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Saturday, 23 May 2020

'THE WEB PLANET' (WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO)

First broadcast: Feb/March 1965
Written by Bill Strutton
Plot spoilers: Medium



“Caught up in a war between giant ants and fighting butterflies, can the Doctor escape the sinister Animus?”

Transforming zones

‘The Web Planet’ is one of the more divisive Hartnell stories, often bottoming polls of his era. Which can temp you into thinking it an outlier. However, through marking the furthest point the series went in one particular direction, it actually serves to underline a general point. The memory of this has partly been eraaed by the bigger-budgeted revival, but time was when the magic phrase “wobbly sets” was thought to dismiss the whole of ‘Who’. ‘Web Planet’ demonstrates how this is twice wrong.
First, if you’re going to watch First Doctor episodes, the most fundamental fact you need knocking into you is that this era wasn’t just different in terms of production values but of style. Before there were such things as computer games or podcasts to spin off into there was a Dalek stage play - with further stage plays to follow. 

Naturally enough, for the series itself largely followed stage conventions. Of course this was true of all TV from this era, which essentially filmed plays, but with a show like ’Who’ there was an extra twist. Your disbelief needed to suspend itself over a pretty deep abyss if it was going to get by. Just as Shakespeare plays portray a never-ending panoply of historical and fantastical locations with nothing but a few props stuck together with some iambic pentameter and held up by a willing audience, so (partly by sheer necessity) did TV science fiction. So the sets looked like sets? That’s what they were, dummy. Why should that matter? For like the stage the screen is a magic zone of transformed logic.

Second, nay-sayers and disbelievers tend to assume science fiction is all about visual spectacle. ‘Doctor Who’ was just a tuppenny ha’penny attempt to emulate ‘Star Wars’, an arms race the impoverished Brits were born to lose. But think how the respective series start. ‘Star Wars’ with a huge spaceship taking time to rumble across a cinema screen, followed by an even huger one. ‘Who’ with a police box in a junkyard that emits strange sounds. ‘Doctor Who’ is not and never was a space opera but a form of weird fiction. Its concern isn’t boldly going into the even bigger and bolder but encountering the unknown and unknowable.

And ’Web Planet’ occupies a special place in all this, one which the Tardis Index File tells us precisely one line into its review - “it is unique in ’Doctor Who’ history as the only television story where there are no humanoid characters aside from the regulars.” 



A pedant might suggest that there’s actually plenty of humanoid characters who merely wear weird costumes, and that a better description might be ‘everyone apart from the regulars attempt to represent some sort of insect through the medium of acting funny’. But the point stands. A whole alien world was built in the studio, with dancers rather than actors hired to capture the movements of these alien critters. 

While Hartnell’s second season is often regarded as the time of experimentation, this mostly involves trying on for size genres established elsewhere. (Historical drama in 'Marco Polo', farce in ’The Romans’, just about every genre going in ’The Chase’...) This is arguably the only attempt to do something genuinely experimental. Making an alien planet lookalien promises to make the show as strange as it’s theme tune.

So I was all ready to defend ’Web Planet’ as something theatrical and symbolist, the BBC’s equivalent to Karel Capek’s celebrated ‘Insect Play’ - an impressive flight of fantasy which set its back against conventions of normality and only gormless literalists misread by calling ‘unrealistic’.

The only trouble is – I then went and watched it.

Insects Abroad

It often fails through the best intentions, rich with bold experiments which don’t actually come off. A classic example is the way the surface scenes are filmed through distortion filters, in an attempt to impress on you the sheer strangeness of Vortis. Unfortunately without anyone to tell you this, it just looks like your TV’s gone funny. 

There’s a huge and quite commendable effort to give the butterfly-like Menoptrans their own alien culture and mannerisms. But their verbal tics and ceaselessly repeated gestures quickly become grating rather than exotic. They talk so slowly no wonder they never win any of their bloody battles- “Men-oooooptrans… be-waaaaaaare…. the Zar-biiiiiiii… ad-vaaaaance uponnnn uuuu… oh bugger, too late!” (They later turn this to their advantage by chanting “Zar-biiiiiiii” at the Zarbi. Which, given this description, proves surprisingly effective.) 

Moreover, you don’t need to watch the accompanying DVD to know those insect movements were cooked up in some Stanislavskian workshop. It reeks of one of those drama courses - “Run around like a butterfly! Now scurry like an ant!” Compare that stage death Menoptra to the Zeigfried Follies, below.





