As we approach the 60th Anniversary of Doctor Who, revisit the story of Doctor Who, the occasional series written for the 50th Anniversary, explaining the origins of the programme.

Episode 31 - An Unearthly Series - The Origins of a TV Legend: First published 23 Nov 2013

Galaxy 4Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Eddy Wolverson

The first time I listened to “Galaxy 4” on CD (as all four episodes are missing from the BBC archives) I thought that it was one of the weakest stories of William Hartnell’s reign. The second time around I was slightly more impressed, largely because I’ve found that this dialogue-heavy serial is actually more suited to audio than many of the other ‘lost’ stories recently released by the BBC Radio Collection are. Nevertheless, I’m afraid to say that my thoughts on this serial are still far from positive.

William Emms’ story is heavily grounded in the old maxim “it’s what is inside that counts”, and whilst this may be a noble sentiment it is one that is all too often done-to-death in science fiction. The idea that the rather horrific Rills are a race of thinkers, learners and explorers whilst the more aesthetically pleasing Drahvins are an aggressive and warlike species is borne out well in the story, but with no telesnaps or photographs of the Rills the moral of the story falls a little flat – a tremendous shame as otherwise the story works so well in the audio medium. Obviously, this is no fault of the makers of “Galaxy 4” as they were not to know that the story would be junked, or even more surprisingly that forty years on somebody would be writing a review of it!

However, quite a substantial amount of footage from “Four Hundred Dawns” exists, including some shots of a ‘Chumbly.’ Their atrocious nickname (given to them by Vicki) is unfortunately fitting, as they are as feeble in appearance as they are in name. The Drahvins are probably the most interesting aspect of the serial; a race of militant females lead by the despicable Maaga. I’m not sure if Emms was deliberately trying to write a satire about Women’s Lib., but that’s how it comes across at times which is quite amusing considering Doctor Who’s sexist reputation in the sixties and early seventies! I also think this serial could be a possible contender for containing the most ever fluffs by the actors, and whilst that isn’t a damning indictment of “Galaxy 4” in itself, it serves as the proverbial icing on the cake. No, that’s a lie – the icing on the cake is the TARDIS flying past the planet Kembel whilst the Doctor and his companions cheesily say aloud “Oh, I wonder what’s happening on that planet…” dovetailing into their week off…

FILTER: - Television - Series 3 - First Doctor

The SensoritesBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Eddy Wolverson

“The Sensorites” is a story that in many ways encapsulates the show’s first season. Personally, I don’t find that it stands up as well today as some of the other early serials do, but there is still a lot to like about Peter R. Newman’s six-parter and, more to the point, it showcases many of the classic devices that made the series so successful. First off, the story has ambition. Verity Lambert and her production team weren’t afraid of landing the TARDIS on the deck of a 28th century spaceship no matter what constraints they had in terms of money or time. I mean just look at the Sensorites! They might not look much in the face of modern prosthetics and make-up techniques but for 1964, they are an absolutely phenomenal visual achievement - according to Russell T. Davies, their strange, uniform appearance inspired the Ood over forty years later!! They are also an interesting race in terms of their motives and their actions. The evil Sensorite who becomes the Second Elder is a wonderful Doctor Who baddie – he’s just so evil! It’s wonderful to see him interact with the ‘goodie’ Sensorites who are reasonable and want peace. It’s a wonderful Doctor Who device that would appear time and again in classic stories like “Doctor Who and the Silurians” but you saw it here first!

Moreover, “The Sensorites” isn’t chained to one location. We are taken from the spaceship to the Sense-Sphere, the Sensorites’ unique home, which breaks up the six episodes wonderfully. It’s a trick that later production teams would use on their six-parters – serials like “The Time Monster”, “The Seeds of Doom” and “The Invasion of Time” all have the four episode / two episode divide to help maintain the pace. Once again, it dates right back to here.

