This review was made possible by Phillip Morris. Thank you, Phillip Morris!
The reality of my life as I head towards 42 is that there isn’t enough hours in the day. Between the kids and the house and the fact that writing is, in some ways, a 24 hour job with no vacations, I have a fraction of the time I used to have to spend on what seem now like frivolous things. This includes watching television. Just before Vivian turned one, we cut the cable, which was as much for our benefit as hers, as I’m now frankly shocked at how much time we could waste just putting something that happened to be on, on, and sitting in front of the couch, vegging out.
The number of television shows we watch regularly has dropped to a select few. Fewer still are the shows we rewatched. And so I’m able to say it has been years since the last time I watched an episode of the pre-revival Doctor Who. Also, the new Doctor Who has been significantly updated. It maintains, in my opinion, the same heart of the series — the sense of wonder and the thrill of discovery, and the triumph of intelligence against brute force — but Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have embraced a faster pace of storytelling. What used to take four half-hour episodes is now done in just 42 minutes. The new Doctor Who is bite-sized, and so easier to sample, and re-sample.
Late last week, Doctor Who fandom rejoiced at some wonderful news: nine previously missing episodes of the classic series had been rediscovered in a vault in Nigeria. The find completes one whole story of the Patrick Troughton era of the program (The Enemy of the World), and brings us one episode short of completing another (The Web of Fear, with episode 3 now the only one missing). There are few better gifts to offer fans of the television series as it approaches its fiftieth anniversary, and the BBC knows it, too. Within twenty-four hours of announcing the discovery (and with tight-lips ensuring that most fans didn’t know what had been discovered before the announcement), the episodes were up on iTunes across the world, ready for fans to download. I bought the six episodes of The Web of Fear for $9.99 and, over the past couple of days, I settled down to watch it.
The story picks up right off the end of The Enemy of the World, and viewers are treated to the aftermath of a fight in the console room that has the Doctor’s double end up sucked out into the Time Vortex. After a mighty struggle to just close the doors, the companions beg the Doctor to give them a chance to breathe before they set off on their next adventure. Whether he does or not depends on how you interpret a cut and companion Victoria’s change of costume, but soon the Doctor tries to land on Earth, and finds his TARDIS trapped above the planet in some kind of strange web. After struggling mightily to free his ship, they land in the London Underground, and find the place strangely deserted. Emerging into Covent Garden station, they find the gates locked, and a newspaper salesman covered in a strange web-like substance and slumped over a sign with a headline reading “LONDONERS FLEE: MENACE SPREADS”.
The Web of Fear is a six-part story in the middle of the fifth season of the original Doctor Who series. This series has been referred to fans as “the monster season”, as Doctor Who had finally ditched its historical stories and gone full-action. Every episode of this season features major monsters (with the exception of The Enemy of the World, where Patrick Troughton ends up playing a double role as the Doctor and a would-be world dictator, but that’s another post for another time), including Cybermen, the Ice Warriors, and the Yeti. The format of most of the stories is the base under siege, with monsters attacking throughout. It’s a simple but effective formula, and easy to see why the show slipped into this pattern at this time.
Even so, The Web of Fear stands out in many ways. Although it’s the second story of the series to feature the Yeti and the Great Intelligence (and given the direction the recent episodes of the revival, this makes the rediscovery of The Web of Fear particularly serendipitous), it’s the first story of that season to be set in the present day, and feature the Doctor working with the local army to try and fend off an invasion threat.
Doctor Who had returned to the present day before. The Faceless Ones is contemporary and, a year before that, The War Machines has the Doctor help an army stop a mad post-office super-computer and a bunch of hastily-constructed tank-like robots. In The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Doctor Who showed us a ruined, militarily-occupied London in 2164. The Web of Fear is the first Doctor Who story to show present day London as occupied territory.
In the week before the debut of The Web of Fear, the production crew filmed Patrick Troughton as the Doctor addressing the camera, talking to the children in the audience. He warned them that the next episode was “a little bit scary”, and they should all hold their parents’ hands a little more tightly so that their parents wouldn’t get too scared. I can see why they did this. By setting the story in one of the most familiar places imaginable to much of the audience, and setting it in the here and now, the show for the first time stripped away most of the protections that many members of the audience had. As scary as some stories might be, they weren’t totally scary, because they were set elsewhere or elsewhen. The monsters couldn’t possibly come here, now, could they? Well, with The Web of Fear, they had.
The Web of Fear is also the early template for Doctor Who’s UNIT years, a format that would help the show thrive through Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor. Episode 3 features the first on-screen meeting between the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (at the time, a Colonel). Sadly, episode 3 remains missing from the BBC archives, but the iTunes download makes do by paring a full audio of the episode along with still photographs taken from the episode.
It’s interesting comparing The Web of Fear to the offerings of the Doctor Who revival. I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t so completely spoiled by the faster pace of the storytelling to be put off the slower pace of the earlier episode — even if it’s likely that Davies of Moffat would have told the same story in, at most, two 42-minute episodes (and, possibly, one). Yes, there is a lot of running around, avoiding capture, getting captured, escaping and running around again. The plot does move at a snail’s pace. However, director Douglas Camfield (a name many fans of the original series will recognize, and a mentor to Graeme Harper, who has directed some of the best episodes of Doctor Who, original and revival), takes advantage of the slower pace to keep the tension on a slow burn. You do get the sense that the few surviving soldiers in the middle of the London Underground are hemmed in. They have nothing to do but wait, as their comrades are picked off one, by one. This experience is more akin to what soldiers see in the field, and it shows. Even as the best British stiff-upper-lip gets put on display, at the back of your mind you know their situation is desperate, and there’s no easy way out.
