Here we go again.
Repeating monsters are, of course, nothing new by the middle of Doctor Who‘s fifth season. The Daleks have made six appearances so far (seven if you count “Mission to the Unknown” as separate from “The Daleks’ Master Plan“), the Cybermen a respectable three, together populating roughly a quarter of the Doctor’s stories to date. And yet there’s been no real linkage between the stories they’ve featured in beyond some vague desire for revenge on the part of the Daleks and ominous recriminations from the Cybermen for past plot foilings. Events of prior stories are waved away with single lines, the better to focus on the action at hand. Even the single return of the Time Meddler, the only recurring character thus far, as opposed to monster, feels more like a bit of early fan service (and an easy way for Dennis Spooner to leave his mark on Terry Nation’s magnum opus) rather than the establishment of a character with any depth or continuity across the series.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise that when Doctor Who finally produces what can be considered a proper sequel story, “The Web of Fear” (Production Code QQ) by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, the producers choose not a well-established opponent to bring back but the amorphous Great Intelligence and the eponymous Yeti from “The Abominable Snowmen.” Haisman and Lincoln did pen the Himalayan yarn, so bringing the furry robots back makes sense in that regard. Yet at the same time that Doctor Who showcases, at last, two stories linked by a single continuity, with recurring characters and monsters and a direct line of action yoking them together, it squanders the opportunity with a flat story and uninteresting characters.
Uninteresting, that is, except for Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart.
Nicholas Courtney makes his debut appearance as the unflappable military man here (and his second appearance in the series, having prior played Bret Vyon in “The Daleks’ Master Plan“), a role he will play through the Sixth Doctor’s era and then again in The Sarah Jane Adventures spin-off of the new series era. At the time, however, viewers (and quite possibly the producers) were unaware that in terms of series continuity, Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart would be the most enduring legacy of “The Web of Fear.” Because it certainly wasn’t going to be the Great Intelligence.
Having been foiled in Tibet by the Doctor, the formless sentience known as the Great Intelligence reappears on Earth some forty years later, having been summoned by the re-activation of one of its robot servants by someone who should have known better. In a direct (and keen) callback to “The Abominable Snowmen,” Jack Watling plays an aged Professor Travers, the adventurer who initially helped the Doctor defeat the Yeti and the Great Intelligence. Having brought the snow-bots and assorted snow-bot-bits back to England, he then tinkers for decades with the Control Spheres that activate the Yeti until he manages to, well, activate one, conveniently stashed in a nearby private museum.
The active Yeti provides the Great Intelligence with the focal point required to return to Earth, and it promptly begins building an army of Yeti in the London Underground. It also fills the area aboveground bordered by the Circle Line with a deadly mist and begins to fill the tube tunnels with the fungus that sort-of represents its physical manifestation. It’s all very unclear in “The Web of Fear” and was not much clearer in the prior story either. But notably, the Great Intelligence can also stop the TARDIS in-flight with webs, making it, along with the Celestial Toymaker and the Animus of Vortis, the third foe able to affect the operation of the TARDIS. The Intelligence has attempted to trap the Doctor in order to extract his vast knowledge and experience, a process that will leave the Doctor alive but with the mind of an infant.
The Doctor manages to escape the trap but lands the TARDIS nearby anyway, to investigate who or what might have such power to affect the TARDIS, and finds lots of soldiers running around trying to blow up tube tunnels. He, Jamie, and Victoria separate (ostensibly to give Patrick Troughton a holiday during the filming of the second episode), and there’s a lovely scene where Travers encounters Jamie and Victoria, who haven’t aged a bit. It’s the first time we really see the effect of time travel on the people who are left behind after the Doctor nips away at story’s end. Aging Jack Watling for the role of Travers sells for the viewer the notion that the Doctor is actually travelling through time, especially since only two stories (twelve weeks) intervene between the young Travers and the old Travers appearing on screen. This is, indeed, the same world that the Doctor returns to, week after week.
It’s also Earth, yet again, week after week. At least the writers have the Doctor notice this odd ability to land in near-modern England over and over:
Doctor: Funny, isn’t it?
Doctor: How we keep on landing on your Earth.
The dating of the story seems a simple matter: 1975 or thereabouts. Travers, his daughter, and Victoria talk about how it has been forty years since the adventure in Tibet, given as 1935. However, a movie poster is seen in the Underground at one point referencing a “block-buster” starting Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. It’s a near-duplicate of the poster for their In the Heat of the Night, from 1967, so a recent film for most viewers in 1968 when this story aired. Why the story wasn’t simply set in “contemporary” London remains unclear; perhaps there was a feeling that too much was taking place in a very short span of time in a very small area, again as noted by the Doctor’s comment.
