“Prepare for a great darkness to cloud your mind.”
In the 80s there were certain Doctor Who books I could read again and again. Inferno, Fury From The Deep, The Celestial Toymaker, The Deadly Assassin. Chief among them was The Web Of Fear – there was a dark magic about it, particularly in the way that it invaded the real world unlike any other Doctor Who story that I’d noticed, in the way it invades London and the Tube. I wasn’t aware of the fact that it was missing, presumed wiped, and I’m not sure it would have bothered me too much at the time. I had constructed the perfectly in my own head anyway. Imagine my astonishment and delight when, for the first time ever, the real thing matched my imagination when I watched it for the first time, perhaps 30 years later.
There’s still a sense that the return of The Web Of Fear isn’t real somehow. When the serial was released on iTunes I couldn’t quite believe it – even as I downloaded it and subsequently watched the first two episodes I couldn’t take it in. It was just too unreal to me. It strikes me that The Web Of Fear’s cast and crew might as well have made the thing, then sealed it in a vault for 45 years – a gift to the future. It’s a time capsule sent to us from the past; an incredible, unsurpassable gift in the anniversary year.
I’ve never watched a recon but have listened to the audios of both Web and The Abominable Snowmen many, many times. They are, perhaps, the best representation of what Troughton was about for me; atmospheric, frightening, iconic. A lot of what exists of the Second Doctor is, frankly, not very good and the shortcomings of the era were laid bare by Tomb of the Cybermen; a decent story with lovely moments but with much to criticise. It was perhaps Tomb that confirmed to me what I’d feared – the televised episodes were never going to match my expectations.
But frequently in the Second Doctor era there’s an undeniable thrill: Troughton sparkling in his more considered moments; the sets and weird stock incidental music build an image of something mysterious, forgotten and thrilling. Despite its closeness to the Pertwee era in terms of time, it is quite different. Monochrome and film certainly play a huge part in this but it’s worth remembering that this stuff comes from a time when television, relatively speaking, was in its infancy. It is alien to us and enthralling because of it, in the moments where it becomes something magically scary.
It’s not an especially popular view, but I’m not a fan of much of Troughton’s work in Doctor Who – too often it seems like he’s sending the whole thing up and I simply can’t suspend my disbelief. Doctor Who’s leading men flirt with excesses of silliness from time to time – Tom in later years and Sylv before he’s got a handle on what he’s doing most obviously – but Patrick Troughton gets away with it for some reason.
Certainly The Web Of Fear is the best representation of Patrick Troughton’s era that we currently have available. And barring some early nonsense in the TARDIS the cast – this TARDIS trio particularly had an irritating habit of shouting over one another and hugging each other in fear – play this with utter conviction. Web is simply the best I’ve ever seen the mighty Trout in Who. The Second Doctor is still impish, slightly bumbling and inclined towards jokiness, but it’s balanced here by intelligence, awareness and a slight otherness that’s hard to explain. Tom perhaps put it best in describing the Doctor has ‘having secrets’.
Perhaps my Doctorish favourite moment in Web comes when the Time Lord explains to Lethbridge-Stewart that the Yeti got what they came for, following a raid on the Goodge Street headquarters: Professor Travers, played here even more gruffly than in The Abominable Snowmen by Jack Watling. It’s a moment that’s heavy with significance and judged perfectly by Troughton; a little suggestion that he is a few steps ahead of everyone else and troubled by that knowledge.
That Web amounts to a game of chess between The Doctor and Intelligence, with the network of the Underground as the backdrop, is implied on a few occasions and this moment perhaps the most explicit reference. That the Second Doctor has misled everyone, including his companions, in laying a trap for his foe is another indication of this Doctor’s cunning streak, in direct opposition of his apparent impishness.
What’s significant – and rather overlooked – is that the Doctor, in apparently walking into a trap set by the Great Intelligence, has in fact outmaneuvered the entity. Had Jamie not intervened at the climax of the adventure, the Doctor would have drained its knowledge, rather than the other way around. This raises some interesting questions about how long the Doctor had this course of action in mind – and exactly what would have been the end result. The Doctor is keen to rebuff offers of power and ultimate knowledge throughout his regenerations, yet here he’s all set for a form of Godhood before his faithful companion spoils it for everyone. He’s so annoyed he issues a furious racial epithet at the blameless Driver Evans.
Sadly we don’t get to see all of Troughton’s moments in the recovered film, not least his first meetings with The Brig, but Haisman and Lincoln’s second script offers us a Doctor who appears much more rounded a figure. By the time the TARDIS crew are leaving, he’s back to his throat-clearing bluster, but the ramifications of the Doctor’s behaviour here leave an intriguing after-image.
