...with a look at "The Web Planet" - the thirteenth-ever DOCTOR WHO story, starring William Hartnell. This six part adventure first broadcast from February 13 - March 20, 1965. This week also brings us the first of three new SHERLOCK telefilms, which we discuss a bit below.
“The Web Planet” (Story #13)
MERRICK’S SIGNIFICANT OTHER (walking onto the room where Merrick is watching "The Web Planet"): What’s this episode about?
MERRICK: The Doctor and his friends land on a crystal planet where moth people don’t like ant people and the ant people have a laser roach with a snout that blasts things, but it’s a really lousy shot kinda like Imperial Stormtroopers. And the Doctor’s talking to the ant people through a hair dryer.
MERRICK’S SIGNIFICANT OTHER: You didn’t drink ALL of the rum, did you? I needed that for cooking.
Written by Bill Strutton, “The Web Planet” finds the Doctor (William Hartnell), companions Ian (William Russell), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) forcibly landed on soft-focused Planet Vortis, a crystalline wasteland which looks a bit like Krypton from Richard Donner’s 1978 SUPERMAN movie. Our travelers become embroiled in bizarre insectoid conflict between a slow-moving and highly affected moth race called Menoptera and the wobbly, screeching, not particularly bright ant-like Zarbi. These ants bastards have, essentially, taken over the Menoptera ’s world. Now the displaced and pissed off moths have come back to kick some antish ass and take back their infested planet, and the Doctor and his companions are trapped in the middle of their campaign...
And yes, all of the above is serious, by the way.
In nearly ever Docback, someone talks about how the early DOCTOR WHO stories were hamstrung by budget - thus resulting in a number of episodes that were less effective than they might’ve/should’ve been. This is true, to an extent at least - although I sometimes feel this budgetary struggle is advanced by fans in a knee-jerk manner to explain away issues that actually have little to do with the show’s thin financing. I.e. a saggy script with vast stretches of lifelessness is just that from the get-go. While a higher budget might hide a weak script behind flashier spectacle, no amount of zip-pop-bang will truly mask a story that is fundamentally weak or poorly structured at its core.
So, while I often challenge the “poor budget” conceit as catch-all excuse in many of these stories (thus far in my WHO exploration, I’ve had far greater issues with fundamental story structure than shoddy presentation), in the case of “The Web Planet,” I will concede that budget is both a primary, and killing, obstacle.
Sutton’s wildly imaginative, even audacious, script advances a sprawling, self-contained mythology the likes of which is rarely seen on television. In some regards, “The Web Planet” is more of an insular, fully developed arc unto itself than a DOCTOR WHO story. In fact, with a little jimmying, this story could strip out the Doctor and his companions and still work as a serviceable, B-movie fantasy/science fiction piece on its own merits (simply plug other space travelers into the mix instead). There’s fully developed backstory, macro mythology, and an immediate crises which threads in both facets. Pretty cool - and often deliciously, smartly fanciful.
But for all of its bold vision, “The Web Planet” is quickly and irrecoverably sunk but its own execution - and it’s here that the aforementioned “budget” defense legitimately comes into play. The scale of Strutton’s vision simply couldn’t be supported by what The Powers That Be had to work with in this instance. Complicated character designs are presented as rudimentarily as possible, sometimes with an Ed Woodsian slipshoddiness which seems more at home in a Middle School stage presentation than a professional television production. Even by the admittedly uneven standards of previous vintage WHO entires, it’s hard not to grin at some of the lackluster and inadequate results sometimes put on screen here. In fact, I will state for then record that “The Web Planet” marks the first and only instance thus far in which I’ve laughed derisively at an early WHO episode. It’s very hard not to.
Frustratingly, these floppy results are often a direct result of required scale. Making one creature look good on television or in film is difficult enough. But when realizing many, many creatures - of multiple species - all of whom are performing critical on-screen functions? ‘Twould be nearly impossible for many series to adequately rise to that challenge, especially a show which had as little time and money to work as DW.
The affected and specifically spoken Menoptera...
...are interestingly conceived, but never deviate from their spacey monotone and inflection - resulting in long passages of expository dialogue whose ethereal presentation sometimes drags proceedings to a complete halt. A viewer may find themselves rewinding these portions after realizing he or she ‘spaced out’ out during such dialogue. There’s a great deal of critical information conveyed by the Menoptera , but the preciseness and cadence with which they are saying it sometimes make said information difficult to penetrate. The Zarbi ants? Well, really and truthfully, what is there to be said about this?
As regrettable as this image seems? It’s far worse in motion.
A few interesting notions are introduced here, noted in “The Web Planet”...
-- At one point, the Doctor and Ian each don an Atmospheric Density Jacket (ADJ) - essentially an EVA jacket featuring a "Respiratory Compensator." "Sort of an advanced oxygen mask," per Ian. A compelling concept which appears to have been summarily jettisoned roughly half way though the story. Does anything like this figure into subsequent WHO? I’ve always loved stories that involve the functionality of operating in certain environments, although I understand...especially on television...why additional wardrobe considerations could make such costuming a pain in the ass.
-- The moth dudes fly in this episode! Amazingly, when they do, they look no better or worse than Brain Blessed’s Hawkmen buzzing around in De Laurentiis’ 1980 FLASH GORDON film when they did 15 years later.
