There are very few Doctor Who stories made between 1963 and 1989 that I really struggle to watch. Underworld and The Invasion of Time have always been difficult for me – an overdose of CSO and lacklustre production values being the main reasons why. Timeflight and Arc of Infinity are also a problem – mainly because they’re both so crashingly dull.
But no story has ever posed more of a challenge than The Web Planet. During my last few sequential rewatches I made the craven decision to skip it altogether. Everything else I could manage – even five audio episodes of The Space Pirates – but Bill Strutton’s script was just a bridge too far.
It’s impossible not to respect the ambition though. In a couple of years, under producers Innes Lloyd and Peter Bryant, the series would become much more formatted – base under siege tales would be the order of the day and strange adventures would become increasingly rare (The Mind Robber was a notable exception). But although you can admire what Bill Strutton, Verity Lambert and Richard Martin were attempting, it doesn’t make watching it any easier.
But maybe this is the time when everything clicks and I finally understand what others see in it. Probably not, but let’s dive in and give it a fair hearing.
Hartnell seems rather distracted in the opening TARDIS scene and this continues throughout the rest of the episode. It could be an acting choice (as the Doctor is very concerned about the way that the ship’s been drawn off its natural course) but it seems more likely that it was just an off week for him.
We’re only three minutes in when we get our first sight of a Zarbi. Many Doctor Who stories hold back the full reveal of the monster until the episode one cliffhanger or even later – teasing the audience with a glimpse here and there – but possibly Richard Martin felt he might as well get it over with. They’re nicely designed creations although the very human legs sticking out are a problem. That and the noise they make, of course.
I think that’s one of my major issues with the serial, six episodes worth of Zarbi noises is a major irritation.
Ian and the Doctor put on their space anoraks and head out to investigate. Just prior to this, at 8:12, there’s a major Hartnell dry as he really struggles to get his lines out. He eventually gets back on track but it’s something that should have necessitated a retake – but during the show’s early days retakes were an uncommon luxury.
With the Doctor and Ian sampling the thin atmosphere of Vortis, that leaves Vicki and Barbara alone in the TARDIS. It’s the first time since the start of The Romans that they’ve shared a two-handed scene together. O’Brien’s excellent here at highlighting the slight oddness of the futuristic Vicki. After Barbara tells the girl that her school taught the three Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic) Vicki responds –
VICKI: Oh, it was a nursery school.
BARBARA: It was not.
VICKI: Oh. I wish I’d gone to your school. We had to take a certificate of education in medicine, physics, chemistry.
BARBARA: Now, wait a minute, how old were you?
VICKI: Well, I was ten when I took those.
BARBARA: Ten? What did you do in your time, live in the classroom?
VICKI: Live in the what?
BARBARA: Classroom. Lecture hall.
BARBARA: How long did you study?
VICKI: Almost an hour a week. We had these machines, you see, and we …..
The Doctor’s hysterical giggling is odd – but it sort of fits in with the strange Vortis landscape. The TARDIS should be a safe haven, but when Barbara’s arm starts acting independently of her it’s clear that it’s not.
The Zarbi chirruping starts again in earnest a few minutes before the end of the episode.
This is the sign for Barbara to find herself drawn out onto the planet’s surface. Ian gets himself caught in a net – well, sort of (it’s rather obvious he has to force himself into it) whilst the Doctor is perplexed to find that the TARDIS has disappeared. This is a neat triple cliffhanger that leads into the next episode.
So, all in all, this wasn’t too bad. Hartnell’s bizarre performance and the reveal of the Zarbi (there’s no reason why they couldn’t have been held back until the second episode, since they do nothing in this one) are the main problems. But we’ve yet to meet the Menoptra, so I fear we’ve got bumpy times ahead …..