Thursday, 1 June 2017

Inspirations - The Web Planet

The Web Planet, as it has always been known, was the only story written by Australian scribe Bill Strutton.
He was quite candid in interviews about his inspirations for the story. One was the success of the Daleks - in particular the financial rewards which were heading towards Terry Nation. Strutton hoped to follow suit with the giant ant-like Zarbi, and butterfly-like Menoptra. Both sets of alien creatures did make it into merchandising, though nowhere near to the extent achieved by the Daleks. There were plastic badges of both races, and the Zarbi and Menoptra featured in the first Dr Who Annual and comic strips. But then the Sensorites and the Voord also made it into that first Annual. Like those earlier attempts to capture lightning twice, the residents of the planet Vortis were never invited back onto the programme. This was probably Strutton's own fault. The Menoptra are good guys rather than villains, whilst the Zarbi aren't exactly proactive. They are merely a drone race, who are only made menacing because they have fallen under the influence of the Animus. Once it is destroyed, they are merely cattle. We do see two other species on the planet - the Optera and the Venom Grubs (also referred to as Sting-Grubs or Sting-Guns). These weren't created by Strutton. Both were added to the story by Dennis Spooner and director Richard Martin, as the plot was felt to be dragging over six episodes. Many would argue that the plot drags even with their inclusion.

The main inspiration for the Zarbi as the monsters came from a painful childhood memory. Strutton grew up in rural Australia, his family moving around various Outback towns. One day he came across two bull ants fighting each other. He made the mistake of sticking his finger too close and received a nasty bite, which he described as one of the most painful things he had ever experienced.
The programme at this point in its history was still experimenting with what it could do with its format. One of the most experimental directors was Martin, so he was well up for creating a story set on an alien world in which there were to be no human-like characters, other than the TARDIS crew. The Zarbi would not speak, except in insect chirrups, whilst one of the Menoptra performers - Roslyn de Winter - was tasked with developing a unique style of movement and speech for her race. With their faces covered, the Menoptra players make much use of hand gestures and bizarre pronunciations of names - so Ian becomes Heron for instance, and it is the Animoose that lurks at the heart of the Carsinome. And let's not forget the Zarbeee-ee-ee!!!
To make his alien world look just that bit more other-worldly, Martin uses vaseline covered filters on some shots of the moon-like surface, to make it look like there is a thin atmosphere. Presumably some viewers at the time simply mistook this for their picture going out of focus.
The Doctor does not don a white Astrakhan hat just so that it matches his Atmospheric Density Jacket by the way. The ensemble was to stop the top of his head vanishing in those VFX scenes with the pyramid, where the actors had to be superimposed over a model shot from another part of the set, standing in front of black drapes.

As for the plot, this is basically a war movie. Think Dunkirk and D-Day. The Menoptra have been forced to retreat, and now they are about to launch an invasion and retake what was taken from them. Of course, the British Expeditionary Force wasn't native to mainland Europe, but you can see where Strutton is coming from. The Crater of Needles is a POW cum slave labour camp. (Strutton was captured by the Germans in Crete during WWII and spent much of the war in Stalag VII. As well as writing to stave off boredom, he also learned to swear in several languages).
The first Menoptra that the time travellers meet are agents, like the Special Operations Executive, sent in ahead to prepare for the invasion. In the Optera, we have a sort of resistance movement, though they need the Brits - sorry, Menoptra - to organise them. The Venom-Grubs are, of course, Tiger tanks. Maybe Panzer IVs.
Another obvious inspiration for some aspects of the story is cancer. The Animus sits at the heart of, and generates, a malignant growth which is slowly encircling the planet. Significantly, the lair is called the Carsinome, and it is a weapon called the Isop-tope that has been designed to destroy the parasite. Radiation treatment to combat a tumour.
The one thing Strutton didn't intend was for the story to be seen as a comment on Communism. He was surprised when Dennis Spooner claimed this in interviews, as this is what the Story Editor believed it was all about. Strutton was thinking about Normandy, whilst Spooner was thinking about Indochina.
Insect life, especially ants and bees, are seen as having strictly hierarchical social structures, with a uniformity of function. There's no room for non-conformity. As such, many commentators saw Communist regimes as insect-like, with everyone looking alike and acting alike, subservient like drones to a higher authority. Many Science-Fiction writers used insect analogies to describe repressed societies, but you can go back to Ancient Greek writers for similar views. Aesop seems to have been on the side of the ant against the grasshopper in his fable. The industrious ant has saved up food for the winter, whilst the grasshopper has been idle all summer. Right from the start, some people disagreed with the message, and felt the ant to be mean and miserly, and lacking in charity.
Were this story to be remade today, I don't think that the snooty aristocratic Menoptra would have been so easily able to put the Zarbi back under the yoke. Here's for a belated sequel in which the Zarbi have developed and kicked the Menoptra back to Pictos on their own. And take your stupid Optera with you.
We can see why Spooner might have thought that this story was some sort of political parable, but the author denied this was the case. Nor did he ever claim it as a piece about ecology, though it is clear that the planet's ecosystem has been put out of kilter by the arrival of the Animus. Where once there were flowers and forests there is now a barren moon-like world, and acid has replaced water.
One last thing to mention before we go, the film version of The First Men in the Moon came out in the summer of 1964, with creatures by Ray Harryhausen. The Moon is populated by various insect-based beings, primarily the indolence-free grasshopper-like Selenites.
Next time, back to Earth for some purely human villainy - in iambic pentameter.

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