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A Night at the Optera
on 4 April 2016
For some it flies like a moth, for others it bites like an ant. Astonishingly daring, utterly alien and possibly alienating - but unique and I loved it! 5*
One six-week long studio night fifty years ago, under the many moons of Vortis, ‘Doctor Who’ produced this remarkable adventure using tiny budgets, huge imagination and nerves of steel.
*** Historical TV Alert! ***
Bill Strutton’s ‘The Web Planet’ bitterly divides fan opinion; it is science fiction *theatre* from 50 years in the past. If you watch it comparing with modern CGI-level special effects, non-stop action and budgets of a £1million per episode and you think the artistic style is pretentious nonsense, then you’ll either switch off or spend most of the six episodes sending it up mercilessly. (And you’ll disagree with practically every word of the rest of this review!)
But if you like the historic, ultra-theatrical style, suspend all disbelief, take the story seriously and admire its intentions, you might love it as I did. I’m not trying to sound elitist, but the way parts of this story were written and made are like watching stylised opera, dance, or theatre; if the particular style happens to appeal to you, it’s excellent, if not, it seems either unintentionally hilarious or dead boring.
(Sorry for a longish review, but it’s a story that’s hard to praise quickly.)
After leaving Ancient Rome, the TARDIS is drawn to the planet Vortis in the Isop Galaxy and immobilised by a mysterious force. The intelligent moth-like Menoptera were driven from their home when the peaceful, worker ant-like Zarbi became hostile as slaves of the Animus, a growing, malevolent force consuming all Vortis into the Carcinome. (The ‘cancer’ analogy is obvious and, according to the production notes, the director and script editor thought this story also contained themes about communism.)
A studio-based production made almost ‘as-live’ half a century ago, this story has been excellently restored for DVD. The ‘interior’ scenes in the TARDIS, underground or in the Animus’ control centre are very clear. The remaining mistiness and flares are intentional; director Richard Martin shot the ‘exterior’ scenes through a film of Vaseline to give the idea of an alien atmosphere as one of many filming and ‘stage’ effects in a great adventure – the best is the superb cliff-hanger ending to Episode 5. The sound effects and music (played on glass tubes!) are as unconventional (and I think excellent) as the rest.
There are two points, both in episode 3, where the storytelling might have been better; an attack on the TARDIS when we only realise afterwards that it was the TARDIS being attacked, and Ian’s escape from the Zarbi lair (in studio) which is only just picked up on the following filmed sequence. But it’s likely that lack of time to correct errors is ultimately responsible and I think the whole team should be praised for an imaginative drama rather than criticised. The costumes, designs and lighting certainly make the most of contrast, brightness and shadow and the sequences made at Ealing show the extra freedom brought by film editing, more time and a larger studio.
John Wood’s designs and sets are inventive, creating the world of Vortis extremely well and looking much larger than the studio, thanks to clever, frequent re-dressing of the sets (according to the special features) and some great model shots and stage effects. Some of the walls are obviously ‘flats’ but as the special features explain, that was for practical storage reasons and I think the overall effect is impressive. Remember we are effectively watching *televised theatre* made almost ‘as-live’, half a century ago and the ‘mica crags’ and ‘acid pools’ swirling with dry ice mist do convince, under a starry sky and lit by many moons.
Stepping out onto this most unusual world, the four regulars are superb as ever. The first episode is full of mystery and exploration as William Hartnell chuckles away – then in a freezing first cliffhanger the Doctor looks gaunt and aged as he speaks four words full of loss. He’s brilliant throughout with a few humorous moments in a dark story, spending most of his time in the “Zarbi control centre” – trapped by the Animus but deep in schemes to undermine it. Vicki is his companion for most of this story and Maureen O’Brien portrays a fine mixture of fear, courage and ingenuity. The Doctor almost appears to have a ‘magic’ ring, but why shouldn’t it be another miracle of Time Lord technology like the sonic screwdriver? (In the new series, that really has become like a ‘magic wand’!)
Separated quite early on (as usual), Ian and Barbara share different adventures with the Menoptera, coming to liberate their world. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill give great performances as always, as their characters adapt resourcefully to meeting new peoples and join the fight for freedom.
And what new peoples! The Zarbi can’t speak; they are non-sentient, chirruping herbivores who used to cultivate the planet when Vortis was a verdant paradise, before the Animus came and disrupted the natural order of this world. They look great; the costumes are huge and I think impressive, and the Zarbi operators deserve praise for their efforts, bent double in bulky outfits, dodging cameras and scenery in small studios and staging ‘fight’ scenes against near-impossible technical odds.
There is one moment where a Zarbi *doesn’t* dodge and head-butts a camera; it’s a clip sometimes shown to illustrate how naff this story and early ‘Doctor Who’ both were. That’s very unfair because neither is true; one collision in six episodes is not ‘naff’, left in when retakes and ‘cuts’ were very expensive and this production overran in time or budget practically every week, as it tried the almost impossible. (There’s a great discussion about this on the commentary.) The Zarbi’s scuttling, venom-firing larvae also look good (assuming you are believing in the story) and the moment when one is picked up and squished against rocks by a Menoptera justifies Barbara’s wince on seeing it.
