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Doctor Who: The Web of Fear (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Web of Fear originally aired in 1968.

See, now this is interesting.

The Enemy of the World had the luxury of arriving almost unannounced, a genuine honest-to-goodness classic story that had been written off by all but a minority of fans as a generic run-around James Bond pastiche. It was recovered, it turned out to be quite brilliant, and so was a massive surprise. Indeed, even if it had been merely “good” or “fine”, it would have been a joy to watch, because the episode was being measured against a popular imagination that had never really been too bothered with it. I don’t think it was too near the top of the majority of fans’ “would love to recover…” lists.

There were no expectations, so The Enemy of the World didn’t have to worry about measuring up to anything. The fact that it was quite brilliant was icing on the cake. In contrast, The Web of Fear has a lot of expectations to live up to. It is being measured not against the weight of continuity – featuring a much loved monster and introducing a recurring character – nor the sky-high expectations of fans. It is measured against the popular imagination. While The Enemy of the World probably seemed like an after-though to most Doctor Who fans, The Web of Fear is a massive part of what Doctor Who is to the general public.

Fur and loathing...

Fur and loathing…

Doctor Who fans were very lucky that soundtrack recordings survived for each and every episode of the classic television show, even those wiped by the BBC. However, those soundtracks are only really of interest to the most hardcore of the true believers. It’s hard enough to convince a casual fan to sit down and watch a black-and-white six-episode television show, let alone asking them to watch what amounts to little more than a slideshow with an audio play dubbed over. (Even the Loose Cannon reconstructions, while helpful and wonderful, are still a fringe product.)

So while The Enemy of the World survived through audio recordings and snapshots and reconstructions, that only really mattered to the most casual of fans. Most people reading the news of the recent recovery will be surprised that there was an episode where Patrick Troughton played the bad guy. The Enemy of the World is not a part of the historical narrative of Doctor Who, and I say that as somebody who loves the episode to death. The Enemy of the World is one of the best episodes of the show up until that point, but it didn’t register on the public’s radar.

Laugh it up, fuzzball...

Laugh it up, fuzzball…

On the other hand, The Web of Fear is a story that my parents will remember. They probably won’t remember the name, but their eyes will light up in recognition when I describe it as “that one with the Yeti in the Underground.” They might not remember the particulars of it, but they’ll remember that there definitely was an episode about that – and, if there wasn’t, there probably should have been. The yeti itself remains an iconic part of Doctor Who lore.

This is probably down to the fact that the costumes were very effective given the limitations of the BBC budget, with shuffling shaggy forms threatening to lurch out of the television at the audience. Despite the fact that he never faced the monster, even Jon Pertwee is linked to the creature, in part thanks to the use of the yeti in his promotional shots and the impossible-to-source but fun-to-cite quotation attributed to Pertwee that nothing is more frightening than “a yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec.” (Appropriately enough, the roar of a yeti is apparently the sound of a toilet flush slowed down.)

This image isn't actually from the episode, but it's a massive part of what people think of when they think of the episode.

This image isn’t actually from the episode, but it’s a massive part of what people think of when they think of the episode.

Indeed, even Paul McGann cites the yeti as an important part of his own Doctor Who experience, making a somewhat laboured comparison to Jesus Christ:

“The monster that did it for me was the Yeti. I was only thinking yesterday that because we were good little Catholic boys, we used to go to church three or four times a week, and in Catholic churches you have these sacred heart statues, the figure of Jesus, you know, holding back his gown or whatever and there’s the beating heart, with a crown of thorns flashing around it, almost like a cartoon heart. Rich stuff. What would happen with the Yeti? His chest would come apart and he’d be sitting there with the golden ball. And we’d be sitting there watching it, going ‘Jesus!’”

The Web of Fear is the second appearance of the yeti, and producer Innes Lloyd has admitted that the creature was considered as a viable replacement for the Daleks, should Terry Nation refuse to share his creation with the BBC again. The monster even got to pop up during the anniversary celebrations in The Five Doctors, and featured briefly in the Troughton clip at the start of The Name of the Doctor.

Put 'em up!

Put ’em up!

It’s so much a core part of Doctor Who that it almost seems a disappointment that Steven Moffat resurrected the Great Intelligence during the fiftieth anniversary celebrations without bringing back the yeti for more than a cameo appearance. The monster made quite an impression, and it lingers on in public consciousness – which is far more important, albeit much less comprehensive, than surviving in sound recordings preserved by loving fans.

