The Web of Fear

Written by:
Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln
Directed by: Douglas Camfield
Starring: Patrick Troughton
Year: 1968
Video Availability (Episode One Only): Try Amazon

The Web of Fear is an excellent story, though unfairly trumped up as a classic. Most of the blame for that lies at the feet of episode one: while the rest of the story has its faults, as we'll come to later, this first episode is simply, pardon the expression, the cat's cock.

If all the missing episodes were found and it was released on DVD then it would probably lose something anyway - the grimy picture quality adds to the effect, making it seem like part of the old Universal stable to which it alludes. Another plus is Douglas Camfield's direction. While Gerald Blake, the director of the first Yeti story, was also well above standard as a director, Camfield is first-rate in Who and does extraordinary work. Like The Abominable Snowmen, this is another story where the sets impress greatly, with a much-told story about the London Underground thinking they'd filmed there without asking permission.

Most of it comes down to the Yeti, however. Cuddly fat arses in their first outing, here they're streamlined with slits for mouths and savage, lethal claws. Finally they're elevated into the first rank of Who monsters, and they still manage to scare today. In fact, I nearly bloody shit myself to be honest with you.

Deborah Watling as Victoria still can't act to save her life, even under Camfield's helming (piercing voice or what? Maybe I shouldn't watch season five when I've got a hangover), but the inexplicable way the Yeti turns from the old version to the new is sublime.

There is a problem with race in this story. I often like to talk about race in the series, usually only half-seriously, and discuss other things like body politics and so on. But here there's a definite reason for its inclusion in a review, as we get the Doctor making a racist remark in episode six ("blithering Welsh imbecile!") and with Julius Silverstein, a textbook example of a stereotype Jew. "Money! You vant to rob me!" Thankfully he's dispatched pretty early on, though the aforementioned Welsh imbecile does make his debut the following episode.

There's so much visually to love in this story, from Jamie toppling a cobwebbed corpse to the Tardis in space and the brilliantly shot cliffhanger where for once Troughton genuinely does homage silent cinema. This is a rare example of it almost being a good thing that there are episodes missing from the archives. If the following five instalments were found then I feel certain the story wouldn't be held as in high regard. For an opening episode in isolation, though, this is just absolutely flawless.
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Cast holidays in the 60s were a bit of a pain when it came to narrative flow, and perhaps none so much as this. After a superb build-up all the tension is let out and thrown away by allowing Patrick Troughton to take a week's holiday. What compounds the massive great hole is the script's insistence on constantly referring to his absence. Post-reprise, there are twenty-eight mentions of the word "Doctor" (Anorakky, I know, but who's The Anorak?) an attempt to keep the tension taut, but achieving the opposite effect. That said, it's only the difference between a classic first episode and a very good second one, but that difference is greatly missed.

Jamie and Victoria meeting with Professor Travers is a rare example of the series revisiting a secondary character, particularly one that's changed so much. Watling plays the older Travers as a grumpy old curmudgeon, "over forty years" after they'd met him in The Abominable Snowmen. Another curiosity is all the barbs aimed at "the gutter press" via Jon Rollason as Mr. Chorley - had a newspaper done something to upset Haisman and Lincoln or something?

A nice touch here includes some naturalistic dialogue from two soldiers - this is the only Who story to contain the phrase "off his chump" - and talk of the Yeti coming "through the post". Sadly, the playing isn't quite as naturalistic, as the two actors involved are clearly putting on working class accents.

A note of total trivia is that the reconstruction I'm "watching" the story with is not from Loose Cannon as usual, but from Joint Venture Productions.
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The first origination of UNIT is questionable: the Doctor used military organisations to aid him previously in The War Machines and The Faceless Ones. Here he enlists the help of a group of soldiers, a group that would later be specifically contracted to fighting alien menaces and called Unit Nations Intelligence Taskforce. They won't be called that until later in the year/next season with The Invasion, but here we first meet The Brigadier… or Colonel as he was originally known. It's always easy to forget what a great character the Brigadier was, and how admirably played. (Unless you watch Who with Pertwee rose-tinted glasses on, then you'll always think he's great). The character had a decent comeback in Mawdryn Undead and some less-than-decent ones in The Five Doctors and Battlefield. But his regular run in the series saw a role with much integrity for his first showings in this story and The Invasion, and a fine bow-out in Terror of the Zygons. It's just a shame that the stories in between denigrated him ever more gradually towards a complete buffoon with no credibility whatsoever. More on this (much, much more) when we get to the Pertwee reviews. In The Web of Fear he's quite a sinister character, with the characters and viewers initially unsure of his allegiance and motivations.

