Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Place Where Nothing Is Impossible (The Web Planet)

Astonishingly, some people look at this photo and
think that they're looking at something that
has something to do with realism.
It's February 13, 1965. The Kinks, The Righteous Brothers, The Seekers, and The Rolling Stones are going to be our #1 singles for the next six weeks. The album charts are mostly The Rolling Stones, with The Beatles taking the top spot for fun one week.

What you have to realize about these times is that, looking at what was popular, it is very clear that the world was changing. That things that had previously bubbled under the mainstream have, at this point, broken through in a big way. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles are visible part of what it is increasingly clear is a 90% obscured iceberg. In America, the Civil Rights movement is at its boiling point. White supremacists are beating demonstrators to death. Malcolm X is assassinated. 1965 is not the present day by any stretch of the imagination. But it is also impossible to argue that 1965 is in any way more normal or understandable than the present day. The world of 1965 is staggeringly complex and weird.

I bring this up because for these six weeks, Doctor Who is showing The Web Planet. Which is easily the weirdest Doctor Who to date, and a strong contender for weirdest ever. It is also among the most popular, in terms of viewers, ever. And it is among the most misunderstood episodes of Doctor Who ever.

The word used in almost every review of The Web Planet is "ambitious." It's easy to see why. Every character save for the TARDIS crew in this story is non-human. You've got the Zarbi - bipedal ants who make a constant beeping sound. You've got the Menoptra - butterfly people, and the Optera - sort of grub creatures. And you've got the Animus - a giant tentacle monster. The episode is a special effects bonanza as a result.

And here's where people misunderstand it. Much is made of Doctor Who's wobbly sets and poor effects. And it's true - the effects on Doctor Who are often cheap. Where this becomes inexplicable is when people criticize the effects for being unbelievable, unrealistic, or unconvincing. And so when The Web Planet is discussed, it's usually exhibit A for those who want to talk about how the old series had lousy effects and was unconvincing and silly.

Here's the thing. Everybody who complains about the unrealistic effects in this episode is being a complete idiot.

There's a moment on the DVD commentary for a Russell T. Davies-penned Doctor Who episode where the show briefly appears to have killed off Rose. And Davies and one of the other producers are talking about whether children would believe that they really did kill of Rose. The other producer suggests that he hopes children would not be so cynical as to say "Oh, they wouldn't really do that." And Russell T. Davies, in what is, to my mind, the most revealing thing he has ever said on a DVD commentary, says "That's not cynical. That's wise."

That, right there, is the heart of the issue. The fact that Davies understands that is why he was able to make Doctor Who as successful as it had ever been. And it's telling that one of the times in its original run where it was that successful was The Web Planet.

Apologists for the episode usually fall back on a defense along the lines of "watch it from a 1965 perspective and it's more convincing." This is the suspension of disbelief argument - that viewers could overlook the silliness and get themselves to believe what they were seeing. But no. Even viewers in 1965 could tell that William Hartnell was flubbing his lines left, right, and center, and could notice when one of the Zarbi actors walked into a camera. When William Hartnell trails off in mid-line after identifying the planet as Vortis and William Russell sort of wearily says "What galaxy is that in, Doctor" to prompt him, it does not take some savvy modern viewer to know what's going on.

Modern viewers, for some reason, assume that TV Tropes represents some new understanding of narrative. And so they assume that, for instance, viewers in 1965 were somehow more convinced by People in Rubber Suits than they are today. I'm not going to heavily link TV Tropes in this blog, but let's consider for a moment.

One of these legs is not like the others... Well, two, really.
Here's a picture of the Zarbi. Now, what seems more likely? That viewers in 1965 could not tell that two of those legs were not like the others, or that viewers in 1965 were well aware that those were men running around in ant costumes? It seems to me that any argument that is dependent on the idea that anyone, ever, in the history of the planet has looked at a Zarbi and seen anything other than a man in an ant suit is extremely, extremely strained.

