Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Doctor Who: The Web of Fear DVD review

The 50th Anniversary year of Doctor Who brought all sorts of delightful surprises: A new Doctor in the form of Peter Capaldi, the return of Paul McGann to the role of the Eighth Doctor, and the appearance of Tom Baker in “The Day of the Doctor” are only a few of the big ones that leap directly to mind. However, nothing was more surprising than the revelation of the discovery of two lost serials (minus one episode) at a TV relay station in Nigeria.  We’ve gotten sort of used to single episodes popping up every few years, but entire serials? Not since “The Tomb of the Cybermen” was found in Hong Kong in 1991 has something of that ilk happened, and this time not just one serial, but two (minus one episode)!

And the serials – “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear” - play consecutively in the Who timeline, making the find all the sweeter, as the former dovetails directly into the latter. Yet the decision has been made to release them on DVD in reverse order (“Enemy” will be out next month), perhaps due to the fact that “Web” is the stronger of the pair. Strong is probably an understatement, as it is tempting to hail “The Web of Fear” as the greatest surviving serial of the Troughton era, if not of the entirety of the ‘60s. Here’s a serial where virtually nothing goes wrong: a tight, engaging script (stretched out over six episodes, no less) from Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln; incredible direction from the always on target Douglas Camfield; seemingly meticulously constructed sets doubling for a deserted London Underground; a flawless cast of layered characters acted to the hilt; hulking robot monsters lurking in the dark; and the introduction of Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney – a true cherry on the cake flourish, even if its significance was completely unintentional at the time.

Professor Travers (Jack Watling) is attacked by a Yeti
After being attacked in outer space, the TARDIS makes a forced landing in contemporary London – in its Underground railway system, which is curiously deserted. The crew – the Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) – explore, and eventually encounter the military as well as a surprise meeting with Professor Edward Travers (Jack Watling, father of Debs), whom they recently met in 1935 Tibet, during their first encounter with the Great Intelligence and the Yeti (see The Abominable Snowmen”). But that was 30 years ago, when Travers was a much younger man. He’s astonished to see that his friends haven’t aged, and as a result now believes in their previous claims of time travel. Soon enough it becomes apparent that the Yeti and the Intelligence are again on the move, only this time the goal turns out to be something very precious to the Doctor indeed.

Anne Travers (Tina Packer) is attacked by a Yeti
As stated above, there are at least a half a dozen reasons this story - as the kids today say - rocks so hard (or maybe it was yesterday they were saying that; I can no longer keep track). We could debate the real standout, but I’m going with the characters and the cast, which operates like gangbusters from the word go. Troughton, who always sets an impeccably high standard, is seemingly working on an even higher level than usual. For someone who grew up only knowing Troughton’s era as the extant material of the frequently subpar Season Six, to have been able to see more of these earlier adventures come together over the years – particularly all this Season Five material – is something of a revelation, perhaps never more so than here.

These soldiers and Jamie *might* be attacked by these Yeti
Travers, and the disconnect he feels with the time travelers – surely this was the first time the series had ever pulled such a maneuver? To introduce a character, and then reintroduce him a few stories later as an old man? What a wonderful idea! And his daughter, