The Web of Fear [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Web of Fear

Starring Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor.
Companions:  Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon and Deborah Watilng as Victoria Waterfield.
Recurring Characters: Nicholas Courtney as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart and Jack Watling as Professor Travers
Written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln.  Directed by Douglas Camfield. Produced by Peter Bryant. Script Edited by Derrick Sherwin.

Format:  6 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  Feruary-March 1968  (Episodes 23-28 of Season 5)

A number of years ago, one of the biggest “finds” in the discovery of missing episodes of Doctor Who in my adult fandom took place when the entirety of The Enemy of the World and all but one part of The Web of Fear were all recovered in one go. What an exciting announcement that was for long-term followers of the show like myself. While The Enemy of the World was not a story that people had much hope for, The Web of Fear was a serial with a stellar reputation, and which introduced or developed a number of the franchise’s key concepts. The remaining missing episode of the show is part 3–it has been animated but the Britbox version of the story which watched didn’t include that. Instead, it featured a recreation of the story made out of the original audio recording along with still “telesnaps” edited to the story.

Spoilers Ahead!

I first watched The Web of Fear a number of years ago, not longer after it had first been recovered, and found it a bit routine and humdrum. Now I see it again and I’m not sure what I was on about. This serial is, on the whole, top notch adventure-drama, with a great group of characters facing an incredibly imposing threat.

Much of the power of the serial comes from its atmosphere. We had seen “base under siege” stories before, but the small group of soldiers and scientists more-or-less stuck in the London underground offered a nice variation on that–a sense of confinement and being trapped, but still somehow expansive.

Having an interesting array of characters rubbing shoulders with the Doctor and his companions also helps. It starts with some fairly generic military guys, but quickly expands into an interesting array of allies, suspects and victims. You’ve got the Doctor’s old friend Professor Travers, played again by Jack Watling (Deborah Watling’s father), who is now 40 years older than in The Abominable Snowman, and pretty much the show’s very first recurring (non-companion) friend of the Doctor’s.

You’ve also got the obnoxious television reporter Harold Chorley, the cowardly driver Evans, and the old career soldier Staff Sergeant Arnold. And there is also Professor Travers’ daughter, the scientist Anne Travers, who has one of the best lines of the story: when asked by the unpleasant Chorley what she is doing in a job like this, she responds, “When I was a little girl, I thought I”d like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist.”

And of course most notable of all is Nicholas Courtney who quickly impresses as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart. He is introduced in episode three (the one missing episode), having met the Doctor off-screen sometime in part two. I don’t know if anyone knew that Lethbridge-Stewart would be returning to the series again but here he is just another officer, and indeed quite a suspicious one since he is unknown to the rest of the squad.

Indeed the show does a good job making us wonder if each of these guys might be the person in the thrall of the main villain, keeping the open enough until the end, so the final reveal of Staff Sergeant Arnold is still reasonably surprising.eeee

The Great Intelligence is one of 1960s Doctor Who most memorable villains. With its unusual nature, hissing voice and nigh-omnipotent abilities, it makes for quite the unique threat. It’s a bit unclear for a while what the Intelligence is actually up to, but it’s definitely nothing good. It’s got a toxic foam-like web overwhelming the city, hairy monster hiding around every corner, and a spy hiding in the Doctor’s camp. The scene at the end of part 4 where this spy lures almost all the remaining military characters to their doom (via miniature Yeti-shaped trackers) is brutal but amazingly well-staged. I’m not sure, but it might be the first big military set-piece in the whole series. Those types o sequences became a mainstay of the series during the UNIT era, which just highlights one of the many ways that this adventure seeds those later developments.

Eventually of course it’s revealed that the Intelligence is after the Doctor’s body, which is an interesting idea. The Doctor is not overcome but he also fails to defeat his enemy fully, setting the stage for a follow-up that never came…or at least, did not come for nearly four decades. It is really a shame that we never got a third part of a Great Intelligence trilogy back in the day–presumably this is because of the breakdown in relationship with writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln over elements of their later story, The Dominators, being exploited by the BBC without their consideration. Of course, Steven Moffat addressed the Great Intelligence in Series 7 of the revival show, in 2012-2013, but it wasn’t the same. I’d have loved to have seen Troughton’s Doctor have a final showdown with the enemy.

Naturally, one’s opinion of this story might depend on what one thinks of the Yeti themselves. It’s a little hard to imagine why the Great Intelligence would choose robots of monstrous beasts as its foot-soldiers–maybe it just didn’t have time to redesign after recovering from its previous defeat. Nonetheless, they are mostly effective monsters: huge, ferocious, scary…but strangely cute. Maybe this is a Haisman / Lincoln thing, as they also invented the Quarks, which were just adorable even as they were blowing you up. And there is something undeniably absurd about the image of running into one of these big glowy-eyed things in a dark tunnel and then realizing that it’s holding a ray gun which shoots webs.

But that’s where the story takes us, and if I’m not down for a bit of ridiculous kitchiness, then obviously I’m watching the wrong show.

If there is a weakess to the serial it’s that sometimes the same elements that provide the claustrophobic quality also make it look a little cheap. A bit more location footage–say an image of the Yeti walking near a notable landmark (along the lines of the Cybermen on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the following season), it would gone a long way to upping the production value of the adventure.

But that is a minor complaint for one of the era’s best entries.


One thought on “The Web of Fear [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. For the fatefully last Yeti story in classic Doctor Who, it’s indeed all the more interesting that it wasn’t given an actual resolution. Downtime’s compensation as a sequel and spin-off, which I recently re-watched, made me think about how curiously such long overdue resolutions can be made possible in the Whoniverse. Thanks, Ben, for reviewing The Web Of Fear.

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