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Doctor Who: The Web Planet

Please pick up a can of "Raid" on the way home...
Hate bugs? Skip this.

Season 2, Story N

Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor

With William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Maureen O'Brien (Vicki)

Written by Bill Strutton
Directed by Richard Martin
Produced by Verity Lambert

Episodes and Broadcast Dates
  1. The Web Planet - 13 February 1965
  2. The Zarbi - 20 February 1965
  3. Escape to Danger - 27 February 1965
  4. Crater of Needles - 6 March 1965
  5. Invasion - 13 March 1965
  6. The Centre - 20 March 1965
How To Watch: "The Web Planet" is available to stream on Britbox (subscription required)

Synopsis

The TARDIS is dragged to the surface of the desolate planet Vortis and immobilized. There our heroes encounter the ant-like Zarbi, servants to a sinister entity known as the Animus. The butterfly-like Menoptera were forced to flee the planet when the Animus took hold, but are returning to attempt to free Vortis with their weapon, the Isop-tope. Our heroes eventually converge in the Carsenome, the centre of the Animus's web, and Barbara saves the day with the Isop-tope, destroying the Animus. The Menoptera and Zarbi and the other various insect creatures of Vortis are free to live in harmony again, life begins to return to the planet, and the TARDIS departs.

Analysis and Stuff

This is neither as infamously awful as most people claim it is, nor as secretly brilliant as its handful of apologists claim. It is certainly, however, one of the most risk-taking attempts at epic storytelling in the early days of Doctor Who, quite avant-garde; you have to meet it on its own terms. Even if you can embrace its uniqueness, though, it's still quite a laborious chore to sit through as the plot develops about as slowly as a coral reef.

There's also a certain pall over episode one, where it's obvious that William Hartnell wasn't having his best day. There are times when his famous line fluffs are rather charming, y'know, the "burnt cinder in Spain" and such, but then there are times when you can see his faculties starting to fail, and those moments are excruciating. And it's especially galling when you realize thirteen and a half million people were watching that episode.

The BBC apparently believed in this story, and put a lot of weight behind promoting it. And indeed, between the momentum built up from the Dalek Invasion in December and the buzz around it, "The Web Planet" was the most watched story in Doctor Who history until the late Tom Baker era (and only then because the competition was off the air). After this, though, viewership started to flag. I can't say that "The Web Planet" was the cause, per se, but by the end of the Hartnell era the ratings were one-third of what they were here. This was the end of the peak.

The production team went through great lengths to make this an 'alien' looking story; the various insect characters with their stilted voices and choreographed movements, the vaseline on the camera lenses, etc, and the set design. But all that can't compensate for the lack of a sufficiently substantive plot to stretch across four episodes, let alone six. The bulk of the action of the first two episodes are the TARDIS crew talking, or fiberglass ants chattering. Everyone wanders around for almost three full episodes before we get any exposition. Some of the action is pretty damn incomprehensible (guess who directed), the chattering of the Zarbi gets annoying quickly, you can hear someone off-camera laughing at the start of episode four, there's no incidental music at all to set the mood, and all the vaseline in Britain can't make the painted backdrops look like anything other than painted backdrops. At its worst, it all rather has the feel of a community theatre adaptation of "A Bug's Life."

I do have to note how awesome Barbara is, yet again. Who inspires and leads the Menoptera when their spirits are broken after their invasion is repelled? Who destroys the Animus in the end? Barbara is straight up badass.

This is a very difficult story to sit through, let alone love. But one can't help admire the gamble in creating it, even when it doesn't pay off. But now that I survived the re-watch (I had to, for you) I won't consider it a tragedy if I never see it again.

Haven't I Seen You Somewhere In The Future?

Martin Jarvis (Hilio) later appeared as Butler in "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" and the Governor in "Vengeance on Varos."

Most of the Zarbi also regularly appeared as various aliens, particularly Daleks.

Roslyn de Winter would appear in the infamous haunted house episode of "The Chase."

Rating: One and a half cans of Raid out of Four.

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John Geoffrion is a semi-retired semi-professional thespian, a professional data guy, and a Dad. He usually falls asleep to the Classic Doctor Who channel on Pluto.tv

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