(Note that this contains a few spoilers.)
First, hurrah! There are no soapy subplots here, no modern moral dubiety, no smug postmodern complexity – just a group of friends on an outing and a “Boy’s Own” storyline. Those were the days. The Doctor is mysterious and irascible, more concerned that he might lose his ring than wishing to receive the thanks of the people whose planet he saves. Ian and Barbara get their own mini-adventures, Ian showing a healthy sense of proportion by grumping about losing his old school tie while Barbara is the role model we expect, rallying the troops and planning an invasion. And Vicki is the Doctor’s sidekick, in case he needs someone to explain things to or hold his walking stick.
At 6 episodes, this story is a tad long and drawn out from a modern perspective; or rather, from the perspective of watching the whole thing in quick succession. (But the video library would have made us pay lots more if we’d tried to watch it over 6 weeks, as originally broadcast.) Also, of course, it would have been better to have been 8 years old, and to have watched it as part of an ongoing saga that was simply part of your life, and to be able to imagine oneself on an alien world so completely that one didn’t notice the strings or the actors’ legs. And to have had no idea that the series would last another 47 years, or that William Hartnell wouldn’t always be the Doctor…
However, the first episode was marvellously atmospheric, and gave the feeling that this really was an alien planet, complete with acid pools, numerous moons, a lunar surface, and some sort of prism effect on the camera lens. And mysterious happenings – eerie noises, vanishing pens, people being controlled by their bracelets – and, of course, a disappearing TARDIS.
I was surprised that the Zarbi (effectively giant ants, although evolution took a different turn on Vortis and they ended up with only two legs) were actually relatively convincing, in that you could easily forget there was a person inside (as I, at least, do most of the time with the Daleks). They only made weird sounds, which emphasised their alienness – one of the few species in the cosmos not susceptible to the TARDIS’s “telepathic translator”, apparently. The Larvae Guns, huge animated hairbrushes with glowing eyes and very long noses, were similarly quite convincing, given the limitations. The Menoptera and the “jumping bugs” were less good, inevitably, since they had to communicate with our heroes, which made their “human side” more obvious. It would have been better if they’d hidden their all-to-human looking mouths somehow. In an attempt to increase their alienness, they used flowing gestures and a sort of dominance display where they hissed at each other, but this just tended to highlight their inadequacies. The jumping bugs looked particularly silly in this respect.
The Zarbi were quite menacing in their appearance and behaviour, and the fact that you couldn’t talk to them. Just a force to be escaped or fought – reminiscent of the Yeti in that respect.
The Menoptera failed to convince as a fighting force, being on a par with the Thals in the first Dalek story, but with less justification, since they were allegedly the advanced force for an invasion rather than wandering farmers. (Although they were supposed to have been forced into war reluctantly, so perhaps that was intentional.)
And they were, apparently, only armed with one weapon. Just one. It was called an “isoptope,” and seemed to do them little good most of the time. It was supposed to destroy the Animus, the creature that had taken control of Vortis, although I’m not sure how they knew what would destroy it. (But then how would the Animus know how to devise things like giant wishbones capable of controlling people when put round their necks?) There was some confusing stuff about “aiming for the dark side” when the isotope finally came to be used on the Animus, and exactly how it was defeated was obscure. The gun obviously worked, but maybe not as expected.
(There were a few bits of dodgy science, e.g. how the Menoptera managed to fly in the allegedly thin atmosphere … but anyone who expects real science needs their neutron polarity reversed. As Stephen Moffatt would say, “it’s only Doctor Who“).
It was also a straightforward adventure involving goodies and baddies (hurrah!). Or a baddie, to be exact, who spends most of the story communicating via something akin to Get Smart’s cone of silence. Originally, Vortis was a sort of hippie paradise, full of butterflies frolicking amongst the flowers; only the Animus’ evil influence turned everything to custard. A plot that some may recognise from the Bible, or Lord of the Rings, of course, and which in modern times might seem a wee bit lacking in depth.
The story was at best average for televised SF of the era, especially if we ignore Quatermass and the Twilight Zone and so on. I suppose it rather cuts down on the story possibilities when the putative villains are restricted to speaking in high-pitched twittering noises. But The Web Planet was obviously intended to rest mainly on its creation of an alien world. It would have been better in this regard with a huge budget, of course, but I don’t think this is the main weakness – the story is too thin, drawn out over too many episodes, the dialogue is rather pedestrian, the (alien) characters rather childishly drawn. In fact, I’d say this story relies too much on special effects – which may strike some viewers of the modern series as a familiar complaint!
However, my 8-year-old son, who I was half expecting to be scornful, enjoyed it. (Although it isn’t his all-time favourite Doctor Who story. That’s The Chase…)