|The funniest thing about one of these sitting on a toilet|
is actually that their roars are the sound of a toilet flushing
slowed down. Maybe that’s why they go to Tooting Bec.
So they can get the sound clips for their roars…
It’s February 3, 1968. The Love Affair are at number one with “Everlasting Love,” a piece of production line pop given a reasonably psychedelic spin in album art. It’s unseated by Manfred Mann covering Dylan, who are in turn unseated by Esther and Abi Ofarim’s “Cinderella Rockafella” a novelty blues song by an Israeli double act. (Look, you have to get used to these things. Eventually I’m going to have to talk about how “Do the Bartman” hits number one in between KLF and The Clash, and I’m going to have to do it with a straight face, so if you can’t deal with Israeli novelty blues, we’re in trouble.)
As 1968 progresses, it becomes increasingly hard to read events outside of a larger narrative. When we see three college students killed when police break up a civil rights rally at an all-white bowling alley in South Carolina, or the the Tet Offensive ends, it’s very hard not to read these as part of the ongoing progression towards the collapse of the idealism of the 1960s. Music echoes this with an increasing number of songs that are not quite the unambitious conservative pop of Engelbert Humperdinck, but are also not exactly The Beatles, The Who, or Jimi Hendrix.
While on television, we get The Web of Fear. Once again, we’re stuck with a story where the history of it is frustratingly and maddeningly layered. Basically, the core issue is this – the story was tremendously popular and influential, and ended up having a much larger impact than anyone making it anticipated or intended, and as a result watching it there’s tons of stuff that works oddly because you know how it turns out. Really, this is true of both of the Yeti stories. Even though the Yeti never appear again except in cameo, these two stories remain important because they introduce someone who goes on to have a large role in the series. I am talking, of course, about John Levene, who is inside one of the Yeti costumes in each story and goes on to play Sergeant Benton through Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor.
Sorry, that probably whizzed over some people’s heads. Let’s back up. Starting in season seven, about two years after this story aired, Doctor Who gets a complete revamp in which it is set entirely on Earth with the Doctor teaming up with UNIT, an international military force, to fight aliens in modern day Britain. We’ll be spending a lot of time talking about that. But as it turns out, one of the major characters in UNIT is Brigadier General Aleister Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, better known as The Brigadier.
The Brigadier appears in the season six story The Invasion, which was in part an effort to test out the UNIT concept before they committed to it for the whole series. But he wasn’t actually supposed to be in that story. In that story the recurring character was supposed to be Anne Travers, daughter of Jack Travers from The Abominable Snowmen, who also appears in this story in which the Doctor teams up with an unnamed group of soldiers to fight aliens in modern day Britain. But that didn’t work out and so the director of The Invasion (and The Web of Fear) Douglas Camfield picked a different character from The Web of Fear to bring back.
Or, more accurately, he picked an actor – Nicholas Courtney – he knew he worked well with (Courtney had also previously played Bret Vyon in the Camfield-directed The Daleks’ Master Plan), and instead of making him a brand new military character just decided to give his character from The Web of Fear a promotion. Then when The Invasion worked pretty well they made it the standard concept of the series, and Courtney’s character became a regular who appeared in the next seven seasons, then made a total of three reappearances in the 80s, then continued to appear, played by Courtney, in numerous audios and spin-off materials through the 90s before making a comeback in The Sarah Jane Adventures in the 00s.
The short version of this is “The Web of Fear is the debut of the Brigadier, but he’s only a colonel in this story.” While factually true, this obscures one really important fact that the long version of the history does not: nobody involved in the making of The Web of Fear knew they were introducing the longest-running supporting character in the show’s history.
(John Levene really is inside one of the Yeti, though, and really does have a long run on the series as well.)
