Doctor Who #59: The Zarbi

"History! Doesn’t mean anything when you travel through space and time."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 2 of The Web Planet. First aired Feb.20 1965.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDISeers are variously captured by the ant-like Zarbi, and Barbara meets the butterfly-like Menoptra.

REVIEW: When is strange and different TOO strange and different? This serial sure does push at the boundary for what's acceptable television, but I think mostly comes out on the right side. Visually, this episode is like the last, though the vaseline streaks sometimes look like blurs instead. Sometimes they make the Zarbi's eyes glint pleasantly, and others you're not quite sure what you're looking at. Even shots inside the TARDIS strive for strangeness, like shooting Vicki's face through the time rotor. The Zarbi themselves are so strange, the TARDIS doesn't manage a translation (the Doctor seems to infer their "speech" is akin to the sound made by grasshoppers rubbing their legs together) and even hand gestures don't get through to them. We also meet the Zarbi's natural enemies, the Menoptra, butterfly people who look gorgeous, except for their silly, furry pants (legs are a problem shared by all creatures on Vortis). More than actors in buttlerfly suits, they have a unique way of speaking and gesturing that highlights their alienness. And of course there are giant bombardier beetles ("larvae guns") the Zarbi use as living weapons. One of these elements in a Doctor Who story is easy to handle. All of them together may well alienate the casual viewer. Good thing we're not casual viewers then.

Problems with clarity aren't just limited to the vaseline trick. The TARDIS is seen to dematerialize at the end of the previous episode, but it's obviously being dragged to the Animus' location in this one. The business with Barbara bringing a club to her with her feet doesn't actually result in her gaining a weapon. And we might wonder why all the characters are separated only to be brought back together (except to buy some time in a story that should have been one or two episodes shorter). And yet, it continues to engage me intellectually. What is this Animus, and why can it use gold as a medium for mind control? It's an almost alchemical riff, strange in a sci-fi story (I'll attempt some explanations under Theories in some later episode). Its technology (it looks doubtful that the Zarbi developed it themselves) is otherwise biological. Cannon bugs and flying sting-weeds and walls made of vines and web-covered mind readers. Yes it's bizarre, and yes the characters do a lot of walking to and fro, but it's an alien world and it feels like it. That counts for something.

THEORIES: The Doctor says he's never been there, though he recognizes Vortis. Well, what does he mean? When he landed in the Aztec Empire, he's never been there and yet, had been to Earth. For time travelers, it's a little more complicated as "here" has a temporal element to it. In fact, extracanonical writers made the Doctor come to Vortis before and after this story (from the Doctor's point of view, and for that matter, Vortis'). There seems to be a real fascination with the Web Planet among Doctor Who writers in general. The Doctor Who Annuals and TV Comic account for three visits to Vortis (1st Doctor). The 2nd Doctor goes there in the Missing Adventures novel Twilight of the Gods. The 4th Doctor visits in a comic. And the 5th, in the Big Finish audio Return to the Web Planet. Further, Russell T Davies reign on the show incorporated a number of references to Vortis. Venom grubs from the novelization are mentioned by Blon Slitheen in Boom Town, and the Isop Galaxy where Vortis is located is said to be where the Face of Bo lives according to Bad Wolf. There are also various mentions of the Zarbi over the years, and of the Animus (but I'm going to keep those for a later Theories article).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - I was tempted to give it a lower rating, but it works on the basis of exploring the Web Planet. The Menoptra look quite good, the Animus is intriguing, and as you can see from Theories, there are enough links to the New Series to be of interest to New fans (which is true of the entire serial, of course).

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