Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Six – The Centre

Picking the silliest moment from The Centre is difficult, mainly because there’s so many to chose from.  But Hilio, Hrostar and Hylina screeching “Zaaarrrrbbiiiii” whilst flapping their arms about in an attempt to distract the Zarbi does take some beating.  It’s a little over three minutes into this episode if you want to check it out for yourself.

Whilst the Menoptera and Barbara are fooling about with the Zarbi, the Doctor and Vicki are taken to the Centre.  The Animus is revealed in all its glory – a mass of writhing tentacles.  There’s an uncharacteristic spot of overacting from Hartnell, when he delivers the line “this infernal light is too bright for my eyes”.

The Doctor then collapses, which leaves Vicki to resist the power of the Animus by herself.  The set is quite moodily lit, which helps to sell the illusion that the numerous rubber tentacles are actually part of a controlling intelligence (and not just being pulled off-camera by the crew!)

A major disappointment is that revelation the Animus’ ultimate aim concerns the invasion of Earth.  “What I take from you will enable me to reach beyond this galaxy, into the solar system, to pluck from Earth its myriad techniques and take from man his mastery of space.”

Since this has been such a strange, other-worldly adventure it’s incredibly jarring to find that the Animus seems to be fascinated with the totally unremarkable planet Earth.  Although if it believes the Doctor to be human that might explain its assumption that human beings have mastery over space.

The defeat of the Animus is a bit of a damp squib (Barbara waves the Isotope around for a few seconds).  After six episodes you’d have hoped for something more impressive than that.  But at least it allows Barbara to save the day.

And then it was over.  I’ve developed a little more appreciation for the story thanks to this rewatch, but it still proved to be something of a trial (especially over the last few episodes).

Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Five – Invasion

Whilst the ratings for The Web Planet were high, the Reaction Index went on a decreasing slide week after week.  Things started brightly enough, with a rating of 56% for episode one (an improvement over The Romans, although a few points lower than most of the Doctor’s space adventures to date) but by episode six the figure had tumbled to 42% (the lowest RI rating the series had received so far).

It’s not hard to understand why the general reaction was so unfavourable.  As I said earlier, had it been a four-parter they might have just got away with it, but by Invasion there’s a real sense of treading water.  Watching Hartnell turn a Zarbi into his compliant pet does have a certain comedy value, but these moments only stretch so far.  Vicki’s quite taken with the friendly Zarbi though, nicknaming him Zombo.

But although parts of the story are painful and/or dull, there are still some occasional lyrical moments of scripting which almost makes it all worthwhile. In this scene, Prapillus (Jolyon Booth) and Barbara enter the temple of light.

BARBARA: It’s beautiful, Prapillus. Oh, it’s absolutely beautiful!
PRAPILLUS: It must be a Temple of Light. The ancient song-spinners of our race sang of their beauty, but I thought they could never be found again.
BARBARA: There are others?
PRAPILLUS: So the legends say. Sewn into the craters and plateaus of Vortis, been slowly un-woven by the silence of time and their entrances long forgotten by our species. But our Gods have not forgotten us, Barbara. This was indeed deliverance.

Another positive part of the serial is that Barbara, thanks to her association with the Menoptera, is probably the most proactive of all the TARDIS crew.  Although visibly frightened by the events of episode one, she quickly recovers and teams up with her new friends in order to find a solution to beat the Zarbi and the Animus.  The downside is, of course, that she spends most of her time surrounded by the ridiculously overacting Menoptera, but then you can’t have everything.

Something that’s noticeable about Invasion is how little ambient noise there is.  A slight echo effect is given to the cave and tunnel sets, but that’s about all.  Combined with very minimal incidental music it does create a rather “dead” atmosphere.  One plus point is that there’s very little Zarbi chirping in this one – although when that’s removed they do seem even less convincing than before.

The Optera make another appearance.  Pity anybody who happens to be watching these scenes when a non-fan enters the room.  How would you be able to explain them?  Not easily, that’s for sure.  But even though they still look very silly, as with Prapillus there’s the odd inspirational moment of dialogue.  “A silent wall. We must make mouths in it with our weapons. Then it speak more light.”