You can see now the problem. Moreso than the previous two times we’ve had to come at a story from the future instead of from the past – The Gunfighters and Tomb of the Cybermen – anyone coming at this story who is at all a dedicated Doctor Who fan just cannot see it straight. We’re not just reconstructing the images when we fire up this one. We’re reconstructing the entire context. There’s just no way to watch these six episodes without seeing the next 43 years. The thing is, with The Gunfighters and Tomb of the Cybermen, the problem was that fandom spent so many years getting it totally wrong about the stories while being very emphatic about it. Here the problem is altogether subtler and more complex. It’s not that any major reaction to The Web of Fear is wrong so much as it is that this is a bunch of blind men feeling about an elephant.
So I figure it’s time for another history-of-fandom post, this time not to correct the record so much as to understand what some of the different conceptions of Doctor Who are. Especially because we’re drawing closer and closer to the UNIT era, which is the first point in Doctor Who where you really just end up with the problem that two groups of fans want two (probably irreconcilably) different things out of the series.
Let’s take it as read that The Web of Fear was successful upon broadcast. There seems no way to dispute this. Evidence is spotty, but certainly the continued fetishization of its iconography suggests that it was particularly memorable and effective. If nothing else, consider this – one of the major descriptors of the Pertwee era, repeated ad nauseum by Pertwee for years after he’d left the role, was that there wasn’t anything scary about an alien on an alien planet, but that there was something scary about “A Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec.” Tooting Bec being a more or less random part of South London. Ignoring, as every fan has learned to do, the implications of this image and what exactly would be scary about a Yeti using your toilet, and further ignoring the entire question of whether Pertwee’s basic point is sound, there is something very strange about this description that nobody really points out.
Jon Pertwee never fought the Yeti.
That’s how effective and memorable this story was. It is so effective that for the rest of his life after he left the role, Jon Pertwee pointed to a story he didn’t even appear in as the ideal image for his era of Doctor Who. We’ve simply got to accept, no matter what else we find when looking at this story, that it cannot be a complete dud. There’s just no way for a story to be so memorable that it out-Pertwees the entire Pertwee era while being a complete turkey.
So the first thing to look for in watching this is what people might have liked about it. The answer is simple. This story, more than any previous one – including Tomb of the Cybermen and The Abominable Snowmen – is a horror story. More even than the continual gripping suspense of The Faceless Ones, this story is about scaring the crap out of small children. The use of the Underground is brilliant in this regard. It’s iconic enough to be recognizable. We know that we are in familiar territory, and that the alien has breached it. But it’s still, at the end of the day, just a bunch of dark twisty tunnels. It’s an everyday setting that is also a genuinely effective place to turn the Yeti loose.
On top of that, there are some great setpieces. The dead man in the webs slumping over as the camera pans to a newspaper headline about residents fleeing London is one of the great scares of Doctor Who history, period, and is hardly the only great moment of Yeti menacing to happen over the course of six episodes. The problem with the monster-centric approach to the series has never been that monster stories don’t work. When they’re done well, you can get some real pleasure out of scary monsters. The Web of Fear does it well, as most things directed by Douglas Camfield do.
But it also manages to do the base under siege better than it’s been done in a while. This comes down to two factors. First, it turns out that an out and out military setting is effective. Much of the frustration of a lot of base under siege stories is the fact that they require crewmembers on the base to be stupid over and over again in order to drag out the plot. In The Ice Warriors, for instance, the core conflict is the fact that Leader Clent is an ineffectual idiot who insists on listening to his computer over common sense. The plot is driven forward in a large part because Clent can be relied upon to cock everything up when need be. This is what I mean when I refer to an idiot plot – the fact that the plot advances because of characters who consistently behave like idiots.
But here we’re free of that! We get a bunch of soldiers who actually do sensible things to try to stop the Yeti! Yeah, we have Evans, who is pretty reliably moronic, and Chorley, who is also not the brightest crayon in the box, but mostly we have people behaving in a manner that is not entirely inappropriate to the task of being attacked by monsters, which is depressingly refreshing. Instead of having an idiot plot, most of this story is wrapped up in paranoia as everyone tries to second guess who the Great Intelligence’s plant in the camp is, with the leading suspects being, at various times, the Colonel, Evans, and Chorley. (And, interestingly, for one brief scene, Jamie.)
