Set on planet Vortis, nestled in the Isop Galaxy, Doctor Who and companions Barbara, Ian and Vicki find themselves trapped by a sinister sound, reverberating out of the surface. It pulls their escaping Tardis back and disables it, leaving them stranded in a wasteland of acid pools and quartz cliffs. Menacing stinging webs cover the surface, odd satellites linger in the sky and an ancient civilisation has been replaced by war.
Featuring the First Doctor as played by William Hartnell, this face-paced adventure is penned by Bill Strutton, author of the televised version The Web Planet (1965). It is the second published novel for Doctor Who and notable for its break in convention, referring to The Doctor as ‘Doctor Who’ throughout. It was popular upon release, selling out of its original 20,000 copy run. You can now find it as an e-book with the original accompanying sketches preserved from the hardback edition re-released by Target Books.
Vortis is an unwelcoming world to The Doctor and his companions. Even without the ominous relics of a civilisation lost, it is mostly composed of dangerous crags and deep pools of acid. Extensive networks of tunnels hide the warring species and soon they find themselves caught up in a conflict that has been raging for generations.
We are introduced to the Menoptera via Barbara, who is snatched into a cave where a small number of them are plotting their upcoming assault on the planet. They are humanoid-moths with iridescent wings, black and white fur and unnerving large eyes that are bulbous and black like those of an insect. Capable of speech, we discover that these creatures are a peaceful civilisation that once dominated the land with their towering cities and temples before their co-inhabitants, the Zarbi, mysteriously turned against them and destroyed their culture. The Menoptera have returned after fifty generations are preparing to take back their homeland.
The Zarbi, although horrifying to behold with their ant-like features and powerful pincers, once lived peacefully alongside the Menoptera. Now they have oppressed their neighbours for so long that the Menoptera who remained on Vortis have transformed into unrecognisable slave force of wingless workers, mining and living underground, afraid of the planet’s surface. The Zarbi achieve this through a powerful mind control that takes over The Doctor’s companions several times throughout the action-laden adventure.
This is not only a war between two species for control of a planet – something else is at the heart of the war. With the Tardis in enemy hands and all of his companions loose on the planet, can The Doctor solve the mystery of why the war began before the Menoptera attack or his companions are killed? What does the connection with gold have to do with the Zarbi?
Doctor Who and the Zarbi is an interesting commentary on conflict, civilisation and the silent powers that control the masses. With the introduction of the Animus, we are presented with a complex interplay of species and a powerful, ancient enemy that is truly a threat to The Doctor.
Bill Strutton aka William Harold Strutton was an Australian screenwriter who served in the Second World War. After being captured in Crete he took up an interest in writing which endured until his death on Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary. His televised version of this novel was famed for producing the first entirely alien cast of fantastic, insect-inspired creatures. In all, he wrote six episodes of Doctor Who.