Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who (Classic): “The Web Of Fear”

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

“The Web Of Fear” (season 5, episodes 25-30. Originally broadcast Feb. 3-March 9, 1968.)


Happily enough, both of the long-lost Doctor Who serials rediscovered and re-released this year are pretty much must-see stories if you have any interest at all in the late-1960s period of the show. But not for the same reasons.

The Enemy Of The World,” which I wrote about last time, is Second Doctor-era Doctor Who at its least formulaic, with a terrific dual performance by Patrick Troughton and a story that both homages and subverts James Bond-style spy movies, with plenty of action and lots of unexpected, audacious twists. It’s terrific, if not terribly representative of what the show was usually doing at this time. (But that in itself delivers on the show’s early and largely abandoned premise that it could throw the Doctor into any kind of genre, not just science fiction.)

“The Web Of Fear,” on the other hand, is totally representative of its age. Which means that while there’s a lot of memorable scares and thrills, it’s also a more superficial, straightforward sci-fi/horror thriller where the Doctor fights monsters alongside a group of people trapped with him in a base under siege. In fact, given the fizzle of the ending, it may even offer less than it appears to on the surface.

Still, it’s plenty enjoyable, particularly in the early episodes as the tension and creep factor build their way up, thanks to the rock-solid Douglas Camfield, the best action director in Doctor Who’s history, who also helmed classics like “The Seeds Of Doom,” “Inferno,” “The Invasion,” and “Terror Of The Zygons.” And the emphasis in “Web Of Fear” on presenting atmospheric, weird horror not on some alien planet but in a familiar, everyday setting—modern-day London’s subway system, part of daily life for its audience and yet also unsettlingly cavernous and dark—would be deeply influential on the direction of Doctor Who for many years.


First and foremost, of course, it’s great that this 45-years-missing show can be seen at all. While one episode (part three) remains MIA and has been reconstructed from audio and still photos, we’ve now got five-sixths of the story back instead of one-sixth. This means that at last, we can get a good look at what “Web Of Fear” was most well-remembered for during the decades when it was nothing more than passed-down pop-culture memories and a Terrance Dicks novelization—Yeti stalking the London Underground, and the debut appearance of Col. Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart, who’d later be promoted to Brigadier and become a mainstay of the show, playing the character all through the early 1970s and in guest appearances up until his death in 2011—a longer stretch by far than any other Doctor Who actor.

Viewers new to “Web Of Fear” may feel slightly at sea at first, in part because it picks up directly after the cliffhanger that ended “Enemy Of The World,” with the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria in danger of being thrown out of the TARDIS in mid-flight. That’s resolved quickly enough, but another problem for viewers in 2013 soon crops up: “Web Of Fear” is a direct sequel to “The Abominable Snowmen” from earlier in season five, and assumes that you’ve seen the first story. That was a reasonable assumption  in 1968, but in 2013 “Abominable Snowmen” is another one of the missing serials—so we’re jumping on board a moving train here, and one where several of the cars are invisible.


Most of the salient plot points are hastily explained again as “Web Of Fear” rushes its way forward, but here’s the details in brief: Landing at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet in 1935, the Doctor helped the monks fight back against a rash of attacks by giant, hairy and menacingly strong Yeti. The creatures turned out not to be living animals, but robots designed to mimic the beasts of Himalayan legend in order to frighten the monks and give their master free reign to conquer the Earth. Their controller is a formless extraterrestrial spirit called the Great Intelligence, which also has the ability to possess and mentally control humans, in some cases for years at a time. (The Intelligence itself, if not the Yeti, should be familiar to modern viewers, since Steven Moffat brought it back as the Doctor’s primary antagonist this year in “The Snowmen,” “The Bells Of St. John,” and “The Name Of The Doctor.”)

“Web Of Fear” picks up some 40 years after “The Abominable Snowmen.” (That would technically place the story about a decade in 1968’s future, which is not a terribly important detail here, but caused much teeth-gnashing for some fans later on—see “Stray Observations.”) The elderly Prof. Travers, who met the Doctor as a young man in Tibet, brought back one of the Yeti robots to England as a trophy. It’s been offline for decades, but Travers has been tinkering with its control unit—and now, he’s troubled by a feeling that in reactivating the Yeti, he’s opened a door for something more sinister. Which he has, of course, or this would be a pretty short and boring story. It’s the Intelligence, and it quickly builds itself a new army of snowmen and wreaks havoc throughout London. Eventually the city is abandoned, as the Intelligence fills up the mazelike tunnels of the Underground with roaring Yeti guards and a nasty, poisonously deadly fungus-like web—the web of fear, to coin a phrase.


The web has also snared the TARDIS, far out in space, and to get away from it, the Doctor makes an emergency landing—in London, just as the city  is on the brink of total collapse. They arrive in one of the Underground tunnels in time to join Travers and a squad of soldiers led by the the harried Captain Knight as they make a last stand against the encroaching web. The Doctor discovers the Yeti almost immediately, and so the mystery for him isn’t who’s spinning the Web of Fear, but what it wants. If the Intelligence is the spider, then the Doctor himself must be the fly—but what is the trap for?

