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Posts Tagged ‘Douglas Camfield’

Not all that long ago, having a spare half hour or so on my hands, I broke out my copy of Lost in Time and sat down to enjoy the first episode of The Web of Fear. Possibly because ‘orphan’ episodes have been in circulation for rather less time than most complete stories, I find many of them have a greater capacity to surprise, whether that be with their invention, atmosphere, or simple quality. I distinctly recall thinking ‘this looks like it could be a really good story… what a shame we’ll never see the rest of it again.’

Well, here we are, fifteen or sixteen months on, and who would have guessed? The Web of Fear, back with us again (well, about 84% of it, anyway). Although, on the other hand, there’s a sense in which The Web of Fear has been with us for many years in one version or another, and it’s curious to note the ways in which these different manifestations of the story have perhaps influenced our view of the original.

Web-of-Fear-Yeti

Anyway, the story runs thusly: London in the mid 1970s (anyone seriously attempting to argue otherwise is on an extremely sticky wicket, given it’s stated on screen that 1935 was ‘forty years ago’), and… Well, you see, here’s the thing about The Web of Fear, one of the things that makes it one of those very distinctive and perhaps even definitive pieces of Doctor Who. It’s very easy to tell a story about killer Yeti in Tibet. Robot killer Yeti in Tibet is perhaps a more challenging brief. With the idea of robot killer Yeti roaming the London underground, we are perhaps departing from the realms of the advisable. Robot killer Yeti roaming a London underground which is slowly filling with lethal, luminous fungus, under the command of a disembodied presence? Come on, be serious.

This story has that weird juxtaposition of wildly disparate ideas and images one only finds in certain pieces of Doctor Who, and it has it in spades. As a result, the story when viewed has a surreal, almost phantasmagorical quality to it, which may explain why it apparently spawned so many nightmares back in 1968: it’s almost like a waking dream to begin with.

And yet none of this is really captured by the version of the story which I and many others grew up on, Terrance Dicks’ novelisation. Terrance is a master of telling a straightforward narrative, and there’s no story so experimental or outre that he can’t knock it into a reassuring 126-page shape, usually opening with chapter 1, ‘The Terror Begins’, and concluding with chapter 12, ‘The Final Battle’.

I know I may sound a little snide, but I really don’t mean to: this is Terrance Dicks, after all. I can’t imagine how you could capture the fractured essence of The Web of Fear in a satisfying prose narrative, and Terrance doesn’t even try. He smooths over some of the cracks in the story, provides a satisfying backstory for key characters and events, and helpfully provides information to the reader that’s held back from the TV viewer for several episodes – it’s not until the middle of the TV story, after all, that we’re told what exactly has been happening in London, but Terrance explains it all at the end of the first chapter.

Of course, the fact that Terrance was writing in the mid 70s himself gave him a certain amount of information not available at the time the story was broadcast. High on the list of things which make The Web of Fear notable is the fact that it features Nicholas Courtney’s debut as the Brigadier-to-be, one of the longest-lasting and most beloved characters in the entire series – but, of course, none of this was planned at the time and Lethbridge-Stewart doesn’t get the big entrance you might expect, nor do we really see his first meeting with the Doctor. Terrance fixes this, adding an appropriate scene and laying on the significance with a trowel (he also adds some dialogue at the end with the Colonel announcing the whole affair has given him the idea for a sort of Intelligence Taskforce…).

Even so, this overlooks an element of the story which probably eludes modern viewers entirely, familiar as we are: the fact that this is an enemy-within story as much as a base-under-siege adventure. One of the big questions throughout the later stages of the story is that of who the Great Intelligence’s puppet might be, and the story has a good go at throwing red herrings at the audience. What’s potentially curious is the fact that one potential candidate for the secret villain is Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart himself.

The temptation when watching The Web of Fear is to curl up in the warm glow of this earliest Brig-Courtney performance and marvel that the characterisation was absolutely spot on right from the very start. And, in a way it is: the elements of humour that later appeared aren’t there, but in every other respect this is clearly the same man who later becomes such a fixture of the series: honest, loyal, brave, intelligent, and dedicated. but what we’re perhaps in danger of overlooking is that the Colonel may only be presented that way to make him a more plausible candidate as the Intelligence’s vessel (on the basis of this-guy’s-just-a-bit-too-good-to-be-true).

You have to judge any Doctor Who story in context if you want to come to a fair assessment of it – and of course, the context of Patrick Troughton’s first two series is such a devastated wasteland that it’s hard to say anything with a great degree of certainty. However, The Web of Fear provides more confirmation, as if any were needed, of the brilliance of Patrick Troughton’s central performance (and here, as in The Enemy of the World, he seems much more inclined to flirt with the female guest cast than our traditional ideas of his characterisation might suggest), and the consistently strong direction of Douglas Camfield. It’s certainly a more engaging and memorable tale than The Enemy of the World; it certainly mounts a strong challenge to The Invasion and The War Games as the best (mostly) surviving Troughton story, not least because it is so much darker and stranger than either of them. It almost goes without saying that we needed the actual episodes to see this for certain, but I’ll say it again anyway – novelisations and recons are, in their own way, wonderful things. But there’s no substitute for the original episodes themselves.

 

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