Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Web of Fear written by Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln and directed by Douglas Camfield


 This story in a nutshell: Londoners Flee! Yeti's Attack!

Oh My Giddy Aunt: What a wonderful exploration of everything magical that Patrick Troughton brought to the role of the Doctor. I think he is often considered something of a clown but when gems such as The Web of Fear are found it becomes clear that there is so much more to Troughton's Doctor than comedy high-jinks. There are moments in this story when he is quite frightening, drawing on the tension of the situation and coming across as more alien in his responses than ever. He cannot bear to hang around and as soon as the Salamander crisis is over and the TARDIS is back under control he is eager to move on to their next destination. A genuine lust for adventure...or a concentrated effort to move on from an adventure that saw a desperately evil man wearing his face? When I watch the scenes of the Doctor investigating the Underground alone and being menaced by the Yeti's I sometimes wonder how he would have fared without companions for a few stories. You can't take your eyes off him, even when he is silent. Given Troughton's holidaying in episode two it gives the writers the chance to play on the audiences fears...he's missing for a whole episode. Has he been killed by the Yeti? The Doctor gives the most comprehensive description of the Intelligence in episode four in a terrific speech for Troughton. The Doctor has never made less allowances for comforting the children in the audience, unable to give them a precise account of this malevolent entity and admitting he doesn't know how to defeat it. The cuddliest Doctor at his most unfamiliar and most riveting. Watch the Doctor and Anne together closely, it is like a proto 3rd Doctor and Liz and a partnership that has definite possibilities. Shame he is always stuck with kids. There is still time for a little toot on his recorder in the last episode. He's a man of incredible cunning, making it appear that he is willing to sacrifice himself so the others can survive when in fact he has a plan up his sleeve to exhaust the Great Intelligence. Remember that moment at the beginning of Listen where the Doctor is sitting atop the TARDIS like a Buddhist monk ruminating on the darker puzzles of the universe...well the second Doctor got there first, sitting alone on an Underground platform, legs crossed, having profound and sinister and unknowable thoughts. I love it when Troughton is able to play the mysterious side of his character, it counterpoints the comedy elsewhere by allowing him to be perfectly still and yet just as compelling. What an actor. Chorley is desperate to turn the Doctor into a household name but that is his greatest fear. This Doctor doesn't like a big fanfare, he likes to slip away quietly. I'm not sure if that is because recognition humiliates him or simply because he cannot be bothered with explanations and tidying up.

Who's the Yahoos: Watching the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria screaming and groping at each other (not like that, dirty) as the TARDIS reacts violently to the doors being open mid flight is another of those moment when you can see that this trio were made for each other. Although I prefer the Doctor/Jamie/Zoe combination (simply because Zoe was a stronger character than Victoria), these three at their height had great chemistry. What's great is that with Victoria whimpering and paying the victim, Jamie is forced to reason and think things through (when Zoe comes along that will all be done for him). He's not just the brawn in season five, he's the brains too (that's pretty frightening). The uselessness of Jamie and Victoria is made plain in episode four when Jamie asks if there is anything that they can do and he takes Anne with him and tells them to try take it easy and they put their feet up.

Screaming Violet: There's one scene which exemplifies just how hopeless Victoria is in Doctor Who. Soldiers report that she has gone off to look for Jamie and the Doctor and we cut to her ambling along the tunnels calling out their names fruitlessly. She would be the worst rescue party ever. I was longing for a Yeti to spring from the darkness and snap her neck (a bit harsh, but you know what I mean). She's good for corridor wandering for 25 minutes but that's about it. At the beginning of episode three she is still wandering about whispering the Doctor's name, stuck in a narrative (and geographical) loop end for a whole week. And by the end of episode three she is snivelling and sniffing over Jamie. Sticking Anne with Victoria only goes to serve to highlight Anne's strengths and Victoria's deficiencies. The sad thing about Victoria is that she was used as a tool to frighten the children far more than she was allowed to breathe as a character. She's got the same problem as Clara but coming from the other direction - where Clara is all confidence and self assurance but lacking any real emotional depth, Victoria is a shrinking violent finding menace in every shadow with the same deficiency of character. The few moments where Victoria is allowed to stop screaming and shine (there are a number of great moments in Tomb of the Cybermen) reveal that she was capable of so much more. She fulfils no function in The Web of Fear but to act frightened. If she was removed, the story would play out in exactly the same way.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Don't say it Mr Chorley, I have a very quick temper and very long claws.'
'Whoever is in league with the intelligence could still be amongst us here. Perhaps the best way to describe it is a sort of formless, shapeless thing, floating around in space like a cloud of mist only with a mind and will. The only thing I know for sure is that it brought me here.'

