Doctor Who: The Web of Fear (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros have not and most assuredly will not forgetty the Yeti...
Sometimes miracles happen; though the recovery of two Patrick Troughton Doctor Who stories might seem like a fairly trivia occurrence to many people, to fans of the show, it is a major event that most fans would not have thought possible. For one of those stories to be one that has held a fascination and reverence fairly solidly for over four decades, it’s something to be celebrated.
The story begins with a brief recap from the previous one, The Enemy of the World, just after the villainous Salamander has been forcibly ejected from the TARDIS and out into space/time continuum. The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) find themselves stuck in space by a mysterious web-like substance. After breaking free, the TARDIS materialises deep underground, where they soon find that London has been evacuated and an old adversary is using his furry minions to lure The Doctor into an elaborate trap.
This story is one of the ones that Doctor Who fans always wanted to see returned to the BBC archives, and after watching it, it’s easy to see why. The Web of Fear is absorbing, tense, exciting, well-acted and wonderfully directed. Now that the immediate gush of enthusiasm is out of the way, we’ll look at it in a more analytical manner…
The first scene with Professor Travers, which has him skulking about a darkened house in the middle of the night and confronted with a Yeti is simply wonderful; with it's use of shadows to created menace and tension, along with carefully chosen library music makes it look like a sequence from a feature-film, rather than an episode of Doctor Who, which is a testament to the directorial skills of Douglas Camfield, and clearly demonstrates precisely why is is often cited as Doctor Who's finest director. The scene where the Yeti first appear in the underground is absolutely breathtaking, with a rich, luxurious eeriness that has never really been repeated. This sequence is augmented by the simple, yet devastatingly effective sound effect of the control spheres, with the sense of tension escalated by the duplication of this sound effect to indicate multiple threats, yet they remain largely unseen.
Though Camfield was a master at being able to put together exciting action sequences (the elaborate shoot-out between the army personnel and the Yeti at Covent Garden is wonderful), he was also able to create tension and excitement by not showing the action, as a sequence in episode two has the unfortunate ensuing chaos (including gunfire, shouting and the sound of flushing lavatories – sorry, roaring Yeti) heard over the radio and it still manages to make you shiver with pleasure. Camfield manages to wring out even more suspense during the final act of the story, when it is discovered that certain objects act as homing devices for the Yeti and this results in a two-pronged attack.
The cliffhangers are great, with the end of episode two, which sees Jamie and Driver Evans (Derek Pollitt) trapped underground by the mysterious fungus being particularly tense. The fungus motif seeps into your consciousness (and possibly your unconsciousness) with each episode, as it appears during the closing credits, which is a nice little touch and was the first time that they had tried something different during the end credits since The Tenth Planet. The pacing of this story is also great, with tension being slowly built up and numerous red herrings and acts of misdirection liberally thrown into the mix. The big action sequence in episode four more than quenches the thirst for explosive violence in the story, only to have things calm down, with episode five serving as the calm before the climactic storm.
Patrick Troughton, Deborah Walting and Frazer Hines are as great as ever, with chemistry to spare and bringing a fabulous mixture of comedy and gravitas to the proceedings. At one point, they do their infamous “Three Stooges heads around the corner” shot, which never fails to raise a smile. Troughton gets to exhibit some of his Doctor's modesty by beating a hasty retreat at the end of the story after being threatened with being made a household name – it's a little thing, but a perfect way to wrap up such an epic story.
Though this is Nicholas Courtney’s first appearance in the role with which he would be most associated, his portrayal of the character is fully formed straight out of the trap (one); Courtney’s unmistakable mix of stiff upper-lip, stubbornness and occasional vulnerability are all there, along with his bristling at The Doctor’s unorthodox attitude toward authority. Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart is sporting a tartan beret that seems to denote his Scottish ancestry, which was never seen again after The Web of Fear; Courtney may have intensely disliked the uniform he had to wear when initially promoted to Brigadier, but at least he didn’t have to wear such an unflattering titfer in those ones.
