Tuesday, 25 February 2014

'Doctor Who: The Web of Fear' DVD review

Set in the London Underground, the 1968 Doctor Who story 'The Web of Fear' is finally available on DVD. For many enthusiasts, it's the story that defines the Patrick Troughton era of the series.

Hammer horror... (Image: BBC)
Memory’s a funny thing. Back in the 1980s, when nobody could see Series 5 of Doctor Who and we only had scratchy, off-the-TV soundtracks to go on –  aside from telesnaps, the frame-by-frame photographs archivist John Cura provided for programme makers – we bought into the idea, put around by some older fans, that the fifth season was the high-point of Doctor Who in the 1960s. Single episodes tantalised us with the promise of a slew of base-under-siege classics that established once and for all what the series was really all about: a quirky hero and his plucky chums versus a variety of towering, preferably robotic, monsters.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. When ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ turned up, I couldn't square the classic of fandom folklore with a 1967 TV production that sported untidy direction and wildly variable characterisation and performances. In the 1990s, the delightful surprise was the return of ‘The Ice Warriors’: a science fiction story that featured monsters rather than a science fiction story about monsters, with innovative production design and direction, as well as startlingly modern dialogue.

Fast forward to 2013, and against all odds, ‘The Enemy of the World’ and ‘The Web of Fear’ were recovered together. It’s going to sound churlish considering the astonishing discovery of eleven old episodes forty-odd years on, but I found ‘Enemy’ similar to ‘Tomb’ in its not entirely successful mixture of impressively staged film set pieces – the location filming, the confrontation with Salamander in the TARDIS – and crushingly leaden direction. Predictably, the best things about it are Patrick Troughton’s dual roles: he was such a good character actor that you really believe the Doctor and Salamander are two separate people.

The beginning of a nightmare. (Image: BBC)
I remember ‘The Web of Fear’ so well from 1968. Having first watched Doctor Who (I think) during ‘The Power of the Daleks’, I was by then hooked, and of all the 1960s stories, it’s the bizarre images in ‘Web’ that captivated my nearly four year-old imagination the most: the TARDIS snared by web in space, the dead newspaper seller who keels over, the web/fungus of the Great Intelligence squirming through the tunnels, the battle with the Yeti, the web guns, a Yeti control unit bleeping across the floor and terrifying a soldier. The trailer, with the Doctor talking to the audience and warning them about the return of the Yeti, is a particularly vivid memory, but I have no memory whatsoever of 'The Enemy of the World' episode six, even though I must have watched it.

So – would ‘The Web of Fear’ turn out to be the second upward curve on the graph of reappraised quality in Series 5...?

146 minutes later...
Good news: the Great Intelligence’s rematch with the Doctor may not be as intellectual as ‘The Ice Warriors,’ but (as you’d expect from Douglas Camfield, one of Doctor Who’s best directors) ‘The Web of Fear’ is pacy, acted with conviction and overflows with images of the uncanny in an everyday setting. No other programme could offer such a – an overused word, but I’m going to use it – surreal mixture of elements: robot versions of legendary animals who fire guns full of lethal web, in a London Underground being choked by a fungus-like organism. Considering what was going on elsewhere in society at the time, I do wonder if recreational chemicals might have played some part in the story’s origination.

A base under siege and a traitor within... (Image: BBC)
There’s so much to enjoy (an unnecessary and unfortunate Jewish stereotype aside). The characterisation of the soldiers trapped in the Goodge Street fortress is particularly authentic. Like a khaki Greek chorus, Corporal Lane (Rod Beacham) and Craftsman Weams (Stephen Whittaker) discuss their situation, speculating that the Yeti are robots created by a foreign power for germ warfare or – far, far more unlikely – invaders from outer space…. Staff Sergeant Arnold (Jack Woolgar) is a seasoned, tough-but-with-a-heart-of-gold leader of men, and Woolgar’s salty performance is so convincing that the final episode revelation about him is a genuine shocker. Captain Knight (Ralph Watson) may be a bit of a chinless wonder with a bizarre pronunciation of Charing Cross, but he gets a wonderful moment of disgust, reacting to the statement by Harold Chorley (the excellent John Rollason) that the killing of soldiers is ‘great stuff’ for his news story. Among all the Rourke’s Drift stiff upper lippery, it’s wonderful to have an unrepentantly cowardly character in Driver Evans (Derek Pollitt). Nobody can stand him, and when he does decide to help, he gets shouted at by the Doctor. They should have brought him back – imagine how different Doctor Who would have been with Evans taking the role of Sergeant Benton.

And then there’s one Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). If you can blank out his major role in the series in the 1970s, here he’s clearly designed to be the main suspect as the Great Intelligence’s agent, as no-one knows anything about him and sabotage only starts happening when he turns up; bearing that in mind, his sole survival of the Yeti attack takes on a very sinister aspect. This Cold War paranoia about infiltration by an enemy occurred in 1960s series as varied as Callan and Counterstrike, and would have struck a particularly mature chord with the adult audience, particularly as we’re kept guessing about the identity of the traitor until the last moment. Chorley is the other candidate, disappearing for two episodes and leading you to wonder if he’s manipulating events behind the scenes.

The stuff of childhood terror. (Image: BBC)
There’s so much other good stuff: the bewilderment of Professor Travers (Jack Watling) at the Doctor’s companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) not having aged since he last met them; the very contemporary dig by the impressively tough Anne Travers (Tina Packer) at the ‘gutter press’; the brilliant model work of the tunnels and the Goodge Street lab and, of course, the Yeti. Some Doctor Who monsters look great in still photos but a bit silly when they move, but the reverse is true of these furry robots: they’re quick, savage and brutal, and unnerving when they suddenly switch off and stand still. A great monster.

As I’ve said, ‘The Web of Fear’ is a straightforward story well told, and Camfield has to take most of the credit for that. He recognised that Doctor Who had more in common with horror films than science fiction movies, and here we get an edgy vocabulary of extreme close ups – Troughton’s characterful, lined face was made for black and white – and film noir style photography so expressionistic that some backgrounds to the scenes are pure black. This not only adds to the claustrophobic feel, but hides the budgetary limitations in the sets, so we don’t get anything as stagey as the Gravitron control room in ‘The Moonbase’. No one’s doing ‘children's TV’ or hammy acting (unlike in ‘Tomb’ and ‘Enemy’) and Hines, in particular, is more muscular than usual.

In February 2014, I’m delighted to report that ‘The Web of Fear’ is, next to ‘The Ice Warriors’ and ‘The War Games’, the best (nearly) complete Troughton Doctor Who story resident in the BBC archives. In many ways, for me, it is the Troughton era, and you could show it to today’s children and they’d be excited and thrilled by it.

I’ve believed since 1968 that ‘The Web of Fear’ was brilliant. All these years later, it's gratifying to know that I was right.

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