Whilst Barbara’s raised several possibilities about how the Menoptera could fight the power of the Carsinome, it’s only when she’s reunited with the Doctor and Vicki that the planning can begin in earnest.  The Doctor takes instant control in a very characteristic way.  He and Vicki then elect to return to the Animus, which provides us with a very unsettling cliffhanger – the pair of them are frozen into solidity, surrounded by gently bobbing Zarbi.

Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Four – Crater of Needles

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Uh oh, it’s the Optera. Underground cousins of the Menoptera, they look and sound ridiculous. During this story they’re hardly alone in that, but it was their hopping movements which proved to be the final straw for me. This is a pity, as their dialogue has promise. Here, Hetra (Ian Thompson) outlines the Optera’s philosophy. “We know that from the roof comes hate! The liquid death! Creeping destroyer of we Optera. Yet you stand upright. We will consult the chasm of lights and if you come from above, you will die!”

Last episode was quite Menoptera light, but they’re back in force in this one. That means plenty of dialogue delivered in a sing-song manner and excessive hand movements. And as the majority of the episode is set on the planet’s surface, it’s back to the vaseline-smeared camera shots, which continue to be somewhat distracting. This is undoubtedly the point of the story where you know it’s going to be a long, hard slog to the finish line.

There are a few amusing moments though, such the continuing question as to why the Zarbi are frightened of a tiny (and very dead) spider. Barbara and the Menoptera’s attack on one of the venom guns is another notable incident – the high camera angle enables the actor under the costume to crawl away, which allows one of the Menoptera to pick up the empty shell and squish it against the wall, rather like one would deal with a bug.

You have to respect William Russell – an actor who never gave less than 100%. Even when surrounded by the Optera he ensures that Ian doesn’t for a moment give the audience the impression that this is all faintly ridiculous. It’s a difficult balancing act – with a less skilled actor, Ian would simply become po-faced and unbelievable – but Russell manages to ensure that Ian keeps his credibility at all times.

By far the most notable new arrival is that of Hilio (Martin Jarvis). Over the last fifty years or so he’s become one of Britain’s most distinctive actors, thanks to numerous film, stage, television and radio appearances. It’s hardly surprising that he’s not so recognisable here, but his familiar vocal tones are present and correct.

This wasn’t the easiest of episodes to navigate, but at least we’re four down with two to go.

Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Three – Escape to Danger

Ah, Escape to Danger.  I wonder if Terrance Dicks tuned into this episode and mentally filed away the title for later use, as it often turned up as a chapter heading in his Target Doctor Who novelisations.  Indeed, just to read those three words transports me back to the 1970’s and that strange world where old Doctor Who was only accessible via the Target book range.  But that’s a blog post (or series of posts) for another time.

Back to this Escape to Danger, the Doctor finds himself quizzed by the Animus who is convinced that the Doctor and his friends are the Menoptra.  This instantly begs the question, does the Animus not know what the Menoptra look like?  Is the Animus blind or might the script implying that all humanoid shapes look the same to it?  In another story it may be reasonable to assume that this was just a case of sloppy scripting, but on the bizarre world of Vortis nothing can ever be taken for granted.

Speaking of sloppy scripting, a moment later Vicki stumbles on a control panel which, according to the Doctor, realigns the fluid link and thereby restores the TARDIS’ power.  Eh?  This is obviously a nod back to The Daleks – although had the fluid link been removed from the ship this would have made more sense (although the image of the Zarbi, with their flapping arms, burrowing under the TARDIS console doesn’t bear thinking about!).

We have to assume that the Animus is so powerful that it can disable a vital function of the ship from a distance.  It’s very convenient that Vicki’s blundering reverses this action, but that’s hardly the worst flaw in the story.

The Doctor’s pleased as punch about this and moves to the front of shot to deliver the following short speech.  “Trying to destroy my ship, you will achieve nothing. Nothing! I have great secrets in my ship. We could help you.”  After more than a few wobbles earlier in the story Hartnell is on much firmer ground here and – with his hands clasped – shows the Doctor at his imperious best.  With Vicki and Ian framed in the background it’s a nice, still, moment.

