Doctor Who Project: The Web of Fear

Doctor Who Project: The Web of Fear

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.

Yes, a Yeti in the Underground

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.

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Doctor Who Project: The Enemy of the World

Doctor Who Project: The Enemy of the World

You’ll run out of doctors in a minute.

So, we have an underground base? Check. An unexplained device capable of creating natural disasters anywhere on the planet? Check. Monsters attacking said base to use the technology to their own ends? Um, no? Turns out, despite most of the trappings, David Whitaker’s “The Enemy of the World” (Story Production Code PP) changes everything up, and just in time. No monsters (of the non-human variety, at least), no base under siege, just a careful (and rousing) exploration of the importance of trust and certainty, played out through the device of the Doctor’s double. Or, rather, the Doctor being a double. Everyone winds up confused, and that’s a very positive development for Doctor Who as a series.

A smashing do!

We’ve covered this ground before, at least marginally, in the superlative “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” wherein the Abbot of Amboise matches the First Doctor to a tee. But there, the arch coincidence remains mostly that, a coincidence that allows William Hartnell to stretch his acting chops somewhat by playing a new role; the story doesn’t make much of the similarity. Here, the Second Doctor is found to look exactly like Salamander, a highly influential philanthropist and inventor who supplies many of the Earth’s food needs by directing stored solar energy to areas lacking sufficient sunlight to grow abundant crops. However, when the Doctor is spotted cavorting on a beach just after landing—he does love the seashore—he, Jamie, and Victoria are set upon by men trying to kill him, thinking him to be Salamander, apparent benefactor of all humanity. With a hovercraft. It is the future, you see, just shy of the year 2019. Hovercraft it is.

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Doctor Who Project: The Ice Warriors

It’s good to know things, even when they’re dead.

Somewhere, buried in the design specifications for every base ever constructed, a TARDIS attractor can be found penciled in next to the obligatory nuclear reactor and the customary too-powerful-for-humanity piece of technology. Or so the past two seasons of Doctor Who would have us believe. At least “The Ice Warriors” (Story Production Code OO), Brian Hayles’ take on the mini-genre of bases under attack, adds an extra layer of danger by placing the base in question on the edge of a glacier (ɡlæs.i.ər in proper British pronunciation) steadily advancing as the vanguard of the Second Ice Age.

The titular enemies, the Ice Warriors, make for a menacing foe, with the helmets, sibilant hissing threats, and barely prehensile claw hands, but since they can be defeated by turning up the thermostat and throwing stink bombs at them, it’s for the best that Hayles focuses the six episode story on the dangers of trusting computers to make decisions best left to people. Indeed, far from being the monster-of-the week, the real enemy in the “base in danger” stories of the Second Doctor’s tenure to date has been unthinking obedience to authority in all its guises. Only independent decisions by People of Action can save the day. Here, the mod squad of scientists and bureaucrats running an Ionizer base holding back the glaciers in what appears to be northern Great Britain take no action at all unless confirmed by the Great World Computer, a machine with a voice that can barely be understood thanks to its squeaky, squawking oscillations.

TARDIS slightly askew.

And the Doctor has no truck with computers, treating them with undisguised contempt. He’s also rather poor at landing the TARDIS, which winds up on its side next to the Ionizer base (shades of the botched landing in “The Romans“), forcing our time travellers to clamber out of the blue box with all the grace of a comedy routine. It’s very little fun and games thereafter, though, as the glaciers continue to menace the base and a curious scientist in the field digs up what he thinks is a Viking. It’s Varga, actually, commander of the Ice Warriors and an all-around disagreeable chap. Did we mention the claw hands?

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Doctor Who Project: The Abominable Snowmen

They came to get their ball back!

Thus far in its run, Doctor Who has delved only occasionally into religious themes, using such themes mostly as set dressing. The eponymous Time Meddler, for instance, occupies an abandoned monastery and disguises himself as a monk (and his TARDIS as an altar), but the religious imagery is incidental to the story. When religion becomes more central to the story, the results have been masterful, providing two of the best stories so far: “The Aztecs” and “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” both, not coincidentally, historicals written by John Lucarotti. There were no monsters in those stories (at least, non-human monsters), and they were in the “serious” historical mode. Imagine, then, a story where the Doctor and his companions defeat the Daleks with the help of nuns by reciting a string of “Our Father” prayers and you have, in a nutshell, Melvyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s “The Abominable Snowmen” (Story Production Code NN), which draws heavily upon Buddhism (or a facsimile thereof) for both set dressing and, more significantly, plot concepts.

“The Abominable Snowmen” is not, by any stretch, a historical in the vein of “The Aztecs,” but like that story, it treats the religious underpinning of its setting—in this case, Buddhism in early twentieth century Tibet—with a degree of respect. To some extent, the setting is treated as alien, with the actors playing the Tibetan monks of the Detsen Monastery with the same kind of nuanced mannerisms one finds in the portrayals of the Sensorites or the Menoptera. The acting is not uniformly convincing, but the characters all evince a strong and coherent belief system. Unfortunately, the belief system has been distilled into one of unthinking obedience to ritual and authority rather than any more searching version of Buddhism, and when one character, Khrisong, the warrior, dares to challenge the Abbot’s absolute control, he is portrayed as the villain. But with a mustache like that, how could he not be?