The Good:

* The stories in season five often had a tenuous link to the tale preceding it, usually a line inserted about the location they had recently visited. However the dramatic events at the end of The Enemy of the World that saw the Doctor's doppelganger sucked out into the vortex and TARDIS careering out of control had to be addressed, making this the first direct continuation of the previous story in some time. It is certainly a dramatic commencement to The Web of Fear, appropriate in a story that has own fair share of powerfully dramatic moments.  This could have been a horribly embarrassing sequence but Camfield positions his camera expertly and the lighting suggests disarray in a way that a massive budget on effects never could.
* I've always been a bit sceptical about the Yeti as villains. In the publicity shots of them they look so darned cute that I was sure I wouldn't be able to take them seriously. The first moment I knew I was completely wrong about that was in the exquisite sequence set in Silverstein's museum. Moodily lit, dramatically scored and shot like a hammer horror film for a teatime audience, the re-activation of the Yeti might just be the most terrifying sequence in Doctor Who to this point when it comes to its monsters. I don't think stock music has ever been put to such good use either, both melodramatic and very scary (I love the piano). The Yeti bears down on Silverstein with such force that its blow probably smashed his skull in (thank goodness we were spared that).
* What a delightful old curmudgeon Professor Travers has become ('Television? Never watch it! You and actor or something?') and like all the best TV curmudgeons he has the ability to be very funny as well (Victor Meldrew). It was a stroke of genius to set this story in the 1960s and re-introduce Travers as an older man, it gives the story a strong link back to The Abominable Snowmen but with a unique twist. This time Travers comes armed with his daughter Anne, one of the companions that never was. She's acidic with her wit, ruthless to chauvinistic men, charming with those she considers worthy and highly intelligent. Throughout this story she outshines Victoria by a factor of ten.

* The quality guest cast doesn't stop with the Travers' though, there's Harold Chorley too who immediately manages to get under your skin by being a television reporter before he even opens his mouth and a torrent of smarm pours forth. His reaction to the threat strikes me as the most realistic and I wouldn't cast him as a coward at all, he is genuinely terrified by the thought of being stalked in the shadowy underground by the Yeti and consumed by the pulsating, animated web. As much as we would all like to think that we would react to this claustrophobic, dangerous situation like Captain Knight (stalwart and brave), the Doctor (thoughtful and considered) or even Driver Evans (taking the piss without a care in the world), I think a great many of us would be stone cold terrified and run just as Chorley does. I can't condemn him for that. As the story progresses he becomes irrational, paranoid and increasingly frantic in his reactions...and that's how I knew he wasn't a representative of the Great Intelligence (despite the script trying to convince me otherwise). It was too realistic a reaction to the stress of the situation. It's the calm ones you should be looking at. Chorley vanishes for the length of a bible and stumbles back into the action at the climax, his absence supposedly suggesting his allegiance with the Intelligence. When he returns you will witness one of the best portrayals of paralysing terror in Doctor Who courtesy of Jon Ronallson, topped only by Ransome in Spearhead from Space.
* Knight works for the opposite reason, because he somehow manages to stay polite with everybody even when he is under great strain. We don't really learn a great deal about him except the fact that he likes a flirt with the ladies (he is a soldier) and he will willingly risk his life offhandedly to save the lives of others. His death at the hands of a Yeti is a heart stopping moment and one of the most unmerited moments in Doctor Who. Anyone is potentially a gonner in his story.
* Driver Evans is vital in a story like this, just to provide a little local colour and humour when everybody is taking the story so deadly seriously. He loses his charm quite quickly (because his shoulder shrugging makes little sense in such a tense situation) but for a couple of episodes it is nice to come across somebody so normal, a man who is obsessed with his tobacco and not getting involved. What is it about Who and comedy Welshmen? We're almost in Midnight territory during episode five when Evans makes the unconscionable suggestion that they let the Intelligence have the Doctor so they can all escape. The others look at each other but Doctor Who at this point isn't brave enough to see that thought through to its natural conclusion (if people were genuinely this frightened for their lives they would certainly consider the option). A shame because episode five could have done with a shot to the arm like this. The fact that the notion was even aired shows the level of characterisation on offer though, Evans is unique in his casual ruthlessness. By the end of the paranoia is so taut that people are pointing guns as well as fingers.

