Before this: The Romans
Season 2, Episode 3: The Web Planet
The Romans is the fifth serial of the second season of Doctor Who. It was released in six parts. Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) took a week of holidays and thus does not appear in one of the parts.
Talk about boring. The Web Planet takes everything that people dislike about older media – almost catatonic pacing, wafer thin storylines, convenient coincidences and melodrama – and puts it with an interesting but poorly executed premise.
The premise is interesting enough: the TARDIS is pulled off its course onto the planet Vortis. They stumble upon a somewhat political scene: the Menoptra, who resemble butterflies, and the ant-like Zarbi, are Vortis’ native species, but a great, evil force, the Animus, has taken control of the planet by manipulating the mindless Zarbi. The Menoptra fled the planet, but have sent a reconnaissance force to prepare for an invasion. It’s a fairly intriguing plot, but unfortunately it doesn’t have the legs (at least with its execution) to last six whole episodes.
It’s all a bit confusing, especially since they have names like Zarbi and Menoptra and Vrestin. The costuming is fairly impressive from far away, but is laughable in close-up: you have to have an amazing imagination to not find the guys in plastic ant-suits and fuzzy, stripy butterfly costumes humorous. All I could see was a third-grade play put on by adults. While noted choreographer Rosalyn de Winter did an impressive job creating the distinctive movements and stilted speech of the Menoptra, that stilted speech was even slower than Dalek speech, and left me wishing there was some way I could speed them up to double time. It – slows – the – pacing – right – down – when – characters – speak – like – this. The episodes did offer up some very intriguing sets, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to save the episode.
I admit that I’m somewhat impatient and that may have had a significant bearing on my harsh opinion of this episode. While there are some great ideas in the story, they are let down by awful pacing problems, a lack of excitement and drive, and visuals that are at best, mediocre. I’d be very interested in seeing a remake of this: with some strong themes and ambitious writing, it could be great.
This was a story which I felt I should have loved. And it had the makings of a great story: weird aliens; injustices; a cunning and malicious parasitic villain. The acting was fine and the sets (with a few hilarious exceptions, such as when a Zarbi ran into the camera) were quite good. But for some reason, this story just seemed to drag on and on. Maybe it because it was dark and brooding, which was a radical change from the extremely light-hearted previous story. Or maybe it was because it was because the story was drawn out a little longer than I thought necessary. Regardless, I wasn’t overly thrilled with this episode despite some cool elements.
Cool elements there were aplenty as well. The entire story had a fuzzy look to it, which upon further research was a deliberate attempt at creating a different world atmosphere (it was created using camera lenses and Vaseline). It looked cool, but it quickly became tiresome to try and make out details, especially considering that all the various insect characters looked the same. The main villain had potential as well: the Animus is some ultra-mind parasite, which actually came from a universe before the Big Bang, and is related on some level to the Great Intelligence seen later in the series. But everything fell into a monotonous blur by the end of the first episode, and then there were five more after that which we soldiered on with.
Plot wise, it was a well thought out and interesting story. Effectively, on this planet of insects, the species had lived in harmony, before the butterflies (Menoptra) were forced off-world by the Zarbi (ants + larvae) under the control of the mysterious, eerie Animus. Meanwhile, a race of fleas (Operta) assists in the crusade against the Zarbi after being prompted by Ian and Barbara. Despite this fun and exciting-sounding plot though, it felt exceptionally drawn out. Again, I’m not sure how or why this occurred – although the slow, repetitive sounding voices and the absence of a notably awesome soundtrack (watch Third Doctor stories for those) meant it was pretty dull.
That being said, it did have its moments. One of the greatest was a random scene where a meandering Zarbi actually runs straight into the camera, visibly shaking it. Also, the plight of the Menoptra was quite touching at times (when you got past their odd voices and mannerisms). The Doctor was also doing his shtick very well – he managed to trick the Animus numerous times, which is impressive considering that he would (canonically speaking) be a young Time Lord, and he is coming up against a being which is literally older than the known universe and time itself.
Overall rating: Not fantastic. I know there will be plenty of Whovians out there who will disagree with this verdict, and I am aware objectively why the episode was interesting. But despite the positive plot elements and the potential, for some reason it felt drawn out and not very engaging.