Now that’s the way to do a sequel. Hot on the heels of the popular Abominable Snowmen, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln were invited back to pen another Yeti tale - only this time, they were given the challenge of making the Yeti a little less cuddly. And wow, did they succeed.
The Web Of Fear comfortably lodges at the top of my Desert Island Troughton Tales. After the James Bond intrigue of The Enemy Of The World, we’re plunged right back into the two staples of Season Five: Scary Monsters and Base-Under-Siege Scenario. To be honest, there’s not much deep subtext at work in The Web Of Fear, unless you count the underlying message that TV journalists are a pain in the arse. Instead, the key aim is to entertain and scare the viewers in equal measure. A personal bonus is that Haisman and Lincoln put an extra spin on the story by making it a Whodunnit. In The Abominable Snowmen, we all knew that the Great Intelligence had possessed Padmasambhava -but this time, the identity of the Intelligence is kept a mystery until the bitter end.
I must confess to being a sucker for all those murder mystery books and TV programmes. Plonk me in front of a televised Poirot adaptation or even, heaven forbid, a Midsomer Murders episode, and I’m as happy as a boy in a sandpit. I’m not sure why - I guess I like the challenge of working out the identity of the killer and also their motivation as to why they did it. In The Web Of Fear, the murder mystery is an important part of its enduring appeal.
Another important element is the doomy atmosphere, which The Web Of Fear has in spades. Right after The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria have avoided being sucked out into space, we’re thrown crash-bang into an eerie museum that seems to be playing creepy Bela Bartok music on a loop in the background. It’s a near-perfect scene, enhanced by the returning presence of Jack Watling as the aged Professor Travers. Watling is excellent as Travers, possibly more so than in The Abominable Snowmen. He doesn’t put on a self-consciously ’old’ voice, but everything about his gruff mannerisms and speech patterns work brilliantly. Travers’ concerns about the missing sphere from the Yeti exhibit set the scene very well, and the following scene in which museum owner Julius Silverstein is brutally clubbed to death by the new-improved scary Yeti is a belter.
Silverstein himself drains the tension out of the scene like a bespectacled leech. A bumbling, stereotypical goon, Silverstein resembles one of those one-off comedy characters that guest starred in some ropey old sitcom like On The Buses. Silverstein howls and moans like some comedy pensioner that’s just been scammed by Blakey. Even after the indignant Travers has left, Silverstein is still stomping about yelling “Travers, I am not a fooooool!!!” over and over again. It’s a crying shame, since instead of being gripped by the drama, I’m left roaring with laughter at such a useless old duffer.
That little glitch aside though, there’s absolutely nothing to fault The Web Of Fear at all. Following the intense museum prologue, the tension ramps up as the TARDIS, having been trapped in a gigantic spider’s web, is forced to land in the heart of the London Underground. This was a fantastic idea, not only because of the claustrophobia and terror that the locale provides, but because David Myerscough-Jones’ set designs are 100% convincing to the letter. Both the expansive Ealing sets and the studio interiors would certainly have had me fooled if I didn’t know that London Underground had allegedly sent the BBC a letter of complaint wondering what on earth they were doing trespassing on their property. That letter just speaks for itself.
It’s also a huge help that Douglas Camfield is back on board to helm the story. Camfield brings out the terror and atmosphere in the script, using ominous camera angles, excellent effects and well-chosen stock music to create a claustrophobic 150 minute whirlwind.
The big bonus is that I'm actually able to see these visuals for myself. Like The Enemy Of The World, it's now possible to enjoy The Web Of Fear on shiny disc. Even though Episode 3 annoyingly got lost in transit (thank you whoever you are holding on to your prized haul), the returned episodes don't disappoint, with so many superbly realised shots and sequences to choose from.
There are many set pieces that stick in the mind - the aforementioned museum prologue (ignore Julius if you can); the battle between the soldiers and the Yeti which has since become a terrifying, no-escape classic; the cobwebbed corpses; and also the dramatic showdown between the Intelligence and The Doctor. Brilliant stuff. Camfield's use of tense cross-fades, close-ups and low-down camera angles add much to the tense flavour of the story.
