‘The Web of Fear’ is a classic Doctor Who story from 1966, and sees the Second Doctor’s rematch with the fearsome Yeti – in the London underground.
As Doctor Who sequels go, ‘The Web of Fear’ arrived pretty quickly. ‘The Abominable Snowmen‘ had aired only a few weeks before, and featured the Second Doctor and his companions battling the Yeti (or, more specifically, the Great Intelligence) in a monastery in Tibet. Presumably, the production team were sure enough of the monsters’ popularity to quickly commission a follow-up, and ‘The Web of Fear’ is what followed, penned by their creators Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln.
In the adventure, the Second Doctor and friends arrive in modern day London to find it deserted. Apparently, an unknown web-like substance has taken over the Underground, and as a result much of the city has been evacuated – save for the military, who are doing their best to contain the mysterious threat. It’s not long before robotic Yeti storm the London Underground, hell bent on world domination, and it’s up to everybody’s favourite Time Lord to stop them.
For the BBC, filming ‘The Web of Fear’ seemed simple enough. Being a London-based adventure, the team wouldn’t have to travel far to get some suitably atmospheric shots of the city’s underground train network – unlike when they shot ‘The Abominable Snowmen‘ and ended up on a mountainside in North Wales. However, London Transport wasn’t so keen on giving the Doctor Who team access to its tunnels, and refused them permission to film. Despite this restriction, the production team took it in their stride and recreated the creepy subway tunnels in its studios.
And so, understandably, the BBC was quite surprised when it received a strongly-worded letter of complaint from London Transport who, after seeing ‘The Web of Fear’ episode one, believed that the corporation had filmed on their property without permission!
Arguably, the story’s atmospheric backdrop is one of its strong points, and for many years fans were only able to enjoy ‘The Web of Fear’ in book form and through its audio recordings, which were captured during its original transmission. (Episode one already existed in the BBC archive, but was sadly lacking in any Yeti action.)
However, in 2013 all of the missing episodes of this story were found at a TV station in Jos by film archivist Philip Morris (along with its preceding story ‘The Enemy of the World.) Sadly, episode three went missing again before Morris could secure it, meaning that ‘The Web of Fear’s upcoming Blu-ray release has an animated filler. It’s very moving.
But why would anybody want to steal ‘The Web of Fear’ episode three? There are many reasons. First, Doctor Who missing episodes are valuable enough as it is; even ‘The Space Pirates’ episode five would sell for muchos Zeiton on eBay. Second, ‘The Web of Fear’ episode three is actually a pivotal episode in the history of Doctor Who, as it features the first ever appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart – a character who would continue to appear in the programme until its final season in 1989.
Of course, the fact that ‘The Web of Fear’ episode three was singled out could just be a coincidence, and if its new owner was hoping to witness the first meeting between the Doctor and the Brigadier, they were probably disappointed. This is because the event doesn’t actually happen on screen. Technically, it happens in episode two – but as Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor) was on holiday when the episode was filmed, he wasn’t around to greet the Brigadier in person. So when we catch up with the two characters in episode three, they’ve already been introduced.
That said, Doctor Who fans are still extremely lucky to have any footage of the Brigadier’s first adventure. This is because – like all of British TV from the 1960s – the master tapes of ‘The Web of Fear’ were burned and / or re-used, and only survive thanks to film copies that were returned from overseas. And whilst episode three may have gone temporarily AWOL, there is still a chance that we will get to see it again one day.
Otherwise, ‘The Web of Fear’ is also notable for the inclusion of companion Deborah Watling’s father, who returns to Doctor Who as Professor Travers – a man who first appeared in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ a few weeks before. This time, though, he is made-up as an old man, as this serial takes place many decades after the first Yeti encounter. This proved to be problematic during filming as Deborah Watling struggled to keep a straight face as she acted opposite her bearded and bespectacled father.
There are also a few Easter eggs to look out for in ‘The Web of Fear,’ most of which were in-jokes slipped in by the production team. In episode three, the character of Driver Evans treats himself to a Camfield’s Fairy Milk chocolate bar from a vending machine (named after the story’s director, Douglas Camfield.) Then there is one of the army’s deceased commanding officers, who we learn in episode one is called Colonel Pemberton (named after one of the story’s writers.)
And if you’re really, really eagle-eyed, you may(?) be able to spot a young John Levene playing one of the Yeti – and Levene, of course, went on to play the iconic Sergeant Benton during the Third and Fourth Doctor eras. Plus the actor / writer Rod Beacham as Corporal Lane, who would go on to pen the unproduced Doctor Who story ‘Hebos,’ and the Blake’s 7 episode ‘Assassin,’ among other things.
In short, ‘The Web of Fear’ is a much-loved Doctor Who story that continued to be referenced in the years that followed (especially in ‘The Invasion,’ ‘The Five Doctors,’ ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ and ‘The Snowmen.’) It had long being considered a classic and had garnered a strong reputation, despite being mostly missing for almost 50 years, but now that Doctor Who fans have it back (almost) in its entirety, it is clear that it is an adventure that lives up to its reputation.
Don’t forget that ‘The Web of Fear’ special edition is coming to DVD and Blu-ray in August 2021. Will you be picking up a copy?
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