Following on from The Enemy of the World, The Web of Fear starts from the ending of the last adventure with the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria trying to stop themselves being sucked out of the TARDIS thanks to Salamander having sent the ship into flight without having first shut the doors but more on that later...
The Enemy of the World broke the base under siege that series 5, the series this story is set in, had built up. Every other story was set in a base that was under attack by an alien force. Enemy saw the story going all over the world, with helicopter chase sequences and real sense that this was some zany James Bond film. The Web of Fear goes back to that base under siege scenario and while it gives us plenty of thrills and chills, it means the story is a more straight forward superficial sci-fi thriller where the Doctor is trapped in a base with a group of other people while the enemy, in this case The Great Intellegence and his robotic servants, The Yeti are attacking.
But there is still plenty to enjoy here, especially in the early episodes as the tension and creep factor amp themselves up for the final episodes, thanks to the fantastic directing from Douglas Camfield who would go on to helm other Doctor Who classics, Inferno, Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom, cementing himself in the position as the best action Doctor Who director. There is a lot of emphasis put on the 'web of fear' part of the title here as the story takes place on earth instead of some alien planet and the action takes place in and around one of London's busiest places, the underground system. At the time, this would have been a part of life for many viewers and while it might feel huge when your walking around there, this story makes the tunnels feel dark, creepy and cavernous.
This is an exciting piece of television that has been missing from the BBC archives for over 45+ years. While episode 3 still remains missing, thanks to the reconstructed images and sound, we now have a whole story where five-sixths is back were it belongs. This of course means we can get a good look at The Web of Fear which was well remembered thanks to being passed down in pop culture and the novelisation from Terrance Dicks - Yeti stalking around the underground and the first appearance of Col. Lethbridge Stewart, later to become Brigadier in The Invasion and someone who would go on to appear throughout the majority of Jon Pertwee stories as well as guest starring with every other classic Doctor at some point. Up until his death in 2011, Nicholas Courtney was the longest serving character in the entire history of Doctor Who.
For people who are watching The Web of Fear for the first time, it might seem a little strange, picking up were Enemy of the World left off but the cliff-hanger between stories is resolved quickly but that soon makes a way available for another problem. This story is a direct sequel to The Abominable Snowmen, a story found earlier in the series and it assumes that you already have prior knowledge of the Yeti and their master The Great Intelligence. While that might have been the case in 1968, The Abominable Snowmen is one of those stories that is still unfortunately missing and there is a slight feeling of jumping onto a moving train but one were several of its carriages are missing.
Luckily though, most of what you need to know from the last story is hastily explained but story about The Abominable Snowmen is this: The TARDIS lands at a Buddhist monastery and the Doctor helps the monks fight off an attack from the powerful and menacing Yeti. However, these Yeti aren't myths, they are robots under the control of a formless extra-terrestrial called The Great Intelligence who has the ability to possess humans.
The Great Intelligence shouldn't be a villain that is new to modern viewers as he recently appeared in the stories, The Snowmen, The Bells of St. John and The Name of the Doctor.
The Web of Fear picks up 40 years after the end of The Abominable Snowmen which would actually set it in 1969 not 68. While that isn't something that is important to the story, it has caused much head scratching later on from fans when they are trying to work out why the stories were always set slightly in the future. The now elderly, Professor Travers, who the Doctor met in Tibet when he was a young man, has been tinkering with one of the Yeti's control spheres, something he brought home from his first encounter with them as a trophy. So he tinkers with the sphere but when it finally activates, he can't help but feel he has opened the door for something sinister to come through, which of course he has, otherwise it would be a short and dull story otherwise! The Intelligence comes through and wastes no time in recreating it's Yeti army and taking over London. London is quickly evacuated but that leaves The Intelligence with the ability to take over the underground system and fills it with scary, roaring Yeti and mysterious web like substance, which becomes, to coin a phrase, a web of fear...
But out in space, the same web like substance has also ensnared the TARDIS and to escape it, the Doctor makes an emergency landing arriving in London, a city on the brink of total collapse. They arrive in the tunnels of the underground and quickly come across Travers and a group of soldiers led by the tired Captain Knight as they make one last stand against the oncoming web. The Doctor quickly discovers the Yeti and finds himself asking not so much who is spinning this web but what it is for. If the Intelligence is the spider, the Doctor is obviously the fly, but just what is this elaborate trap for?
