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The Web of Fear ★★★★★

A spooky all-time classic in which the Yeti invade the London Underground and Nicholas Courtney debuts as Lethbridge Stewart

Published: Monday, 6th July 2009 at 11:00 pm

Season 5 – Story 41


"Someone here is in league with the Yeti. Maybe even controlling them... It may be any one of us" - the Doctor

The Tardis struggles to break free from a web-like substance that suspends it in space. Landing in the London Underground in the near future, the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria soon meet an old ally - Professor Travers, whom they met in Tibet 40 years earlier. He has inadvertently reactivated a Yeti and allowed the Intelligence to regain a foothold on Earth. Mist has enveloped the capital, deadly fungus is seeping through the Tube system and the Yeti are on the attack. At a deep-level wartime fortress, it's down to a team of scientists and soldiers, led by Colonel Lethbridge Stewart, to defeat this menace…

First transmissions
Episode 1 - Saturday 3 February 1968
Episode 2 - Saturday 10 February 1968
Episode 3 - Saturday 17 February 1968
Episode 4 - Saturday 24 February 1968
Episode 5 - Saturday 2 March 1968
Episode 6 - Saturday 9 March 1968

Location filming: December 1967/January 1968 at Shelton Street and Poupart's Yard, Covent Garden; Ealing backlot, London
Filming: December 1967/January 1968 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: January/February 1968 in Lime Grove D

Doctor Who - Patrick Troughton
Jamie McCrimmon - Frazer Hines
Victoria Waterfield - Deborah Watling
Professor Travers - Jack Watling
Anne Travers - Tina Packer
Colonel Lethbridge Stewart - Nicholas Courtney
Staff Sgt Arnold - Jack Woolgar
Captain Knight - Ralph Watson
Harold Chorley - Jon Rollason
Driver Evans - Derek Pollitt
Julius Silverstein - Frederick Schrecker
Corporal Lane - Rod Beacham
Corporal Blake - Richardson Morgan
Craftsman Weams - Stephen Whittaker
Yeti - John Levene, John Lord, Gordon Stothard, Colin Warman, Jeremy King, Roger Jacombs

Writers - Mervyn Haisman, Henry Lincoln
Incidental music - various library tracks
Designer - David Myerscough-Jones
Story editor - Derrick Sherwin
Producer - Peter Bryant
Director - Douglas Camfield

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
What's your favourite story? It's a somewhat facile question - and "favourite" doesn't automatically connote "best" - but a Doctor Who fan will have a ready answer. I always cite The Web of Fear as "my all-time favourite". It may not enjoy the gloss of 21st-century Who nor even star my "favourite Doctor". So why?

Maybe it's because this is the earliest story I braved as a tot. After months of fleeing the room in terror at the signature tune - and at Troughton's sinister mug bubbling forth - in the winter of 1968 I steeled myself to linger and saw what I perceived as bears with glowing eyes in dark passageways. I was captivated.

Perhaps it's because The Web of Fear forms a clever sequel to that other classic, The Abominable Snowmen. Just 13 weeks later we have the fun of seeing Travers decades older, reeling at the sight of the Doctor's youthful party and desperately guilty; he's reactivated a Yeti control sphere and triggered the current crisis.

Or is it just that the concept is all stations to barking? Robotic Yeti. In the London Underground. Armed with web guns. Controlled by a disembodied Intelligence. Spreading pulsating fungus... Ludicrous, yes, but dramatised with such heart-stopping graveness that it works brilliantly. Only in Doctor Who!

Maybe it's the inherent horror of the Underground. With almost all the action locked deep within the Tube (or the confines of a drab, subterranean fortress), writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln tapped into the claustrophobia latent in most commuters and visitors to London. (This thought was expanded upon in RT's Web of Fear feature - accompanied by an abysmal cartoon.) Nothing was filmed on the real Tube, but the sets at Ealing and Lime Grove are remarkably convincing.

Could it be episode three's casual introduction of Lethbridge Stewart? On the page he's shrewd and enigmatic, but director Douglas Camfield redrew the character as a very young colonel and "anglicised Scot". Thus Nicholas Courtney (then 38) joined the series. Given how, as the Brigadier, he would become so popular - indeed Doctor Who's most enduring star - it's queer that we never actually witnessed his first meeting with the Doctor. They've already hooked up off screen moments before Victoria finds them in a tunnel.

I pointed this out to Courtney during an RT interview in 2008. "Do you know, that never struck me before," he said. "I'd have thought Douglas - a stickler for those things - would have sorted that, but then maybe it was done to sow the seeds of doubt. Everyone was very suspicious of the Colonel - whether he was in league with the Yeti."

Almost any of the characters could be the Intelligence's secret pawn. "Me perhaps?" the Colonel tells the Doctor. "Or even you." Both ideas are plausible: the Doctor has vanished for the whole of part two, and the Colonel "suddenly popped out from nowhere". This device spreads paranoia within the small cast and heightens tension for first-time viewers.

And full praise to Haisman and Lincoln for making these people feel real. There's Chorley, the oily hack who becomes a gibbering wreck, rheumy old Sgt Arnold ("Don't try to be funny with me, lad!") and cowardly Evans ("You've got to take care of Number One in this world. I'm getting out of these tunnels fast!").

Anne Travers ("I have a very quick temper and very long claws") is a rounded modern woman and bright enough to be co-opted by the Doctor. Study her: she's a prototype of 1970 companion Liz Shaw. And, of course, there's grumpy Professor Travers ("Television? Never watch it!").

The Web of Fear is a tour de force for Douglas Camfield. He's masterly at creeping terror (Victoria lost alone in the tunnels), shock-reveals (lurking Yeti, the fungus) and the spectacular battle in Covent Garden. He also polishes moody dialogue scenes - the Doctor explaining the Intelligence and secrets of the Tardis to the Colonel; possessed Travers revealing the Intelligence's plan; and the row at Silverstein's museum...

This sequence is shot and lit like a Hammer horror and uses a magnificently eerie excerpt from Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. When the Yeti is reanimated, its cuddly owl-like outline shimmers before our eyes into a brutal hulk with eyes ablaze. It's a brazenly unexplained transformation that enhances the Yeti's supernatural mystique. Both are superb designs by Martin Baugh. These Mark II Yeti also growl - long thought to be the distorted sound of a toilet flushing. (My RT interview with Radiophonic whizz Brian Hodgson has cast some doubt.)

I love everything about The Web of Fear. It's a tense, classy production - and genuinely nightmarish. And my fingers are crossed that some day someone will find film prints for episodes two to six.*

* I am delighted to say my wish came true. In 2013, against all expectation, film prints for The Web of Fear were found in Nigeria (with the sad exception of Episode 3, Lethbridge Stewart’s debut). It is a huge pleasure to be able now to watch this almost complete serial any time I like. I wouldn’t revise one word of what I wrote above in 2009. It remains a favourite and remains a classic. Several scenes came rushing back to me across the decades, and episode 4 is just as I imagined it – one of the finest episodes of 1960s. The whole production is a crowning glory for director Douglas Camfield.

Radio Times archive material

RT introduced the story with a full-page article and quite abysmal cartoon. A few weeks later there was a profile of Frazer Hines. And there were various other mini articles during the story's run. Also below the six episode billings.


[Available on DVD]


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