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The Web of Fear

Review by Paul Bowler

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Following Salamander’s demise and narrowly escaping from a giant web in space, the TARDIS materialises in the London Underground, where the tunnels have become infested with pulsating webs and the Great Intelligence’s fearsome robotic Yeti. The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie, (Frazer Hines), and Victoria (Deborah Watling) are reunited with Professor Travers (Jack Watling), who they met forty years ago in the Himalayas. They discover Travers’ experiments with a control sphere must have accidentally reactivated the Yeti he brought back from Tibet in 1935, providing the Great Intelligence with another chance to invade Earth.

As the web-fungus begins to fill the underground tunnels the Doctor joins forces with the Army, led by Captain Knight (Ralph Watson), and then later Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), to fight the Yeti – unaware that someone in their midst has been possessed by the Intelligence. The Doctor and his friends are captured by the Yeti and taken to the Great Intelligence’s lair, where the Intelligence plans to drain all of the Doctor’s knowledge from his mind.

The Doctor manages to sabotage the device so it will enable him to drain Intelligence’s mind instead, but before he can implement his plan, the Doctor’s companion’s rescue him and the Great Intelligence is sent screaming back into the dark void from whence it came. After saying their farewells, the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria are heading back to the Covent Garden station, when the Doctor suddenly remembers the trains could start running again soon, so they all quickly hurry off down the tunnel to reach the TARDIS…

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The Web of Fear (1968) is the fifth story from Season Five, written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, this adventure features Patrick Troughton at the height of his tenure as the Doctor.  The announcement in October 2013 that four of the five missing episodes from The Web of Fear – together with The Enemy of the World – had been discovered by Philip Morris in Nigeria, with their subsequent return to the BBC and immediate release on iTunes, made the 50th Anniversary celebrations of Doctor Who even more special. This new DVD release from BBC Worldwide is one that few of us could ever have dreamed of owning back when the range was launched fifteen years ago, so it is perhaps fitting then that such a revered classic from Season Five as The Web of Fear should become the final regular release from the Doctor Who DVD range – before the range itself concludes on October 26th 2015 with the long-awaited release of The Underwater Menace.

Needless to say, Patrick Troughton is magnificent in The Web of Fear. In a performance that shifts effortlessly between the lighter, more comic moments, and brooding intensity as the Doctor contemplates the Intelligence’s plans, Troughton’s presence seems to permeate nearly every aspect of the story – even when he is absent during second episode, only featuring momentarily in the reprise for the previous episode, his Doctor presides over this web of intrigue; causing subtle ripples that spread outwards to influence everything around him.

The camaraderie between this TARDIS crew is a joy to behold. Jamie is as resourceful as ever, helping close the TARDIS doors to save the Doctor and Victoria from suffering the same fate as Salamander, and being sucked into the time vortex. Following this exciting opening there is a wonderful scene were Jamie and Victoria tease the Doctor about his ability to control the TARDIS. Once they escape the web in space and materialise in Covent Garden tube station we are treated to a typical exchange between the Doctor and Victoria, where she asks if it’s safe to venture outside, to which the Doctor assures her wryly that he shouldn’t think so for a moment.

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Frazer Hines has some great scenes in this story, Jamie’s previous encounter with the Great Intelligence proves extremely useful, he knows about Intelligence’s pyramid devices, helps the soldiers when they confront the Yeti in the tunnels, and looks after Victoria when the Doctor goes missing following the explosion at Charing Cross. Deborah Watling has plenty to do as well, in this, her penultimate adventure as Victoria Waterfield; her character has become a little more accustomed to her adventures in time and space by this story, with Victoria bravely wandering into the tunnels alone at one point in search of the Doctor and Jamie.

The Web of Fear is a near perfect fusion of storytelling and direction. With its dark and foreboding tunnels, eerie, web shrouded atmosphere, and the sure knowledge that something terrible is lurking in the darkness, ready to strike at any moment, certainly makes The Web of Fear one of the most suspenseful stories of this era. With this sequel to The Abominable Snowmen (1967), writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln ensure the Yeti make triumphant return in The Web of Fear, cleverly moving the Yeti from the bleak wilderness of the Himalayas and placing them in the more familiar setting of the London Underground, Haisman and Lincoln instantly made the creatures seem even more menacing than ever before.

The Yeti have also been given an upgrade of sorts for their second appearance, slimmer, and with the addition of two bright glowing eyes, they now wield guns that fire lethal streams of webbing, and each attack is accompanied by a distinctive roar that is both terrifying and primal in its intensity. The effectiveness of these lumbering monsters is enhanced even further by the incredible sets, designed by David Myersough-Jones, whose stunning replicas of the stations and tunnels were so good that London Underground apparently complained to the BBC – mistakenly thinking they had filmed there without permission.

