Doctor Who: the Web of Fear (1968)

Doctor Who Web of Fear

by Eric McNaughton

Imagine a 7 year old boy addicted to watching Dr Who every Saturday teatime in the 60s. The Daleks, of course, were the really scary ones, the ones you hid behind the sofa to avoid. But for me, as a child, the ones that terrified me most were the yetis, specifically the ones that appeared in 1968’s Web of Fear. I remember vividly that year going on our annual holiday from the North East of England down to the Isle of Wight. A trip that entailed crossing London from Kings Cross to Waterloo station by Tube (for our American readers that’s what us Brits call the London Underground system). I was absolutely mortified that we would have to travel through the self-same tunnels that I had so recently seen full of yetis! Luckily I had very understanding (and probably bemused!) parents who assured me I had nothing to fear!

For fans of classic Dr Who the two holy grails of missing episodes have always been the Patrick Troughton adventures The Web of Fear and Evil of the Daleks. The second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton was the one I first encountered on our little black and white television set (although my teenage years were spent thrilling to the adventures of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker). It is a well-known fact that many of the episodes from both the Troughton and earlier William Hartnell series were wiped and considered lost forever. Web of Fear was one such, with only episode 1 thought to still exist.

Web of Fear was the fifth story of the fifth season of Dr Who. It was a sequel to an earlier Troughton adventure, The Abominable Snowman and saw the return, not only of the Yetis, but of the Great Intelligence that controlled them, and the character of Professor Travers.

The story is supposed to take place some 40 years after the events portrayed in The Abominable Snowman which was set in 1935, which would place the events in the Web of Fear sometime in the mid to late 1970s.

The TARDIS avoids being trapped in a cobwebby substance in space and lands in the London Underground system, which is overrun by the web and the Yetis (actually robots controlled by the Great Intelligence). The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) with his assistants Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) working with Prof Travers (Jack Watling, real life father of Deborah, reprising his role from the earlier adventure) and the army battle against the alien threat whose goal is no less than the possession of the Doctors mind…..but there is a traitor in their midst!

Perhaps this adventure is best known for the first appearance of Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney (who had also appeared in an earlier Daleks story, but as a different character). Lethbridge Stewart would of course become a permanent fixture of the Troughton and Pertwee years.

Filming on the Web of Fear began on December 15th 1967 at Ealing Television Film Studios. Each episode was recorded at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studio D on consecutive Saturdays beginning with part 1 on January 13th 1968. A special trailer was also filmed around this time and shown at the conclusion of the preceding adventure Enemy of the World. It featured Patrick Troughton in character as the Doctor and included a special warning to young viewers that they might find Web of Fear scary and that they should watch it with their parents (I unwisely ignored that warning!).

Originally the BBC had hoped to do some location filming on the London Underground, specifically on the platforms at Aldwych tube and at the entrance to Covent Garden tube station. However London Transport asked for silly money for that privilege, so the idea was scrapped and the decision made to replicate the platforms and tunnels entirely in the studio. Indeed these sets are magnificent and one of the highlights of the series. In fact, in a testament to how authentic they looked, London Transport threatened to sue the BBC for unauthorised filming on their premises without permission!

Directed by Douglas Camfield, the story was written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln. They had also written The Abominable Snowman and producers had been so impressed with that that they had immediately commissioned a sequel. Viewing figures reached a high of 8.3 million by episode 6.

The yetis here are different to the ones seen in The Abominable Snowman, emitting a ferocious roar and glowing eyes when they attack, as well as carrying guns which produce webs. You can still see one of the original yetis in episode 1 in the museum scene. It was to be the last appearance for these iconic monsters in a Dr Who adventure, barring a brief scene of a moth eaten yeti in the anniversary special The Five Doctors.

An interesting error occurs when the Doctor is talking about the London tube system to Victoria and says “It’s a little before your time I think Victoria”. In fact as Victoria comes from 1866, he is wrong as the first Underground line between Farringdon Street and Edgeware Road opened in 1863! And just in case you thought some of the stations in the story were made up (i.e. Trafalgar Square and Strand stations) these stations did indeed exist back in 1967/68. Trafalgar Square was on the Bakerloo line and the Strand on the Northern Line. These two stations subsequently merged to create the present day Charing Cross station. Confusingly, the Charing Cross station feature in Web of Fear became the present day Embankment.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of another classic 6 part BBC programme while watching Web of Fear – Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit. Both have that deep sense of foreboding and menace and work equally as mystery, science fiction and horror stories.

With the exception of a novelisation by Terrance Dicks published by Target Books in 1976, that was the only time Web of Fear had been heard of. Unseen in the UK for over 45 years, it became the thing of mythology. With the exception of episode 1, the adventure was lost in the mists of time and space. And then an amazing thing happened…

In October 2013, the missing episodes of both the Web of Fear (except episode 3) and The Enemy of the World turned up in Jos, Nigeria! Phillip Morris, the man who tracked them down, says “The tapes had been left gathering dust in a store room at a television relay station in Nigeria. I remember wiping the dust off the masking tape on the canisters and my heart missed a beat as I saw the words ‘Doctor Who’. When I read the story code I realised I’d found something really special”.

As of March this year (this review was originally written in 2014) Web of Fear became the biggest selling classic Dr Who on DVD ever selling more than 15000 in the first week alone… if only someone could find the Evil of the Daleks in a dusty attic somewhere!