* This is a story stacked with one memorable image after another; the TARDIS suspended in space encased in web, the pristine chrome infrastructure of the underground highlighted in the darkness, a dead man covered in lecherous cobwebs, propped up and falling to the ground, the crates draped with the oozing web and glowing menacingly in the shadows as the Doctor leaps away screaming, glowing eyes lumbering out of the darkness, screaming fungus rolling inexorably out of the tunnels, web purring and pulsating in front of the cameras as characters approach, an illuminated map of the underground closing in like a spiders web, gas masked soldiers walking into sticky web and screaming hysterically once engulfed and being pulled free on a trolley, lifeless and decked with webbing, Yeti marching through the streets brandishing their web guns, the glassy pyramid dominating the barren ticket office at Piccadilly, Arnold's corpse, battered and bruised and re-animated as a receptacle for the Intelligence and finally his charred corpse released, smoking and lifeless.
* You have probably heard people going on about the quality of the set design and lighting and how London Underground genuinely though they had filmed on their premises without permission because the setting was so realistically portrayed ad nauseum. Well tough, it's worth re-iterating because this is the perfect opportunity to show just how atmospheric Doctor Who can be on a shoestring budget. Clever design work and atmospheric lighting and it looks so authentic you'll believe that they are on location. When other directors/actors/critics point out that the reason the sets look unconvincing is because they didn't have the money to realise them adequately please point them in the direction of The Web of Fear. The tunnels are treated as something to be dreaded and so when characters do venture into the darkness it is a nail biting experience. Yeti's come out of the shadows, eyes glowing, roaring, handheld camerawork capturing their lumbering, unstoppable gait and bullets simply bounce away as they consume the soldiers in web or crush their skulls with their arms. Men scream as the web attacks their faces like an acid. It's about as terrorizing as Doctor Who comes for children. There is a spanking new set in episode six, usually the point where the money has completely run out and it is refreshing to get out of the oppressive atmosphere of the tunnels and into one of the stations. The sterile nature of gives the finale an unearthly feel, with a mist clinging to everything and the glass triangle dominating the space. It feels appropriately opaque to have a showdown with such a conceptual horror. 
* What a truly crap idea the web guns are, especially giving them to the Yeti (I seriously don't see the connection). How terrifying they are in realisation. This might be a first in Doctor Who. Usually it is a strong idea that hasn't been realised adequately. This time around it is a troubling idea that is sold entirely on it's petrifying translation on screen.

