14 Jun 2003The Web of Fear, by Paul Clarke
24 Nov 2017The Web of Fear (BBC Audiobook), by Callum McKelvie

I don’t, on the whole, agonize over the fact that there are missing episodes of Doctor Who. Obviously, I would prefer it if the entire series existed in the archives and on those rare occasions when an episode or even, in the case of ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, and entire story is recovered, but I accept that most of the missing episodes were junked, don’t exist, and probably won’t be recovered. The reason that I’m so philosophical about this is that all of the missing episodes survive as audios, which frankly I’m enormously grateful for; there are not, insofar as I am aware, audio recordings of the missing Ian Hendry Avengers episodes, or the missing episodes of Doomwatch, or the last four episodes of The Quatermass Experiment, or any of A For Andromeda or Target Luna. Bearing this in mind, I consider myself as a Doctor Who fan to be quite lucky, especially as many of the black and white stories work quite well as audio dramas. And then I listen to ‘The Web of Fear’ and become enraged. 

‘The Web of Fear’ suffers on audio more than most missing Troughton stories, because some of the atmosphere is lost. This is evident from the surviving episode one, which at least sets the scene for the remainder of the story. There are two key points at which ‘The Web of Fear’ really suffers from the lack of visuals, and these are the death of Captain Knight and the massacre of Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart’s men, the latter in particular a lengthy and dramatic sounding sequence in which the actors playing the soldiers scream horribly accompanied by an impressive and foreboding instrumental score and really make me wish I could see the attacking Yetis. Nevertheless, I am grateful that ‘The Web of Fear’ exists in some form, because it continues the high standard of Season Five. 

‘The Web of Fear’ is the quintessential base under siege story, with the base in question being the army headquarters. But this not just a base under siege story; in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ and ‘The Ice Warriors’, the barren and icy exteriors contrasted with the seemingly safe haven provided by the Det-Sen monastery and the Ice Base to make them seem welcoming, whereas here, the base feels like a prison, a claustrophobic last bastion against the encroaching web and the marauding Yetis. The entire story has a feeling of claustrophobia thanks to its tunnel-bound setting; even when the Doctor and his friends leave headquarters, they are generally unable to leave the Underground tunnels, which are increasingly cut off by the web. It is this claustrophobia that enhances the suspense of ‘The Web of Fear’ to truly impressive levels; the humans have no way of escape, and nowhere besides the base to retreat to. By the end of episode five, even the headquarters is consumed by the web. Then there is the dwindling supporting cast, as soldiers are killed by either web or Yeti, and of course the increasing paranoia as it becomes clear that one of them is a traitor. Episode one sets the scene well; Travers’ visit to Silverstein’s collection is filled with foreboding, and this is helped by the impressive incidental score sampled from mad composer Bela Bartok (and used in the previous story, also to great effect. And The Shining too, for that matter). It becomes obvious almost immediately that the immobile Yeti is going to come to life once more and kill Silverstein, leaving only the question of when; with Travers and his daughter gone, the familiar beeping of the control sphere heralds the reawakening of the Yeti and a terrified Silverstein’s death). Incidentally, the transformation of the Yeti is rather effective and is nice touch; since the production team decided to redesign them to make them less cute, it is nice to note that they actually acknowledged this change on screen. It also serves to accentuate the Yeti’s reactivation, somehow helping to make the entire sequence both sudden and shocking. Following this, the scenes of the TARDIS entombed by the web in space are also effective, and rather sinister. This marks the only the second time that the TARDIS has been interfered with in flight, the first being ‘The Web Planet’, and it is demonstrates the power of the Intelligence. Following this, the TARDIS arrival in the Underground allows for further foreboding, as the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria find the web covered corpse of the old newspaper vendor, and the true extent of the threat to London slowly becomes apparent. 

The Yetis themselves work better here than they did in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, which is frankly rather impressive given the effectiveness of that story. Partly this is because of the redesign, which makes them sleeker and less cuddly, but mostly it’s because they roar and most importantly because they are in the London Underground. Jon Pertwee rather famously claimed that there is nothing more frightening than coming home and finding a Yeti sitting on your toilet in Tooting Beck; clearly, the man was outrageously exaggerating since it would be far more terrifying to find for example a heavily-armed lunatic sitting on one’s toilet than a zoological curiosity, but the argument does hold that the Yeti are more effective here due to their incongruity. In addition, whilst most of this story is studio bound, the impressive recreation of the distinctive tunnels of the London Underground recaptures some of the effect of seeing the Daleks glide around London landmarks in ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’. ‘The Web of Fear’ is the first Doctor Who story to show such an invasion in a contemporary setting, but of course not the last (and no, I’m not including the sight of one War Machine at a time lumbering unconvincingly around London). The roar of the attacking Yetis is surprisingly effective, and is memorably punctuated by the screams of their victims on several occasions. Another reason that the Yetis seem more dangerous here is that they are seen to kill far more people than in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, where the Intelligence seemed more concerned with frightening the Monks aware rather than slaughtering them. In addition, they are seldom inactive; in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, Jamie and the Monks accidentally deactivated one and later on the Doctor and Jamie struggled to stop a control sphere reaching its Yeti, whereas here this is never the case after the scene in Silverstein’s collection. When the Yetis do emerge out of the darkness, they nearly always kill or capture someone. The web guns are also worth mentioning, since they give the robot Yetis an effective line of defence against explosives and also provide and effective visual image as they emerge onto the platform in episode one brandishing weapons.

