iTunes review: Doctor Who – The Web of Fear
Episodes lost in time7
Simon Kinnear | On 26, Oct 2013
The second of two six-part Doctor Who stories – alongside The Enemy Of The World – recently returned to the BBC Archives after being missing, presumed destroyed. Aside from Episode 1, the story has been unseen in the UK since its transmission in 1968; now, the story can be downloaded from iTunes, with only Episode 3 (a reconstruction using the original audio and photos) still missing.
The Web Of Fear has near-mythic status amongst Doctor Who fans. Made at the height of Patrick Troughton’s tenure as the Second Doctor, it has long been regarded as the perfection of the series’ staple plotline in which the Doctor and his companions are under siege from marauding monsters, in this case those robot refugees from Tibet, the Yeti, and their creator, the Great Intelligence (the latter last seen bothering Matt Smith in the season just gone).
How could fans be so sure of Web’s quality? Well, Episode 1 never went missing and it’s a gem, showcasing both the bravura direction of Douglas Camfield (one of the series’ most reliable helmers) and the exacting production design of tube stations and tunnels, which – according to legend – were so convincing that the London Underground believed the BBC had sneaked in behind its back to record the story. The audio of the entire story likewise survived, confirming the efficiency of its story of dramatic reversals and desperate fightbacks, as the survivors realise that there’s a traitor in their midst.
It feels like the bottled essence of Doctor Who: a “quintessential” example of the series’ format, to borrow the word Mark Gatiss used to describe the story on its return. The story highlights Who’s ability to synthesise surrealism and wonder from magpie borrowings – in this case, expressionist horror, the bunker mentality of the Blitz and a few telling 1960s details like slimy David Frost-a-like reporter Harold Chorley. Then there’s the small matter of the Yeti, introduced in the Tibetan-set 1967 story The Abominable Snowmen, but so popular they were fast-tracked into a sequel… except the sequel is set in contemporary London, meaning we get some of the most bizarre juxtapositions of creature and context ever seen in the series.
If The Web Of Fear proves slightly underwhelming, that’s because of the weight of expectation: its excellence has been so taken for granted that it lacks the surprise factor of The Enemy Of The World. Visually, the rediscovered episodes are chiefly a case of seeing how well handled the action sequences are. Episode 4’s famous Battle Of Covent Garden, in which soldiers are massacred by Yeti, has been something of a Holy Grail and it is expertly handled with some shocking death scenes, but there’s nothing to best Episode 1’s long-familiar sequence in which a museum owner is brutally clubbed down by a revived Yeti.
Then again, there are surprises here not apparent from the audio. One of the soldiers is an uncredited Derek Martin, aka EastEnders’ Charlie Slater. The chemistry between Troughton and Tina Packer (playing scientist Anne Travers) is a delight; she should’ve been a companion. And, in the tussle between the production team’s search for realism and the BBC’s ban on product placement, they decorated a Tube tunnel set with the poster from In The Heat Of The Night, but rebadged with a new title (Blockbusters) and tagline. It’s a lovely touch, creating the sense of a parallel Earth like – but not identical – to our own.
Nonetheless, the visuals can’t disguise the biggest flaw in the material, which is exacerbated by Episode 3 being the one that is missing. The problem is that the story doesn’t really warrant six episodes and only gets it due to the recording techniques of 1960s Who. Whenever one of the stars needed a holiday, they had to miss rehearsals and recording of an entire episode and therefore be written out. Troughton thoroughly deserved a holiday after his dual performance in Enemy, so the Doctor goes AWOL in Episode 2, meaning that the momentum is delayed until he’s back in the fold in Episode 3… except we still can’t see that, so the story is halfway through before things really get going.
Oh, and it also means that one of the iconic moments in Doctor Who takes place off-screen, for when the Doctor returns in Episode 3, he’s brought another soldier with him: Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart. To anybody who’s ever been interested in Doctor Who, that name means a hell of a lot, for Lethbridge-Stewart would soon get a promotion, returning as The Brigadier, the Doctor’s most loyal and long-serving ally on Earth and a staple figure throughout Who’s original run up to 1989.
It seems crazy that the production team would fudge such an important introduction, but it was never meant to be important. Lethbridge-Stewart was written as a one-shot character; indeed, he’s deliberately framed to be the likely traitor, at least until a telltale shot that seems to give away the real baddie’s identity two episodes before he officially declares himself.
What happened, of course, is that Camfield and his chosen actor, the great Nicholas Courtney, proved such a match that they were reunited later in 1968 for near-remake The Invasion, by which time the Brigadier was in charge of the alien-battling United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (aka UNIT) and the seeds were sown for the early 1970s iteration of the series. And it’s all because Web succeeds so well as an action-packed, nerve-shredding thriller.
It’s impossible, really, to separate the story from its influence: to use a much-abused phrase, it’s a game changer. Perhaps the most striking thing is the shift towards the Doctor being a celebrity. Not only does the plot revolve around the Great Intelligence setting a trap for the Doctor to gain revenge for the events of The Abominable Snowmen, but also – for the first time in the show’s history – the Doctor reunites with a friend from an earlier story, Professor Travers. (In retrospect, you can see the Colonel taking notes.) Meanwhile, the Doctor spends half the story blabbing to all and sundry – including the reporter – about his time and space machine, something that is common nowadays but was rare in the 1960s.
In short, if you’re even vaguely interested in the history of Doctor Who, The Web of Fear warrants attention. As an example of textbook Who and the prototype for so much of what followed, its importance is unparalleled and it’s great this is (mostly) back in the archives. That said, the format it perfected has been aped so often in the interim that you might find yourself thinking you’ve seen it before. Our advice? Turn off the lights and watch it late at night; let your inner child decide whether this can’t still scare, excite and enthral you.