THIS EPISODE TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE BIG
"RENAISSANCE OF THE
BIG FINISH SPECIAL#VI
RELEASED IN DECEMBER
It's been hundreds of
years and several
the Doctor last
visited the insect
world of Vortis.
Much has changed
during his absence,
but not necessarily
for the better.
This now green and
pleasant land isn't
the paradise it first
malevolent is living
out in The
Desolation... And the
Doctor and Nyssa
must solve the
mystery before the
City of Light is
the Web Planet
Last Christmas, Big Finish Productions rewarded their subscribers with a bonus release which wonderfully showcased what they had to offer. Indeed, Nicholas Briggs’ “Return of the Daleks” starring Sylvester McCoy served as a spectacular, cutting-edge teaser for both Big Finish’s Doctor Who monthly releases as well as their Dalek Empire spin-off series. This Christmas though, Big Finish Productions take us back in time. 2007’s bonus release sees the Doctor return to the planet Vortis, where hundreds of subjective years earlier he first encountered the Animus and its deadly, termite-like slaves – the Zarbi.
Now the original 1965 serial, “The Web Planet”, has quite insidiously woven itself into the fabric of my own family’s folklore. The time-honoured tale of how as a small boy my Uncle Mick - now a great hulk of man in his mid-forties - would stare wide-eyed at the television from behind the sofa on a Saturday Night yelling “the Zarbis are coming!” is inevitably told at any family gathering where Doctor Who is mentioned. Sadly though, when I first sat through “The Web Planet” I was horrified. And it was not because of the Zarbi. It was because what I expected would be a classic slice of sixties’ Doctor Who had turned out to be a pathetically realised and poorly paced embarrassment.
And then in the nineties, when Christopher Bulis wrote the sequel for Virgin’s Missing Adventures series of novels, I sincerely hoped that there would be some redemption for Vortis. I reasoned that in print, my enjoyment of the story could not be hampered by a parsimonious television production. Somehow though, it did. As I dutifully read “Twilight of the Gods”, I pictured the Menoptra as being men in very unconvincing suits. As I read on, I desperately tried to visualise the Zarbi as being anything other than the most utterly feeble props in the history of Doctor Who, but regrettably the legacy of that abysmal 1965 production had prejudiced my ability to imagine.
Above: The most utterly feeble props in the history of Doctor Who?
But now, at long last, it seems that Vortis has found the medium through which it can be
most credibly expressed. Steve Foxon, the sound designer for this episode, has done the most extraordinary job of creating the web planet on audio. The Zarbi may sound exactly as they did back in 1965, but here they swarm in droves. Droves of thousands. And the listener hears it. On audio, Vortis is every bit as vast and as epic as it should have always been; so much so that I was able to overcome my own mental bias and enjoy this really quite wonderful episode. When I closed my eyes and listened to the Zarbi eating their way through acres of forest, I did not see unconvincing props. I saw monsters.
Of course, credit for my enjoyment of this episode is largely due to the writer. Daniel O’Mahony, who has in the past contributed some incredibly dark andunique stories to the world of Doctor Who literature, penned this “Return to the Web Planet” and I think I am right in saying that this single fifty-minute episode is his first audio script for the Doctor Who. Happily it does not show - the plot is gripping; the two regulars are both handled exquisitely, especially Nyssa, who is given much to do; and what is more, O’Mahony’s two Menoptra - Acheron (Sam Kelly) and Hedyla (Julie Buckfield) - are both truly compelling and convincing characters. I was particularly fond of Hedyla and her rather brutal back-story. There is something about a butterfly having her wings clipped that feels so fundamentally wrong, and more so than ever when we learn that her own people did this to her just to punish her father.
And so whilst this episode has clearly been imbued with O’Mahony’s idiosyncratic flair for the grotesque – for example, the episode culminates in a Zarbi orgy - somehow it manages to maintain quite a traditional flavour, if not in terms of the content than at least in terms of
the structure and pace. The striking CD artwork courtesy of Anthony Dry may scream out ‘sixties annual’ at you, but trust me, this episode is about as far removed from that retro, sixteen-colour world as you can get.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007
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