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Mar 06, 2006

World-Wide Web

‘If you remember the sixties then you weren’t really there’

I’m not sure who first came up with the above phrase, but whoever it was certainly never intended to paraphrase my difficulty in analysing the decade of Doctor Who which began and ended before I was even born. As Paul Hayes said last week, there are all too few examples of this era which you’d put up against the Potters and Play for Todays of this period and say ‘Come on then…’ And while I’ll always recognise the importance that the sixties played in forging Doctor Who’s iconic status, as a seventies child it’s always lacked something. To use a technological analogy, it’s like trying to wax nostalgic about Betamax when all you’ve known is DVD.

But given the scant visual record we have to consider here, ‘The Web of Fear’ certainly bears consideration for that most over-used of Who critics’ euphemisms, classic. Funny, seeing as the story doesn’t have the most auspicious of starts. Tying up the loose ends of ‘Enemy of the World’, we open with the Doctor and Victoria in a somewhat compromising position, seemingly ‘spooning’ on the TARDIS console room floor. Soon even Jamie’s joining in and we’re given some of the finest - not to mention suggestive - examples of actors-pretending-to-hold-on-despite-not-really-having-to cavorting ever seen in the series. Then there’s Troughton’s plaster to consider (pre-empting his successor-bar-one’s ability to sport a facial wound without any plausible on-screen explanation). And while we’re at it, hasn’t the TARDIS console room got a lot smaller since last week?

Never mind that, it seems the actual plot’s starting. We’re in a museum where a rather familiar hairy beastie is hanging around just waiting for his cue (and for once this era it isn’t Fraser Hines). It seems that the venerable Professor Travers has mislaid one of the Yeti’s activation spheres and is imploring the poorly-accented curator to let him have the creature back that he sold to him thirty years previously. Naturally he refuses; only for the aforementioned behemoth to come to life - as warned - once the Professor has made his curmudgeonly departure. The result? One dead curator and a nation’s children huddled behind a sofa. Bet he wouldn’t have had that trouble on E-Bay…

Back to the TARDIS and - having righted the ship’s vacuum-induced turbulence - the Doctor and co have found themselves in another sticky mess (insert spooning-based innuendo here). Having apparently materialised (a light flashing on the console to thus indicate, you see) the ship is caught in some kind of cosmic cobweb which the Doctor takes all but a minute to escape from (well, there are five more episodes of this to go, you know). And we’re finally in the (rather effective) studio sets which London Underground bosses were apparently dismayed to mistake for the real thing. Nearby, it seems that Professor Travers’ portents of doom have some currency, as London has been brought to a standstill and more webbing than even Peter Parker’s alter-ego could produce in an average day is enveloping the area.

The authorities’ solution is to become a tried-and-tested formula for the show over the coming half-decade: send in a bunch of clueless soldiers, mix lightly with the barkers ranting of a scientifically-inclined do-gooder (usually the Doctor, but here Professor Travers largely takes his role), throw in an irritating Alan Whicker-type journalist who’s sure to die a justifiably horrible death and sauté with a dollop of action-oriented direction courtesy of Douglas Camfield. Bring to the boil and serve immediately (or when six episodes have elapsed, if sooner).

Those underground sets really are convincing, aren’t they (Jamie certainly thinks so, trying to fry himself for added authenticity). And it’s only when we switch from the Doctor and co to the army operations centre that that old bug-bear of Who - the clash between studio and film footage - rears its ugly head. But even that’s not as jarring as Deborah Watling’s beyond-cliché performance as the whiny, permanently-on-the-point-of-screaming Victoria. Cute as a button maybe, but about as far from Billie Piper-style female emancipation as you can get.

But with hindsight, what strikes you most about this episode is how it contains pretty much all the elements that would later become a backbone of the show’s format: the alien invasion, the pseudo-UNIT army, the (shock horror) clever female scientific advisor. Writers Haisman and Lincoln would be well within their rights to suggest that this story pretty much sealed Doctor Who’s future for the next five years.

Which leaves me to ponder just one further question (one sure to be answered if I could be bothered rooting out my copy of the story’s soundtrack): just why are the Yeti paralysing Earth with an invasion of giant cobwebs..?

(‘The Bumper Book of Made-Up Doctor Who Facts’ has this to say about ‘The Web of Fear’ Episode 1: during the first take of Fraser Hines jumping down onto the electrical lines, Patrick Troughton yelled ‘BANG!’ at the top of his voice and a recording delay was hurriedly scheduled for Fraser to change his kilt)

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