The first two-thirds of the story is, for the most part, quite well done, featuring some of the Troughton years’ most gripping and tense action scenes, and an encroaching sense of claustrophobic doom and paranoia that’s essential to making the base-under-siege formula work. The hulking Yeti are genuinely frightening and, given their size, unexpectedly believable as stealthy predators, lurching out of the dark tunnels and popping out inside the base to attack Travers in the third-episode cliffhanger, which I’d rate as one of the series’ all-time scariest despite that it’s still partly missing. The paranoia springs out of the group’s growing realization that someone among them has been giving aid and information to the enemy—one of them is under the Great Intelligence’s mental domination, and will sell all the others out. Up until the end of the last episode, when it falls apart, this is a great addition to the story, adding the same frisson of distrust that powers similarly claustrophobic thrillers like The Thing. The base personnel were getting along badly already, under stress and on edge, with the obnoxious journalist Chorley stirring things up even more. The idea that there’s a traitor in the nest makes everyone a potential threat, not just the big furry monsters out in the darkness.


This buildup works especially well because the script takes the trouble to play up the existing conflict within the base—Knight doesn’t completely trust the scientists, Anne Travers detests Chorley—and then pile more on. There’s the usual mistrust of the TARDIS crew, who as always cannot offer a plausible explanation for how they got there. But the surprise appearance of a new base commander adds even more suspiciousness, as Col. Lethbridge-Stewart arrives with official-looking written orders but a fishy-sounding story about how he got past the web. “He suddenly popped up from nowhere,” muses the Doctor. The cowardly Evans, another new arrival, adds another layer of distrust since not only is his own story fishy-sounding (he says he came with the colonel, who doesn’t remember him), but he’s just the sort of overly excitable alarmist who jumps to the wrong conclusions with violent results.

This makes Lethbridge-Stewart’s introduction a little odd, since post-1968 viewers know him to be completely trustworthy, if stiff-necked. But here he’s presented as a potential villain, and it’s in the story’s best interest that you try to forget that he isn’t one. Everyone here has something a little sinister and not-quite-right about them, like in any good mystery story, and even main-cast characters like the Doctor and Jamie aren’t immune to suspicion—where was the Doctor during episode two, anyway? (Answer: Troughton was on vacation.)  That aside, the Brig’s debut is one of the most enjoyable aspects of “The Web Of Fear,” because from the first moment he shows up, it’s clear that they’ve already nailed him. His opening line—“Before you begin this rapturous reunion, there are one or two questions I'd like answered”—is both sarcastic and officious, and delivered perfectly by Nicholas Courtney. He’s been on screen for only 10 seconds, and already this is the Brigadier in his purest essence. I especially like that later, when the Doctor admits that he got here in a time machine shaped like a police box, Lethbridge-Stewart immediately believes this crazy-sounding story, which is of course true, and orders his skeptical soldiers to mount a rescue mission. Sure, he has also badly miscalculated the Yeti’s unstoppability and winds up getting all his men killed, but otherwise, he had the right idea. (And it gives us a great Douglas Camfield action set-piece in episode four, which is never a bad thing.) Clearly, this is a guy open-minded enough to defend the Earth against alien invaders. The Third Doctor never gives him the credit he deserves.


But once the Great Intelligence shows its face—or at least Prof. Travers’ face, which it’s temporarily hijacked—the story starts to drag and eventually fall apart. After four episodes of pretty well-paced material, the fifth devolves into a lot of waiting around for the Doctor to finish getting ready, trying and failing to escape, running around the tunnels—the typical time-filler that happens when the writers need to run out the clock.

Worse, the sixth and final installment wraps things up with a one-two punch in which both punches miss, with the Intelligence simultaneously taking revenge on the Doctor for defeating it in “Abominable Snowmen,” and revealing the identity of the traitor. Neither the Intelligence’s plan to steal the Doctor’s memories nor the Doctor’s plan to turn the tables and drain the Intelligence succeed. Instead, Jamie misunderstands the Doctor’s instructions and starts the Yeti fighting each other, foiling the Intelligence’s plot but allowing it to go free, to the Doctor’s enormous distress.


And the traitor is … Staff Sergeant Arnold? But that doesn’t even make sense. Arnold was killed by the Intelligence in episode four. Even if it can reanimate his dead body, why kill him if he’s the Trojan horse? It’s not even clear from dialogue if Arnold is really meant to be the traitor. (The Colonel asks “Do you mean to say that Arnold wasn't the Intelligence?” And the Doctor replies: “No. He was just a poor soldier that was taken over.”) Considering that it’s able to control Travers temporarily, who’s to say it didn’t do the same to Arnold, just to have something to walk around in? Considering how much of the story’s suspense was driven by the repeated insistence that Someone Among Us Is Secretly The Devil, this is either a bungle or a copout. (Assuming there was a real traitor, my guess is that it was Captain Knight, who would have outlived his usefulness to the Intelligence by episode four, when the Yeti kill him.)

