Sunday, February 20, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Web of Fear"

Patrick Troughton's era on Doctor Who introduced a number of new monsters and alien being but only a few ever really caught on well with fans. One of those were, surprisingly, the Yeti... or more precisely the Great Intelligence.

Writers Mervyn Haysman and Henry Lincoln penned the first story featuring the Yeti in 1967's "The Abominable Snowmen". The story pulled heavily from real figures in Tibetan Buddhism and for it's villain featured the formless being known as the Great Intelligence which in turn controlled the minds of certain humans in order to build his robotic Yeti servants.

The story proved popular enough that Haysman and Lincoln were asked to write a sequel -- 1968's "The Web of Fear". For this story the original Yeti costumes would be redesigned to look more fierce and the sound effect of a roar was added as well since one of the complaints about the Yeti were that they were too cuddly looking to be truly scary.

This story would also mark the introduction of a new character -- British Army Colonel Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, played by Nicolas Courtney. Courtney had previously appeared on the show in the First Doctor story "The Daleks Master Plan" where he portrayed the ill-fated Brett Vyon. The Lethbridge-Stewart character would eventually prove quite popular and would become a regular supporting cast member during the Third Doctor era.

Reprising a role here was Jack Watling -- actress Deborah Watling's father. Jack Watling had played a reporter named Travers in "The Abominable Snowmen" but here he returns as "Professor" Travers -- a scientist. I guess somewhere in the intervening years he went back to college and got a scientific degree?

What the story is perhaps most memorable for, however, is the fact that director Douglas Camfield wanted to film part of the story in the real London subway system (known as the Underground for those not up on their British terminology). The office in charge of the Underground system wanted too much money though so in retaliation the set designers took pictures and then worked off the pictures to create near-perfect replicas on the studio soundstage. In fact, the replication was so close that the Underground system accused Camfield of sneaking down and actually filming there on the sly without permission!

Like many of the stories from Patrick Troughton's era, "The Web of Fear" is almost entirely lost. Only one episode, the first one, still exists out of the six parts. The entire audio track was preserved by some fans though and was released as an audio drama with descriptive narration provided by Fraser Hines.

And now it's time to get tangled in a web of fear....

The Plot: Something actually stops the TARDIS in space -- a strange, cocooning web. When the web finally lets go the TARDIS lands in (though) roughly contemporary London in the Underground system. The system is strangely deserted though -- no passengers waiting at the station, no trains running, and all the power switched off.

Finding soldiers in the tunnels the time traveling bunch lean the terrifying secret -- the Yeti are back! And this time they are loose in the Underground and have terrifying new weapons -- like a strange fog which, once people enter, they never come out, and gun which fire a web-like substance, and a strange, massive fungus that is growing and sealing off the Underground station by station.

One group of soldiers in a field base have been tasked with stopping the menace but they are slowly being cut off, their position overrun and their men cut down. The Great Intelligence has set a trap like a spider with a web and the Doctor, his companions and allies have stumbled into it. Now the Doctor must match wits with the Great Intelligence and this time if he fails the cost to himself and the Earth may be incalculable.

My Take: Yes, this is yet another "base-under-siege" story but it is a quintessential 'base-under-siege' story and also a literal one since this time there is a base... and it is under siege. Mervyn Haysman and Henry Lincoln really did a cracking job with this story -- getting at what makes a base-under-siege story really click -- the slow, strangling tension as the characters are cut off from help step-by-step. Added to this is the fact that each one of their plans for victory or escape are cruelly crushed. In point of fact, it is telling that the military personnel go from formulating plans to try to defeat the Yeti and the Great Intelligence to merely trying to survive. The audience are dragged along with them and feels the danger mount as the situation grows more and more dire.

There are also elements of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None as it is revealed there is a traitor in their midst. As characters are killed off one-by-one the pool of potential traitors shrinks and the tension grows as those who survive increasingly eye one another with suspicion. For once the story does a truly excellent job at maintaining the mystery. There are multiple red herrings dragged across the trail but we do not know the truth until the end -- one one obvious ever stands out. Of course one of the costs of this is a pretty high body count all things considered.

The sound design for this story should definitely be mentioned. The sound engineers did a tremendous job in making sure that the actors' voices took on an echo-y quality for the scenes taking place in the train tunnels. Even without the visuals to reinforce it, it is easy to believe that the actors really were wandering around in a bunch of cold, tile tunnels.

Also of interest are the changes to the Great Intelligence here. In the first appearance the villain wants to inhabit the Earth -- to take on a corporeal form which, in turn, will eventually leave the human inhabitants with nowhere to go. This time around he has changed his target somewhat and now wants the knowledge in the Doctor's brain. It is really one of the few times that a villain deliberately targets the Doctor for.... um... villainy rather than wanting power, or control, or to kill an enemy.

The acting across the board should also be praised. Tina Packer as scientist Ann Travers displays an independence and sharp mind which would be lacking in many female characters for some years. She also has a wicked line in sarcasm when called on and the scenes of her working with the Doctor are well done as it comes across as two scientific colleagues working together rather than a scientist and a female assistant. Jack Watling is a delight playing the older, cantankerous Professor Travers. He may not actively be given much to do aside from be crotchety but he does do the crotchety extremely well. Even the character of Evans manages to invoke various emotions. On the one hand, it is easy to dislike him for his craven and cowardly nature. On the other hand, at times his craven and cowardly nature is a source of genuine amusement. And Nicholas Courtney... well, his Lethbridge-Stewart is, like Athena, sprung fourth fully formed. The character is locked in place from the moment we meet him and he will not alter drastically over the next several decades. But this is actually a good thing because it's easy to like the military minded Lethbridge-Stewart -- who also can display a nice talent for snark when needed.

The main cast is also firing on all cylinders... or at least as much as the script allows them too. Patrick Troughton is clearly having a ball as the Doctor as he plays the character like a genius child -- incomprehensibly intelligent but easily amused and easily distracted by the things that catch his interest -- often forgetting the danger and threats that surround him. Fraser Hines as Jamie shows himself to be, as always, the Doctor's stalwart companion... as well as being a fighter. Here Jamie is willing to run risks in the hopes of at least being able to accomplish something to keep his friends safe. It is Deborah Watling's Victoria who suffers the much in this script. She does stupid things, she screams a lot, and worst of all, she becomes 'girl hostage'.

And this brings up the areas where the script falls down on the job. For one thing, it goes on far too long -- it could have and should have been cut down to at least four episodes and possibly less. There is at least one entire episode and parts of others which are nothing but characters wandering around in the tunnels. And I do mean *nothing* but wandering around in tunnels. The plot isn't advanced, we don't learn anything new and nothing really happens. It's all rather boring.

The other area where the script falls down is with some of the characters. As I mentioned, Victoria is basically useless... unless you count getting in trouble, getting captured and having to be rescued as useful. In which case you have a warped idea of being useful. Well, I supposed that's useful in a way as a plot contrivance generator but, really, it's just lazy writing. The reporter, Chorley, is also a very poorly drawn character. He starts flipping out at the least provocation and is reduced to 'annoying, bloody idiot' by episode two. Seriously, episode *two* with another four to go.

Aside from that, though, there is little to complain about here. There really isn't a moral message -- neither an obvious one nor a hidden one -- and this isn't one of those stories where the show was trying to reach for some loftier ideas or philosophical discussions. What it is, however, is a great, nail-biting story that will have you on the edge of your seat with tension to spare, stakes as high as they come, and a great, claustrophobic location. Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly....

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