Khrisong in a huff

To its credit, “The Abominable Snowmen” emphasizes a peaceful vision of Buddhism, with a desire for harmony and a reluctance to commit harm, but the end result is a society where questions are not permitted, as in “The Savages” or “The Macra Terror.” To that extent, then, Buddhism is set dressing for a monster-of-the-week, an exotic and fanciful backdrop for a story about Yeti in the Himalayas. But still, there’s something more at work here. A sinister force has taken over the mind of the monastery’s Master, Padmasambhva, but only because of the Master’s meditative journey into enlightenment and his belief in the essential good nature of all beings. This malevolent force, the Great Intelligence, threatens to take over the world, all because Padmasambhva journeyed to the astral plane and provided the Intelligence with a means to enter the corporeal world. And he was just trying to be helpful. It’s not a ringing endorsement of Buddhism, or spiritual pursuits in general.

And to top it off, the Intelligence forced Padmasambhva to labor for hundreds of years, and all he got for his efforts was a cave full of silver balls used to control a whole bunch of furry robots…

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Doctor Who Project: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Well, now I know you’re mad. I just wanted to make sure.

Though only two months separate the end of Doctor Who‘s fourth season and the start of its fifth, the difference between “The Evil of the Daleks” and Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis’ “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code MM) could scarcely be more striking. Where David Whitaker’s Dalek magnum opus plodded along several episodes too long and jumped from location to location, Pedler and Davis bring the Cybermen back in a taut, crisp, and focused four episode story that feels unlike any Doctor Who we’ve seen before—mostly because it feels exactly like what we think Doctor Who is supposed to feel like. This story is the ur-Who.

After a brief introductory scene bringing new companion Victoria into the TARDIS, a scene serving mostly to give a refresher about what Doctor Who is all about to new and returning viewers after the summer hiatus, action shifts immediately to a crew of space archaeologists on the planet Telos. It’s actually a quarry, of course, but the setting works inherently because these archaeologists are blasting their way into the buried Tomb of the Cybermen. You can tell because there are Cybermen on the walls next to the (electrified) doors.

I wonder who is buried here?

We’re given no excuse or reason for the TARDIS appearing here, unlike the elaborate explanations of a wonky control console or stuck fast return switch of prior seasons. The TARDIS simply lands and the Doctor and his companions just walk out to have a look around. Further, the archeological team only cursorily question the Doctor about his sudden presence and then the matter is effectively dropped, the show’s internal logic reigning supreme. In this instance, the Doctor is taken to be a rival archaeologist, also seeking the secrets of the long-dead Cybermen, and he goes with it, silencing his young companions when they threaten to blow his conveniently bestowed cover. There’s a story to be told here, so on with it.

The Doctor volunteers to help the expedition get into the tomb, and once there, he vacillates between helping and hindering. Something seems not quite right, with two members of the expedition, Klieg and Kaftan, curiously insistent upon getting in, despite the death of a expedition member by the electrified tomb doors. The Doctor knows the danger of the Cybermen, but he also wants to know just what Klieg and Kaftan are up to with the Cybermen. The story establishes (somewhat ham-fistedly) that they’re up to no good, and by the end of the first episode, there’s a sense of menace without a Cyberman in sight. One does show up right at the end of the episode, but it’s a dummy, albeit a deadly one. We do, however, meet someone new. A cute, cuddly, metallic Cybermat…

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Doctor Who Project: The Evil of the Daleks

Dizzy, dizzy, dizzy Daleks!

Now that’s how you end a season. Doctor Who‘s Fourth Season comes to a close with David Whitaker’s “The Evil of the Daleks,” (Story Production Code LL) a seven-episode story that finds the Doctor on familiar ground: Skaro, home planet of the Daleks. But he gets there through a Dalek time travel device in a London antique shop in 1966 that deposits him in a cabinet of electrified mirrors in a Victorian laboratory, which somewhat explains why it takes seven episodes to tell the tale. Much like the prior story, “The Faceless Ones,” Whitaker’s story feels an episode too long yet still delivers an engaging, if slightly overwrought, plot. Indeed, it’s best not to dwell too much on the absurd fussiness of the Daleks’ machinations here; the real story takes place between the Doctor, Jamie, and, yes, the Daleks as they come to terms with just who the Doctor is, and what it is he truly believes.

A furrowed brow

For “The Evil of the Daleks” very much serves as a re-statement of the show’s theme and purpose, a summing up of four seasons of Doctor Who, tidily wrapped with a neat Dalek bow. The Doctor and Jamie have two extended conversations—fights, really—about the lengths the Doctor will go to for his aims and what he cares about, dialogue that serves less the immediate narrative purpose than the ends of the show as an ongoing cultural entity. In short, Whitaker puts the needs of continuity ahead of the needs of story, or rather, he recognizes that the Doctor’s story is ongoing and not a mere series of semi-linked sequential adventures. His story embraces what has come before like no other story to date has, and though it’s riddled with what we might term continuity errors, he’s grasped the larger continuity, that of the Doctor’s beliefs, his purpose.

So the story picks up immediately from the end of “The Faceless Ones,” with the TARDIS being hauled away from Gatwick on a lorry. The Doctor and Jamie are lured to an antique shop through a series of elaborately laid (and patently obvious) clues about the location of the blue box, all designed with a knowledge of the Doctor’s curious nature. Much of the first two episodes focuses on the trap being laid for the Doctor; the narrative tension comes not from wondering what traps the Doctor will face but instead from how he will unravel them. And just when they’ve found the odd technology (and a dead body) in the back of a shop filled with brand new yet authentic Victorian artifacts, they’re gassed unconscious and wake up in a Victorian drawing room with massive headaches and a helpful servant named Mollie. And there are still five episodes to go.

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