Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart is one of the iconic characters in Doctor Who history. For years, however, his debut story was lost to the BBC junkings of the 1970’s. With the recovery of “The Web of Fear,” most of his first appearance can now be seen. That alone makes this story an important one. However, this story has still more to offer. It also features the return of the Doctor’s foes from “The Abominable Snowmen”: the Great Intelligence and his robotic yeti. These yeti are less cuddly looking and more menacing than their original versions in “The Abominable Snowmen” (even the Doctor comments on their slightly different appearance), but there’s no mistaking them. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, Jamie, Victoria, and even Professor Travers are all back to join Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart in facing the Great Intelligence and his yeti.
“The Web of Fear” is a return to the “base under siege” format after the unusual “The Enemy of the World.” The Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria manage to close the TARDIS doors (left open by Salamander when he tried to escape at the end of “The Enemy of the World”), but this trip in the TARDIS becomes no less eventful. The TARDIS seems to have stopped moving, but it has not landed. The Doctor soon realizes someone or something is holding the TARDIS and encasing it in a web-like substance. The Doctor rigs a device so that at the first opportunity he can escape the grasp of whoever or whatever is holding them. This enables him to land the TARDIS a short distance away from where it was supposed to land.
When the trio emerges from the TARDIS, they quickly discover that they are in an Underground station. They go up to the surface to discover that although it is broad daylight, London is eerily quiet. Eventually, the trio meet up with some soldiers and discover that their old friend, Professor Travers and his daughter, Anne, are working with the military to find a solution to a problem that is facing London. The yeti are back; much of the city is enveloped in a deathly fog, and the mysterious web-like substance is taking over the tunnels in the Underground. The Doctor and his companions deduce that it must have been the Great Intelligence that brought them here, but why?
This is a good story, but it suffers in comparison to “The Enemy of the World,” which felt fresh. This is a far more traditional story structure for this era. Plus, after his dual performance in the previous serial, Patrick Troughton took his vacation during episode 2 of this story, resulting in a Doctor-free episode.
I really enjoyed the first episode. There is a great scene in which we see (the now much older) Professor Travers attempting to get the yeti he sold to a museum back. He warns the museum owner that he has reactivated a control sphere and the yeti is now dangerous, but the man doesn’t listen. Of course, after Travers and his daughter leave, the danger that Travers foretold of comes to pass and a reanimated yeti attacks the man. The scene has a great atmosphere and promises an eerie, horror-tinged episode to come, something that the story doesn’t quite deliver.
In my opinion, there are two main weaknesses in the storytelling of “The Web of Fear” (aside from the somewhat confusing plan of the intelligence). The first is that, despite having a good first episode, the next few episodes consist of a bit more shooting and military action than I thought necessary, which, perhaps, is a major cause of the other weakness. I did not feel much of a connection to any of the new characters, except Anne and the Colonel (more about them to come). Characters are killed off at so rapid a pace in the first few episodes that you aren’t invested enough to care. The ones that are left when all the dust settles feel like character types instead of characters: there is the obnoxious reporter, the cowardly Welsh soldier, the hardworking military man…When some characters reappear at the end, I realized that I had forgotten that they had even disappeared.
Even the character of Anne is not as developed as she could be. She is a scientist, and has some great lines in the beginning. For instance, when asked what a girl like her is doing in a job like this, Anne calmly replies, “Well, when I was a little girl I thought I’d like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist.” As the episode continues, she becomes less and less important to the story. I would have liked to see this scientist contribute a bit more scientifically, but she basically becomes the Doctor’s assistant in the final episodes, and is a bit of a precursor to Liz Shaw, the third Doctor’s assistant.
Of course no discussion of “The Web of Fear” would be complete without discussing the introduction of Colonel, but soon to be Brigadier, Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Unfortunately, he enters the story in episode three, the only episode not yet recovered, but the rest of his performance is there. I quite enjoyed seeing the now familiar character introduced as someone you weren’t quite sure if you could trust. Additionally, even at this early date, the Brig has his unflappable nature. For instance, he readily accepts the fact that the Doctor has a machine that can travel through time and space, and sets out to try to recover it. When questioned about it, he explains that although he’s not sure he believes the Doctor, but, if it exists, it’s the only way that they can escape the situation alive, so he will do his best to find it.
The return of Professor Travers allows the story to touch on a very interesting idea. For the travelers, and indeed the viewers, it has only been a short time since Travers’ prior appearance. However, for Travers, it has been almost 40 years (which of course leads to the UNIT dating controversy, since he met the Doctor in 1935, making this story set in the 1970’s…but that’s another story). This is the first time, or at least it’s the first time I can think of, that the Doctor has met the same person in two different stories (I’m not counting the meddling Monk since he’s a Time Lord). The idea to age him is an interesting one, since the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria haven’t aged at all. In fact, Travers even points out to Anne that Victoria was born before he was, a point that I hadn’t really thought of before. I enjoy it when the show takes time (even if it is just a moment) to consider some of the realities that present themselves due to the existence of time travel.
When it comes to the companions, Jamie finally gets more active in this story; he searches the tunnels for the Doctor early in the story and then uses the yeti that the Doctor has figured out how to control to “rescue” the Doctor in the end. Victoria still does not have too much to do, but she also sets out on her own, to find the Doctor and Jamie. When she is (inevitably, I’m sorry to say) held captive by the Great Intelligence, she is not bordering on the hysterical like she did in “The Ice Warriors,” and she even thinks to take off her necklace and drop it as a clue as to which tunnel the possessed Travers has taken her down. Despite this, her role is largely that of the damsel in distress.
As for the Doctor, this story further supports the idea that Troughton’s Doctor saw violence as a last resort. Using his scientific knowledge, he comes up with a way to control a yeti. Then he uses his scientific expertise once again, this time to switch the wires on the helmet the Great Intelligence was going to use to steal his knowledge and memories. Without causing any violence, he had found a way to put an end to the Great Intelligence forever, which is what makes the ending so unusual. Jamie ruins the Doctor’s plan by using the controlled yeti to attack the others and break the pyramid that the Doctor was in for the transference. The Great Intelligence loses its connection to earth, but is still out there, waiting for another chance.
It seems as though the writers, Mervyn Haismen and Henry Lincoln, wanted to leave the door open for another return of their character, the Great Intelligence. Unfortunately, the duo never wrote another story with the Great Intelligence and/or the yeti. While I enjoyed “The Web of Fear,” I do think “The Abominable Snowmen” is the better story (and the use of the yeti actually make sense in that). The Great Intelligence does, however, get to make a return, without his yeti minions, in Matt Smith’s final season. After making two appearances on Doctor Who within months, the Great Intelligence had to wait 45 years for his return. I can just picture the Great intelligence waiting patiently for its chance to challenge the Doctor once again. But where is he keeping his yeti…?