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Deborah Watling’s father, Jack Watling, also returns as Professor Travers, heavily made up to look much older, his portrayal of the short tempered Professor is brilliant. It’s great to see Travers’ reaction when he is reunited with Jamie and Victoria, some forty years after their last adventure in the Himalayas and their observations about how he has aged is priceless. On his arrival at the armies Goodge Street underground HQ, the elderly Professor is confronted by the smarmy reporter Harold Chorley (Jon Rollason), and he promptly gives Chorley a suitably blunt and no-nonsense assessment of the crisis that has engulfed London when the journalist attempts to interview him. Tina Packer plays Travers’ daughter, Anne Travers, who arrives to help after the Yeti control sphere goes missing. Anne is an accomplished scientist in her own right, she doesn’t suffer fools lightly either, deftly subverting Captain Knight’s preconceptions of her by explaining her reasons for becoming a scientist with a cool sarcasm, and she is also swift to put Chorley in his place as well; making it clear in no uncertain terms that she has no time whatsoever for his “style” of reporting.

The Web of Fear is also something of a precursor to more contemporary Earth-based stories, with the Doctor working alongside the army as a scientific advisor, leading to the introduction of UNIT in The Invasion (1968), before the concept was fully embraced by the production team when the Doctor began his exile on Earth at the start of Season Seven – a format that would form the cornerstone of the 3rd Doctor’s era.

The soldiers we meet in The Web of Fear are initially led by Captain Knight, played by Ralph Watson, then we have Staff Sgt. Arnold (Jack Wollgar), along with Corporal Lane (Rod Beacham), Corporal Blake (Richardson Morgan), Craftsman Weams (Stephen Whittaker), and Derek Pollitt as faint-hearted Driver Evans. This story also features John Levene’s second appearance in the series, this time as one of the Yeti. John Levene would of course eventually go on to play the role of Benton during the UNIT stories.

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The Web of Fear also marks Nicholas Courtney’s first appearance as the Doctor’s long time friend Lethbridge-Stewart. Nicholas Courtney had previously appeared as Space Security Service Agent Bret Vyon in The Dalek Master Plan (1965) with William Hartnell. Its great to see Nicholas Courtney working with Patrick Troughton in this story, here as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, Courtney’s character appears midway through the story, in episode three, although his boots are actually seen in episode two (played by the unaccredited Maurice Brooks), and he quickly assumes command at Goodge Street HQ. The Colonel would soon be promoted to Brigadier for his next story, The Invasion, but here we get to see the genesis of his friendship with the Doctor. While Captain Knight is openly sceptical about the Doctor’s claims and his ability to travel in time and space, it’s fascinating to see how readily the Colonel accepts the Doctor’s explanation about the TARDIS, as well as the Time Lords hypothesis about the true nature of the Great Intelligence itself.

This atmospheric direction by Douglas Camfield is nothing short of superb; every exciting moment of suspense from the scripts is accentuated further by the impressive sets and the cast’s excellent performances. There are some brilliant Hammeresque touches as well, especially in the first episode, when the Yeti returns to life in Julius Silverstein’s (Frederick Schrecker) museum, where Camfield’s use of stock music composed by Bela Bartock elevates this scene into a sublime moment of gothic horror. The Web of Fear is one of those Doctor Who stories where everything seems to magically gel together, creating a seamless blend of sci-fi and horror. The effects of the web-fungus and the Yeti web guns are also chilling to behold, as soldiers fall screaming to the ground, their faces smothered by the deadly webbing, tunnels fill up with the bubbling web, and the fungus even creeps across the closing credits (except for episode six) in a writhing, pulsating mass of tendrils just like in the episodes themselves.

The Yeti attack at Covent Garden in episode four is another great highlight Douglas Camfield’s direction in The Web of Fear, were the Yeti strike (accompanied by the same incidental stock music used for the Cybemen) as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart leads his men in a mission to acquire the TARDIS. As they fight back against the impossible odds above ground, unaware Staff Sgt. Arnold and Corporal Lane have already succumbed to the web while trying to push the baggage trolley through the tunnel, they find themselves locked in a bitter fight for survival as Yeti advance and mercilessly kill everyone on sight. Camfield makes the Yeti seem just as frightening in these daylight scenes as they are in the darkness of the underground tunnels, bullets, grenades, not even a bazooka seems to slow them down. Colonel Lethrbridge-Stewart is the only survivor from the massacre; he makes it back to Goodge Street HQ where he is horrified to learn that one of the missing Yeti models used to summon the creatures had secretly been planted in his pocket all along.