This leads me to Nick Courtney, a man much-loved in Who for good reason. But perhaps not given appropriate credit for his ability – which he rarely gets the chance to show off after season 7. In his debut story Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart is a serious, pragmatic and thoroughly capable soldier: the scene where he plans the recovery of the TARDIS from Covent Garden shows his calculating nature. You can even see the germ of the Brigade-Leader here: this Lethbridge-Stewart is humourless and even cold.
In the face of a subterranean invasion by robotised Yeti the Colonel simply takes the Doctor at his word: he has a magical box that can save everyone’s life. Lethbridge-Stewart’s reaction to Evans’ initial greeting is similarly believable – he barely registers it, having lost most of his men at Covent Garden. Not only that but the climax of the story, certainly from the point of view of Lethbridge-Stewart, ends in a de facto appeasement; a concession – we’ll hand over The Doctor if you leave us alone. The Brig would rarely this professional, this believable again and Web is his – and perhaps Courtney’s – strongest story.
This conviction with which everyone sells what, on the face of it, could be a total farce, drags the show into unusual territory for the time. Perhaps the tone of The Web Of Fear, dead straight and filled with terror, anguish and death, is what convinced the BBC to record a trail after the previous week’s episode, warning children to be prepared for a rather more disturbing tale than usual. Certainly there are no weak links in the cast; no comedic accents or overacting villains to capsize the whole thing. That’s no surprise with Douglas Camfield directing, but one need only look to Robots of Death, Enlightenment or Revelation of the Daleks to find see how an out-of-focus performance can impact on a story.
Jack Watling’s performance sails close to the wind when Travers is under the influence of the Intelligence, yet his possession is undeniably creepy, particularly his awkward gait and sharply-whispered “YOU!” in answer to the Doctor’s question as to what he wants. He also shares some of the best moments of the story with Silverstein in his desperate attempts to reclaim the Yeti in episode one. The combination of performances, lighting, incidental music from Bartok, control-sphere bleeps and Camfield’s direction in The Web Of Fear is straight out of the best of Hammer’s playbook. It’s perhaps the most atmospheric scene in all of Doctor Who.
Of the rest of the cast Chorley a rather archetypal middle-class social climber. There’s a suggestion that Chorley is acting somewhat above his station, either that or the actor playing him accidentally drops his accent a little in moments of peril. He’s set-up as a fairly obvious traitor early on – obviously revelling in the deaths of the good guys in pursuit of his story. As a journalist among scientists and soldiers – fundamentally decent men all – Chorley’s class and occupation mark him out as someone to be distrusted.
Evans, as a cowardly Welshman, is another red herring. His is perhaps the most interesting character of the lot, despite the crudenesses of his cowardice and dialect. Evans simply doesn’t want to be there: he wants out of the story from his introduction and there’s something of the everyman – a Yossarian pointing out the absurdity of the events and reactions he sees around him – to him. While we’re intended to dislike his lack of bravery, he’s probably the most relatable character here; Evans is frightened out of his wits, not afraid to save his skin and quite prepared to sacrifice others it means he can go home, presumably to eat some lava bread and sit in a bath of coal.
Either way, while rather crass, The Web Of Fear’s portrayal of class – and how people react to it – is fairly unusual in Doctor Who, as is the fact that bravery, nobility and honour inevitably lead to an untimely demise, while Evans and Chorley make it to the end unscathed.
Perhaps the best performance is that of Jack Woolgar as Arnold. As the dependable, no-nonsense ‘staff’ – a rank he would clearly never move beyond in the British army – he’s another familiar archetype. Arnold is beautifully comforting of Chorley in the last episode, gruff towards Evans, yet with some warmth, and solidly deferential to the officers. But there’s much more going on here.
Staff Arnold – who at every point on-screen is a reanimated cadaver controlled by the Great Intelligence – gets a series of subtle, disturbing asides, portrayed eerily by Woolgar, that reveal the identity of the true traitor. The fact that we’ve invested so much in him – no-bullshit, northern, brave and loyal – means his unmasking as the Intelligence’s agent is so much more disturbing than if it were Chorley, Evans or even Travers.
That Woolgar is so unthreatening as the embodied Intelligence is the story’s one true misstep. The Target conveyed the horror of this wonderfully – Victoria’s lament that it is ‘too horrible’ to contemplate sells it completely: how can our faithful Staff be a traitor? But on screen it’s a damp squib, though Arnold’s blackened, screaming death mask is another genuinely horrible moment.
Perhaps the true hero of The Web Of Fear is Douglas Camfield, if not an auteur then certainly Who’s most consistently interesting director of the 60s and 70s. Joe Ahearne is the best comparison in the new series – a director who clearly thinks about angles, composition and reaction shots in conveying the emotional heart of the story.
