Up to this point, watching Doctor Who from the beginning, I have tried to maintain a positive attitude. I’ll find the good in anything (even in The Sensorites or The Rescue). If an episode’s plot is bad or the writing is bad or the acting is bad, there’s usually still something inventive or charming to celebrate and hold up for praise. Until now. The Web Planet is just a disaster from start to finish. It’s every bit as bad as you’ve probably heard.
The underlying plot is, to be fair, ambitious. There’s a race of sentient, bipedal butterflies, called the Menoptra. Their planet, Vortis, has been invaded by the Animus, a malignant immobile telepathic spider. The Animus enslaves mindless two-legged ants called the Zarbi to do her bidding. Aiding the Menoptra in their fight against the Animus are not only the TARDIS crew, but also the Optera – tiny little upright caterpillars living underground, having forgotten how to evolve into their butterfly destiny.
The plot – what this story looked like on paper when it got commissioned – would be all right, all other things being equal, even given that producing a story populated solely by aliens, with everyone except the TARDIS crew requiring heavy makeup and costumes, is a bit difficult to realize in a small studio on a 1965-sized budget. But everything else about the production besides the costumes and makeup – the acting, the directing, the pacing – renders the story simply unwatchable. The things that viewers look for to discern the quality of an episode are all staggeringly absent here.
The first clue to the disaster is William Hartnell’s performance. We’re just coming off a masterful comedic turn for the Doctor, in which he effortlessly delivered rapid-fire witticisms. In The Web Planet, though, there is one and only one moment in which Hartnell gets to do what he does best:
[The Doctor has confiscated Ian’s belt in order to conduct a scientific experiment on a pool of acid]
Ian: Hope my pants stay up.
The Doctor: That’s your affair, not mine!
Hartnell’s performance in the rest of the story is dissociated and absent, presumably because he could make neither heads or tails of the script. Starting with the lengthy TARDIS sequence that opens Episode 1, he seems to be inventing every line of dialogue on the fly, over-rely on humming, “hah”-ing, and muttering “Dear, dear, dear”, to cover the fact that he just can’t deliver Bill Strutton’s poorly-written technobabble.
Even before the end of Episode 1, the story has completely gone off the rails. Hartnell’s performance, once he and Ian finally exit the ship for the surface of the planet Vortis, is literally insane. The final five minutes are complete over-the-top surrealism, with hardly any dialogue, lots of unexplained goings-on, and a cliffhanger that occurs entirely off-screen, so that all we’re left dangling with is Hartnell’s bemused reaction shot. If you want to know what actually happened in the cliffhanger, you need to wait literally 3 minutes into Episode 2 for the resolution (where Hartnell again forgets his dialogue and Ian has to prompt him by asking questions such as “What galaxy’s that in?”). Later in Episode 2, the Doctor is forced to deliver the stupidest line he’s ever been fed, or ever will be fed:
History doesn’t mean anything when you travel through space and time!
And this line sticks out even more because large stretches of Episode 2 are dialogue-free, and what little dialogue there is, is pretty basic and functional. The silence pays off only during the first encounter between the Menoptra and a hypnotized Barbara, a sequence that is almost silent and balletic (if your eyes are still open to see it, that is).
With the Animus personified solely by a sibilant female voice (until the final episode), the big “monster” in this serial is the Zarbi – mindless man-sized ants who’ve been subjected to the malign influence of the Animus and now hold the rest of the planet hostage (but enough about the U.S. government shutdown). The Zarbi look great in still photographs, but no sooner have they shown up in Episode 1 than do they quickly bump into prop rocks. Episode 3 has the rightly famous bit where a Zarbi lumbers head-on into the camera. Vicki, continuing with her trend of giving space aliens silly names, calls one of them Zombo.
I do actually like the Animus, who delivers metaphors in an impressive voice (referring to its Menoptra concentration camp as the “Crater of Needles” located “beyond my great web”). But then the Optera show up in Episode 4, with almost offensively ethnic shadings. Hetra, the Optera leader (played by Ian Thompson, who later plays a lilting-voiced bipedal fish in The Chase) speaks in a Watto-the-Hutt Yiddish accent.
The Menoptra, by the way, also have an array of unfortunate accents, and speak in a halting cadence that is distinctly Dalek-y. About the only clever touch here is that the Menoptra have a different alphabet; they can’t pronounce the word “Ian”, calling him “Heron” instead, and they also have to enunciate every syllable in “Barbara” (which means that there’s less time for the Menoptra to say interesting things, so busy are they in prolonging Ian and Barbara’s names…). When Martin Jarvis shows up late in the story and briskly rattles off his lines as if he had just come from the David Mamet play in the next studio over, one is palpably relieved.
So we have long stretches without dialogue, vapid dialogue when it’s there, and an array of goofy monsters at all times. And then the plot unfolds in the most ludicrous way imaginable. The Menoptra are massing an invasion fleet to reclaim their planet from the Animus. Fine. But the Doctor very quickly rats out their plans to the Animus, and when the Menoptra fleet does arrive, it’s without any coordination at all with their advance team. While there’s a pre-filmed battle between the Menoptra and Zarbi to close out Episode 4 – clearly intended to be one of the big action set-pieces of the season – director Richard Martin presents this action as a boring and confusing jumble with little emotional impact. Especially as the quick destruction of most of the Menoptra fleet is… the Doctor’s fault.
Thus, even spread out over six nights, The Web Planet beggars belief. Bad writing by Strutton, bad execution of that writing by Martin, and subpar acting, mostly in the accent and delivery categories. Hartnell’s skill sets, while considerable, have no overlap with what this story’s about; he’s forced to spend all of Episodes 2 through 5 standing in the same room, and then has to lie down for most of Episode 6. The sum total is boring, juvenile, and painful to watch… more so when the entire frame is filled with three jumping Optera, which happens in Episode 5.
Granted, there are a few nice moments, maybe about 30 to 45 seconds’ worth per night. Prapillus the Menoptra, even if you can parse his weird accent, delivers a very Steven Moffat-esque line in Episode 5: the long-lost Menoptra Temples of Light are “being slowly unwoven by the silence of time.” (if you had to design a generic Moffat-era episode title, The Silence of Time would most certainly be it). The Temple of Light set is large and probably looked fabulous in studio, even if it was only used as a backdrop for expository dialogue rather than action. The Animus Center (or, in the novelization, “Centre of Terror”), looks really, really good.
But then, even if you make it all the way to Episode 6, half of that is taken up by the Menoptra shrilly taunting “Zar-BEE!” at the brainless giant ants. It’s the series’ all-time low to this point. Then one of the principal Menoptra guest stars suffers a badly-staged death with no emotional payoff, and the Animus is only destroyed after the Menoptra play catch with their secret super-weapon. The Animus dies with eight full minutes to go in the episode, and as she was the best part of the episode by far, you have to suffer through eight more minutes of Menoptra and Optera dialogue after that, just to make it to the end credits
Odious, unbearable, unwatchable. The best thing about The Web Planet is that the next story is the sublimely brilliant The Crusade – and, for once, there is not even a direct lead-in to that story, so even here we’re deprived the immediate relief of knowing that something better is coming…