The absence of Patrick from the narrative is alarmingly badly handled. We've already discussed the episode two dynamic, but here we've got much meandering around his return, with not just one but two bouts of exposition from Pat. Finally we're allowed back in the story, though as Web is one of those stories where the Tardis crew join events after they've begun we just get to play catch-up for most of the episode. The remainder is largely taken up with "Oh no, they're going to blow up the tunnels, what about Jamie?" antics, which is not unlike episode two's "Oh no, they're going to blow up the tunnels, what about the Doctor?"
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"I'm a stereotype, Boyo, is it?" Driver Evans there. When you think about it, the idea of a formless intelligence that controls robotic henchmen on Earth is remarkably like the Nestene consciousness with the Autons. Also notable is how quickly Lethbridge-Stewart believes the Doctor's story about the Tardis - did he drop IQ points with his promotion?

There's an unusually high amount of line fluffs for a Troughton story in this one, with much fluff it, stop, then start again happenings. However, nobody blows a line like Hartnell, he's the master, so they're largely unworthy of note. But I'm putting off the main point of discussion here, and that's that The Web of Fear drags considerably in its middle episodes. Whereas the six episodes of The Abominable Snowmen were all about pace and atmosphere, the six episodes of The Web of Fear are often about keeping the plot at a standstill so that it doesn't reach its conclusion at least an episode early. They should have let it - it'd be a lot stronger as a result.

Repackaging the Yeti mythos into a action-adventure storyline means that said story requires a constant flow of spectacle in order to propel it forward. Take away that spectacle, even for a moment, and you've lost any progressive order to events. Thankfully, episode four does deliver on this front. The Invasion owes much to The Web of Fear, and here we have advancing Yeti in a street battle with UNIT. Completing the Cyber connection, they even get the Cyber theme first used in The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase, but most famously used in The Tomb of the Cybermen. Shots of this Yeti march were recently recovered and included on the Seeds of Death DVD. They did indeed look highly impressive, suggesting perhaps that Web is a story that works on a greater visual level.
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Jack Watling channelling the voice of the Intelligence is no way near as effective as Wolfe Morris in The Abominable Snowmen, negating one of the original story's key elements into misplaced ham. Another difference here is that the Intelligence acknowledges the Doctor's intellect, a different turn of events than that of the previous year. As I've said, maybe it just seems worse without the images, but Web seems less like a "base under siege" story, more a "hang about in a room until it's time for it to end" story. A special mention must go, incidentally, to the stylish directorial touch of pulsating fungus playing over the end credits of the first five episodes.
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"There's lovely!" What with cowardly Driver Evans, The Green Death and, to a lesser extent, Delta and the Bannermen, Doctor Who owes the Welsh a big apology. Rather ironic that it's BBC Wales that are bringing the show back in 2005, though the greatest reward the Welsh gave the series would come later in the year, with Philip Madoc making the first of four incredible guest appearances.

Again, I can't keep repeating the old "probably great with the images" but I imagine the Yeti are absolutely terrifying in this episode. Reliant only on soundtrack you're forced to concentrate more on the dialogue, and the dialogue is clearly inferior to that in the first Haisman/Lincoln story.

The climax is one that I initially reacted against, but have come to accept more with repeat viewings. Basically, the Doctor plans to trick the Great Intelligence into destroying itself, but is foiled when Jamie intervenes. What galls so much is that Jamie is so thick he can't see the Doctor's plan… despite the Doctor using the exact same plan every story for about the last fifty years. Formulaic doesn't even come close, though the thought that the Intelligence is still out there somewhere is an unnerving one. Plus, on reflection it isn't that obvious, at least not when you're watching the story in isolation, like I am here - Troughton is certainly more genuinely uneffective than usual here, and it is kind of nice to have a story where he loses, if only partly. Despite all this, and the somewhat rushed coda, this is still a strong resolution to a worthwhile entry.
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Excellent, albeit overrated, The Web of Fear fails to sustain a prolonged narrative to justify its length.
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