Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"The Web of Fear"

Aired Feb 3 - Mar 9, 1968

6 Episodes

Story 41

Written by Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln

Directed by Douglas Camfield



Synopsis

In space, the TARDIS narrowly avoids becoming engulfed in a web-like substance. The Doctor manages to materialize the ship, and the TARDIS arrives in the London Underground railway system, but the travelers discover the tunnels and the city above have been evacuated due to some dire emergency.  They soon discover the tunnels are being overrun by the web and by the Great Intelligence's robot Yeti.

The Doctor discovers that this crisis was precipitated when their old friend Professor Travers, inadvertently caused one of the Yeti to be reactivated. This allowed the Intelligence to begin a second invasion attempt, this time in London itself.

Trapped in the Underground, the travelers work alongside army forces led by Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, as they battle against the alien menace, hampered by the fact that one of their number may have fallen under the Intelligence's influence and is a traitor in their midst.

The Intelligence's ultimate aim is to drain the Doctor's mind. The Doctor manages to sabotage the device with which it intends to achieve this, so that he can drain the Intelligence's mind instead, but he is 'rescued' by his friends before he can bring his plan to fruition.

The Intelligence is eventually repelled into space, though the Doctor warns that the Intelligence is not totally defeated, and will undoubtedly return.


Analysis

For decades, The Web of Fear was at or near the top of lists of most wished for missing episodes. When people who were watching the show during the 1960s talked about classic moments, Yeti in the Underground was always among the first recalled with fondness.

So when the episodes were miraculously discovered and released in 2013, fans were blown away. This was long thought of as one of the scariest, most brilliant Troughton stories, and we were finally going to see almost all of it, aside from the still-missing third episode. Would it live up to its reputation?

The answer is largely yes, and that is almost entirely down to the strong calibre of the performances of the entire cast, and the superb direction of the story by Douglas Camfield.

First off, Troughton is fantastic throughout this story. He's never less than great, there's a magical sparkle in his interpretation of the Doctor, and his skill as an actor elevated his poorer scripts and made them work, based solely on his commitment to the stakes. In this story, and indeed throughout the season so far, Troughton is at his best. He's clearly energized and still having a blast playing the part. Both Frazer Hines and Debbie Watling give it their all as well.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the first appearance of Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart. He's great, of course, as he always was in the role. It's easy to see why he became a fan favourite even from this early appearance. And he's backed up by a fantastic supporting cast, with special mention going to the great work of Jack Watling (back as Travers from The Abominable Snowmen), Jon Rollason (Chorley) and Jack Woolgar(Staff Sgt Arnold).

An interesting thing about this season that I've noticed is the preponderance of strong female roles. In The Enemy of the World, we were treated to a well-defined female character in Astrid, and here we have Anne Travers as played by Tina Packer. She's a serious, competent and effective scientist who effortlessly deflates the good-natured sexism of Capt. Knight in a wonderful scene where she talks about becoming a scientist. In many ways, classic Doctor Who would never again reach the level of equality and complexity for women's roles that they do in this season.

At the end of the day, The Web of Fear owes its status as a classic to Douglas Camfield, who may have be the best director of classic Doctor Who. A master of filming action scenes in a dynamic and exciting way, as well as maximizing atmosphere, he brought such a strong control of pacing and plotting to every story he directed. The sets are not only so well designed that they look absolutely authentic, but he lights and shoots them so well that it never once feels like a studio. He manages to make the series' cuddliest monsters, the Yeti, terrifying and credible threats. He also manages a blindingly obvious mystery, that of who the traitor could be, so that the identity of the mole is actually a surprise.

The Web of Fear is one of the top five Troughton stories, and one of the all-time classic of the entire series.

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