But why would that be a problem? Outside of television and film, we don't really get very worked up about this sort of thing. Nobody has ever read a book and gone "Ooh, these ink stains on this piece of dead tree pulp don't look much like what they describe." The idea that art might be non-representational is not actually a very complex or hard to accept one.

This is actually not a still from Doctor Who, but I bet
I could have fooled you into thinking it was.
And yet in all the discussions of The Web Planet - and the Miles/Wood About Time books spend a thousand words on the issue of influences on this story alone - nobody seems to mention the really obvious fact that this story belongs in the tradition of things like Méliès's A Trip to the Moon. Never mind that it's an obvious influence. I mean, again, to be very straightforward in my evidence here, have a look at a still from Trip to the Moon. The similarity in visual style is obvious.

If you accept this idea, The Web Planet suddenly becomes a lot more understandable. For instance, there's a scene in the first episode where The Doctor and Ian appear to stare up at a massive stone edifice. It's an obvious effects shot. The only point of the shot is to show off that they can have that effect. In fact, much of the episode is structured around that effect shot. If the effects shot is meant to be believable, that makes no sense. That kind of effort only makes sense if the effect is going to be noticed - i.e. if it's going to be visible as an effect.

In this interpretation, The Web Planet is interesting as a series of set pieces - as a six-week long exercise in spectacle that was not going for convincing illusion, but rather for striking visuals. This is well-supported by the episode. Take, for instance, the bizarre lighting effects used for all shots of the surface of the planet Vortis, produced by smearing the camera lenses with Vaseline. Or, for that matter, the decision to have Rosalyn de Winter, a choreographer, work with the Menoptra to make them seem suitably alien.

The result is, in fact, stunning. Realistic? No. But all the same, stunning, in the same way as Méliès - a spectacle. And if The Web Planet is read in this way, which, as I said, is almost certainly the way it was read by its initial audience, it makes a lot more sense. It certainly explains why The Web Planet was one of two stories from the second season to be novelized.

Ah. Right. The novels. We'll talk more about these in a later installment (tentatively the Season 4 premiere, The Smugglers), but for now, let's note simply that in 1964, Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure With the Daleks was published, and in 1965 two follow-ups based on this story and the next were published. And that these were the first instances of something that would eventually prove to be quite important for the series.

A photo of a page of a book. There's something
a bit weird about that, actually.
The thing that you have to realize is that in 1965, there was nothing resembling home video. When Doctor Who and the Zarbi came out, six months after airing, it was the closest thing to a personal copy of The Web Planet as could exist. The purpose of the book was to spur memories of the popular serial The Web Planet. Notably, the book was illustrated. The illustrations are nothing special, but they are telling in that they emphasize the points of visual spectacle. So, for instance, the special effects shot of Ian and the Doctor staring up at an impossibly large stone edifice is recreated in the book. Suggesting strongly that this, more than anything, is the point of the exercise.

(A canny reader may notice that the book refers to the Doctor as Doctor Who. We'll deal with that, but again, in another entry.)

The thing about spectacle is that it provides an opportunity for a very specific sort of horror. Much is made of Doctor Who's supposed scariness. And much of that scariness, as I've already suggested, comes from making the familiar strange. In this regard, the fact that The Web Planet was visibly produced is a major asset, because its bizarre visual landscape is not entirely alien. The frisson produced by the serial is precisely because what we are seeing is clearly human.

And so there's some real horror here. Not scary bits, but horror. A major plot point in the first few episodes is a gold control harness that zombifies whoever it's put on. After an extended sequence in which Barbara is taken over by the gold bracelet she happens to be wearing, we get a truly awful set of plot twists in which the harness is several times forced onto Vicki, and we watch the young companion figure - the supposed image of the future of Britain - suddenly go blank, her entire personality taken away. And it's scary. It is genuinely psychologically horrifying. One moment she's fighting and screaming, and the next all that personality is just gone.


