'Doctor Who': Revisiting "The Web of Fear"
Reconsidering the 1968 'Doctor Who' Serial Five Years After Its Rediscovery
It was just five years ago that "The Web of Fear" was one of several mostly wiped stories featuring Patrick Troughton's Doctor. Dramatically, and seemingly overnight, that changed. The serial, which had gained an almost legendary status during the nearly five decades since its broadcast, had, alongside its proceeding story "The Enemy of the World" turned up in Nigeria. Though its third episode was (and remains) missing, it offered fans the opportunity to see it again. Could it live up to expectations set by decades of hype?
Perhaps the question is to ask why the story was so legendary. In part, it's almost certainly down to its introducing a notable character to the lore of the series. Coming in midway into the serial, Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (played the one and only Nicholas Courtney) made his debut here. Later still, of course, he was to become a series regular beside Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor and then a recurring character throughout the life of Who's original televised run and in audio adventures before Courtney's passing in 2011. Despite that, the character lives on, both through his daughter being a recurring character in the modern series as well as in a series of paperbound adventures that have been running since 2015. All of which was born out of this story and the creation of the characters by writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln.
The story also derived some of its status from its monsters. Made in the midst of a season of Who tales based around a formula of "base under siege" by various creatures including Martian Ice Warriors, this was one of two stories to feature the Yeti and its controlling influence The Great Intelligence. Both had appeared in only one other serial that had been made the same season and was just as missing from the BBC archives. With only the opening episode surviving the archive purgings of the 1970s and a handful of clips turning up in the 1990s, there was much to suggest atmosphere and menace in visuals alongside the surviving soundtrack. "If only we could see it for ourselves," fans would say.
Then, of course, we could. Four of the five remaining episodes of it turned up again, cleaned up for release first on iTunes and later on DVD. With the missing third episode reconstructed from the soundtrack with still images for visuals, we could, at last, see view it again.
In some ways, it lived up to expectations. Directed by Douglas Camfield, one of the acknowledged best directors of Who, and set in the confined spaces of the London Underground system, it certainly had all the menace and atmosphere expected from previously surviving elements. The black and white visuals of the era lend themselves nicely to both the story and the direction, creating a world of shadows and gloom at every corner. Even the scenes set inside the makeshift headquarters aren't too brightly lit, adding to the sense of entrapment. Camfield and his camera crew further add to the sensation of claustrophobia by engaging in frequent close-ups of the cast, especially when they get into groups. It's something that further cements the director's reputation as one of the program's best directors.
What of the Yeti themselves? The giant furry robots with glowing eyes, claws, and web spraying guns certainly looked great in those surviving clips. Indeed, for much of the serial, they are towering and menacing as they alternate between rampaging roars and sneaking up on their victims. Indeed, it is to Camfield's credit as a director that they look as good as they do for so long. Once the big battle with them in episode four takes place, showing how powerful they are, they suddenly lose what made them so great. They become the center of a couple of gags and are reduced to merely being guards rather than the great force they had been. The limits of the costumes also show themselves on occasions throughout where they become more lumbering actors than threatening monster. It is here that both their reputation and that of the serial takes a hit.
The serial's other issue became apparent as well. For the first four episodes, the same ones in which the Yeti are at their best, the story moves along at a cracking pace. The Second Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria arrive in the London Underground where the Yetis are already a presence with a group of soldiers and scientists led by Professor Travers (Jack Watling reprising his role from the earlier Yeti serial "The Abominable Snowmen" in solid old age make-up) and his daughter Anne trying to stop them. It's all the hallmarks of a great "base under siege" story: small cast, confined space, menacing adversary, and the sense of a traitor within the ranks of the besieged. The latter is undermined somewhat by the fact that viewers know that Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart won't be the traitor (something which the writing does its best to imply here) but it works for the most part, leading up to the big action sequence in episode four. All seems to be going well, a genuine classic at hand.
Then the plot stalls. Writers Haisman and Lincoln fall victim to the bane of Doctor Who six-parters: the need to stall out the plot in later episodes. Indeed, the Great Intelligence goes so far as to issues a timed ultimatum that (perhaps not-so-coincidently) lasts almost the same length as the episode and gets drawn out even more. From there until a long way into the final installment, all of the pace and menace the story worked so hard to build up until then dissipates. Once it does so, not even Camfield's direction can either hide the fact or get the pace back once plot begins moving again. The result becomes a frustrating conclusion to an otherwise first-rate story but, given the issues surrounding the duo's third and final Who story "The Dominators" which lost an episode due to comparable problems, perhaps this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise?
Where does that leave "The Web of Fear"? For much of its length, it's worthy of the reputation that Who fandom had bestowed upon it for the time in which it was missing. And yet, in the end, it suffers from issues of plotting and scripting that not even one of the show's best directors could help it overcome. "The Web of Fear" is a story that has greatness in its grasp and, yet, lets it slip away.