Doctor Who V.23-28: The Web of Fear
The Web of Fear returned viewers of Doctor Who to the format of so many stories commissioned under the producership of Innes Lloyd: a military base or technological centre with a large central set, where humans are besieged by a hostile environment and by alien monstrosities. The Web of Fear varied this recipe by telling a story where the Doctor, his companions and their fellow-sufferers were mice in a trap sprung by the Great Intelligence. The TARDIS is captured by the Intelligence early in the first episode, but the story happens because the Doctor is able to vary the materialisation point by a sufficient amount to stay out of the Intelligence’s reach. From then on, the Intelligence has to wear down the military outpost in the London Underground network by attrition until it thinks it has reduced the Doctor from player to just another card. The Underground’s potential for suspense and menace is exploited through craftily-designed sets and careful lighting, sound design and camera angles which suggest the slow constriction of freedom of movement, imagination and hope. London’s arteries are clogged by the web and resistance is suffocated. The result is a slightly uneven but still impressive realisation of psychological drama without compromising the expectations from an established family action-adventure serial.
On inspection, the tube tunnel sets don’t look very much like the real London Underground. There are too many crossovers between tracks, no mention of having to cut through stations to change from line to line, and most noticeably Monument is depicted as a deep tube rather than a sub-surface station. However, it does successfully represent the Underground as a region not normally navigated by human beings without aid of creatures native to the subterranean world. The Yeti are reconfigured for this realm with their headlamp eyes; their thick coats might encourage the viewer to think of the tunnels as cold rather than hot (as they would more likely be), as also suggested in dialogue, and play up the idea of the Underground as a kind of limbo, an unfriendly state of existence between the known and unknown worlds. The physical distance between Goodge Street and Piccadilly Circus is correlated to the metaphysical one between Earth and the Intelligence’s astral plane.
In Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition 35: The Missing Episodes – The Second Doctor, volume one, Jonathan Morris writes that for Doctor Who‘s fourth and fifth years David Whitaker’s contribution of six hours of television was equivalent to that of a modern showrunner. In its fifth year Doctor Who briefly found a writing partnership to match Whitaker’s output, the authors of The Web of Fear, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln. Though never again associated with Doctor Who after 1968, Haisman and Lincoln’s two contributions changed the series’ narrative direction for several years to follow, the two Travers and Yeti stories providing the ground from which the UNIT cycle of military-scientific sagas would spring. They also found a successful way of blending modish New Age concerns into Doctor Who‘s traditionally materialist view of the universe. Before they go up to the surface in episode four, the Doctor warns Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart that the Intelligence is without tangible form, likening it to a mist floating in space. On his return, the last survivor of his expedition, the Colonel attributes those qualities – “formless, shapeless” – to the Yeti themselves. Given the physical transformation of the Yeti seen in episode one as well as their near-invulnerability to bullets, how far should the Yeti be considered objectively real, and how far are their animal appearance and apparently robotic nature just manifestations of both ancient and modern fears of threats to human survival? If so, then what of the electronics inside the Yeti control sphere, and the device the Doctor builds? The material universe of The Web of Fear is one where characters who want to be able to explore and establish its boundaries by rational inquiry face a would-be author whose creations project into ‘our’ experienced reality in shapes devised to best exploit the terrors of a society in the throes of technological transformation, but which substantially exist in a state which though imperceptible to humans which is (usually) more possessed of more reality than the perceived material or technological substance. The robot Yeti derive their strength not only from the appearance of advanced electronic and mechanical engineering, but from the Intelligence and whatever matter it sees, makes and is made from.
Similarly several states sustain in the eponymous Web. The practical limitations of design are turned to advantage. David Myerscough-Jones presents the Web as a pulsating mass of foam; foam seemingly held by a membrane; jets of foam fired by Yeti from gourd-like guns; mists of dust and vapour; a film overlay depicting the multiplication of microorganisms; and strands and ribbons of cobweb. The dialogue describes it as “fungus” and the strands do look like threads of mycelium, but when seen choking the faces and particularly mouths of victims they look like ectoplasm ejected from the bodies of mediums as they interact with the spirits of the dead. Not only is The Web of Fear one of many examples of the programme telling supernatural stories clothed in scientific terminology, its design and language place the story in a lineage of pseudoscience.