* I always imagined that Lethbridge-Stewart's introduction would be met with some kind of fanfare given the important role he would go on to play in the series. Thinking about this logically for a moment...why would that be the case at all? He wasn't designed to be a series regular, this was just a one shot character that worked out really well, they decided to bring back and became woven into the fabric of the series. In fact he is dumped in the middle of this story without ceremony and treated as a figure of suspicion for a while. If nobody can trust anybody...who the hell is this bossy Colonel who has appeared out of the darkness from nowhere? I like that approach, it might just be the most interesting use of the character in his entire run.
* The whole idea of the enemy within is a frightening one that accentuates the paranoia in the later episodes as fingers start being pointed. I love the idea of a shot of the door being slowly unlocked by somebody and then later the Yeti slowly making their way inside. What this story also does very well is capture the essence of dread and fear. It is all very well having Victoria whimper and scream (which I usually approve of in a companion, male or female, because it allows us to recognise that the situation is frightening) but since she does that every week, whether it is warranted or not, it rather renders the exercise pointless. So when adult characters like Travers and his daughter start screaming before being attacked we know that this is a really scary situation. When a mass slaughter of soldiers practically reduces the Colonel to tears in fear and exhaustion, the shit has well and truly hit the fan. Few Doctor Who stories would dare to show anxiety quite so boldly in adult characters. It is quite mesmerizing, if you're willing to come out from behind the cushion.
* Cleverly the story tries to convince you that it was Travers who was doing the Great Intelligence's bidding all along, distracting you from the real culprit. Usually I am devastated by actors who are asked to play 'possessed', it either gives them the opportunity to go wildly over the top and silly or they do something equally ridiculous and quirky with it by trying to be deadly serious. Perhaps it is the atmosphere of paranoia that this story has successfully brewed or perhaps it is because Jack Watling delivers his lines with such lecherous (it sounds as though the GI is sucking the life out of him whilst making him talk) and ethereal calm but this just works. It's pretty uncomfortable viewing. Not to mention the whispering voice coming out of the underground speakers. I bet there wasn't a dry bed in the house for six weeks. Especially in the wake of the moment when the Doctor is trying to gain control of the screaming Yeti coming at him...and it looks like he isn't going to succeed!
* It is a conceptual villain and I'm pleased that the Doctor's plan has gone tits so it can once again exist out there in space, angry and vengeful and ready for the next chance to have a go at the Time Lord. I wonder when that might be...

The Bad:

* Strangely enough the one character who doesn't quite work for me is Staff Arnold, until he is revealed (don't read any further unless you have seen the story) as the walking shell that has been holding the Intelligence's consciousness. I don't know if Jack Woolgar was deliberately giving an awkward performance to lay the foundations for the twist at the end or not but I just couldn't buy into this man as I could Knight or Lethbridge-Stewart.
* What a shame about episode three being missing and having to watch it through a series of blurry telesnaps (although we should be grateful for that since without it it would only be a grainy soundtrack recording to judge by). This is the point where the story chooses to settle down and talk about everything that is going on as well, which might make the lack of moving pictures more bearable (imagine if it had been episode four and we had lost the Covent Garden sequence) but does make the experience a little more wearying too. I think even if this episode was complete, it would be the weakest of the bunch (like Enemy of the World). They call a briefing and the back story is useful but it is basically 25 minutes worth of exposition with very little movement to liven things up. As soon as the story becomes animated again (but not animated in the way of some of the missing Troughton adventures are) it is immediately gripping, Yeti's storming through headquarters and attacking Travers and Anne. The lull is over.
* The end of episode five might be an interesting visual (the foam bursting through the wall) but we've been here a couple of times in the story now...it is time for a wrap up.