Of course, The Web of Fear is the second appearance of the yeti, and yet I’d argue that the return of The Web of Fear is far more significant than the recovery of the first story to feature the monster – The Abominable Snowman. There’s a very important reason for that, and it’s far more important than the first appearance of Nicholas Courtney as supporting character Lethbridge-Stewart, even though it is a little tied up in that. The Web of Fear is a massive part of the evolution of Doctor Who as a show.

Yeti 'nother dead body...

Yeti ‘nother dead body…

To be fair, the series had done stories where monsters threatened modern-day London before. The War Machines was really the first of “the Doctor saves contemporary London… er, we mean the world” stories that became part of the franchise’s DNA. However, The War Machines still felt curiously detached from contemporary London. The Web of Fear represents an attempt by the show to build on that, by merging the core concept (“modern London in danger!”) with the catchy iconography of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, a show that packed a lot more visual punch than The War Machines.

So The Web of Fear isn’t so much about “the invasion of contemporary London” as it is about “the invasion of the landmarks of contemporary London.” The yeti are stalking around the London Underground, on sets so convincing that they contain crudely-altered posters for contemporary movies (In the Heat of the Night was apparently released as Block-Busters in the Who-niverse) and the Transit Authority apparently tried to sue the set-bound production, alleging they must have secretly filmed on location.

Underground movement...

Underground movement…

The London Underground is a vitally important and iconic British institution. “Oh, this place has been here a long time,” Arnold tells us. “It were a transit camp in the Second World War.” It’s enduring and recognisable, even separated by decades. Pushing the monsters of Doctor Who out of sci-fi moon bases and space stations and into the shadows of recognisable locations was an ingenious move. The Invasion would push the idea even further, giving us Cybermen marching down the steps of St. Paul’s, an image as iconic as the Daleks storming Trafalgar Square.

The Web of Fear represents a bridge between those two iconic images, and the point at which “invading contemporary London” became one of the show’s most reliable plots. It is a recognisable part of the DNA of the revived show as well. In Rose, the Autons are hiding underneath the Millennium Wheel, while the Doctor himself draws attention to the trope in The Runaway Bride. (“What, there’s like a secret base hidden underneath a major London landmark?”)

Can you say "merchandising"?

Can you say “merchandising”?

And Nicholas Courtney would go on to be a major part of that, so his appearance here is also a pivotal moment for the show – albeit one more readily identifiable to a fan than to a casual viewer. Still, for any long-term fan of the show, the fact that the third episode of The Web of Fear remains missing is heartbreaking. I do hope that one the reasons for the staggered DVD release date on The Web of Fear is so that either the third episode can be somewhat recovered and included, as rumours suggest, or perhaps to allow for an animated version to be included. As somebody who will double-dip on these, I don’t mind getting additional content on the more-expensive DVD.

So, what we’ve established is that The Web of Fear is a pretty big deal, and that expectations for any recovery oft eh story were going to be sky high. This inevitably means that The Web of Fear can’t help but feel like a little bit of a disappointment. It’s a solid, well-produced piece of television, but it can’t help but suffer under the logical weight of expectation under which it has been placed. It’s not the most tightly-plotted adventure the show has produced. It doesn’t feel as big or grand or important as it should.

Things are all a bit askew...

Things are all a bit askew…

It’s a solid serial, one of great importance, and it’s wonderful to have it back, but it feels like an anticlimax. Comparing The Web of Fear to the other surviving serials from the show’s fifth season, it can’t help but feel a little underwhelming. It isn’t as inventive and fun as The Enemy of the World. It doesn’t capture the archetypal “base under siege” mentality as well as The Ice Warriors. The iconic monsters here don’t feel as well used as the iconic monsters in The Tomb of the Cybermen.

Indeed, The Web of Fear feels like a story that doesn’t benefit from viewers remembering what happened more than two episodes earlier, let alone the euphoric pop culture memory of a story broadcast over four decades ago. The story works well on its own terms, but it’s not especially well constructed. In fact, the reveal of Arnold as the traitor seems to take place simply because he’s the least likely suspect at that point in the story.

Are you afraid of the dark?

Are you afraid of the dark?

