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Posts Tagged ‘The Web of Fear’

Trying to identify serious issues ahead of the curve is a high-stakes business – get it right, and you look very clever and astute indeed, but get it wrong and you just appear more than a bit ridiculous. After a run of episodes which hold up well more than 45 years after they were made, Doomwatch comes a spectacular cropper with Martin Worth’s Flight into Yesterday.

The title suggests an episode of a much more explicitly SF-themed episode than is actually the case. Are the Doomwatchers actually going to start investigating temporal anomalies? Has big business opened up a time warp? Is an anachronistic cross-over with Torchwood on the cards?

Um, well, no, to all of the above. What happens is that Quist is in Los Angeles, preparing to give a speech to an important conference, which may result in the creation of an American Doomwatch organisation. However, concerns as to the tenor of his presentation results in his being recalled back to London to speak to the Prime Minister. When he arrives at the Ministry, however, he seems confused and distracted, not really himself, lacking in co-ordination and focus. The Minister jumps to the conclusion that Quist has spent the flight home getting sluiced and sends him home in disgrace.

However, Barbara the secretary was on the same flight and the Doomwatchers notice she is also not quite her normal self. They quickly conclude that both Quist and Barbara the secretary are suffering from extreme jet lag due to all that flying back and forth. Naturally, the Minister scents a chance to rid himself of the turbulent Quist, and pooh-poohs this idea, arguing that someone properly capable would not prove so susceptible to the condition. He has Quist sent off on sick leave and proposes that Ridge, who he views as a more manageable individual, go to the conference instead.

Ridge isn’t having any of this and contrives matters so the Minister flies out with him and Chantry to make the speech in person. The Minister is quite confident that he will not be at all debilitated by the dreaded lag, and that Quist will be exposed as a bit of a lightweight. But are there more sinister forces at work?

What, I hear you gasp, forces even more sinister than the menace of extreme jet lag? Is such a thing even possible? Apparently so. Now, all right, perhaps they do have a point – a few years ago I flew back overnight from Las Vegas (ooh, get me) to Gatwick (hmm, maybe not), and it did make me physically ill the day after and leave me somewhat debilitated for the better part of a week, so it’s not as if it can’t cause problems. But doing a 50 minute episode of a serious drama predicated solely on problems caused by jet lag seems, from a modern perspective, at best quaint and at worst rather absurd.

To be fair, Martin Worth himself seems to have realised that jet lag itself is not quite enough to hang a whole episode on, and so introduces a further element into the story – that of devious and ruthless marketing people, who are well aware that jet lag leaves people in a less-than-optimal condition, and exploit this for their own ends. So the Minister, who insists on eating and drinking heavily throughout his London-to-LA flight against Chantry’s advice, falls prey to someone in the pocket of American big business, who has his own reasons for hoping that a US version of Doomwatch never comes to pass.

It’s still not high octane stuff, as you can perhaps imagine, and the primitiveness of the realisation leaves something to be desired, too – the budget wouldn’t stretch to actually flying over to California, so this is represented by studio sets and a stock-footage montage of cars on a freeway. (The Los Angeles hotel lobby set looks rather like the main set for Are You Being Served?, and I did check to see if the two shows were economising by sharing it – it would appear not.) Adding some interest, I suppose, is a relatively rare non-Bond appearance by Desmond Llewellyn as a ministerial aide, but on the whole this is an episode that seems nowadays to be working very hard to make a mountain out of a molehill, with results that verge on the unintentionally comic.

Something of a recovery comes along in the next episode, from series co-creator Gerry Davis, which is entitled – oh dear – The Web of Fear. I say ‘oh dear’ because The Web of Fear is, much more famously, a notably phantasmagorical and surreal episode of Doctor Who from 1968, not all that long after Davis’ own stint on the show. The two stories have virtually nothing in common beyond, well, webs and fear, but it still feels odd for such a distinctive title to turn up in two broadly-similar series in the space of only a few years.

Anyway, things kick off, somewhat startlingly, with the sight of John Savident in a sauna (Savident played Fred Elliott in Coronation Street for a number of years, and does his usual trick of appearing to be a good ten or fifteen years older than his actual age). Here Savident is playing the Minister for Health, who has retreated to a health farm on an island off the English coast to work on some figures Quist has requested. But not all goes as planned when someone else in the same sauna falls gravely ill, apparently with yellow fever…

The island is quarantined and Quist, Chantry, and (eventually) Ridge are allowed in, along with the tropical disease experts. But there are ominous signs that this may not be yellow fever but a new virus, one which is not transmitted by mosquitoes at all. Meanwhile, Griffiths (Glyn Owen), a maverick geneticist, and his wife have also sneaked onto the island to complete a mysterious experiment. Some stagey scenes between the two of them reveal the strain on their marriage from his dedication to his work, and his resentment of Quist (who was involved in discrediting a theory Griffiths spent fifteen years developing, with disastrous effects on his professional reputation).

Well, the very title of the episode, an eye-rollingly unsubtle moment where someone says ‘Ooh, there’s a spider on you’, and various close-ups of sinister rubber arachnids kind of telegraph the big idea this week: Griffiths has been experimenting with pest control by way of viruses, but the unintended consequence of this is that viral mutation has produced a breed of spider whose webs are impregnated with a lethal new virus resembling yellow fever. Cripes, what are the chances?

Of course, you need a bit more direct jeopardy than that, and so Griffiths, who has crawled into a cobwebby old (and dangerous) mineshaft in search of specimens to prove his viruses work, comes down with the new lurgy and has to be rescued. Luckily Ridge is on hand, having been issued with a feather duster, a thermos of tea, and some half-decent one-liners which Simon Oates puts across rather well.

On the whole the episode is solidly assembled and well played, even if the central concept is a little bit out there (I suppose you could argue that it’s ahead of its time in suggesting that if you connect with the web there’s a good chance of picking up a virus, but that’s a pretty weak pun even by my very low standards). Then again, it’s not a very big leap from the idea of GM crops to that of GM spiders, and the chance of this kind of genetic cross-contamination is one of the main arguments against this kind of experimentation in agriculture. Apart from the stageyness of the early scenes with the Griffiths, where backstory and character are thuddingly introduced, this is another pretty strong instalment of the show. Gerry Davis should still have thought up a different name for it, though.

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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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