The TARDIS is dragged down by an unknown force to a planet named Vortis that appears completely desolate. While the Doctor tries to counteract the force, Vicki claims she can hear an intense humming noise. Suddenly the TARDIS is attacked by something that shakes the entire vessel. The Doctor is convinced that it’s a natural phenomenon, but Vicki becomes nervous. Ian and the Doctor set out to try to find the cause of the trouble, while Barbara begins to feel the strange urge to leave the TARDIS, an urge that finally overcomes her. Vicki screams for Barbara, which gets the attention of Ian and the Doctor. On their way back, Ian is caught in a web and the Doctor returns to find that the TARDIS along with Vicki is gone. Inside the TARDIS, Vicki sees through a monitor that the ship is being dragged by ant-like beings. Meanwhile Barbara finds herself among three winged aliens called the Menoptra, who interrogate her. Barbara learns that she was under the control of the Zarbi, the Menoptra’s enemies. While the Menoptra debate over what to do with her Barbara escapes, only to be captured by the Zarbi, who turn out to be the same entities that took the TARDIS. The Menoptra, who are scouts sent ahead of an invasion force, try to warn their leaders but are killed by the Zarbi except one, Hrostar, who is taken prisoner. Hrostar explains to Barbara that the Zarbi exercise their control of beings through gold (Barbara was wearing a gold necklace she had received from the Emperor Nero) and that they will end up as slaves. Elsewhere the Doctor frees Ian from the web and together they track the TARDIS to its location. There the Doctor, Ian, and Vicki are all seized by the Zarbi, who take them to an organic structure, the Carcinome, where their master, the Animus, resides.
The Animus offers to free the Doctor and his companions if he gives her information from the TARDIS that can be used to help against the Menoptra invasion. The Doctor agrees – or rather pretends to – and volunteers to use the TARDIS’ mapping functions to give the location of the invasion force. Claiming that he needs the TARDIS to be fully unhindered, he convinces the Animus to call off the Zarbi and remove the force holding back the TARDIS. Ian escapes, but an angry Animus refrains from retaliating when the Doctor claims to already have valuable information about the invasion. Elsewhere Ian meets one of the Menoptra, Hlynia, who tells him that the Menoptra are actually native to Vortis. The Zarbi and another species, Venom Grubs, were also natives and were easily taken over by the Animus when she arrived on the planet since they lacked intellect. The Menoptra were forced to flee to a moon, actually a satellite drawn to Vortis by the Animus’ power (like the TARDIS), but have returned in a last ditch attempt to kill the Animus before her “body”, of which the webs across the planet and the Carcinome are a part, grows to cover the entire planet. Unfortunately, the scouts have discovered that the Menoptra’s weapons are worthless against the Zarbi and they have no way of contacting the invasion force. To escape from the Zarbi, Ian and Hlynia flee underground, where they run into a new danger: an unknown species called the Optera. Ian and Hlynia figure out that the Optera were the descendants of Menoptra that fled underground and use the information to convince them to launch an underground assault on the Animus. Meanwhile Barbara and Hlynia are taken to the Crater of Needles, where enslaved Menoptra are made to throw plant matter into pools of acid, which are really part of the Animus’ digestive system.
