For Doctor Who fans, the 50th anniversary celebrations of the show almost took second seat to the news in October that two serials from the 1960s starring Patrick Troughton – “Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear” – had been rediscovered in Nigeria after having been lost for decades following their purging from the BBC archives in the 1970s.
The news was almost too good to be true in the case of “The Web of Fear”, one of the most sought-after lost Doctor Who stories of all time – it was certainly top of my list of serials that I most wished I’d had a chance to watch. The top-level premise alone was utterly irresistible: robot Yeti stalk the deserted streets of London and spread a deadly web-like fungus through the tunnels of the Underground railway network. Who wouldn’t want to see that?!
Unfortunately it turns out that beyond that juicy top-level outline there really hadn’t been much further work done on the plotting. Spread extremely thinly over six 24-minute episodes, very little happens in this story other than the protagonists get an idea (to explore, escape, or counter-attack), set off from their cramped Goodge Street HQ and creep through the tunnels, only to get stymied and have to turn back. They do this time and again, admittedly with such verve that you don’t initially realise that this is even more formulaic than the show’s usual ‘running down corridors’ time-filling activities, but by the point you get to the final episode it really is becoming pretty evident to even the dimmest viewer. There’s not even a credible reason given for what the evil disembodied Great Intelligence (recently revived by the modern show for the 2012 Christmas special) is up to with his takeover of London, vague handwaving about luring the Doctor into some unspecified trap aside.
There are a few additional story elements – the antagonist’s ability to possess humans to do its bidding; the use of bleeping spheres to control and direct the Yeti; some characters and general continuity – but these are all just carry-overs from a previous serial by the same writers (Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln) and are just rehashed without further explanation. That was fair enough in the original context as “The Abominable Snowmen” had aired only three months before this serial so it would be fresh in the minds of viewers at the time; but unfortunately the first story is another that was purged from the archives and whose episodes have still not been recovered, which means modern viewers might get the sense that “The Web of Fear” is still far from complete itself.
Actually it is still incomplete – while the recent find in Nigeria uncovered four episodes to add to the one that remained at the BBC, episode 3 is still missing in action. This doesn’t hurt the story as much as you might think, since the return of all the episodes around it and the lack of a dynamic story means that the missing instalment generally just treads water and is ably substituted by a ‘recon’ – still images captured from the original telecast, set to an off-air audio recording of the episode.
It is still a shame that it’s episode 3 that’s missing, though, because this is the one that features the introduction of a certain Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). Here he’s just a standard guest character, but he would return for an encore story (“The Invasion”) which saw him promoted to Brigadier and subsequently put in charge of a new body called UNIT investigating strange phenomena, which was such a success that he became a crucial part of the Jon Pertwee era and is still to this day one of the best-loved characters in the show’s history. Here, Lethbridge-Stewart is still only partially formed compared with his later appearances – and to be honest, the writers always were rather inconsistent about the Brigadier’s characterisation even when he became a member of the regular cast. In fact the main purpose of the Colonel in “The Web of Fear” is to act as a red herring, the person we should suspect as having been in cahoots with the Great Intelligence from the start.
It’s this “traitor among us” thread that is the main storyline of interest running through the serial. We slowly come to realise that all those stymied forays through the tunnels are thwarted because the Great Intelligence has eyes and ears on the inside. The most obvious candidates are cowardly Driver Evans (Derek Pollitt) or obnoxious journalist Harold Chorley (Jon Rollason) but there are also sundry Army personnel including Captain Knight (Ralph Watson) and Staff Sergeant Arnold (Jack Woolgar). However it’s Lethbridge-Stewart who seems to be the one most carefully written to appear suspicious without at the same time being glaringly obvious, and you can’t help but wonder if the original scripts did indeed have him unveiled as the turncoat until perhaps the producers intervened and decided they wanted to keep him around for possible future instalments. It’s a shame that the ultimate reveal of the traitor is rather botched, leaving us unsure whether he was really the bad guy all along or just a very recent mental possession by the Great Intelligence.
As it is, our hindsight now means that Lethbridge-Stewart is firmly in the camp of those above suspicion alongside the Doctor’s then-travelling companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) together with Professor Travers (Jack Watling, playing an older version of the same character he essayed in “The Abominable Snowmen”) and his scientist daughter Anne (Tina Packer). The rest of the cast are soon dispatched by the Yeti as the dramatis personae (and list of available suspects) are slowly whittled down by unfortunate incidents in the tunnels.
Ahh, the tunnels. Let’s cut to the chase: there’s a reason why so much air time is spent creeping through the Underground, and that’s because the production designers and set builders are if anything the true stars of this particular story. Famously in Who lore, the producers initially sought permission to shoot on location but were refused and therefore had to do it all in the studio instead. The end result was so well done that when the episodes went out, someone from London Underground management purportedly wrote in to complain to the BBC about the unauthorised filming in their stations and tunnels – only to be firmly put in their place.
