Sunday, July 11, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Web Planet"

The grab bag giveth and the grab bag taketh away. After the stunning "Inferno", THIS is what I pulled from the grab bag.


You know there is a chain of used bookstores near where I live and I usually prowl the DVD sections looking for bargains. I've seen box sets of the excellent "The Last Detective" series, Robbie Coltrane's "Cracker" series, even the Patrick Stewart "Eleventh Hour" But something you almost NEVER see are Doctor Who DVD's. The one time I saw one it was this story, "The Web Planet", and whoever it belonged to I had to say that I didn't necessarily blame them for getting rid of it.

Although it sounds like I'm badmouthing the story here the fact of the matter is that it's just... a difficult story. There are some real gems of ideas in here, we're talking Hope Diamond level of gems but then there are elements which don't work so well and points where the program's reach exceeded the grasp of budget and special effects of the time.

The Plot: The TARDIS is pulled down to an unscheduled landing on the planet of Vortis. Once there the TARDIS mysteriously goes dead. The Doctor along with companions Ian, Barbara and Vicki soon find themselves embroiled in a struggle for control of the planet. The Doctor and Vicki must outwit the Animus and her ant-like Zarbi slaves while Ian and Barbara work separately with the butterfly-like Menoptera. The Animus destroyed Vortis and now seeks to extend control over the whole galaxy and beyond but the Menoptera and Optera are determined to reclaim their planet. There is only one thing which can destroy the Animus but with the Animus's power and control will they even get close enough to use the weapon? Or will they become enslaved just like the Zarbi?

My Take: My first time viewing this story I really disliked it. I found it ridiculous and silly and a bit like bad 1960's experimental theatre. Re-viewing allowed me to mitigate that impression quite a bit... although I still think it's a lot like 1960's experimental theatre just not BAD experimental theatre.

The production team really worked hard to try to create a truly alien world populated with familiar but alien creatures. The Zarbi communicate in a series of high-pitched chirps, the Optera have some very expressive language quirks and the Menoptera obviously communicate as much with gestures and body language as they do vocally. In point of fact, a person was even hired to choreograph the Menoptera's movements and teach it to the actors playing the roles. Special filter boxes were also placed over the camera lenses to give Vortis's atmosphere a glazy, shimmery look and the echoing vocal effects were also meant to convey that sound carries differently on this strange planet.

But, as I mentioned, not all of this worked. While I applaud the attempts to create something different the filtering looks smeary and keeps making you want to rub your eyes (or if you're like me, think you need to clean your glasses) because it's blurry. The vocal effects also make it sound more like all the action is being filmed on a big, echo-y sound stage... Of course it didn't help that it WAS being filmed on a sound stage.

Which brings up the next double-edged sword. On the one hand, the sound stage is very obviously a sound stage and careless cameramen actually catch the back supports of the scenery flats and shadows are cast on the backgrounds which are supposed to be 'in the distance'. On the other hand, if they did not shoot on sound stage there would have been no way for them to accomplish the Menoptera's flight as all of that was done with flying harnesses. It is interesting to actually get to see these supposedly flying creatures fly.

The costuming and props are also a mixture of the good and the bad. The Menoptera's costumes have a few flaws but the face paint and appliances are gorgeous -- wiping away all traces of the human actors underneath. The Zarbi don't look too bad as long as the camera keeps away from close-ups. Unfortunately, with modern DVD and TV technology viewers can see more of the constructedness of the Zarbi carapaces. Also, whenever a character grapples with a Zarbi the sound of the fibreglass shell is patently obvious. The Optera and Venom Grubs probably fare the worst with the Optera looking a bit too cartoony and the Venom Grubs looking rather like a tabletop ironing board on top of a tea cart wearing a grass skirt. Also, the Animus works best when it is merely a disembodied voice. Once we see the Animus it becomes too obviously a puppet on strings.

There are some other places where the seams show. Doctor Who is well known for it's 'wobbly sets' and you either embrace this as part of the charm or you simply don't watch the classic episodes if it bothers you. But there are limits to what is acceptable in 'wobbly set syndrome'. For example, in a couple of scenes it is VERY obvious that the TARDIS console is on wheels and this is really just a bit unforgivable.

Also, due to the shoestring budget at this time period the episodes were basically shot live with as few retakes allowed as possible. As a result, just like in live theatre, if something went wrong the actors were supposed to cover for it as best they could and keep going unless it was something that wouldn't get past the censors (Carole Ann Ford, in fact, once recounted a story where William Hartnell advised her that if there was a scene that she thought she did just terribly and she wanted a chance to retake it then she should pretend to "accidentally" swear in frustration. Since the swear words would not be allowed the scene would have to be reshot). William Hartnell, due to his arteriosclerosis, often had memory problems and would occasionally forget or flub a line. This episode has one of his most famous instances -- forgetting and stumbling over his lines for several seconds before finally just skipping the sequence altogether. It is actually rather painful to watch and it seems a crime that it was not re-shot.

As for the rest of it... well... William Hartnell as the First Doctor is something of an acquired taste. His performance was a mixture of cheerfulness and whimsy, arrogance and irritableness, wisdom and anger and this story showcases all of that and more. There are some great lines of dialog but also some poor ones.

The rest of the regular cast gets along swimingly. There is really a lovely moment between Jacqueline Hill's Barbara and Maureen O'Hara's Vicki in which the futuristic Vicki has a time clash moment with the 1960's Barbara. It is handled well, though, and Hill plays Barbara with a genuine sense of humor. Likewise, Hill's scenes with William Russell's Ian have warmth and even a touch of what borders on flirtatiousness. It's no wonder writers of the books in the Doctor Who expanded universe would have Ian and Barbara marrying after returning home. There is also a nicely played moment between Ian and the Menoptera Vrestin which is really just lovely and it provides an info dump of a back story for the Menoptera but manages to still seem conversational and natural thanks to the performances of the actors. It also must be pointed out that, for all of the sexism which does show up in the series in the early days Barbara was fairly routinely badass. She often rescued herself, she often out-thought her enemies, she verbally took the Doctor down a couple of pegs once, and here she steps up to the plate and becomes a strategist and battle leader.

The story itself also has a wealth of interesting images and metaphors. There is the moment where the Zarbi remove the wings of one of the Menoptera and the cruelty of pulling the wings off a butterfly is magnified tenfold. In addition to all of the obvious insect imagery and metaphors there is a sub-metaphor running through of cancer imagery. For example, the home of the Animus is called the Carcinome and the device the Meoptera intend to use to destroy the Animus is called the Isoptope (because Vortis is in the Isop galaxy). It is fascinating and interesting. And then, as if that were not enough, there is another layer of imagery borrowed from fairy and folk tales -- the battle between the Menoptera and the Animus is consistently framed as 'good vs. evil' and there are references to the land once being beautiful and lush but blighted by the Animus and the way the Mentoptera describe paying tribute to the time travelers by remembering them in story and song all fit into that kind of tradition.

In the end... "The Web Planet" is just going to be an acquired taste. If one can look on the story kindly and see the gems it's worth a viewing but if you simply cannot overlook the flaws then it's best to stay away from this story. It's okay to skip this one since it's not a tale that has ever tied very tightly into the rest of the series as a whole. It's definitely an odd little duck in the flock.

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