A confession dear readers. When I first compiled my classic Doctor Who countdown list, The Web of Fear was not even on it. It was the summer of 2013, I had almost finished collecting the entire Doctor Who DVD collection, and I ranked only those stories that had I had watched on VHS or DVD (hence The Invasion and The Tenth Planet were included, but The Moonbase was not). That all got knocked for six in October of that year, when we got what was probably the best present to the fans of all in the 50th anniversary year: the return and release of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. Even then, I confess I restrained myself for a while – rumours abounded that the still missing episode 3 of Web had been recovered and would be released with the DVD. We have of course now learned that episode 3 was originally found with the other episodes and taken, but long before then I decided there was no sense in depriving myself of a mostly complete adventure.
This story took a little while to grow on me, but has now become a very firm favourite. Following directly after the preceding The Enemy of the World, it finds the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria drawn to the London Undergound in the 1960s, which is mysteriously deserted save for a military taskforce. It is soon discovered that the city of London is being overrun by two forces – a lethal and impenetrable web that is expanding relentlessly, and an old and familiar foe – the Yeti! It becomes clear that the protagonist of The Abominable Snowmen, the Great Intelligence, has established himself once more on planet Earth, and it falls to the Doctor and his companions to find out what his purpose is, before the city of London is wiped out.
This is a noteworthy tale, even before the remarkable story of its loss and unlikely recovery from Nigeria. Following the popularity of the Yeti in their debut story, the BBC quickly arranged for a follow up adventure to maximise their appeal. While their debut story is still sadly officially missing (though I am hopeful of its return!) we are still able to enjoy their return. The story has a particular significance however for the debut of a character who would become a firm fixture for seasons 7 to 11 – Colonel Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Here only a Colonel, this story would pave the way for the U.N.I.T era, and indeed features the hallmarks that would characterise the Pertwee era – an adventure set on earth, against an invading alien force, with the Doctor working alongside military and scientific groups to repel the invasion. It is a huge pity that Lethbridge-Stewart’s debut episode is the one that was appropriated by the unknown collector, and we can only hope it is not lost beyond all hope.
Even aside of this significance, The Web of Fear is a genuinely good story in its own right. Patrick Troughton is at the height of his powers as the Doctor, ably assisted by Fraser Hines and Deborah Watling. The supporting cast are also superb; a special mention is due to Jack Woolgar portraying the irascible Staff-Sergeant Arnold, but every single actor puts in a first class turn. The production team also manage to deliver a wonderfully claustrophobic and atmospheric story – they reproduced the London Underground so well that the BBC were accused of illegally using the actual Underground lines without permission! As base-under-siege stories go, this one is easily one of the best.
I know several fans were surprised to not enjoy this adventure as much as The Enemy of the World, in part because a mythology had developed around The Web of Fear that simply had not around the preceding adventure. As you will soon read, there are reasons that I still prefer Enemy to Web, but that is no disservice to Web. This is an outstanding adventure from the Troughton era, and a joy to watch even partially incomplete. I can only imagine fans enjoying it even more if episode 3, and indeed The Abominable Snowmen are ever recovered.
Next time: “Grendel? You’ve forgotten your hat!”