This story also sees William Hartnell at his absolute best in the role. He is confident, brilliant and forceful. Unusually, this serial also sees Hartnell have to do a bit more emotionally. “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” aside, the tension between Susan and the Doctor has never been higher than in this story. She’s growing up, and he doesn’t like it. There’s also a lovely symmetry in how the Doctor feels at the beginning of the story, and how he feels at it’s conclusion. In “Strangers In Space” he takes the time to comment on how all the crew have become good friends, and then by the end of “A Desperate Venture” he has decided to put Ian and Barbara off the ship! Fantastic!

In fairness, “The Sensorites” isn’t a particularly good story, nor is it one that stands up all that well under modern scrutiny. I like it because it sums up those early, pioneering Doctor Who serials so wonderfully; in those days they weren't scared of anything, they just did their best with a few quid, a cramped studio, some wonderful actors and a bucketful of imagination. As I’m writing this nearly forty years later they must have been doing something right.

FILTER: - Television - First Doctor - Series 1

The Dalek Invasion of Earth - DVD ReleaseBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' is notable for several reasons, the most obvious being the return of the Daleks themselves. If 'The Mutants' established them as a scientifically advanced, xenophobic, ruthless threat, then 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' takes them several steps further. In their first appearance we saw them perfectly adapted to their environment, and prepared to wipe out the Thals with a release of radiation in order that they might survive, without any care of the consequences to others. Here, they have progressed further and have overcome the limitations on their mobility, now not only able to leave their city, but able also to build spaceships and travel to other worlds, where they can move beyond the confines of their ships. Now able to move and exterminate anywhere, they seem utterly unstoppable. Had I seen the ending to episode one on its first broadcast, it would undoubtedly have had huge impact, as the Dalek glides out of the Thames (frankly, I don't care what it was doing in there); even seeing it for the time in the right story order, it still has impact, as the Daleks become the series first recurring threat, and it sends a shiver down the spine. Just as they were prepared to eradicate the Thals, here they are prepared to eradicate mankind in order to achieve their aims, a scenario given all the more power by the way in which they conquered Earth – stories of horrendous plagues wiping out most of the Earth's population are starkly horrific, and the Robomen only enhance the Daleks' monstrous influence. Whilst they are often criticized for being stupid looking, the Robomen are surprisingly effective in the context of the story, being in essence zombies – they horror is not in the idea of being robotized per se, but in the thought of being forced to fight friends and loved ones irreversibly transformed into brainless collaborators of the Daleks'. This is most effectively shown in the scene between Larry and his brother, as the traumatized rebel tries in vain to appeal to his brother's memories only to be killed by him even as he anguished kills him in turn. It is interesting that Tyler notes that the Daleks knew robotizing captives would "humiliate and degrade" surviving humans on Earth and serve to further break their spirit – it demonstrates an unpleasant understanding of other species on the Daleks' behalf, indicating that whilst they do not care about the consequences of their actions for others, they do understand them, making them seem even more callous. The often-citied Nazi allegory is clear and appropriate – the Fourth Reich had no redeeming features and neither do the Daleks. The new appearance of the Daleks (they now have an energy collection disc on their backs and enlarged bumpers) is not their best, making them look somehow more unwieldy than usual, but it serves as a reminder that they have managed to overcome the problem of movement beyond metal floors and are hugely advanced scientifically, a point further emphasized by their admittedly rather B-movie plan of removing the Earth's core and installing a motive system – this is an ambitious plan, and their confidence in their abilities to safely channel they energy released by the penetration explosion is further testament to the danger they represent. All this however pails in comparison with the main reason that they are so effective here – the location filming.