Both of these fizzles might have been less of a problem if the show had followed up on the clear implication of another sequel, letting the Doctor face off against the Great Intelligence again and resolving any lingering questions. But that never happened. Instead, nothing was really resolved or satisfactorily explained, and I was left with the distinct idea that the writers came up with the mystery without actually having a solution in mind. So it was a lot like watching some of Steven Moffat’s episodes.


Despite starring in only two mostly-missing stories, the Yeti have had remarkable staying power as one of the show’s most iconic monsters. Finally getting a good look at them here, I can see why. But since the Yeti never appeared on the show again (other than a brief cameo in “The Five Doctors”), nobody can really be expected to know their back story now. And that lack of context, combined with the fact that, conceptually, they’re so weirdly out of place anywhere but the Himalayas, makes the Yeti of  “Web Of Fear” seem like a completely ridiculous and bonkers idea. And they are, I suppose. They’re mechanical Bigfoots in the service of an evil cloud of fog, armed with hot glue guns and hanging around in train stations, and they look like very angry Cookie Monsters. And yet: They’re great, aren’t they? They’re absurd, but in a fun way and not a forehead-slapping way like, say, Sil the slug from “Vengeance On Varos.” If you hear “giant robot Yeti stalk the streets of London” and your response isn’t “That sounds awesome,” then Doctor Who is probably not your show, you know? And when the Yeti are actually on the attack, they’re pretty terrifying. Scary and silly simultaneously: That’s the quintessence of a Doctor Who monster.

Stray observations

• During the two-minute wrap-up of the events of “Enemy Of The World” during episode one, the Doctor tells his companions what happened to his evil double, Salamander, after he was thrown outside the TARDIS doors while the ship was in flight. Interestingly, he doesn’t say that Salamander is dead: “He's not in a very enviable position, you know, at the moment, floating around in time and space.” Which is, if you think about it, yet another way that Salamander and the Doctor are twins.


• The character of scientist Anne Travers was intended to return later on in “The Invasion,” but instead the Brigadier came back, and the rest was history. But Anne was also a clear precursor of the show’s next two female companions, Zoe Heriot and Liz Shaw, both intelligent and independent characters who were more than just the Doctor’s assistant. It’s too bad that the current female companion, Victoria, is comparatively useless here, badly underused by the scriptwriters and given hardly anything of significance to do except get captured and be frightened.

• Jack Watling, who plays Prof. Travers, was the father of Deborah Watling, who plays Victoria. He was 45 when he played Travers, and although I haven’t been able to figure out exactly how old Travers was supposed to be in either “Abominable Snowmen” or “Web Of Fear,” Watling was probably around 20 years’ older than Travers in the one and and 20 years younger in the other.


• John Levene, the future Sgt. Benton of UNIT, makes his first Doctor Who appearance here as one of the Yeti.

• The infamous (in fan circles, anyway) “UNIT dating controversy” stems from two facts mentioned in “Web Of Fear”: 1) Anne Travers says here that the events of “The Abominable Snowmen” happened in 1935. And 2) Prof. Travers also says that he hasn’t seen Jamie and Victoria for 40 years. Putting those together, that makes this story set in 1975, though it was filmed in 1968. The idea that this story was set slightly in the near future went on to affect a lot of subsequent Doctor Who episodes, since not only “The Invasion” but the entire five seasons of the Third Doctor era and several of the early Fourth Doctor stories are all connected to this one by virtue of the Brigadier and UNIT. This often-overlooked detail would play havoc with the series’ internal chronology, at least for people bothered by inconsistent Doctor Who continuity. Those people were rarely Doctor Who’s writers. The near-future concept was never more than a minor element of any UNIT story, and in fact more often than not was forgotten. So it’s much easier to just think of the UNIT stories as taking place in the year in which they were produced. Especially since, as far as I can tell (and I’m sure some of the more knowledgeable commenters can correct me if I’m wrong), the only reason the dating “problem” even exists is because of these two lines of dialogue. And it can be fixed with one assumption: What if Anne misspoke, and meant to say 1925? Or, her father meant to say “30 years,” not “40 years.”


• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):

• Nov. 23: For obvious reasons: The 20th-anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” And maybe we’ll talk about “The Day Of The Doctor” too, though Alasdair Wilkins will have the official TV Club take on that one.


• Dec. 7: The Fourth Doctor goes to Scotland’s Loch Ness in “Terror Of The Zygons.”

• Dec. 21: A look at a Doctor Who that might have been, with 2003’s animated “Scream Of The Shalka,” starring Richard E. Grant as the “Alternative Ninth” Doctor.


• Jan. 4: The First Doctor meets the Cybermen—and becomes the Second Doctor—in “The Tenth Planet,” with its missing fourth episode newly recreated via animation.

• Future reviews: Something from the seasons I haven’t yet written about, season 15 (“The Horror Of Fang Rock”?), and season 23 (“The Mysterious Planet.”)


Share This Story

Get our newsletter