Note: This Review was written two years before the Enemy of the World and Web of Fear were announced as having been discovered. Most of what I say here is still relevant, but if you want to check out my post discovery thoughts, check them out here
Thankfully we aren’t too far away from the end of the missing episodes of Dr Who, but there are still a few left.
One of those stories is the next on my run through – the sequel to the Abominable Snowmen from earlier in this same season – The Web of Fear.
Much like some other missing stories in the Troughton Era, this one is considered to be a classic, but regular readers of the blog will know that sometimes these stories don’t live up to the hype. So what about this one?
Doctor Who – The Web of Fear Review: What’s It About?
Well, it’s another base under siege story and obviously another story with the Yeti.
Set 40-odd years after the events of the Abominable Snowmen, this is takes place in 1970s London.
Having spent many years trying to reactivate a Yeti control sphere (answers on a postcard for why he thought that would end well) Professor Travers finally has some success, only for it to go missing, and find its home inside a Yeti husk that had been kept in the private museum of one of the most stereotypical Jews you’ve ever seen.
Fast forward a little while (months maybe) and the whole of London has been taken over by the Yeti (now sporting a more fearsome look and guns that shoot deadly cobwebs) and the Great Intelligence. While the army try to fight them off in the London Underground, the TARDIS is grabbed off course and brought down there as well.
So with all the pieces in play, the story focuses on the battle to defeat the Yeti and the who-dunnit nature of the identity of the Great Intelligence, who appears to be working against them from the inside.
Oh, and this story also features the debut of the future Brigadier, Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart.
Thoughts – The Quality of the Story and The First Episode
There have been a few candidates for ‘Story I’d Most Like to See Returned to the BBC’, including Marco Polo, The Myth Makers, The Daleks Master Plan and the Power of the Daleks, but this could well be near the top of the pile (oooh, foreshadowing or what?!)
In a season that focuses almost entirely on Monsters and the format of Base Under Siege, The Web of Fear shines like a beacon in the night. It’s a terrific story.
We’re lucky enough to still have Episode 1, but unlike the Enemy of the World, this probably isn’t the best episode that could have survived. As you might expect, it’s a bit of a set-up episode and doesn’t really feature all that much in the way of character development, Yeti or even the Brigadier, who only makes his debut in Episode 3.
But what the surviving episode does do is give an indication of the quality of the sets and crucially, the atmosphere.
The production team did such an effective job of realising the London Underground and its claustrophobic and dark nature that the BBC famously got a letter of complaint from the authorities for filming down there without permission.
In that first episode, things don’t seem all that bad. There’s a sort of light-hearted nature to the way the soldiers in the underground base seem to be acting. That the BBC (within the realms of this show) sent a journalist down to cover things for them, that Professor Travers is being played in a down-right comical fashion and that they are all happy enough to welcome in civilians into their base would give the viewer of the first episode only the idea that this story isn’t as grim as it actually is.
Within a few episodes, all of the soldiers presented here have died agonising deaths, Travers drops the ‘grumpy old man’ act entirely and the threat level goes all the way up to maximum.
And while we can enjoy the story in its reconstructed format perfectly well (and indeed far better than many others), the most frustrating thing is that there are a good few surviving clips of 5-10 seconds here and there, which whets the appetite further.
This story just looks and sounds great.
The Who-Dunnit Nature (no pun intended) – Watch Out…Spoilers Ahead
One of the things that works best about this story is the Who-Dunnit nature. Who among them is The Great Intelligence?
Watching now, part of the mystique is lost because we all know that it’s not The Brigadier, and any viewer can be relatively content in the knowledge that it’s not Travers or his daughter. And yet still, watching it the first time it was a surprise to find out that it was Staff Sergeant Arnold.
I must admit that I was a little confused as to whether Arnold was taken over after he went into the Web or whether or not he had been the Intelligence all along. Should it be the latter then it brings up a wee bit of confusion as to why he didn’t act earlier, but it also makes the repeat viewer look at a scene from Episode 2 (the one in which he lets his guard down a little by saying The Doctor had not been taken by the Yeti and when asked how he knew that said ‘Just a feeling’) and think “Very good”.
That’s really the only indication we are given that Arnold is the Intelligence (unless he does some body language acting that we don’t get to see) until the reveal at the end. But what makes that all the more strange is that this was a story made in 1968. As you know, stories back then were only made with the intention of watching once. There were no video recorders and legally a show could only be repeated one time (and only one story ever was). So while it’s brilliant for us to see the hint being dropped, I doubt anyone would have remembered that throwaway line four weeks later.
The Web and The Motivation
Another thing that confuses me is the motivation behind it.
From the off it’s clear that the Intelligence wants the Doctor. That’s why he’s been dragged off course in the TARDIS and put down in the London Underground.
But that seems to be the only real motivation for the whole sequence of events. That’s the Intelligence’s Modus Operandi.
So why exactly has it gone to such trouble to take over London, and what is the point of the Giant Pulsating Web that is filling up the Underground? And where does the Web go once the Intelligence has been defeated?