The script casually brushes aside any of these problems by having Arnold’s body assure the Doctor, “But let us to work. There will be time for discussion later.” Naturally, there isn’t. It is worth noting that Arnold-as-the-mole isn’t entirely impossible, but it requires a lot of elaboration and contortion on the part of the viewer to fit in with his earlier behaviour in the same story. The problem isn’t that the Arnold reveal is a plot hole, it’s the sense that The Web of Fear is being constructed very much on the fly, and doesn’t hang together quite well.

And yet, despite that, there’s a lot to like here. There is, after all, a reason why The Web of Fear is better remember than The Enemy of the World. The imagery is more vivid, the iconography more striking, the enemy more memorable. The production design on the sets is absolutely fantastic, beautifully evoking the sense that we’re watching a story set just beneath the London streets. Visually, the yeti remains a striking creation, and I’d argue one far superior to the Ice Warriors.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

And there are lots of little touches that work. For example, The Web of Fear broaches the idea that the people who come into contact with the Doctor are moving along “the slow path.” The Doctor has barely had two adventures in the time since he last met Travers, and yet Travers recalls their encounter occurred “over forty years ago.” Like The Ark, we get a sense of the story-telling opportunities possible with the TARDIS – the sense that the Doctor leaps and jumps around the time stream in a manner that is more complex than simply “forwards or backwards.”

I also really like the idea of the Great Intelligence, and I can understand why Moffat decided to bring them back, even if it was a bit weird that the Great Intelligence never used a yeti over the course of the fiftieth anniversary year. There’s something positively Lovecraftian about the Great Intelligence as described by the Doctor. “Perhaps the best way to describe it is a sort of formless, shapeless thing floating about in space like a cloud of mist, only with a mind and will,” he tells the Colonel, suggesting something almost beyond the boundaries of our understanding. (It’s a connection that Andy Lane followed up on in his novel All-Consuming Fire, guest starring Sherlock Holmes.)

A museum piece...

A museum piece…

You can also see why Nicholas Courtney stuck around, and why the production team decided to make him a recurring guest star when initial plans for The Invasion fell through. I’m a big fan of the Brigadier as a character, and I think he works very well during most of the Pertwee era. That said, however, I’ll concede that he often felt like more of a broad archetype than a well-drawn character, an upper-crust officer designed to serve as straight man. It worked very well, because Courtney has wonderful timing and a great sense of humour, but what really struck me most about The Web of Fear was seeing Courtney play a more human and relatable version of that character.

In The Web of Fear, Courtney plays Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart as a man desperately trying to protect the lives of his men and to find a solution to this crisis. Unlike most authority figures, he’s willing to listen to the Doctor as the Doctor outlines his plans. However, it’s made quite clear that the Colonel isn’t invested because he believes in the Doctor – he’s simply taking the only options open to him. His trust int he Doctor isn’t an act of faith; it’s sheer desperation.

The Doctor figures it all out...

The Doctor figures it all out…

“Yes, well, I don’t think there’s any harm in telling you now. I have a craft that travels in time and space,” the Doctor confesses at one point. Knight reacts as any normal person would to that revelation, “Oh, come now, Doctor, you can’t expect me to–“ In contrast, Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart seems to accept that the group have found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. “This craft of yours, this time space craft… could it get us out of here?” He’s grasping at straws, because all he has left are straws to grasp at.

The Wed of Fear is an important episode, but I’m not entire convinced that it is a great on. It’s well-made and well-produced, featuring memorable images, a great setting and effective monsters. At the same time,t here’s something decidedly workman-like about the production, with none of the manic sense of fun that ties together The Enemy of the World or The Mind Robber. The pacing is a little weak, with the first two episodes feeling over-extended, and gratuitous confrontation scenes thrown into the last couple of episodes to extend the plot. The plotting itself seems a bit haphazard, as if the episode began not knowing where it would end.

Keeping everything on track...

Keeping everything on track…

And yet, despite these misgivings, I accept that The Web of Fear is a vitally important part of Doctor Who, a massive piece of the show’s identity. It’s a large part of how the public relate to the series, with many of the iconic memories of what Doctor Who is and what it should be typified here. It’s also an essential part of the show’s growth and development, a foundation stone laid for the Pertwee era. It is a pretty big deal, and it deserves to be a pretty big deal.It just doesn’t quite measure up to its own legend, but it’s hard to imagine an episode that could.

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