Judge Eric Profancik really, really loved this story. A lot.
"It is strangely amateurish looking, I say."—Maureen O'Brien (Vicki)
The first time I heard anything about Doctor Who was around 1986 when a high school friend played the theme song over the phone. I liked it, but it took a few more weeks before she was able to convince me to tune in. When I did, it was Tom Baker's "Horror of Fang Rock," and I disliked the episode so much that I decided not to watch it again. But my friend convinced me to give it another try, and I tuned back in and have been a fan since.
I've long held that "Horror on Fang Rock" was easily the worst episode I had seen. I presumed that claim would hold forever, but with these DVD releases I'm seeing some early stories for the first time. So it was quite a shock to discover that "The Web Planet" is a much worse episode, and I cannot imagine another story trumping that sad distinction.
Facts of the Case
The TARDIS is mysteriously pulled off course to the planet Vortis, and the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki soon find themselves in the middle of a war between the ant-like Zarbi and the butterfly-like Menoptra. As in all things, it turns out there is something sinister at the center of the conflict, and it's up to the Doctor to bring peace and goodness to the desolate world.
"["The Web Planet"] is a story which splits fan opinion more than any other…"
That is the first sentence on The Restoration Team's page about this DVD release. I'm glad to see it there because I truly hated this episode. Until "The Web Planet," I didn't hate any episode. I've been bored by some, thought others were silly, and felt some were just too slow and long, but none took me to such an extreme. If it weren't for the fact that I had to review the disc, I would have stopped watching. It's such an awful episode that it could turn a newbie Whovian off to the show.
What is so bad about the story? Everything. Let me drag out the bullet points and start hashing out the details:
• The Doctor: This character has definitely evolved over the regenerations, and this is only the fourth First Doctor story I have seen. Unlike later versions, this Doctor really doesn't do all that much. At the end of the story I felt as if he wasn't the hero. It was more that Barbara was the heroine, and the Doctor was just causing more grief. I guess it didn't help that I didn't care for William Hartnell's voice work (that "hmmm" sound) or the fact that he forgot many of his lines.
• Vaseline: In an attempt to make the rather thin set come across as more alien, director Richard Martin decided to smear Vaseline across the matte box in front of the lens. While the smear did add some interesting dynamics to the lighting, I found the additional blurriness unacceptable and too distracting.
• Vicki: This is my first experience with this companion, and I am not at all impressed. Her character was poorly fleshed out, and I didn't get to know her. What impression I have is of a whiny, easily terrified, useless young lady that causes more trouble for the Doctor and his other companions. Substitute for Susan? Certainly not.
• Menoptra: I think the idea was for these aliens to act like butterflies (since they "look like" them), but how does a butterfly behave? It flies around a bit jerkily, and that's about it. But the characterization in the show makes them highly annoying, and you don't want to see them onscreen—which is a major problem since they're major characters. Is it the odd, high-pitched voices? Their walking around lightly, on the tips of their toes? Or maybe it's their weird hand movements? It's definitely all three.
• Zarbi: Not to be left out are the ant-like Zarbi, which are nowhere near as bad as those bloody butterflies. Still, the insects communicate via these loud, somewhat high-pitched notes. It's really quite ear piercing.
• Bad Costumes: A picture speaks a thousand words but let me say a couple first: Striped costume—Butterfly? Bee? Prison uniform? Be glad you can't see what the fuzzy outfit is. Venom Larva or dust mop? Not pictured because of extreme silliness: the Optra.
• Too Long: I picked up the disc thinking it would be a nice, four-episode story. Nope, it's six. It didn't need to be six, and there's entirely too much padding. In fact, the story is so drawn out and slow I fell asleep three times. It took me six hours to get through the two and a half hours.
• Easily Defeated Evil: We have this evil entity lurking somewhere in the planet, somehow controlling the Zarbi, and somehow fouling the atmosphere and soil. Something so strong allows the Doctor and his companions to waltz right into her lair and shoot it with some gun that magically works though nobody has even seen this creature before let alone know what it is or how to kill it. Then again, we didn't need an episode 7.
• TARDIS Technical Difficulties: The TARDIS was always a bit of a mysterious device, never quite working and never fully controllable. Regardless, how did this evil entity or whatever cause the doors to open by themselves? Worse, why the devil was the console spinning like a top?
• Geography/Distance: We have everyone traipsing back and forth between the Zarbi lair and the Valley of Crystals (or whatever it's called; I was napping); at one point someone saying it'll be a two-hour journey. So why is everyone going back and forth like it's a quick hop in the park?
Summing it up: bad acting, bad characters, bad sets, bad visuals, bad story. That covers just about everything.
The transfers, compliments of the Restoration Team, make this forty-year-old story look good—except for that stupid Vaseline bit. The full frame black and white presentation still suffers from some problems, namely a soft presentation with blacks that aren't especially crisp, but this is as good as it will get. The problems don't interfere with the overall presentation, and knowing the age of the product you do not hold it greatly at fault. The same goes for the audio, where there area few instances of background noise overwhelming the dialogue, but on the whole is clear and understandable.
The Restoration Team does its best to give fans bonus materials, and while these are a bit skimpy, it's hard to find stuff from four decades ago. First is an audio commentary on all episodes with William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Martin Jarvis (Hilio, leader of the Menoptra), producer Verity Lambert, and director Richard Martin. I've noticed that with these very early episodes, the participants usually spend far too much time applauding the story and the work instead of talking about it and dishing the dirt. All this gushing and goodwill gets dull. Fortunately the text/production commentary (all episodes) is chock full of interesting details. "Tales of Isop" (37 minutes) is an interesting featurette on the making of the story and is immensely more interesting than the story itself. "The Lair of Zarbi Supremo" (56 minutes) is an audio presentation of William Russell reading the short story from the "Doctor Who Annual." Next is "Give-A-Show" which is a comic strip that condenses the long story down to a dozen or so cells! Rounding it out is a Spanish soundtrack option for episode 6, a photo gallery, and the 1965 "Doctor Who Annual" on PC.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Luckily I'm not a newbie and I've seen many great stories, but all this begs the simple question, what is there to like in the episode? According to multiple sources, we are to applaud the derring-do of the writers and staff for taking on such a unique story for the day. It's called audacious for its scope, maximizing a paltry budget for so many creatures and locations. The costumes are considered memorable, the acting is felt to be inspired, and the story very topical.
At least that's what they say. I'll concede the Zarbi look pretty good, except for the decidedly human legs sticking out the bottom.
"The Web Planet" is a wholly dreadful story. Too long, too silly, far too dated, and woefully boring—it was an effort for me to trudge my way through such an uninspired story. Most disturbing was how nasty a character the First Doctor was. He was far too irascible and crotchety and not in a lovable way. He didn't earn respect and seemed to just wander off and fall into trouble—but then not do anything about it. This is not a good story by any measure.
I am a Whovian, and this is the first DVD I am giving absolutely no recommendation to. Do not rent it; do not buy it. It's not the disc but the weak story itself. Any other story is better than this one.
Doctor Who "The Web Planet" is hereby found guilty of being a sticky mess.
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