monumental scale... Not quite as magnificently disastrous as Ed Wood's immortal Plan Nine From Outer Space, but almost as sheerly entertaining for it. The gaffs and flubs are multitudinous: The Doctor forgets his lines, a running Zarbi bumps into the camera, Ian has a constant look of detached amusement with the proceedings, styrofoam rocks abound, the ceiling rigging is occasionally visible, and on it goes. Those in themselves would make it a perfectly fine romp into B-movie (or Z-movie) territory.

Those are matched, however, by some otherwise quite competent filmmaking. The world of Vortis is well-visualized as an expansive, starlit desert from which crystalline spires shoot up (even if the actors' shadows are occasionally cast on the flat sets of these wide open spaces, or the crystals are obviously Styrofoam). Vaseline smeared on a camera filter makes a rather effective psychedelic, hazy atmosphere. Even the bug costumes are surprisingly good. Well, maybe not so much for the Zarbi, who are ants with oversized, human back legs. The Menoptera, on the other hand, are quite stylish even as they look quite artificial.

There some quite adept scenes as well. The best is the Menoptera's air raid on the Zarbi's slave pit (the Crater of Needles). There are only a few Menoptra, but as they swoop in and land with a dramatic flourish, you can't even see the wires. It is almost graceful and even a little exciting. While the ultimate reveal of the Animus is anticlimactic, she works marvellously as a haunting, seductive disembodied voice commanding and cajoling The Doctor into helping her discover the coordinates of the Menoptera attack.

The story of Vortis didn't end with The Web Planet, however. The DVD release of this story includes, as a bonus feature, William "Ian Chesterton" Russell reading the story The Lair of the Zarbi Supremo from the 1965 Doctor Who Annual. In this tale - the full text of which is also reproduced on the DVD as a PDF file - a mighty Zarbi intelligence has evolved in the millions of years since The Doctor last visited the planet. This Zarbi Supremo has outfitted Vortis with planetary engines and driven it to the Solar System in the hope of conquering the lush, green, damp world of late 20th century Earth. First The Doctor must defeat the Supremo and rescue a lost band of human spacefarers, and then deal with those same humans who have a sudden ambition to use the destructive power of the planetary engines for themselves. The planetary engines, of course, recall yet another Dalek story.

If you have grown into being a fan of Doctor Who - or more particularly, the First Doctor - then you will see The Web Planet, one way or another, some time or another. Otherwise, you'd have no particular reason to see it. When and if you do, however, the trick is to approach it an enjoy it as some classic so-bad-it's-good Sci-Fi appropriate for stardust drive-ins. Having that noble gift of finding the best in the worst will help you to enjoy The Web Planet immeasurably.


tantalus1970 said...

As I remember it, Dr Who fans only really turned against Web Planet when the video came out in the 80s, as no-one had seen it for twenty years! I grew up with the rather good noveliastion and watching the video was...a let-down. But I still love it!

Xenorama said...

I'm watching this right now! with the text captions on, always a plus.