The Web of Fear (and later The Invasion) were so successful that they provided the blueprint for the direction Doctor Who would take in the early Seventies: predominantly Earth-bound alien invasions, and the Doctor co-operating with the military. Bringing the threat closer to home is undeniably effective, and plays on people’s fears much better than conflicts on distant planets, in the far future or in the past. Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln seem to have given consideration to what scares people the most, and tried to include as many of those elements as possible. This leads to the inclusion of cobwebs, which should not really make any kind of sense in terms of a Yeti story, but somehow it all works well. In fact, when you look at the whole premise for the story it sounds mad: robot yeti the Doctor met in Tibet regenerate and take over London with deadly cobwebs. But the times when Doctor Who gets this weird tend to coincide with the times when it is at its most inventive and brilliant.
This is probably the first Doctor Who story to lean on its past to a greater extent than just bringing back a successful monster. Travers is the first ever returning character who is neither a companion nor a villain, and the 30 years that have passed for him really emphasise the time travel aspect of Doctor Who (and Jack Watling plays old superbly). We are in uncharted territory here, a rare early bit of timey wimey, with the Doctor meeting the same person at different points in his life. So to a certain extent the story relies on viewers having watched The Abominable Snowmen, remembering Travers and already accepting Doctor Who’s own bizarre version of cryptozoology with the robot Yeti. But it is worth bearing in mind that we are only picking up on a storyline from earlier in the same season with Travers, the Yeti and the Great Intelligence, and there have only been two stories in the interim (although that does represent a period of about 3 months on original transmission).
Somehow the clash of iconography that is the Yeti in the Underground works perfectly, helped by this being one of the rare occasions where Classic Who got the visuals stunningly right. The underground set was so accurate that it even fooled the London Underground into thinking that filming had taken place in their tunnels without permission. The tunnels are the perfect location for an alien invasion, with their oppressive darkness and sense of enclosure, a great recipe for terror used again to equal effect with the sewers of The Invasion.
Fighting the Yeti we have the army, and our future Brigadier: Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart. In his first appearance, he probably comes across as more intelligent here than he will ever be again (particularly during the Pertwee era), for example when he gives Chorley an office job just to get him out of his hair. He also believes the Doctor about the TARDIS without a moment’s doubt. This marks him out as a much more open-minded and clever character than the average soldier (e.g. Captain Knight, who won’t believe it). But he is not the Brig yet, and is one of several possible suspects for the traitor working for the Great Intelligence. The writers get a lot of mileage out of the whodunit aspect of the story, and ultimately go with the usual trick of somebody largely forgotten and unexpected.
We are in the midst of such a wonderful season of Doctor Who here (and in fact a wonderful era as a whole) that these Troughton articles are probably becoming repetitive in their positivity, but to find fault really does mean doing a bit of nitpicking. For the sake of balance, I’ll try a little of that here: the characters are fairly lazy stereotypes.
The worst of the lot, although he isn’t in the story for long, is greedy Jewish collector Julius Silverstein, but we also have another racial stereotype with Evans, the cowardly Welsh idiot. The Doctor calls him a “blithering Welsh imbecile”, which doesn’t really work as a comment from the mouth of an alien. This is the Doctor being written as an Englishman, which happens from time to time. Then we have our annoying and morally bankrupt reporter, grumpy old Travers and shock! horror! a female scientist who of course can’t possibly go unremarked upon as something unusual.
But The Web of Fear isn’t really about the people. Like horror movies, the characters exist to fulfil specific dramatic functions, until it is time to dispense with them. They are fictional constructs, not people. It is all about the scariness, and this is what Doctor Who has largely been doing since The Moonbase: find a way to frighten the kids in increasingly inventive and effective ways. And into this Doctor Who horror strolls the child-at-heart Doctor. Faced with a script that says this:
JAMIE: I wonder where it’ll be this time.
DOCTOR: Yes, I wonder.