Back at the Carcinome, the Animus catches the Doctor in a lie and not only finds out the exact location the Menoptra invaders will land but swears to kill him and Vicki once the Menoptra are dealt with. However, the Doctor and Vicki find a way to counteract the Animus’ mind control as well as take over one of the Zarbi. While the Zarbi are being directed against the invasion, Barbara and the enslaved Menoptra escape effortlessly and try to warn the invasion force, but arrive too late. The surviving Menoptra and Barbara flee into an old temple, where they discuss how to attack with a weapon the Menoptra’s scientists devised, a “living cell destructor”, which must be used against the Animus at the core of the Carcinome. The Doctor and Vicki meet up with Barbara and the Menoptra; after learning about the Menoptra’s plans, the Doctor, who knows the layout of the Carcinome, volunteers to take the destructor to the Animus while the Menoptra distract the Zarbi. Things go awry when the Animus subdues the Doctor and Vicki just before they could activate the destructor, forcing Vicki to hide the weapon. The Animus, whose core is revealed to be a mass of tentacles, is intrigued by the Doctor’s intellect and tries to make him part of her. Barbara and a trio of Menoptra manage to infiltrate the Carcinome and find the destructor. The Animus disables the Menoptra but Barbara, through force of will, activates the weapon and destroys the Animus’ core, just as Ian and the Optera dig their way into the Carcinome. The Zarbi and the Venom Grubs return to their natural state while the Menoptra and the Optra leaders agree to cooperate.
Our Future History
Aspirin no longer exists by the 25th century. Also in Vicki’s time education is something done through “machines” (apparently Vicki had a “Venture Bros”-esque education!)
“The Web Planet” is one of those installments in any long-running series that always seems to inspire debate between fans. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s a “love it or hate it” affair, but it is one of those points in a show’s run where even people who don’t usually go about weighing their pop culture tastes are still somehow compelled to draw up lengthy, point-by-point arguments about the episodes’ merits or lack thereof. So which camp did I sign up to join? Well, at the risk of sounding like an intentional contrarian (since I also kind of enjoyed another unpopular serial from the First Doctor era, “The Reign of Terror”), I…rather liked “The Web Planet”, but with important qualifications.
Let’s start with these “qualifications.” It takes a long time for the TARDIS crew to understand the layout of the land and even after they do the story remains agonizingly sluggish. The plot ultimately comes across as too derivative of the earlier “The Daleks”, especially in how the Doctor and the companions end up helping lead an attack force of reluctant alien fighters and converge coincidentally at the enemies’ central base. Further, while I agree that it’s unfair to judge a low-budget series made for children from the 1960s on its special effects and costumes, there is a certain point where the visual limitations begin to become a bit too much to ignore, like during the fight scenes between the Menoptra and the Zarbi (which aren’t helped by the fact that the Menoptra’s main tactic seems to be the taunt the Zabri by chanting, “Zaaaar-bi! Zaaaar-bi!”), the director’s constant attempts not to focus too much on the aliens, and that the Animus communicates with the Doctor through a plastic tube placed slightly over William Hartnell’s head like a device designed to give him a perm.
As for the good, it’s easy to tell that the serial sprang from a very ambitious script. The world-building is immense, especially for a low-budget children’s series. It is also the rare sci-fi TV story that flat-out ignores two of the production-friendly story conveniences that plague many an outer space sci-fi franchise: the reliance on conveniently humanoid aliens, and the lack of genuine “alieness” with many extraterrestrial species. The thought put into the fundamental “otherness” an extraterrestrial species must possess goes far enough that, for instance, the Optera, faced with an obstacle, say, “The wall is silent. We must dig with our weapons so that it speaks more light.”
Where the extra mile really becomes visible is with the Animus, which is such a gloriously trippy villain: a sentient fungus-like entity beginning to cover a planet and whose body is its own fortress. True, the visual representation hardly achieves the potential, but there’s still a Lovecraftian element to the concept that’s irresistible and manages to actually come across to an extent on the screen (I’m not the only one who weaved the connection; the spin-off novel “All-Consuming Fire” explicitly ties the Animus in with the Cthulhu Mythos).
So all in all it’s a serial with grand creative ambitions that doesn’t quite make that perilous leap into actualization. Is it, as another obsessive “Who” reviewer succinctly put it, “a failure”? In my opinion, no, but I can very easily see why others would think so. In short, it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of not only the franchise but the First Doctor era; otherwise, it’s definitely the last serial you’ll want to recommend to a neophyte.
(Oh, and according to one scientist we might all be descended from a real Animus.)