'The Web Planet' is of course notorious. When, as a kid during the largely pre-video eighties, I started to learn about past Doctor Who stories from Target novelisations and Peter Haining's Doctor Who A Celebration, the latter of which led me to believe that 'The Web Planet' was a classic, with pioneering special effects and superb monsters that was utterly convincing in its portrayal of a truly alien world and was years ahead of its time. Then it was released on video.
That basically seems to sum up fandom's opinion of 'The Web Planet', which The Discontinuity Guide notes is "slow and silly looking by modern standards". However, if anyone is expecting me to savage it, they are in for a disappointment. The main reason for is that I don't judge Doctor Who by its special effects, and never have; I judge it by plot, script, and acting. My stock pretentious argument for non-Who fans who ask me how I can take Doctor Who's effects seriously is that it is all to do with suspension of disbelief, and that Shakespeare's plays are traditionally performed on an empty stage with minimal props, but that doesn't detract from the plays themselves. My more honest answer is simply that I watch Doctor Who through metaphorical rose-tinted glasses. That said, I'm not blind to crap effects, and so since I mentioned the Slyther when I was rambling on about 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', I'll get the discussion of the effects out of the way. Vortis itself doesn't look bad it's at least as credible attempt to create an alien landscape as Skaro was in 'The Mutants'. True, there are often shadows cast over painted backdrops by the actors, but on the whole the sets are pretty good, and convey a sense of space quite convincingly. This is probably helped by the oft-criticized use of lenses to blur images set outside on Vortis' surface, which prevent the viewer from focusing too closely on backgrounds, but these aren't used in all the "outdoor" scenes. The rocks and craters really look rather good, as do the occasional pools of acid, and for a series that will later resort to the use of quarries to portray alien planets, it's a laudable attempt. The other sets are also well done, although parts of the Carsenome (mainly the corridors) do look painfully like flimsy plastic. The room in which the Doctor and Vicki spend most of the story however looks reasonable enough, as does the Animus' centre. The Menoptra Temple of Light also looks good, as do the caves of the Optera. Ultimately, I realized that I'd got to the end of episode six without feeling that the action was taking place within a studio. The other big demand on the effects is of course the various aliens present on Vortis.
The Menoptra look like men in costumes, but then so do most Doctor Who monsters and overall they look quite good, probably faring the best of all the creatures present. The bands of hair around their bodies allow them to be flexible without the need for over-ambitious insect like joints, which adds considerably to their success. That said, my mate caught the end of episode four, fell about laughing and exclaimed, "It's just a load of blokes in crappy moth costumes". As I said, rose tinted glasses
The Zarbi look much better in black and white photographs than they do on screen, due largely to the fact that their back legs are painfully obviously those of the actor, whereas both sets of forelegs are much more spindly and are clearly just stuck on the costume. The rest of the costume is obviously sat on the actor's back, but in spite of this, they still look quite effective running about. Honest. The Optera are a different matter, since they basically look like cheap polystyrene and the extra arms are utterly absurd, being unconnected to the actor and just dangling unconvincingly. The Larvae guns are even worse, and look like ironing boards with fronds on either wheels or the backs of actors at differing parts of the story. Finally there is the Animus, which vaguely resembles a Dutch Cap with fronds, but on the whole doesn't look too bad. So that's the effects out of the way
On the whole, I think that 'The Web Planet' is to be applauded as an attempt to portray an alien world. Vortis is at least as intriguing as Skaro, with its ancient ruins, acid pools, starry sky and weird lighting. Whilst the Zarbi are basically ants and the Menoptra moths, the actors and director try hard to make them work as aliens, and on the whole they succeed; the chirruping of the Zarbi as they run mindlessly about is striking, as is the weird body language of the Menoptra, which is clearly the result of careful attention to detail notice Hrostar and Hilio squaring off in episode five, by bobbing and hissing at one another. The dance-inspired movement of the Menoptra, including their distinctive arm hand waving, might look like amateur dramatics in retrospect, but shows a real attempt to make them stand out as alien. The real triumph in the alien stakes however is with the Optera, who get some great scripting, referring to blank walls as "silent" ("we must make mouths in it with our weapons, then it will speak more light"), to stalactites as teeth of stone, and to acid vapour "sleeping" at their feet. These are all attempts to show that Optera do not think in human terms, and it's an excellent idea. The Menoptra too are made to feel more alien simply by altering their pronunciation of Ian and Barbara to Heron and Arbara, showing that to them, human names are just as strange as theirs are to us. It has often been noted that 'The Web Planet' is the only Doctor Who television story in which none of the supporting characters are humanoid and however daft people might think the costumes are, it is still highly effective as an idea.
As a villain, the Animus is a first for Doctor Who, since it is unseen for most of the story, but its presence is felt throughout. It's rather more effective as a disembodied voice than it is in the flesh, thanks largely to its dispassionate tones as its sits converses with the Doctor. From the first time that the Doctor talks to it, it gives an impression of being utterly evil, due largely to its obvious disregard for any life other than itself. The Animus is central to the plot of 'The Web Planet', more so than any other single villain seen so far in Doctor Who; it is responsible for the arrival of the TARDIS, the desperate plight of the Menoptra, and the barren state of Vortis, which we are told was once cocooned in flower forests. It is an utterly malignant thing, and this feeling is emphasized by its method of take-over it has slowly extended its web over Vortis, absorbing everything in its path, and the fact that the Menoptra refer to this web as the Carsenome (an obvious corruption of carcinoma) only serves to reinforce this malignant feeling. At no point in this story do the Doctor or his companions get a reprieve until the Animus is destroyed from the moment the TARDIS is forced down, they are forced to split up after which they are all, in one way or another, either enslaved and/or forced to fight for their survival. The feeling of desperation is due largely to reminders that they have landed on Vortis just in time for the Menoptra's last ditch attempt to regain their world they are dying on Pictos, and, unused to conflict, they have been forced into battle with guns that turn out to be useless, and pinning all their hopes on a weapon that they cannot be sure will work. Their plight seems all the more grim due to their physical mutilation the Menoptra captured by the Zarbi have their wings torn off. For a species that is used to flight, this is presumably akin to having ones legs broken or amputated to prevent escape, which is a disturbing thought and one which occurred to me when Hrostar was rendered permanently flightless.
