Sunday, 8 March 2015

Audio Review 25: Renaissance Man, written by Justin Richards (2012)

Released: February 2012

The Doctor – Tom Baker
Leela – Louise Jameson
Harcourt – Ian McNeice
Jephson – Gareth Armstrong
Christopher – Anthony Howell
Lizzie – Daisy Ashford
Beryl/Professor Hilda Lutterthwaite – Laura Molyneux
Dr. Henry Carnforth – John Dorney

Main Production Credits
Producer and Script Editor – David Richardson
Writer – Justin Richards
Director – Ken Bentley
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Jamie Robertson
Recording – Paul Midcalf at Audio Sorcery Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

On a visit to the Morovanian Museum, on Morovania Minor, the Doctor and Leela find themselves in a bizarre recreation of twentieth century Britain, from the ruins of Castles, to a forest and country house estate, where they hear about a mysterious collection. Entering the house, they come upon Harcourt, an “intellectual jackdaw”, whose eagerness about knowledge and learning, prompted him to start a collection upon everything, and anything. The Doctor’s suspicions are raised however, when a couple of his own cultural anecdotes, suddenly appear as part of Harcourt’s impressive exhibits...

The suicide of a Lepidopterist brings the Doctor to the conclusion that Harcourt, is literally draining the knowledge and experience of his intellectual guests, and that he and Leela, are next on the menu. However, the truth is even more perverse. The Doctor and Leela, have arrived at the Morovanian Museum, but have arrived early in one of its new exhibits. The new Renaissance section of the Museum, was built at the behest of one man, Jephson, who seeks to own all the knowledge that has ever existed. This knowledge is drained from its participants, whose consciousness’ are neutralised, before being fed into androids, blank ciphers, who are used as “collectors” of new data, through sight and sound. Harcourt is himself a machine, albeit one with personality, only his prime purpose is as storage for Jephson. The knowledge itself has been realised into physical existence, within the section of the Museum, hence the mish-mash of various historical buildings and cultural environments. Jephson plans to absorb the knowledge of all the experts and intellectuals he has invited to exhibit’s opening.

The Doctor thwarts Jephson, by cunningly giving him new unknown “knowledge”, which he made up himself. The integrity of Jephson’s absorbed data is now comprised, gradually corrupting, until the physical environment of the exhibition collapses. The Doctor and Leela escape in the TARDIS, as the Museum’s systems reboot, restoring those who survive to their former selves.

Story Placement
Between Destination: Nerva (Big Finish Audio) and The Wrath of the Iceni (Big Finish Audio).

Favourite Lines

The Doctor: “How does it feel, not being the cleverest man in the room?”
Harcourt: “I wouldn’t know. How does it feel?”

The Doctor: “Looks like the Game is up, Harcourt!”
Harcourt: “It’s Marshall Harcourt.”
The Doctor: “Really.”
Harcourt: “No, not really.”


Renaissance Man is a delightful small adventure that exhibits both Doctor Who’s trademark flair for great high concept stories and its light moral wisdom. Renaissance Man is only the second of BIG Finish’s Fourth Doctor adventures on audio, but it is already an improvement on the mixed results offered by debut adventure, Destination: Nerva. Renaissance Man’s premise of an intellectual obsessed with knowing everything, by having a living computer absorb the minds of the Universe’s experts, is a simple and effective concept that wonderfully juxtaposes the archaic with the fantastical. Destination: Nerva did this too, but it wasn’t concise enough an idea to fit itself into the new shorter format BIG Finish has created for the Fourth Doctor audio series. Renaissance, on the other hand is a much better fit; there’s no feeling of an interesting part of the story being left out, and its plot nicely comes to a natural conclusion in the last ten minutes. Or at least it nearly does.