This story presents are rare opportunity for Doctor Who to explore the concept of meeting someone at different points in their life (yeah, we know there was the whole River Song thing in New-Who, but she seemed to age backwards, oh and also the Peladon stories, but let's not quibble). Jack Watling's ageing Professor Travers is one of the many reasons why The Web of Fear works so well; Watling gives a performance that is convincingly depicts a man who has changed considerably since we last encountered him. It's not merely his appearance (the wig and the fake beard are pretty good and help to sell the illusion), but it's that Watling gives Travers a more blustering, almost short-tempered side to him that generally comes with advancing years and the frustrations that are brought to the surface as time ticks by and a sense of growing dread manifests itself quietly in your consciousness. Watling occasionally lapses into a few drama school stock “old age” mannerisms, but generally, his performance is superb and is bound to raise more than a smile or two, as he shares The Doctor's contempt for authority.
Playing investigative televisual journalist Chorley is John Rollason, who gives him a slick, oily delivery that can be likened to Alan Whicker and Rollason seems to go out of his way to make him unlikeable from the very moment he opens his mouth. Chorley is the timeless and quintessentially slimy, opportunistic journalist that everyone loves to hate and Rollason really manages to get under the skin of the audience, which is something that can only properly be achieved by delivering a great performance. Chorley is cleverly looked upon as the prime suspect for being in collusion with The Great Intelligence from the outset and the whole mystery of whether or not he is a Quisling remains until well into the final episode.
Backing up Professor Travers is his daughter, Anne, played by Tina Packer; the spunky younger Travers has her father's intelligence and is also has that same ability to speak her mind – the scene where she verbally tears Chorley to pieces is wonderful stuff and a perfect example to use whenever anyone trots out the old “woman in Classic Who only existed to look lovely and scream” bullshit. There is a bizarre scene where Anne and Victoria are discussing the Professor and it's odd because Ann is talking to Victoria about her father, when in reality her screen father is Deborah Watling's real-life father, but the two actresses play the scene so well that such paternal matters are soon brushed aside. It's a pity that Jack Watling and Tina Packer didn't come back for The Invasion, as they work so well together, but Watling was unavailable, so a rather convoluted explanation for similar replacement characters had to be concocted. Packer works wonderfully well with Troughton, so much so that it's a pity that she couldn't have stayed on as a member of the TARDIS crew, functioning as a sort of prototype Liz Shaw, but it was not to be.
Jack Woolgar brings a significant amount of weight to his role as Staff Sergeant Arnold; this role is type that William Hartnell used to be constantly offered before breaking type with Doctor Who. Woolgar gives the right amount of gruff authority, coupled with moments of humanity that are essential for convincingly portraying a military man of middling rank.
We can't leave out Derek Pollitt in our list of notable guest stars for this story; Pollitt plays Driver Evans, a spineless coward from The Valleys who is roped into the subterranean shenanigans purely by circumstance and wants to get out of the situation in any way possible. Evans is a member of the regular army (and the reason why he's regular is because he tends to soil himself at the first sign of danger), and is one of Doctor Who's greatest gutless wonders. Pollitt takes that sense of self-preservation that was on the page and makes it his own by imbuing Evans with a nervousness that makes you wonder why he ever signed up in the first place. Evans spends some of the story paired up with Anne Travers, who's go-getting sense of spunk only highlights what a slimy little coward Evans truly is. At one point, Evens points a weapon at Jamie and Lethbridge-Stewart and utters the words “stands to reason” - anyone who has ever suffered through more than one episode of On The Buses will appreciate that the sort of person who uses such a phrase - gun-wielding or not - is a complete twat and the usage of that phrase doesn't stand up any form of scrutiny.
Future Doctor Who regular John Levene progresses up the ladder in Doctor Who monsterdom; he had gotten a sprayed-silver boot on the bottom rung as a Cyberman in The Moonbase and trades that in for a furry foot as a Yeti in this story. If we were to be flippant, we would say that Levene's Yeti could be identified by being the only one on-screen at any one time...
For the rematch with the Yeti, the decision was taken to redesign them; the way that the original design (briefly seen at the start of the first episode), changes into the new one is rather bizarre – the control sphere is inserted and it immediately transforms. No real – or plausible – explanation is given for this, so the audience has to accept it and just get on and enjoy the story. There are pros and cons between the original design and the one that dominates this story: the Yeti seen in The Abominable Snowmen were somewhat “cuddly” and this could be interpreted as not being particularly frightening for younger viewers, whereas the newer ones are more avian-like, complete with “beaks”. The decision to arm the Yeti was one that added an extra sense of danger to them, but this ultimately detracts from the sort of “mythical” status they have, especially when the Yeti hail from an era of the world that is so firmly entrenched in Buddhism.
The Web of Fear arguably represents Doctor Who at it's eeriest; with dark, confined locations, long stretches of quiet occasionally punctuated by loud moments of hell breaking loose, and the rhythmic bleeping of the Yeti control spheres gives a suspenseful signal of oncoming menace, it's easy to see why people were still talking about this story nearly fifty years after it was broadcast, even more so when most of it was thought lost until recently. The Web of Fear manages to tap into some of the primal elements of the human condition, especially the fear of what lurks in the darkness and the London Underground system is the perfect environment to stage such a story – it's no wonder that Mike Gatting once stated that he was terrified of the Underground after watching this story as a child.
There's a lovely little moment that serves as a subtle anti-smoking warning; The Doctor is after a small container to put something important in, and gutless Evans has a tin of tobacco. The weak-willed Welshman is worried about the possibility of losing of the contents and thereby depriving him of the opportunity to roll his own cancer-tubes, so he says to The Doctor “but there's tobacco in there!”, to which The Doctor replies in an apathetic manner “never mind” before emptying out the contents.
Consulting with a Troughton-obsessed friend of ours confirmed our suspicion that The Web of Fear represents the only surviving footage of the Cosmic Hobo playing his beloved recorder; whilst he can be seen playing it in The Three Doctors, this story is the only one during his tenure that remains of him producing a tune ( The Sky Boat Song, to be precise) on the instrument that his Doctor became so closely associated with – it's just a little thing, but it's lovely to watch.
The final reveal of the identity of the link to the Great Intelligence is well handled by Douglas Camfield, presenting enough dead-ends and deliberate misdirection to keep people guessing; the actual reveal is preceded by a couple of shots of the person's body, but not the head and when his identity is finally unveiled, it's a pretty striking moment.
It’s a pity that the proposed third encounter with the Yeti, The Laird of McCrimmon, was never produced, as it would have seen Jamie possessed by the Great Intelligence and bringing the TARDIS to his ancestral home of Castle McCrimmon. This would have been a great way to not only wrap up the Yeti, but also would have served as a more satisfying departure from Doctor Who than Frazer Hines received at the end of The War Games. Sadly, the dispute between writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln and the BBC over copyright of the Quarks meant that this would never happen. It’s almost certainly the reason why such a memorable foe hasn’t been brought back for New-Who, too.
Though The Web of Fear spent several decades missing from the BBC archives, there were certain sequences that were always keenly spoken of by people who had either seen it when it was originally transmitted, or they had heard or read about it and the confrontation between the Yeti and UNIT in Covent Garden is one of those sequences; the Space Adventure theme (which came to be identified with the Cybermen during Troughton’s tenure) is wheeled out again to good effect as the furry robots lumber their way toward UNIT soldiers, as Camfield is given free reign to shoot, as this was on film and he could get as much coverage as the filming day would allow. Camfield’s shooting style here shaped what was to come during the Jon Pertwee era, with large numbers of set-ups, plenty of action and rapid editing to really inject life into the whole thing. Oh, and having the same people being killed over and over again was something that stunt-team HAVOC would eventually become famous for.
For anyone not living in a hole in the ground for the last few months, The Web of Fear was one of two Patrick Troughton stories to be recovered by Philip Morris, who had conducted an extensive search for missing Doctor Who (and missing television in general) in Africa. Episode one was already in the BBC archives, and the recovery of four of the five other episodes means that the story is almost complete, with only episode three still missing. The gap left by episode three is filled with a reconstruction of the missing episode using the fan-recorded off-air soundtrack and various images, including telesnaps and publicity stills.
There are some who would say that it's a crying shame that it had to be episode three that wasn't recovered, as it has the first appearance of Nicholas Courtney as Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart. This is balanced out by the fact that out of all six episodes, the third is the one that has the least amount of on-screen action taking place – it would have been another matter entirely if episode four was the one to still be missing, as it has the almost-legendary confrontation with the Yeti at Covent Garden. Patrick Troughton's absence from episode two will make some wish that it was that episode that was missing, but there's plenty going on to not make you miss him too much, although his rather blasé reappearance (along with his explanation for his disappearance) at the start of episode three is rather unsatisfactory.