Moment to Watch Out For: After watching The Crusade, the surviving material of The Daleks' Masterplan and The Invasion and the top notch quality of the direction in all of those I was already convinced that Douglas Camfield was the finest director to ever work on the show (to date I think only Graeme Harper has come anywhere near close to toppling that position). However after seeing the attack by the Yeti in the Covent Garden sequence, a ten minute action sequence shot on location, I was literally blown away by what the man had achieved on a Doctor Who budget. Even more impressive is that he manages to convince that these great hulking teddy bears are a genuinely relentless and formidable threat. That was easy enough to achieve in the darkness of the Underground but by bringing them out into the bright open spaces it exposes the deficiencies in their design (they really aren't any less ridiculous than the Mandrels) and it should have rendered this sequence a joke. Instead Camfield directs this as though it is a blockbusting film, filling it full of extras, allowing us to see how afraid they are, slaughtering them unremittingly and best of all...these cuddly creatures just keep coming. You can take a few of them out but there is always more. They never tire, they never give up, they don't show a shred of emotion except to roar hysterically and keep on going until every one of those soldiers is dead. It leaves Lethbridge-Stewart close to breaking down, panting, uncomprehending, terrified. It's expertly done and deserves all the praise heaped upon that it can get because really...it shouldn't have worked at all. One of the most dynamic and terrifying action sequences that this series ever put out, up there with episode three of The Deadly Assassin. No wonder Troughton had to issue a warning for the kids to hold their parents hands before watching. That moment when the soldier thinks he has escaped and gets dragged to his death screaming...brrr. A huge round of applause for the music too, which is as persistent and inescapable and dramatic as the Yeti themselves. This sequence sums up Doctor Who perfectly for me...how something intrinsically funny can become very disturbing in a short space of time. It is capped off with possibly the most butt clenching moment in the whole serial when the Doctor and Knight are trapped inside the electronics store with a silent Yeti who glides in behind them and (never before have I wanted to scream 'He's behind you!' at a Doctor Who story...perhaps he cliffhanger The Brain of Morbius episode three) slaughters the good Captain and then turns on the Doctor...

The Shallow Bit: Lots of lovely soldiers. Well a chap has eyes, you know. Anne Travers is easily gorgeous enough to secure a role as the next companion.

Result: What a find. Something that Doctor Who fans had longed to see for so long back in the archives, almost complete. The Web of Fear is a very good Doctor Who story but I wouldn't say it is without flaws. The best parts of it are about as good as Doctor Who comes (the stunning design and lighting, the frightening moments and the action sequences) but it is also overlong at six episodes, repetitive and occasionally it is possible to lose interest when you are waiting for the next impressive set piece to turn up. It is almost the antithesis of The Enemy of the World which had an awful lot of detail, substance and a multi-layered villain, The Web of Fear is practically all style (and most of that is down to the series' best director) with the most conceptual and opaque villain the show ever produced. The fact that The Great Intelligence is such an unknowable threat is part of what makes it so effectively scary and there is nothing wrong with a classily presented serial, especially when it is as classy as this. Watching it in one whack is fatal like all six parters and reveals the padding and recurring escape and capture material, it was designed to be watched 25 minutes a week. Saying that there is a definite lull in episodes three and five and this could probably have been condensed down to a really tight and extraordinary four part story. However the story rouses for an extraordinary action sequence in Convent Garden in episode four and I personally find the last episode one of the creepiest Troughton instalments of all, the paranoia and conceptual horror at its terrorizing best. Troughton himself is fairly quiet in this one, brooding in the background, coming off as more alien than ever and allowing space for the well fleshed out guest cast who carry much of the story (Jamie and Victoria are present but not especially effective). It's interesting to note that this is one of the few Troughton adventures where the viewing figures practically kept on climbing throughout, with episode six the second highest of the serial (the point where most of the audience are fatigued of the current tale and waiting for the next one to start). It says something about the quality of the material that this could grow an audience over a month and a half. It might seem heresy to say that I preferred the other find to this one but that is not to say that I didn't thoroughly enjoy this story and cannot see its many strengths. In a marathon though this is simply more of the same in season five, a claustrophobic base under siege tale with monsters, albeit done extremely well whereas Enemy did something innovative and unique (but perhaps not realised quite as spectacularly). If you allow yourself to get suckered in to it's oppressive, claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere, this is the ultimate horror Who: 8/10

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good review.

But, for me, the only companion lacking any real emotional depth is the apathetic robotic Nyssa.

Extrox

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