When the TARDIS arrives in the tunnels of the London Underground, the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria are reunited with Professor Travers from their Tibetan adventure. But the Great Intelligence is also on Earth, and it wants to drain the Doctor's mind. Can the armed forces, led by Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, help the time travellers in their mission to stop it?










The Web of Fear

3RD FEBRUARY 1968 - 9TH MARCH 1968







The Web of Fear is without a doubt the finest story of Doctor Who’s fifth season; perhaps even of its monochrome era. This is one of those iconic pieces of television that has been etched into the minds of its viewers, be they Doctor Who fans or not. Those who originally tuned in back in 1968 are now amongst a privileged few, as for most of us this serial has only ever existed in the form of a novelisation; a single surviving episode; a narrated audio soundtrack; or, at best, a telesnap reconstruction.



After decades gathering dust, the serial’s first episode has enjoyed a lot of exposure in recent years. Firstly, it was released as part of The Reign of Terror VHS box set by BBC Video, and then not long afterwards it was included in the Lost in Time DVD box set. It has even been aired on BBC 4 more than once, looking every bit as stunning as ever it did with each broadcast, particularly the mood-setting film noir scenes at the beginning. Like a lot of modern fans, my first experience of The Web of Fear was via Terrance Dicks’ superb Target novelisation – “For forty years the Yeti had been quiet…” – but, quite aberrantly, I wasn’t disappointed when I came to view the existing episode. The same magic that I’d found buried within the yellowed pages of Dicks’ prose was there to be seen on screen.



We are fortunate in that the surviving episode showcases so much of The Web of Fear, particularly when many of its Season 5 peers have been survived by peculiarly slow or misleading orphaned instalments. We can enjoy the breathtaking London Underground sets, for one thing. I’m sure that everyone will have heard the anecdote about how the London Underground refused the BBC permission to film there and so the BBC had to build their own sets, which looked so realistic that the London Underground accused them of filming there without permission, but I think it warrants repetition as it ably shows just how realistic the sets looked. Similarly, the episode offers fleeting glimpses of the redesigned Yeti, which are now sleeker and boast ferocious, glowing eyes, and a reverse-toilet flush roar. We even get to see Jack Watling reprise his role as Travers from The Abominable Snowmen, and appreciate the stalwart job that make-up artist Sylvia James did in making the character appear plausibly forty years older than he had done just a few months prior (not to mention the stalwart job that Watling did in making him older, wiser and slightly madder).



Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s script still stands up incredibly well today. The plot is fast moving, the mood is atmospheric and dark, the incidental music is superb (we hear that old Moonbase / Tomb of the Cybermen stock piece again. If it ain’t broke…) and the supporting characterisation is even better still, thanks to the likes of hilariously-cowardly Welshman Private Evans; gutter-press journalist Chorley; and stereotypical old soldier Staff Sergeant Arnold. We even meet Travers’ daughter Anne, who ironically proves to be a much more intriguing and better-rounded character than the one played by Watling’s daughter. In many ways, Anne is a sneak preview of the kind of companion we would be getting in Zoe: immensely intelligent, a little narrow-minded… She certainly works very well with the Doctor here, especially in their twenty-minute ‘real time’ race against the clock, 24-style.



Most notably of all though, The Web of Fear sows the first seeds of UNIT, introducing us to a fresh-faced Colonel Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Nicholas Courtney (who had appeared in Doctor Who before in The Daleks’ Master Plan as Bret Vyon) makes the first of many appearances in the most recognised role of his career, but it was so nearly very different. David Langton was originally cast to play the character, but he dropped out at the last minute and was replaced by Courtney, who had been due play Captain Knight. Director Douglas Camfield added the ‘Stewart’ suffix to the character’s name, as he envisaged him as an Anglicised Scot in the mould of General ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell, and Lethbridge-Stewart was born. The Brigadier-to-be is well served by the script, and fortunately a few clips of his brilliant battle scenes still exist thanks to some over-zealous New Zealand censors. The future Brig is not all action though, even at this embryonic stage - there are some quite stirring moments for the character when, for example, he is unable to prevent the slaughter of all his men.  



CLICK TO ENLARGE IN COLOURThe Doctor himself, despite being absent from the second episode, is also at the heart of the story and his tantrum at its conclusion marks one of Patrick Troughton’s finest character moments. Frazer Hines’ Jamie enjoys a strong story too, teaming up with Lethbridge-Stewart for a great chunk of the plot, but sadly Deborah Watling’s Victoria is woefully undermined. The character’s stupidity here beggars belief – there is a traitor in their midst, it could be anyone, and so she goes and tells the prime suspect all about the TARDIS and where to find it.


Truly ahead of its time, The Web of Fear is a serial that can’t be missed, however much of it may be missing. It’s nothing less than a piece of television history. So go and buy the BBC Radio Collection CD, get the recon, or even read the battered old paperback. It doesn’t really matter which, so long as you get hold of this seminal story somehow.


Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006


E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design

 and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.



When is now? Professor Travers remarks that the events of The Abominable Snowmen occurred more than forty years ago, and his daughter states that those events took place in 1935. The later video Downtime, set in 1995, suggests that these events took place approximately 25 years prior, suggest an early 1970s date for this story.


Both fit with the production team’s original vision of the UNIT stories taking place a number of years after their transmission dates, and the subsequent school of thought that places The Web of Fear in or around 1971, with The Invasion following in or around 1975, and Spearhead from Space shortly after that. However, such a placement is at odds with novels such as  Who Killed Kennedy and the novelisation of Downtime, which both suggest that the “London Event” occurred in 1968, when the serial was first broadcast.


Please see the UNIT Dating Dossier for further information.


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