Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Web Planet

Previous viewings - one

Every era has its token turkey, which is used as a yardstick for how not to do Doctor Who. Tom Baker's era has Underworld, Davison's has Time-flight, McCoy's has Time and the Rani, and Hartnell's has The Web Planet. However, no matter how little I enjoyed The Web Planet the last time I watch it I always look forward to it. It might be because it's a First Doctor story, but I think it's because it's failings are very visible and make it difficult to suspend disbelief, rather than anything to do with story or acting.

The Web Planet has the TARDIS visit the planet Vortis, which looks a bit like the moon but is inhabited by giant ants and talking bumblebees. To hell with the budget! However this isn't the only reason this was a brave idea for a story. Regardless of the fact that a story can theoretically take place anywhere in space and time, there are a few settings we can safely assume we'll never see in Doctor Who, because it's aimed at a family audience and sci-fi is a hard sell. People want to see things they can identify with and understand, otherwise you're putting up an obstacle between the programme and the viewers that you need to work extra hard on to break. The Web Planet not only puts up a few obstacles, it seems to go to some trouble to alienate the viewer. The wonderful dynamic between the TARDIS crew is hardly there past Episode 1 as our heroes are divided. Vaseline on the lens makes it hard to even see. The aliens not only look alien, their speech is slow and soft and their movements are odd. There's a line between experimenting and baiting the viewer to switch off, and this story crosses it.

There are good things about this story. The first episode is one of them. Hot on the heels of the superb The Romans, the TARDIS has been drawn to a mysterious planet by an unknown force. The planet is everything it should be - unsettling, eerie and creepy (and the planet set itself impresses through the story, even if the same section ends up standing in for various parts of Vortis). For once, some of them stay in the ship, as there's no need for all of them to risk their lives. Despite an awful fluffed line by Hartnell that almost causes William Russell to break character, it's all good until we see the Zarbi, the aforementioned giant ants who actually work the best of the aliens in the story. The ant suits are fine, given the budget, but the sound they make seems more like something I would expect from a toy version of them, and they look silly when they move as it draws attention to the obviously disguised human legs. As the story progresses, the Zarbi suits start creaking, which really gets embarrassing after a while.

Anyway, that first episode, which I'm probably going to focus on as I prefer to be positive. This has the most character interaction of the episodes, and we see more of the wonderful Doctor/Ian relationship that is often sidelined in favour of the Doctor/Susan (or Vicki in this era). Hartnell and Russell have good chemistry and by this stage they're no longer fighting for dominence, but the Doctor still somewhat absentmindedly mocks Ian for his inexperience when it comes to space travel, such as the incident with the tie at the pool of acid.

The end of the episode creates several cliffhangers and sets up a few mysteries. Barbara's arm is being controlled via her bracelet, leading her to walk towards the pool of acid, while Ian and the Doctor return to the TARDIS, which is being bombarded with funky Zarbi noises. With Ian trapped in a web, the Doctor finds the TARDIS is gone! Despite this being quite a ropey story, I think this is an excellent cliffhanger and leaves me optimistic about the rest of the story, despite reservations which will soon develop into cries of "please God make it stop!" by the time another few episodes have rolled around.

The resolution of the cliffhanger is total cheat. The TARDIS is dragged to the lair of the Animus, the villain of the piece, while the trap that ensnared Ian is totally forgotten about as he and the Doctor meet up and ditch their special breathing jackets (which I had rather liked, for the change from the norm) and are surrounded by Zarbi. For once, the Doctor is totally at a loss as to how to communicate with the aliens, leaving us uncertain whether they are actually threatening; all they seem to be able to do is stand around making noises. Barbara is taken by the Menoptra, human-sized bumblebees who seem to like waving their arms around while talking.... very... slowly, supposedly to make them more alien but I wonder whether the writer was keeping in mind that he had six episodes to write and the same story with Menoptra talking normally would only last three. The thing is, the Menoptra don't actually look terrible, but they're an idea that was never, ever, EVER going to look good. It's representative of the budget failures of the story that don't even provoke laughter, but bewildered looks.

The Menoptra's way of speaking was so distracting that by the end of each sentence I had lost interest in (and even forgotten in some cases) whatever they were saying at the start of the sentence. I felt for Jacqueline Hill in this scene, as she looked embarrassed and it's when I'm watching the Menoptra scenes that I'm trying to pinpoint the exact moment where Hill decided to quit the show.

What's left of the Menoptra after an attack by the Zarbi (hahahahaha!) are taken to the Crater of Needles (cool name) along with Barbara, to feed the Animus. I'm reciting the plot here, but it's really Doctor Who by-numbers, and quite predictable, it just takes a (very) long time to go anywhere. This sets us up for Barbara's Episode 3 absence.

More promising is the introduction to the Animus, mainly because the Doctor seems almost as bemused about the aliens on Vortis than the viewers, though it's unclear whether this is a sign of Hartnell struggling with the material he's being given. The Animus, an out-of-sight creature who talks to the Doctor via a communications device, is controlling the Zarbi and is concerned about a Menoptra invasion. The Menoptra were expelled from Vortis by the Animus. None of this is very interesting, and for a story that struggles to convince visually, it really needed a great script to sell it. Aside from the Doctor calling the communications device a "hairdryer", it's very boring.

As the story progresses, very little actually happens. The Doctor and Vicki stay with the Animus, as they try to foil its plans from within, while Ian escapes and meets a Menoptra called Vrestin, who tells him more about the calamities that have befallen the races of Vortis since the Animus arrived on the scene. However somewhere between the end of episode 3 and the start of episode 4 the story sinks below the point where it could have been salvaged. This is because of two things, the first of which is the Optera, the least well realised of this story's aliens (and as I've made clear that's a real achievement). They're little people jump around and shout, and push the story into the direction of an amateur stage play. By this point, it's impossible to take anything even remotely seriously and I'm genuinely wondering what the production team knew they were making complete rubbish and gritting their teeth until it was over, as I was.

The other problem is the utter tedium of it all. For the first time in the marathon, I had to rewatch an episode I'd just seen as my attention had wandered. Ultimately this only prolonged the awfulness as it was no better the second time. Perhaps this could be regarded as the point I failed the marathon; I let the rest of the story play, only half-paying attention, as I just didn't care anymore. Memories of the excellent The Crusade were coming back to me, and I was looking forward to making a start on that.

Unfortunately, nothing happened to redeem the story at it winded down. The Animus was defeated, everyone was happy, the regulars returned to the TARDIS. The weird thing is, although this is probably the worst Doctor Who story ever, I will again look forward to the next viewing (as long as it's at least a year away of course), because it's main problem was that it was boring, so perhaps if I work on my attention span I will find more to enjoy.

Horror quotient - Yes, it was horrific.
Comedy quotient - The Doctor was good in this, even though Hartnell is out of his depth. At times, it seems the Doctor is aware how naff everything is and I like that.
Drama quotient - The first episode, before the assortment of aliens descend on us, is the best by far, and free of the rest of the story, is a cracking Doctor Who episode in its own right. There is no drama throughout the rest of the story.

Past Episode 1, The Web Planet is so bad, I almost lose the will to live when I watch it.


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