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Classic Who: The Web Planet

First Doctor: The Web Planet
I felt a bit lukewarm about this story. It did have some good material in it, which I'll say more about below. But compared to the other stories which I've seen so far from season two, it seems a bit of a weak point – better than Planet of Giants, to be sure, but not by a very long way.

The basic problem is that the non-regular cast are too alien to allow for very much in the way of meaningful characterisation – and since that is a huge part of what I watch Doctor Who for, that was a big problem for me. I like the idea of having no humanoid characters other than the TARDIS crew, and I enjoyed the sense of an entirely alien setting in the first episode. But the real reason I enjoyed that was because I liked the reactions of the humanoid characters, as they began to explore their surroundings, saw strange things out of the corners of their eyes, and generally set to wondering what the hell was going on. In other words, the first episode was a cabin fever story, and I love those!

Once the Zarbi and Menoptra turned up, though, that was lost. In its place, we got characters who were too alien to be emotionally convincing. They seemed to fall victim to what I think was quite a common SF trope for the period when this was produced – that of characterising alien species as concerned above all with Epic Struggles and Clashes of Civilisation, and very little with everyday small-scale emotions of the type that anyone in the audience might actually be able to relate to. There is one Menoptra (or perhaps that should be 'one Menoptron'?) who is characterised as hostile and obstructive – but apart from that all they seem to do is bang on about the Terrible Hardships They Have Suffered, and the Great Legends Of Their People. In fact, at one point one of their number is killed, and when a (female) Menoptra starts wailing about this, another (male) one says to her "Do not cry, [Weird Alien Name]. There is work to be done!" Whereupon, she forgets all about it and moves on. This is exactly the sort of stuff that makes traditional Sci-Fi uninteresting to me, and I'm keen to see as little of it as possible in Doctor Who.

Then again, as I said above, there was some good material too. I like, for example, the relationship which is developing between Barbara and Vicki – in spite of Barbara's rather rocky pet-murdering start with Vicki in The Rescue. :-) We've already seen them out on a shopping trip together in The Romans, and now they are really getting stuck into some very enjoyable conversations about their different experiences of education and medicine in their respective historical eras. It seems that the fact that Vicki is human, even if she is from the future, allows for a warmer and closer relationship than had ever developed between Barbara and Susan – and it makes for some very easy passes of the Bechdel test.

Vicki herself is settling into the TARDIS crew nicely, contributing plenty of intelligent questions and ideas as the Doctor tries to negotiate with the Animus. And Barbara has her usual share of Totally Awesome moments, too. She's the first to notice something moving in the landscape, even though no-one believes her at the time. She stages a clever escape when she's first captured by the Menoptra, by sneakily pulling a shard of crystal towards her with her feet so that she can grab it and overpower her captors. She devises a plan for distracting the Zarbi and overcoming the Animus, and leads her party of Menoptra like an accomplished military strategist. AND, at the end, when the Doctor's attempt to use the 'Isoptope' to destroy the Animus has TOTALLY FAILED, and he and Vicki are lying insensible on the floor, Barbara gets to be the one who is strong enough to finish the job, destroy the Animus and rescue everybody. HOORAH!!!

What's particularly great about this is that it isn't that Barbara has turned into some kind of inhuman superwoman. It's clearly a real struggle for her to resist the Animus, and she only really manages it in the end by kind of pitching forward into the centre of it with the Isoptope in her hand. In other words, it's kept very clear that she is still just an ordinary history teacher from north London. But she does this awesome stuff anyway – and if she can, that means any woman in the audience can too. I'd be pleased to see this sort of stuff being put on the screen in 2009 – in 1965, I am simply awe-struck.

By contrast, Ian's sub-plot with the Optera seemed kind of pointless to me. But I did like his (manly) irritation when the Doctor dipped his Coal Hill School tie into a pool of acid. It's a nice way of reminding the audience where he and Barbara are from, as well as a symbol of the way his 'ties' (geddit?) with Earth are being gradually 'eroded' (yes?) by his experiences in space. It's understandable that he should feel a little annoyed.

And there are some nice moments from the Doctor himself, too. I feel like I haven't written much about the character of the First Doctor for a while – he seems to have been largely eclipsed by the Awesomeness That Is Barbara. But I am enjoying him very much all the same. What I liked in this story were a couple of moments when we really see his vulnerable side – much as I noticed when I was first watching the 'Tribe of Gum' parts of An Unearthly Child. One was when he got back to where he expected his TARDIS to be, and it wasn't there (having been dragged away by the power of the Animus) – his anguished cry of "My TARDIS!" was very affecting, and rather reminded me of the brilliant moment in Father's Day when Nine tries to go back to his TARDIS and finds that it has been replaced by an ordinary Police Box, with nothing inside it but four ordinary, blue walls. Another was how terrified he looked when he and Vicki were captured by the Animus and covered in web, before the cylinder which the Animus used to communicate was lowered over his head once again. I like this sort of stuff because it keeps the Doctor on a 'human' level too, stopping him from getting too distant and godlike (though I'm all for a bit of divinity, too). But it helps, too, that it leaves so much room for Barbara to be Awesome, which is also much appreciated.

A few final notes:

  • It's slightly surprising, given their recent experience in Planet of the Giants, that none of the TARDIS crew stop to consider that they might have been shrunk again when they begin encountering giant insects. Maybe they did shrink, but they just never realised?
  • Once again, we have TARDIS separation as a plot device to get the story going – first it's rendered useless by the power of the Animus and something going wrong with the 'fluid link', and then it is towed away.
  • The Doctor's ring is a plot point, as it had been previously in The Reign of Terror. This time, it's rather hinted that it has strange powers, on the subject of which the Doctor refuses to be drawn – in fact, it's starting to function almost like a Sonic Screwdriver (i.e. magic wand). I'd be interested to know if this will be developed any further later on.
  • And, best of all, we get a lovely and very explicit statement on the Doctor's attitude towards history when Ian asks him what he knows of the history of Vortis: "History? Doesn't mean anything when you travel through space and time." More lovely CA-paper fodder there, methinks.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 17th, 2009 11:26 am (UTC)
I almost hate to say it, but I managed to sit through all six episodes of The Web Planet without noticing very much in the way of incident or engaging very much with the story. I think I had much the same reaction to the novelization.

What interests me about the tie incident is that it breaches continuity; Coal Hill is set up in An Unearthly Child implicitly as an advanced comprehensive, without uniform, and possibly with mixed ability classes too. (Perhaps Waris Hussein, at least, was thinking of Holland Park Comprehensive, as his mother lived in the area, as did Jacqueline Hill and David Whitaker). The 'school tie' refers to a different model, though probably one more familiar to the programme's audience, of uniforms and grammar schools and secondary moderns.
Oct. 17th, 2009 04:32 pm (UTC)
I don't think you weren't paying attention when you watched The Web Planet - it's just that nothing much really does happen!

As for Ian's tie - an interesting point. Mind you, Ian does actually state quite explicitly at one point (either in the first episode or the last) that it is an old Coal Hill School tie. So maybe we can resolve the contradiction by saying that it relates back to a period before the school was transformed into an advanced comprehensive?
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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