Aired 3 February – 9 March 1968
Whereas the complete recovery of ‘The Enemy of the World’ was initially met with rather muted excitement before winning over new and long-time fans alike with its smart and measured story, the recovery of five of six episodes of ‘The Web of Fear’ certainly created a much larger fervor. With the introduction of Lethbridge-Stewart, an immensely popular recurring character over the years, and the return of the Yeti, ‘The Web of Fear’ very much represents the pinnacle of what Doctor Who meant to a generation, and the expectations surrounding it and its recovery were sky-high.
While the concept of the Doctor saving contemporary London has been done before in ‘The War Machines’ at the end of Hartnell’s era- itself arguably a trial run for the type of story that would feature prominently in Troughton’s era- ‘The Web of Fear’ further adds to the spectacle of British iconography while also bringing in a military presence. The London Underground is just as iconic as Big Ben or St Paul’s Cathedral, and placing a much more frightening version of the Yeti into such familiar surroundings once more pays enormous dividends. Amusingly, the Underground sets of this serial are so effective that the Transit Authority allegedly tried to sue the production for what it assumed must have been secretive filming on location.
The presence of Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart alongside the alien invasion of contemporary Earth certainly suggests that ‘The Web of Fear’ is a trial run for the type of story that would become so prominent during the Third Doctor’s era, but is unquestionably an evolutionary step for the programme as a whole regardless of opinions on that thought. Even if this serial itself isn’t completely free of plot holes or pacing issues, the overall result is still very much a positive one. It’s worth noting that Travers recalls the initial events of ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ occurring some forty years ago from his perspective, a reminder of just how much freedom the TARDIS affords the Doctor and his companions. Travers brought a Yeti back with him from the Himalayas but has become alarmed that by reactivating its control panel he may have opened the door for something more sinister. Sure enough, the Great Intelligence returns, and it continues to impress with its fearsome mind-altering power, solidifying itself as one of the best Doctor Who foes even if it would take almost fifty years for it to make a televised return.
Given his performance here, it’s quite easy to see why Nicholas Courtney would go on to guest star in ‘The invasion’ and then become a fixture of the Third Doctor era. There had certainly been many memorable guest characters prior to Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, but seeing a man so desperately trying to protect his men and taking any options available to him to succeed is fascinating, especially given the familiarity of contemporary Earth. He’s incredibly desperate at this time, and his trust in the Doctor is based solely off of that rather than some belief in more outlandish concepts, making him instantly affable and deserving of respect given the lengths he’s ready to go to for his men.
In hindsight, there was never any chance that a single serial would be able to live up to the expectations surrounding ‘The Web of Fear’ upon its near-complete recovery. Some minor quibbles aside, though, it manages to tell an exciting and intriguing invasion story that makes very good use of two recurring villains, showcasing the strengths of its leads while ushering in a new angle to a trusted format. It’s not perfect, but it’s an incredibly important part of the programme’s long history, and it’s wonderful to have so much of this claustrophobic and tense tale back in the video archives.