Friday, 6 June 2014

Doctor Who: The Web of Fear, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Consigned to white noise for forty-five years, now lumbering forth and dusting off the cobwebs. (BBC Worldwide, 2014, dir. Douglas Camfield, first broadcast 3 February – 9 March 1968.)

Anybody not familiar with the BBC’s notorious junking policy should, of course, make every effort to remain in that blissful state of ignorance. Most Doctor Who fans, however, are all too well acquainted with the directive that set ruthless (if occasionally scatter-brained) Terminators to work tracking down and erasing old black and white recordings, not only from the BBC Archives themselves but seemingly also from anywhere else where the footage might have taken shelter. Several William Hartnell serials and a tragic number of Patrick Troughton adventures were consigned to oblivion, the abject result being that when the Doctor Who: Lost in Time collection was released in 2004, gathering together orphaned episodes and foreign-housed refugees from the great purge, fans didn’t so much cry tears of joy as weep dolefully at the sight of their televisual Shroud of Turin reduced to such moth-eaten tatters. And yet, every once in a while, a lost piece of Doctor Who will turn up. In 2013, four of the five missing episodes from The Web of Fear were tracked down in Nigeria (an erstwhile purchaser of BBC exports) and repatriated with a suitable mixture of pomp, ceremony, embarrassment and fingernails-down-the-blackboard angst. Available previously only in novelised form (by Terrance Dicks, writing against the clock and to a strict word limit), and as an audio recording with explicative narrative by Frazer Hines (Jamie), this fondly remembered story now may be salivated over in (nearly) all its glory.

The first episode, which for so many years was all that survived to represent The Web of Fear, used to serve as a particularly cruel reminder of what we were missing. Unusually for Doctor Who, it commenced with a cliff-hanger left unresolved at the conclusion of the previous serial: The Enemy of the World (which was recovered alongside The Web of Fear in Nigeria, but until then had been written off as emphatically non-extant). It brought back a friend, foe and monsters from a previous escapade: The Abominable Snowmen (five sixths wiped). It gave us a rare glimpse of the Doctor’s companion, Victoria (Deborah Watling), whose stint on Doctor Who was so targeted by the T-101 series of junkers that she might just as well have been named Sarah Connor, her tenure coming to an end at the culmination of the following story: Fury from the Deep (all six episodes lost). In short, episode one of The Web of Fear was like a red devil-duck set afloat in a blood-filled bathtub, its menacing promise bobbing and manifest yet still subsumed by the horror of its surrounds. New-look yeti robots hulking their way through the London Underground; the TARDIS ensnared in trans-dimensional cobwebs; proto-UNIT soldiers laying cable to blow up the tunnel; separation; capture; claustrophobia: as the Doctor leans down to investigate the pile of explosives, Craftsman Weams primes and triggers the detonation and we are left wondering just what sort of classic we might have been deprived of.

Curiously enough, even with the DVD release of The Web of Fear, it takes us some little time to find out.

Doctor Who in the 1960s was made on so gruelling a schedule, that often the only way for members of the regular cast to take a holiday was to be scripted a concurrent break from the story itself. This was the case with Patrick Troughton in episode two of The Web of Fear, which consequently becomes something of an exercise in treading water. Episode three sees the much-vaunted introduction of Nicholas Courtney as Colonel – soon to be Brigadier – Lethbridge-Stewart, who would become a greatly beloved staple of Pertwee-era Who; yet, “sees” is rather the wrong word, for this is the one episode that remains missing, and is represented here only via the audio soundtrack (sans any narration) and a series of tele-snaps that, though better than nothing, does come across as being sorely in need of a Frazer Hines voiceover. Indeed, the DVD’s pitching of this episode as having been “reconstructed” is something of an affront, as is the total absence (not wiped, just never made) of special features. Deborah Watling and script editor Derrick Sherwin had previously recorded a commentary for episode one (included on the Lost in Time DVD but not here), yet this has not been expanded upon, despite that Sherwin, Watling and Hines are still alive, as indeed are Tina Packer (Anne Travers), Jon Rollason (Chorley), Ralph Watson (Captain Knight), writer Henry Lincoln (who co-authored the story), and even, at a pinch, John Levene, who would go on to play Sergeant Benton and here was making his Doctor Who debut dressed in a yeti costume. Charitably, it could be argued that such a no-frills release of The Web of Fear is a kindness, aimed at bringing the feast to our eyes with a minimum of delay. The more cynical riposte is that it quite openly exploits our neediness, and in stark business reality merely adumbrates the appearance of a special edition sometime in the not-too-distant future. Ah, well. Beggars and choosers and all that. What we’re left with is five sixths of The Web of Fear. Leave the reliably perfunctory Terrance Dicks at peace on the bookshelf and fire up the DVD player.