The other thing that’s very clever here is that the Doctor doesn’t actually get to the situation until episode three. He spends the first episode interacting with no supporting characters other than Jamie and Victoria, and Troughton takes episode two off while Jamie and Victoria get acquainted with the situation. So by the time the Doctor actually gets to the action in episode three everybody knows who he is, has been expecting him, and things can get up and running. The degree to which this works highlights the degree to which the stultifying tedium of the Doctor trying to get people to listen to him for half the story is a bad idea.
The only downside is that there’s something ever so slightly awkward about the Doctor working alongside the military – like it’s just not quite the right set of allies for him. That’s overcome here by the fact that the Doctor has been shoved into this trap and so has little choice in who else is there.
Notably, these two upsides and one downside form some basic aspects of the UNIT era. The downside needs to be dealt with through other means, but the combination of the exile and the clever idea on the part of Hulke and Letts in The Silurians to have the Doctor be at odds with UNIT solves that. As for the upsides, UNIT means that there are, in theory, lots of capable people who do things and that the Doctor can come into the situation at full speed.
(In practice, of course, the Doctor spends the early 70s getting sandbagged by stupid bureaucrats an watching in astonishment as his crack military sidekicks act like the keystone cops. And was frequently irritatingly OK with military tactics. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, it just means that some writers can’t follow a bloody recipe.)
In other words, this story was effective in its own right and solved several of the problems of the Troughton era. Unsurprisingly, future writers looked to it for solutions (even aside from AI figures and ratings, writers are not stupid people and can see if a story works. Any writer – and especially Terrance Dicks, who comes onto the show with this story – can see that this one works, and will learn from it.
But watching it in 2011, if we’re being honest, it takes some real work to get to where you can see all of this, because there are some obvious problems here. First of all, it’s kind of staggering that the premise of this story works. The idea that an extraterrestrial intelligence created robot copies of the Yeti for its own use was already a bit of a strange stretch in The Abominable Snowmen. Now we’ve transplanted the Yeti to a place where Yeti don’t belong, and given them, for no obvious reason, new powers. This isn’t just weird. It’s something that to really care about you have to be invested in Doctor Who. Even if the reason everyone is so obsessed with this story – Nicholas Courtney – is ignored, we have to admit that this is the most sequel-like story Doctor Who has served up yet. The story flat out assumes you’ve seen The Abominable Snowmen and are already comfortable with the idea of Yeti, and even then it’s a bit of a stretch.
But the bigger problem is the ending. Not just the obvious frustrating bit where the Doctor’s plan is foiled by the fact that every single supporting character downs Leader Clent’s stupid pills early in episode six and becomes oblivious to the Doctor’s repeated assurances to everybody that he’s got this under control. No. The fact that the reveal of who the traitor is – a reveal that is stressed as a major point for nearly five episodes – turns out to make no sense. It turns out to be a soldier whose dead body is animated by the Great Intelligence. The problem is that we know there’s a traitor in the camp long before he dies. So it makes no sense whatsoever why he dies. Either the Great Intelligence is killing its own servant for no obvious reason or the reveal fails to explain the actual mystery. Either way, it doesn’t work.
For the most part, these facts were obscured for a very long time. With the story missing, we mostly had Terrance Dicks’s novelization to go on. Dicks is a damn entertaining writer, and offers the novel a classic Terrance Dicks first line – “The huge, furry monster reared up, as if to strike.” (As I’ve said elsewhere, whatever can be said of Terrance Dicks’s writing, he is a wizard of first lines.) Plus he clears up several of the issues the script has. Knowing full well what Lethbridge-Stewart would become in the series, he dispenses with all pretense that the Colonel is a viable suspect for the Intelligence’s plant (whereas in the actual episodes he’s the prime suspect for much of the story), thus making the story much more satisfying to those who like it because of him. He also fixes the Arnold plot, making it clear that Arnold was under the Intelligence’s control all along. This helps the story out a lot.