The idea of a scientist or intellectual obsessing and pursuing over becoming a “super” intellect, or mutating into one, is an old idea in fantasy and sci-fi. It can be found in fiction’s long history of genius-like heroes such as Sherlock Holmes and Captain Nemo, superhuman intelligence as explored in Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, or the plethora of Sci-fi B-movies of the 1930s and 50s. In Doctor Who, the premise of an intellectual person or being that obsesses over knowing everything has also been explored, most notably in perhaps Ghost Light. Also of note, the unmade 1980 TV serial, Shada shares a slight thematic similarity too, due to its’ villain, Skagra, wanting to “become” the Universe. Author Justin Richards gives this old idea, a further novel and dark twist, with the intellectual person, then absorbing the minds of all the universe’s experts to create a perfect visual record of knowledge for a museum. It’s this exhibitionism, treating obscure knowledge as trophies of status that gives Renaissance Man, a welcome and enchanting British flavour to the macabre, that Doctor Who often does so very well.

The plot is also executed efficiently, with a clarity and pace that helps to articulate the rich visuals conjured up, in what is surely one of Justin Richards’ most polished scripts to date. The first 15 minutes is one of the most perfect beginnings to a Doctor Who audio in several years, effortlessly drawing the listener in with small irresistible portions of intrigue, gradually giving us the full picture, like the perfect starter course, setting our senses ablaze in anticipation of the meal to come. Furthermore, the slow build of intrigue, mixed with lots of development, scene setting or action, feels just like some of the best Doctor Who TV stories, whose beginnings, entice the audience into the fantastic world and adventure they’re about to be immersed in. I also love the particularly neat conclusion to the story: The Doctor, bringing down the Villain’s “world” of knowledge with lies and false data, corrupting the entire library of information, to the point where it all collapses in on itself. The idea is so perfectly set-up, and feels like a very Doctor-ish victory to nicely round the story up on.

By the end of episode one of Renaissance Man though, the cracks unfortunately begin to show. The cliff-hanger at episode one’s conclusion sounds especially contrived and perfunctory, considering one of the previous characters was already dead, so another stock character didn’t need to be murdered just to labour the point, and Harcourt’s police masquerade was already in effect, giving the script no dramatic reason to delay the Doctor’s inevitable arrest, except for the artificial manufacture of a cliff-hanger of course. Then, during episode two, after Harcourt’s plans are exposed, and the Doctor sets in motion his counter-plan, the plot suddenly starts running on the spot, engaging in endless escape, run, and capture, which ultimately ends up being little more than padding, imaginatively disguised with as many new locations in the museum and visual gimmicks as possible. Sadly this has the effect, of taking me out of the story for a while, waiting for the action to tick by until it’s just the right time for the Doctor’s end game to reach its climax. For me it ebbs away part of the excitement, in what is for the most part a fairly thrilling adventure. I suspect it’s also partly compounded by the story concept being quite as simple and straight-forward as it is. I could easily imagine this production being 30 minutes long, instead of 50, and you wouldn’t really miss much of real significance out.

The original characters in Renaissance Man are rather simplistic too. True, the nature of what the villain has done to them has rendered them, as mostly mechanical slaves to the needs of acquiring knowledge, but often they mostly feel like a distraction from what’s really going on. Secondly, even in their original state as real people, every new character bar the two protagonists, come across as stock characters either playing out as stereotypes, like Professor Lutterthwaite, or generic amiable characters, adding a hint of their original personality before being changed into mere shells, such as Christopher and Lizzie, although as with Destination: Nerva, the shorter format of the 50-minute stories, does constrain what a writer can do with his character development somewhat. It’s a particular shame, as more time for development would have allowed the listener to get a real sense of the horror, of people losing their identities and personalities. Instead the audio is robbed of a worthy dramatic opportunity, just as with Destination: Nerva, to save time. This I feel is probably one of the few negative aspects of BIG Finish trying to emulate the revived Doctor Who TV series in its format. In the first place, there are some subtleties and drama that are easier to convey quickly on screen, via the physical performance of an actor, or a clever use of imagery and editing by the director. Trying to get away with this on audio is a tall order for any producer, writer or director. Secondly, the TV series has often cut around story events so the audience can move quickly from plot point to plot point. While this helps to maintain an enjoyable fast pace throughout the production, just as often I feel it has equally lost out on some potential drama or character development, that would make its revelations and machinations feel more momentous and substantial. I should add that, this isn’t the case all or most of the time, but enough times to be of note. Inevitably then, BIG Finish’s occasional attempt to replicate the “new series” experience in audio form, has also had decidedly mixed results.