-- The Animus - which emerges as this episode’s Big Bad - is an intriguing conceit which nicely implies a far grander and older universe than we see at face value. A nice little touch of Lovecraft, the likes of which always suit this show well.
-- I was surprised to note power cords plugging the TARDIS’ center console into the wall early in the episode. I thought perhaps this must be an error/oversight of some sort, until the Doctor pointedly makes a reference to not unplugging a different device from the wall later in the story. Whether that console power chord was intentional or not, the notion of the TARDIS command console being plugged into an outlet on a wall is rather funny and great as far as I’m concerned, so I hope that’s what was being inferred here. Although I’m kinda guessing it wasn’t...
--- "The Web Planet" offers one the first instances of the Doctor in something of a James T. Kirk capacity. I'm not talking about his being strong or intimidating...rather stepping forward to negotiate and wiggle around the threat of an alien menace. This nicely composed shot illustrates the sequence...
This episode had an odd effect on me. Perhaps ‘tis merely a product of my exceptionally challenging week. Or, perhaps the story’s rich vision is forensically overpowering the tale’s clunky actualities. Either way, I emphatically believe that the “The Web Planet” is the most tacky, ridiculous, and shameful WHO I’ve come across to date. But I don’t hate it - I admire its tenacity, its heart, and respect the breadth of what its makers were trying to achieve - even if they fell far short of their mark.
All of this production’s problems can be encapsulated by a fleeting moment in its final three minutes of the adventure in which one of the moth dudes is making a stirring speech while looking off towards the stars. A subordinate is standing next to him, appearing completely lost (as a performer, not a character). About half way through this speech, and without missing a beat, the boss moth reaches out and physically turns the nearby actor so that the confused performer is oriented skyward like all the other moth folk. A potentially nice moment undermined by clunky and shameless execution. Which pretty much sums up the whole of this affair.
My initial impulse had been to present this review as an open letter to Steven Moffat, sarcastically outlining why “The Web Planet” should be revisited by new WHO and its modern whiz-bang technology. But then I started thinking: perhaps that’s not such a horrible idea? The make-up and VFX capacities of modern WHO could forge a rather stunning realization of what the production couldn’t accomplish back when this story aired in 1965. Something along the lines of “War of the Space Bugs” might fit Moffat’s recently stated interest in “movie poster straplines and slutty titles” (a close paraphrase), play into The Moff’s decided fanciful sensibilities, and be a pretty flashy selling point by way of promoting episode specific imagery. Would this ever happen? I doubt it so, so, much. But a full-on, high-tech version of this conceit, or something equally as audacious and visually challenging and distinctive? THAT could be something to see...something as special as “The Web Planet” might’ve been.
"The Web Planet" is availabe on DVD HERE in the U.S. and HERE in the U.K. Where are Menoptera action figures?
More SHERLOCK This Weekend!! "A Scandal in Belgravia" Premieres...
A new wave of SHERLOCK telefilms debuts with “A Scandal in Belgravia.” This is, of course, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ brilliantly modernized television adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material - not the parallel Robert Downey Jr. theatrical series. The new SHERLOCK eps will broadcast in U.K. first, followed by a Summer 2012 U.S. premiere (at least it was targeting Summer last I heard).
BBC’s site teases “Scandal,” scripted by Mister Moffat, thusly:
"We are in Buckingham Palace, the very heart of the British nation - Sherlock Holmes, put your trousers on."
A case of blackmail threatens to topple the monarchy itself, but soon Sherlock and John discover there is even more to it than that. They find themselves battling international terrorism, rogue CIA agents, and a secret conspiracy involving the British government.
But this case will cast a longer shadow on their lives than they could ever imagine, as the great detective begins a long duel of wits with an antagonist as cold and ruthless and brilliant as himself: Irene Adler.
The new installments returns Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to the roles of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson respectively. As a side note, they’ll both play roles in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming HOBBIT motion pictures as well (Freeman will play protagonist Bilbo, while Cumberbatch will voice Smaug the dragon). The stunning Lara Pulver is Irene Adler in this iteration.
“The Hounds of Baskerville” (scripted by Gatiss) and “The Reichenbach Fall” (written by Steve Thompson, who brought us “The Blind Banker” in last year’s series) will follow quickly.
The amazing Paul McGuigan will direct “Scandal” and “Hound” - he directed “A Study in Pink” and “The Great Game” the last tine around (my two favorites!) DOCTOR WHO veteran Toby Haynes (“The Pandorica Opens,” “The Big Bang,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” and “Day of the Moon” will helm “Reichenbach.
As these new SHERLOCK installments air, the Friday Docback will be considered a Lockback as well...with the same previously established Code of Conduct rules applying to both. If you’re new to AICN Docbacks and would like to discuss either DOCTOR WHO or SHERLOCK?
WELCOME! We are very, very glad you’re joining us...please take a few moments to familiarize yourselves with the Code of Conduct posted below, as the rules of this particular place are extremely different than anywhere else on AICN...and we’re rather serious about enforcing them.
The first three SHERLOCK telefilms are now available on Blu-ray HERE in the U.S. and HERE in the U.K. The U.S. link also offers streaming via Amazon, the same installments are streamable via Netflix as well (at one point they were HD - not sure if they still are - but the show looks fantastic in HD, so I strongly recommend this option if it's available to you).
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