The Intelligence is less effective here than in its début, due I think to the vocal talents of the actors involved. In ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, the Intelligence voice was key to its success and due entirely to Wolfe Morris’s acting skills. Here, the Intelligence uses different pawns and the effect is less impressive. Whilst I like Jack Watling as Travers, when Travers is possessed by the Intelligence he sounds more asthmatic than sinister. Jack Woolgar is better as the possessed Staff Sgt, Arnold, especially since he sounds considerably different when he’s not under the Intelligence’s control, and he does manage to sound quite chilling, but he still isn’t as good as Morris was at conveying the entity’s sheer evil. In some respects, the script doesn’t help; the revelation that the object of the Intelligence’s invasion is actually the Doctor is a good one, and is to be congratulated for making this story more than just a retread of the Intelligence’s plans in Tibet, but once it has taken Victoria hostage it starts to gloat and sound smug, which makes it seem less alien, and thus less threatening, than in its debut. Despite this, it still works well enough as a villain however. The web, presumably the equivalent of the shapeless form that it was adopting in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, works well and the seems far more unstoppable at times than even the Yetis, as it slowly fills the tunnels, hemming the humans in and also isolating the Doctor from his TARDIS. The ending is perhaps too similar to the ending of ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, with the Intelligence defeated by having its equipment blown up, but the twist that this prevents the Doctor from defeating it utterly is quite nice. In addition, because of the higher body count in this story, there is less of a celebratory feel once the Intelligence is defeated; Padmasambhava had been kept alive like a zombie in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, and his death gave the impression that he had found the release that he wanted, whereas here the blackened corpse of Arnold is far grimmer testimony to the misery wrought by the Intelligence. 

There are more prominent characters here than in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, but Lincoln and Haisman prove able to cope with the challenges this presents, giving every character, no matter how minor, distinct characterisation. Jack Watling makes a welcome return as Professor Travers, now having become the living embodiment of “irascible”. His portrayal of Travers as a grumpy, eccentric scientist is endearing rather than distracting, and provides a brief but welcome moment of comic relief in episode one, when he deals with the obnoxious Chorley. Tina Packer as Travers’ daughter is an attempt to portray a strong female character and should be applauded as such; she plays the part well, and does get to deliver a withering riposte to Knight’s patronizing enquiry of “what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”, but ultimately she is reduced to the role of either her Father’s or the Doctor’s assistant, which rather spoils the effect. The other supporting characters all work well, which is essential given the increasing “whodunit” aspect as it becomes clear that one of them is a traitor (Chorley is an obvious red-herring, whereas Arnold always seems too reliable to possibly be the traitor, which keeps the viewer guessing nicely). Special mention must go to two other characters however: Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart and Private Evans. Lethbridge-Stewart immediately makes an impact, thanks to his commanding presence, coupled with a charisma that Courtney’s previous Doctor Who character, the grim Bret Vyon, lacked. He is particularly impressive due to his tendency to lead by example, leading his men into a battle with the Yetis, which as it happens only he survives. He is equally brave when he agrees to help Jamie find Victoria in episode five, a mission that he suspects to be both futile and potentially suicidal, but which he undertakes in preference to doing nothing. He also noticeably starts to develop a rapport with the Doctor, despite the mutual distrust caused by the knowledge that someone is betraying them to the Intelligence, and it could be either one of them. Private Evans is rather different character, in that he is portrayed as a coward. The character’s strength however is that he is a realistic coward; his plaintive suggestion that they hand over the Doctor to the Intelligence as requested rings with terrified sincerity and is motivated purely by absolute fear, something the Doctor clearly realises as he gently promises to give himself up to save them if no other alternative presents itself. It is interesting that Evans contrasts so sharply with Chorley, also terrified but thoroughly odious, and is testament to the basic fact that Evans is really rather likeable. Whereas Chorley blusters when Knight sarcastically invites him along on a mission into the tunnels, Evans is much more frank when Jamie asks him why he came back to join him and he shamefacedly admits that he couldn’t get out through the locked gates. 

