Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part One – The Web Planet

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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.
(blank look)
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 …..

 

Bookwyrm: Volume 1 – The New Adventures by Anthony Wilson and Robert Smith? ATB Publishing Book Review

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By the early nineties, with Doctor Who either dead or simply in limbo (depending on how optimistic you were) The New Adventures filled an aching gap. New Doctor Who stories available on a regular basis!

How times change. Fast forward thirty years and we’re now drowning under a surfeit of supplementary Who. The notion of attempting to read every DW novel and listen to every DW Big Finish audio currently available is surely a task beyond all but the most foolhardy or devoted.

But back in 1991 we were in virgin (sorry) territory. The New Adventures offered fans a continuation of their favourite series, but it was also much more than that. Generally the books weren’t content to simply replicate the tone and feel of television Who – the NA’s were keen to take DW to strange and new places.

I was there, right from the beginning (Timewyrm: Genesis) all the way through to the bitter end (The Dying Days) and certainly had my ups and downs with the series. For example, Original Sin really irritated me (the reveal of the baddy was the sort of fan-pleasing nonsense that I never enjoyed) but another book usually came along (Head Games or Just War, say) which made me keep the faith.

Although I was picking up the later books more out of a feeling of habit than love, the NA’s were still a very important part of my nineties fandom experience. In recent years I’ve occasionally thought about digging them out for a re-read and there’s no doubt that Bookwyrm: Volume 1 has fired my enthusiasm and made that prospect much more likely ….

The format of Bookwyrm: Volume 1 is straightforward. Each NA has its own chapter which is broken down into categories, ala The Discontinuity Guide (The Big Idea briefly summarises the plot, What You Need To Know explains how the book fits/doesn’t fit into established continuity, Timey-Wimey pinpoints any influences the book had on NuWho, plus there are sections for dialogue triumphs, disasters, etc).

Wilson and Smith? then sum up their feelings about each story. Often they’re in agreement, but sometimes not (and it’s always more interesting when opinions diverge). Indeed their trenchant viewpoints are the main reason why Bookwyrm: Volume 1 is such an entertaining read.  It might be a densely detailed book, but it’s also chatty and highly opinionated.

Sometimes these opinions chimed with my own and sometimes they didn’t.  It was slightly surprising to see Transit praised and The Highest Science mildly slated.  Back in the day, Transit was the one which generated all the brickbats whilst The Highest Science was warmly received.

But this may well have had something to do with the fact that The Highest Science was the sort of “traditional” story that the more conservative wing of fandom would have embraced. Whereas Transit was definitely “new” and therefore something to be approached with caution.  I’m keen now to go back and revisit both of them. Is Transit a lost classic? I’ll let you know in due course.

But there’s no disagreement from them or me about the quality of the first NA, meaning that John Peel receives a well deserved kicking for Timewyrm: Genesis.

Like a child in a sweet shop, Peel has discovered that writing a book means there are no limitations regarding actors who, on television, have to be paid (or, indeed, alive) to appear, so cameos and continuity references abound. Like nausea, it comes in waves, calming down for a time then springing itself upon you when you least expect. Pages 140–141, for example, mention K’Anpo, Sontarans, Vardans, the Matrix, K9, Leela, Andred, Katarina, Sara Kingdom, Daleks, Adric and Cybermen, all in the space of about 25 lines.

In many ways, it’s quite fun, and there’s a certain amount of giddy enjoyment to be had. Unfortunately, like the child in the sweet shop, too much and you get sick. We hit this point when the seventh Doctor has to call up the ghost of Christmas Past himself, Jon Pertwee, because, apparently, the seventh Doctor can’t manage some rewiring by himself (p205).

The rant about No Future‘s cover is also highly amusing, but to be honest there’s something equally pithy about every single book and this is why Bookwyrm: Volume 1 is such a rewarding and amusing read.