But watching the episodes themselves (or at least their reconstructions) without Dicks’s additions, the story is a mess. Except that when we watch the episodes themselves, there’s still a big problem with what we’re doing. Namely, we very rarely remember to wait a week between episodes. This is very foolish of us. Hainsman and Lincoln can get away with the Arnold reveal in practice because viewers in 1968 can be relied upon to forget details of episode three by the time episode six rolls around. Episode six is a full month later. Without DVR, VCR, online recaps, or any way of accessing plot summaries of past episodes, memories are going to be a bit hazy. The fact that Arnold is not actually a plausible answer to the “who’s the traitor” reveal is immaterial because nobody watching actually remembered the details well enough to care. (Notably, even the new series plays at this occasionally. Most viewers probably missed that Lee Ross’s character in The Curse of the Black Spot simply vanishes halfway through. Yeah, it’s a gaping plot hole, but the story is paced fast enough that it gets away with it for more viewers than not.)
So yes, The Web of Fear has massive problems as 2011 television, but that’s hardly a fair critique. It’s not 2011 television. It’s 1968 television. It’s written fully assuming that the audience is going to remember how scary the scenes of crawling through spooky tunnels full of webs and Yeti are much better than they remember exactly what things the traitor is responsible for. Television in 1968 is about marking time in a fairly interesting way as you get from setpiece to setpiece. It’s the same reason Tomb of the Cybermen was (wrongly) remembered as a good story – because however stupid it is when the Cybermen go back to bed in episode three, the scene of the Cybermen bursting out to the strains of Space Adventure (which makes its last appearance in The Web of Fear, and which is far more caught in my head than any song not available on iTunes has any right to be) is hella-good. Viewers simply forgot most the other 98 minutes, and were far happier for it.
In other words, just about the worst thing that can happen to some of these Troughton stories is for us to go back and actually watch them. By 2011 terms, The Web of Fear is some neat ideas juxtaposed with some kind of crummy ones, all wrapped up in a very dumb twist ending. But it’s not 2011 television. It’s 1968 television, and whatever it’s flaws, this was damn effective and a damn sight more memorable than anything else this season. Even if the DWAS-based fan consensus on this one is increasingly hard to see in the original material, for this story, at least, it’s worth clearing the cynicism out of your eyes and trying to see the story everyone remembers. Because it is there, and for a lot more of the time than it is in Tomb of the Cybermen.
Also, at some point the norm here is to mention that the character of Silverstein is an offensively stereotypical Jew. Yeah. He is. But look, he appears in the first ten minutes of the story at most. This is a blog about careful critique of Doctor Who stories that pays a lot of attention to the original cultural context. It’s not a list of every racist moment in Doctor Who, and I’m not going to veer out of my way to acknowledge them when there’s nothing to say about them that relates to the rest of the episode.
Thankfully, this time there is something to say about it, namely that it’s fascinating to look at all three of the Haisman-Lincoln scripts with the knowledge that Lincoln would go on to be a proto-Da Vinci Code conspiracy nut, especially given that The Dominators finishes the seeming turn away from youth culture Buddhism and towards active conservatism that this story starts, and given how foreign and ancient cultures are treated throughout the story. But we’ll deal with these two rather bizarre figures in Doctor Who history again in just three stories.
For now, let’s just move on to Fury From the Deep. But not before we take a stop off to the world of novels, which we haven’t visited in rather a while. The question is, at least for those who care about the excursions to the novels, whether I’m going to go with the one that revisits the world of one of my favorite Doctor Who stories, or the one that introduces a major character two seasons before his time. Guess you’ll find out Friday…
Have you seen the one existing episode of The Web of Fear? It’s quite good, and available on the Lost in Time DVD set, which is out in both the US and the UK. As always, buying DVDs from those links keeps your friendly neighborhood blogger from having to eat his dog. He’s a very cute dog.