Review: Doctor Who – The Web of Fear / Cert: PG / Director: Douglas Camfield / Screenplay: Mervyn Haisman, Henry Lincoln / Starring: Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling, Jack Watling, Nicholas Courtney / Release Date: Out Now
The Brigad… sorry, Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart and a handful of UNIT soldiers – sorry, they’re just soldiers at this point – venture out into bright, sunny Covent Garden. They’re on a rather foolhardy mission to recover the Doctor’s Police Box and wheel it – on a trolley, no less – back to their secret bunker base. Suddenly the streets are full of Yeti (well, four of them at any rate, doubling up and filmed emerging from various warehouses and side streets) and a pitched battle ensues from which there can be only one survivor. It’s iconic. It's soldiers bravely facing off against ridiculous monsters. It’s the Yeti out of the London Underground and clubbing soldiers to death or spraying them with a suffocating web. It’s Doctor Who, circa 1968. It’s ‘The Web of Fear’ and, astonishingly, it’s back in the BBC Archives and available on DVD after a forty year sabbatical and it’s pretty much a thing of joy and revelation.
Despite its reputation as one of the great epics of the Doctor Who canon, ‘The Web of Fear’ is actually a rather low-key story. The Earth is attacked by an alien intelligence using unlikely robots as foot-soldiers and yet it’s all incredibly small-scale and intimate. It’s a story told on just a handful of sets – impressive reconstructions of London Underground stations and tunnels and the cramped military enclave fighting to hold back the advancing tide of web and Yeti. Episode four’s soldier/Yeti battle is the only location sequence and, indeed, pretty much the only proper action scene. Yet it’s still a gripping, thrilling tale, classic 1960s Who ‘base-under-siege’ stuff powered by a typically magnetic performance from Patrick Troughton and boasting a to die for cast of well-drawn, four-square supporting characters as well as one horribly servile and cowardly Welsh stereotype. Oh well, it was the 1960s…
‘The Web of Fear’ isn’t especially clever or sophisticated but at this point in its history the show had hit on a winning formula and was happy to keep on reaping the rewards serial after serial. Watching the story now it’s easy to see how it inspired current showrunner Steven Moffat to resurrect its central Big Bad – the amorphous Great Intelligence – for the most recent series of Doctor Who. Thwarted by the Doctor in a previous adventure, the Great Intelligence has gone to great lengths to create a trap to bring him back to Earth so it can drain his knowledge of Space and Time which it can use to its own advantage. It’s a simple and yet unusually Doctor-centric plot and even Moffat’s potentially irritating retconning of the show’s continuity – 2012’s Christmas special ‘The Snowmen’ saw the Doctor give the Intelligence a map of the London Underground, thus providing the historical inspiration for the events of this earlier serial – doesn’t take the edge off the innocent thrill of ‘The Web of Fear’.
Episode one – already held in the BBC Archives and familiar to most fans – has a wonderfully Hammer Horror vibe as Jack Watling’s returning Professor Travers tries to liberate an inactive Yeti robot from the hands of collector Julius Silverstein. Before long the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria are in the Underground, creeping around dead platforms even as, unbeknownst the them, the city is in lockdown and a fungal web is creeping through the tunnel network and the streets are patrolled by lumbering, slightly farcical Yeti (gotta love the glistening zips up their backs).
Despite the restricted locations of the rest of the serial, there’s never a dull moment as the Doctor is reunited with an old friend (Travers), meets a new one (Lethbridge-Stewart arrives in episode three, frustratingly still missing and represented here, as in its iTunes release last October, via stills and soundtrack recording) and there’s a palpable sense of stifling claustrophobia in the subterranean settings and the encroaching threat of the deadly web. It’s charming, vintage Doctor Who, directed with verve and energy by the late Douglas Camfield and with a script which never patronises and constantly surprises with its wit and maturity.
So it’s back – more or less – and even if it’s not as big and bold and downright spectacular as fan legend might have suggested, ‘The Web of Fear’ is still a warm and wonderful piece of archive television in its own right and a very special and very important piece of the Doctor Who legend. It’s a must-have.
Extras: ‘Enemy of the World’ ‘also available’ trailer