Doctor Who: The Web Planet Review

The TARDIS is drawn off course and lands on the planet Vortis. There, the Doctor (William Hartnell), Ian (William Russell), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Vicki (Maureen O'Brien) find themselves find themselves involved in a conflict between the butterfly-like Menoptra and the Zarbi, a species of giant ants.

The Web Planet, a six-parter written by Bill Strutton (with rewrites by script editor Dennis Spooner and director Richard Martin), defines “curate’s egg”. Backed up with considerable pre-publicity, 13.5 million viewers tuned into Episode One, a record that stood for ten years (until Part Two of The Ark in Space, for the record). Audience figures dropped off over the six weeks and the reactions tended to be mixed. Nowadays, the general reaction tends to dismiss it as very dated. There’s certainly some truth in this, though there are far duller and creakier stories amongst the surviving Hartnells: for me, they would include The Sensorites and Planet of Giants. On the other hand, the serial does have its devoted admirers. One of them is Russell T. Davies, who worked in a couple of references to this serial into the 2005 series.

You have to give this serial points for ambition. It’s the only one where every character except the four regulars is non-humanoid and there are not one but four different kinds of alien on display. On the planet’s surface it’s always dark and there are several moons in the sky. All of this done on a BBC budget in Riverside Studios 1 (with some pre-filming in Ealing). It was a tour de force for the costume and production designers – respectively Daphne Dare (a series regular) and John Wood.

Nowadays, of course, it’s easy to see that the aliens are men and women in costume, and the scenery polystyrene rocks and stage flats, its alienness rather too insistently emphasised by Vaseline filters on the camera lenses. If any serial demands suspension of disbelief it’s this: indeed, it demands you take yourself back forty years, when TVs were much smaller than now and had only 405 lines and back then The Web Planet really was state of the art. There’s little to complain about in the acting and direction, and Strutton’s concepts are pretty sophisticated by the standards of televised SF of any era. If the Zarbi are obviously men in fibreglass ant costumes, and the Optera look more foam rubber than organic, that’s not the serial’s fault. What is more of a problem is a distinct lack of narrative drive and a sense that this six-parter might have been better boiled down to four parts. That said, it’s a surprisingly grim story in places, with such scenes as an enforced wing-clipping and an Optera sacrificing herself by blocking an acid flow with her body kept within U-certificate bounds by the camera discreetly glancing away and using actors’ facial reactions to convey the horror of what’s happening.

Doctor Who was a series designed to push television to its limits and in the hands of then-young producer Verity Lambert and this serial’s director Richard Martin (a specialist in the futuristic stories, having co-directed the previous season’s groundbreaking The Daleks) they found people willing to do so. After forty years, inevitably the possibilities of special effects have moved on, undermining what was this serial’s strong point. Its weaknesses were noticeable then and for some may be too much of a stumbling block now.

The Web Planet is released on DVD by 2 Entertain, the new umbrella label for the BBC’s DVD releases. As usual, it is encoded for Regions 2 and 4.

Like every other 60s Doctor Who, the original videotapes of The Web Planet were long since wiped and reused. The serial survives as a set of 16mm film recordings used for overseas sales, which have been restored for this DVD. The restorers have also applied their VidFIRE software, which restores a video look to these film recordings. An improved version of VidFIRE debuted on The Complete Quatermass; this is the first Who release it has been used on. For further details on the restoration, see the article on the Restoration Team’s website.

It’s fair to say that The Web Planet has never looked as good as this. Nor could it look very much better, given the sub-standard definition source material, and the fact that – due to the Vaseline filters – many sequences are deliberately out of focus in parts of the frame. There’s also a considerable amount of grain and the image is soft throughout. This is undoubtedly difficult material to assess – and as ever, we should remember that it was made to be watched on far smaller, lower-spec television sets than the ones it is being judged on today. The DVD transfer is in its original 4:3 ratio.

There’s no problem with the mono soundtrack. Dialogue is clear, and it renders well sound effects such as the chirruping noises the Zarbi make. The incidental music for this serial came from stock and was not specially composed. Episode Six has an alternative soundtrack, from a Spanish-dubbed copy of the serial. Like the Arabic soundtrack on the final episode of The Aztecs, this is no more than a curio unless you understand the language. If you do then settle down to another thrilling episode of Doctor Mysterio

There are six chapter stops per episode, with options to play all, select an episode and select a scene. There are subtitles for the hard-of-hearing available for the feature and the extras but not the commentary, unlike previous Who DVDs. The latter omission is apparently 2 Entertain policy and is regrettable to say the least. Also available are the as-ever very useful information subtitles, provided this time by Martin Wiggins. These include a number of quotes from letters to Junior Points of View: “The Zarbies [sic] are a load of toffee!” and “The Doctor needs a haircut” among them.

The audio commentary features William Russell, Verity Lambert, Richard Martin and Martin Jarvis, moderated by Gary Russell. With a serial of this age, commentaries inevitably rely on the forty-year-old memories of people who are in some cases quite elderly – William Russell is in his eighties now – so it’s a good idea to have a Who expert such as Gary Russell along to moderate the discussion. He keeps the chat on track and prevents it from rambling too much. The two actors, the director and the producer are clearly proud of what was cutting-edge television at the time and what was achieved on minimal resources – a budget of £2500 per episode.

“Tales of Isop” (which runs 37:51) is another of the making-of documentaries that the Restoration Team provide for their DVDs. It consists of interviews with most of the participants still alive. (Bill Strutton appears as a still photograph; he died in 2003.) As ever, it’s nice to hear from people who aren’t often interviewed about Doctor Who, such as Maureen O’Brien here. It’s a thorough run-through of the production from inception to completion and well worth a look.

The remaining extras are more for the connoisseur – nice to have, but not essential to the more general fan. Firstly, there’s a reprint of the very first Doctor Who Annual, from 1965, presented as a seventeen-page PDF file for those of you with DVD-ROM capacities. (It’s compatible with Macs as well as PCs.) In graphic-design terms it’s primitive by today’s standards, but on the other hand it assumes you would quite willingly read pages of text (and the stories are quite lengthy too) that weren’t broken up into small sections by pictures. The illustrations are four-colour line drawings. Some of them looked familiar, and I’m sure I’ve seen them before. I wonder if some of the stories were reprinted as I certainly didn’t read them in 1965 as I was only one year old! The first story in the book is “The Lair of Zarbi Supremo”, which is available on the disc itself as an audio-only item read by William Russell. It plays against a background of one of the annual’s illustrations, and subtitles are available; it runs 56:45. In similar vein is a set of Chad Valley “Give a Show” slides, which tells the story in fourteen pictures. Finally, there is the usual stills gallery. It’s self-navigating, running 6:46, containing production photographs, some behind the scenes material showing the aliens being made and some publicity shots of a Zarbi waiting at a bus stop. There are no Easter Eggs on this disc.

The Web Planet, in the context of what was available and possible to its makers, probably the most ambitious Doctor Who serial ever made. For that it should be commended, though otherwise it’s only a partial success and divides fan opinion to this day. No complaints about the DVD release though, which is up to the Restoration Team’s high standards.

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