January 29: "Inferno" / "The Web Planet"

 (The Romans episode 4 & The Web Planet episode 1)

It's probably inevitable that "Inferno" (potentially confusing episode title #3) isn't quite as funny as "Conspiracy", on account of its needing to actually conclude the story rather than just lark about having a good time.  But that's not to say that it doesn't have its moments: in particular the Doctor's conversation with Nero about playing in the arena, knowing he's going to be set upon by the lions but carrying on teasing Nero with statements like "I shall try to make it a roaring success", "something they can really get their teeth into", and "I've always wanted to be considered as an artist of some taste."  And Nero's downfallen expression is really quite marvelous.

Nero tells Poppea of his plans for Rome. ("Inferno") ©BBC
But beyond that, this is much more plot-oriented.  Ian has to rescue Barbara from the palace, while the Doctor and Vicki have to leave quickly as well -- after all, they don't actually want to be thrown to the lions.  But there's also an interesting sea change going on here.  Before the Doctor and his companions have always been observers in history, able to see important events but not have any real influence on them.  But here the Doctor (inadvertently) gives Nero the idea to burn Rome down so it can be rebuilt (although it's probably not historically true that Nero initiated the fire, but never mind).  And when Vicki calls him out on it later, he starts to protest but seems rather pleased with the fact nevertheless.  Now the travellers can actually cause history rather than just observe it.

The Romans really is a fun story, full of charm and wit, and far more concerned with exploring a setting than with being at a significant moment of history.  It's something to be cherished.

But now it's on to a dramatically different change of pace (in more ways than one) with "The Web Planet".  One of the first things to notice is that this moves a lot slower than the previous three episodes.  It's a very relaxed pace, giving us lots of pans across the alien surface and long shots inside the TARDIS (the set of which Richard Martin has rotated 180°, showing us the other side of the console room).  You can see that some care has gone into the effects: there is a pretty impressive space backdrop, some nice costume work for the Zarbi creatures roaming the surface, and lots of well done crags and things on the surface (even if Martin then goes and spoils it with a high shot that shows the crags are just flats angled together).  And there's a really nice echo effect "outside", with some interesting filters on the cameras that create a sort of smeared lighting effect. 

It's just too bad that the plot (what little of it there is) doesn't bear quite as much praise.  As I said, it's really quite dramatically slow (there's a 30-second section of just Barbara cleaning some samples and watching Ian and the Doctor wander around outside!), with some odd character moments: Ian, for instance, has completely forgotten about "The Sea of Death" and decides he's going to take a wash in a pool of what's inevitably acid -- and curiously, he appears to be wearing his Coal Hill tie as a belt.  Vicki gets a nice "I'm from the future" character bit, but it's all a bit slow.  Still, at the end Ian is trapped in a net, Barbara is possessed and walking toward said acid pool, and the TARDIS appears to have disappeared, so maybe things will pick up in the next episode.