The Doctor: First Doctor (William Hartnell)
The Companions: Vicki (Maureen O’Brien), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Ian (William Russell)
The plot: Gloriously weird
Written By: Bill Strutton
First aired: 13/02/1965-20/03/1965
Theme Song: Delia Derbyshire’s 1963 Radiophonic workshop, including the beautiful and haunting middle eight.
Season 2, episodes 16-21 review
Giant ant slaves that spit weaponised grubs.
A telepathic evil spider in a planet-sized web.
Acid rivers fed with vegetation.
Butterfly-like humanoids attacking from space.
The Web Planet is one of Doctor Who’s few forays into pure fantasy. It will be several decades before we get something that’s as unabashedly unorthodox as The Web Planet: a serial that is almost psychedelic in its rendering of the familiar into the unfamiliar. Yet its unique and imaginative world is as recognisable and earthly as it is strange and unearthly.
It’s hard to say whether the serial was a product of 1960s psychedelia or if it was just an offbeat idea from a somewhat eclectic writer. Unfortunately, the script’s ambition is let down by the cut-rate production values of the time. Doctor Who throughout its classic run was cheap and cheery children’s entertainment. It did not have the budget to create the kind of immersive Alice in Wonderland acid trip The Web Planet could have been: the kind where the familiar becomes distorted and threatening and looms around you in a menacing new environment.
As such, as a work of art, The Web Planet is an enigmatic beast. Visually a kind of highschool play aesthetic where the kids have done the best they could with piping, styrofoam and a sewing machine (and what is possibly vaseline smeared over the camera lens). But thematically tantalisingly, its meaning drifting on the periphery out of reach. Seemingly a giant metaphor for something if you could only work out what. Spooner, as script editor, apparently saw it as a sociopolitical allegory for capitalism versus communism. Although which in the text is supposed to be which stands up to little scrutiny.
In the end, it’s best to just enjoy The Web Planet for what is it is rather than trying to put a logical schema over the top of it. It’s just weird. Gloriously so.
Still dressed in their Romans garb from the Serial of Which We Will Not Speak, the TARDIS crew is dragged down by some kind of force to the planet Vortis. Formerly a verdant planet of lush vegetation, it is now a barren rock with acid rivers.
Unable to break free of the strange force, the crew change to go exploring but Barbara keeps on a gold bracelet given to her as a gift from Nero. It’s actually important so I must mention it despite all my instincts. I know all women like to pull out keepsakes from their wannabe rapists.
Vicki in this first episode is given the full Susan treatment. She hears sounds no-one else can hear! She falls over! She says futuristic things about having a billion degrees at the age of 10! Mostly she’s used to split the team up because for some reason it’s Barbara who has to stay and take care of her while the men go exploring. We rightfully thought we got rid of this annoyance and I for one feel a bit cheated.
As Ian and the Doctor explore the seemingly barren surface of the planet and something giant and ant-like with electronic chittering lurks watches them from the shadows, Barbara dusts the Doctor’s specimen collection of butterflies and other insects. Which does offer up another explanation of the serial – that the TARDIS crew did a bunch of drugs, saw the specimens and imagined the whole thing. It was the 60s after all.
Barbara’s arm begins to act of its own accord and she finds her body pulled against her will to the TARDIS doors. As the discordant and alien chirping of the ant-like Zarbi fills the air, Barbara is finally overcome and leaves the ship as if she was a drone. So when
Susan Vicki wakes up, Barbara is nowhere to be found.
Ian and the Doctor hear Vicki’s cries and run back to the ship but Ian is caught in some kind of large web. So by the time the Doctor gets back to the TARDIS’ location, it’s gone. Taken by the Zarbi.
While the Doctor and Ian search for the TARDIS, Barbara is rescued from her telepathic thrall by the Menoptera: a peaceful race of humanoid butterflies who were the original masters of the planet before the invasion of the evil Animus that enslaved the Zarbi. Barbara’s mind has been ensnared because of the gold bracelet; the metal acting as some kind of conductor for the mental powers of the Animus. The Menoptera call this being ‘morphatised’.
The Menoptera’s numbers on Vortis are few. They are waiting for the arrival of their invasion fleet and some see Barbara as a potential threat who may tell the Zarbi their location. As they debate whether they should help her or kill her, she decides her best course of action is to escape. It turns out to be the wrong decision as she does exactly what the Menoptera fear: she’s recaptured and morphatised with a giant golden harness and leads the Zarbi straight back to the Menoptera. She and a Menoptera, Hrostar, are taken to the Crater of Needles to work as slaves.