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The chilling scenes with Professor Travers possessed by the Great Intelligence, flanked by Yeti guards, as it uses the Professors voice to confront the Doctor and the survivors, reveals the full extent of the Intelligence’s plans. After their previous encounter in Tibet, the Intelligence has observed the Doctor’s travels and set this trap so it can use a machine to drain the Doctor’s mind of all his knowledge. The fifth episode is extremely tense, with almost everyone now under suspicion as the Great Intelligence’s duplicitous servant, Victoria is taken hostage by the Yeti, then Staff Sgt. Arnold returns unexpectedly, and the fungus continues to close in on Goodge Street HQ as the Doctor and Anne race against time to complete the control box to use against the Yeti.

Although most of the story was originally wiped by the BBC, with only the first episode remaining in the BBC Archive, it would be many years before fans would get the chance to see this only surviving episode. While the novelisation of The Web of Fear by Terrance Dicks, published in 1976, vividly brought the story to life, it was only this, and the subsequent broadcast of episode one as part of  BSB’s Dr Who Weekend (1990) followed by the telesnaps  printed in Doctor Who Magazine, that served to provide any real impression of this classic story. The audio soundtrack (narrated by Frazer Hines) on the BBC Audio CD (2000) also gave more insight to this story. Episode one of The Web of Fear was finally released as part of The Reign of Terror Box Set on VHS (2003), and the episode debuted later on DVD as part of the Lost in Time Set (2005) along with a selection of clips from the missing episodes cut by the New Zealand Broadcasting Cooperation, yielding a tantalizing glimpse of the battle from episode four and the moment Anne Travers was surprised by a Yeti.

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Just as with The Enemy of the World DVD, there are no extra features on The Web of Fear DVD, however the sheer quality of the restoration and the joy of seeing these classic episodes again more than make up for any lack of bonus features. The same collection of images and telesnaps used to reconstruct episode three for its iTunes release has also been employed to complete the story. Although I would have liked to have seen the missing third episode reconstructed with animation like the other incomplete stories previously released on DVD, the telesnaps and audio are more than adequate. Its just a shame Nicholas Courtney’s first onscreen appearance as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart is in this missing episode, while the telesnaps and audio document this scene well enough, it would have been a magical moment to actually witness the debut of this much-loved character and his historic first encounter with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor.

The final episode of The Web of Fear rattles along at a cracking pace. Travers, now released from the Intelligence’s control, is rounded up along with all the others by the Yeti and taken to the Piccadilly Circus station, where the true host of the alien Intelligence is finally revealed as Staff Sgt. Arnold. Unaware the Doctor has secretly reprogrammed one of the Yetis, the Intelligence believes it has won, but before the pyramid device can drain the Doctor’s mind Jamie orders the controlled Yeti to attack and pulls him free. The Doctor is livid, having sabotaged the helmet to drain the Intelligence into his own mind, he is robbed of a decisive victory and the action packed final moments culminate with the Great Intelligence being sent back into space. It is only during this last episode that The Web of Fear comes unstuck a little. The Intelligence’s control over Staff Sgt. Arnold’s lacks the sinister menace of Padmasambhava’s possession in The Abominable Snowmen, where the Intelligence spoke in a chilling whisper, and though the conclusion is exciting it does feels a little rushed – however these are only minor quibbles in what is otherwise a near flawless production.

The legacy of The Web of Fear has now encompassed the 11th Doctor’s (Matt Smith) era as well, with the Great Intelligence featuring in the 2012 Christmas Special: The Snowmen, voiced by Sir Ian McKellen, with Richard E Grant as the evil Dr Simeon, and Grant later returned as the intelligence in The Bells of St John (2013) and The Name of the Doctor (2013). Although the Yeti did not appear in these stories, the discovery of The Web of Fear showed how good they were, and it would be fantastic to see these classic monsters return again in the new series.l

The Web of Fear DVD is a fantastic example of Patrick Troughton’s era, and I’m sure this classic story will take pride of place in many collections. Season Five is often held in the highest regard as one of the very best, if not finest, seasons of Doctor Who ever made. The Web of Fear exemplifies the best qualities of the base under siege format that became so synonymous of this era of monsters, with exciting scripts, and excellent direction; it also featured some of the highest levels of quality and design ever seen in Doctor Who during the sixties. Season Five also heralded significant changes in the production team (With the departure of Innes Lloyd, Peter Bryant would become the new Producer on Doctor Who, and Derrick Sherwin joined as Story Editor) and it is perhaps testament to this smooth transition behind the scenes, together with Troughton, Hines, and Watling’s endearing performances, that all contributed towards The Web of Fear, and Season Five as a whole, achieving such a high standard in both terms of quality and production that it would become one of the programmes most distinctive and memorable seasons of all time.

Images belong to BBC