Doctor Who episode 22: The Velvet Web (18/4/1964)
Russell T Davies was a big fan of ‘vertical’ stories – many of his scripts feature characters trying to get up or down a building, or an environment – from the gridlocked motorway of New Earth to Adipose HQ. Davies thought this added a sense of movement and pace to episodes. Similarly, Nation’s 1960s Doctor Who serials tend to feature expeditions through dangerous environments, which create momentum and imply progress week on week. After the pyramids and rubber monsters of The Sea of Death, this week’s episode moves the story to a new location: the city of Morphoton.
There are some broad similarities between this plot and that of the Star Trek episode The Menagerie, with outsized brains controlling the perceptions of the crew. The difference being, while Star Trek took at least 50 minutes to tell its version, Terry Nation gets this all over and done with in less than half that time. While there’s necessarily some sacrifice of mystery – once Barbara sees that the idyllic decadence of Morphoton is just an illusion, there’s no question that her perception is the right one, and isn’t just going crazy – what it loses there it gains in breakneck pace.
Nation’s script is particularly good at revealing the innermost desires and mindsets of the regulars. Barbara seems to just want a break, and to enjoy herself for a while – but, as in The Brink of Disaster, her instinct and intuition kick in and she perceives the truth of Morphoton. Ian is initially suspicious – the logical pragmatist, he expects there to be a price to pay for all the sumptuous riches. Of course, he’s right – but, lacking Barbara’s intuition, he doesn’t see what’s really going on, and ultimately falls victim to the Brains. The Doctor wants a laboratory to repair the TARDIS. Susan just wants fancy clothes. There’s also a growing hint of something more between Ian and Barbara – when she escapes from the dungeon, and sees Ian, Barbara runs up and kisses him on the cheek. This makes Ian turning on her all the more disturbing – certainly far more shocking than anything in The Edge of Destruction. The moment when he starts to strangle her is genuinely horrifying.
John Gorrie’s direction works extremely well too: revealing the decaying and filthy Morphoton with a point of view shot for Barbara is extremely effective, and, just as it shows us what Barbara is seeing, it also means that the audience is aligned to her perspective – before the point of view shots, we see Morphoton as the Brains want us to see it, afterwards we see the truth. I suspect it was driven by necessity – filmed inserts to avoid costly editing* – but it’s a great example of how the production staff used the limitations of 1960s TV to work to the advantage of the storytelling. It also allows for some amusing visual gags – the Doctor and Ian’s thrill at the advanced laboratory that we can see is actually just a dirty mug on a table.
Other things I loved: Hartnell doesn’t fluff, and the little knowing glance he shares with Susan during Barbara’s point of view shots is a superb touch that sells their relationship. Altos’ miniskirt is daring, even if he basically acts and sounds like Simon Quinlank from Fist of Fun: ‘I was sent by Arbitan. I, and a friend called Eprin. Our plan was as follows. He would go ahead in search of key four, and I would come here for the first…’
The end of the episode teases two new locations: the advanced society of Millenius and another dangerous-sounding environment: the Screaming Jungle. I bet kids couldn’t wait for the next Saturday to come round.
*I’ve subsequently learned that the point of view shots were taped and physically spliced into the master V/T, which, if anything, makes them even more impressive
Next episode: The Screaming Jungle