The TARDIS narrowly escapes being engulfed in a cobwebby substance in space. It arrives in the London Underground, the tunnels of which are being overrun by the web and the Great Intelligence’s robotic Yeti.
The time travellers lean that this crisis was precipitated when Professor Travers, whom they first met in the Himalayas, some thirty years earlier, accidentally caused one of the Yeti to be reactivated, opening the way for the Intelligence to invade again.
The travellers work alongside army forces – led initially by Captain Knight, and then by Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart – as they battle the alien menace, hampered by the fact that one of their number has fallen under the Intelligence’s influence and is a traitor in their midst.
As Jon Pertwee once said, there’s nothing more scary than coming home and finding a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec. The Web of Fear is a story that oozes paranoia and distrust and certainly made an impact on contemporary audiences, and in hindsight, seems to be a proof of concept ahead of the following season’s The Invasion and the Third Doctor being stranded on Earth. Whilst moments of the story really work, the return to the more formulaic base under siege elements after a story like The Enemy of the World mean that this story suffers as a result.
The Web of Fear certainly feels claustrophobic and atmospheric in the best possible way, and manages to make the audience really believe that they are down in the tunnels with the characters. Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln do manage to craft a story that hangs together for most of it’s run time and certainly in the opening couple of episodes create a great sense of pace and urgency. This does, sadly drop when we get to Episode 3, in no small part because of the necessity of using telesnaps, which cannot be blamed on anyone in the production or writing in this story, but it is also essentially just a meeting to discuss what they know. It is a relief, therefore, to return to moving pictures in Episode 4 and to get out of the Underground into one of the best sequences in the story, the fight between the Yeti and the army. The story is effective in making all of the characters seem like a contender to be the traitor in the midst of the army and also making it feel as though none of the characters are safe, best demonstrated by the death of Captain Knight. The story does hit a bit of lull again when we reach Episodes 5 and 6, especially considering that Episode 5 is largely the Doctor planning and finishes with more shots of the web breaking into the Goodge Street headquarters, and Episode 6 sees the Doctor’s plans thrown out the window by Jamie’s interference, making Episode 5 feel a little redundant. Ultimately though, it does feel as though characters spend a lot of time running through tunnels looking for each other, and the novelty of this does wear off quite quickly.
Again, anybody who has read my blog will know that I love Douglas Camfield’s direction and this story is no exception. It is best demonstrated in the battle in Episode 4, but he manages to utilise the setting and the fantastic sets to create a feeling of inescapable surrounding and thus claustrophobia and building fear throughout. The set design in this story also deserves credit – it is utterly believable that the cast are moving around the actual London Underground and at no point did I register thinking any of the sets looked cheap or unrealistic. Camfield makes the Yeti look utterly terrifying looming out of the Underground tunnels and they and the titular web feel genuinely unstoppable.
There are some really strong characters in this guest cast, with this story most notably introducing Colonel (soon to be Brigadier) Lethbridge-Stewart, who regular readers will know that I love. Lethbridge-Stewart arrives fully formed and he certainly feels like a younger version of the character that we will see essentially become the third lead of the series when Jon Pertwee rolls around. As a modern viewer coming back to watch this with the experience of the character however, the suspicion around him doesn’t really work as well as it would have done for an audience at that time, as we have an affection and knowledge of the character beyond this story, whilst other characters seem much more likely to be a traitor. On a side note, I love how the Colonel unquestioningly accepts that the Doctor is telling the truth about the TARDIS being able to travel in time and space in the face of derision from his military colleagues and that the character is not introduced with a lot of fanfare, but is just presented as another character joining the narrative. Whilst it is disappointing that we never get to see the first meeting between the Doctor and the Colonel, Courtney does a good job ensuring that Lethbridge-Stewart makes an impact. Another character who is important in this story is the journalist, Harold Chorley. Chorley is a character who was able to immediately get under my skin with his smarmy and obnoxious personality but he probably presents the actions of the majority of the viewers when faced with a terrifying situation – he just wants to get out of there. When he reappears towards the end of the narrative, Rollason presents a picture of someone utterly shaken and terrified by what he has experienced in the Underground.
We also have the heroic Captain Knight, who seems to be given the challenging job of keeping the soldiers, Travers and Chorley onside and he is ultimately stoic and brave to the end. In this bleak story, there is a glimpse of light in the shape of Driver Evans, who is an upbeat Welshman, however, he is rather one-dimensional and presented as a joke for quite a long time and I wished that the story did something more interesting with him, like make him the traitor. I really liked the performance of Jack Watling as the older Professor Travers, and despite being a bit of a curmudgeon is rather loveable and his reaction when he is reunited with Jamie and Victoria is great. When Professor Travers gets possessed by the Great Intelligence, it is a different performance again and much more threatening – Watling feels and sounds like he is having the life dragged out of him through the possession. I found it a much more effective performance than that of Jack Woolgar when possessed, who feels much flatter.
Don’t say it, Mister Chorley. I have a very quick temper and very long claws.Anne Travers
With quite a sizeable guest cast, the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria take a bit of a backseat here and the companions certainly don’t get much to do. Troughton is his usual mercurial and magnetic personality throughout the story, however, and the direction takes full advantage of his expressive face the whole time. Jamie and Victoria seem to spend most of their time wandering the Underground tunnels, and Jamie’s main contribution is to blunder in and prevent the Doctor from completing his plan. It is interesting to compare Victoria to Anne Travers, the returning Professor Travers’ daughter. Anne Travers can be seen to be a predecessor to a companion like Liz Shaw, and she is certainly not the companion archetype that Victoria seems to present in other stories. In an alternative timeline, there’s probably a variant of the Second Doctor off travelling the universe with Anne Travers, as Tina Packer’s portrayal is really good. Anne as a character certainly feels independent of her father – she, for instance, doesn’t trust the Doctor despite her father vouching for him and her interactions with the obnoxious Chorley are always entertaining.
Verdict: The Web of Fear has a lot going for it, but suffers from following The Enemy of the World and as a result feels a bit formulaic. There are some great guest performances in here and the Yeti are genuinely terrifying. 6/10
Cast: Patrick Troughton (The Doctor), Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon), Deborah Watling (Victoria Waterfield), Jack Watling (Professor Edward Travers), Nicholas Courtney (Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart), Tina Packer (Anne Travers), Frederick Schrecker (Julius Silverstein), Rod Beacham (Corporal Lane), Richardson Morgan (Corporal Blake), Ralph Watson (Captain Knight), Jon Rollason (Harold Chorley), Jack Woolgar (Staff Sgt. Arnold), Stephen Whittaker (Craftsman Weams), Bernard G. High (Soldier), John Levene, John Lord, Gordon Stothard, Colin Warman, Jeremy King and Roger Jacombs (Yeti), Joseph O’Connell (Soldier) & Derek Pollitt (Driver Evans).
Writer: Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln
Director: Douglas Camfield
Behind the Scenes
- Episodes 1, 2, 4, 5 & 6 are held in the BBC Archives. Episode 3 is the only missing episode known to exist but not be held by the BBC. It was recovered along with episodes 2, 4, 5 & 6, however, was stolen and sold to a private collector. In 2021, The Web of Fear will be released with an animated Episode 3.
- The first appearance of Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. Nicholas Courtney was originally cast as Captain Knight, whilst David Langton was cast as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart. Langton gave up the role due to a more lucrative offer and Courtney was given the role.
- The Underground scenes were deemed to be so realistic at the time that the BBC received a complaint from London Transport that filming had been done on their property without permission.
- Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss would include a nod towards The Web of Fear in Sherlock, naming a journalist Harold Chorley in The Lying Detective.
- Nicholas Courtney previously played Bret Vyon in The Daleks’ Master Plan.
- Richardson Morgan went on to appear in The Ark in Space.
- Ralph Watson previously played an uncredited scientist in The Underwater Menace and would go on to play Ettis in The Monster of Peladon and Ben Travers in Horror of Fang Rock. He would reprise the role of Captain Knight in The Diary of River Song:: Series Six.
- Bernard G High would play a Corporal in Terror of the Zygons.
- John Levene would go on to play Sergeant Benton.
It would have to be the fight scene in Episode 4, which is suitably atmospheric and well shot. Whilst it is bleak, it is unquestionably the best part of the story.
Perhaps the best way to describe it is a sort of formless, shapeless thing, floating around in space with a mind and will. The only thing I know for sure is that it brought me here.The Second Doctor
Previous Second Doctor story: The Enemy of the World