…the Doctor milks the line for all it’s worth, full of excitement, and then when Victoria asks ‘is it safe?’ he answers with glee, ‘oh, I shouldn’t think so for a moment.’ This is a man who gets excited about each new adventure, just like the Doctor should. The Troughton era gave us a version of Doctor Who that was scary and fun. That’s a simple formula, but one that always describes Doctor Who when it is at its very best. RP
The view from across the pond:
When TARGET novels were the only way to experience the lost classics of the Troughton era, I was quick to devour them. When I read The Web of Fear, I was captivated. It was super eerie, which is a quality worth its weight in gold when reading a good book. So when they announced that they found the missing episodes in 2013 and would be releasing them along with The Enemy of the World, I was thrilled. I could not wait to watch it and see how it compared to what I remembered. But somehow, part 3 vanished again before it ever saw the light of day. Still, my son and I sat down to watch excited by the prospect of seeing something that hadn’t been viewed in decades.
Yet I was let down. Let me be fair: being let down by anything in the Troughton era is like saying “oh, that masterpiece isn’t as good as the others in the Louvre!” A bad Troughton episode doesn’t fall lower than, say, 7 on a 10-point scale. So being let down still means an above average rating anyway. So The Web of Fear wasn’t all I expected but I also wonder how much that would have changed if the whole thing existed or if, worst case, they animated the missing part 3. See, when they released it, we watched the telesnap version of episode 3. Here’s some advice: DO NOT WATCH THE TELESNAPS. What’s a telesnap? It’s individual photos taken from the television then placed over the actual audio. It’s impossible to sit through. Those that can (Roger, bless you), have enabled the stamina cheat code on their character in life. It’s painful. (If, dear reader, you’ve ever seen The Prisoner, there’s a scene in Arrival where the new number 2 is flipping through photos which appear onscreen and he narrates what he imagines McGoohan to be saying. Imagine a whole episode like that…)
All that said, The Web of Fear is still very good. For one, we get to meet Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart! Yes, that’s the Brigadier before his promotion! We get the iconic images of the Yeti in the London Underground. And for the record: black and white may seem old by today’s standards but it created atmosphere far better than color can. When those Yeti are wandering around those tunnels in the dark, it’s damned creepy. Plus, this is when the Great Intelligence was still a force to be reckoned with, unlike what came later during Matt Smith’s time. (I have nothing against Richard E. Grant, but his Dr. Simeon/Great Intelligence was a joke. It utterly lacked the terror that the original, soft-spoken Great Intelligence first had!)
And that’s the thing! The Great Intelligence was a frightening enemy! The Yeti are mere puppets, but the Intelligence pulls from that Lovecraftian concept of “never show the creature”. This allows the audience’s imagination to do all the heavy lifting. We create the terror. When we see that web-like cloud, we don’t know what the thing looks like. That’s scary. It’s playing on the fear of the unknown. Lovecraft understood that in the 1920s, but today people want to see the monster which often loses the fear factor. Now and then it’s a good thing to keep it hidden and with the use of black and white, it comes across extremely well. Coupled with that voice that’s nearly a whisper; the menace is real, and it’s scary and it’s classic! In addition to that, we have the subversion of expectation: the London underground, like Manhattan’s subways, are never empty. It doesn’t matter what time of day or night, there are people down there and lights on. To come across such a busy spot and find it utterly devoid of life doesn’t instill a sense of safety. So the setting compounds the terror. The web of fear is closing in (and I mean that as a concept, not a title)!
The cast is, as always, fantastic. What do you expect of Troughton, Hines, and Watling (or Padbury for that matter)? Plus Deborah Watling, aka Victoria, gets the benefit of having her dad reprise his role as Professor Travers, coming back from The Abominable Snowmen, now 40-odd years later, story-wise. It’s nice that even back in the early days of Doctor Who, there was a sense of continuity now and then where the Doctor might actually bump into old friends from time to time.
I don’t deny that I was expecting more from The Web of Fear but that’s certainly not putting the story down. It’s still from one of the strongest runs of Doctor Who in the show’s long history. Even the title of the story evokes a sense of dread, but maybe that has something to do with webs coming from spiders and they always evoke dread in me! Whatever the reason, this is still classic Who with a villain that can still scare us to this day.
Just avoid those telesnaps; you’re actually better off skipping part three than being totally jarred by it when it’s on! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Fury from the Deep