Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Web Planet DVD

By Jim Smith on 18 October 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The six episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ that are normally grouped under the title of ‘The Web Planet’, and which are released on DVD here for the first time, were originally shown in 1965 and achieved viewing figures that still stand as some of the highest ratings in the long history of ‘Doctor Who’.

On transmission it was watched by 13.5 million people (a figure almost inconceivable for anything non-sport these days) and while this was a new high for the series it wasn’t a mere statistical aberration. (This is something that the series all-time ratings high in the late seventies certainly is, with viewership inflated by a strike which took ITV off air for months.)

The show’s viewing figures had been steadily increasing since the beginning of its second year on air with the six previous episodes (beginning with ‘The Powerful Enemy’ and ending with ‘Inferno’ and telling tales that spanned from a crashed space rocket in the distant future to the burning of Nero’s Rome) had done very nearly as well. Across this three months a little over forty years ago, for the first and maybe only time, ‘Doctor Who’ was the programme that not just the majority of viewers but effectively the whole television-viewing nation, was watching.

I bring this up for two reasons. Firstly it’s to remind, or perhaps inform, you that despite the current popularity of ‘Doctor Who’ and numerous lazy media assumptions of the series having a mid-to-late seventies heydey, the show’s absolute peak of success was actually in the mid-sixties. Secondly, I want you to imagine what in the name of Sir Alec Douglas-Home those 13.5 million people would have made of this serial, because ‘The Web Planet’ is completely, utterly deranged from start to finish.

Early Sixties ‘Doctor Who’ was ambitious, relentlessly creative and did its damnedest to not only do every kind of story that occurred to its makers, but to never quite do the same thing twice. These laudable attitudes are presumably what inspired producer Verity Lambert and her story editor (head writer, effectively) Dennis Spooner to commission and then produce 150 minutes of drama concerning a war between a race of human butterflies and a species of mighty-thighed six foot black plastic ants.

The production was directed by Richard Martin, latterly a respectable director of historical drama and ‘proper’ plays. In his early days his desperate intention to tell stories ‘visually’ despite TV basically being ‘taped theatre’ at this point in its evolution was matched only by his startling ineptitude in getting the simple things (say, not having a banging studio door audible on a finished take) right; Martin’s two dozen or so ‘Doctor Who’ episodes are notable for their combination of visual ambition and outright incompetence as a consequence of this.

As a result these episodes are very frustrating at times; one minute you’re looking at a stunning, perfectly executed glass shot which is a thousand times better than anything ever attempted – never mind accomplished – on black and white television and the next the cast are forgetting their lines and casting shadows over backcloths which are meant to be the sky, while the series’ monsters are physically crashing into the camera itself.

These oddities of production almost seem to fit, however, because the story the serial presents is itself so very peculiar. In this, the first ‘Doctor Who’ story with an entirely non-human supporting cast, actors dressed as giant butterflies (and identified as Menoptra) get Doctor Who and his travelling companions Ian, Barbara and Vicki involved in their battle to reclaim their faintly-lunar-like planet, Vortis, from the control of the mellifluously voiced ‘Animus’ and her slave Zarbi (the aforementioned mighty-hewed insect beasts).

The Menoptra have a distinctive, high-pitched, way of speaking and uniformly, and routinely, use hand gestures that make them look like they’re trying to perform the dance to The Spice Girls’ ‘Stop’. Accompanied by some jarring musique concret they charge across rapidly disintegrating sets for six weeks, engaged in a fight to the death with the Zarbi and taking part in a narrative that combines the myth of French resistance with ballet-influenced physical movements and attempts at political drama with its author’s memories of watching Bull ants battle it out in his native Southern Australia.

That this odd blend of the thoughtful and the bungling extends so deeply into the production should not be at all surprising, really, as the script demonstrates a similar mix. At times the dialogue plays with the idea of the invading Animus as a cancer in the body of the planet (the Animus is called the ‘carcinoma’ by the Menoptra) and the idea of restoring a ‘natural balance’ is invoked more than once. In this understanding of the story the Zarbi would represent the body’s natural defences turned against itself, perhaps. (A less pleasing reading sees the Zarbi (previously ‘cattle’ to the Menoptra) as rebellious slaves/workers who have got out of their naturally mandated place. In the context of the alternately reactionary and revolutionary sixties, it’s hard to work out which is the more likely to be authorial intent.)

There are other oddities too. It’s entirely unclear how long the Menoptra have been away from Vortis. In some scenes their exile began in living memory, in others they have been gone long enough for those Menoptra left behind to have evolved into an entirely different species. In keeping with a lot of early sixties ‘Who’ Earth’s solar system seems to be known to alien races as ‘The Solar System’, definitive article and capital letters and all. It’s all, as I mentioned earlier, really rather odd.

One of the great things about the first three years of ‘Doctor Who’ is that even the weakest of the stories (and this is one of them) are worth-watching for star William Hartnell’s utterly captivating, totally unique performance in the series title role. A brilliant mix of senile old duffer, determined adventurer, brilliantly unorthodox scientist, leader of men and Lord knows what else – Hartnell’s is still definitive Doctor. He harrumphs, giggles, shouts and ballyhooes his way through these six episodes like a man possessed. He’s glorious, especially in the opening instalment, in which he actually gives one of his very best turns as Doctor Who. Just watch the way he accuses Ian of doing a conjuring trick or curtly responds to another character’s worries that their trousers will fall down with a dismissive ‘Well, that’s your affair, not mine.’ (No, really.)

