Well, it appeared after months of rumours three months ago, and it’s still weird to say this…….
At the ripe age of thirty-seven, I can watch (nearly) all of The Web of Fear! It carries on past Episode 1! I blink and it doesn’t disappear from my iTunes! It lives!
The five year old version of me with his well-thumbed Target novelisation would have gaped. The fourteen year old me who nagged his Uncle to tape the orphaned episode 1 as part of the Who weekend on BSB (remember them?) would’ve possibly burst. The late-twenties me who saw Web 1 repeated on a BBC4 night about the London Underground would’ve likely drank a yard of ale, and probably already had before sitting down.
I’ll be interested to read DWM’s DVD review of this after Matthew Sweet’s recent iTunes release piece, as for me this was the biggest anniversary treat of last year. We were given some lovely shiny new gifts in the anniversary year, and I’m by no means the first to say this, but the return of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear is nothing short of a miracle, as unless you were carefully following the Omnirumour, or one of those in the know during the recovery/restoration process, you just couldn’t have seen this coming.
For so many years Web has existed only as blurry telesnaps and crackling soundtrack, and seemed such a remote, lost thing. The version I, and so many other children of the 70s grew up with was Uncle Terrance Dicks’ Target effort, still falling to bits in my bookcase to this day. That famously atmospheric first episode has been a frustration for many years, because before October it opened and closed with cliffhangers that we hadn’t a hope in hell of seeing resolved from either side. We all know that TV of the time wasn’t designed to stand up to repeated scrutiny. That’s why nobody under fifty was likely to have even seen Web before October. And what we can see now, a slight lag of pace around the Episode 5 mark, a wobbly Perspex pyramid and a slightly rubbish final battle scene aside, is for my money the tightest bit of 60s Who we have.
Director Douglas Camfield gets it absolutely right in terms of pace, camerawork, lighting, and action. You really believe those tube tunnels go on forever. Camfield famously fell out with house composer Dudley Simpson at a dinner party and refused to hire him for any of his Who episodes, so the music comes from stock, and ranges between Bartok, music you’d normally associate with Cybermen bursting through clingfilm, and some otherworldly radiophonic shimmers. The redesigned Yeti impress, they’re now making no pretence at being real Bigfoot, and are imposing, shaggy and violent, with their big glowing eyes and mangy fur. They’re counterpointed nicely by the disembodied whispering voice of the Great Intelligence, which echoes through the tunnels in a wonderfully creepy manner.
Yes, the Intelligence’s scheme to absorb the Doctor’s brain is a bit vague, but it’s presented as part of an unfolding mystery right from the off. The supporting characters are well-drawn, only cowardly welsh Driver Evans grates a little. You have the return of The Abominable Snowmen’s Professor Travers, an early prototype of the modern day recurring character-that’s-not-quite-a-companion.
Here, the aged-up Jack Watling gets right into being curmudgeonly and argumentative, and looks to be having a whale of a time. Shame about his “zombie” acting when possessed by the Intelligence, but hey, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if something a bit off-centre didn’t happen every other week. He’s joined here by daughter Anne, cool, smart, attractive, even a little flirtatious….a sort of prototype for Liz Shaw. She decided she would be a scientist, and would have made a good companion. On top of them you have dependable old Staff Sergeant Arnold, no-nonsense Captain Knight, odious reporter Harold Chorley, and some mysterious Colonel called Lethbridge-Stewart….
Ah, the Brig. Yes, I know he’s not The Brig yet, but let’s call him The Brig here. It doesn’t matter about his rank – he’s The Brig already.
Unfortunately his first appearance is in the missing Episode 3, represented here by the soundtrack and unfortunately not very many stills, a lot of them quite blurry. As a result Nicholas Courtney’s debut performance is a little hard to judge. The telesnaps and stills don’t capture him at his expressive best, he sounds a bit higher pitched than normal (which could, to be fair, be the soundtrack recording) and that familiar Brig twinkle is absent from the photos, where, no doubt caught mid-line or expression he unfortunately looks a bit frog-eyed. However, come episode 4, and there he is, fully formed, full of authority and that customary playful twinkle.
It’s striking how young Courtney looks here, even compared to his return eight months later in The Invasion, and surprising how much he gets stuck into the physical rough stuff, we’re so used to seeing him deskbound, overseeing missile strikes, or bickering with the Doctor in the lab. He’s set up here as a shady figure. We’re kept guessing as to whether or not he’s the mole working with the GI right up to Episode 6. He’s allowed a rare moment of despair and remorse after returning as the sole survivor from the superbly shot Covent Garden battle sequence with the Yeti. What with the eerily empty shots of London and the sense that Lethbridge-Stewart’s only just escaped with his life it put me in mind of AMC’s The Walking Dead.
