February 1: "The Centre" / "The Lion"

(The Web Planet episode 6 & The Crusade episode 1)

It's my wife's birthday today, so obviously I'm celebrating by watching these next two episodes.  It all comes together in "The Centre", as the travellers finally confront the Animus at the heart of the Carcinome.  The Doctor and Vicki are taken in, Barbara and the Menoptra fight their way in, and Ian, Vrestin, and Hetra dig their way in.  The Animus is a fun design, even if it only vaguely resembles a spider, which is what the story's been hinting the Animus is like.  And it's actually a bit disturbing to see the Doctor so completely under the Animus's power, lying at its feet(?) and literally ensnared in its tentacles.  Vicki at least puts up some struggle, but the Doctor...he's just lying there.

The Doctor and Vicki in the grip of the Animus.
("The Centre") ©BBC
"It doesn't work!" cries Barbara as she tries to use the Isop-tope, the Menoptra's special weapon, against the Animus.  Except, er, then it does.  Maybe Ian distracted the Animus when he popped up out of the floor, giving Barbara a clear shot?  It's not really clear.  But the Animus is defeated with enough time for a proper goodbye.  Water returns to the surface and the Optera learn to frolic in the light, and all is right with Vortis again.

One of the things that struck me while watching this episode was how there has been virtually no incidental music for this story.  It looks like there's an effort to make all the sound here diegetic (i.e., only what the characters would actually experience), which is a rather admirable attempt, but when this means that the primary sound is that of Zarbi chittering away for 6 episodes, it can start to wear thin, and that might be why this story seems so much slower and less exciting than anything we've seen so far.

Really, that's the main problem with The Web Planet.  The production team should be applauded for trying to make this story as alien as they can, with very stagey sets and wholly unrecognizable actors dressed up as giant bugs.  They're definitely trying to create a full alien world, and it's a worthy goal.  The problem is twofold: this story went legendarily over budget, so it was definitely an expensive endeavour.  This means that there's simply no way it could have ever been justified as less than a six-episode serial.  But Bill Strutton's script just doesn't have enough incident to be worth making for six full weeks, and the end result is something visually impressive much of the time but with a story sadly stretched too thin -- and the lack of incidental music only serves to accentuate the problem.  People seem quite taken with the idea of Vortis -- certainly there are more stories in print and on audio that revisit the Menoptra than, say, the Sensorites.  It's just a shame that the finished product itself is such a letdown.

But now it's time to leave Vortis behind and travel to the Third Crusade.  "The Lion" (currently available on DVD only as part of the Lost in Time set) starts really remarkably well, as King Richard the Lionheart exchanges suitably Shakespearean dialogue with his companions, just before they're ambushed by Saracens.  Into this skirmish the Doctor and his friends enter, with Ian fending off a Saracen warrior while the Doctor picks up a sword to defend the fallen William de Tornebu.  Barbara is meanwhile captured by the Saracens and taken to the camp of Saladin, the leader of the Muslims in the Holy Land.  Everything feels suitably epic (well, except for the Doctor's theft of the merchant's clothing, which isn't very epic but still in keeping with the Shakespearean tone), with William des Preaux's deception of El Akir, claiming to be King Richard, worthy of particular praise.  It's also worth noting how nobly David Whitaker's script treats the Saracens (El Akir excepted, but he's clearly meant to be the main villain) -- Saladin in particular coming across as just and reasonable.  There's a slight jarring quality of seeing white actors darkened up to play Middle Eastern roles, but this wasn't uncommon in the 60s and none of the actors playing the roles treat them as caricatures -- again, tribute to both the actors and Whitaker's script.  It's really quite marvelous, and the cliffhanger feels right too, even if it's less about mortal danger and more about the unyielding principles of Richard I.  So far, this has been a good story, and a significant improvement over the previous six weeks.