Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"The Ants Go Marching Two by Two": The Web Planet



This story arc--really, I can't do the usual, here, because these story arcs defy categorization. The Web Planet is weird in a way I don't associate with Doctor Who--it reminds me of early films. Yes, the obvious comparison is Méliès's 1902 film Trip to the Moon:



But it also is reminiscent of March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), a phantasmagorical fairy tale that, like A Trip to the Moon,creates a world that is somewhat like ours, but is peopled with strange creatures and glimpsed through the prism of Victorian nightmare images.

The world of Vortis and its inhabitants are immensely detailed, lovingly evoked, and yet they are completely unrealistic. It's almost as if the Doctor and his companions have again been shrunk and are housed in a victorian puppet theater of the more gothic kind. More than any other planet the TARDIS has visited to date, Vortis and its inhabitants are fully realized, but like a cartoon.

The Zarbi, the ant-creatures of Vortis, are individually mindless soldiers, following the prompting of a single guiding force--the Animus, the main antagonist. Yet Vrestin, the main spokes--er, moth. The Menoptera are moths.

No, really:



So, Vestrin, the spokesmoth does not condemn the Zarbi completely; she says, instead, that "[t]he Zarbi are not an intelligent species, but they were essential to the life pattern here. We lived at peace with them, until they were made militant by the dark power."

The Doctor and Ian are not so kind:
IAN: What do you think they are, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Hmm?
IAN: Those things out there.
DOCTOR: Well, to use the term of Earth, I suppose we should call them insects.
IAN: Ants? I've seen a colony of ants eat their way right through a house. That size, they could eat their way through a mountain. Why are they that big?
DOCTOR: Size is only relative. In this rarified atmosphere, it appears that evolution has chosen that particular form of life on this planet.
IAN: Ants.
DOCTOR: Yes.
IAN: So relentless, indestructible. What are we going to do? Have you got any ideas?
DOCTOR: Well, it's this voice. It's this, this, this, this, this Queen of the ants, you might say.
The description of the ants is interesting here. I've no proof of this, and indeed may be wronging Bill Strutton, who wrote the script, but I can't help but think that the story of the ants added to the reworked version of The Sword in the Stone (1938) in the omnibus volume of The Once and Future King (1958), plays a role here.

You see, The Sword in the Stone is, in its 1938 text, much lighter than that published in the omnibus edition. In it, the young orphaned ward of Sir Ector, his name softened from Arthur to Art, and then replaced with the contemptuous, but not entirely unaffectionate, "Wart," finds a tutor--Merlyn--who educated both the Wart and his foster brother, Kay, but gives the Wart special tutelage, in visiting the animals to see how they are governed. In the tetralogy, though, we lose the charming battle between Merlyn and Madame Mim, and the visit to Queen Morgan le Fey. They are replaced by two episodes from The Book of Merlyn, one in which the aged King Arthur is shown brief happiness by visiting the geese, and discovers the miserable, regimented life of an ant. These episodes, rewritten for the Wart, are darker than the rest of The Sword in the Stone, don't fit as well as in The Book of Merlyn, but are arresting, especially the horror of the visit to the ants, which includes loss of personality (like Barbara and Vicki undergo) and body horror (the maimed Menoptera, the grubs stand in well). Like Dennis Spooner's viewing The Web Planet as "a parable about socialism, with the Zarbi and the Menoptera as the oppressed and the oppressors respectively," so too White intended the ants in The Once and Future King as a scathing portrayal of Soviet communism.

Published only seven years before The Web Planet, The Once and Future King remains in print today, and has left a large mark. Hartnell's Doctor is not unlike Merlyn: tetchy, absent-minded, laughing at the ironies only he can see, and kind underneath it all. (Interesting, Merlyn, who lives backwards in time, affects Victorian fashions on several occasions, as well as referencing events from the 19th Century. Hartnell's aesthetic is quite Victorian professor-ish, rather like Merlyn's.) It's quite conceivable, with its fairytale setting, its darkness as well as light, and the nightmare image of ant-land White conjures up, played a role in creating "The Web Planet."

****

The politics and sources of The Web Planet aside, its spectacle, hand-made and old-fashioned is what lingers. The plot is stretched too long, the story is unexplained (what exactly is the Animus? Phil Sandifer writes that "[l]ater writers engaged in a kind of ham-handed retcon that proclaimed the Animus, along with some other classic villains, to in fact be explicitly part of the Cthulhu mythos (Animus is apparently Lloigar, a 1932 creation of August Derleth). Although this retcon was, all told, a pretty dumb idea that does some real injustice to Bill Strutton's creation of the Animus, the observation that there's something Lovecraftian about this monster is pretty on target.") I can't improve on that, really.)

But deeply odd though this one is, it has a magic to it--the magic lantern of clever theater work, not unlike the charm of the shows staged by the parents in A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. It's alien, strange, and sometimes alienating. The stylized movements by Roslyn de Winter are weirdly apposite even when thy seem bizarre.

Verity Lambert's Doctor Who is a show willing to gamble on an old-fashioned--even in 1965--kind of spectacle, confident it will pull it off. Lambert wins her bet.

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