It’s a nice anecdote, but one that sounds like a bit of hype and hubris – until you see the episodes in question as we are finally able to. And they really are that good, the sets so well-conceived and helped hugely by excellent direction, lightning and sound design that you really can spend entire episodes examining the scenery and still not be entirely sure that they haven’t pulled a fast one. Only a certain lack of robustness with the sets when actors start enthusiastically throwing themselves at ‘locked’ doors gives the game away in later episodes but even so it’s still hugely impressive stuff.
Lots of credit has to go to long-time Who director Douglas Camfield, who finds brilliantly unusual camera angles and interesting ways of shooting otherwise static scenes. The first scene alone – Travers trying to get hold of a defunct Yeti from a private museum – is worthy of a 1930s Universal horror movie in the way that it’s shot. (Unfortunately there’s an anti-Semitic undertone to the short-lived character of Julius Silverstein that also reflects similarly dated prejudices.) Camfield is partial to extreme close-ups that let the actors get some really lovely moments, but he’s also just as good in the action set piece in episode 4 when Lethbridge-Stewart and the Army men have an all-out battle with the Yeti which is only slightly compromised by the Yeti costumes being too big and bulky for them to get truly kinetic.
Also excellent throughout in this serial is Patrick Troughton, although he does go on holiday during episode 2 while the Doctor gets ‘lost’ in the tunnels. The sad thing about the Second Doctor is that so little of his material survives today which is why the recovery of these two serials is so welcome – it gives us more chances to see what Troughton is capable of. And he’s really excellent here, playing it mainly straight so that he’s more like Pertwee’s action hero than the cosmic hobo comedian we’re used to thinking of him as. There’s a crowd scene where the Doctor has to react to what’s being said and think furiously without saying a word, and he totally steals the moment from everyone else on the screen; his finest hour comes in the final episode, when his plans to defeat the Great Intelligence are foiled by the well-meaning but disastrously misguided ‘help’ of his friends and companions. While I’ve seen Troughton in other serials (“The Tomb of the Cybermen” and the outstanding “The War Games” in particular), I don’t think I”ve ever been more impressed with him than I am after seeing this – and I finally understand why so many people to this day name him as their favourite incarnation of the Time Lord.
“The Tomb of the Cybermen” was another serial believed lost but then recovered in 1991. It had been hailed as the best-ever Doctor Who serial of all time in absentia, and the reality of seeing it when it was recovered was somewhat chastening – it was fine, but not as good as it had been built up in people’s minds. So how does “The Web of Fear” stand up after its own recovery – is it endorsed as a true classic, or another damp squib?
Well I would certainly have preferred it to have a bit more heft to the plot than it does, and less running up and down tunnels on fruitless errands. Slimming it from six to four episodes would have helped – something that it’s easy to say about most of the first ten years of Who of course. However its true strengths actually lie in all the other things that you can only really appreciate with the actual broadcast – the acting, the direction, the production values – rather than from recons, novels or audio recordings that we previously knew it from. It turns out that with “The Web of Fear” these elements are actually even better than we hoped for in our mind’s eye, so for me at least this recovered serial is an absolute triumph. It’s a joy to actually be able to see it with my own eyes: I never thought I would, and I’ve wanted to see this one for almost 40 years.
For me at least, it certainly didn’t disappoint.
iTunes/DVD details: After having tried to keep the discovery of the two lost serials under wraps for months, once the official announcement was made in a special BFI event in October the BBC rush-released the episodes onto iTunes just four days later. Currently that’s the only way of getting “The Web of Fear” so that’s how I bought and viewed them, but a DVD edition will follow in the new year. The picture and sound quality of the recovered episodes is excellent, well up to the standards of other Doctor Who releases despite having been lying around in forgotten dusty film canisters for decades. However it seems that these DVDs are going to be completely devoid of the extras that have made the series a hallmark of how to do home entertainment releases – not even an audio commentary or production subtitles are to be seen. Even a featurette on the episodes’ recovery (or footage from the aforementioned BFI event) would have been nice, but here there’s nothing. You can almost envision the whiteboard at the BBC with a double-dip special edition written in for a year’s time.
I guess you can’t blame the BBC – they have to rake back their costs for this niche fan-pleasing endeavour somehow – but it does take a bit of the shine off the whole project. It would have been better if they had delayed the DVDs in order to do them once but do them right, than try and get us to pay out for repeated versions. For now, if you can then just get the slightly cheaper iTunes versions and settle in for a proper DVD release down the line.
“The Web of Fear” is currently available to buy on iTunes and will be released on DVD on February 24, 2014. “Enemy of the World” has already been released on a barebones DVD as well as being available from iTunes.