Looking at the release of the story rather than the story itself there’s a similar blend of the inspired and the foolish to report. The BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’ discs always have outstanding sound and picture quality regardless of the source material and ‘The Web Planet’ is, obviously, no exception. The once-revolutionary, now-standard, VidFIRE process, which recreates the original transmitted look of these episodes, has worked wonders on these dusty old film prints of a series shot in VT. The motion of the picture is smooth and the details of sets, costumes and dressings has never been clearer to an audience; one nice touch that pin-sharp, eyeball-searing re-mastering enables one to notice is that, before venturing out onto the planet, Barbara uncovers a butterfly pinned to a board amongst the Doctor’s effects.

The sounds has been cleaned up too, but in an unobtrusive way. The audio seems ‘right’ and it’s only by checking it against the 1991 issue VHS that you grasp just how much very good work has been done on it.

There are two principal extras on the disc, both of which run for the best part of an hour. If that doesn’t sound a lot in these days of ‘Gladiator’ three disc editions it’s best to remember that the main feature herein is 150 minutes long, forty years old and that this is a single disc edition produced for a fraction of a fraction of the budget the likes of Universal have to work with.

‘Tales of Isop’ is a lengthy documentary recounting the making of ‘The Web Planet’ . Surviving stars William Russell (Ian), Maureen O’ Brien (Vicki) and Guest Star Martin Jarvis (yes, the ‘Just William’ guy) recount anecdotes, as do producer Verity Lambert and director Martin, the latter in danger of being overshadowed by both his ego and his cravat. All are entertaining and exhibit a combination of nostalgia and honesty for this old production. O’Brien, for example, goes quite naturally from praising the lyricism of some of the dialogue and the ‘beautiful speaking voice’ of one of the guest actors to condemning the entire production as simply ‘amateurish’.

There are a couple of things about the documentary itself that sadly, perhaps, deserve this description. More than once an interviewee is cut off mid-sentence. While this is clearly deliberate, and presumably what they said next was uninteresting or unsuitable in some way, it does jar rather badly when one is watching. Another oddity is that, during these interviews, all concerned start talking about Dennis Spooner without anyone acknowledging, either in voiceover of via a caption, who he was or what he had to do with the production, something that seemed awkward to me and I’ve been familiar with the man’s work for twenty years. On the whole though, it’s a useful discussion piece, and certainly very welcome.

Even more welcome is ‘The Lair of Zarbi Supremo’ read by William Russell. Russell does an excellent job of reading this charming story written by the TV series first story editor, the late David Whittaker, for the first ever ‘Doctor Who’ annual (of which more in a moment). Plans to include record the other ‘Web Planet’ related story in the book ‘The Lost Ones’ as well where apparently abandoned due to time constraints. ‘The Lair of Zarbi Supremo’ is the better choice of the two for inclusion on this disc, being direct sequel to the serial itself. It’s an odd piece though, a ‘greatest hits of the period’ story which pulls together elements of several early ‘Doctor Who’ stories (plane-as-spaceship from ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; crashed-rocket-and-juvenile-survivor from ‘The Rescue’; Dr Who and his companions impersonating a monster from ‘The Space Museum’ and/or ‘The Daleks’, etc) to create something which only rises above pastiche due to Whittaker’s interesting prose and Russell’s superb delivery. It’s a diverting extra though and whoever came up with the basic idea deserves the highest praise. Hopefully this has set a precedent for the wonderful ‘The Fishmen of Kandalinga’ to be included on the imminent-if-there’s-any-justice ‘The Keys of Marinus’ DVD.

Other, less substantial though very welcome, extras are PDFS for the whole of the 1965 ‘Doctor Who’ Annual (which I already own, although the inclusion is a tremendously good idea) and the opportunity to view a set of Children’s projector slides produced to tie-in with the serial. These are, basically, completely brilliant and above criticism. There’s also a commentary featuring Russell, Lambert, Martin and O’Brien. Somewhere between historical and point-and-laugh interest is the option to view the sixth episode, ‘The Centre’, in Spanish.

Complaints then? Only a couple. The disc’s sleeve notes are, as usual, written in semi-fluent gibberish (yeah, yeah I can talk – but watch the way the third sentence slides from the generic to the specific – I mean, ouch!). This gives this element of the packaging a shambolic air that could be seen to undermined the release. This is probably just me being a git but the sleevenotes on ‘Doctor Who’ DVDs have been irritating me for a while now (in what sense is ‘Ghost Light’ ‘non-linear’? I mean, really?) so I thought I’d bring it up in the vain hope someone is listening – and that if they are they don’t direct abuse in my direction as a result, natch.

More seriously, though, the aforementioned commentary is effectively ruined by the intrusive presence of a moderator who not only has a voice totally unsuited to this kind of work, but who also seems to be of the opinion that we’d rather hear his opinions on, say, speeded up credits on current TV, than listen to people involved in the production actually talk about the production. Peter Purves made a rather better fist of this job on some of last year’s (wonderful) ‘Lost in Time’ triple DVD set. It would be preferable, surely, to use him for all Hartnell episodes yet to be released, even ones he’s not in? He already has an established relationship with just about anyone he could be moderating, after all, and there’s surely no way that he could seemingly rile Richard Martin to the extent that the current moderator does here?

Generally, though, ‘The Web Planet’ is a great package – archive television treated with a care and devotion, even love, rare in the DVD market. Thoroughly recommended, if you happen to like this sort of thing; and, of course, I do. More black and white ‘Doctor Who’ on DVD as soon as possible, please BBC. Ta.

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