We then see the first flying Menoptra and also witness the Zarbi’s puzzlement as to where they might have gone.  They look at the ground rather than up in the sky, but due to their restrictive fibreglass costumes that’s hardly surprising!  This episode also has the immortal moment where one of the Zarbi rushes headlong into a camera, making an audible thump (although the noise was sadly toned down a little for the DVD release).

Whilst Ian nips off to look for Barbara, the Doctor and Vicki remain behind at Zarbi HQ.  Ian’s fight with a Zarbi has to be seen to be believed – and although brief it was obviously uncomfortable for poor Robert Jewell, stuck within the unforgiving Zarbi costume.

According to contemporary reports, after the scene was completed he was left in considerable pain following the moment when Ian knocks the Zarbi to the floor.  Ian’s escape is also the cue for the remaining Zarbi to rush about like headless chickens, beeping all the time.  As I’ve said before, a little of this goes a long way, but unfortunately  we’re only about halfway through the story.

Ian makes the acquaintance of Vrestin (who refers to him as Heron for the rest of the story).  Vrestin is able to fill in the backstory for the audience. “The Zarbi are not an intelligent species, but they were essential to the life pattern here. We lived at peace with them, until they were made militant by the dark power. The Animus. At that time, the Carsinome appeared. Grew like a fungus. We had no weapons. We had not had the need. And by the time we sensed the danger, the Zarbi were too strong.”

Had The Web Planet been a four-parter it might possibly be better regarded as I’m still just about hanging on in there.  But things might get rougher over the next few episodes …..

Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Two – The Zarbi

The Doctor’s being rather dense at the start of The Zarbi.  He spends several minutes totally perplexed at the disappearance of the TARDIS before Ian points out the rather obvious marks on the planet’s surface, which indicate that it’s been dragged away.  Let’s be kind and surmise that the lack of atmosphere has slightly affected his usually sharp intellect.

The model shot of the TARDIS moving over the surface of Vortis is rather sweet whilst inside the ship Maureen O’Brien does some sterling staggering-about acting.

The appearance of a Zarbi on the TARDIS’ monitor is an unsettling one.  Vicki’s expression conveys a nice air of silent dread (although it was scripted that she should scream).  If I’d been Richard Martin I would have chosen this as the moment to reveal the Zarbi for the first time.  This brief close-up would have been an intriguing moment – what does the rest of the creature look like? – before the full reveal of several of the creatures surrounding the Doctor and Ian a little later.

Barbara is rescued by the Menoptra.  Unlike the Zarbi they can speak and have personalities, although their strange hand movements and voices do get a little wearing after a while.  Roslyn De Winter, who played Vrestin, was responsible for their choreography, earning her the oddest credit on any Doctor Who episode (“Insect movement by Roslyn De Winter”).

When Ian and the Doctor are surrounded by the Zarbi, there’s a high shot which give a decent sense of scale to proceedings.  Such camerawork wasn’t often seen in the series at the time, no doubt because it would take too long to set up, so it’s welcome to see it here. A small recompense for many of the other, more clumsy, moments.

Hartnell’s been more settled in this episode, although his bizarre hand gestures when he attempts to communicate with the Zarbi is yet another oddity in this most odd of stories.

One of the obvious problems with the Menoptra all looking so similar is that when there’s several of them in a scene it’s hard to tell who’s who.  This was certainly the case earlier on when Barbara was surrounded by Hrhoonda, Hrostar and Vrestin.

But towards the end of this installment Barbara and Hrostar are captured by the Zarbi and although they don’t appear in episode three, they do share some decent two-handed scenes in episode four which allows time for Arne Gordon to give Hrostar a very definite personality.

There’s another strong cliffhanger as the Doctor, Ian and Vicki find themselves at Zarbi HQ.  A tube descends over the Doctor’s head and the voice of what we later learn to be the Animus (Catherine Fleming) asks “why do you come now?”

Two episodes down and I’m hanging on in there.

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 …..

 

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Four – Inferno

inferno

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 …….