Sneak Preview: The Web of Fear

Thanks to Philip Morris' discovery, we now know that in 1967/68, people still used Courier font.

My web… My we-e-eb!

Well, they’re back!  After three months of swirling rumors, the BBC finally confirmed that two long-lost Patrick Troughton-era Doctor Who serials have been uncovered in their entirety (almost)!  So, on the night that I was supposed to watch the similarly lost-and-then-found Episode 2 of The Daleks’ Masterplan, I set my rewatch project by the boards, and decided to binge-watch The Web of Fear in one go.

What follows is not a “proper” review of the serial.  That will come in its turn.  However, about four years ago, I did watch Web via the reconstruction format.  For recons I typically turn first to the amazing folks at Loose Cannon who, unfortunately, never did this story.  I relied then upon another version of Web which married the BBC audio release of the story (with voiceover narrations by Fraser Hines, who played Jamie) with the story’s existing still photos and the few surviving bits of footage.

So, as I did yesterday for The Enemy of the World, I’ve dug up my review of the reconstruction from the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, and have added running commentary (the original review is quoted in italics) based on my preliminary thoughts from having watched all 6 episodes in one sitting.  Enjoy!

Never mind, I'm just going to review Patrick Troughton's appearance on "Bowling For Dollars" instead.  That's not a regulation ball, Pat.

Never mind, I’m just going to review Patrick Troughton’s appearance on “Bowling For Dollars” instead. That’s not a regulation ball, Pat.

Only Episode One of The Web of Fear exists in full in the BBC archives. In reconstructed format, four of the five missing episodes are crashing bores. [… T]his is the fault of Douglas Camfield.

Simply put, the surviving Episode One is the best remaining intact episode of Season 5. [… W]hat Dougie Camfield did with The Web of Fear remains atmospheric and scary even today.

I really can’t change my “crashing bore” assessment all that much, unfortunately. Episode 3 remains missing, and Episodes 2 and 5 still don’t fully take flight.  Camfield works in some nice directorial flourishes when he can.   Deborah Watling (Victoria)’s involuntary smile in her first scene opposite her father, Jack Watling (Professor Travers), is a little moment of joy.  There’s one brief flicker of betrayal on the face of Jack Woolgar (Staff Sergeant Arnold), the Great Intelligence’s secret puppet on Earth, when he gives away information that his character shouldn’t have known.  But, on the whole, and especially when  you binge-watch all 6 episodes of Web in one night, there’s not much excitement to be had.

When all else fails, of course, just look at Tina Packer's impish grins.  45 years later, I am smitten!

When all else fails, of course, just look at Tina Packer’s impish grins. 45 years later, I am smitten!

The opening scene — the TARDIS in crisis following on from the end of The Enemy of the World — is directed in such a way that you’d think the console room set was actually built to pitch and yaw, instead of just three middle-grade actors rolling themselves around a not-very-sturdy set.

I take that back, after having watched two full Patrick Troughton stories in two nights. There is nothing middle-grade about Troughton.  He always finds a way to light up the screen, even in the middle of a rather dull installment.  His joy at having reactivated the Yeti control sphere in Episode 5, and his subsequent reaction when the army Colonel is underwhelmed by the news, is one magical moment found deep in the doldrums of a binge-watch.

[…] Episodes two and three lag a little bit, at least in reconstructed format. Enlivened only by a couple of surviving censor-clips of slow-moving Yeti massacring human soldiers, these middle episodes mainly serve to introduce a too-large cast of proto-UNIT British soldiers who sip tea and say things like “Blow me!” (a phrase you’ll never find in modern-day Who, that’s for sure).

Because the character actually said “Stone me!”… which, come to think of it, is not much better.

[…] At least Nicholas Courtney makes an impact when he finally enters as Colonel Lethbridge Stewart. He’s under cloud of suspicion of being possessed by the Intelligence, which makes his early speeches pleasantly ambiguous. His briefing-the-troops scene helps make sense of the plot, and in that same scene the Doctor and returning character Professor Travers have fun geekily describing the regenerated Yeti as the “Mark Two”.

Courtney’s performance as the Colonel sounded commanding even on audio, but his screen presence shines through here from the first moments that we see him live in Episode 4.  It’s easy to see why he would become a series semi-regular shortly after this. He gives sly knowing looks to the camera, when he’s suspected of being a puppet of the Intelligence, and his defeated posture and tone after he’s lost nearly his entire platoon later on, show a very intelligent actor at work.

"A map of the London Underground, 1967. Key strategic weakness in metropolitan living, if you ask me, but then I have never liked a tunnel."

“A map of the London Underground, 1967. Key strategic weakness in metropolitan living, if you ask me, but then I have never liked a tunnel.”

And then there’s Episode Four. Terrance Dicks in his novelization, aimed at the kiddies, glossed over this one, writing it up in just 15 pages, compared to the positively atmospheric 30 pages he lavished on Episode One. When just about all of the supporting cast is killed off, Dicks confines that to a four-page stretch with relatively little emotion. On TV, however… the Yeti massacre of the troops fills up a substantial chunk of the 25-minute run time, with the script spreading the tension across three separate locations. A few seconds of censor clips show the Yeti killing off Lethbridge Stewart’s troops on location and this confirms, along with Episode One, that Camfield just directed the heck out of this story. Finally, in the cliffhanger, it turns out that Professor Travers, a good guy in The Abominable Snowmen and the beginning of this story, is possessed by the Intelligence. Episode Four is thus continuously downbeat in a way that early Who episodes never were before. Even with no other live footage from the other death scenes, the power of the scripting shines through even in the reconstructions.

This is the one I was waiting for – when I heard the rumors that lost episodes had turned up in Nigeria – or was it Ethiopia – or was it Ian Levine’s attic? – Web of Fear 4 was the one I wanted to see most.  When I heard the (surprisingly accurate) rumors that four of the five missing Web of Fear installments had been found,  I feverishly hoped that Episode 4 was among them.

And it was all worth it to see Patrick Troughton dancing a lusty tarantella with a man in a Yeti costume.

And it was all worth it to see Patrick Troughton dancing a lusty tarantella with a man in a Yeti costume.

And what we get is a filmed battle royale with the Yeti, spread across several scenes.  There were only four Yeti costumes, but thanks to clever camera angles and rapid cutting (no wonder this story required two separate film editors), you can credibly believe it’s a 20-robot army.  Seven of the eight human solders are killed in this sequence.  The Yeti march on inexorably (backed by the stock ’60s incidental track, “Space Adventure”, usually reserved for Cybermen), immune to the humans’ weapons, and horrifically drag several soldiers to their deaths.  Pretty white-knuckle stuff, for 1968.

Unfortunately, on film and in broad daylight, the Yeti costumes themselves do require some willing suspension of disbelief.

Unfortunately, on film and in broad daylight, the Yeti costumes themselves do require some willing suspension of disbelief.

Also affecting is the death of Captain Knight, who played a major role in the early episodes before Lethbridge Stewart showed up. Knight was played by Ralph Watson, one of those background actors who played multiple Who corpses over those years, but the ones you never noticed, not until Watson showed up in the DVD commentary booth for The Monster of Peladon with so much to say, and then it turned out he had a Who-themed Twitter account too.

This death scene is surprising, too, with the diminutive Doctor single-handedly trying to pull a Yeti off of Captain Knight.  Knight was the kind of square-jawed, heroic character who typically gets to survive to the end of Who stories, so his death is another shock. The Doctor’s intervention was also previously unknown to us – both the novelization, and on-line transcripts of the missing episode audios, staged this scene without the Doctor’s involvement.  But there you have little Patrick Troughton, taking on a 7-foot-tall monster, with his bare hands!

Ralph Watson appeared in three "Doctor Who" serials, and his characters got to die horribly in all of them.  Lucky man!

Ralph Watson appeared in three “Doctor Who” serials, and his characters got to die horribly in all of them. Lucky man!

[…] The last two episodes again drag as we’re deprived of Camfield’s direction. The script ending is a bit comical, as the Doctor’s companions inadvertently prevent him from destroying the Intelligence. One has to assume the finished product looked great on TV, because the surviving footage is so intense, but in reconstructed format the story really only soars in Episode Four.

Episode 6 is also staged very well.  The first half is a little bit of a dull run-around, with the surviving cast plodding up and down tunnels and through Underground stations.  The appearance of a movie poster for In The Heat of the Night (albeit with a different title) is a bit surprising; I’m sure Rod Steiger was quite unaware that his name appeared so prominently in a Doctor Who episode.

However, the final confrontation with the Great Intelligence is very neat.  The revelation of Jack Woolgar’s character as the Intelligence’s secret pawn is done very nicely, with the actor’s face hidden for several seconds even as he walks out of hiding to greet his captives.  When the Intelligence is destroyed, its control pyramid vanishes in an animated flash, and Woolgar’s face appears grotesequely blackened and burned as his character dies.  Something else impressive that Camfield did was cram as many actors into a single shot as he could; we get eight faces in frame at once several times in the final episode.

A Yeti conga line.

A Yeti conga line.

Another letdown is the imperialistic attempts at culutural diversity, as we get a whiny and greedy Jewish museum curator (Julius Silverstein) in the opening scene. In later episodes, comic relief is served by Private Evans, a cowardly Welsh soldier prone to acts of desertion. […]

And to this I will add, Jack Woolgar’s face being “blacked-up” for his death scene, is perhaps the only time that “blacking-up” was used appropriately in Doctor Who throughout the 1960s and ’70s…

It’s hard to rate the overall quality of The Web of Fear, since most the reconstructed episodes lag far behind the excellence of the opening act, and as Dicks’ 120-page novelization can’t really capture the scare factor of the coordinated Yeti attacks. Still, with Camfield as director and the few surviving moments looking so crisp, it’s fair to say that the loss of The Web of Fear is a pretty big blow to the BBC archives.

Interestingly, with the release of the two lost stories just 72 hours ago, it’s The Enemy of the World that seems to have increased the most in fan estimation.  Watched all in one go, as I did on Sunday night and as many of you have done already, Web drags unmistakably in spots; I expect to enjoy it better one episode a night, when it comes back around in my re-watch.  That said, my expectations for Episodes 4 and 6 were certainly surpassed.  While I don’t quite share Mark Gatiss’ enthusiasm over The Web of Fear, I do think its return will do much to enhance Patrick Troughton’s reputation.  If nothing else, it will provide vital background to New Series fans who think the Great Intelligence was invented by Steven Moffat for The Snowmen.

In fact, we now have more of Season 5 extant than missing – and more of Troughton’s era extant than missing – so it’s time to acknowledge that he was one of the two or three best actors to play the role of Doctor Who.

Perhaps the best moment of all comes early in Episode 4, when the Doctor tries to explain exactly what the Great Intelligence is. This is Troughton’s new signature moment – the camera peers up at Troughton while Troughton peers up at the heavens; the incidental soundtrack gets eerie; and then we cut in for an extreme close-up.

The Colonel: Tell me, Doctor, this Intelligence – exactly what is it?

The Doctor: Well I wish I could give you a precise answer. Perhaps the best way to describe it is a sort of formless, shapeless thing floating about in space like a cloud of mist, only… with a mind and will.

Brr.  Just… brrrr.

About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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1 Response to Sneak Preview: The Web of Fear

  1. Pingback: Terrance’s Top Ten | Doctor Who Novels

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