This is the first time that Doctor Who was filmed extensively on location, after the brief film inserts in 'The Reign of Terror'. This largely because, although it is set in the future, it is clearly filmed in London 1965, and as such we get the first example of the Yeti-on-a-toilet-in-Tooting-Beck principle – the Daleks were impressive gliding through their city on Skaro, but the sight of them gliding around Trafalgar square and other landmarks is truly unforgettable. It gives an air of realism that really lifts the action of out the studio. That said, the sets are also impressive, giving a convincing dingy feel that fits in well with the overall feel. This feel also helps to emphasize the sense of paranoia and fear throughout – if 'Planet of Giants' was too laid back, 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' more than makes up for it. From the initial discovery of the "It is Forbidden to Dump Bodies in the River" poster to the climax as the resistance and the TARDIS crew race against time to prevent the culmination of the Daleks' plans, the story is charged with danger, as resistance members are routinely killed off, and danger threatens from all sides, be it from Daleks, Robomen, alligators, human traitors or the Slyther. Throughout the story, the TARDIS crew are confronted with constant threats, all of which they must struggle harder than ever before to overcome. 

The regulars all fare well here – Ian fulfills his usual action man role, single-handedly saving the Earth by blocking the Daleks' bomb-shaft, and Russell gives it his all throughout. Even when facing the ridiculous looking Slyther, he acts with utter conviction. Barbara is also hugely resourceful, helping Jenny to escape London in a van and running a Dalek blockade in the process, and later brazenly and bravely lying to the Daleks in an unsuccessful attempt to gain control of the Robomen. Hartnell is also on top of his game here, as the Doctor ferociously pits himself against the Daleks and taking a key role in their defeat, by destroying their (still-external) power source at the mine. Interestingly, in episode two when he is seized and taken to be robotized, he seems genuinely frightened, something which has not been so clearly seen since he was held prisoner in the last two episodes of 'The Mutants' – this adds to the menace of the Daleks, since even the Doctor is clearly afraid of them and doesn't underestimate their threat. After using his brain to escape from the cell, he basically loses control of the situation and seems truly vulnerable, and that has rarely happened thus far during the series. And then there is Susan.

I've never been a fan of Susan, but watching the series in order has made me change my mind a bit. She is still annoying and prone to hysteria, but she's a lot braver than I remembered. Here she gets a fine send-off, showing increasing independence from the Doctor as she joins David to fight the Daleks. Her desire to belong somewhere and her obvious attraction to David build nicely and convincingly towards the climax, where she tearfully prepares to leave in the TARDIS. I've seen the episode several times before, but never in the context of the entire series – the moment when the Doctor locks her out of the TARDIS is shocking, and the subsequent speech he gives over the TARDIS loudspeaker is extremely moving. I was surprisingly moved as the TARDIS dematerialized and Susan dropped her key in the dirt. However much she has occasionally irritated me, she's still been a member of the TARDIS crew since the beginning, and her departure makes a notable impact.

Another part of the success of 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' is in the characterisation, especially of the resistance members who all give an impression of people desperately struggling to survive. The young and passionate David, the cynical and world-weary Tyler, and the bitter but idealistic Dortman are all well played, as are Larry and even the older woman in the cottage who gives Barbara and Jenny away to the Daleks. The only weak links are the badly acted and wooden Jenny, and also Ashton the latter of who gets several cringe-worthy lines. Nevertheless, they still fail to detract from the whole.

'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' is not perfect. Despite occasional references to other countries and continents, it still feels like The Dalek Invasion of England, and it is difficult to believe that London in the 22nd century will resemble London 1965. These points are minor quibbles however, and unavoidable given the production costs and technical limitations of the time. Less forgivable are the dreadful saucer model work and the Slyther, which looks ludicrous in both costumes (the costume from the end of episode four was replaced for the reprise in episode five) and is present only to provide a cliffhanger to episode four. There is some awful dialogue as well, especially during the conversation between the Doctor and the Dalek in episode two. And 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' has some of the worst episode titles ever seen in the series. In spite of these quibbles, 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' is a true classic, and having watched it all in one go, I found that it didn't drag at all, and it gets my vote for first VidFIRED six-part Hartnell DVD release.