Still in the TARDIS when the Zarbi took it, Vicki watches the rugged terrain pass by on the monitor as the worker ants drag the time machine into the nexus of some kind of huge web-like structure. Vicki leaves the ship and is apprehended by the giant chittering insects. Ian and the Doctor, meanwhile, are also captured by the Zarbi and taken to the same nexus point. There the Doctor is interrogated by the Animus through a kind of cone of silence that seems to allow telepathic communication.
The Animus is aware of the Menoptera’s imminent invasion and demands the Doctor help it locate the fleet and where it will land. The Doctor agrees but only to buy time for Ian to escape and find Barbara, which works. The Doctor also discovers where the Menoptera’s forces will land – Sayo Plateau just north of the Crater of Needles – but keeps the information from the Animus as a bargaining chip.
Outside, Ian is joined on his journey by the Menoptera Vrestin who rather adorably mispronounces his name as Heron. She explains that the Menoptera are not in fact invading but trying to reclaim their own planet. The Zarbi were a normal part of the ecosystem on Vortis before enslaved by the Dark Force known as the Animus. At the same time, the Carsinome (the web) began to grow and strange moons appeared in the sky. They relocated to one of them but realised they could not survive there and must take back Vortis.
It is a dim, half-world and our wings grow weaker. We must return to Vortis, for when the Carsinome encircles the planet, it will be too late.Vrestin, The Web Planet
As the two make their way to the Crater to rescue their friends, they fall down a hole into the underground tunnels of the subterranean Optera. An evolutionary descendant of the Menoptera who have survived by living underground, the Optera have lost their wings and now dwell in darkness; killing anything that comes down from the surface.
Listen, stranger, you are both from that wilderness above ground where the light blinds, the air chokes, where only destroyer races live and from where none of us who has gone forth has ever returned. You come foraging into our world only for new victims.Hetra, The Web Planet
The Optera are legless and wormlike and portrayed by actors sewn into slug suits who are forced to hop around the sets with strings of styrofoam on their heads. They are, however, one step up from the poor Zarbi who have to wear giant ant suits that I’m pretty sure afford them no visibility. The Menoptera, portrayed by dancers with their subtle choreographed movements, are not half bad – at least with the forgiving black and white film of the classic series.
Over in the Crater of Needles, Hrostar has rather tragically had his wings torn off and will never fly again. His concern for Barbara’s wellbeing while dealing with the existential crisis of being a butterfly who cannot fly is surprisingly moving. He and the other grounded Menoptera in the Crater are being forced to pile up the planet’s remaining vegetation and feed it into streams of acid that cut through the planet’s landscape. This is to feed the Animus, allowing her – and I am going to switch to her since she is voiced by a woman and the Doctor refers to her as a kind of ‘Ant Queen’ – to grow the Carsinome as it consumes the planet.
Hrostar also explains that the Menoptera were sent in advance of the main fleet to gather intelligence but that their weapons proved useless against the Zarbi and only the three Barbara originally met had escaped. He claims the Menoptera scientists have invented a new weapon that they hope will work – the Isop-tope.
Back inside the Carcinome, the Animus is growing impatient with the Doctor’s obvious stalling and he’s forced to provide some information on the Menoptera’s fleet to buy them some more time.
Unfortunately, the Doctor’s vague information on the Menoptera invasion is enough to put the Animus on high alert and she marshals her ant army to mass at various points outside the Carsinome. The imprisoned Menoptera are concerned that their fleet is now flying into an ambush with useless weapons and so they escape from captivity to warn them as they approach. This is quite easy since the Zarbi are actually really stupid.
Their intervention is needed because in trying to reprogram the gold control collars the Doctor accidentally lets the Animus know exactly where the Menoptera forces are planning to land. Realising the Doctor has been lying about the fleet, the Animus morphatises both him and Vicki. However, the Doctor’s reprogramming of the control collars was successful and Vicki is merely pretending to be subjugated.
Underground, Vrestin addresses the Optera and tells them of the Menoptera’s plan to destroy the Dark Force and free Vortis. The mention of the word ‘Menoptera’ changes the Optera’s minds about killing Heron and Vrestin. Descended from the Menoptera, they worship them as their Gods and faced with one promising to descend from the heavens and save them, they instead bow.
Your wings withered on your bodies while you crawled blindly underground, like slugs. You were born to the greatest freedom of all creatures. To peace, beauty and light!Vrestin being weirdly racist all of a sudden, The Web Planet
Having won over the Optera, Vrestin and Heron (I think this is so adorable) get their help in digging their way to the centre of the Carsinome to find the Dark Force, the Animus, that enslaved the Zarbi. In a strangely poignant scene, they run into a pocket of acid from one of the streams and an Optera sacrifices themselves to save the others by plugging the hole with their own body. It’s a sudden moment of pure selflessness that is peculiarly affecting, not just for Ian but for us.