All the death throughout makes it feel quite real, right from the off when an impatient Captain Knight tersely answers Chorley’s inane questions on the offscreen death of his former C.O. He looks like he would rather knock Chorley’s teeth out. Compare this to the complete lack of any form of emotional reaction to all those casualties in the Tombs of Telos from anyone (bar Toberman when Kaftan dies, and even that’s coaxed out by the Doctor, who clearly just wants to go home), it’s a minor but quietly grown up moment.
Speaking of the mole, the obvious suggestion apart from The Brig is the aforementioned Chorley, as the finger of suspicion is pointed at him a few times, if only due to his character winding up the others so much that they wish it was him, but this falls a bit flat when he disappears for two whole episodes. It’d be interesting to be a fly on the wall at the original broadcast to see what viewers of the time reckoned. Thanks to the novelisation I know what’s going to happen, but to my eyes reliable old Staff Arnold (played by Jack Woolgar) starts to telegraph his guilt by looking increasingly shifty before his eventual reveal as the Intelligence’s vessel.
The companions come off well here. Jamie is well established by now and he carries a lot of the action with his usual aplomb. Victoria usually gets a bad rap for her screamy shrillness, but Deborah Watling does pretty well, perhaps rising to the occasion a bit more than usual when given an opportunity to act opposite her Father, Jack, and doing a good job of looking brave, but scared.
Patrick Troughton is at his nuanced best here, from slapstick to the deviousness we saw from him in Tomb of the Cybermen. What we had of him before was great, but the more we see of him, the more he uncoils. He’s having a rare old time in Web, there are so many little moments, be it thumping Yeti on the back or tipping away Evans’ tobacco so he can pocket the tin. He’s absent in Episode 2 (on holiday), but more than makes up for his week off when he returns, it’s just a shame that you don’t seem him as a moving image again until Episode 4.
What’s becoming ever more apparent with the return of Enemy and Web is that Doctor Two is a bit of a rogue, the old devil. This Doctor would have gone to town in the modern series, he has none of the awkwardness of Eleven, or the ever-so-up-himself-ness of Ten, but Two would have got in an awful lot of trouble given half a chance. Maybe it’s Pat himself coming through here, Two seems much more keen on girls than most of his successors on the basis of these two stories alone. Much has been made of his introduction to Astrid in Enemy, but am I the only one to note him flirting with Anne Travers as they work on the Yeti control device? It’s all in the eyes.
Another parallel, which Pat-fan Matt Smith would no doubt love, is the Doctor’s annoyance at the end when the Intelligence has been dispelled back into space.
Everyone’s patting him on the back for saving the day, but he sees it as a failure as he planned to absorb it and put an end to it forever. It shows a shade of darkness to this Doctor, obviously the Intelligence is a disembodied bodysnatching thing as opposed to a living creature, but isn’t that sort of…..genocide? No wonder the Time Lords exiled him later on for showing such a ruthless streak. Maybe Web-fan Mark Gatiss had this scene in mind when writing 2010’s Victory of the Daleks, his reaction here echoes Smith’s at the end of that episode when the Daleks get away.
Unlike the fairly routine “Daleks-eradicated-forever” move that was pulled more than once in 60s Who, this ending was clearly leaving it open for a further, possibly final return for the Intelligence. As we now know, its eventual return in The Snowmen wouldn’t come for 44 years due to writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s well documented fall-out with the production team over their troubled scripts for The Dominators, later in 1968.
We know that Web is a beginning of sorts, but it’s more than just a dry run for the UNIT era and your classic “Earth Invasion” story which would become the norm later on. This is the fully concentrated form of what we call “Classic” Who.
All the ingredients are here – a familiar location, tunnels, scary monsters, foam, humour, action, body horror, returning characters, the slightest hint of a story arc with the returns of Travers, the GI, and the Yeti, and a Doctor at the peak of his powers. There’s even a bit of ham in Jack Watling’s dodgy “Possessed” acting for us fans to have a bit of a giggle at.
This one’s got it all, and I for one am thrilled that it’s back, and that it carries on past Episode 1.
The Web of Fear is available now on iTunes as well as to preorder from Amazon and other good retailers.