Monday, 24 August 2009

The Web of Fear

Previous viewings - many (Episode 1), one (the rest)

As the era of returning monsters continues, the series offers up this sequal to The Abominable Snowmen, giving us more of the Great Intelligence and its lumbering Yeti robots. Its in a setting about as far removed from Tibet as you can get, which might be bad news if you're a fan of that story as the setting was an integral part of it. I'm not such a big fan but I did like the Yeti so a return appearance in a contemporary story gets my approval.

We begin with a cliffhanger that needs resolving despite having nothing to do with this story. I can't think of any other Doctor Who story that begins this way - usually end-of-story cliffhangers are a tease for the next story, this is a hangover from the last one. When Jamie closes the TARDIS doors, the Doctor shrugs off Salamander's grisly fate and is more concerned with the next adventure. Obviously since The Enemy of the World is mostly missing now we as fans value this glimpse of a missing episode and wish there had been a longer reprise but looking at it more objectively it would have been more effective to start with the scene with Travers then follow it up with the scene of the Doctor and Jamie eating at the console. This is the story's biggest flaw, and it's not even a big one!

Decades after Det-Sen, an aged Professor Travers is worried when he loses a control sphere he has activated, and tries to retrieve a Yeti he donated to a museum to make sure the sphere doesn't allow the robot to become a servant of the Great Intelligence once more. How great is it to have Douglas Camfield back in director's chair? Doctor Who always looks so well made under his guidance, and even in Episode 1 when the story is just warming up, there's loads to enjoy, including quite a few film inserts, which helps build up the atmosphere. The scene in the museum is a cracker, and establishes this as a horror story - the music, the lighting, the camerawork - work together rather than against each other. Right away the Yeti prove to be something beyond what they were in The Abominable Snowmen, and certainly scarier.

With the Great Intelligence out and about somewhere, it tries to ensnare the TARDIS, but the Doctor is able to materialise the TARDIS close to the source, allowing him to investigate on his own terms. It isn't until half way through the episode that we find ourselves in the London underground, following some free time in the TARDIS. I'm not against TARDIS scenes as long as they're not overlong and pointless, and in this case any chance for Victoria to be herself and not screaming is something to value. It surprises me that this is already Victoria's second-to-last story as she hasn't had much to do since she joined, and while she, the Doctor and Jamie make a fun team, Victoria stands out as the weak link and doesn't work so well as a character when they're not around. As for Jamie, for some reason it never bothers me that he doesn't get any character development. He has such a distinct background that we're always reminded of it so it's impossible for him to be a bland companion, his reactions to situations are always funnier than everyone else's and there's Frazer's chemistry with Patrick Troughton. He's my favourite companion so far and I don't see that changing as I watch the rest of the series.

Obviously lots of people remember this story. My dad remembers watching the Yeti in the underground (and also Episode 4 of The Tenth Planet ). The Yeti aren't around yet but even when the TARDISeers are just wandering around it's still extremely atmospheric. The setting of a dark, abandoned subway line and stations is so suited toDoctor Who that it would be hard to waste its potential.

The first episode ends with the Doctor apparently getting blasted when the army blows up the tunnel. We say goodbye to the Doctor for an episode - he is sorely missed - and Episode 2 is probaby the story's weakest. Jamie and Victoria meet up with Professor Travers, who along with his daughter Anne is working with the military in the underground of an evacuated London to clear away the Yetis and their expanding fungus. It's mostly filler as we've already been introduced to the army officers in the previous episode but it rattles along at a good pace, with a good balance of action and character. I'm enjoying Travers more this time around, he's more interesting as a doting old man and a firm ally, and the mystery of the non-aging Jamie and Victoria is something new for the series.

Episode 3 puts viewers to rest with the return of the Doctor who arrives with Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart. It's the Brig! And he's exactly as I remember him: calm under pressure, open minded but still very much a military man, and willing to indulge the Doctor in his crazy solutions to problems. And he's probably the only character whose relationship with the Doctor transcends what incarnation the Doctor is on. If only they met on-screen as we barely see anything of the Brigadier coming to trust the Doctor. In The Web of Fear we see the Brigadier coping with some things he won't encounter later, including having his entire platoon wiped out during a Yeti attack and an officer who refuses to obey orders. Even though his relationship with the Doctor has frequent moments of humur, the Brigadier seems real here in a way that he won't later.