Of course, without elaborate sets or expensive effects we need things to be painted in words. But the language here often becomes so histrionic (“their deeds shall forever be sung in the temple of light!”), you end up with the most horrific notion of all - a planet entirely populated by luvvies. Or a TV station completely composed of luvvies living it up at the license payer’s expense – whichever is worse. 

At its worst it feels like it’s not an actual ’Doctor Who’ story at all, but the sum total of prejudices held in the heads of Who-haters, which somehow took on physical form – something cheaply made, confused, confusing and quite up itself. The BBC themselves acknowledge this: "'Thank goodness this particular story is finished', commented a Quantity Surveyor from the substantial number of the sample for whom this episode had scant appeal.”

Perhaps the problem is simply over-ambition. Or the continuing interaction with the human characters, which keeps their insect mannerisms foregrounded for the viewer. In ’The Insect Play’, Capek bookends his insects with a human observer but mostly leaves the stage to them alone. 

Capek also also used his insects for a universalist purpose, to demonstrate human characteristics allegorically, pinning them to something distant from us to allow us to examine them. ’Web Planet’ sometimes feels like a fairy story, the Narnia variety in which a Wicked Queen’s rule transpires as a physical sickness upon the land. But pretty soon it’s fallen into something mundanely specific. In fact, underneath the posturing and that stuff smeared on the camera lens, it’s ’The Daleks’ all over again.

The crew land on a barren planet which at first seems deserted, though we later realise that everybody’s merely hiding. They then find two warring sides, choosing one just in time to see it get ambushed and decimated. The Doctor gets imprisoned and interrogated by the bad guys while the others team up with the good guys and plan their assault, there’s a feint vs. real attack maneuver – through some bleeding tunnels, even! (Why does Barbara think so hard over this plan when it’s exactly the one they’ve used before?) 

The first two episodes are even symmetrically titled – from ’The Dead Planet’/’The Daleks’ to ’Web Planet’/’The Zarbi’! The only tick-box element missing from ’The Daleks’ is the work pit, helpfully provided in 'Dalek Invasion of Earth' and (needless to say) duplicated here.

Which of course means we’re back in the country of Nazi analogies. We've really come nowhere. It's like we hold dud passports which promise the world but hold us in Western Europe. 

George Orwell once said the English catalogue foreigners like insects. He was more right than he could ever have known. It's every bit about visual motifs to convey the funniness of foreigners. Wings signify French-ness, antennae German-ness. 



‘Zarbi’ could even be a code word for ‘Nazi’, except perhaps for that ‘code’ bit. The butterfly-like Menoptra are trillingly cultured and graceful against the robotic Zarbi. Their names are Latin, chiefly derived from insect categorizations. (For example Prapillus comes from Papilio, the term for butterfly.) And of course, we chiefly associate Latin with French. 

Only here the analogy is more schematic, more divisive. As argued previously the Thals were the ‘good’ pacifist Germans, hence (and crucially) a kind of cousin to the devious Daleks. So while ’The Daleks’ gave us a conflicted world where native was fated to fight native, ’Web Planet’ gives us a panto of good fluttering Frenchies and bad, black-clad swarming Nazis. 

In ’The Daleks’ the soil is found to still be fertile, with some sweat and labour their planet might eventually be restored to abundance. Here water magically starts to burst from springs as soon as the wicked witch is dead. Worse, the Frenchies are planning their own valiant but hopeless D-Day assault (with weapons that don’t actually work), until the allies arrive cavalry-like to save them. Fair makes you proud, don’t it?

In perhaps the chief difference the Zarbi are not innately evil, by nature they’re docile – but fallen under the foreign power of the Animus. She works as a kind of Hitler/Lenin figure – railing the workers against their natural and benevolent rulers. Vicki dubs their tamed Zarbi ‘Zombo’, emphasising this perception of them as zombified workers. (‘Zarbi’ could even be a code word for ‘Zombie’, apart from that code bit…) 

But even this difference is not significant. The Zarbi are described as “just cattle. They do not have any speech nor motive of their own”. Which echoes the famous speech from ‘The Great Dictator’, already quoted under <i>‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’:
“You are not machines! You are not cattle!” We should also note insects are commonly likened to machines. Cattle, insects, mechanisation, Nazis, all are bundled together and held in opposition to our supposedly organic society.