Episode one of 'The Web Planet' is one of my favourite opening episodes of any Doctor Who story up to this point, along with 'The Mutants' and 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth'. As on Skaro, the TARDIS crew find a mysterious and unearthly landscape, rife with strange phenomenon, from the high-pitched chittering of the Zarbi early on which only Vicki can hear inside the TARDIS, to the pools of acid, the Menoptra edifice, and the strange web that ensnares Ian. The success of this episode is due partly to the direction; unusual camera angles make the sudden assault on the TARDIS intriguingly macabre, especially when combined with the bizarre effect of the rotating TARDIS console. Plus, we have the mysterious effect on gold items (which also allows Vicki to find out about Ian and Barbara's visit to Rome in 'The Romans' a nice touch) and the half-glimpsed Zarbi scuttling amongst the crags; I'm not entirely blind to the short-comings of their costumes and the decision to keep them only briefly seen in the first episode is a wise one. The ADJs are also a nice touch, reminding us that not all planets are like Earth, even if they have to be reasonably similar to the constraints of dramatic requirement and budgetary restrictions. Overall, the episode is effective and memorably creepy, and the look of utter loss on Hartnell's face at the end when the Doctor realises that the TARDIS is missing is amazingly convincing. Which brings me to the characterisation.
Rather famously (or infamously), Hartnell has a fluff nightmare in episode one, which at its worst moment results in an obvious prompt from Russell ("What galaxy is that in, Doctor?"). After this however, he is on top form during 'The Web Planet'. When dealing with the Animus and playing for time, the Doctor is at his imperious best, urgently asserting himself to protect him and Vicki. This alternates with his familiar air of bright-eyed fascination as he strives to answer the question of what is happening on Vortis, what the Animus wants, and how it controls the Zarbi. Later, his bickering with Prapillus is a delight, as is the way he effortlessly takes charge during the meeting in the Temple of Light. But he is also vulnerable, as witnessed by his sudden reversion to frightened old man when he loses the advantage of having knowledge that the Animus wants about the Menoptra and is thus placed under its control, and later on when he and Vicki are sprayed with webbing and taken before the Animus. Vicki also comes across well, as in 'The Romans' demonstrating that she is more useful than Susan although obviously frightened at some points, she keeps her wits about her throughout, and is able to defy the Animus even after the Doctor has collapsed before it. Ian and Barbara are the usual excellent selves, Barbara single-handedly rallying her dispirited Menoptra allies to fight their Zarbi oppressors, and ultimately destroying the Animus with the Isop-tope when its light overwhelms them. Ian does similar things with the Optera, helped considerably by Vrestin, and the look on Russell's face when Nemini dies in the acid stream speaks volumes about the hardship faced by the oppressed inhabitants of Vortis, again testament to his acting skills. Of the guest cast, Hrostar and Hlynia are fairly forgettable, but the other Menoptra fare better. The imperious Vrestin maintains her dignity even when she and Ian the Optera imprison them, which stands out because on the whole the spirit of the peace-loving Menoptra is easily broken. Prapillus is another well-defined character, an old man who despite the loss of his wings and a lengthy period of enslavement has kept both hope and curiosity alive. His fascination with the Doctor's mysterious ring is quite endearing, as is his determination to fight the Zarbi and Animus even though he knows that the attack on the Carsenome could prove fatal. His knowledge of the Zarbi and the Larvae guns is crucial to the success of this mission. Finally there is the aggressive (for a Menoptra) and distrusting Hilio, who despite his paranoia about trusting the aliens and losing the only weapon that even gives them a chance, ultimately is forced to turn to Barbara for aid in the Centre when the presence of the Animus proves too powerful for him. Nemini and Hetra represent the Optera, both of who are initially afraid of Ian and Vrestin and want to kill them to protect their people, but who are eventually persuaded to face their fear of Pwadaruk and the surface to aid them in their struggle. Nemini dies in the tunnels, but Hetra accompanies Ian and Vrestin into the Carsenome and eventually leads his people in their first faltering steps onto the surface of Vortis and into the light. Part of the reason that I think 'The Web Planet' has so much to offer is that the actors give it their all, even those inside the Zarbi.
Despite all this praise I'm heaping on 'The Web Planet', it is still flawed even if we look beyond the costumes nobody seems to realize how heavy those gold collars would actually be, there are some strange accents from some of the guest-cast, and the story suffers from padding. And of course there is the infamous moment in episode three when a Zarbi runs straight into the camera one of those cursed moments in Doctor Who when a non-fan mate always walks into the room. Nevertheless, if you can look beyond the budgetary and technical limitations of the time, 'The Web Planet' has much to offer and is at the very least an admirable attempt at creating a truly alien world, even if it isn't quite a success. I'm glad that the attempt was made and that this story survived in the archives.
Now why do I think nobody is going to agree with me