The villain of the piece, the real “renaissance man”, Jephson, is sadly also a stock stereotype, the ranting manic, who can’t see anything beyond his obsession. I confess it was clever of Richards to disguise him as pretending to be a mechanical slave of Harcourt’s, but it’s a shame that in an audio full of characters meant to be shallow, that the villain turns out to be just as uninteresting, if not more so. Harcourt, on the other hand, proves to be a worthy character foil to the Doctor, but only as one who endlessly spouts witty retorts to him, in their verbal duelling. In every other respect, for reasons that become clear later, he too is essentially a script device; albeit one that is much more entertaining and amusing.

I guess I feel that’s Renaissance Man’s saving grace. Above its flaws and generalised, almost workman-like characterisation, the audio, and Richards’ writing is enormous fun to listen to. The light-hearted manner in the dialogue effortlessly carries you along the narrative; the wit shining through with various amusing Anthony Read-esque* jokes and funny genre homages. Justin Richards’ expert attention to the tone of Doctor Who’s Graham Williams era on Television (contemporary to this Doctor and companion partnership) is very much appreciated by this listener, and in my view certainly pays off. Richards is undoubtedly one of the more successful writers in this approach of writing Doctor Who: taking the best of the past, while leaving behind its flaws, and adding inventions of their own to the mix. I noted it while reading his novel, Apollo 23, a near-perfect evocation of the tone of the early Eleventh Doctor era from 2010. While it’s an approach to Doctor Who that performs well, I don’t believe it should be seen as a template. Most often, it’s the innovations and reinventions to Doctor Who’s mythos, storytelling and characters that succeed the most; but the celebratory approach just happens to be the way that works to Justin Richards’ strengths as a writer.

Renaissance Man proves this further with Richards’ uncanny and attentive characterisation of the Fourth Doctor and Leela. Bringing to life, such an impressive and iconic duo in Doctor Who’s long history, would be daunting to many a writer, but Justin Richards makes it look easy and effortless, his Fourth Doctor sounding like a lost 1970s TV script, full of warmth, wit and wonder. Leela is brilliantly realised too, with better (and sometimes funnier) dialogue than in half of the character’s original TV episodes. Richards acutely and affectionately relays her point of view and literal philosophy, and clearly enjoys showing Leela’s amusing misunderstandings of different language and cultures, paying homage to some of her best and fondly remembered moments on Television.

Another layer of enjoyment to Renaissance Man is of course, the wonderful cast themselves, and Big Finish has chosen a particular fine ensemble for this production. In fact, I feel one or two are bit underused, like Anthony Howell, for instance; both by the constricted demands of the shorter story format on the script, as well as the status of their supporting characters in the narrative. On the other hand, the character of Harcourt seems to be written especially for the wonderful Ian McNeice, such is the verbosity and rich variety of words, the protagonist performs. Even the name Harcourt, is quite possibly an affectionate nod to Ian McNeice’s character in the superb 1985 BBC Drama, Edge of Darkness.