Moreover Camfield’s command of action marks him out as a talent beyond most studio-bound contemporaries. The scenes of the proto-UNIT’s attempt to recover the TARDIS at Covent Garden – the lumbering Yeti, shot in broad daylight, closing in on Lethbridge-Stewart’s men – should, by most metrics, be an embarrassment.
Yet everyone in The Web Of Fear sells it with utter conviction: the action is frantic, frightening and so very fast – from the desperation of the Brig and Corporal Blake and the shooting of the Yeti from low angles to the death screams of the soldiers blasted by web guns or crushed by the beasts. Elsewhere in the series we will see lumbering beasts killing people by barely touching them – in Camfield’s hands the Yeti are murderous, the fury and power of the creatures conveyed totally.
That all of this happens in a ten-minute window that sees Arnold, Knight and Lane also apparently dispatched ramps up the tension unbearably in episode four. Courtney sells it wonderfully upon his devastated return to headquarters: the peculiarly baroque Yeti are unkillable, unknowable. “Hopeless. Can’t fight them. It seems indestructible. Can’t fight them!”. They should be absurd, but they’re not.
Rather than appearing cumbersome or cuddly there’s a horrible, unknowable remorselessness to the creatures. A reaction shot of Courtney observing the Yeti advancing on all sides at Covent Garden suggests this hopelessness. And the sheer oddity of the spectacle is not apologetic or embarrassed: it’s wildly dissonant, unbelievable. This is where Doctor Who is at its best and, in the furry creatures overrunning London, reaches its apotheosis.
They’re wonderfully complemented by the inexplicable Web – at once a fungus, foam or web. What does it do? How does it work? Why does it kill people? What does it want? As it spreads though the London Underground it’s hard not to imagine it as a disease slowly infesting a body. Only through the faceless Autons in Spearhead is Who ever so weirdly frightening – or frighteningly weird – as The Web Of Fear.
Through a combination of this imagery, atmosphere and execution The Web of Fear is an almost complete success. And it has no right to be. By modern standards of storytelling it’s utter gibberish: a shapeless malign entity sets a trap for its greatest adversary by filling the London Underground with foam and robot abominable snowmen? Why? Clearly the question bothered Stephen Moffat as he goes to the trouble of retconning the entire affair 45 years later in The Snowmen.
The answer here seems not quite to be ‘why not?’. Rather ‘because it’s scary’. And scary it is. It’s scary for the heck of it, regardless of context or rationality. The pulsing, killing web encroaching on all sides; the reinvented, remorseless Yeti; the possession of familiar characters and infestation of familiar places; the TARDIS seized in space as web parasitises it; the rhythmic bleeping of control spheres and voodoo-like statuettes that serve to make the Tube and its cast of characters a giant chess board and disposable pieces – they are all visually, audibly, conceptually unsettling creations.
The names and places are burned onto my memory: Goodge Street and Holborn have a nostalgic resonance that speak to me on a level I can’t fully comprehend or rationalise; the unfortunate Lane, Blake and Knight, tragic Arnold and luckless Weames; the iconography of it all disturbing in the way that only something that frightens a young mind can be.
The Web of Fear pitches them all into some demimonde; a London cast into some Hellish parallel universe like Silent Hill or a Gaiman construct. Pertwee had immortalised this as the Yeti on a toilet on Tooting Bec and Doctor Who has returned to this trope again and again over the years, never as successfully.
Only the Doctor has the vaguest idea of what is happening in Web; everyone else, including the audience, is just along for the ride. The Great Intelligence is, perhaps, the most disturbing creation in Doctor Who because it’s utterly insane by our standards. Nothing it does really makes the slightest sense. Robot yeti – why? A trap for the Doctor – how? Maintaining the pretence of Arnold for so long and in such detail – to what effect? Daleks, Cybermen, Nestenes, Silurians, Sontarans, Angels, The Master – they all have arguably-logical modi operandi. And even if their goals are alien to us they are, on some level, understandable.
But The Intelligence is Lovecraftian: it is ancient; it operates on a totally different plane of existence. Evil by our standards, yet unknowable at the same time – truly uncanny. The Web Of Fear radiates with this unsettling sense of something gone horribly wrong for reasons we can’t quite comprehend. Knight, Lane, Blake, Weames, Arnold and the others meet their ends knowing only that a killing web and ferocious Yeti have infected the London Underground and may yet take over the Earth. Why? They do not know – and neither do we.
The sheer giddy, unfathomable nature of The Web of Fear is its great power. It’s like a side-step in Doctor Who where even its own fantastic rules are suspended for an exercise in pure terror. In such baroque surroundings it’s on an axis that speaks to us on a level we understand instinctively: a heady mix of night terrors, disturbing juxtaposition, creepy incidental detail and horrible revelation. A Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec is, indeed, frightening – amid the abandoned tunnels and stations of London it’s something darkly, disturbingly magical.