Doctor Who and The Web of Fear
3 February – 9 March 1968
London is under attacked, a thick mist that defies explanation appearing throughout the city that leaves cobwebs around its victims, petrifying them in place. Thirty years after his first meeting with the strange Doctor and his traveling companions in far off Tibet, Professor Travers discovers that his nightmare has started again. The Yeti have returned as the Great Intelligence once more attempts to establish a foothold on our planet.
Series 5 is regarded as ‘the monster series’ of Classic Doctor Who as it consists of more monster-oriented stories than most and had a strong impact on viewers who had started to lose interest. There are plenty of classics during 1968; The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Abominable Snowmen, The Ice Warriors, Enemy of the World and Fury from the Deep. In fact, only the series finale Wheel in Space is lacking in quality. Of course, only one of these stories is complete so the judgement is one that involves a lot of work in the part of the viewer, but working from the novelizations, still images, surviving episodes or trims and audio adaptations, it seems that series five is worthy of its reputation.
Doctor Who in the mid-1960′s was essentially an adventure series with monsters invading the world with only the pixie-like Doctor defending the innocent from their assault. Patrick Troughton played the lead part of the Doctor in a drastically different manner than his predecessor William Hartnell. Whereas Hartnell served the role of patriarch and magician, the second incarnation was more of a impish wizard, dashing about exasperated as he struggles to uncover mysteries and conquer alien hordes. I adore the fallibility of the Second Doctor, made all the more comical by his ingenious resourcefulness at defeating whole armies of aliens with found materials. Troughton’s incarnation of the Doctor is the source of many key attributes of the Time Lord that later actors picked up, from Tom Baker to David Tennant and certainly Matt Smith who seems to be basing his performance entirely on the second Doctor.
The success of the second Doctor on screen depended greatly on Troughton’s persona and diminutive appearance along with the support of his co-stars Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon and Deborah Watling as Victoria Waterfield. Jamie is one of the all time best companions. A time-tossed young man from the 18th Century, Jamie is a practical individual, accepting the world around him at face value, failing to be boggled by the confusion of the modern world and its technological advancements. By contrast, Victoria is a cultured young lady of privilege, terrified by the creatures that she encounters in her travels with the Doctor. Greatly dependent on both the Doctor and Jamie for reassurance, you can’t help as a viewer but to be sympathetic to her plight, wanting nothing more than to protect her just as her companions do week after week. It also helps that her short time on the program features some of the deadliest and most terrifying monsters be they Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Yeti or strange sea creatures.
One of the most beloved of the classic Doctor Who adventures, The Web of Fear not only reunites the TARDIS crew with the Great Intelligence and its monstrous Yeti, but also an aged Professor Travers (played by actress Deborah Watling’s father), last seen in The Abominable Snowmen earlier the same year. Written by the team of Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, the adventure is a gripping drama full of action and intrigue set in the London Underground. It is a brilliant idea to have the Doctor meet up with Travers again so long after they had last fought the Yeti in 1938. Not only does it create a continuation of a story regarding the Yeti but it also brings back a character that has aged while the Doctor and his companions have not aged a day.
Jack Watling is clearly having a ball as the crotchety Travers, desperately attempting to save the world from a threat that his own stubborn curiosity has caused. In his previous encounter with the Doctor, Travers had been involved in an expeditionary mission to uncover the secret of the Abominable Snowman. His expedition tragically overlaps the master plan of the Great Intelligence using the nearby monastery as a beachhead for invasion. Using robotic creations designed to look like the legendary Yeti, the Great Intelligence steered the creatures through silver control spheres.
After losing a fortune in hunting the Yeti in Tibet only to discover a robotic race of look-a-like monsters, Travers turned his hand to electronics, becoming a respected scientist in the field. Determined to unravel the mystery of the Yeti’s control devices, he found that he had once again spent his life and money in a lost cause. To make ends meet, he sold the Yeti shell he had brought back from Tibet to a rich collector of antiquities. However, his long years of hard work eventually bore bitter fruit. Having activated a control sphere, Travers had started the sequence of events that led to the second invasion of the Great Intelligence.
Web of Fear features the first appearance of Colonel Alistaire Lethbridge-Stewart, before he was known simply as ‘the Brigadier.’ While he starts off as appearing to be a suspicious character, it’s wonderful to see Lethbridge-Stewart acting the ‘proper soldier,’ demanding to have everything by the books, assembling everyone for official briefings and the like. Played by the late Nicholas Courtney, Lethbridge-Stewart is immediately a strong addition to the regular supporting cast. Adamant, brave and resourceful, it is easy to understand his later appearance as a regular cast member opposite Jon Pertwee based on this story and the following year’s adventure, the Invasion (one of my all-time favorites).
One of the scarier Doctor Who adventures screened at a time when the program was still considered family entertainment, this story has plenty of gruesome moments involving roaring Yetis attacking with glowing eyes and slashing claws, but the desolate surroundings and carnage present in the wake of their attacks are far more terrifying than any actual on-screen violence. Veteran director Douglas Camfield (Inferno, Terror of the Zygons, Seeds of Doom) had a masterful touch and had been involved in several of the more legendary scary stories. This story, one of hid earlier outings, does not disappoint in that regard.
The production team no doubt could anticipate this as Web of Fear was preceded by a short promotional trailer featuring Patrick Troughton warning viewers that the latest story was perhaps a bit spookier than young viewers would be prepared for.
Lovely stuff, the trailer has been recreated below.
Of course, it is nearly impossible to review this story without giving a large part of imagination over to the existing sound track and clips. Much of the Web of Fear’s success relies on the atmosphere of the London Underground and the sheer fright factor of the Yeti. As so much of that material cannot be viewed, I can only guess at what it must have looked like as the Colonel and Jamie trudged down dark railway tunnels when monsters could leap out at any moment.
Like the Abominable Snowmen before it, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s script is a gripping suspenseful story. The Doctor and his companions arrive in the latter part of the Yeti invasion, after the city had been evacuated and the military have started a systematic destruction of the underground in an attempt to isolate the Yeti. The story involves several key aspects of classic Doctor Who, from the seemingly unbeatable menace of the Yeti to the suspicion of a traitor in the midst and of course creepy alien possession after Travers becomes an extension of the Great Intelligence in a hair-raisingly frightening performance.
One of the classic monsters of vintage Doctor Who along with the Daleks, Cybemen and Ice Warriors, the Yeti are rumored to be in production for release as an action figure possibly even this year! Will this mean another two-pack of the Second Doctor, this time in his furry coat… or perhaps Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart? Only time can tell.
Here’s a picture of the prototype.
The Web of Fear can be enjoyed on CD, the sound track enhanced by narration provided by actor Frazer Hines. The only surviving episode was also included in the Lost in Time set which I highly recommend. 2entertain also included several clips that had been cut from the episodes by the New Zealand censor bureau.