FILTER: - DVD - First Doctor - Series 3

The Rescue - DVD ReleaseBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

In the old, old days when seasons were long and stories could be made in thirty seconds flat, when there was a certain requirement in the narrative such as the introduction of a new companion it was possible to throw away a couple of episodes and dedicate them to that cause. Whether this is good or bad is debateable as while it means the episodes don’t get bogged down trying to do too much in too short a time (such as Rose and The Long Game of the new series have), it means that they’re completely inconsequential in their own right apart from that one function to the overall programme that they perform. The Rescue is such a story, being far more important to Doctor Who in general than it is to its place in the canon of individual serials. “Inconsequential”, however, doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”.

It gets going pretty sharpish though, as it presents immediately the situation of the crashed spacecraft as opposed to a TARDIS scene linking back to the previous story, as was the norm at the time. The model work of the crashed spacecraft is wonderful (courtesy of that old miracle worker Raymond P. Cusick) and might have been one of the season’s most iconic images if this story was more memorable. The interior set of the spaceship is also good, being decorated enough to be interesting without being cluttered. It is harder to tell about the caves though as they are very darkly lit and it has to be said that the picture quality isn’t great (for future reference, at the time of writing this story has yet to be remastered for a DVD release).

Maureen O’Brien makes an excellent first impression as Vicki, elevating some lines which seem to be written for a clone of Susan, and as I said in my recent review of The Keeper Of Traken it’s high time her status was upgraded to “good” rather than “underrated”. Ray Barrett playing the laconic Bennett is also good. I know it’s no fault of the episode’s, but the planet Dido does get a laugh these days due to the singer of the same name, although it’s not as funny as the misprint in the episode guide in Adrian Rigelsford’s book The Doctors: Thirty Years Of Time Travel that reads “On the planet Dildo, the TARDIS crew split up…”

The TARDIS scene, when it comes, is very good due to some excellent lines (what do you expect from a David Whitaker script) being delivered by three immensely talented actors who all have an obvious respect and regard for each other. There are some funny moments, such as the sitcom-style cross-purposes when Barbara tells the Doctor that “the shaking’s stopped” which shows how much lighter the characterisation of the first Doctor became in the second season, possibly because Dennis Spooner took over as script editor from this story on. What is good is the moment where the Doctor forgets that Susan has left him; the ensuing uncomfortable silence tactfully broken by Barbara is a deeply poignant scene.

Koquillion is a good looking monster in the long shots; up close however, it does look very much like a costume. While this can be forgiven in other monsters like the Voord the fact that it eventually turns out to be a costume means that its obvious falseness undermines the twist ending somewhat. His voice is funny, as the sound of people yelling from behind masks often is, but the scene where he first meets Ian and Barbara comes in a scene showcasing some excellent special effects, with flawless split-screen showing the companions looking down upon the ship.

The Doctor’s comment that he didn’t get a medical degree turns out to be another contradiction, which is funny; over time, the Doctor claims to have gained a degree, failed a degree and had every variation between which suggests a shifty and mysterious character far more effectively than any self-conscious “Cartmel Masterplan” ever did. His musing of what could have happened to apparently change the Didonians into an aggressive race is a very dramatic moment.

Barbara’s meeting with Vicki is another pleasant enough scene (although it is never explained how Barbara survived what from the sound effect appeared to be a very long fall without any injury and keeping her hairdo in place); the emphasis on Vicki’s name not being a contraction of Victoria shows a series trying a bit too hard to be hip and modern, but Vicki’s monologue explaining the killing of the crew is absolutely fantastic and why it isn’t reproduced in all the various quotation compilations that are about I’ll never know.