Victoria – From Quiet Victorian Female to Swinging Sixties ‘Who-Girl’
I quite like Victoria, and I think that Deborah Watling does a pretty good job of her. There’s no doubt that she has good chemistry with Troughton and Hines and that they are all enjoying themselves when they make these stories, but as a character they have absolutely no idea how to write for her.
While she started off as a young Victorian girl with Victorian values, that aspect of her character was very quickly abandoned. Fair enough, in Tomb of the Cybermen she was written as someone of her time, being amazed by the environment and the food, and worrying about her
dress being too revealing, but beyond that story there was almost no evidence that she was from the 19th century with the values to match coming through.
I mention this now because in Episode 1, the Victorian girl who would only recently have worried about revealing her ankles is happily wearing a very short 1960s dress.
And I know what you’re thinking – ‘That’s a good thing” - and while yes, I’m sure it did appeal to the men watching at the time, it just made her seem like such an empty and generic companion. Who is Victoria? What’s her story? By the Web of Fear she’s lost all sense of her origins. Fair enough, she’s still got more to her than Dodo, but that’s not exactly difficult.
- In Episode 1, the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria poke their heads round a corner all at different heights. They also did the same thing during The Ice Warriors. I wonder whether they did it in any other stories as if it was some kind of trademark?
- Other people have thought the same as me here, so apologies for the lack of originality in this statement, but scene in Episode 1 where Travers tries to get the dormant Yeti back from the museum owner looks, sounds and is acted like something from the silent movie era or a very early talkie. Just look at Travers’ facial expressions
- You’ll also notice that the music in this scene was not only used in Enemy of the World, but also – and more famously – in The Shining. Another piece used in this story is the Cybermen theme, which seems more than a little incongruous.
- Going back to that scene, and the way the Yeti suddenly changes its appearance. Well, it’s more than a little improbable. But speaking of the new Yeti costumes, I’m not sure whether I prefer them or not. Yes, they are more menacing, but they now resemble angry robots covered in fur rather than actual Yeti.
- But why would the Great Intelligence bring Yeti to London anyway? Why not just make them more mobile robots? It’s not like people will be fooled by these Yeti wandering around with web guns, is it?
- Staying with episode 1, there’s a scene where Jamie asks someone for information only to realise he’s not only dead, but covered in cobwebs. Surely he noticed that before he tapped him on the shoulder?
- Also, that same scene contains The Ultimate Patrick Troughton Freeze Frame, which has been used many times, including on the box to the BBC Video – The Troughton Years.
- One last thing from Episode 1 and it’s in the TARDIS scene. See if you can spot where Jamie burns his hand on a light on the console.
- Of course, any talk of the Web of Fear couldn’t go by without a mention of Comedy Welshman Derek Pollit, who plays Driver Evans. I’m not really sure why he’s in the story as he is (because he’s played for laughs, presumably at the expense of the Welsh) but even he manages to work within this story.
- For the Web of Fear to work, it couldn’t just be the same as the Abominable Snowmen, especially since it retained 3 key elements (Yeti, Intelligence and Travers) from it. So I really liked the idea that Jamie was confident enough to ‘know’ how to defeat them right at the start – i.e. destroy the Pyramid. When that didn’t work, it moved the goalposts a bit for the characters and also the viewers.
- Unfortunately, the one thing that was disappointing about this story was the ending. Beyond the reveal of the Who-Dunnit, it ended on a rather easy whimper with the reprogrammed Yeti simply destroying the bad guys, and then to follow there was some nonsensical ‘comedy’ about the trains coming back on. Ultimately I don’t think this took away from the story, but it was still a bit of a cop-out ending.
- The reconstruction of this story works very well because of the quality and amount of telesnaps available. Unlike stories where the pictures on the screen don’t match what the audio is doing, this works better than almost any other. But if I’m going to criticise it for anything, it’s that the lazy sod who created the one I watched just added the credits to Episode 1 at the end of every episode, meaning I had to go to Wikipedia to find the name of the actor who played Evans.
Doctor Who – The Web of Fear Review: Final Thoughts
The Web of Fear is an interesting story in that while watching it, you think it’s fantastic. When I write out a critique of it, there are clearly some issues relating to the plot and perhaps an underlying feeling of stupidity behind it (Yeti with web guns in London indeed…).
But despite that, it’s still a very enjoyable story and I think that comes down to the look, the atmosphere, the gimmick behind it and the historical significance of it.
Unlike some stories which I truly believe would not be considered as good if they survived (The Celestial Toymaker being the most obvious example, but I would perhaps controversially suggest Evil of the Daleks too), I don’t think that about the Web of Fear.
It is a classic story that works in the form of the reconstruction, but it would be even better if it survived. If it did, it would be held up as the ultimate Base Under Siege story, considered the real birth of the 70s Unit story and probably thought of as one of the top 10 stories of all time.
Without question, this is one to check out, reconstruction and all.