And Camfield makes it all feel real through some remarkable set-design. The designers of Doctor Who are, in many ways, the unsung heroes of the series. It’s more than just Raymond Cusick achieving the iconic design for the Daleks; the studio sets of the classic series are meticulously detailed. It’s only later in life after looking at some of these older serials that I really understood what they achieved here. And, indeed, the job of the designer is not to stand out, but to make the background fit into the action so effortlessly that it becomes a part of the fictional world made real. In The Web of Fear the set designers (led by David Myerscough-Jones) have their biggest triumph. The story goes that Douglas Camfield asked for permission to film in the London Underground, and the Underground said, “no way, no how”. Undaunted, Camfield commissioned sets of London Underground tunnels and station platforms and, when the first episode debuted, the BBC got a call from representatives of the Underground saying, “what did we just say! No filming in the London Underground!!” The attention to detail here is just marvellous, and you really feel you’re in the tunnels. The effect is both familiar and utterly claustrophobic.
Camfield’s work is a study of doing a lot with a little. He makes the most of a very straightforward script, and he extracts excellent performances from all the actors. The actors themselves do a good job of portraying soldiers that struggle (with varying degrees of success) to keep up morale even as the situation gets progressively worse. There’s little moments and bits of banter that feel authentic, and give the sense that the characters are terrified, but too terrified to really show it.
There are elements that have dated. The Yeti, despite a redesign and Camfield’s best efforts, are still way too cuddly and waddle too much to be taken wholly seriously. And Jack Watling, playing Professor Travers, relies too heavily on lurching cliches when he’s possessed by the Great Intelligence. I also think I’d like Private Evans much more if I didn’t strongly suspect he was playing a Welsh soldier to a rather blatant stereotype. However, if you can work a little harder to suspend your disbelief, there are rewards. Massive wads of tunnel-filling soap bubbles do become menacing, and the mystery of who among the soldiers is an Intelligence plant is genuinely compelling. I also appreciate that Professor Travers’ daughter Anne is a genuinely competent scientist, which is a step up on some of the female characters of the day.
Then there is Nicholas Courtney as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart. He shows up at the beginning of episode three to take command the leaderless group of soldiers trapped in the underground, and he steals the show. He has an instant chemistry with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, and there’s a stalwart sensibility about him that is wonderful to watch. When the Doctor confesses to the soldiers that he has a craft that can travel through time and space (which, incidentally, he is separated from, and someone nefarious might be trying to access), the other soldiers laugh this off (as you expect them to), but Lethbridge-Stewart buys into what the Doctor is saying wholesale, even though he’s only just met him. Why? Well, for a number of reasons, I think. Perhaps it’s a sense that the Doctor clearly knows what he’s talking about, and in a London that has already seen an alien menace clear out most of the streets and occupy much of the Underground, how can Lethbridge-Stewart possibly dismiss what the Doctor is saying as too outlandish? He’s clearly in a science fiction program, he says to himself, so get with the program. At the same time, there is the practical element of, as outlandish as the Doctor’s idea is, it’s the only real hope they’ve got, so it’s best to cling to that hope and have something, than to let it go and have nothing.
How much of this is the script? How much of this is the direction? How much of this is Nicholas Courtney’s interpretation of the role? Some combination of the three I’d bet, and I’d also bet it’s mostly the last third.
It’s no surprise to me that Nicholas Courtney returned the next year, and brought with him further elements that would become a big part of Doctor Who’s mythos in the early 1970s — specifically, a United Nations Intelligence Taskforce set up around him, with the Doctor as its scientific advisor, to face the many alien invasions the Earth would come to face in those wild and hectic days.
As for Patrick Troughton, he’s as Doctorish as you’d want any Doctor to be, flying by the seat of his pants and yet somehow staying a few steps ahead of his antagonists. The story takes even greater import with the recent revival tales featuring the Great Intelligence. Moffat has managed to pick up the sense from these earlier stories of the Intelligence as a match for the Doctor, subtle and overt at the same time, able to attack with the brute force of Yeti or Snowmen, and also to sidle in, like cobwebs or misty snow, possessing the mind of soldiers, stirring up suspicions of people under pressure, and corrupting the mind of a child. The Web of Fear shows that the Great Intelligence was one of the bigger loose ends of the original series, masked only by the quantity of the canon around it. The fact that it was a loose end is mostly an accident resulting from a falling out between the writers and the producers which prevented a third and final story of the trilogy from being written, but the original series’ loss is the revival’s gain.
The Web of Fear stands the test of time. Yes, some elements have dated, due to advances in special effects, and faster, more action-oriented sensibility among audiences, but it has many things which don’t date. It has a director who knows how to ramp up and hold tension over long periods. It has designers with meticulous attention to detail who know how to immerse us in the world of the story. It has decent actors who show far more of themselves than the dialogue alone can tell. And it has a decent menace anchoring a solid storyline. The Web of Fear is a prime example as to why the series lasted as long as it did, and why there has been a revival.