The Web of Fear

“Prepare for a great darkness to cloud your mind” – The Intelligence

Another recovered classic—the “Yeti in the Underground” introduced here have become shorthand for the now common Doctor Who practice of setting alien invasions in everyday locations to increase the fear factor. Watching the series in order this time, I finally understand the connection of the web/mist/fungus in this story, something I had always thought was simply tacked on, with the manifestation of the Intelligence in the original story. Seeing it as not just a weapon but a medium for the Intelligence to spread itself makes the need for the robot Yeti to spray it much more understandable. (I’m still not sure where they all come from though—who builds the Yeti not from the museum? Then again the one we do see somehow magically alters itself to a different form, so I guess anything is possible.)

Our main characters start out in what was obviously meant to be the ending to the last story that time didn’t allow for. Any amount of time could have passed in between then and when we next see them trapped by the Intelligence in space. This prelude to the story gives us a chance to see more of the playful interaction that has developed between the three of them. I love when after escaping the trap Victoria asks if everything is now safe and the Doctor gleefully replies, “Oh, I shouldn’t think so for a minute!”

With the Intelligence, the story naturally allows for the reintroduction of Professor Travers. Not only does this give him the status of being a kind of quasi-companion, but it’s a wonderfully cool idea to make it so many years later down his timeline. Somehow he’s gone from being an anthropologist and explorer to more of a technical scientist but thirty plus years is plenty of time to have done that. He’s still brash and explosive but at least trusts the Doctor unconditionally. What’s more we get to meet his daughter Anne, a brilliant technical expert who is amiable and calming where her father is not—but is also just as able to be absolutely scorching when roused by fools who dare to dismiss her as just a girl. One of my favorite ever exchanges in Doctor Who: a solider asks Anne, “What’s a girl like you doing in a job like this?”, to which she replies with dripping saracasm, “Well, when I was a little girl, I thought I’d like to be a scientist…so I became a scientist.

Of course the other thing that the story is most famous for is being our introduction to Alistair Gordon-Lethbridge Stewart (at this point a Colonel). From the start, he’s the stiff-upper-lip military man that we will come to know well (he orders everyone to a briefing as if they’re all military personal—a preview of his heavy-handedness is working with independent scientists) but is nevertheless diplomatic and reliable. With him being a totally new character for viewers at this point, there’s every reason to believe the red herring of him being the one possessed by the Great Intelligence. A key moment for him later comes when his entire squad is killed one by one in front of his eyes. His face and half-vacant stare as he returns shows the strain of realizing the enormity of the alien threat they are up against when. This is obviously what spurs him to help form UNIT in the future.

In the end, the story comes down us wondering who the Intelligence is (or rather who he has possessed) and whether or not all the Doctor’s pieces will fall in place to defeat him. After teasing us with it being Travers (it turns out he is just being used as a mouthpiece), there are still multiple characters who have disappeared or acted suspiciously enough to make us wonder. As the Intelligence says, “I have many other human hands at my command.” The writers pull a great shell game in making us think its Chorley right up until the reveal of it being Arnold (or rather his dead body). What’s more, they also take the ending to a whole other level by having the Doctor’s elaborate plan actually not work because his companions save the day instead. I only wish that the opening that this left for the Great Intelligence to return again had happened during the initial run of the show.

Best (or worst) unsettling moments:

The dead bodies pile up throughout this story: from the shock of Jamie tapping the old man on the shoulder who turns out to be a corpse to the horrible scream and death face of Lane to the soldier beside the Brigadier who gets dragged of the crate screaming, it’s all quite a shock in a children’s program. Still, the edge of wondering who the Intelligence is actually going to turn out to be is probably the best and longest-lasting unsettling part of the story.

Firsts:

  • (Alistair Gordon) Lethbridge-Stewart – yea!
  • Return of an old friend from a previous story

Regrets:

So close—when they found the lost prints of this story in Africa, they actually had every episode available. It’s sad and frustrating that one of them got stolen along the way; it makes it seem worse than if had never been part of the set at all. But in terms of the story itself, I only wish the clever reveal of the identity of the Great Intelligence’s mouthpiece had been presented a little differently, as it is the editing is a little bit muddled.

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