Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Web Planet - "He’s quite cute, isn’t he, when he’s like this?" "Well, I haven’t noticed it before, my dear, but since you mention it, no I don’t think so. "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Web Planet - Details

Season 2, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #13) | Previous - Next | Index

Sandwiched between "The Romans" and "The Crusade," two relatively straightforward takes on the historical motif that take place not that far, again relatively speaking, from each other in terms of time and geography -- though having very different tones and inspirations -- we have the bugnut, way out dancing moths vs. spider-controlled, electronic-humming giant ants epic set on a planet so weirdly lunar we literally can't see it clearly. So let's see if we can open a mouth-hole in this story and let it speak light to us.

This is not a story, I think, anyone mixes up with another story. Over the long history of the show, especially when the show reuses motifs and formulas, it's very easy to let the stories jumble to together. Scenes, characters, plots even of entire episodes are recalled as part of one instead of another. Tellingly, when a commenter on a recent write-up recalled part of the "The Chase" as part of the "The Dalek's Master Plan," I didn't catch it straightaway even though I had only watched the latter a few days earlier, and have only read about and watched excerpts from the former. It's happened to me with stories from other eras as well. There's a reason the phrase "bog standard" is so commonly seen in reviews of the stories across the blogosphere. Regardless of what you may think about how successfully the Menoptra, Optra, and Zarbi are realized on-screen, you won't forget them.

And that's something. It's not enough on its own, so luckily there's more to recommend to this story than just "it's so freaking nuts you'll not forget it." It's daring and different, stylized and lyrical, and yes, to acknowledge some handicaps up front, it's 1960s Doctor Who so it's not fooling anybody. It's also First Doctor era, so Hartnell flubs lines left and right and leaves us scratching our heads wondering if half of his affectations aren't just covering for the fact he's forgotten the script and is filling until one of the other actors steps in to rescue him.

Back on the plus side of the ledger: it's creepy, genuinely and successfully creepy. Barbara, Vicky, and even the Doctor all fall under the mind-controlling influence of the Animus at some point; when the characters we know and have grown fond of are effectively zombified, we are horrified. The idea of the wings of the Menoptra being torn off to keep them enslaved in the Crater of Needles is also unnerving, despite their costuming.

It may be that you have to be willing to play along, to accept the limitations and make allowances to enjoy it; but, I don't give credit for ambition if the execution isn't there. This story worked for me in a way I didn't really expect it to based on what I'd read about it. Barbara and Vicky in particular had a some fun scenes, doing more than just getting kidnapped and screaming at monsters, they showed their cleverness, courage, and even pass the Bechdel test. As much as I enjoyed the Rose era (which I'm dipping into concurrently with these older stories) the fact that so many of her stories were about, or had scenes which played off her relationship status -- with the Doctor, and Mickey, and Jack, and Adam -- it's to the credit of these early seasons that, when they get the female companions right, they make them so likable. (Of course, there's tons of valid criticism of how the female companions are portrayed throughout the classic series; so, any praise on that front is couched in the understanding that much of the time they are there to move the plot by getting kidnapped or being otherwise frightened and imperiled.) The way the Menoptra acknowledge they really aren't very good at war but must try to win their planet back is touching. So, too, are their interactions with the Optra, who were left behind to skulk in dark caves to avoid the Zarbi, losing their wings from lack of use over the generations.

The end, when the Menoptra talk about how they'll sing and tell the story of how the TARDIS crew for their children feels like it's laying the groundwork for the legend of the Doctor across time and space that we'll hear so much about later.

Don't be afraid to give this one a chance. You'll read a lot trashing of it if you make the rounds of the review sites but don't be dissuaded.

Oh, and if you wear glasses, don't be fooled by the smudged lens effect used in the filming of this one. I must've taken my spex off to clean them a half-dozen times before it sank in that the blurriness was deliberate and not something that'd clear up with a lens wipe on my end.

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