No Future’s cover may well be the worst cover in the entire NA line — and, hence, the worst cover in the entirety of literature. Everybody’s hair somehow contrives to be both fluffy and spiky at the same time, except for Benny, who appears to be wearing some sort of Liza Minnelli–inspired helmet. The drummer is apparently a midget with one enormous leg. The guy behind Ace is choking on an almond, for some reason. And you’ll swear blind that Mawdryn, the fifth Doctor’s nemesis with an exposed brain, has made an appearance in the book… until you realise that said exposed brain is actually supposed to be some sort of flat cap, hovering on top of his head. Either that or a pizza. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But in this case, you probably can.

No Future the book doesn’t get a great deal more love than the cover did, which was another surprise as my 25-year old memory doesn’t record that it was that bad.  Another one to add to the re-read pile I think.

Any NA old-timers or indeed anybody who has stumbled across these books more recently will find plenty to enjoy here.  An immensely enjoyable, highly dippable tome, Bookwrym: Volume 1 comes warmly recommended.

Bookwyrm: Volume 1 is released by ATB Publishing on the 18th of March 2019. Ordering information can be found on their website.

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Four – Inferno

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Inferno opens with another demonstration of Nero’s ruthlessness. Ian and Delos have escaped and Nero’s none too impressed with Barbara (Barbara couldn’t help but shout out to Ian, which infuriated Nero). “So you’re a friend of the gladiators are you?” He then asks a soldier for his sword and looks set to murder Barbara.

The scene is blocked well, as Nero stands in front of both Barbara and the solider when he strikes the killing thrust. We hear Barbara scream and it’s possible to wonder for a split second if he has actually done the unthinkable – but no, it’s the guard that’s died. “He didn’t fight hard enough” mutters Nero as he looks at the (presumably) blood-covered sword whilst Barbara looks suitably sick.

Although The Romans is generally regarded as a comic gem today (although some people will never accept that Doctor Who could or should be a comedy) there’s plenty of evidence that viewers back in 1965 were rather nonplussed. The audience research report includes a number of unfavourable responses, such as “this programme gets more and more bizarre; in fact it’s so ridiculous it’s a bore” and someone else declared that the series “was only fit for morons”. The report summed up that most of the respondents felt that “the story had steadily declined to a farcical and pathetic anticlimax”. Oh dear!

It’s difficult to see exactly what they found to be so irritating, as the script is still bubbling along nicely with some excellently played comic gems. Nero, tiring of the acclaim heaped on the Doctor, decides to throw him to the lions. But he doesn’t directly tell him, all he says is that he wants him to play in the arena. The Doctor knows what’s going on though and Hartnell and Francis share another classic two-handed scene. Francis’ hangdog expression is priceless!

DOCTOR: Yes, well I promise you I shall try to make it a roaring success.
NERO: You’ll have to play something special, you know.
DOCTOR: Oh, yes, of course, of course, yes. Something serious, yes. Something they can really get their teeth into, hmm?
NERO: You can’t know, you can’t. I’ve told no one.

The major weakness with the story is the revelation that Maximus Pettulian had come to Rome to murder Nero – since the real Pettulian was so feeble it’s rather a stretch to imagine he could ever be a successful assassin. The burning of Rome isn’t quite as successful as it could have been either – but on Doctor Who‘s budget this isn’t too much of a surprise. It’s worth reflecting that later prestige serials like I Claudius had similar production standards so if you place them side by side, The Romans stands up quite well.

But as we’ve seen, most of the viewers questioned in 1965 weren’t impressed and seemed to be bored of historical stories – much preferring the Doctor’s trips into the future. But they should have been careful what they wished for, as we now jump headlong into six episodes of The Web Planet …….

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Three – Conspiracy


Conspiracy opens with another clandestine scene between the Doctor and Tavius.  The obvious joke is that the Doctor still has no idea what Tavius is talking about.  Tavius imparts the following vital information “I haven’t got long, so listen carefully. I’ve managed to get rid of that body and I don’t think anyone suspects. But if you delay your action, it will be safer.”