And that's not the only really horrifying bit. There's one cut in the serial where the camera suddenly jumps to a completely unclear image as the soundtrack takes a turn into a sort of proto-Diamanda Galas screaming. And what's scary about it is that it is so utterly alienating. It is not so much that The Web Planet was ahead of its time as that it feels as though it existed in a wholly parallel time. Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood accuse the episode of failing to try to make the world credible, saying "Faced with an overwhelming mass of insect-flesh, what we really need here is for all those involved - both behind and in front of the camera - to play it casual. If everyone on Voros acted as if this were their natural environment, and as if butterfly-people were a perfectly normal pan of the terrain, then after an episode or so we might forget the weirdness of it and treat it as a place where interesting things might happen."

Baloney. The Web Planet is supposed to be shockingly weird. So that, in part 5, when there's a bit of a comic interlude about a tamed Zarbi that Vicki insists on nicknaming Zombo, the comedy does not so much fall flat as make the entire situation even weirder. It's a strikingly bizarre moment, but it's hard to laugh at it because the series has just taken us completely off the map so that even comic beats like this leave us uncomfortable.

Because, for instance, in the same episode you have a sequence where Ian and some of the Optera are walking through some caves and find a spot where the way is blocked. The story has already spent a good deal of time establishing the alien characters as, well, alien - the Menoptra, for instance, have monologues including lines like "light was our god and we existed in light flying above thought," which is both oddly poetic and alienating. This sequence with the Optera begins by picking up on that tendency, describing the problem as "A silent wall. We must make mouths in it with our weapons. Then it will speak more light."

And then it goes nuts. They break through the wall, and it turns out to have been holding back deadly acid. At which point one of the Optera shoves her head into the wall to block the flow of acid. The remaining Optera calmly leave her body behind, saying that this is part of the dangers of living below ground, leaving Ian standing beside a giant insect corpse with its head shoved in a wall. If the sequence sounds bizarre, it is. It's easily one of the strangest things I've ever watched. But when this sort of absurdity abuts comedy about Zombo the Friendly Zarbi the resulting effect is a striking alienation.

All of this comes to a head with the story's villain, the Animus. This is the first time that Doctor Who has provided a villain of this sort - an almost godlike being. Later writers engaged in a kind of ham-handed retcon that proclaimed the Animus, along with some other classic villains, to in fact be explicitly part of the Cthulhu mythos (Animus is apparently Lloigar, a 1932 creation of August Derleth). Although this retcon was, all told, a pretty dumb idea that does some real injustice to Bill Strutton's creation of the Animus, the observation that there's something Lovecraftian about this monster is pretty on target.

The Animus appears in two distinct stages. At first it is simply something that the Doctor talks to by walking into a sort of weird speaking tube. Although the Doctor covers with glib humor (and a kind of brilliant lampshading), referring to the Animus as a giant hairdryer, the fact of the matter is, it's clear that this being is something the Doctor fears. The Animus is both vastly powerful - it controls all of the Zarbi - and intelligent. Although its second form is mocked along with the other effects, it too is deeply creepy - a mass of bizarre lights and fleshy tentacles that is profoundly weird.

The result is a strong sense that Vortis is a place that the Doctor and his companions should not be. This is heightened by the fact that this story involves some real assaults on the TARDIS. The story is the first time that the trope of the TARDIS being pulled down to a planet appears - the Doctor has not inadvertently landed on Vortis, he's been trapped there. For the first time, lengthy TARDIS scenes exist in which the TARDIS is a prison. It's not malfunctioning here - it's been taken over. This story is also the first time that a monster enters the TARDIS. The overwhelming message is that the Doctor and his companions are just completely out of their league. And when the story finally resolves, with Barbara managing to kill the Animus, the victory feels like luck - the Doctor and Vicki have already failed, and Barbara can barely get the weapon she uses to work.

It would be one thing if these constant creepy and unnerving set pieces got in the way of the characters, but they don't. The Doctor is anarchically manic, continuing the odd sense of characterization as a young man we saw last episode. Ian and Barbara have a deepening relationship - Barbara's resolve to destroy the Animus is given a crucial boost by Ian appearing at the last second, a sort of Power of Love ending of the sort that will become standard under Russell T. Davies. Vicki and Barbara's banter provides the first episode, which is otherwise a kind of lengthy trudge around an empty planet, with considerably more energy and fun (although it's very difficult not to get the sense that Vicki is trying to seduce Barbara).

