Title: Doctor Who and the Zarbi
Televised as: The Web Planet
Written by: Bill Strutton
Teleplay by: Bill Strutton
Published in: September 1965
Chapters: Two through Six
… that’s as in Roslyn de Winter, the choreographer who provided “Insect Movement”for this story (that’s the actual on-screen credit she received), and who also played Vrestin (who, as we discussed last time, was a male character in Strutton’s original scripts).
My ability to enjoy the novelization of The Web Planet is always going to be tempered by the fact that I still can’t abide by the completed episodes. But from a micro perspective, looking at what changed from script to air can be diverting. For one thing, I appreciate that, for a 6-episode story, Strutton writes the book in 6 neat chapters, with the chapter endings roughly corresponding to each episode’s cliffhanger. When Barbara is captured by three Menoptera on TV, it was originally four in the book. Hrhoonda on TV is called Challis in the book, and a fourth Menoptera, Zota, dies blissfully unaware that his part was going to be cut before the role could ever be cast.
There’s a weird moment on-screen in Episode One where the Doctor and Ian look up at a huge pyramid on the planet Vortis, and make a comparison of the tetrahedron to the figure of Nelson’s Column. But, come to find out, the object they were looking at was supposed to be a gigantic statue of a Menoptera, carved out of the local rockface, hence the dialogue referencing Trafalgar Square. Makes sense in the book, which provides an interior illustration to match. After they replaced the statue with a pyramid for production, the comment stayed in, even though it no longer belonged.
William Hartnell also sounds a bit different in print than he did on TV. For one thing, as with Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks, this is a man who calls Ian “Chesterton”, and only “Chesterton”, and not the dozen variants that Hartnell used comically on TV. In print, the Doctor can also deliver highly technical details about the more esoteric variants of Vortis’ native fauna; in Chapter Two, he delivers a lengthy monologue about the life-cycle of the venom grub, for example. That was all dropped for TV, number one because director Richard Martin presumably didn’t want to include any explanatory dialogue that would have helped the episode to make sense, and number two because good luck getting Hartnell to remember all that scientific stuff. The Web Planet, as I’ve said before, was a huge strain on Hartnell’s natural (and considerable) talents as an actor.
Which is not to say that Strutton is a master of dialogue, whose lyrical bon mots were cruelly and unfairly shredded by Martin in rehearsal or by Hartnell in front of the camera. In the book, Strutton affects … the odd habit of punctuating … his print dialogue … with a ton of ellipses… to the extent that you almost …. think that you’re … reading a Pinter play. If not listening to a William Shatner narration of the audiobook.
Ian Chesterton is a sorry case in the inartful hands of Bill Strutton. In the previous book, he was the narrator, bold and decisive, and made human by his endearing social awkwardness around Barbara. Here, though, Strutton writes him from the third person as a total cad. In Episode Three, on TV, the Doctor orders Ian to break out of the Animus’ web to go rescue Barbara
from her vacation that week from her captivity in the Crater of Needles. In the book, Ian uses that corresponding scene to be obnoxious to the Doctor, and bizarrely insulting to the Zarbi.
Ian shrugged. “I never thought I’d see you give in this easily,” he said coldly.
Doctor Who stared. “I — give in?”
“You don’t mean you really believe they’ll free us if we help?”
“Chesterton, we’ve made a bargain!”
“With those weirdies?” Ian waved with incredulous contempt to the control room beyond the ship’s doors.
“Personally, I don’t blame those `weirdies’ as you call them for mistrusting us,” Doctor Who retorted, “they’re being invaded! Their very existence is at stake!”
Ian halted. “Look, we might have landed in the middle of a space war, but it has nothing to do with us!”
In Chapter 4, he’s similarly gone from heroic narrator to unmitigated jerk, such as when he tells off Vrestin, while talking about the Optera:
Ian growled. “You refuse to admit that such grubby, undersized little creatures as these could be related to the great race of Menoptera! Is it because you’re proud, or simply blind!”
Sexism, and mistreatment of Ian aside, there are actually some things to enjoy about Strutton’s prose style. The death scenes are written in graphic detail, which beats the clumsy balletic falls used to represent the corresponding deaths on TV, and the staging of action scenes makes far more sense through Strutton’s eyes than through Richard Martin’s in studio, especially with the big Zarbi/Menoptera battle royale at the end of Episode Four; confusing and incoherent and nonsensical on TV, is nicely tense and leads up to a terrific chapter ending/cliffhanger in the book.
There was a sheet of flame and the Menoptera facing her only a few paces ahead spun around and crumpled,his body smoking from the deadly jet ofa sting-gun.
As Barbara and Hrostar turned to look wildly this way and that they saw the shapes of the Zarbi creeping over the hillocks, bordering the plateau, guiding their sting grubs like so many avenging hunting dogs. As the first jets of venom burst among the descending fighters, the Menoptera swooping to land on the plateau flattened themselves in a desparate search for cover and leveled their own guns.
The bright colors used to depict the Menoptera’s lost Temple of Light in Chapter Five are pretty dazzling, and give a nice hint as to what that set might have looked like in color; on TV, the set was used simply as backdrop for long expository scenes, but Strutton makes it a memorable setting in the book:
Their voices had a strange echoing quality. The great sheer walls were carved with immense designs of Menoptera wings, and still — though crumbling and decayed — brilliantly coloured. Gold and coppery markings, some of them turned to a luminous green with age, shone down among the ochres, the reds and sky-blues of the vivid wing patterns.
Nemini’s death in Chapter Five is also quite graphically done, and an improvement on the TV version, which was one of the few on-screen highlights.
Episode Six was nightmarish to sit through on television: all those Menoptera running around chanting “ZARBIII!”, and the characters playing catch with the Menoptera secret weapon before it’s finally used to destroy the Animus (which is never called the Animus in the book). On TV, there was an interminable eight-minute-long denouement after the Animus destroyed, which is whittled down to a mere couple of pages here. The book rectifies those errors, and restores some better prose choices that Strutton had put in his scripts. The Animus here threatens to attack Earth in its “hundredth Christian millennium”. I take comfort in that story dating: we have 98,000 more years to go before we have to endure the events of this story in real life). I also like some other random things: the death of Hrostar is given a little more meaning and import in print; Prapillus is turned into a more heroic figure and natural-born leader, who’s given the Doctor’s benediction to help rule Vortis after the TARDIS leaves; and Barbara’s role in saving the day, by actually destroying the Animus herself, plays interestingly against all of the institutionalized sexism of the very first chapter.
But, as much as Strutton’s Chapter Six is better than TV’s Episode Six… I spent six days reading this book, and that was still far too many days. By the last page, I was more than ready to be done with this affair forever.
Next Time: David Whitaker returns for his second and final novelization. It is so much better than Doctor Who and the Zarbi that you’ll fairly want to cry …