And in these “they're-not-like-us” xenophobic explanations commonly given for the rise of fascism, the Germans can be portrayed alternately as willful sadists or blind cattle, following their master's orders either with glee or with robotic obedience. Like most racist arguments iterating the prejudice was held to prove it. So one could slide to the other and back without anyone noticing – much less concerning themselves.

It’s arguable this lays bare a tension inherent in the show; was it designed as allegory or fable? Are we meant to look upon Vortis as a credibly alien planet, somewhere up there in the sky but part of our universe, or as some fantastical other-world? Never before have the two been forced to share the same living quarters so closely, and they make for an odd couple indeed.

The Daleks were of course never intended as a hit, they were only bumped up the schedules through other options falling through. The Zarbi, conversely, do seem to have been intended as a rival to the Daleks - with the BBC planning a second set of monster merchandise. Perhaps that very fact is part of the problem. “One more time with that order of lightning, please.”

Strength through strangeness

However, let's not overlook the bits which work. As this is all before the conceit that the Doctor can understand any language, he can’t communicate with the Zarbi and we’re into the second cliffhanger before he finally talks to the Animus. (After two episodes of chirrupy Zarbi chatter, the moment comes as a genuine shock. It’s perhaps significant that for most of the time we only hear the Animus, as a powerful female voice. The standard cliffhanger trope of ‘monster reveal’ is thereby reversed, the shock is not seeing the Zarbi but hearing their mistress’ voice.) The verbal sparring between them marks the highpoints of the story, as they perpetually smart and counter-smart each other. 



Notably, when we finally do see her, the set (while sadly deficient) is almost like a variant of the Tardis - a gleaming central console. Where the Zarbi or Daleks are the Doctor’s adversaries the Animus is his id – seeking to control and absorb all she encounters, even (in her final screechy boast) culture. (Prapillus conversely is the Doctor’s alter ego, most exemplified in the moment where they must swap objects for their respective missions.) Robert Sloman obviously found the Animus a fitting opponent for the Doctor, bringing her back in all but name for ‘Planet of the Spiders’.

I said of the show, when looking at ‘Keys of Marinus’: “Its images are innately strange, but at the same time its symbols are entirely explicable.” And ‘Web Planet’ may be the point where parable and weird fiction collide, each derailing the other. Its disappointing for a story to start off so insistent that this time an alien planet is really… no foolin’... going to be alien. Only to become so rigidly allegorical that the costumes might as well have labels on them reading ‘Nazi drone’ and ‘free French’.

However, overall, the normally acerbic Tomb of the Anorak hits the nail: “Okay it’s not very good, but there’s am ambition at the heart of it that makes it worthwhile.” Though it wouldn’t be the first episode you'd ever suggest to a newbie, in a way 'Web Planet' is the ultimate Hartnell story. Is it a bold and challenging experiment, a hopeless mess, a simple genre story warped by happy or unhappy accident, or an experimental drama cloaked in some cod-SF references so it could go out at teatime? It's kind of all of those at once.

There should be space in the world to try out things like ’The Web Planet’, even if the result is only things like ’The Web Planet’. This was a show centered around explorers made by explorers. The BBC that made ’The Web Planet’ is the BBC that made ’The Clangers’ or funded the Radiophonics Workshop, a hermetic world of deranged boffins blissfully unaware that their real job should have been studying demographic trends while underestimating audience expectations. (And in fact this isn’t so unlike ’The Clangers’, there’s the same sense of the ‘domestic cosmic’.)

And in these days when nothing seems to reach the screen that hasn't been bled dry by fifty focus groups, where nothing ever really fails because nothing ever really tries, where everything is just a product-upgrade copy of something else, you can come to see the upside of that.

While admittedly I hope never to have to watch it again, I would rather it than some of the play-safe dross the show has served up in more recent years. ‘Doctor Who’
can survive being bad, it’s done it for years at a time. When it dies is when it loses its strangeness.

Further reading! This time I can only link to an ad for the item, because Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles' 'About Time' is an actual book. You know, a thing you actually need to order, then open and read. (Ask a boomer to help you if necessary.) Perhaps one of the weaknesses of my reviews, particularly over the one-off scripters, is that they’re either made into a conduit for a zeitgeist or taken as a sock puppet of the Script Editor. Wood and Miles take biographical information about Bill Strutton to argue the Zarbi are not based on Nazis but... well, why not read the thing for yourself?

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