The story, in other words, is unmistakably a case of familiar, well-loved characters thrown into an impossibly strange situation full of bizarre spectacle. The audience does not need to "believe" the spectacle to get into this, because the main dramatic tension is in fact how weird and strange everything is. Immersion and belief are anathema to what's going on here - bizarre and unsettling theatrical staging does a much better job of making the audience feel uncomfortable and lost (much like the characters) than any sort of realism possibly could.

And yet the default assumption on this story - and apparently why Spooner accepted the script - is that it's a parable about communism, with the Zarbi being the deluded working class. Miles and Wood suggest that the story is about the working class, making much of the fact that the Zarbi are portrayed as cattle. The only problem is that, by all appearances, that's exactly what they are. At no point is there any serious suggestion that the Zarbi are anything other than animals who are being controlled by the malevolent Animus. There's no politics to be had with the Zarbi for the simple reason that they have nothing resembling autonomy or will. If they were portrayed as having any will apart from what the Animus forces them to do, that would be one thing, and possibly a parable about communism. As it stands, the story is not some expressly political parable. It's a creepy-ass story about the weirdness of its own special effects.

In other words, the biggest mistake that you can make about this story - and, maddeningly, the mistake that people most often make in discussing the story - is to treat it as a realist piece of science fiction that's a direct parable about the world of 1965. The truth is far more complex, and far more interesting - The Web Planet is a story about freaking out the audience and making them uncomfortable. Add the story on Netflix (Or, you know, buy it from the link below) and watch it in that light. Because the big problem with people's assumptions regarding this story is simple - they assume that because it was made in 1965, it's less modern than Doctor Who is now.

It's not. If anything, The Web Planet is, much like the six weeks it aired during, far more chaotic, weird, and tumultuous than anything going on right now.


Do you own The Web Planet on DVD yet? If not, consider buying it from Amazon via this link. I'll get some of the money if you do.

3 comments:

  1. Well, inspired by this I watched it with a friend. And we laughed ourselves silly. I wouldn't go so far as to call it bad, but I found nothing here serious. Partly because we were joking, but also partly because of my Central Audio Processing Disorder, I simply couldn't understand a word anyone was saying. The audio was wretched, malicious bad. You mention above that Vicki names a Zarbi, but I honest wouldn't know, there were whole sequences of dialogue that were complete incomprehensible- I don't even know why that Zarbi was there. I wish I could see (or hear, I guess) what you did in this, but it isn't there for me. This isn't my least favorite episode, but it's at the bottom of my list, above those episodes I actively loathe and hate, like Curse of the Black Spot or the one with the flying bus.

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  2. Complaining about the Zarbi being unrealistic is exactly the same as going to a production of War Horse, standing up in the interval and shouting, 'This is rubbish, those horses don't look realistic at all.'

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  3. In the following statement you are seriously missing a point. As an 8 year old viewer at the time that this was first aired, it never once occurred to me or any of my friends that the Zarbi were anything other than giant ant-lke aliens. It never occurred to us that they were men in costumes, and your revelation shocks me. Not since we first encountered the Daleks had we met such a powerfully menacing enemy, and our playgrounf games of Doctor Who and the Daleks quickly became Goctor Who and the Zarbi.
    Great books - keep them coming. On the whole your interpretation of the 'real' feel of these early episodes is fairly accurate although you are re-creating it from the distorted perception of adulthood.

    "Here's a picture of the Zarbi. Now, what seems more likely? That viewers in 1965 could not tell that two of those legs were not like the others, or that viewers in 1965 were well aware that those were men running around in ant costumes? It seems to me that any argument that is dependent on the idea that anyone, ever, in the history of the planet has looked at a Zarbi and seen anything other than a man in an ant suit is extremely, extremely strained"

    KJH

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