Every time that Tavius appears he hisses in a most unsubtle manner (in order to catch the Doctor’s attention).  It’s interesting that this bit of business wasn’t present in the script, so presumably Hartnell and Michael Peake worked it out in rehearsals.  Much later, Tom Baker’s willingness to treat the rehearsal script as simply a jumping off point for his own improvisations and suggestions would become legendary, but there’s no doubt that the four days rehearsal each episode was given during this period did allow for a certain leeway which sometimes benefited the story.

This episode sees the farce quotient ramped up another couple of notches as Barbara is presented to Nero’s wife Poppaea (Kay Patrick).  Poppaea’s not terribly impressed with Barbara, no doubt because she’s witnessed Nero’s instant attraction to her.  This wasn’t the first time that Barbara had found herself the object of male lust, although the others – Vasor in The Keys of Marinus and El Akir in The Crusade – weren’t played for laughs like Nero’s pursuit is here.

There’s a level of innuendo in the script for those who want to look for it (for example, Nero tells Barbara to “close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise”) and the farce element is at its most obvious as Nero pursues Barbara through the palace (she just avoids bumping into the Doctor or Vicki each time).  That Barbara remains unaware that the Doctor and Vicki are at court (and vice-versa) hardly seems credible – but that’s the whole joke and it’s delightful to see how the actors throw themselves wholeheartedly into the swing of things.

Derek Francis is a joy to behold in these scenes, he plays Nero as a little boy who’s anxious not to be found out.  But his other, more ruthless side, is demonstrated at the end of the episode as he watches Delos and Ian fight as gladiators.  Delos gains the upper hand and Nero has no hesitation in ordering Ian’s head to be cut off.  Whilst this seems at odds with the amiable, befuddled ruler we’ve previously seen, it actually fits in very well – Nero (like most Emperors) had lived so long with the gift of absolute power that he could be either cruel or compassionate, depending on his mood.  That so much power could be in the hands of such an unbalanced individual seems remarkable – but for all the comic stylings of the script, that part of The Romans is probably historically accurate.

Ian’s rather sidelined in this episode.  Locked up with Delos for most of the duration, he faces an uncertain future as a gladiator.  These scenes are most notable for the shots of two gladiators practising – unfortunately the way they fight is so feeble that it’s hard to imagine either would be capable of punching their way out of a paper bag …

Back at court, Vicki confesses to the Doctor that she might have poisoned Nero(!) which leads into another scene which is comic and dark at the same time.  The Doctor warns Nero and he passes his cup to the unfortunate Tigilinus (Brian Proudfoot).  Tigilinus drinks and plummets to the floor, dead.  “He was right” deadpans Nero as he shrugs and moves off.  What’s remarkable is that Vicki nevers seem to realise or indeed care that her actions cost the life of the court poisoner Locusta (Ann Tirard).

It’s finally time for the Doctor to demonstrate his non-existent skills as a lyre player.  “I would like to play my new composition in honour of this occasion. The music is so soft, so delicate, that only those with keen perceptive hearing, will be able to distinguish this melodious charm of music.”  Delightfully, he then proceed to play not a single note aloud, but since nobody wishes to admit that they lack the perceptive hearing required, everybody (including Nero) pretend to be entranced.  “He’s all right, but he’s not all that good” mutters Nero testily.  Brilliant!

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Two – All Roads Lead To Rome

Although the main plot of The Romans is straightforward enough, the various palace intrigues which bubble below the surface are slightly more opaque.  At the start of this episode it’s confirmed that the Centurion we met in the previous episode wanted Maximus Pettulian dead and he’d commissioned a mute assassin called Ascaris (Barry Jackson) to do the deed.  The joke being of course that Ascaris is unable to tell him that he’s already killed Pettulian once!

