If you read my review of the DVD release of The Enemy of the World, then you’ll perhaps understand why this is yet another tough release to cover.
To summarise briefly, The Web of Fear has long been acknowledged as a ‘classic’; as, perhaps, Patrick Troughton’s best ever story (once Tomb of the Cybermen ruined all our previous illusions by having the Telosian temerity be re-discovered in 1992). That only its first episode remained in the BBC archive added to its power and mystique. The opening instalment was, all told, pretty atmospheric and solid – if the other five were as good, then it was bound to be a ‘classic’ through and through, wasn’t it? Douglas Camfield directing, Nicholas Courtney making his debut as Lethbridge-Stewart, Yeti with web guns, and so on: bound to be brilliant.
Well, at the end of last year, four of its ‘lost’ episodes came back in from the cold. In a flurry of insane activity, this most desirable carrot was dangled over we ‘missing episode’-hungry fans and was quickly and hurriedly consumed as we all went and downloaded it. By now, it’s probably the most watched Troughton story in all fandom. But is it any good?
Well, yes. It is.
Having seen The Enemy of the World, one is able to make much more sense of the opening sequences of characters sliding about the TARDIS floor in the desperate hope of giving us the impression they’re about to be sucked out into space. Quite why this superfluous sequence is tagged on to the beginning of the story (rather than the end of the last one) seems to be a throwback to Enemy writer David Whitaker’s tenure as script editor on the show, but it’s oddly out of place. It would doubtless have been a heck of a lot more spooky to open with Travers in Silverstein’s ‘museum’ for that creepy film sequence in which the Yeti (and the Intelligence, presumably) are once more reanimated.
In case you don’t know, the bulk of the story takes place some months later when the Intelligence has forced an evacuation of London by filling it with thick fog, a creeping, curiously foam-like fungus and scraggy-looking Yeti robots with guns that shoot cobwebs (and we old-school fans accept this, but do ideas get much battier than that?). The army are tasked with trying to control this menace, which is lurking in the London Underground, and it is into this web of fear (get it?) that the Doctor and co rock up.
The Web of Fear is one of Season Five’s ‘base under siege’ stories, but it is probably so well remembered because it’s the best of its kind. Ultimately, the story is about the soldiers trapped beneath the city, and because these soldiers are portrayed as ‘real people’, it’s an incredibly effective piece of work that stands head and shoulders over tedious dross like season-mate The Ice Warriors because the characters are imbued with real opinions and real motivations rather than ‘space/sci-fi’ ones.
As monsters go, the Yeti are reasonable opponents; they are mobile and threatening in size, although, somewhat strangely, Camfield elects to chuck them straight into the limelight. No hiding in the shadows for these creatures, which makes them, in visceral terms, not especially scary. Perhaps this is a deliberate decision, a warning to the viewer that the enemy does not need to creep about to bring you death – death is there, up front and coming at you with violence in mind. The creeping about is given to the fungus – which, as it passes through the tunnels in both film and studio sequences or even in model shots (as at the end of Episode 5), always looks amazing – and the sinister menace comes from the hissing sibilance of that disembodied possessor of human bodies (dead or alive), the Great Intelligence.
Another reason The Web of Fear’s reputation has endured since it was broadcast, might simply boil down to one thing: Episode 4. Whatever you might think of it as a whole, Episode 4 is an astonishing and quintessential bit of Doctor Who. The filmed shoot-out in Covent Garden is a piece of sustained action unlike any seen in the series before (even if you want to quote The War Machines or The Gunfighters), and in studio, the claustrophobic attack on the electrical shop is brutally effective. Throughout the story, Troughton gives his usual sufficient yet elusive performance, but in Episode 4, he gets some incredible close-ups when telling his companions what the Intelligence is – all of which serves to make him look quite alien.
