Doctor Who (Classic): S02E05 “The Web Planet”

Season 2
Directed by Richard Martin
Written by Bill Strutton

After a couple serial of The Doctor and his companions voluntarily exploring, we are back to the old TARDIS is trapped and so the serial happens because they are unable to escape and later because they are separated. It’s not something I would ever expect to go away since it is such a natural and logical story starter but it just sets the tone of regressing back to Season 1 formula early. It is also a return to the six episode format after a pair of shorter ones and it doesn’t take long for this to become readily apparent. The first episode alone is almost all set up which must have been especially bad when instead of just hitting play on the next episode, that was your dose of Doctor Who for the week. The rest of the serial is similarly slow paced (even by Doctor Who standards) trading large amounts of dialogue and action for extended moments of silence and slower speech.

The high pitched voices and awkward swaying of the butterfly-like Menoptera makes them impossible to take seriously and they aren’t helped any by their laughable costumes (once again even by Doctor Who standards) and exaggerated hand movements and strange upper body swaying. Watching them is like watching bad performance art. The caterpillar like Optera have a similarly bizarre speech and movement pattern which is also tiresome to follow and got me to thinking that all these species only talk like this because it is a great way to artificially lengthen the episodes. The human characters frequently look visibly bored while waiting for their lines and at times I was convinced they were just going to yell out to have them speak faster. The Zarbi on the other hand look less like actual creatures and more like ants as they would be portraying live theater. It can get pretty silly when The Doctor is saying that they call by rubbing their back legs together and then clearly showing the legs nowhere near touching. Finally there is the Animus which is a strange villainous spider-octopus-plant hybrid thing and easily the best looking designed one (albeit still incredibly fake looking in the instances where they make the poor decision to show it in full) and speaks in a creepily gentle voice (well aside from the descending tube it uses to communicate).

This theater like approach has always been present but it feels especially pronounced here combined with the even more minimal sets and stage fog. There’s also a strange camera effect used for the exteriors which just makes things look as though they couldn’t find a decent print of the film. I get what they were going for and it creates a somewhat unique look, but it just makes things visually unappealing. There are some genuinely cool looking backgrounds however and the world feels much larger than the often claustrophobic feel of Doctor Who sets. Who would have thought that keeping things simple but detailed when on a tight budget would make for an effective strategy.

The story concerns the attempted overthrow by the enslaved Menoptera (and an invading fleet of the same) of the Animus who are using the Zarbi as slaves labor. There’s a claim that the Menoptera were trying to free the Zarbi from slavery but when the Menoptera were in power they used the Zarbi as cattle (which is obviously completely different) so it rings fairly hollow. Even with the repeated assertion of how evil the Animus is, this feeling I’m left with (and almost certainly not what was intended) is that that this is the story of The Doctor helping an invading army retake over a peaceful socialist like regime who had overthrown there previous masters (certainly no parallels to real life here at all but once again not touching the very of its time politics). The Menoptera consistently come off as a group lying for their personal gain and since there is no one else to hear from (there is the Optera but they are still not trustworthy and all of the prior events have long since past into legend for them) we have to take their word for it that they are the good guys. The Animus only attacks The Doctor and his companions because it believes they are part of the attacking force and is trying to do anything it can to survive. It’s also a surprisingly death filled story as the Menoptera are remarkably bad at fighting (how much of that is intentional is unknown) and frequently head into battle only to be quickly slaughtered while only rarely taking down one of their enemy.

I appreciated the ambitious attempts of this serial but its reach exceeded its grasp. It went for atmospheric in a show which requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief as it is when it comes to the scenery and it went for creating five unique and original alien races (well only three to four distinct species) who are all thematically similar when the show has struggled in cases where they only have to create one or two per serial. It mostly succeeded at the first one, but it failed majorly not in that goal of the second one (they are all distinct), but of making them compelling instead of excruciating to listen to and watch. It at once feels in line with the show and sharing in many of its characteristics and yet utterly unique which should be the ultimate compliment. Maybe I would have like it more if I cared for live theater but instead I’m just left cold by this style.

Grade: C-

Stray Observations

– I didn’t mention the final alien species shown because they are merely the Zarbi larvae but it is a smaller creature which the closest thing it resembles to me is a large unfurled pill bug and nothing at all like what they will grow up into.
– The Doctor has felt much livelier and friendly this season which has been for the best and have made the conflicts with his companions much more enjoyable to watch.
– After some good action last week, we have returned to the bad fights early Doctor Who excelled at.
– Between this and “Planet of Giants” maybe they should just stay away from episodes invoking insects.
– Vicki has quickly established herself as Susan the way she should have been portrayed and a course correction to all the changes they made to the latter as the series developed. She has the future intelligence (and associated cluelessness about “modern” learning) and excitement of exploration the “An Unearthly Child” Susan had and an even better chemistry with The Doctor. It helps that Maureen O’Brien is a better fit for the role, but if they had given Susan the same respect as a character that Vicki received and less obnoxious screaming, Carole Ann Ford would have been much better.
– In addition they managed to maintain a sense of serialization by balancing the fact that Barbara and Ian are still getting to know
– Vicki: “Oh it was a nursery school.” Barbara: “It was not!” I love the indignation in Barbara’s voice along with Vicki’s unintentional (okay maybe sometimes intentional) backhand compliments and superiority to the earlier humans.
– The planet being barren because of the evil Animus being present was so incredibly groan worthy. For a sci-fi show, that is a remarkably silly stock fantasy trope to trot out.
– I don’t mind shows being slow paced but when your audience starts to notice it you’ve gone too far. The whole episode felt like it was playing on half speed
– This Week in Cliffhangers: None

Next Up: “The Crusade” contain on Friday the only missing episodes of Season 2 (2 out of the 4 episodes are missing).