So he has to kill him again (in the shape of the Doctor) but the Doctor offers more evidence that he’s handy in a scrap.  The fight scene between Ascaris and the Doctor is a comic highlight of the episode and although it was designed to put as little stress onto Hartnell’s shoulders as possible, it still works very well.  When Vicki enters the room, Ascaris has clearly had enough and heads for the nearest window.  The Doctor’s rather disgruntled.  “Young lady, why did you have to come in and interrupt? Just as I’d got him all softened up and ready for the old one, two.”  Lovely stuff.

And what of Ian and Barbara?  Ian’s been sold as a galley-slave and quickly strikes up a friendship with Delos (Peter Diamond).  Although Diamond was a bit-part actor, he spent most of his time working as a stuntman/arranger (amongst his numerous film credits was the first Star Wars movie).  Delos performs much the same function as Larry did in The Dalek Invasion of Earth – he’s someone for Ian to talk to as he searches for the others.  Diamond’s a solid presence though and manages to be something more than just a line-feed.

Barbara’s landed on her feet as she’s been bought by Tavius (Michael Peake) and brought to the court of Caesar Nero.  Tavius is an interesting character – he’s someone who has an agenda of his own (which is connected to Maximus Pettulian) although his ultimate aims remain nebulous for a while.  And is he Barbara’s friend or foe?  Peake had an imposing physical presence and would clearly have found no difficulty playing the heavy, but we’ll see that there’s more to Tavius than meets the eye.

Nero (Derek Francis) makes an impressive entrance (he belches loudly).  “Royal felicitations” murmurs the Doctor.  Amongst a host of sparkling performances, Francis’ is the jewel in the crown and his byplay with Hartnell is delightful.  From their first meeting, the running gag of Maximus Pettulian’s skill (and the Doctor’s total lack of skill) as a lyre player is established.  Nero is keen to hear Pettulian play, but the Doctor manages to cleverly sidestep this potentially awkward moment by asking Nero to go first.  Another nice comic moment occurs when Nero calls for a stool – the Doctor begins to sit down on it, but it quickly becomes clear that Nero wanted it to balance his leg upon, causing the Doctor to rise again with a disgruntled expression!

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode One – The Slave Traders

The literal cliffhanger from the previous episode (which saw a lovely model TARDIS falling down a ravine) is negated here in the most offhand way – although this very much fits in with the tone of the episode.  We open on a close-up of Ian, apparently unconscious, but it then becomes clear that he’s simply closed his eyes for a moment – he’s relaxing on a couch and is decadently maneuvering a whole bunch of grapes towards his mouth.

The Doctor has shamelessly moved into a villa on the outskirts on Imperial Rome (luckily for them, the owners are away).  It’s clear they’ve spent a few months here, doing nothing but overindulging in both food and drink (quite where all this comes from is a mystery that’s never solved – either the unfortunate householder had an extensive larder and wine-cellar which they’ve ruthlessly plundered or the Doctor has a large supply of Roman currency aboard the TARDIS).

Although Ian and Barbara are enjoying this unexpected lull, Vicki is bored. Vicki’s written here as rather more childlike than she’d later become – for example, she’s so keen to get to the market she tugs Barbara along and later reacts with glee when the Doctor agrees to take her to Rome – but as she’s such a novice time-traveller, that’s reasonable enough.

As for the Doctor, he also seems to be tiring of this inactive life and, with Vicki in tow, heads for Rome.  The Romans was Doctor Who‘s first overtly comic script and it’s clear that Hartnell’s in his element.  It would have been a story that demanded even more concentration from him than usual – the interplay between characters only works if the dialogue is delivered accurately (something that he sometimes had trouble with) but there’s no real problems in this episode.

After the Doctor and Vicki depart for Rome, Ian and Barbara remain behind at the villa.  William Russell has the chance to essay a few lines of Julius Caesar and narcissistically preen at his appearance, whilst Barbara is able to get in a few decent gags (like asking him to get some ice from the non-existent fridge).  As per the rest of the episode this chugs along comedically but events soon take a darker turn.