Many will note, of course, that this is, in effect, the first UNIT story. When Lethbridge-Stewart turns up in Episode 3 it comforts the modern viewer with 45 years’ hindsight. But at the time, the Doctor’s future ally was portrayed as a mysterious, conspicuous figure whose sudden arrival and subsequent actions were as questionable as those of Harold Chorley (played by second Avengers ‘girl’ and Ian Hendry surrogate Jon Rollason), Professor Travers (Jack Watling, reprising his role from The Abominable Snowmen earlier in the season), Driver Evans (the story’s most outstanding and multi-layered character, brilliantly played by Derek Pollitt) and Staff Sgt. Arnold (played with great texture by John Lydon lookalike, Jack Woolgar). Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart is credulous, pragmatic and often cold, and although these qualities would remain in his later stories (even after his transformation into Pertwee’s sidekick buffoon), here they are used to crank up the paranoia that there is a traitor in the Doctor’s midst.
If you can suspend your knowledge of the Colonel’s future life when you watch this, you will see what viewers saw in 1968 and that will add to the suspense. Once you have, however, and the Intelligence has trundled off into who-knows-where, it’s worth re-remembering that Lethbridge-Stewart would go on to found UNIT: the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. Now read that again. Lethbridge-Stewart, as a consequence his involvement in these events, goes on to found the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. Just sayin’.
Ultimately, The Web of Fear’s failings are few: it sags a bit in the middle because there’s too much repetition (I confess I didn’t even realise I’d skipped Episode 4 when I bought the download) and some of the storytelling is not particularly clear – I still have no idea who is sabotaging what and when – but this might all be to the advantage of the suspense the story is aiming for.
But Hitchcock it’s not. This lack of clarity or satisfactory explanation may fall at the feet of Camfield or writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln (though, given the great and awkward pains the dialogue goes to in explaining to the viewers stuff we’ve already been able to work out thanks to direction and performance, I suspect the latter). Camfield’s direction is, in fact, incredibly accomplished. Here, he proves himself not only to be the master of stylish film work, but also the king of the electronic studio; I note in particular some excellent and highly unusual camera set-ups and cross-fades in Episode 6. He is also backed up by some top-notch set design from David Myerscough-Jones whose tube tunnels and platforms could easily be the real thing and whose Intelligence ‘centre’ in Episode 6 even features a ceiling (it’s the details, folks). The real atmosphere of this story, however, comes from Clive Leighton’s realistic and yet often expressionistic lighting, probably unrivalled in any other Doctor Who story since Season One.
Those of you who’ve seen the download, though, will probably agree with me that the most amusing moment comes when we see a chocolate bar emblazoned with the words ‘Camfield’s Dairy Milk’ and that the most frightening things in the whole six episodes are actually Victoria’s disturbingly weird legs.
Writing a review of The Web of Fear seems an odd thing to be doing so long after we all downloaded it and realised with astonishment and joy that it was great but nowhere near as good as The Enemy of the World – but, hey, the BBC are releasing it on DVD this month.
I seem to remember you all took it on the chin when they put out the Enemy DVD with no Extras, other than a trailer for this release. You stoic lot, you. I seem to recall the hope was that, as The Web of Fear would be released several months hence, there’d be time to record a commentary track, or maybe sling together a little documentary. And, oh how exciting if the BBC were holding back the real Episode 3 for the DVD release as a treat for all our dedication and love and pie-in-the-sky daydreaming.
As I wrote on my review for The Enemy of the World:
- A single shiny disc with a picture on it and words that tell you what it is you’re putting into your player.
- A plastic case in which to keep your shiny disc safe.
- A cover with words and pictures on it telling you all about the shiny disc you’re putting into your player.
- An insert with words and pictures on it telling you all about the, yeah, you get the picture…
- So, there you go.
- No Production Subtitles, no Commentary track.
- No ‘real’ Episode 3 – just John Cura’s telesnaps (I say ‘just’, at least we’ve been spared another poorly-executed cartoon…).
And, yeah, for the wag that asked me last time, it looks like it’s been VID-Fired.
But, if you don’t already have The Web of Fear (unlikely!) then this is a great story and well worth owning. If you have the download, though, I’d advise you against conning yourself again.
The Web of Fear can be ordered now from Amazon, where the £20.42 RRP is reduced to just £13.97, ahead of its release on February 24th .