Though Doctor Who had started to modernise as early as `The War Machines`, the series often struggled to match contemporary 1960s style with the thrills and scares that had by now defined its best moments. `The Web of Fear` manages to line up these aspects in equal measure with a `real` setting in the form of the London Underground, some great monsters and enough excitement to sustain its six episodes. It is something of a mood piece building claustrophobic suspense around a minimal plot that in lesser hands would be little more than a run-around. Under the guidance of director Douglas Camfield however it becomes something much more thrilling.
One of the oldest Doctor Who anecdotes is how the programme was refused permission to film in the real Underground so constructed some of the best sets the show has ever had instead. Then when it was broadcast Tube officials complained they’d filmed covertly! It’s hard to imagine that is actually true because the scale of the set is smaller than the real thing but the attention to detail, the superb sound effects and Camfield’s variety of camera angles never for one moment suggest the labyrinthine tunnels are a studio set. The walls of the Goodge Street army base may wobble alarmingly at one point but those tunnels looks solid as anything and prove a brilliant setting for the adventure. Their relative familiarity, even to viewers outside London, adds a scare level that would be missing had they been passageways on some alien planet. Camfield uses every part of them; the rails, gaps in the walls, even underneath the platforms to emphasise how trapped our protagonists are. The progress of the fungus in the tunnels is suitably illustrated by a Tube map though we never discover whether or not the Intelligence avoids Mornington Crescent.
Let’s not underestimate Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s script either. With a cast made up of predominantly military personnel, a couple of scientists and our trio of time travellers the prospect of a dusty characterless production must have loomed, Yet the writers add small but significant quirks to each character; even the annoying reporter Chorley is used for comments on the media of the time. As the tension mounts each soldier displays something of their real personality. This pays off later when most of them meet unfortunate deaths at the hands of the Yeti; because we know their names it means a little more. In the case of Professor Travers and daughter Ann they become the enablers of the first half of the story with the Doctor not really arriving in the centre of things till part 3. One of the odd things about 60s Who is how the Doctor is often kept apart from the main action. Here he is entirely absent from part 2 and doesn’t really hit his stride till mid-way through.
Some of the story’s set pieces are amongst the best the original series produced. The web effects are creepily realistic and the way items glow underneath them looks great on screen. Various shots of Yeti appearing unexpectedly with a mighty roar always impress. Camfield emphasises their bulk by shooting them from below and with their glowing eyes they are much scarier looking especially in the semi-dark then you’d expect. It’s in these scenes that the advantages of the monochrome picture come to the fore. Even the model shots of the fungus spreading through the tunnels are convincingly done with top notch sound to divert our attention. At least it’s not foam!
Nobody ever need colourise this story because it would lose a lot of its atmosphere. By keeping incidental music to a minimum and relying on sound effects more than many stories Camfield builds a more realistic feel than the melodramatic theme playing in the museum in part 1 which seems at odds with the rest of the story. During the big battle sequence the well remembered Tomb of the Cybermen music is re-used.
Part 4’s battle at Covent Garden is the centrepiece of the story. Though it sets the template for the sort of minsters vs soldiers clashes that would be taken up throughout the first half of the 1970s it is actually better than any of them. Clever deployment of limited resources and inventive editing gives a tremendous scale while the fight is thunderous and brutal. All of the soldiers except Lethbridge -Stewart are killed – even hitherto main character Captain Knight- in a sequence that makes the recovery of these episodes worthwhile in itself. It’s an early indication too of how vital a character Lethbridge –Stewart would become. While later he was more of a cipher he debuts here as a no nonsense but fair and tactically resourceful leader who clearly merits his superior rank. Nicholas Courtney exudes authority as he takes over the rather hapless soldiers we’ve previously seen. Though his actual first appearance is in the still missing part 3, there is enough here to see why he was retained. While the dynamic between a Doctor and companion is always that of a teacher / pupil with Lethbridge Stewart there is the advantage of an important adult equal with whom the Doctor must work.
Not that it matters too much but the writer’s narrative does not always quite match the quality of the production. While Haisman and Lincoln are adept at dialogue they struggle a little more with plot development. Being one of those `base under siege` stories the pattern is set early on with frequent missions beyond Goodge Street only resulting in casualties and a quick retreat. Even when the Yeti finally breach the place they do not linger so there is a sense that in story terms we are going round in circles. Even so when the sequences are as well realised as they are, it hardly seems to matter.
A more detached view of the story may lead to questions as to why the Intelligence chooses the Underground (perhaps it is close to Silverstein’s museum?) and why if they can redesign their robots they kept the shape of the Yeti at all. Surely they were designed like that to feed on the legend of the Abominable Snowman? You might even ponder why the Yeti roar if they are robots but it does add danger so I suppose that’s the reason.
The Intelligence’s aim seems to be to drain the Doctor’s brain but if it can hold the Tardis in space (another excellent effect) why go to all the trouble of invading London? The writers do qualify this by throwing in a line about the Doctor having to surrender willingly but then have him coerced into doing so. It seems rather contrived to say the least. It may be this vagueness in the Intelligence’s reasoning that is responsible for its similarly woolly motivation in this year’s episodes; not much has been learned over more than forty years. Basically if you have a villain called the Great Intelligence what does it really need?
Due to the return of these episodes we find two stories in a row where the writers are not really utilising Victoria. Just as in` Enemy of the World`, she serves almost no purpose in the story except to scream at every opportunity. It’s not Debbie Watling’s fault particularly; she is just not given anything productive to do. This perhaps reflects the fact that the writers are all male but there is also the issue of the character’s sheltered background which makes her inappropriate for this lifestyle. Nobody seemed to consider a sort of Eliza Doolittle idea, rather like they did later on with Leela. Jamie does take more of a part in things especially near the end but between them the duo’s historical background is often more of a hindrance than a help especially as the trend was towards either present day or futuristic stories.
The story’s conclusion, perhaps inevitably, is a tad disappointing. With the audience having guessed some time ago that Arnold is the Intelligence’s agent his eventual unveiling is not the shock it might be, though Jack Woolgar is rather good in villainous mode. Then the Doctor has to sit in a pyramid that is rather too small for him but his plan is thwarted by Jamie’s bold but reckless assault on all and sundry together with the Yeti the Doctor had previously corralled. The result is unintentionally comic with everyone falling over and groaning. Even Douglas Camfield can’t rescue this sequence though one interesting thing is the way he does have characters talking audibly in the background as the Doctor is led to the pyramid, something the show hardly ever does.
Despite the awkward conclusion (something it shares with several classic stories) `The Web of Fear` is an absorbing adventure and one of the best of the era making up for what it might lack in story terms with it style, tension and some good old fashioned monsters.