In case you didn’t catch it, or were too young, basically, the 1989 edition of the annual awards ceremony went down as one of the all-time clangers in TV history. Mick Fleetwood and a fright-wigged Samantha Fox goofed, stumbled and fluffed their way through proceedings. Sir Cliff of Richard told the audience off for taking the mickey out of Thatcher, while the pointless finale consisted of a bemused Randy Newman trying to be heard amongst a load of OTT backing singers (if memory serves, flame-haired T’Pau bellower Carol Decker was the worst offender).
I only mention this because the 1989 Brit Awards are a classic case of good intentions going spectacularly wrong. Going even further back to 1965, this also applies to Doctor Who’s ambitious Web Planet.
Time has not been kind to The Web Planet. 52 years ago, this tale of alien beings, giant butterfly people and grunting slug things was regarded as a ground-breaking 150 minutes of television. Nowadays, that reputation has been dashed a little. Problem is, today’s modern Doctor Who has an impressive budget to match the ambitious concepts. Back in 1965, the budget wasn’t quite as high, and would probably be the equivalent cost of Peter Capaldi's sandwiches today.
Mind you, even if you’re inclined to suspend your disbelief (and believe me, this takes a lot of doing), The Web Planet still tries the patience, because the story’s slow moving and rather dull. In short, The Doctor and co stumble on the planet Vortis after a power drain, where they join with the Menoptra to reclaim their planet back from the dreaded Animus (a spider thing with the voice of a bored speaking clock announcer) and their pet Zarbi. It takes six whole episodes to achieve this, and while the idea’s perfectly sound enough, unfortunately there’s too much talk and very little action.
Even when there is action though, it’s rather clumsily staged. This isn’t director Richard Martin’s finest hour. Whilst Martin manages to do his best to achieve an alien ambience (smeared Vaseline over the camera lens, for example), unfortunately, his action sequences are static and poorly executed. The battle at the conclusion of Episode Four seems muddled and to a less charitable eye, rather silly, what with butterfly men flying around on wires, Barbara looking confused and repetitive stock music oo-wee-ing in the background. The last farewell scene is also one long shot rather than a series of different camera angles. Presumably, time was running out on the studio floor, and with the episode needing to be in the can by 10pm, the quick option had to be taken. That's unavoidable, but the end result looks rushed and boring. You wonder what Douglas Camfield or Waris Hussein would have made of this, but as it stands, the direction on The Web Planet isn’t mind-bogglingly spectacular.
The regulars get mixed fortunes this time around. There’s a classic Hartnell goof in the first episode where the main man seems to forget his lines (to the evident bemusement of William Russell) and instead falls back on mad chuckling. Indeed, The Doctor just seems to spend the first episode cackling to himself, as if he’s memorised a horde of Tommy Cooper jokes. Vicki spends the story scowling and playing second banana to The Doctor, while Ian and Barbara wander round looking vaguely sheepish at the absurdity of it all.
So what have we got here? The Web Planet “boasts” a whole menagerie of monsters and alien concepts. Here then, is John’s Guide to Vortis and all its wonders.
• The Zarbi: The lackeys of the Animus, which actually are men in giant ant costumes. Imagine carrying a heavy ant-shaped backpack, and you’re on the way to a good description of the Zarbi. Sadly, it’s all too obvious that the Zarbi actors found it difficult to move around the cramped rockpool sets – at one point, one of them blunders into the camera with an almighty thud.
• The Venom Grubs: Namechecked in Boom Town, the Venom Grubs resemble giant mobile hairbrushes. Pity the poor actors having to crawl around like babies, following the Zarbi around like sulky alien toddlers.
• The Menoptra: The main protagonists of the Zarbi, these butterfly people desperately need the help of The Doctor and his companions. Until they arrive, they spend their time dithering on the best course of action to defeat the Animus. They’re not exactly the most mobile creatures, as they constantly barge into each other with their kite wings. Plus, what’s with all that bizarre high-pitched shrieking as they do battle with the Zarbi? Presumably, all that “Zaaaaarbeeeeeeeee!!!” wailing is some Menoptra equivalent of a battle chant, like when the Sontarans bellow “Sontar-ha!!” over and over again. Not exactly subtle, though, is it? You’d think that they want to keep that element of surprise, so shrieking like a two-year-old calling for their dog in a park won’t do much good.
Interestingly, one of the Menoptra’s number is actually that fine actor and Countdown stalwart, Martin Jarvis. Amazingly, Jarvis’ role as Hilio isn’t quite as shocking as the prospect of being a love interest between Peggy “Geeeeaaaahhhmaaahhhpub” Mitchell and Pat Butcher in early 2010 episodes of EastEnders.
• The Optera: Underground dwellers who come into contact with Ian. These hybrids of slugs and constipated kangaroos are no more effective than the Menoptra. They speak in bizarre, grunting voices, which sound silly rather than alien. The leader, Hetra, sounds like a cross between the It’s man from Monty Python and Terry Scott’s character in Carry On Up The Jungle. For some bizarre reason, the female Nemini sacrifices herself by getting drenched in a waterfall of acid, in one of the few dramatic scenes of the story.
• The Animus: The baddie of the story, the spider thing dwells in what looks like the inside of your average Chinese takeaway restaurant. The Animus should actually start some sort of alternative therapy service, since The Doctor is subjected to an alien blow-dry tube and a blast of freezing cobwebby substance. Expect the Animus to make a bid for unusual therapy retail on QVC any day now.
• Flying pens and live bracelets: Not the sort of product that Ronco would have sold many moons ago. There wouldn’t be much of a black market for these things. Writing a letter with a flying pen would take aeons, as it lurches away from your grip. The living bit of bling would still crop up in Doctor Who, though, as favoured by such characters as Countess Scarlioni in City Of Death and Nyssa in Logopolis.
And there you have it. A weird and maybe-not-so wonderful gathering of alien beings and concepts, which in theory, is highly imaginative, but in practice, doesn’t quite come off (although John Wood’s set designs are excellent – also check out his detailed drawings in the novel). The unusual ideas should undoubtedly be applauded, but the problem is they’re stuck in a slow, lumbering plot that’s directed with all the urgency of a snooker match. Even if they were to remake The Web Planet with brand new effects and costumes, it’s doubtful whether it would still work, since the pedestrian plot would still fail to satisfy.
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