However, the star of the show is undoubtedly the lead man himself, Tom Baker. The contrast with Destination: Nerva could not be greater. The great man is clearly enjoying the madcap world that Richards has conjured up, and the old subtle touches of dry-witted delivery and amusing sudden exclamations, of which I’ve always loved from Baker, have gloriously returned, hopefully, for many audios to come. If I didn’t know better, I would say Tom Baker was getting back into the stride of being the Doctor again, considering the Hornets’ Nest audios, required a different kind of performance, more in keeping with narration. However, this was actually Tom’s second Big Finish recording (the first is Energy of the Daleks), with Destination: Nerva being recorded out of order, a few audios later. To my ears though, I feel this is Tom Baker’s best audio performance so far. Louise Jameson continues her superb and faultless performance, with another strong showing to add to her list of previous superlative audio appearances. Tom Baker and Jameson between them, take you back to those golden moments of 1970s Who, as though they’d never left. I know it feels like I’m sprouting clichés all over the place, but the attention to detail across the production, and the hard work on behalf of all parties to maintain that consistency of tone, makes the listen such a joy to any fan of the period. If that wasn’t enough, then there’s also the non-stop fun of hearing Tom Baker and Ian McNeice, two of Britain’s finest character actors, locked in vocal wordplay, as one tries to out-quip the other. Just 50 minutes of verbal gymnastics with those two would be worth the price of admission alone, but of course, fortunately there’s much more. McNeice also effortlessly slips into his various character parodies, every time he and the Doctor, enter a different section of the museum. The rest of the cast also do a fine job, although the more shallow natures of their characters mean that they don’t always get a great deal to work on.

Renaissance Man’s production is also of a high quality. Castle courtyards, forests filled with birdsong, a busy police station, the clinking of glasses and a honky-tonk piano of a Wild West bar, the ricocheting bullets of a spitfire diving into battle, and the comforting sound of a grandfather clock, lightly ticking away in the living room of a country house – all these victories of superlative sound design prove that Big Finish’s productions sound as fine as they ever did. Jamie Robertson’s music is still on good form, after Destination: Nerva, providing a nice Dudley Simpson-esque atmosphere to events, although on this occasion it’s starting to veer a bit closer to Keff McCulloch’s unflattering Dudley Simpson homage in the attempted BBC Video reconstruction of Shada in 1992. Robertson’s sound design though, seems to be absolutely peerless; although it could be that I’m mis-remembering the success of early Big Finish. I do love how Robertson brings back the specially edited “thump” from the TARDIS landing sound effect, that was used on and off, during the TV series between 1975 to 1978.

Ken Bentley’s direction gives us a much better cast performance on this occasion, and the editing certainly feels tighter (or maybe that’s just the script). There’s far less theatricality on display, and just the right level of irreverence, keeping the production smoothly ticking over, while the enjoyable tone consistently achieved, makes Renaissance Man always entertaining.

It’s teatime in 1977, all over again”, is the tagline for Big Finish’s first full series of new Fourth Doctor adventures on audio, and Renaissance Man is the first of them that I feel genuinely achieves that. A superb cast, and richly creative sound design, bring Justin Richards’ novel high concept story to life with aplomb. Then Richards and Tom Baker win you over with a wonderful layer of wit and whimsy that brings back to me, in part why me, and numerous others, loved the Fourth Doctor in the first place. Tom Baker re-captures what it is to be the Doctor, in a way he hadn’t quite achieved with the BBC Hornets’ Nest series, and it’s a joy to hear once again. Justin Richards succeeds admirably in creating a small love letter to the era in audio form, and I salute him for it. And yet, despite this Renaissance Man ends up becoming a romp. The supporting characters, including the villain, are fairly throwaway and little developed, and the narrative is padded out with action, losing the plot’s earlier pace and substance. In a bizarre way, this is how many mid-1970s serials turned out, so it’s hard for me to work out if this is intentional, or once again a negative constraint of the audio series’ 50-minute format, which likely also prevented much development on the characters too. Even with these flaws though, Renaissance Man is never anything less than great fun, and endlessly re-listenable. The future of the Fourth Doctor at Big Finish looks bright indeed.

Score: 7/10

(* = Graham Williams was the producer of Doctor Who on TV from 1977-1980. Anthony Read was the Script Editor of Doctor Who on TV from 1977-1979)

Saturday, 31 January 2015

TV Review 13: The Web Planet, written by Bill Strutton (1965)

Broadcast: 13th February 1965 – 20th March 1965

The Doctor – William Hartnell
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Vicki – Maureen O’Brien
The Menoptera:
Vrestin – Roslyn De Winter
Hrostar – Arne Gordon
Hrhoonda – Arthur Blake
Prapillus – Jolyon Booth
Hlynia – Jocelyn Birdsall
Hilio – Martin Jarvis
Voice of the Animus – Catherine Fleming
The Optera:
Hetra – Ian Thompson
Nemini – Barbara Joss
The Zarbi – Robert Jewell, Jack Pitt, Gerald Taylor, Hugh Lund, Kevin Manser, John Scott Martin

Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Script Editor – Dennis Spooner
Writer – Bill Strutton
Director – Richard Martin
Designer – John Wood
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Make Up – Sonia Markham
Production Assistant – Norman Stewart
Studio Sound – Ray Angel
Studio Lighting – Ralph Walton

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The TARDIS is seemingly dragged down by an invisible force onto the surface of the planet Vortis, and is unable to leave. Upon exploration, the Doctor and his friends get split up, and discover the endangered insect society of the Menoptera, under threat by a malignant, all conquering alien parasite creature, known only as the Animus. This ever-growing and domineering creature has taken over the minds of Vortis’ lesser creatures, the ant-like Zarbi and the larvae guns, in an effort to destroy the remaining free Menoptera for good, and take over their planet.

While the Doctor and Vicki bewitch the Animus creature, Ian and Barbara join forces with the Menoptera’s pre-prepared army (later helped by the Doctor too), and their underground descendents, the Optera; and work to get their new weapon, the Isop-Tope, through to the Animus’ exposed heart. In an exhausting combined effort, they succeed just in time to destroy the Animus. The Time-travellers leave as life begins to return to Vortis, and its civilisation reunites, hopeful in their promising future.

Story Placement
Between The Eleventh Tiger (BBC Books) and The Dark Planet (BIG Finish Audio)

Favourite Lines
Barbara Wright: Oh, so you studied medicine at school, did you.
Vicki: Yes, of course, I did. Didn't you teach it?
Barbara Wright: No. We worked upwards from the three R's.
Vicki: Hmm?
Barbara Wright: Reading, writing, 'rithmetic.
Vicki: Oh, it was a nursery school?
Barbara Wright: It was not!
Vicki: Oh! I wish I'd gone to your school. We had to take a certificate of education in medicine, physics, chemistry...
Barbara Wright: Now, wait a minute. How old were you?
Vicki: Well, I was ten when I took those, and then...
Barbara Wright: Ten! What did you do in your time? Live in the classroom?
Vicki: Live in the what?
Barbara Wright: Classroom. Lecture hall. How long did you study?
Vicki: Almost an hour a week.
Ian Chesterton: I've seen a colony of ants eat their way right through a house. That size, they could eat their way through a mountain.

Prapillus: It must be a Temple of Light. The ancient song-spinners of our race sang of their beauty, but I thought they could never be found again.
Barbara Wright: There are others?
Prapillus: So the legends say – sewn into the craters and plateaus of Vortis, being slowly unwoven by the silence of time, and their entrances long forgotten by our species.

Nemini: The wall is not friendly. We must break it!
Ian Chesterton: What's wrong?
Hetra: A silent wall. We must make mouths in it with our weapons. Then it will speak more light


The Web Planet is one of Doctor Who’s most iconic stories ever, not just in the 1960s, but of all-time, and rightly so. It is a serial of both great imagination and ambitious production; in fact easily the most ambitious since the TV series began till perhaps The Daleks’ Masterplan just a matter of months later. In a way it reinforces how revolutionary and exciting those early years of Doctor Who were. Every couple of months or every other story, the production team would come up with new ideas, approaches and creative ambitions, either on the written page, or in a concerted effort to make the show look visually better on the screen than ever before. Nearly every other story in Doctor Who’s first three years makes an important lasting impact on its long term narrative and genre development, as well as its own maturity and complexity in storytelling.

In particular, The Web Planet brought us the most alien location ever depicted in the TV series up till at least Full Circle fifteen years later, or it could be convincingly argued to be the most alien ever. Vortis, the planet featured, is a vast, cold and barren world, full of crags, valleys and craters, like an exaggerated version of our own Moon, made ever spookier by the cunning artistic blur on screen, efficiently realised with a camera filter fitted to the lens. Then there’s it’s even more fascinating residents.