On the plateau, Barbara, Hrostar and the other escaped slaves try to warn the Spearhead force as they fly down from space but are still too late. With the Zarbi forces massed and the Spearhead committed, the swarm are cut down by larvae guns. Barbara and Hrostar escape but are soon surrounded by the Zarbi. Before they can be captured they fall though a concealed door into an abandoned Menopteran Temple of Light. There they are joined by the Spearhead Leader Hilio who rather hilariously keeps asking other Menoptrans for secret codewords to prove their identity as though they weren’t giant butterflies on a planet full of ants.
Hilio explains that they were intending to land in secret and attack the Animus at its heart with the Isop-trope. Barbara suggests they enact this plan themselves rather than waiting for a main fleet that is just going to be cut down by the Zarbi like the Spearhead was. Hilio doesn’t trust the strange new being but one of her slave friends points out that the Menoptera have never had the means to develop strategy and are not particularly good at it.
The Menoptra have no wisdom for war. Before the Animus came, the flower forest covered the planet in a cocoon of peace. Our ancestors carved temples like this for resting places of our dead, but that was all the work we did. There were no other plans to make. Light was our God and we existed in light, flying above thought. Our banishment has taught us of enemies and weapons, and my captivity has taught me strategy. They tore my wings from me and I felt, as you feel, that all was lost. But if our Gods favour our survival, we must learn their lesson and use our brains and not our wings. This Earth woman we must trust, for she can show us how to exist without wings, to survive and flourish.Prapillus having learned the most important life lesson – listen to Barbara, The Web Planet
The remnants of the Spearhead, Barbara, Hrostar and Prapillus decide to head to the centre of the Carsinome and try to attack the Animus directly. They’re soon joined by the Doctor and Vicki who have successfully reprogrammed a control collar and used it to take control of a Zarbi.
Reunited, they speculate about what could be in the centre of the web. The Menoptera say that it’s an alien that came from the darkness of space but that they didn’t know it had arrived until it was already embedded in the minds of the Zarbi and spreading its web.
The centre of the Carsinome is the planet’s magnetic pole and the Doctor notes that it could be drawing its power from the planet itself, creating a kind of gravitational force that draw to the planet its new moons as well as the TARDIS.
The group come up with a plan to distract the Zarbi with a mock attack while the Doctor takes the Isop-tope back into the Carsinome so he can sneak it past the Zarbi guards and to the Animus itself. He then gives it to Vicki for some addle-brained reason and she of course instantly loses it when she hides it in the Carsinome control room they’ve been working in.
So as the serial climaxes, each of the three groups are converging on the mysterious Dark Force at the centre of the web without the Isop-tope they need to destroy it.
The Doctor and Vicki are brought to the Animus, a kind of giant energy spider at the centre of the great web. Both are quickly overcome by its mental powers as it sucks them dry.
What Vortis is, I am. What you are, I will become… What I take from you will enable me to reach beyond this galaxy, into the solar system, to pluck from Earth its myriad techniques and take from man his mastery of spaceThe Animus forgetting that she apparently came from space in the first place, The Web Planet
Fighting off the Zarbi and moving through the tunnels of the Carsinome, Barbara and the Menoptera reach the control room, losing Hrostar along the way. They find the Isop-tope where Vicki hid it and take it to the centre while Heron climbs up and cuts his way through from the ground below with the Optera. He emerges just as Barbara is struggling with the mental onslaught of the Animus.
Nonetheless she manages to use the Isop-tope against the creature and it collapses, dead.
Water flows again upon the surface of Vortis and the Zarbi are free. The Menoptera are able to return, the Optera to come to the surface and vegetation will grow again. Vortis will soon recover from the choking scourge of either communism or capitalism depending I guess on your perspective. The Menoptera seemed to have a kind of socialist paradise before the grasping greedy Animus descended from space to suck their planet dry so it’s entirely possible that The Web Planet was instead another metaphor for colonialism that swapped out Daleks for space spiders. Or perhaps it’s about disease, with a pathogen invading a host body and co-opting its own cells to spread. Or perhaps there is no allegory here and it’s just a story. An enjoyable one despite how very weird it was overall.
The Menoptera thank the Doctor for his help, despite the fact that once again Barbara did everything. And this is how history is written.
The TARDIS crew board their ship and it disappears into the mists of the perpetual Vortis night.
Now the Zarbi larvae feed the soil, the flower forest shall grow again across Vortis. But we must not allow the forest to conceal another lurking Animus.Prapillus, having learned that the price of freedom is vigilance or something, The Web Planet