The six-episode story drags on considerably, with the middle portion dedicated mostly to thinning out the number of soldiers to just two, Lethbridge-Stewart and Evans, a conniving lower ranks soldier who is helpfully referred to as a “blithering Welsh imbecile,” in case we were unclear of the stereotype he was playing. We are treated to an extended sequence of the Colonel leading a squad on the surface with a bazooka, so there’s that, but the Colonel’s military aptitude must be questioned, given that only he himself returns, out of ten men, from the scouting mission.
The pacing is not helped by the lighting choices of the director, who shot with a very dark palette. Certainly the excessive shadows make the appearance of the Yeti surprising and suspenseful in some circumstances, but they mostly help to conceal that the action takes place in the same stretch of tunnel over and over. It’s a very fine tunnel and station set, it must be said, with London Underground famously having complained about unauthorized filming in their real tunnels.
Once more, we have the semi-suspense of the Intelligence being able to control people, as it did Padmasambhva, but it lacks the ability to manipulate minds directly that it had in “The Abominable Snowmen.” Much time is taken up with various characters wondering who is under the control of the Intelligence. Not that it matters, since the Yeti eventually round up everyone in the same room and the Doctor is forced to submit to the Intelligence’s mind transference device, a giant triangle of the sort used as a focus in the prior story. Crucially, however, the Doctor has managed to cross the wires in the mind transference helmet without the Intelligence knowing, so that the Intelligence will be transferred into his mind, ostensibly destroying the malevolent entity in the process.
But Jamie mucks up the plan in an attempt to save the Doctor, despite having been warned explicitly against interfering. And so the Intelligence merely gets booted back to space, robbed of its focal point on Earth yet again, ready to return in the future with another silly plan to take over the planet.
The Doctor behaves far less erratically in this story than in his initial outings, with less mania and more cunning on display. The fear that the Intelligence might be secretly controlling anyone, even Jamie, reasonably leads him to keep his plan to drain the Intelligence a secret, but he again shows little compunction at wiping out the Intelligence for good. As with “The Evil of the Daleks,” a story featuring subverted Daleks much like this one features subverted Yeti who help “save” the day in the end, the Doctor shows no compassion towards foes he considers irredeemably evil.
Indeed, where before, simply surviving the story would count as a victory, here, the Doctor acts like he has failed for not killing the Great Intelligence. Though a bit of tomfoolery with an aggressive reporter intent on making the Doctor a “hero” in the morning paper helps cut the mood, the Doctor leaves in a crestfallen manner. The First Doctor sought to survive; the Second Doctor seeks to prevail. And as we’re past the half-way point in the Second Doctor’s run, this seems the default ethos for him now.
Jamie and Victoria return to “companion” status in this story, the first time they are called such in several stories:
Doctor: And if I refuse?
Great Intelligence, through Travers: Then I shall have to seek the help of lesser mortals, like your companions here.
Otherwise, Jamie remains headstrong, always risking life and limb to rescue the Doctor and Victoria, while Victoria gets captured (again). At least Deborah Watling got to act in several scenes with her father while Victoria and Travers wait to be rescued, and she does finally dress in more contemporary garb, replete with multiple strings of beads she can leave as a trail to her captors’ lair.
Still, several positives arise from “The Web of Fear,” some of whose missing episodes, like those of “The Enemy of the World,” were only recently rediscovered. Given the current focus of the series on Earth, we have a continuation of the pattern of every-day spaces becoming the locus of the exotic and the dangerous; the Underground serves as a monster’s lair, much as Gatwick Airport played host to the Chameleons and their plot to shrink the planet’s teenagers during budget air trips to Spain. Modern spaces become new and exciting again—and it’s easier to whip up a set for a sitting room than for an alien planet. And we have at least some respect shown to continuity in a proper, intended sense. Prior moments of continuity, such as they were, seemed thrown in by writers as a sop to the more rabid fans; now, stories can begin to rely on past stories explicitly. Much of the action in “The Web of Fear” made more sense (which is not saying much) if “The Abominable Snowmen” were fresh in the mind.
In the end, “The Web of Fear” succeeds mostly as a launching pad for Nicholas Courtney as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart and what becomes UNIT, the military force dedicated to all the strange occurrences on contemporary Earth. His ability to confront the strange and unexpected with the stiffest of upper lips and then devise a course of action will serve him, and the Doctor, well. Just don’t trust him with a bazooka.
(Previous Story: The Enemy of the World)
(Next Story: Fury from the Deep)
Post 42 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project