Two slave-traders, Sevcheria (Derek Francis) and Didius (Nicholas Evans), capture Ian and Barbara and intend to make a healthy profit out of them.  The fight scene is a comic one – Barbara accidentally knocks out Ian, rather than Sevcheria – but after that the reality of their situation hits home.  Chained up together, then separated, Ian and Barbara face an uncertain future.

Meanwhile the Doctor and Vicki find a murdered man in the bushes at the side of the road leading to Rome.  It clearly wasn’t robbery as his lyre wasn’t taken, so it remains a mystery (for a while at least) what the motive could have been.  The man was Maximus Pettulian from Corinth, whose skill as a musician was talked about even in Rome.  As luck would have it, he bore a certain resemblance to the Doctor and so the Doctor decides to assume his identity – since Pettulian was en-route to play for Nero, it’s a golden opportunity to meet the emperor.

Amongst the many nice little touches peppered throughout this episode, watch for the look between Hartnell and O’Brien after the Doctor confides to the Centurion (who’s appeared to escort Pettulian to Rome) that Vicki “keeps her eye on all the lyres”!

Until Nero appears in episode two the story never quite kicks into first gear, but there’s still plenty to enjoy in The Slave Traders.

Doctor Who – The Rescue. Episode Two – Desperate Measures

The Rescue was the first story of Doctor Who‘s second production block, but it was touch and go for a while as to whether the series would continue after The Dalek Invasion of Earth.  During the last twenty years or so a considerable amount of information has come to light concerning the lengthy birth pains of the series – most of which flatly contradicts the accepted view of Doctor Who‘s history which had formed during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Back then it was generally believed that the success of the second serial, featuring the Daleks, had secured the series’ future, but the truth was rather more complicated.  To begin with, Verity Lambert was only offered a four week extension after DIOE.  She countered that if that was all that was on offer they might as well just go ahead and cancel the series.  Lambert wanted a firm commitment for thirteen weeks with an option for another thirteen.  This was eventually agreed and Doctor Who‘s future was further strengthened when Hartnell’s agent insisted on a confirmed twenty six weeks before his client would re-sign.  The BBC agreed again and so planning for series two could begin in earnest.

The most pressing requirement was for a story to introduce the new companion and that was The Rescue‘s main function.  There was also a minor mystery to be solved (Bennett = Koquillion and it’s revealed that he’d murdered all the inhabitants of the spaceship – including Vicki’s father – in order to escape justice) but Maureen O’Brien is the focus of the story.

In episode two we see some further examples of Vicki’s hysterics – especially when Barbara kills Sandy the Sand Beast.  Vicki’s penchant for giving things pet names was retained, although it’s just as well that her hysterical outbursts weren’t (Vicki certainly spends less time collapsing at the drop of a hat than Susan did).  Her anger with Barbara for killing Sandy allows her character to be developed a little further – Vicki’s extreme emotions demonstrate that she’s been isolated from human contact (apart from the surly Bennett) for too long.  It takes the gentle words of the Doctor (a lovely scene from Hartnell) to start to break down these self imposed barriers.

Although the focus of the story is on Vicki, the Doctor has a key scene as he confronts the mass-murderer Bennett.  It’s another opportunity to see an aggressive Doctor – although his fight with Bennett is naturally brief (and could be said to be motivated by self-defence, as it seems obvious that Bennett intends to murder the Doctor in order to preserve his secret).

Given the short running time, The Rescue is obviously not the most complex of stories, but the fact that there’s only five speaking parts means that each character has a decent amount of screen time.  Vicki and the Doctor come off best, although Ian and Barbara also enjoy some entertaining scenes (Ian gets to tussle with the unconvincing spikes of death whilst Barbara gets a little gung-ho with Sandy) and Ray Barrett is imposing in his duel role.