The idea of giant insects may be an unoriginal staple of the Hollywood B-movie horrors of old, but writer Bill Strutton’s invertebrate civilisation defies all the clichés by giving us an intricate and multi-layered society, with each species cleverly written, not just in concept, but also in dialogue, thought patterns, and background history. Even the director, Richard Martin, tries hard to convey this visually by hiring choreographers to craft special movements and physical mannerisms as they manoeuvre themselves on camera. The striking costume designs for the creatures are also very imaginative and impressive for their day, helping to add to the layer of surrealism that permeates this serial.

There are five distinct species, most with their own unique character outlook, and yet also quite cleverly on the part of Bill Strutton, share a poetic language and philosophy, that dresses up its actions and history like the myths of a fantasy storybook, full of metaphors and lyrical description that sets the imagination ablaze. The Menoptera, while obviously men in giant Butterfly costumes, are articulated and realised quite effectively with their irregular speech intonations, nervous natures, and choreography, although their excessive hand waving can be a bit silly and distracting at times. The Zarbi on the other hand, are visually impressive on screen, but rather refreshingly don’t speak, or at least not in terms of speech, nicely emphasising the starkly alien World in comparison. The noise the Zarbi make is equally imaginative and starkly alien, but after four episodes of it, let alone six, I can guarantee you’ll be screaming for it to stop, as the constant stream of noise started to give me a headache come the end of the story. The Larvae Guns meanwhile are far from impressive, but as they’re clearly supposed to be living weapons anyway, their total absence of character is perhaps to be expected.

The Optera are somewhere in-between the species in the quality of execution, having an average visual realisation, but also with a fascinating and unique characterisation of their own. Their species seems to have devolved from a group of Menoptera who hid underground from their powerful foe, the Animus, becoming stuck in a religious cult, now worshipping the forms of their earlier missing selves. Interestingly, this also hints at how long the planet Vortis has since been occupied by the Animus, indicating several years, if not centuries. During that time, the Optera have lost all the shared history, knowledge and skills of their past, partly through a lack of education, but maybe also due to the sheer number of years of isolation they have endured. As a result of these circumstances, they have developed an unsentimental and relatively utilitarian character, which has helped them survive in their harsh conditions; but furthermore their language and intelligence has also evolved into an entirely new form as well. The Optera characterise their world and surrounding as if they were living things, or at least describe them in the same terms as they would describe themselves. Therefore holes in the walls and ground are called “mouths” and stalagmites and stalactites are called “teeth”. The most striking example of the Optera’s utilitarian outlook is when one of their number fearlessly, and without any second thought sacrifices themselves in a burst opening from the acid pools in order to save the others. The moment is so dark, surreal, and without any prior explanation, that it’s actually mildly shocking on first viewing.

The ever-present and lethal influence of the Animus meanwhile, is just as interesting, but more from a stylistic point of view. As a concept it represents an impressive, foreboding and unstoppable cancerous parasite; draining and destroying all life on Vortis and leaving just dust and poison in its place. The visual realisation on screen of the Animus is equally imaginative and creepy; an ever growing and expanding mass of weird foliage and grotesque weeds and tendrils, with an eerie giant spider-like creature at its centre. As a character though, the Animus is merely just another one-dimensional villain, with a single-minded desire to conquer all. I suppose it fits in with the conceptual metaphor of the Animus being a near-indestructible cancer, but by the end of the story, I was left yearning for a more satisfying protagonist to justify six episodes of struggle and plot (well, maybe four episodes judging by the padding).

