Season 2 – Story 13
“I’ve seen a colony of ants eat their way right through a house; that size they could eat their way through a mountain!” – Ian
The Tardis is compelled to land on the bleak, forbidding world of Vortis, where a territorial battle is taking place between the giant, ant-like Zarbi along with their lethal larvae guns, and both the winged Menoptra and the underground-dwelling Optera. The travellers learn that the Zarbi are under the control of the Animus, an alien parasite that is sucking the life out of the planet via its web-like habitat, the Carsenome. When the Animus captures and freezes the Doctor and Vicki, the others plan an attack…
1. The Web Planet – Saturday 13 February 1965
2. The Zarbi – Saturday 20 February 1965
3. Escape to Danger – Saturday 27 February 1965
4. Crater of Needles – Saturday 6 March 1965
5. Invasion – Saturday 13 March 1965
6. The Centre – Saturday 20 March 1965
Filming: January 1965 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: January/February 1965 at Riverside 1
Doctor Who – William Hartnell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Vicki – Maureen O’Brien
Animus voice – Catherine Fleming
Vrestin – Roslyn de Winter
Hrostar – Arne Gordon
Hrhoonda – Arthur Blake
Prapillus – Jolyon Booth
Hlynia – Jocelyn Birdsall
Hilio – Martin Jarvis
Hetra – Ian Thompson
Nemini – Barbara Joss
Zarbi – Robert Jewell, Jack Pitt, Gerald Taylor, Hugh Lund, Kevin Manser, John Scott Martin
Writer – Bill Strutton
Incidental music – library tracks (Les structures sonores, Lasry-Baschet)
Story editor – Dennis Spooner
Designer – John Wood
Producer – Verity Lambert
Director – Richard Martin
RT Review by Mark Braxton
If this were a New Whovian’s first toe in the water of the classic series, it’s a moot point as to whether they’d ever go near it again. The Web Planet, introduced in RT 13 February 1965 on the cover (see below), is the least like the rebooted show in tone, pace and execution. But is being different such a bad thing? After all, the opening instalment attracted 13.5 million viewers, the biggest audience for any 60s Doctor Who story – two million had dropped out by the finale, but still…
Strenuous efforts have gone into making this epic of exaggerated entomology unique: designer John Wood’s craggy landscapes are superbly atmospheric, while the creatures – the singsong, floaty Menoptra, the dipping, scuttling Zarbi and the grunting, hoppity Optera – are undeniably memorable. Smeary filters, choreographed movements and extravagant costumes (by Daphne Dare) were all used, at great expense, to create an alien world from scratch.
Despite the expansive set, there were still clearly space problems: in one scene a Menoptra and then a Zarbi stumble comically over the same wing of a downed insect; in another, a charging Zarbi thuds into the camera. And the all-out, Kirby-wire-assisted battle in episode four resembles a heat of Jeux Sans Frontieres, though it’s a job to know which team is playing the joker.
The make-do-and-mend menagerie takes quite a battering over six episodes, and no amount of radiophonic bleeping can disguise the creaking from the props and sets in the story’s death throes. Some have argued that, as a tighter, four-part adventure, it would have worked. But considering the almost total absence of excitement, I’m really not sure that it would.
When I once spoke to William (Ian) Russell about the story, there seemed to be a regret in his voice when he said, “After the success of the Daleks, the public seemed to want science fiction and not perhaps the historical ones that we enjoyed.” And I often wonder how serious he was when he added, “It was a marvellous idea – butterflies versus the ants. Butterflies were good and the ants were bad.”
Russell made his decision to leave the show around this point, and after the giddy hedonism and human interest of The Romans, you can sympathise. Kicking about with big moths isn’t the same as eating grapes with Jacqueline Hill, is it? The latter also had reason for dissatisfaction at the time. Not that you’d ever know it from her and Russell’s customary heroics in the face of distracting artifice. It can’t be said enough that both were exemplary actors throughout their companionships.
Mercifully, Australian writer Bill Strutton offered more than one level on which to appreciate the story: a straight scrap between good and evil; disease and cure metaphors (Carsenome/carcinoma, Isop-tope/isotope); and assorted pro-tolerance, anti-xenophobic messages. So if the intrigues of insectopia fail to engage, you can always enjoy the subtext.
You certainly can’t fault this notoriously budget-draining runaround for ambition. But overall, The Web Planet probably works best when viewed during panto season … Oh, no it doesn’t!
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Radio Times archive material
Doctor Who made the RT cover for a third time; and this was the only time the Doctor’s companions would appear on the cover in the 1960s.
[Below: the regular cast and a Zarbi. Photographed by Don Smith, 22 January 1965 at Riverside Studios. Copyright Radio Times Archive]
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[Available on BBC DVD]