This is one of two stories that were ‘found’ late last year and made available for streaming and on DVD early this year. Any fan knows how most of Doctor Who‘s early episodes went missing after video tapes were reused and films destroyed, standard practice for the BBC at the time. Many of them have now been recovered. This one and ‘Enemy of the World’ were found at a Nigerian television station, which had failed to return the films to the BBC for destruction as they were required to do.
Yay for disobeying contract terms.
Since they were released last winter, I’ve been wanting to see them, and lately having been hooked up with a friend’s Hulu Plus, we finally got our chance. We picked ‘Web of Fear’ first, because it features the introduction of one of our favorite characters of all time, then-Colonel Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.
‘The Web of Fear’ holds up brilliantly. It’s scary and exciting, and maintains its quick pacing over all 6 episodes, in spite of the back-and-forth corridor action so common to the classic era. The Second Doctor is wonderfully iconic: compassionate and caring toward his friends, brilliant, inclusive, self-deprecating, expressive, and warm. His influence on Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is clear. Companion Jamie McCrimmon is a joy to watch: courageous, stout-hearted, always ready to jump in, disdainful of cowards, protective of his friends. Victoria is a little hard to stomach, being one of the more screamy and useless companions of all time, but it’s all forgivable: she’s just a kid, she’s sweet, and she does try. Like many classic companions, she didn’t ask to be there, but joined the TARDIS crew after Daleks killed her family. And she’s the one who recognizes Travers first. Still, I suspect few other incarnations of the Doctor would have had much patience for her.
This serial features one of my favorite feminist moments of classic DW: a soldier, attempting to flirt with Anne Travers, succeeding at being monumentally creepy and disgusting and unsurprisingly failing to turn her head, asks her what a girl like her is doing in a ‘job like this.’ Her response is one for the ages:
“When I was a little girl, I thought I’d like to be a scientist, and so I became a scientist.”
1968, boys and girls.
‘Web of Fear’ is also known for creating trouble with the London Underground. The production team asked permission to film in Underground tunnels and stations. They were denied, and so they built sets. The sets were so good that they were accused of breaking into the Underground and filming without permission. The sets really are very good; unlike so much of classic Who, they are quite difficult to distinguish from reality. Tracks and platforms, cabling, maps, tiles, even advertisements all blend seamlessly into the background, calling no more attention to themselves than a backdrop of trees in an outdoor shoot. Nothing about them gives away the sound stage.
Episode 3 of the serial is still missing, and was reconstructed using the soundtrack and an ever-changing set of stills from the shoot. It’s very easy to follow and the imagination quickly fills in any gaps. Unfortunately the Brigadier’s – that is, Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart’s – first appearance is also missing. Unless you count his boot, late in Episode 2, which is actually someone else’s.
Actor Nicholas Courtney, now much-beloved for his characterization of the Brig, was originally supposed to play someone else: Captain Knight, who dies before the end of the serial. Instead, the actor cast as the Colonel backed out and Courtney was offered the role. A moment of history almost didn’t happen. Fans give credit to Courtney for the character’s recurrence; a lesser performance might not have captured writers’ imaginations as he did. As it is, even in 2014, with the actor long dead, the character keeps making his influence known.
‘Web of Fear’ contains some great continuity stuff. The Yeti and the Great Intelligence appeared previously in 1967’s ‘The Abominable Snowmen.’ Professor Travers, also appearing in that episode, is played by Jack Watling, father of Deborah Watling who plays Victoria. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe seek out Travers and his daughter Anne again in ‘The Invasion,’ also from 1968, but end up with Anne’s friend Isobel Watkins and her uncle instead. The Doctor’s failure to destroy the Great Intelligence, due to Jamie’s overzealous rescue attempt, paves the way for its return in ‘The Snowmen’ in 2012 and ‘The Bells of St. John’ in 2013.
All in all, great fun television that holds up well even after 45 years, great historical moments, and the Second Doctor at his brilliant, bumbling best.