And yet, despite all the imagination of Bill Strutton’s concept, and the inspired creative touches of costume design, make-up, visual effects, as well as a few directorial flourishes; The Web Planet is also one of the most divisive Doctor Who stories of the 1960s, or at least for many non-contemporary, post-1960s viewers, including myself sadly. To me, the reasons for this I would suggest are mainly down to just how excessively padded the serial is, accentuated by some rather slow and flat studio direction. Despite how good Strutton’s ideas are; The Web Planet only appears to have enough plot and narrative to last over four episodes, not six. Whether Bill Strutton had to produce six episodes as a condition of his commission from the BBC, or just thought he could, perhaps we’ll never know. However, the serial seems to spend a lot of episodes 3 and 4 going nowhere very fast, with companions getting reunited, split up, or recaptured, and the status quo of events on Vortis staying very much the same as when the story began. The mystery of the surroundings as well as the life on Vortis, mixed with the alien and surreal atmosphere, help sustain the viewers interest across the first two episodes; but when the detail and substance fail to turn up, any further stylish and creative flourishes will only go so far in making up for it. What makes things worse is that even basic scenes seem stretched and full of wordy procrastination, especially for the Menoptera. The overall effect this creates is one of very little actually happening, even on a character level. The problem with this is that, for me, I stopped caring about the characters, and the scene-to-scene events of the story, which is a shame, because episode 5 is where Bill Strutton injects some sudden wonderful character development, and background depth to Vortis’ alien characters, which I partly described in the above paragraphs. However, by this point in the serial, it feels almost too little, too late, as the two previous episodes were both tedious and a struggle to get through. Episode 5 does save the story in my view, but not enough for me to love it, like I did in the opening episode.

However, what in my mind, ends up adding an extra negative and risible vibe to watching The Web Planet is Richard Martin’s mixed studio direction. Now I don’t mean daft things like a Zarbi running into the camera, or William Hartnell clearly forgetting a complete line of dialogue. Innocent mistakes are easy to ignore and overlook, and matter not one jot if they don’t disrupt the flow of the production. No, I’m talking about creative mistakes onscreen. Despite the fascinating hand movements and mannerisms that the actors had to memorise and perform while in their difficult costumes, the direction of their presence in Lime Grove studio, often seems rather laid back, and at times even confused and chaotic. I understand that these early Doctor Who serials were shot on a tight time limit as well as a tight budget, but when you see the quality of direction in the stories immediately around it, like The Crusade, The Romans or even The Space Museum; it’s clear that Richard Martin was struggling as The Web Planet’s production progressed, which is a great shame, considering how great some establishing and creative shots are throughout the early episodes, and the magnificent film work shot at Ealing Film Studios which makes the Menoptera spearhead landing in Episode 4 quite an amazing sight compared to the tight studio set at Lime Grove. Maybe Richard Martin is clearly at his best with film, when the camera is choreographed more than the actors; and where studio work in the BBC environment of that time is more akin to directing in Theatre. Perhaps the worst of Martin’s directorial mistakes though, is the Menoptera’s dummy attack on the Zarbi in Episode Six, where the Menoptera actors embarrassingly jump around the Zarbi, making squealing noises, like kids on a school playground. This scene is without a doubt one of the most awful and uncomfortable moments I’ve ever had to encounter in Doctor Who, even if it’s more out of embarrassment than for any worse reason.

Another unfortunate weak point of The Web Planet is Vortis’ alien characters, which is quite perverse considering how great their conceptions are. Without exception, they all communicate in two-dimensional terms, always following simple lines of thought, feeling and motivation, with little depth in characterisation. Even when Bill Strutton’s puts in his great character development during Episode Five, this is mainly developed background and history, explaining the different philosophies of the species themselves, which while clever and fascinating to find out, giving the audience a more complex understanding of their World, doesn’t actually create any depth in the aliens’ individual personalities. You might as well label the Menoptera characters as “the wise one”, “the arrogant one”, or “the flighty and sensitive one” for all the level of difference and individuality between them. Even the Animus, despite its imaginative appearance and all pervasive presence, is just another all-conquering monster, seeking dominion over all.

However, even the seasoned TARDIS crew, have less characterisation than we’ve come to enjoy over their twelve Television adventures so far. All four of them, get wonderful moments throughout episode one, only to quickly revert to their basic role stereotypes throughout the rest of the script. It’s also hard to tell, how much of the good regular characterisation is down to talented script editor, Dennis Spooner. Given The Web Planet’s long running time, the simplistic characterisation is a clear missed opportunity for Strutton, and one that may have made the serial a whole lot more interesting had it been taken.

