Title: Doctor Who and the Zarbi
Televised as: The Web Planet
Written by: Bill Strutton
Teleplay by: Bill Strutton
Published in: September 1965
I’m gonna start off by cutting Bill Strutton some slack, just a little bit. Doctor Who and the Zarbi, after all, was not meant to be a book that people were still going to be reading 51 years later. This was the mid-1960s, man. Almost all of the successful TV series of the era spawned novelizations (at least here in the U.S., they did), most of which were meant to be quick cash grabs, and not often written with any particular degree of care, or even, how shall I put this delicately… skill. I defy you to read some of Rod Serling’s turgid adaptations of his own Twilight Zone scripts, for example, and not come away scarred for life.
In fact, it’s only because the Target Doctor Who novelization line later became so prolific and influential that this book, one of just three from the Frederick Muller series, has taken on such an unexpected and undeserved longevity today. Certainly Doctor Who and the Zarbi doesn’t merit that longevity on its own. Fortunately, the novelizations would go on to survive this book.
The first thing that strikes you about this book is that its TARDIS is not the same one that you remember from TV. This TARDIS is just called Tardis, the way you’d call your car Murray, with no definite article. Inside, it has a “control table” and an “inspection window”, instead of a control console and a scanner (“That’s what I call a scanner, up there”, as somebody once said). In one of the first interior illustrations, the Doctor actually flies the ship while seated. So that’s unusual. It’s interesting, though, to see the iconic TARDIS console room design kept out of a book which was specifically written to cash in on early Doctor Who mania.
Of course, the TARDIS interior design is not really what I’m here to talk about today.
There was a pause. Doctor Who turned to Barbara and hesitated. He smiled.
“Just a little, um, interference, my dear. Nothing… unusual. Er, would you like to get us some coffee?”
But Barbara stood her ground. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
“Nothing for you to worry about, Doctor Who said, in his most soothing voice.
So that’s where the slack-cutting with Doctor Who and the Zarbi pretty much has to end. The sexism. Good Lord, the sexism!!
Ian grinned at Barbara. “It’s nice to see you up and dressed,” he said. “Does that mean we can expect some bacon and eggs?”
Barbara looked towards the figure of Doctor Who frowning over his controls. “I’ll see what I can do.”
By the time Mad Men reached 1965, the year that both The Web Planet aired on TV and the novelization came out, the women on that show had already started to turn the tables on the men. Betty had left Don, Peggy and Joan were well in ascendance. But Bill Strutton was writing in the real 1965, not the retrospective Mad Men 1965. Unfortunately.
Exploring this planet in search of whatever had wrecked the ship’s controls, and now held them tight, would mean leaving the two girls alone in Tardis – unprotected.
You can’t watch Jacqueline Hill’s performance as Barbara Wright on TV and imagine that this print version of her character is the version that she personally wanted to portray.
Vicki yawned again. “Uhuh… now why can’t we materialize in some really lovely place?… at some truly wonderful time in its life among the stars… with lots of beautiful things to buy… gorgeous clothes to wear… splendid things to eat…”
Even beyond the limp portrayal of the female regulars, hey, do you remember the two relatively strong female characters of Vrestin and Nemini from the TV version? Well, go ahead and thank director Richard Martin for casting those roles as female. Because in the novelization, which was based on Strutton’s final pre-rehearsal scripts — i.e., the story that Strutton set out to tell — those two characters are both male.
It’s quotes like the above, and the book’s nearly entirely male guest cast, that makes Doctor Who and the Zarbi a bit of an uncomfortable read.
Throughout the book, Strutton also consistently refers to the Doctor as Doctor Who. That’s kind of odd, too. David Whitaker only used that phrase once in his novelization of The Daleks, and only within interior dialogue, as adapted from a brief Ian/Barbara exchange in Episode Two of An Unearthly Child. Strutton, however, pretty much never calls him anything else. He also never bothers to give any backstory to Ian, Barbara, or Vicki, either, and doesn’t explain where Susan went. David Whitaker’s two books (including his novelization of The Crusade, the next novelization after this), were virtually standalone novels, with plenty of context to tell you who was who. Strutton must have missed that editorial memo, though.
Still, calling the main character “Doctor Who” is far from the worst writing sin that Strutton committed.
Next Time: Finishing Doctor Who and the Zarbi. Fortunately, there’s nowhere else to go but up …