The Web of Fear‘s embrace of the ambiguous helps deflect some of the conceptual weaknesses of the Great Intelligence and the Yeti carried over from The Abominable Snowmen. A point of continuity hidden in plain sight is the identity of the agent of the Great Intelligence. The nearest role to the lama Padmasambhava is the old soldier who has seen it all, Staff Sergeant Arnold. In contrast to Padmasambhava’s plight, there is no evidence that Arnold is ever aware that he is possessed by the Intelligence. Instead, Jack Woolgar plays Arnold as a hard taskmaster but sympathetic character, as disturbed by the death toll in the tunnels as anybody, scared of the fungus and in episode five sitting down on the corner of a table alone, baffled by his own survival. There are just a few hints before the last episode that there is something other than dutiful military efficiency driving his questions about the travellers and the TARDIS or his allocations of his subordinates. Woolgar is on screen for far fewer minutes as the personification of the Intelligence, but it’s a confident performance without the gaseous sibillance previously associated with the Intelligence. The Intelligence is fully present in this world and behaves as if it is adding finishing touches to a victory it has already achieved, without any hint that it is enjoying its own cleverness: the assimilation of the Doctor’s memory and capabilities is handled, after so much effort, as an administrative necessity.
Mid-period Patrick Troughton Doctor Who sometimes liked to provide its protagonist with a non-ingenue but young woman with whom to flirt. Astrid in The Enemy of the World is here succeeded by Anne Travers. Anne famously puts down Captain Knight’s by-the-book chat-up line in episode one, thought it’s almost a pity that her stereotype-challenging short dress is replaced by a very tailored but more businesslike trouser suit from episode three, as if confounding male expectations is done for today. Isobel Watkins takes her place in The Invasion but The Web of Fear reveals Isobel was more of a reaction to than a continuation of Anne under another name. There is no overt stalking of a ‘dolly soldier’ here. Anne’s combination of attractiveness to men in uniform and position as highly-educated technical feed to the Doctor make her instead a precursor to the next two female companions, Zoe and Liz. Tina Packer’s performance when Anne covers the companion role, principally in episode five, conveys alarm without suggesting imminent physical or psychological collapse. Instead fear is a practical problem to be mastered. The Doctor bonds with Anne as if delighted to have adult company: the back-patting and hand-holding emphasise that they are counterparts. Tina Packer’s ease in realising Anne’s facets invites contrast with Deborah Watling’s difficulties in finding ways to vary the perils of Victoria Waterfield, too often the most distressed of Doctor Who‘s damsels and here given even fewer opportunities than usual for proactivity. Perhaps Victoria’s finest moment comes in episode two, where, speaking slowly as if to a small child, reintroduces herself and Jamie to Edward Travers. Travers’s departure a few minutes later, unclear whether he is leaving Victoria in the care of Anne or vice versa, plays merrily with the paradox time travel can make of the conventions of seniority, a game leavened by the viewer’s knowledge that Travers is played by Deborah Watling’s father.
Just as Anne isn’t really Isobel, this isn’t really a dry run for The Invasion. The battle scene in episode four shows how Doctor Who can pull off an armed confrontation in contemporary London, but where UNIT are victorious the battle of Covent Garden is a bleak affair. The Goodge Street garrison don’t have the resources of a UNIT. They are battling with the realisation that they are out of their depth, something which UNIT at least acknowledges and usually overtakes. The use of regional accents and stock types – conscientious young officer, Cockney wide boy, gadget enthusiast, Welsh coward – might be lazy to the point of offence but it invites the audience to think that they know Captain Knight, Corporal Blake, Craftsman Weems and Driver Evans and be shocked or relieved by their fates. It’s a device at least as old as Shakespeare’s history plays, though the battle of Covent Garden in episode four is only Lethbridge-Stewart’s Agincourt insofar as it provides a catharsis. The incident itself fails to vindicate the short-term strategy of either Lethbridge-Stewart or the Doctor. Lethbridge-Stewart survives not because he hides on top of a crate (as suggested by Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood in About Time 2, working with the sound and images then available), but because Corporal Blake dies in his place, a good subordinate protecting his commander, and because the Intelligence, in command of the situation, has decided it has wrought enough havoc. One person survives to tell the tale because the Intelligence at this stage is the author of the story and the Intelligence needs someone to tell the others how hopeless the situation is before it appears inhabiting the body of Travers. The enemy is already within.
