Welcome to the 11th installment of Who review, my ongoing column reviewing, in chronological order, every storyline from TV’s longest running SF series, Doctor Who. This week, The Doctor and his companions find themselves stranded on a mysterious alien world in The Web Planet.
The Web Planet (6 episodes)
13 February 1965 – 20 March 1965
Drawn off-course by an unknown force, the TARDIS is forced to land on a barren, rocky planet. The Doctor soon discovers that all of the vehicle’s power has been drained and only the scanners are working.
A strange, high-pitched whining strikes them, with Vicki particularly affected by the noise. While Barbara tends to her, Ian and the Doctor take off to explore the planet, uncovering pools of acid, a stone pyramid, and a generally hostile environment. The Doctor quickly identifies the planet as Vortis, but is surprised by the presence of moons around the supposedly moonless planet. Little do they realise their actions are being watched by mindless ant-like creatures known as the Zarbi.
Inside the TARDIS, Barbara tends to Vicki, learning a little about her new travelling companion along the way. Vicki has never heard of aspirin. In her future world, children study for one hour a week using machines. Vicki studied physics, chemistry and medicine at the age of ten.
These small fragments of information add a little extra to Vicki’s character, giving us some much-needed background and at least a glimpse into the world of the 25th century.
While Vicki rests, Barbara finds herself drawn out of the TARDIS by a compelling force that seems to be channelled through her bracelet. The force mesmerises her and she wanders trance-like into a trio of humanoid butterfly creatures known as Menoptera. The trio are the remnants of a reconnaissance force sent to prepare for an invasion spearhead designed to defeat the Zarbi and their unseen ruler. The Menoptera free Barbara from her trance by removing her bracelet. She manages to escape the aliens, but is quickly captured by the Zarbi. The Zarbi also capture one of the Menoptera, called Hrostar, and kill another. The third, Vrestin, manages to escape.
Meanwhile, the TARDIS is also drawn across the planet’s surface by an unseen force. Returning to its original location, the Doctor and Ian find the time machine missing, but manage to track its path. Unfortunately, they too are captured by the Zarbi and taken to the Carsinome, the Zarbi control centre. There, they find Vicki and the TARDIS, and learn that the Zarbi are controlled by a powerful unseen entity known as The Animus. Using a psychic communication device, The Animus makes contact with The Doctor and forces him to track the Menoptera invasion spearhead. He bides for time, allowing Ian to escape.
Meanwhile, Barbara and Hrostar are imprisoned in an area known as the Cradle of Needles, where they are forced to gather vegetation and drop it into the pools of acid, feeding the Animus.
Fleeing the Zarbi, Ian stumbles upon Vrestin, the third Menoptera who eluded capture. He learns from Vrestrin that the Menoptera and Zarbi are both native to the planet Vortis, but the Menoptera fled when a great evil force, the Animus, seized control of the mindless Zarbi and conquered the planet. The Animus has pulled many moons into orbit around Vortis, and the Menoptera were able to flee to one of the moons and slowly prepare their invasion spearhead.
Still running from the Zarbi, Ian and Vrestin fall into an underground tunnel, where they encounter another race, the caterpillar-like Optera. Ian deduces that the Optera are descendants of the Menoptera who fled underground to escape the Zarbi and the Animus. Ian and Vrestin convince the Optera to join them in fighting the Animus.
Back at the Cirsinome, the Doctor accidentally reveals the location of the planned Menoptera invasion spearhead, and the Animus uses this knowledge to ambush and destroy the Menoptera forces.
Barbara and Hroster manage to escape imprisonment and try to warn the invasion fleet, but their plans fail. They join up with the few survivors of the invasion and hide out in one of the Menoptera’s old temples, where they try unsuccessfully to warn the rest of the Menoptera forces. One of the Menoptera reveals to Barbara a device called a Living Cell Destructor. This would destroy the devices used by the Animus and free the planet if they could get it within range of the creatures. Unfortunately, the Menoptera are not naturally creatures of war and have little understanding of it, so they call on Barbara for advice.
Barbara’s advice is, simply to fight; to use the Destructor to destroy the Animus. Her arguments are familiar, as Ian used similar arguments in The Daleks to convince the Thals to battle and destroy their enemies. It’s a common theme in these early days of Doctor Who and speaks to the social psychology of the times.
Meanwhile, the Doctor discovers that the Animus uses gold as a conductor to channel its mesmerising force. He manages to use this knowledge to take control of one of the Zarbi and he and Vicki escape. They find their way to Barbara and the Menoptera, where they learn that the Animus dwells in the very centre of the planet and draws power from the magnetic poles of the planet. The effect this has on the planet’s gravity is what has drawn both the moons and the TARDIS to the planet. With this knowledge, a plan is developed; the doctor and Vicki will make their way into the planet’s centre and confront the Animus with the Destructor, while Babara and the Menoptera will stage a decoy assault on the Carsinome.
The Doctor and Vicki make their way back to the centre of the planet, where the Animus is revealed to them for the first time as a great spider-like creature. The Animus once again asserted its mental authority over them, rendering them helpless.
Meanwhile, Barbara and the Menoptera attack the Carsinome from the outside and Ian, Vrestin and the Optera try to dig their way up to the Animus from the tunnels below. They enter the planet’s centre and confront the Animus, but all are overwhelmed by the creature. With a singular act of willpower, Barbara manages to break free of the control and use the Destructor the Animus, destroying it.
With the planet free from the Animus, the Doctor and his companions continue on their journey.
Much like the previous episode The Romans, The Web Planet helps strengthen and develop the relationship between The Doctor and Vicki. One of the strongest aspects of Hartnell’s time as the Doctor was his paternal relationship with his companions, and this is strongly emphasised in several key scenes in the storyline.
Vicki continues to grow as a companion. At first, I saw her as a poor replacement for Susan, but she’s definitely beginning to grow on me as her relationship with the Doctor grows.
Barbara is once again given a chance to shine in The Web Planet, and her triumph of will over The Animus is one of her greatest moments in the series to date. In the earliest episodes, she seemed to be the weakest and least interesting of the companions, but she has now well and truly surpassed Ian as a character.
Unfortunately, the Zarbi look too ridiculous to be taken too seriously, even by Doctor Who standards. The Animus, however, is a fascinating villain and the definite highlight of The Web Planet. Invoking the imagery of HP Lovecraft and his Chthulu mythos, the Animus creates a truly menacing adversary for the Doctor and his companions.
Sometimes when watching Doctor Who, you have to acknowledge intent versus execution when it comes to special effects and costumes, and this is no more evident than in The Web Planet. The intent of the writers and designers was to create a fully realised alien environment populated with non-human life, and I commend the ambition of the creators in this respect. The production team even went so far as to hire noted choreographer Roslyn De Winter to create the distinctive movements and stilted speech of the Menoptera. Her efforts impressed the team so much that she was given the role of the Menoptera Vrstin.
The Web Planet is an ambitious storyline, an attempt to create a fully fledged alien environment. Unfortunately, the reality of the BBC budget is that both the Zarbi and the Menoptera look somewhat ludicrous and unbelievable, almost laughably so. The execution in this instance cannot match the intent.
The Animus is the most fascinating design in The Web Planet. It has an almost Lovecraftian sensibility, something that was picked up by others later on, most prominently in the Doctor Who novels.
The Doctor and his companions find themselves trapped in bizarre circumstances in The Space Museum.