Considering that this is such a short story the Doctor and Ian do spend a long time trapped behind a rock wall, although this does allow the Doctor to fill in details about the planet Dido that some much longer and more complex stories fail to include; The Rescue, it has to be said, is more narratively rounded than it’s given credit for even if that can’t be said in terms of the plot. The ledge-traversing scene shows the B-movie roots that the first few seasons had, even if nobody who was involved in the creation of the Daleks would admit it and even if it does show off some more excellent split-screen effects. The sand monster is utterly lame though: although to an extent I can forgive how fake it looks the inclusion of glowing pen-torch eyes shows that, unusually, Cusick is falling back on stock monster clichés of old. True to the spirit of the scene the cliffhanger is silly and its resolution the following episode is accordingly simplistic.

The death of “Sandy” is a curious mixture of the surprisingly sad and the completely ridiculous, and if it wasn’t interrupted by the arrival of the Doctor and Ian I’m not sure how it would have panned out. As it is it just about gets away with it, although Ian’s intentional mispronunciation of Koquillion as “cocky-lickin’” had my eyebrows raised so high I had to stand on a chair to get them back. This is the kind of thing that threatens to throw the whole thing into the realm of absurdity and is just about saved by the very sweet scene where the Doctor comforts the untrusting Vicki.

The resolution is on the horizon now and this is where the story comes apart at the seams a little bit. The Doctor knocks on Bennett’s door and is told that “you can’t come in”; his reaction? He grabs the heaviest metal object he can find and proceeds to batter the door in. Am I the only one who thinks that’s a trifle impolite? It’s such an unrealistic moment from a character point of view that it makes all subsequent plot developments that derive from it (which are all the important ones) hard to swallow, and in fact on the subject of illogical plot devices the story has some corkers left to come. The magnetic tape recorder is another moment that is retrospectively funny, and is a problem common to the era.

However, the confrontation scene between the Doctor and Bennett is very cool, as most scenes featuring William Hartnell are. The hall of judgement set is excellent and is heightened further by the use of Tristram Cary’s score from The Daleks; the story was too minor to have its own score presumably, so they made the right decision to use the programme’s best piece of music until The Invasion. Bennett is a great villain, of the old dastardly boo-hiss type, and is much underrated. That said, he doesn’t exactly require much persuasion to explain the whole plot and if it wasn’t for the fact that the plot was so simple I’d be criticising the exposition now. However, the appearance of the Didonians makes for a famously naff final resolution (featuring the story’s only death; the consequently surprisingly high mortality rate of 25% comes from the fact that the guest cast is so small) which in a larger story would be deeply disappointing. Also, why do the natives smash up the radio equipment? What is the rescue ship supposed to think now? This is a lazy attempt at tying up a loose end that only makes the problem worse.

The reason I love Verity Lambert’s time as producer is that it was a time where immense effort was being put into the show; there was no cynicism at all, simply an effort by all concerned to make a good, original programme. This means that even stories that don’t work so well command respect to a greater or lesser extent, and even stories as minor and essentially unambitious as this are entertaining and well-written. While because of that aforementioned inconsequentiality I can’t give this story more than an average rating, I feel that if the attitudes behind it had been carried over into all subsequent eras of the show then the final product would have been even better.

FILTER: - DVD - Series 2 - First Doctor

The Web PlanetBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Nick Mellish

You know you’re 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, I’d say that this is a reasonable argument, and it’s 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, it’s 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 Vicki’s 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 Barbara’s 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 ship’s 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, I’m looking at the Optera again). Maybe it’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t exactly sell the effect to me. Maybe I’m 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 “That’s 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 Hrostar’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t have a clue!), and now we see Ian and the Doctor talk about Ian’s Coal Hill tie, a sequence where I can never tell if it’s 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.

It’s 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 Ian’s 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 crew’s 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 Martin’s 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 don’t know why they do this either. Later on, there’s a brief reprise of such behaviour- a Menoptra shouting “Barbara Barbara Barbara!” as if she is about to break into a Cheerleading sequence. It’s a pity she doesn’t, 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.

“I’ve 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 won’t have to do so again.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor

The Web PlanetBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'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…

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor