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Doctor Who complete reviews: The Web Of Fear

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

Enter the brigadier! And in a corker of a story, too...

Doctor Who - The Web Of Fear

Now that’s the way to do a sequel. Hot on the heels of the popular Abominable Snowmen, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln were invited back to pen another Yeti tale - only this time, they were given the challenge of making the Yeti a little less cuddly. And wow, did they succeed.

The Web Of Fear comfortably lodges at the top of my Desert Island Troughton Tales. After the James Bond intrigue of The Enemy Of The World, we’re plunged right back into the two staples of Season Five: Scary Monsters and Base-Under-Siege Scenario. To be honest, there’s not much deep subtext at work in The Web Of Fear, unless you count the underlying message that TV journalists are a pain in the arse. Instead, the key aim is to entertain and scare the viewers in equal measure. A personal bonus is that Haisman and Lincoln put an extra spin on the story by making it a Whodunnit. In The Abominable Snowmen, we all knew that the Great Intelligence had possessed Padmasambhava -but this time, the identity of the Intelligence is kept a mystery until the bitter end.

I must confess to being a sucker for all those murder mystery books and TV programmes. Plonk me in front of a televised Poirot adaptation or even, heaven forbid, a Midsomer Murders episode, and I’m as happy as a boy in a sandpit. I’m not sure why - I guess I like the challenge of working out the identity of the killer and also their motivation as to why they did it. That’s why I never got Columbo - the scruffy old git already knows who’s done it, he’s just there to prove that he or she committed the crime [you're fired - Ed]. But in The Web Of Fear, the murder mystery is an important part of its enduring appeal.

Another important element is the doomy atmosphere, which The Web Of Fear has in spades. Right after The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria have avoided being sucked out into space, we’re thrown crash-bang into an eerie museum that seems to be playing creepy Bela Bartok music on a loop in the background. It’s a near-perfect scene, enhanced by the returning presence of Jack Watling as the aged Professor Travers. Watling is excellent as Travers, possibly more so than in The Abominable Snowmen. He doesn’t put on a self-consciously ’old’ voice, but everything about his gruff mannerisms and speech patterns work brilliantly. Travers’ concerns about the missing sphere from the Yeti exhibit set the scene very well, and the following scene in which museum owner Julius Silverstein is brutally clubbed to death by the new-improved scary Yeti is a belter.

And yet…

Silverstein himself practically drains the tension out of the scene like a bespectacled leech. A bumbling, stereotypical goon, Silverstein resembles one of those one-off comedy characters that guest starred in some ropey old sitcom like Terry And June or On The Buses. “Yooo tlaaaa to rrrraaaaaab meeee!” howls Silverstein like some comedy pensioner that’s just been scammed by Blakey. Even after the indignant Travers has left, Silverstein is still stomping about yelling “Tllllevaaaahhhhs, ey em not ey foooooeeelll!” over and over again. It’s a crying shame, since instead of being gripped by the drama, I’m left roaring with laughter at such a useless old duffer.

"Both the expansive Ealing sets and the studio interiors would certainly have had me fooled if I didn’t know that London Underground had allegedly sent the BBC a letter of complaint wondering what on earth they were doing trespassing on their property. That letter just speaks for itself"

That little glitch aside though, there’s absolutely nothing to fault The Web Of Fear at all. Following the intense museum prologue, the tension ramps up as the TARDIS, having been trapped in a gigantic spider’s web, is forced to land in the heart of the London Underground. This was a fantastic idea, not only because of the claustrophobia and terror that the locale provides, but because David Myerscough-Jones’ set designs are 100% convincing to the letter. Both the expansive Ealing sets and the studio interiors would certainly have had me fooled if I didn’t know that London Underground had allegedly sent the BBC a letter of complaint wondering what on earth they were doing trespassing on their property. That letter just speaks for itself.

It’s also a huge help that Douglas Camfield is back on board to helm the story. Camfield really brings out the terror and atmosphere in the script, using ominous camera angles, excellent effects and well-chosen stock music to create a claustrophobic 150 minute whirlwind. There are many set pieces that stick in the mind - the aforementioned museum prologue (ignore Julius if you can); the battle between the soldiers and the Yeti; and also the dramatic showdown between the Intelligence and The Doctor. Brilliant stuff.

The Whodunnit mystery only adds to the flavour of The Web Of Fear. So in time-honoured Hercule Poirot tradition, let us exercise zee leetel gwey cells and see who the main suspects are:

  • Captain Knight


Zoinks, it’s Gordon Brown! Surely this is reason enough for Knight to be a suspect. The old smoothie routine is a typical ploy for the guilty party. He’s right in there with a crap chat-up line to Anne Travers, asking her what a beautiful woman like her is doing in a place like this - only to be rebuffed faster than a tramp with halitosis. In the end though, even the Intelligence doesn’t have the power to activate a corpse, since Brown-A-Like has been on the receiving end of a Yeti knuckle sandwich in Episode Four.

  • Anne Travers


Mrs Voorhees. Billy Loomis’ mum. These deadly females all turn out to be pyscho killers, so why not Anne? That Butter-Wouldn’t-Melt-In-The-Mouth routine could be just a bluff. Her crash helmet hairdo could also easily hide one of the bleeping spheres. As it turns out, she is actually as nice as pie, even tolerating journalist buffoon Chorley, which surely deserves a medal.

  • Driver Evans


Oooh, there’s lovely. The Web Of Fear nicks in there before The Green Death for blatant stereotyping of the Welsh with a jug-eared cliché called Evans. Booming Men Of Harlech at the top of his voice and spewing more Welsh cliches than an Anne Robinson Appreciation Society, it’s a wonder that Evans doesn’t just whip out his Max Boyce Live At Treorchy album to defeat the Yeti and have done with it. Evans is actually a hot contender for the Intelligence conduit, seeing as he’s purported to have even more hot air between his ears than the cast of 90210. But in the end, Evans is not guilty, although The Doctor has a serious lapse in taste by calling him a blithering Welsh imbecile.

  • Travers


Yes, he’s possessed by the Intelligence for about five minutes to warrant a creepy Episode Four cliffhanger. Surely he’s the one? Well, no, in fact, the Intelligence possesses other hands, so the search goes on…

  • Harold Chorley


Surely this is it? Not only does he run away to supposedly find the TARDIS, no one actually seems to like Harold Chorley. Possibly this is because he’s a boring old dullard who sounds a bit like Alan Whicker with a chronic case of flu. While everyone in the underground base is trying their level best to defeat the Yeti, Chorley is hell-bent on making as big a nuisance of himself as possible. Where’s Kay Burley when you need her? Well, maybe not… Anyway, it looks like for one minute that Chorley’s the Big Bad - until he runs out of the mist screaming about…

  • Sergeant Arnold

Rule One for a Whodunnit Villain: Always make him or her the one that you didn’t expect. In this case, it’s amiable old goat Sergeant Arnold, a man who might, at worst, clip you round the ear if you don’t salute properly. But then remember that Padmasambhava was also an apparently kind old man, and it’s not so hard to deduce that Arnold’s the new conduit. Strutting around with an antique teapot on his head, Arnold looks like he may win the day. Alas, though, as the Intelligence returns to the ether, it fries Arnold’s body to a crisp in yet another behind-the-sofa scene.

"It’s easy to see why Nicholas Courtney was invited back as the Brigadier, not only in The Invasion, but for most of the Jon Pertwee era"

Of course, it couldn’t have been that fan favourite Lethbridge-Stewart, who makes his debut in The Web Of Fear. Nicholas Courtney makes an instant impression as the Colonel, although oddly, there’s that initial feeling of mistrust between him and The Doctor. However, it’s not long before they both come to respect and trust each other, and it’s easy to see why Courtney was invited back as the Brigadier, not only in The Invasion, but for most of the Jon Pertwee era.

Important debuts. Tense, behind-the-sofa moments, Scary monsters. It’s enough to make a grown man weep that The Web Of Fear isn’t intact in the BBC archives. The story’s an absolute classic, brilliantly directed and perfectly acted by both the regulars and the guest cast. The first episode is a tantalising glimpse of what could be, and I’d bet good money that if the other episodes are by some vast miracle, returned to the archives, they’d hold up just as well. Sheer perfection.

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, The Enemy Of The World

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked

 

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