Teasing, traumatising and The Web of Fear (1968)

webfear

Prior to the miraculous discovery of nearly all of The Web of Fear in 2013, this story was a teasing, tantalising experience. Unique among all Doctor Who stories, we had only its first episode and that instalment is a taut, intriguing affair. (Well, I say “taut”. It does have several explanation-free minutes of  padding about the TARDIS being immobilised by web in space). 

Still, it does what all first episodes are meant to do – hook us and leave us eager for the next chapter. But it was a promise which couldn’t be fulfilled, so more so than any other missing story, it felt like The Web of Fear kept us hanging.

With the recovery of four of its five missing episodes, the picture has changed again. There’s much to love in this story, but with Episodes 2, 4, 5 and 6 now back for us to lap up, it’s now clear they have a different tone to that opening segment we knew so well. We shouldn’t be surprised – first episodes are meant to entice and ensnare. If the remaining episodes feel more talky, more stagey, more filled with running in and out of rooms, that’s fine because that’s what episodes two to six are always for.

The continuing absence of Episode 3 (fallen into the hands of some Bondian super villain, I like to think. “How do you like my film print of The Web of Fear Episode 3? Exquisite, don’t you think? I keep it with my six Mona Lisas and four Detective Comics Issue 1s, because it’s important to surround oneself with beauty in this cruel world. But I’m afraid you’ve seen too much. Gerald, take him to the shark-infested dungeon….”

Sorry, I got carried away there. The continuing absence of Episode 3 reshapes the story again. It divides it into two, quite distinct portions; almost like we’ve had two separate missing stories returned to us. Episodes 1 and 2 form a precursor to the story proper. There’s scene setting galore, but without the catalytic presence of the Doctor (a galvanised Patrick Troughton), the second episode is really only gently elaborating on material offered in the first. Really, if we had to be robbed of any episode of this story, 2 is the standout candidate.

Instead, the search for Episode 3 goes on in car boot sales, Mormon church halls and remote African relay stations everywhere. It’s a pity it’s missing because it’s where the story kicks into gear. 

It’s where, with the arrival of Col. Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), the ensemble cast is finally complete.  From here on in, it’s all inter-character suspicion, sporadic attacks from the Yeti and trips forward and back between Fortress and platform, with a few peeps getting knocked off as they go. Ep 3 is the bridge between the more sedate opening instalments and the action runaround of the second half.

You can see this shift in gear most clearly be comparing episodes 2 and 4. Ep 4 is outstanding, helped no end by a bumper battle sequence shot on film. It’s a contender for the best single episode of the sixties, and one of the best of the whole classic series. 2 is a little office bound plodder by comparison. Without Episode 3 to link them, it almost seems like they’re from different stories.

So Episodes 4 to 6, cut off from the rest of the story, feel like a standalone three-parter. 5 and 6 aren’t quite as glorious as 4; the constant game of to and fro between locations starts to wear, Professor Travers’ (Jack Watling) possessed acting is a little too eye-rolling and there’s an unnecessarily large coterie of characters hanging around in that climax in the Intelligence’s lair. But it does have that pervading sense of menace that characterises the best Doctor Who, and that’s largely down to director Douglas Camfield.

In fact, it’s Camfield, with his pinpoint accurate casting and his ability to ramp up the tension, who is key to this story’s success. Far more so than writers Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln, whose script is a standard monstery runabout with some added “who’s the traitor” intrigue and some conspicuous trappings of mysticism thrown in. Pyramidal structures become important and voodoo-like totems of the Yeti spell doom for those who carry them. Possession, which we now think of as standard Doctor Who fodder, was pioneered by Haisman and Lincoln in The Abominable Snowmen and is repeated here.

But even putting aside its fascination with the supernatural , the script is not outstanding. The dialogue is pretty basic and the premise itself is shaky. London underground at a standstill would be a major national crisis, so why is the whole place not teeming with soldiers? Is the rest of the world just looking on helplessly, not stepping in? What is the web and what is the fungus? Are they the same thing? How does this all work?

What Camfield manages to do, is to divert our attention from the script’s shortcomings. As always, he pushes his cast further than any other Doctor Who director does. John Rollason, as oily journalist Chorley is particularly good in Episode 6, driven to near hysteria after running around unseen in the tunnels for an episode or two. Another terrific moment is given by Nicholas Courtney at the end of Episode 4, as he returns to the fortress having lost a number of his men in the fight with the Yeti. He looks genuinely traumatised. It’s the sort of visceral reaction that Camfield gets out of his actors and which raises the dramatic stakes.

People often point out that this story set the template for Seventies Doctor Who, and they’re right. But we don’t often credit Camfield as one of the architects of that, even though he directed this and its close cousin The Invasion. By directing the progamme as action adventure so well, he shows the way for others to follow. He’s as much an instigator of that new version of Who as producers Bryant and Sherwin.

All this is clear from having most of The Web of Fear back. It used to be the story that teased us with a single episode. Now it’s teasing us by missing a single episode, being tantalisingly close to completion. And when that Blofeld decides to release the episode back to us, and we can see the whole thing, the story’s shape will change again. May that day come swiftly. I’ll be sitting cross legged under my pyramid, holding my little Yeti totem close until it does.

LINK TO Empress of Mars: again, returning Season Five monsters.

NEXT TIME: Fingers on lips! Pick up your Olympic torch, we’re off to Fear Her.

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