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2x5. The Web Planet
Bill Strutton
Director: Richard Martin
Script Editor: Dennis Spooner
Producer: Verity Lambert

The TARDIS is mysteriously trapped on the planet Vortis, where the Doctor and his companions become involved in a war between two native insectoid races, the Menoptera and the Zarbi. They learn that the formerly peaceful Zarbi are under the control of the Animus, a spider-like creature that is slowly spreading its web across the planet, and in the end they help the Menoptera and their subterranean relatives, the Optera, to defeat the Animus and reclaim Vortis.

Review: "The Web Planet" is high on atmosphere and concept and low on actual drama. It boasts what is arguably the most imaginative and convincingly alien landscape that the series had created to date with a surprising minimum of snicker-inducing sets and costumes. Unfortunately, what happens there is fairly routine stuff.

It would be fair to say, I think, that with the exception of the Daleks, Doctor Who had until this point been merely serviceable in its visual design of other planets and races. Skaro, Marinus, the Sense-Sphere, and Dido all consisted of recognizably Earth-like locations and structures, and most of the aliens we've seen were humanoid. Vortis, on the other hand, with the unusual camera work for the "surface" locations, the insectoid nature of its native residents, and the eternally dark and starry sky, is a very different kind of place. The first episode, as is often the case in Hartnell serials, consists mostly of the TARDIS crew wandering around investigating, but the style is moody and mysterious enough to keep the proceedings reasonably engaging even though not much is going on. The combination of black-and-white film and the sometimes blurry picture actually work to the serial's advantage, lending the visuals a certain indistinctness that obscures what might look like an obviously phony set if shot on color video.

Writer Bill Strutton and the production team also deserve credit for putting considerable care into the portrayal of the three alien races: the Zarbi (which resemble ants), the Menoptera (modeled loosely on butterflies, it would appear), and their underground cousins the Optera. I'm not sure how they managed to pull off so many scenes of people running around in giant bug costumes without the whole thing becoming laughable, but somehow they did. Only the "hopping" motion of the Optera and the "larvae gun" creature come off as obviously phony, and the somewhat ethereal voices and odd verbal expressions of the Menoptera along with the eerie monotone of the Animus further contribute to the sense that the TARDIS crew really are on another world. Strutton's script also supplies some history behind this conflict: the Zarbi, once creatures of simple instinct, had lived in peace with the Menoptera before they were taken over by the Animus, while the Optera, long confined to the underground, have developed a culture in which the Menoptera carry a mythical god-like status. The Animus, meanwhile, plans to spread its web over all of Vortis and then beyond, incorporating the characteristics of everything it takes over in the process. (If you ask the average sci-fi fan to name a fictional alien intelligence that assimilates other life forms for its own purposes, he or she would probably reply, "The Borg," but Doctor Who evidently got there more than twenty years before Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

What's disappointing about "The Web Planet" is that it seems content to play out its premise mostly through very obvious and predictable plot developments. Once the groundwork is in place, it settles down into a standard "war between the aliens" story, at which point we see the TARDIS crew get separated, face danger from the Zarbi, run through caves, and so on until eventually the Menoptera, the white hats in this conflict, are victorious and the Animus is destroyed. Other serials, such as "The Daleks" and "The Sensorites," used the setup of a confrontation with an alien race to examine issues like the extremes of aggression and pacifism and the hazardous path to peace for two groups with a history of misunderstandings, but "The Web Planet" doesn't seem interested in such notions.

The one unexpected twist is the Doctor proving surprisingly vulnerable to the Animus and its Zarbi servants: he seems genuinely frightened when he finds that the TARDIS has disappeared, he's coerced into revealing information about the Menoptera attack fleet, and at the end he and Vicki collapse before the Animus, leaving Ian and Barbara to save the day. In a way, his (albeit limited) betrayal of the Menoptera might be seen as a return to the more selfish side of him that we saw in the first season. Unfortunately, the script only gets limited mileage out of this angle: there are no permanent consequences to his actions, and we don't know if he behaves this way because Vicki is being threatened as well, because he's shaken at having almost lost the TARDIS, because he doesn't yet know that the Menoptera are the "good guys," or for some other reason entirely. Still, this helps to make the Animus at least a little more credible as a threat than it otherwise might be, especially since the "assimilation" aspect of its nature isn't fully revealed until near the end.

I'm not sure why "The Web Planet" is regarded as such a disaster in some corners of Doctor Who fandom (one poll ranks it as the third worst serial ever), but I also can't say I would fully recommend it. The mechanics of the plot are strictly pedestrian, and despite the ambitious style and the presence of a few interesting ideas, there just isn't quite enough here to sustain six episodes.

Other notes:

- Ian has a good scene when one of the Optera is killed and the others quickly accept it and keep on with what they're doing while he lingers behind, clearly disturbed at what has happened. The Optera have come to take their dangerous existence for granted, but Ian, despite all his perilous adventures over the past year, hasn't become desensitized to death, and it's nice to see that.

- Does it strike anyone else as kind of silly that, in one scene, the Menoptera can scare off a Zarbi just by yelling at it? I mean, sure, giant shrieking butterflies are scary, but still....

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)