The recovery of The Web of Fear should explode any attempt to discuss UNIT dating as if Doctor Who was offering some serious predictions of a near future, or as if a consistent chronology was part of the production team’s plan by this point. The ‘1975’ of The Web of Fear is a large step towards an exciting intensified version of the present in which one would take a more grown-up part, and in which it wasn’t at all implausible that entities from other worlds would need to be fought. The near future becomes one self-conscious fictionality where the texture of the experience is more important than ongoing consistency. Thus the posters on the tube station walls magnifying of the concerns of 1967/8 – a female gaze and the Scottish National Party, and, closest to the cast and crew, ‘Camfield’s’ milk chocolate. There’s a badly-disguised poster (supposedly advertising ‘Block-Busters’) for In the Heat of the Night prominent on a passageway wall in episode six. This must have been someone’s choice: the parallels between the plots are there, with mutually mistrustful investigators pursuing several potential suspects, and the actions of a mob directed by an intangible force impeding their efforts.
As everyone notes, London Television’s Harold Chorley is an obvious parody of the key personality of the real-life London Television Consortium, David Frost. One of the many differences between the broadcast story and the later novelisation is that in the latter Chorley has inveigled and bullied his way down to the Goodge Street bunker to cover the emergency; on television, he’s been voted there by his colleagues and is blithely unaware that this shows they can’t stand him. Frost’s irrepressible self-confidence is well-attested.¹ At the conclusion Chorley is bouncing back, fixing on Anne Travers as the person most likely to assist him in relating the story to a waiting audience despite his earlier dismissal of her as the product of a redbrick university. Chorley is presumably, like Frost (a Cambridge man) a graduate of one of the ancient English universities; believing he represents the new and the popular, he reveals in these moments his reliance on the establishment. Without his network, he is unable to maintain his composure alone in the tunnels. The door is not closed to the possibility that Chorley’s were among the ‘many other human hands’ of the Intelligence, though if so Arnold/the Intelligence establishes on their meeting in episode six that he remembers nothing of being taken over.
The Web of Fear ends hunting a sequel. The Intelligence is left free and one is left with the sense the Doctor is leaving an extended family rather than the ill-assorted group of colleagues who populate many of the Doctor Who serials of the Troughton period. The cast develop a sense of trust among and self-knowledge within the characters which didn’t arise by necessity from format and script, a compliment to this particular cast and to Douglas Camfield’s seriousness of purpose as director. It’s entirely credible in the context of this ending that Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore have speculated that The Invasion was conceived as a third Yeti story, an opening-out of the battle of Covent Garden to build upon what Camfield’s production had made of the Web of Fear script. As a poster on an online forum noted after watching this story, the name of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce suggests it had one particular intelligence in mind. As it was, the production office’s relations with Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln cooled, and the Intelligence would not appear until reinvented by Steven Moffat for The Snowmen in 2012. Novelised in 1976, Terrance Dicks subtly recast story and characters to be more consistent with the UNIT format as it evolved under his guidance in the early 1970s, and while found compelling by this reader (who was a few weeks short of his eighth birthday when he first read the 1978 reprint) lost some of the ambiguity which pervades the screen version. This is a Doctor Who which makes the most of monochrome, a serial of tight portrait shots which emphasise the shadows playing over profiles in relief, and light shone from above on figures often seen from below, as if by a person not yet fully grown (the target audience) or a mouse (a fellow plaything of the Intelligence, or a rodent denizen of the tunnels).
Unusually for a series concerned with the victory of rationality, Intelligence and Yeti defy explanation in a manner more satisfactory than they do in The Abominable Snowmen. It’s less the contemporaneity and military trappings of The Web of Fear that make the story successful, than the overwhelming of London’s own planned and engineered mechanical infrastructure by something seemingly unpredictable and both organic and non-material at the same time. Haisman and Lincoln were banished and recordings of their Doctor Whos wiped, but their contribution has haunted Doctor Who ever since and the recovery of The Web of Fear, film print ghosts of lost video masters now reanimated by digital processing and distribution, reveals how they extracted menace from the borders of empirical enquiry and insistent, lingering superstition in a world which sought comfort and reassurance from a technology of which it was uncertain.
¹ For examples of the opinions contemporaries at Cambridge had of Frost, see Patrick Mulkern, ‘Doctor Who’s Waris Hussein on William Hartnell, Bette Davis, & Peter Cook loathing David Frost’, www.radiotimes.com, accessed 26 October 2013. For his unpopularity within ITV, see ‘History of ITV: The New Franchises’, Teletronic, accessed 26 October 2013, offers one of many examples.
Posted on 27 October 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged Deborah Watling, Derrick Sherwin, doctor who, doctor who reviews, Frazer Hines, Henry Lincoln, Lethbridge-Stewart, Mervyn Haisman, Nicholas Courtney, Patrick Troughton, Peter Bryant, recovered stories, season five, second doctor. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.