Fans are eager to know what the reconstruction is like, well, it appears to be the same one that was available on i-Tunes; it could be argued that there's very little that you can do in terms of variation with recons, but the one presented here could best be described as “straightforward”. The mixture of John Cura's telesnaps, publicity pictures and images taken from other episodes works pretty well, but we have seen better other recons of this episode and this one isn't the cream of the crop. Almost like the creators of this recon were taking inspiration from the animated episodes of The Reign of Terror, there are all manner of zooms and pans to inject movement into the static images presented. On-screen captions are kept to a bare minimum (we seem to recall there there is only one of them throughout the whole episode) and the quality of the audio is pretty good.
A voice recorder was used to make notes for this review, and when it came to the image quality, our notes were a little on the blunt side, but they sum our feelings up perfectly:
“The transfer of episode one of The Web of Fear is fucking beautiful. It looks lovely, especially on the studio sequences.”
“The image quality of episode one is a slight step down from episode one, but it's still really good. It could have been fucking terrible.”
The recon of episode three looks about as good as it can be, given the quality of the materials they had to work with. The rest of the episodes are on a par with the first two and considering the amount of time that the cans of films had spent sitting on a shelf in Nigeria for over forty years.
There is still the “stepping” issue on film sequences; the characteristic that was inherent in the transfer of the original film elements onto videotape cannot be corrected (at this present time, at least), but it's not THAT bothersome.
In short, it's pretty miraculous not only that these episodes have survived, but also that they have been restored to look as wonderful as they do. The Doctor Who Restoration Team had a hand in the restoring of these episodes and they have presented them in a manner that many thought would not have been possible. It's a fabulous job.
Nothing adverse to report here – the audio on the recovered episodes sounds perfectly fine, with the fidelity bringing out the tension during the sequences set in the darkened atmosphere of the Underground. Dialogue is perfectly clear and the library music suffers from no distortion.
Oh dear. There are those who would be grateful that the mere existence of this story would be enough, but there are also others who would be miffed if this release was released with no extras.
Sadly, the only extra included is an...
Available Now Trailer: In a somewhat bizarre step, instead of having a preview of a future DVD release, the Powers-That-Be have decided to include a trailer for an existing title, The Enemy of the World to be precise. This makes sense in that that particular story was recovered along with The Web of Fear by Philip Morris, but seeing as The Underwater Menace is going to be released at some point, a look at that particular title should have been included. For what it's worth, this is a cool trailer and makes you want to watch it again, especially with the brief glimpse of Patrick Troughton playing both The Doctor and Salamander on-screen together.
It would have been nice to have included the audio for the specially-recorded trailer for The Web of Fear - which featured Patrick Troughton in character, warning viewers that the Yeti were back and a little bit scarier than before - but it isn't on here.
It's a pity that The Abominable Snowmen doesn't exist in the BBC archives (we know that one out of the six episodes still exists, but not all of it); that story acts as a precursor to this one and for those of us who were not around to see the original transmission of that first encounter with the Yeti and the Great Intelligence, you can't help but think that you are missing with The Web of Fear by not seeing it. Still, just taken on it's own terms, The Web of Fear is wonderful stuff - certainly deserving of the revered status it has accumulated during it's years in the wilderness - and one of the very best Doctor Who stories the sixties has to offer – it's suspenseful, thrilling and a welcome opportunity to see more of Patrick Troughton's time as The Doctor.
The lack of extras is a bit of a bummer, but the story – and the restoration work carried out on them – is strong enough to stand up on it's own. We're grateful to Philip Morris for his dedication to bringing previously missing television back for everyone to enjoy. We only hope that the rumours about exactly how many episodes he recovered turn out to be true.
We end this critique by taking another direct quote from the audio notes we made, which sums up our feelings perfectly...
“The Web of Fear is fucking great – mention that in the review.”
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 24th February 2014
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Available Now Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Douglas Camfield
Cast: Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling, Jack Watling, Nicholas Courtney
Length: 147 minutes
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