You know youre in trouble when you have to take thirty minute breaks between Episodes in order to watch a story without gnawing your ankles off. At least, Id say that this is a reasonable argument, and its certainly one that sums up The Web Planet for me. I apologise to fans of the story, but in my opinion it really is not very good at all.
The basic story is nothing too terrible- rival alien factions fight for control of a planet- but the execution of said plot is slow, tedious, plodding and padded out, something that would not be too bad in most stories, but when this one lasts for six whole Episodes, then you quite clearly have a problem. It saddens me to write this as deep down I know there is an okay-ish story waiting to be seen, but here no such story is available for public consumption. Bill Strutton has some good ideas, but his script does not do them justice in any way, shape or form.
Of the six Episodes, its arguably the first one- simply entitled The Web Planet- that impresses the most. The title of the Episode sets up the next twenty-five minutes well: mystery, alien worlds, excitement. Well, maybe not the latter but the first two are fulfilled nicely. The cleverest thing about this Episode is the way that it centres pretty much solely around the four regular cast members (i.e. the current TARDIS crew) and every so often throws in an alien to create a bit of horror. However, such moments sometimes fall flat on their faces. The appearance of a Zarbi in the TARDIS scanner works well, largely due to Vickis understated reaction, but they are handled less well earlier on- namely when one of them pops its head up over a rock briefly to take a look at Ian before ducking down again like a naughty schoolboy; whilst the sequence should prompt mystery and maybe a small fright, instead it just looks really, really silly and never fails to make me laugh a little.
The use of Vaseline to make Vortis surface look more alien works really well, and is one of the best things about the entire story as it really does give the alien atmosphere that the story is desperate to create.
The best thing about Episode One for me is the ending- and I mean that in a way that is not offensive towards said Episode. By making Vortis seem very alien and not including any other human characters, the cliffhangers that are witnessed as the Episode ends work well: Vicki is alone in the TARDIS as it rolls around, Barbara is about to walk into an Acid Bath (what is it about Acid Baths and stories with Martin Jarvis in them?), Ian is, err, trapped in a net, and the Doctor discovers that the TARDIS has vanished. As viewers, you genuinely care about the protagonists, so the fact that they are all in danger is a rather thrilling end to the Episode, and is easily the highest point that Strutton reaches in his script.
Alas, despite its good points, even this Episode suffers from having parts that simply feel like padding out- a rather look piece about Aspirins here, the Doctor and Ian wandering around in near-silence there. The whole sequence with Barbaras arm is interesting but again goes on for a little too long, whilst earlier on we have a most painful moment as William Hartnell forgets his lines whilst trying to explain how the TARDIS doors can be opened despite there being no power- full credit to him for slogging through it rather than demanding a re-take, but there is no denying that it is still an awkward moment and a rather painful one to watch.
After the first Episode, things really hit rock bottom; we have moments that are just embarrassingly funny (I have a shock for you. The ships gone- vanished! says the Doctor. Cue shot of Ina looking shocked), moments that ruin the illusions being created (namely the many times cast members cast shadows upon Vortis backdrop, thus making it obvious that it is a set), moments that just make you cringe (the first time you see an Optera in full view), and moments that are just plain dull (yes, Im looking at the Optera again). Maybe its wrong of me to give the Optera such a hard time, but when they first appeared I actually let out a cry of Oh oh boy such was the shock at seeing them for the first time. For a story that was so expensive to make, they dont half look incredibly cheap. Now, poor effects in Doctor Who are normally in my eyes forgivable, but here they really look the pits and the way they speak well, put it like this: it didnt exactly sell the effect to me. Maybe Im just being too harsh on them, or perhaps I just see them for what they are- more than a little crap.
As well as the excess padding, the story also feels extremely lazy. In every single Episode there are numerous moments when you scream I can see a boom shadow! or Thats a Stage Light creating that shine!, and there are often moments where silence passes for a few moments so that the Episode can be just that little bit closer to filling up its running time.
As well as this, there are moments that really stand out as being quite horrific, and such moments are more than a little at odds with the relatively fluffy atmosphere elsewhere. Parts such as a Menoptra having its wings ripped off by a couple of Zarbi, or when an Optera shoves her head in a rock to stop a flow of Acid, stick out as being very, very vicious and are truly shocking compared to everything that is going. Perhaps that is the point- that among everything, something nasty is happening. However, I think it would have been better to stick to just one ambience; despite parts like the lingering close-up of Hrostars dead body being some of the most powerful images in the story, as it stands such moments seem jarring and work against the story rather than for it.
The padding problems really become evident in the later Episodes. How many times can Vicki be put under control of the golden collar before it becomes tedious? Several times apparently, or so this story would have you believe as it doesnt stop shoving it on her when something needs to happen to plug the gaps. It is the ending that really stands out as being overlong though. The actual death of the Animus is decidedly naff, and following this we have some very overlong and drawn out moments with the TARDIS crew milling around on the planet surface. Look over there as Barbara plays with a scrubbing brush sorry, I meant a Venom Grub (or are they Larvae Guns? Or Zarbi Larvae? Somebody tell me for certain because as it stands I dont have a clue!), and now we see Ian and the Doctor talk about Ians Coal Hill tie, a sequence where I can never tell if its meant to be serious, funny, or, well, anything really- it just confuses me and seems to be as pointless as it is confusing. The actual ending once the TARDIS crew have left is not too bad, but its power is somewhat marred again by moments where it could quite easily have been shortened with no loss to coherence.
Its not all bad in The Web Planet. The film sequences in Crater Of Needles when the Menoptra land and fight the Zarbi are entertaining and nicely shot, whilst Ians fight with a Zarbi in the previous Episode is entertaining too but in an entirely different way. Elsewhere, Zombo the Zarbi deserves his own spin-off series and there are some nice touches in the script: the fact that the Menoptra cannot correctly pronounce the TARDIS crews names for instance (calling Ian Heron for example) is rather nice, as are all the scenes set inside the Crater of Needles, which show a real visual flair on director Richard Martins behalf. What a pity then the rest of the story swamps such moments as these.
Acting wise, The Web Planet is again hit and miss. The regular cast are on top form, despite line flubs here and there, and the rather patronising treatment of Vicki throughout (the Doctor giving her chocolate to clam her down is one moment that springs to mind). Of the guest cast, Catherine Fleming as the Animus voice is rather impressive and the Optera well, the Optera are perhaps better best forgotten. The Menoptra are universally good, with Martin Jarvis as Hilio really impressing. Only the odd hissing noise they make to one another when they are arguing lets things down, as does the famous sequence where they taunt the Zarbi by, err, shouting out Zaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrbiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! in a very high pitched voice. No, I dont know why they do this either. Later on, theres a brief reprise of such behaviour- a Menoptra shouting Barbara Barbara Barbara! as if she is about to break into a Cheerleading sequence. Its a pity she doesnt, as that would have lightened things up a bit I suppose.
In all then, The Web Planet, in my opinion, deserves its reputation for being ambitious, creative, and more than little rubbish. Full points to the Production Team for attempting something so other-worldly, minus several points for how dire the actual story is.
Ive never experience anything like this in my life before! cries the Doctor at one point, which is rather like how I felt whilst watching it- thank goodness that I wont have to do so again.