Equally simple and basic is the serial’s plot, made all the more straight-forward, by the singular dimensions of its characters. In fact, the overall plot seems to me, to be a simplified variation on the one used in The Daleks, which feels partly ironic and unnecessary considering how similar the two stories’ runtime are. A far simpler narrative, especially on a 2-and-a-half-hour adventure, certainly helps contribute to the amount of padding in The Web Planet, as the plot has to be put on long pauses, so it can save up its meagre developments for later episodes. Once again, if Strutton had filled these gaps with interesting character studies/moments, then the slow pace wouldn’t have been a problem, but their absence plus the drawn-out narrative development just ebbs away much of the enjoyment the production otherwise generates. Once you get past all the weirdness and visual flair of Vortis and its inhabitants, then the story very clearly boils down to The Doctor and his friends, joining forces with the planet’s native peoples to bring down an unfeeling, powerful and destructive monster. The plot even sounds like a generalised and basic version of The Daleks.

One thing that does try to bring the story out of its doldrums is the actors’ wonderful performances and hard work. All the Menoptera cast try their best to inject as much individual personality through their performances as possible, trying to build on the little they have to go on. Perhaps they even invented the individual characters, behind the Menoptera names themselves, no doubt helped, and led, by Roslyn De Winter’s striking choreography and character performance.

Despite whatever dialogue that gets ‘fluffed’, missed or garbled, it’s clear the regular cast is enjoying some of their time on the story, creative and production stresses aside, as all are on fine form throughout. William Hartnell relishes his small comedic moments, and shines in dramatic confrontations with the Zarbi, and the voice of the Animus. Hartnell also peppers his performance with a brilliant subtlety, whether it’s the warm gentleness that suits the Doctor’s more mellow and paternal nature, or a quiet flash of coldness that sparks across his eyes, reminding us of the character’s former demeanour.

Jacqueline Hill meanwhile absolutely sells Barbara’s plight, first at her complete loss of self-control, under the power of the animus; and second, her horror at the conditioned Zarbi’s sadistic treatment of the Menoptera. Hill even gets to have fun with a witty repartee with Maureen O’Brien as Vicki, who continues her fun, endearing and quirky performance from her first two stories. Sadly, O’Brien doesn’t get the chance to continue it for long, before Strutton turns Vicki into the two-dimensional scared damsel, for much of the story; although O’Brien successfully counteracts this in part, with a show of bravado. William Russell sadly ends up with the typical back-to-basics action man stereotype, that has plagued him throughout much of the series, but the determined sincerity in his performance, saves many a scene, and is always convincing. Russell’s only consolation is when he’s able to comedically play off William Hartnell, during some of the TARDIS scenes, where he can at least demonstrate the depth of the characters’ long friendship, when the development in the script is mostly lacking.

The Web Planet was possibly the most ambitious Doctor Who story ever made for Television. A complete alien world, imaginatively conceived, with impressively shot, and surreal visuals; and an intricate alien civilisation, filled with a striking mix of original alien creatures, all cleverly thought up by experienced TV writer, Bill Strutton. However, for all his experience, Strutton’s plot is so slight it can be barely stretched enough to fill the running time, and his characterisation is fairly two-dimensional at best. Add to that some rather chaotic and misjudged studio direction by Richard Martin, and suddenly the whole production turns into something of a chore to watch. The strength of the concept, plus the sterling efforts of the cast and designers should make this a gem of 1960s Television, but the faults at various stages of production, water it down to such an extent, that sadly to some people and fans like myself, it’s more of a curiosity, than a regularly-viewed favourite.

Score: 5/10

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A Smooth Blend of Music Scores on Hospital Radio Chelmsford (Doctor Who special)

In a crossover with some of my other work, here's the link to one of the programmes in my soundtrack radio show on Hospital Radio Chelmsford, that I dedicated and produced for Doctor Who's 51st anniversary last year.