From the highly auspicious beginnings of episode one, down through the Troughton-less episode two and picture-less episode three, The Web of Fear rises again in episode four with Lethbridge-Stewart commanding a doomed mission across the deserted streets of London: a running battle of small arms fire versus alien menace, oft to be repeated in the early 1970s but here, in its inaugural form, played out with a very gritty sort of hopelessness and desperation. The sense of being surrounded – hemmed in, trapped – recurs underground, where the inexorable encroachment of largely impervious killing forces (the yeti and the eponymous, deadly web) is intertwined with the support characters’ clouded motives and the fraught tension of there being a traitor pressed shoulder-to-shoulder somewhere amongst them. Whereas six-part Doctor Who stories are renowned for their propensity to start sagging in the fifth episode, this fate does not befall The Web of Fear: in part, perhaps, because Troughton’s sojourn redistributed the slack to episode two; but also because the non-regulars are well-scripted and -acted and so emerge with real and compelling personas. To the modern viewer, who knows what Lethbridge-Stewart will become, the “who can you trust” intrigue is, ipso facto, slightly diminished; yet, even with this spoiler in place, there is a gripping undercurrent to these episodes, enhanced no doubt by the stark black and white film, and by sets so realistic that infamously they fooled and enraged the high-ups at London Transport (who thought the story had been shot on location without the BBC having paid the requisite fees). If The Web of Fear has one flaw, then indubitably it is the very flimsy, stereotype-engendering “do nothing except tremble and keen” role afforded to Deborah Watling. Poor old Victoria, having been cruelly excised, in restoration appears as a cringingly feeble character; and as with Todd (Nerys Hughes) to Peter Davison’s Doctor in Kinda (1982), we are left to lament that Anne Travers (Tina Packer) was not chosen instead of a glamorous but weak companion to join the TARDIS crew. There is a mischievous, quite palpable chemistry between Packer and Troughton, and whereas Liz Shaw (Caroline John) was later written out of the series as being, in essence, too smart to provide a good foil to Jon Pertwee’s rather showy Doctor, Troughton’s incarnation is portrayed here as endearingly receptive to a fellow brainbox: sufficiently so as to suggest that he and Travers (like her father, a scientist) might have forged a strong dynamic, travelling through time and space and fighting – or in Troughton’s case, quite sensibly running from – evil.

Almost needless to say, it is the craggy and expressive, sorely missed face of Patrick Troughton that brings The Web of Fear to life: from jowly, woebegone dismay to dandified affront, fits of pique or beaming, impish glee, Troughton imbrues his Doctor with a range and depth of personality that is unmatched by anyone in the programme’s fifty year history. Some critics have pointed with mild derision to the anticlimactic ease with which The Web of Fear is resolved, but this, even if true, would hardly set it apart from many other serials in Doctor Who’s original run. Moreover, it may be that we’ve been conditioned (there having been a rampant inflation of expectation over the forty-five years since The Web of Fear was broadcast) to expect bigger and bigger plots with more and more at stake. With portentous build-up comes the inevitability of let-downs – some of the New Series Who story-arcs have proven laughably flaccid come season’s end – but of course it’s hard to take a step back, and just as we might expect (reasonably or otherwise) the modern Doctor Who adventure to project itself onto ever more grandiose a stage, equally we need to bear in mind that Who in the sixties was still very much about small scenarios, where the Doctor’s aim, as like as not, was just to escape unharmed from whatever peril he and his companions had blundered into. Yes, in the black and white era there could be several episodes devoted to problems that messieurs Tennant and Smith would dismiss with a pithy line and a flick of the sonic screwdriver, but there remains a very real magic – and not merely a nostalgia – in watching Troughton’s Doctor at work: his sad-clown vulnerability; his gentle, paternal indulgence interspersed with flashing bouts of impatience; the childish delight he takes in tinkering; his schoolboy-precocious, clever-clogs subversion of one of the yeti, but subsequently his quite heartless chastising of Jamie; the infectious exuberance, which in flipside contrasts so tellingly with a proneness to sulk and tantrum; in short, the consummate skill and authority with which Troughton portrays a highly intelligent, insular, quintessentially alien being whose prodigious talents and childlike foibles remain heavily steeped in humanity.

Such thoughts we might entertain as the closing credits roll on The Web of Fear, familiar names hurrying from low to high upon a black backdrop, the darkness of which is soon menaced by a pulsating, organic invasion of gossamer cells reproducing: a residual sense of threat, writhing and dividing in tune to the alien theme music and eerie, cliff-top wind squalls that are last to fade away. So many episodes lost to the junkers! But through all the white noise, sometimes, fleetingly, a weather-beaten face may be glimpsed: wryly amused and empathetic, almost, its brow wrinkled as patiently it suffers us our plight and recedes gently into the follies of the past.

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