The Web Planet
Written by Bill Strutton
Transmitted 13 February 1965 to 20 March 1965
Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction TV series. A cult phenomenon today, it was transmitted to over 80 countries back in the 1960’s and revered as a unique program combining the elements of fantasy, high adventure and sci-fi. In comparison to the series as it stands today, Doctor Who was geared as an educational program for children back when it first aired with entertainment a secondary concern or means to an end.
Sydney Newman’s team of writers performed extensive research before the first script was even commissioned. But in its second year, Doctor Who was a runaway hit (thanks in large part to the popularity of the Daleks).
Celebrating its 52nd anniversary this week, I decided to take an in-depth look at an often-forgotten adventure, the ‘one with the giant insects.’ Not just overlooked, the Web Planet was believed to be lost until prints were discovered in the 70’s.
Bill Strutton’s script came at a time when Doctor Who was very experimental and looking to stretch its creative muscles. Some say that The Web Planet was too ambitious and given the thrown together nature of some episodes (such as an entire race of grubs introduced to extend the story some more) in comparison to the inspired brilliance of others, I am inclined to agree.
Director Richard Martin, who had previously worked with the Daleks in their first televised appearance, excels at crafting bizarre captivating alien worlds. The costumes designed by Daphne Dare who worked on over 87 episodes of Doctor Who are outstanding. Additionally, the music (performed on glass tubes) is otherworldly and the camera effects make the studio filming unique. All of these creative factors combine to produce an adventure that stupefies the viewer and demands to be watched. This is a classic that does indeed push the boundaries of what Doctor Who can accomplish.
However… it’s all a bit of a mess.
The TARDIS crew arrive on Vortis after a fun romp in ancient Rome. The Doctor and Ian don what appear to be designer atmosphere suits and explore the planet while the TARDIS is hijacked by an unknown force and dragged across the lunar-like terrain.
They are soon drawn into a battle between the butterfly people called Menoptera and the ant people called Zarbi. Things get weird when it is revealed that the Zarbi are only operating under the control of a disembodied evil consciousness called ‘the Animus,’ represented by a tangled mass of tendrils and a creepy voice.
The plot stumbles along through SIX episodes with some truly hilarious (though unintentionally so) moments such as William Russell struggling to act with William Hartnell who is at a loss for his lines (bless the man, I know he wasn’t well but this occasion is a side-ripper in which Russell just stares at the elder actor saying “Hmm?” several times), a rogue Zarbi who rams headlong into a camera and a giggling crew member who interrupts a dramatic cave-in. I can just imagine the cast wondering aloud ‘What are we doing??!!’ Having lost his patience, Hartnell even calls out the absurdity of the situation, referring to a communication device as a ‘hair dryer.’
All that accepted, I have to admit that I have a great fondness for the Web Planet. It explores the fantastical side of children’s entertainment and sure, the giant ants are goofy but the Animus is spine-tingling. The cast is (with some exceptions) in fine form and the Menoptera are just awe-inspiring. Hardly as graceful as a butterfly, but fascinating.
To make matters more interesting, the Animus is one of many disembodied evil entities called the Great Old Ones who survived the death of a previous universe. The pantheon of Great Old Ones include the Great Intelligence, the Fendhal, Fenric, the Nestene Consciousness and the Celestial Toymaker (check out this amazing resource for more in-depth information). See what you can do with a presumably silly idea and some imagination? Make it akin to HP Lovecraft’s mythology.
In case you’re wondering why anyone would be even remotely interested in this story, keep in mind that it had the highest viewing figures of the program in the 60’s with 13.5 million tuning in. Yes, the Zarbi gave the Daleks a run for their money back in the day. Writers were so enamored by the killer ants that the Doctor returned to Vortis six more times in other guises.
Given current leading man Peter Capaldi’s fondness for the classics, don’t be surprised if you see a return trip to Vortis in the near future. And after reading this, you’ll be in the more-informed cool kid club.
The Fifth Doctor Who returned to the Web Planet in this Big Finish audio adventure.
The Zarbi and Menoptera appear in the Dr Who comic strip
Doctor Who and the Web Planet book cover for Portuguese release