I’ll be honest. 80% of this review is going to come from my recollections of the Web of Fear book I read and re-read as a kid. I loved this story. It was set on the Underground, where my dad worked (my dad was a London Transport Schedule maker – he worked out the routes and the schedules that buses and trains took around London, so they all matched up. Or, as we used to call them, “Fairy Tales”, given the accuracy of timing of your average London bus driver.)
It was dark, it was spooky and it was, as all the most classic and best Doctor Who stories were, it used familiar environments and then sacred the crap out of you by using them in creepy ways.
Given the recent resurgence of the Great Intelligence and the very pointed references to the London Underground in the Christmas Special, The Snowmen, it seems appropriate to be reviewing this now.
Now, as I mentioned, most of what is available for The Web of Fear is recon. Episode 1 exists of the six part serial, and some clips, but most of the meat is simply gone forever. Where is a time machine when you really need one, I wonder?
So, the story. It opens right on the tail end of Enemy of the World, where the Doctor’s doppelgänger has been ejected into space from within the TARDIS (which is interesting since the current series opens the doors in deep space all the time. A recent fix to the TARDIS ? The lasting effects of the Tribophysical Waveform Macro-Kinetic Extrapolator from Boom Town?)
Eventually we are (re-)introduced to a Yeti from The Abominable Snowman – interestingly enough they understand that it’s a robot. There’s actually some pretty good acting, dialog and direction in these scenes, better than you would expect from that time. It’s all very believable, even if the music is a little over the top and straight out of a Hammer House of Horror movie.
The Yeti comes alive, predictably kills someone – this is Doctor Who after all – and off we go. There is some messing around in space, with the TARDIS covered in web, for no really discernible reason, and then lots and lots of mucking around in tunnels.
There is a story that goes around that the BBC actually asked to film in the real Underground in London, but were turned down. So they built a station and tunnel of their own and filmed in that, and when this was broadcast, the BBC received an irate letter from London Transport demanding to know how they had got into the tunnels to shoot, when they’d been specifically told no! Hard not to imagine the set designer not putting that letter up on his wall!
We get to see the Yeti using webbing – which is new, since the only time we’d seen webbing before with the Yeti was briefly in the Abominable Snowman, as part of where the Great Intelligence was breaking through.
From what can be seen from the first episode, the actual scripting, dialog, direction, sets and everything is surprisingly good for the time period. Quite frankly, this would not be out of place in the new Doctor Who – it’s the kind of stuff that makes you realize why Doctor Who is the British Treasure it is today. Pat Troughton is a delight, just loving the roll of the Doctor and chewing up the scenery every time he’s on screen. Victoria and Jamie are Victoria and Jamie, only more so. It’s also nice to see Professor Travers back from the original Abominable Snowman, only this time complete with daughter in tow.
Sure, in later episodes there’s some filler – this could easily have been a four-parter instead of running to six episodes, but in terms of actual filler, it could be an awful lot worse.
One of the things that does contrast with a story like The Web of Fear and today’s stories is that today’s are almost in real time. At most, they last a day or so. With these old six parters, stories could take place over a week or more! You don’t often see that in modern Doctor Who, other than, perhaps, The Power of Three.
Of course, no conversation regarding The Web of Fear could be complete without discussion of the scene where the Doctor meets Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (at this point, still only a Colonel) for the first time, starting a friendship that would span time and bodies. It’s so good to hear Nick Courtney again, back at the start with no real idea of where it was going to lead and how important it was going to be in the pantheon of Doctor Who.
What’s even more interesting is that John Levene – who went on to play Sargent Benton in Unit – was actually inside one of the Yeti!
As a story, this one is an interesting one. The Doctor, at the conclusion of the adventure, was all set to drain the Great Intelligence into his brain. We can only speculate at what the results would have been had he been successful – having the Great Intelligence knocking around in his head would probably not have been the most terrific thing ever, but he was game to do it and didn’t seem too concerned about it if it had been successful!
The story itself carries several Doctor Who memes – monsters from out of space, contemporary environments made scary by mysterious means, a hidden agent, soldiers shooting things unsuccessfully and lots and lots of sneaking around, being split up, running around and meeting up again, plans made and foiled and so on. In fact, after watching/listening to it all, it’s almost as though it contains the blueprint for pretty much every Doctor Who story made since!
The Yeti, as monsters, aren’t really that scary in terms of just looking at them. For some reason – I think it’s the huge wide spaced eyes – they remind me of the Mandrels of The Nightmare of Eden. The noises they make don’t make you apprehensive – I think that honestly, they aren’t that effective. They are just too cuddly. The concept of a robot programmed and controlled by the spheres is a compelling one though.
All in all though, a very enjoyable romp. It’s a criminal shame that more of this story isn’t available, since it’s showing both the Doctor Who team and the BBC of the time in the best possible way. It’s well written, compelling characters and a great story, both in premise and execution.
It’s just a shame we had to wait 45 years for the Great Intelligence to return!