The early episodes are very well done, featuring some of the best and most tense scenes in the whole of Patrick Troughton's era of the show and there is a real sense of claustrophobia, something that is essential in these base under siege stories. The Yeti themselves, despite their size and the fact that in their previous adventure they looked like giant teddy bears, actually work as a stealthy monster that could creep up on you at any moment. And the cliff-hanger at the end of the missing episode 3, which is repeated at the beginning of episode 4 is one of the best from the Troughton era's if not the entire history of the show as it really shows what a destructive force these Yeti are. There is also a growing paranoia which is almost unnoticeable in the early episodes before come to the fore towards the end that someone in the base is a traitor that is working for the Intelligence. The story does a great job of giving the blame to different people before the actual traitor is unmasked and because of this it really is quite shocking when that is revealed. The personal are already under stress and tired not to mention fed up by the obnoxious reporter Harold Chorley who was chosen to stay behind and report on what was going on there and the idea that the traitor could really be anyone shows that there is more than just the Yeti to worry about.
This however, makes the first appearance of Lethbridge Stewart a little odd, it could be perhaps that they didn't intend to bring him back at this point and of course viewers who stayed with the programme after 1968 knew he was a trustworthy character if a little stiff necked but here he is presented as a potential villain and I suppose in the end it is in the story's best interest if you try to forget he isn't one. Everyone at the base has something slightly sinister going on about them, even the TARDIS crew, particularly the Doctor and Jamie and the disappearance of the Doctor in episode 2 causes a little concern. Of course in real life Patrick Troughton was on holiday but the prospect of the Doctor being the one behind everything is a unsettling one. But that aside, the introduction of Lethbridge Stewart is one of the best moments in this story and within minuets the rapport between this Doctor and the future Brigadier feels like it will be in a few years time, there is trust there between the two and the feeling that they will have each others backs. What I also found refreshing was that for once a base commander actually believes the Doctor when he describes the TARDIS. Not only does Lethbridge Stewart believe the Doctor, he actually goes on a mission to find it. While he severely miscalculates how savage the Yeti are and winds up getting all of the chosen soldiers killed in the process, this gives director Douglas Camfield an opportunity to demonstrate to us one of his strengths, the battle scenes. That whole scene between Lethbridge Stewart and his tropes and the Yeti is engrossing and shocking, never has a monster appeared more savage than the ones on display here. The Yeti may look cuddly but make no mistake, these bad boys will kill you!
It is just a shame that when the Intelligence finally shows its face or rather, the possessed face of Professor Travers, it is from that point that the story starts to drag slightly. After a tense watch curtesy of the first four episodes, episode 5 develops into a lot of waiting for the Doctor to sort stuff out and more running about in tunnels. This is not the story's fault at it was typical for stories that ran for more than four episodes to fill the 25 minute episode.
But episode 6 is worse with the Intelligence revealing it wants revenge for what happened in The Abominable Snowmen and the story throws two punches both of which miss as the Intelligence plans to steal the Doctor's mind and memories but neither happen and Jamie misunderstands the Doctor's instructions and sets the Yeti off fighting one another during which chaos destroys the pyramid of the Intelligence and sends it off back into space, so it can sit around and mope for a while before trying to invade the Earth again.
While I stated above that the eventual reveal concerning the traitor is surprising, it turns out to be Staff Sergeant Arnold but that doesn't make a great deal of sense. Here's my reasoning behind that, we see Arnold killed by the mysterious web in episode 4 and even though we know the Intelligence can reanimate dead corpses, why does it kill him if he is the Trojan horse? And on top of that, there is little dialogue given on how he could be the traitor despite the Doctor explaining that he was a poor soldier who was taken over. But taken over when? Before or after his death in episode 4? It would have made more sense had the traitor turned out to be Captain Knight who had outlived his usefulness by the time episode 4 comes around when the Yeti kill him. This just feels like a mistake or a bit of a copout to me.
But these problems might have been less problematic had yet another sequel been commissioned and these questioned and plot threads left hanging been tied satisfactorily up but that never happened and one wonders if the writers came up with the mysteries without thinking of the solutions. It is because of this that it feels like you are watching a Stephen Moffat story which is ironic because he was the one brought the Intelligence back in 2013!
Despite having only appeared in two stories from Doctor Who, the Yeti cemented themselves in place as one of the show's most iconic monsters and seeing these hulking great beasts roaming about the London Underground here it is not hard to understand why. But the Yeti never appeared again after this, except for a brief cameo in The Five Doctors and we will never properly know their backstory. On the surface, the Yeti seem like a completely bonkers concept and they are, big robotic abominable snowmen roaming about our train systems, in the employ of a sentient fog and armed with what look hot glue guns. But their great, absurd but great! And they work really well in this new environment. It is a joy to have The Web of Fear back in the BBC Archives for us fans to watch again and while the Yeti may look like angry teddy bears, the story wastes no opportunity in showing how savage these teddy bears really are. They are silly and scary at the same time and that, I suppose, is the recipe for creating a great Doctor Who monster, silly and scary.