In the middle episodes, the Yeti are the stars, not the Great Intelligence. It's surprising how much more effective they are in the dark, however this is merely because pretty much all Doctor Who monsters work better in darkness if they're supposed to be scary. The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria are largely split up in this, following their own plot strands in different parts of the underground. Victoria is surprisingly restrained scream-wise and Jamie is unusually useful (sorry Jamie!).

A lot of the dramatic thrust of Episode 3 onwards is the presence of a Great Intelligence agent. Thrown into the mix have been a few characters who might be up to no good, including reporter Chorley and the irritating Welsh driver Evans. The Yeti and the fungus which slowly entombs everybody makes this one of the most effectiv base-under-siege stories; it's the middle of one of most heavily populated cities in the world, an ordinary place which provides no reassurances as the Great Intelligence seems just as capable of using the environment to its advantage as the human characters. The Doctor is consigned to running experiments for a couple of episodes when Travers is taken by a Yeti, but there's loads else going on in the meantime, with the Great Intelligence using much more cunning this time around, having Yeti models planted on several people so they can be tracked. Compare this with The Abominable Snowmen where it accomplished very little, proving itself to be a bit rubbish. In The Web of Fear the threat posed by the Intelligence is more pronounced as its more advanced in its plans.

At the end of Episode 4, with most of the army wiped out, Travers returns under control of the Intelligence, and tells the Doctor to hand himself over so his mind can be drained. Fortunately the Doctor is in control of a Yeti having activated a Control Sphere which he himself controls. As we're left with fewer people, there are less suspects for the traitor, even though by now it's largely irrelevant, in fact the revelation that a dead officer has been reanimated by the Great Intelligence to do its bidding, although creepy, comes at a time when there is more exciting stuff happening.

Everybody meets up for the big finale. It's not hard to guess that the Doctor's Yeti will play a big role and indeed it does - once again the pyramid of spheres is destroyed just before the Doctor has his mind drained. In something of a twist we find out that the Doctor had altered the conversion headset so that it drained the Intelligence and not him, so he's angry at Jamie for using the Yeti. What's disappointing about this is not only that it was obviously done to keep the Intelligence alive for a return appearance that never happened, but that even if the Doctor drained the Intelligence, I don't see why it can't return anyway given even more 'definite' ends to the Daleks and Cybermen. The Doctor being angry at not being able to obliterate his enemy is a little uncharacteristic and since he's right back to normal afterwards seems tacked on.

In accordance with the story starting late, it finishes late too, with the Doctor and his companions still looking for the TARDIS when the last episode ends.

What's so great about The Web of Fear? The Yeti are improved and actually scary this time, and the Great Intelligence recovers from a fairly average story to rival the best of at least the Cybermen. By this point the Yeti are primed to be a recurring enemy forevermore - only disagreements between writers and producer put paid to that. Admittedly this story uses up most of the potential for a great Yeti story, but there's still plenty to be done with them and had things been differently I can imagine the beeping of the Control Sphere being as familiar as an "exterminate!" with a few more appearances. Bring back the Great Intelligence!

It's also the story that proves a contemporary Earth setting works magnificently for the show. Sure, The War Machines started it off, but merely set the template - this runs with it and delivers a classic, and one of the first stories even the public would mention when recalling the Troughton era if they watched it at the time.

Horror quotient - What more is there to say? The Great Intelligence itself isn't that scary, but the heavy use of film and the Mark II Yeti build up a terrific atmosphere. Thanks Douglas Camfield!
Comedy quotient - Hmm, tough one. There are moments of humour and they're all in the right places.
Drama quotient - Everybody is used well, and the military officers are a more interesting bunch than the monks. The drama goes hand in hand with the horror here, and there are quite a few plot twists too that I really liked.

The Power of the Daleks has been pipped - this is my favourite Troughton so far. It's scarier and more dramatic. It accomplishes everything that so many stories of the era try to, and then some.


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