1.5: The Web
My understanding is that The Web has never had such a great reputation. Certainly, its effectiveness is hampered by elements of make-up/design that don’t quite work (the Decimas, Saymon). Balancing that we have Michael E Briant pulling out all the stops to direct an atmospheric and inventively shot episode. His work highlights that while Pennant Roberts and Vere Lorrimer have been competent thus far, that’s all they have been.
The location shoot in Black Park (Full Circle) makes a respite from two weeks of quarries, and the tracking shots through web-strewn vegetation sets the scene nicely. That said, the base here looks at best prefabricated and at worst like it would collapse if you breathed lightly on it. The interior is atmospherically lit, and the use of fades reveals Novara (Miles Fothergill, SV7 in Briant’s The Robots of Death, and a bit of a Paul McGann-alike) and Geela (Ania Marson, who would feature in Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing) reclining in separate quarters. So far so good, with an ominously breathy “They must come to us” repeated over the soundtrack.
But, then, oops. We get to see Saymon (Richard Beale, who did voice work on The Ark and The Macra Terror and featured as Bat Mastertson in The Gunfighters and Minister of Ecology in The Green Death). Achieving an effect by having someone stick their head through a hole in a wall and sticking a tiny fake body beneath them is unlikely to be dramatically powerful. Comedically, yes; if you’re Vic and Bob playing Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. As it is, the best I can say is that Saymon manages to be both laughable and simultaneously disturbing (the same is true of the Decimas).
Unsurprisingly, no sooner has Cally joined the Liberator than she’s acting all freaky-deaky with her alien telepathy skills. Briant again shows himself as a class apart, using handheld camera and POV in her encounter with hapless Vila. It looks like catty Jenna was right to be suspicious of her last episode as she is seen to be up to no good, planting an electronic device. Jenna wears a dress, so unfortunately we don’t get her arse this week. Blake has his shirt open and is wearing a medallion, so this is definitely a 1970s future.
There’s a well-written exchange between Avon and Cally, he ever-suspicious of everyone, as she milks him for information on the workings of the ship. Darrow’s great at pulling extra beats from scenes that probably aren’t there on the page, and this is no exception.
Zen being rubbish at helping, a bit like K9 breaking down, is clearly going to be a regular feature so that plots don’t get sorted out 10 minutes into an episode.
Cally’s “Must you invite death” on being restrained (by Gan, not rubbish for a change) is a very Leela comment, in tone and sentence composition. Jenna probably enjoys giving Cally a beating a little too much (she repeats “We should never have brought her on the ship” to Blake, who is setting a standard for making dubious decisions based on hasty considerations). Avon following this up with “You made this mess” sets the “alpha” crew members (Blake, Avon, Jenna) clearly at odds.
Avon saves Blake from the exploding device:
Blake: Thank you. Why?
Avon: Automatic reaction. I’m as surprised as you are.
I’m still mystified over why we keep seeing shots of the cardboard Liberator shooting by, and then we get proper model work of the ship getting caught in the web. Whether or not there’s good reason, it makes for very weak matching of elements.
Gan asks Avon why he doesn’t just let the Liberator’s automatic repair function do its job.
Avon: It’s slow. You should appreciate that problem.
His comment that there will come a time when Blake isn’t making the decisions is prescient, even if it takes a couple of years to achieve.
Jenna’s possession is a bit on the boggle-eyed side, but the lip-synching is effectively spooky. But tying her possessors to Cally (the Lost, cast out, unfit to share the soul of Aurona) is too convenient.
The wee Decimas are kind of rubbish, and yet intermittently effective. The one with red staring eyes (Deep Roy who appeared in The Talons of Weng-Chiang and later Mindwarp) is a disturbing sight when he’s throwing a paddy.
Briant shoots them in silhouettes trying to break into the dome, which works well. The director also handles the cuts between location and studio very seamlessly; you never question the relationship between the two spaces.
If the ethical debate on their right to live is rather one-note (of course Blake will help the repressed tiny people – yet he isn’t fussed about ensuring the survival of the (also) genetically engineered Novara and Geela, not to mention Saymon) there are a few interesting concepts to make this distinct.
Novara and Geela, more intelligent but no less engineered life forms, accept their limited purpose seemingly on a philosophical level. They have no lives of their own. It is research that has been allowed to get out of control (the web, the Decimas) that poses a threat. Slightly unexpected is that Saymon doesn’t want to take over the Liberator. He just wants a couple of power cells. His announcement that he is a “corporate identity” threw me a bit as it put me in mind of some sort of gestalt board of directors.
Incoming Federation pursuit ships seems like a weekly threat to put a ticking clock on proceedings and give the crew remaining on the Liberator something to idly fret about.
Avon’s thorough disinterest in Blake’s moral dilemma (“If it concerns you, don’t give them the cells”) leads to a rather hamfisted bun vendor of an exchange with Novara and Geela where Avon is threatened and Blake hands the cells over.
The Decimas infiltration of the base and their little screaming voices as they go beserk is chilling (particularly as weirdy man Saymon’s screams add to the effect). Even more so, they then start playing football with the skulls of the now disintegrating Novara and Geela, having had a good stomp up and down on their bodies.
Blake: They’re fighting for their lives.
Avon: Who isn’t?
Blake’s assertion that “At least the Decimas stand a chance now” reflects his position that oppressors surrender any rights whatsoever (they have met their just desserts). The end of the episode features the now compulsory verbal skuffle between Avon and Blake which is already like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers (on this occasion it relates to the right to life of all sentient beings). The ongoing plotting is not forgotten for this diversion, as Blake still wants to reach Centero (he mentioned this at the end of Time Squad too). I wonder if we’ll meet some Federation luminaries soon?
This really has the odds stacked against it, with some very patchy design work and a rather simplistic ethical conversation at its centre. But somehow Michael E Briant mostly pulls off an episode that is big on atmosphere and unsettling imagery.