The Doctor Who episode “The Web Planet” from the show’s second season, still in the era of the first Doctor, accompanied by Ian, Barbara, and Vicki, sees the travelers materialize on a barren world, resembling Earth’s moon. This world, called Vortis, is inhabited by giant insects. The Menoptera who initially are thought to be invading are trying to reclaim the planet, which they previously inhabited. It has been taken over by the Animus, which is controlling giant ants called Zarbi.
Of all the episodes of Doctor Who I have seen, or at least remember seeing, this is the one I have liked the least. I won’t say, as some others have, that I hated it. But it is profoundly unsatisfying, and not only because some of the costumes look so clearly like they are made of felt, and something one expects from an elaborate church production rather than a professional television show.
The BBC spent about as much money on an entire season of Doctor Who as NBC spent on a single episode of Star Trek, so the design team was constantly challenged to come up with striking sets and costumes that would substitute innovation and creativity for raw budget. While any single element of The Web Planet’s sets and costumes would stick out like a sore thumb in isolation, as pieces of a fully realized environment, they all work together seamlessly.
When one considers the rather bleak moon-like set and various other features, one may feel impressed with what they accomplished, rather than disappointed.
As someone who works in the field of Biblical studies, perhaps I may be allowed a comparison with the Bible. Very often, if one compares the view of women or of justice or of any topic addressed in ancient Israel’s laws with those of today, one may feel disappointed. When one looks at them in the context of antiquity, on the other hand, one may feel as though in at least some laws the Israelites were being remarkably progressive. Context is everything.
On the subject of religion, the episode has frequent references to the places where the Menoptera worshiped in the past, temples of light. Religion in general, and the specific beliefs and practices of the Menoptera, are not a focus either for criticism or for praise. It is simply a mode of expression for this sentient race, and an appropriate milieu for the telling of epic stories and the giving of thanks. To have religion be simply there as part of the life of an alien species in the way it is for many humans is quite an accomplishment.
Then again, the idea that butterfly-like or moth-like creatures worship gods of light, and the Optera (like caterpillars and related to the Menoptera) apparently view the Menoptera as gods, provides some interesting discussion starter. The idea that human worship and ideas of the divine are rooted in our biology is something that is getting increasing attention from neuroscientists, psychologists, and others. If we were moth-like, would we think of the divine as light? If we underwent transformations in a chrysalis, would we view the “supermen” that emerged as gods?
Lest I give the impression that the episode lacks redeeming qualities, let me mention a sequence I loved. There is a discussion between Vicki and Barbara that is fantastic. Barbara offers Vicki aspirin and Vicki refers to it as primitive, comparing it to someone offering to stick leeches on Barbara. They also compare education in their different times, with Vicki talking about how she had to “study” (using a machine) a whole hour a week, and assuming that Barbara taught nursery school when she says she taught the “3 Rs.”
The episode was viewed by more viewers than any episode before it had been (some 12-13 million, apparently). It continues to divide fans today.
What is your least favorite episode from a series you absolutely love?