The Whodunnit mystery also adds to the pot of The Web Of Fear. So in time-honoured Hercule Poirot tradition, let us exercise zee leetel gwey cells and see who the main suspects are:
Zoinks, it’s Gordon Brown! Surely this is reason enough for Knight to be a suspect. The old smoothie routine is a typical ploy for the guilty party. He’s right in there with a poor chat-up line to Anne Travers, asking her what a beautiful woman like her is doing in a place like this - only to be rebuffed faster than a tramp with halitosis. In the end though, even the Intelligence doesn’t have the power to activate a corpse, since Knight has been on the receiving end of a Yeti knuckle sandwich in Episode Four.
Mrs Voorhees. Billy Loomis’ mum. These deadly females all turn out to be psycho killers, so why not Anne? That Butter-Wouldn’t-Melt-In-The-Mouth routine could be just a bluff. Her crash helmet hairdo could also easily hide one of the bleeping spheres. As it turns out, she is actually as nice as pie, even tolerating journalist buffoon Chorley, which surely deserves a medal.
Oooh, there’s lovely. The Web Of Fear gets in there before The Green Death for blatant stereotyping of the Welsh with jug-eared cliché, Evans. Booming Men Of Harlech at the top of his voice and spewing more Welsh clichés than an Anne Robinson Appreciation Society, it’s a wonder that Evans doesn’t just whip out his Max Boyce Live At Treorchy album to defeat the Yeti and have done with it. Evans is actually a hot contender for the Intelligence conduit, seeing as he’s purported to have even more hot air between his ears than the characters of TOWIE. But in the end, Evans is not guilty, although The Doctor has a serious lapse in taste by calling him a blithering Welsh imbecile.
Yes, he’s possessed by the Intelligence for about five minutes to warrant a creepy Episode Four cliffhanger. Surely he’s the one? Especially since Jack Watling does such a fine job portraying this eerily rasp of a possessed human. Well, no, in fact, the Intelligence possesses other hands, so the search goes on…
Surely this is it? Not only does he run away to supposedly find the TARDIS, no one actually likes Harold Chorley. Possibly this is because he’s a boring dullard who sounds like Alan Whicker with flu. While everyone in the underground base is trying their level best to defeat the Yeti, Chorley is hell-bent on making as big a nuisance of himself as possible. It looks like for a minute that Chorley’s the Big Bad: until he runs out of the mist yelling about…
Rule One for a Whodunnit Villain: Always make him or her the one that you didn’t expect. In this case, it’s amiable old goat Sergeant Arnold, a man who might, at worst, clip you round the ear if you don’t salute properly. But then remember that Padmasambhava was also an apparently kind old man, and it’s not so hard to deduce that Arnold’s the new conduit. Strutting around with an antique teapot on his head, Arnold looks like he may win the day in the story's tense conclusion. Alas, though, as the Intelligence returns to the ether, it fries Arnold’s body to a crisp.
Of course, it couldn’t have been that fan favourite Lethbridge-Stewart, who makes his début in The Web Of Fear. Nicholas Courtney makes an instant impression as the Colonel, although oddly, there’s that initial feeling of mistrust between him and The Doctor. However, it’s not long before they both come to respect and trust each other, and it’s easy to see why Courtney was invited back as the Brigadier, not only in The Invasion, but for most of the Jon Pertwee era.
Important débuts. Tense, behind-the-sofa moments, Scary monsters. I'm still trying to get my head around the fact that I can see The Web Of Fear whenever I choose. The return of the episodes hasn't dimmed my opinion of the story which I still believe to be an absolute classic, brilliantly directed and perfectly acted by both the regulars and the guest cast. It's sheer perfection and a snugly placed all-time Top 10-er.
* Discover more classics like The Web Of Fear in my guides to the 1970s run of Doctor Who:
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