Troughton is as ever at his finest here, and as in Haisman and Lincoln’s previous script, he is determined to defeat the menace threatening London as soon as he becomes aware of it. In some ways, he’s even more central to the plot than usual, since he is the Intelligence’s objective. Although he seems at times to be vaguely flattered by this, he also quickly takes responsibility for the situation, as noted agreeing to give himself up the Intelligence to save lives. His final plan to defeat the Intelligence by turning the tables on it and draining it of knowledge instead of letting it drain him is seemingly a last minute plan; whilst he is probably confident that he will think of something based on enormous past experience of tight corners, his determination to walk into danger to spare others is always commendable. The fact that his frustration at having his plan to defeat the Intelligence once and for all inadvertently sabotaged by Jamie quickly evaporates in light of the lavish praise heaped on him by his companions at the end is a typically charming moment and serves to lift the atmosphere after Lethbridge-Stewart and the others grimly discuss the death toll caused by the Yetis. Jamie is once more on form as well, having been sidelined for the latter half of ‘The Enemy of the World’. His headstrong bravery is at its most evident, as he goes off with only Evans for company to try and find the Doctor, and stands his ground as web and Yeti approach in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Intelligence early on by destroying a glass pyramid similar to that seen in the Det-Sen monastery. Later, as noted, his determination to try and save Victoria manages to inspire an increasingly disillusioned Lethbridge-Stewart to action. Ironically, it is this headstrong streak that foils the Doctor’s plan in episode six, as Jamie leaps into action, “rescuing” the Doctor in defiance of his instructions, which results in the Intelligence’s short term defeat but leaves it floating in space as a potential future threat. Finally, Victoria’s brief reprieve from constant terror in the previous story ends, as she is taken prisoner by the mind-controlled Travers, taunted by the Intelligence, and terrified by her Yeti guard. Here more than in any story since ‘The Evil of the Daleks’, she is surrounded by death and fear, which leads neatly into her final story. 

Overall, ‘The Web of Fear’ is yet another in a string of excellent stories, and is a highly effective use of the base-under-siege scenario.

Filters: Television Series 2 First Doctor
The Web of Fear (audiobook) (Credit: BBC Audio)
The Web of Fear
Written by Terrance Dicks
Read by David Troughton
Released by BBC Audio August 2017
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So I suppose I should be honest and up-front, The Web of Fear is one of my all-time favourite stories. The bizarre mix of cosmic horror, the underground setting and a likeable and amusing cast of characters completely work for me. I was utterly delighted when the story was discovered in 2013, but I first experienced it, like many others, through this novelisation by Terrence Dicks. My father had a friend at work who being a doctor who fan and discovering I was one, would occasionally give me old magazines and books. One day he returned with an almost complete set of target novelizations. Naturally I first went for the missing episodes and this story in particular. However having since had all but a single episode discovered, does this new reading still retain the stories original power?

First off we have David Troughton reading the novel, familiar to viewers from his performances in several stories including The Curse of Peladon and Midnight. David’s voice has a very low, eerie quality to it that works well with the subject matter. The most effective moments include a sequence in which our characters return to base, to find the bodies of soldiers covered in web. David’s description of these events genuinely is terrifying, slowing down his dictation so that every horrific detail is inched out bit by bit. His impersonations of the regulars are not too bad either, even if his Lethbridge Stewart sounds more like a general from any number of 60’s war films than Nicholas Courtney. His impression of his father, whilst not up to the level of Frazer Hines’s, is unmistakably the second doctor and he gets the comic timing just right. His impression of Jamie however is the one that steals the show is and at points it did sound exactly like Hines.

Terrence Dicks prose follows the television story almost exactly. After all by 1968 Terrence Dicks had joined the show as a Junior Editor when Web was in production. He does add a few nice little references, for example hints at the future friendship between the Doctor and Lethbridge-Stewart. He also omits the opening cliff-hanger to the previous serials Enemy of the World and (thankfully) remains the troubling Julius Silverstein to Emil Julius. One particularly nice addition is a few phrases giving an explanation of the events that take place between the reactivation of the Yeti and the Doctors arrival as London is taken over. With Troughton’s low tones, and a sumptuous score and roaring sound effects, this has a suitably apocalyptic feel.

The story is helped by a wonderful soundscape and music score. As far as I could tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong!) none of the original sound effects were used. This is actually somewhat refreshing, the new Yeti roars work wonders and help this version to stand on its own without conjuring memories of the television adaptation. The music especially seems to take more inspiration from horror movies than classic Doctor Who and it works in this versions favour. One odd omission is no version of the Doctor Who Theme, instead over the credits we get a bizarre ‘swashbuckling’ theme. Furthermore there’s no ‘wheezing and groaning’ sound played over the description. I suspect this for some odd copyright reason and I have no idea if this is the same with the other audio-book readings.

All in all if you’re a fan of the story, then you’ll find much to enjoy in this new adaptation. A splendid new version of an already established classic.