Friday, 7 September 2012

Story 13 - The Web Planet

In which the TARDIS is dragged down to land on the moon-like planet Vortis. Some mysterious force has captured the ship, preventing it from leaving. Ian and the Doctor decide to go outside and explore - donning Atmospheric Density Jackets to compensate for the thin atmosphere. The Doctor recognises the planet - but it should not have so many satellites. There are pools of acid, giant insect chrysalises, and Ian's gold pen gets snatched from his hand by some invisible influence.
This same force affects Barbara, through the gold bracelet she is wearing (a present from the Emperor Nero). She leaves the TARDIS in a trance-like state. Vicki, now alone, suddenly finds that someone is dragging the ship away from its landing site. Ian gets caught up in a web which springs out of the ground. The Doctor returns to the ship for help - only to find it has gone.

Barbara encounters a party of butterfly-like beings - Menoptra. They are trying to evade capture by giant ant-like creatures called Zarbi. It is the Zarbi who have taken the ship, and they capture Ian and the Doctor. They are reunited with Vicki and the TARDIS in the web-like lair of the Animus. The Doctor can communicate with it, though it is hidden somewhere within the complex.  Barbara and some of the Menoptra are also captured, but they are sent to a labour camp in the Crater of Needles. The Zarbi cut off the wings of their Menoptra prisoners to prevent them simply flying away.
Vortis once belonged to the Menoptra, who lived peacefully with the docile Zarbi. The Animus landed one day and slowly started to take over. The Zarbi were enslaved, and the Menoptra forced into exile on the moon Pictos. The Animus generates a force which drew other moons to the planet. All the lush vegetation has been cut down and fed into acid pools from which the web-lair (the Carsenome) grows.
The Menoptra are about to invade and reclaim the planet.

Ian and Barbara escape their respective prisons. Ian and Menoptra Vrestin fall into an underground chamber and encounter the Optera, primitive subterranean cousins of the Menoptra. Barbara and Prapillus locate one of the ancient Menoptra temples. The Doctor and Vicki escape and meet them there. They have brought a Zarbi which they are able to control using a device made of gold. The invasion takes place but fails, as the Menoptra weapons are ineffectual and the Animus had earlier learned of the landing site from the Doctor. Captain Hilio  has brought a weapon designed to destroy the Animus - the Isop-tope. Everyone makes their way to the centre of the Carsenome, where the Animus is revealed to be a giant spider-like creature. Barbara uses the Isop-tope to destroy it. The Zarbi revert to their docile state. The Menoptra survivors await the arrival of the rest of their people. Vortis will bloom once again.

This six part story was written by Bill Strutton, his only contribution to the programme, and broadcast between 13th February and 20th March 1965.
The programme was becoming much more confident in its abilities (especially technical), and so the idea of an entirely alien world, populated by no human characters was attempted. When RTD brought Doctor Who back in 2005, he said - in relation to the Earth-centric series one - that the audience would find it hard to identify and empathise with alien beings on an alien planet. The Web Planet may have been one of the stories he was thinking of when he said this.
It is hard to engage with the story over 6 episodes, even though the Menoptra - our identification characters - do have distinct personalities. Actor and choreographer Roslyn de Winter, who plays Vrestin, coached her colleagues in their strange voices and body movements. The costumes are very effective. The spring-loaded wings did tend to open when they shouldn't, if the actor moved their arms too much, and it wasted vital studio time resetting them. The faces changed between the Ealing filming and the studio sessions - from helmets with make-up to full masks.

The Zarbi costumes aren't too bad, though it's easy to see the "man in a suit" aspects of the design. They were extremely impractical costumes. The actors fell over, and can be seen on screen crashing into scenery and cameras.
A third alien creature is the Sting-grubs (aka Venom Grubs, aka Larvae Guns). These are achieved simply as a man on all fours with a shell on his back, the body hidden by dangling legs. One of their names implies  these are an early stage of the Zarbi.
Least effectual creatures are the diminutive Optera. They grunt their dialogue and the costumes look poor. The lower limbs are simply pieces of felt. They do have a nice line in metaphorical speech - digging a hole becomes "make mouths in it... so it can speak more light" etc.
The Animus is simply achieved as a hanging mass of tendrils. The effect is greatly enhanced by Catherine Fleming's rather seductive vocal performance.

The regulars get a lot to do thanks to being split up for much of the story. No real stand-out performances, however.
The designer is John Wood, who has a herculean task on his hands. The planet surface is well handled, although actors' shadows do fall across supposedly distant horizons.. One effective technique utilised was a special misty filter on the camera lenses, to signify the rarefied atmosphere, with added echo on the vocals.
Episode endings for this tale are:

  1. The Web Planet - The Doctor returns to the ship only to discover that it has gone.
  2. The Zarbi - In the Carsenome, a cylinder descends over  the Doctor's head. He hears the voice of the Animus demanding to know why they have come here.
  3. Escape to Danger - With the Zarbi and Sting-grubs closing in, Ian and Vrestin are trapped. The ground suddenly gives way.
  4. Crater of Needles - With the Zarbi and Sting-grubs closing in, it is Barbara and Prapillus' turn to be trapped... 
  5. Invasion - The Doctor and Vicki have returned to the Carsenome. They are fired upon by a web-spitting gun.
  6. The Centre - After the TARDIS has dematerialised, the  Menoptra vow that the travellers will never be forgotten. They contact their colleagues and arrange for their return.
Try as  he might, the Doctor couldn't get "The X-Factor" on his Astral map...
Overall, a brave effort which should be applauded for its ambition. However, the story is hard to sustain over 6 episodes.
Things you might like to know:
  • The Zarbi were intended as a new "big bad" to join the Daleks. The impracticality of the costumes and limited plot opportunities meant they would not return to the programme, although they would feature several times more in print -  in comic strips and in the Doctor Who Annual.
  • The Optera were never in the original storyline. Director Richard Martin and Script Editor Dennis Spooner thought the story could do with an additional creature to liven up the  Ian / Vrestin scenes in parts 4 & 5. They also added extra consonants to the Menoptra names to make them sound more exotic.
  • A couple  of episodes seriously overran in studio - meaning the regulars missed their post filming night-cap. On one occasion they had to negotiate their way out of Riverside Studios in the dark as the lights had been turned off, everyone else having gone home.
  • The Web Planet had a specially filmed trailer (now lost) - showing the Zarbi turning up at the BBC for work. Whilst some sections of the production team were happy with the publicity, others disliked the humorous nature of the piece.
  • This story marks the first credited appearance by veteran 'monster man' John Scott Martin.
  • A young actor named Peter Purves was turned down for a Menoptra role. Richard Martin would keep his name on file... 

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