Man-Sized Hamsters Haunt London’s Tube in ‘Doctor Who: The Web of Fear’

[10 June 2014]

By J.C. Macek III

The classic, lost serial (almost) complete again.

One of the best things about viewing “The Web of Fear”, the fifth serial of the fifth season of Doctor Who, is that the final events of the last scene of the previous serial, “The Enemy of the World”, finally make a bit more sense. “Unclear” doesn’t quite describe the end of that one.

An additional reason that “The Web of Fear” serves as a worthy companion piece to “The Enemy of the World” is that both serials constitute storylines that were believed completely lost over the years, due to the BBC’s (thankfully bygone) practice of destroying old films and tapes to the horror of TV and Film archivists everywhere.

For those who aren’t aware, a long, long time ago during the original series of Doctor Who, the very idea that anyone in the “far future” year of 2014 might show interest enough in programs from the ‘60s was pretty much laughable. Had the time traveling Doctor been real, he would certainly laugh at this notion. Sadly, films were frequently thrown away and video tapes were often recorded over to make room for new shows that were also erased just after broadcast. Episodes of “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear” were likewise trashed along with countless other films and television shows and believed lost until they were recovered from a Nigerian television station in 2014.

In the meantime, the BBC has been releasing serials with re-creations of the missing episodes with surviving audio and animation based on the original storyboards, scripts and still photos that survive. “The Ice Warriors” is an excellent example of the replacement of episodes with Animation and original audio “The Enemy of the World” is an excellent example of a fully recovered serial. Sadly, this serial, “The Web of Fear” is an example of one of the remaining incomplete serials that had episodes reconstructed with still frames and original audio (without the benefit of animation).

Is this a terrible thing? Certainly not, when one considers the fact that for decades only the first episode remained in the BBC Archives. Episodes 2, 4, 5 and 6 of the six-part serial were recovered from Nigeria with only episode 3 remaining to look like a slideshow. Further, the slideshow isn’t so bad, considering what survived in the form of still photos.

“The Web of Fear” is also a step above the promising, yet ultimately lackluster “Enemy of the World”, as it presents a chilling and often scary alien invasion storyline surrounding The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his companions Highlander Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victorian Victoria (Deborah Watling) battling the notorious Yeti in their second appearance on the program.

In some scenes, “The Web of Fear” resembles something from the Universal Studios Classic Horror wave with its dim lighting and stark black and white suspense. The music continues this chilling illusion as the Yeti come to life and prey upon their victims. Even the grainy, imperfect prints that this DVD is created from is more of an asset than a liability for the horrific scenes that don’t allow a very good look at the monstrous antagonists of the show.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), many of the scenes are much cleaner and the “Unclear” aspect I figuratively alluded to earlier is much more literally wiped away here. In these moments, “The Web of Fear” looks much more like a classic PAL episode of any old black and white British TV show with its clarity and stage show-like presentation. This does provide an additional aspect of jarring non-uniformity when it comes to the visual presentation itself, but luckily the storyline and directing by Douglas Camfield both make this serial so worth watching that any forgiving fan would surely become interested enough to ignore the video shifts.

One of the aspects of this saga that is so interesting is the setting, which pits The Doctor and his friends against the Yeti in an old London Underground tunnel. Yes, the Tube is the main setting for this suspenseful serial. The Tube is covered in the title “webs” which prove to be detrimental for the TARDIS as well as the web’s victims. It acts like something out of The Mist (2007).

What makes this serial momentous is that this story is the first appearance of Colonel Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), the Brigadier of later episodes, which makes this episode the de facto first appearance of UNIT (Unified Intelligence Taskforce, or United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), a fan favorite to this day.

As with most horror episodes (and, in fact, most horror in general), “The Web of Fear” works best when it is dimly lit and the monsters themselves are hard to see (aside from their glowing eyes). “The Web of Fear” further illustrates just why the mostly unseen monsters work much better than their fully-formed cousins. Namely, the Yeti look pretty ridiculous in broad daylight, even making allowances for the time. Sure, the Yeti are huge with the glowing eyes of the kids from Village of the Damned (1995), the fur coat of Chewbacca and the kind of claws Freddy Krueger would tip his fedora to, but on the other hand, the Yeti also lumber around clumsily in ways that are anything but terrifying and they have a more significant weight problem than your drunk uncle who ate half the turkey at Thanksgiving.

If you find villains with the physique of man-sized hamsters chilling, then “The Web of Fear” is your show. Otherwise, you might find it to be hit-and-miss. The horror goes from grueling suspense to something rather cheesy here and there as well. Classic, yes, but scary? Not so much.

Still, this “Story no. 41” is a good example of the classic scary episodes of the Patrick Troughton years and it’s worth watching for its continuity significance alone.

That said for all its significance, from the years of loss and the recent (near-miraculous) discovery and its landmark appearance of UNIT and the future Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, there is no documentary extra here to mark these milestones. In fact, unless you count “interactive menus” and English subtitles (for an English show), there are no DVD extras of any kind (another distinction this serial shares with “The Enemy of the World”.

Again, this doesn’t make the serial itself an unworthy story to enjoy. “The Web of Fear” is often engrossing and inventive and more than worth its place in the incredibly long story arc of Doctor Who. That said, this serial is still not totally complete and its release is the very definition of “bare bones”.

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