The Menoptera are a splendid creation – and sometimes, magnificently, they actually fly! (The novelisation of this story thrilled me forty years ago, but I never thought the Menoptera would really have flown on TV.) They look superb, especially with wings unfurled and the thought of Hrostar having his wings chewed off by Zarbi is truly unpleasant – again thanks largely to Jacqueline Hill’s reaction acting.
Because you can’t see the actors’ faces, you have to listen and watch more carefully, but the Menoptera are full individuals. Their characters are expressed through speech and movement and very well too, though I’ll admit it’s not what would now be called ‘accessible’ television! They speak in strange, elaborate voices full of intonation and poetry, accompanied by swift arm and hand movements developed by Roslyn de Winter. She plays Vrestin, leader of the reconnaissance group and soon allies with Ian.
Barbara shares adventures with Martin Jarvis in a very early TV role as Hilio, a prince among Menoptera, Jocelyn Birdsall as Hlynia, Arne Gordon as brave Hrostar (who obviously has some officer rivalry with Hilio) and Jolyon Booth as Prapillus, a wise, elderly Menoptera rather like the Doctor in some ways, with whom he shares enjoyable scenes later in the story. A highlight is Prapillus’ eulogy in the Temple of Light for the lost, beautiful, flower-filled Vortis he remembers; without exaggeration, it’s an almost Shakespearean moment and wonderfully played.
Pushing the ‘accessible television’ question to the limit are the hopping, grunting, tunnelling Optera, who Vrestin and Ian encounter. Led by Ian Thompson as Hetra and Barbara Joss as Nemini, they are yet another part of the ecology of Vortis, added by Richard Martin and Dennis Spooner to expand the six-parter. (So, according to the commentary, their costumes were a very late addition that had to be made for practically nothing.)
The Optera speak (almost incredibly) in metaphors: “Break the teeth of stone” (stalactites and stalagmites); a flow of acid is “the liquid hate”. This is beyond daring for a ‘teatime’ show, either mad or brilliant depending on your view – but half a century on, I’d say brilliant. There’s an Optera death scene here which I think is very moving as part of a dark, gripping adventure.
The climax draws all together into the Centre where the Animus lurks – and for me this is the one bit of the story that doesn’t work so well. In the novel, she is a spinning ellipsoid of blinding light and rather more impressive than a large spidery thing on a string. But Catherine Fleming (the voice of the Animus) is superb and memorable throughout the story (where she is mostly heard but not seen) and the actors carry off the finale with their customary seriousness. Unusually, the story doesn’t end there, but with a long sequence of renewed peace and cooperation between the peoples of Vortis – a positive ending to a dark story.
Finally, a small confession: I read the novelisation 40 years ago and greatly enjoyed its alien quality – but the TV story had such a poor reputation that I’d never watched it until now. My mistake! The style and realisation were far better than I ever imagined, as ‘Doctor Who and the Zarbi’ (to use the ‘Target’ title) came to life before my (non-multi-faceted) eyes.
The production subtitles and commentary for Episode 5 are especially revealing; at the time, many viewers wrote what the Optera might have called “paper scorn” about this story and many ‘Doctor Who’ fans have agreed with them since! But the illustrious commentary quartet look back (from 2005) with 160 years of further professional experience between them and admire and appreciate this dark, challenging story, as they did in 1965.
You may feel differently (it’s that kind of production) but in my opinion, author Bill Strutton, producer Verity Lambert, Richard Martin and their team created a truly unique classic of early ‘Doctor Who’ and (as Prapillus says of the TARDIS crew) “Their deeds shall be sung in the Temples of Light” – well, they will be by me anyway!
Thanks for reading. 5*
DVD Special Features:
An enjoyable and interesting commentary with William Russell, original Producer Verity Lambert, director Richard Martin and Martin Jarvis appreciating the story in 2005, moderated by Gary Russell.
‘Tales of Isop’ (38 min) – The commentary team plus Maureen O’Brien, John Wood (Designer) and Sonia Markham (Make-up) look back on what they achieved and also what more they would like to have done, given the resources.
‘The Lair of Zarbi Supremo’ (Audio, 57 min) – a reading of a complete story from the first ‘Doctor Who’ annual. Great idea for an ‘extra’, though the story is orthodox compared with ‘The Web Planet’ (robots, spaceships, etc.) But I enjoyed it thanks to William Russell’s brilliant performance.
The complete Annual is also included as a PDF, with five other stories (no ‘historicals’, I noticed.) Try ‘Peril in Mechanistria’ for some ideas about time travel that seem unusual for the First Doctor.
‘Photo Gallery’ (7 min) – a large, very good gallery.
‘Give-a-Show Slides’ – a novelty item, slides based around the story, originally for a popular toy slide projector of the time.
The Spanish soundtrack for Episode 6.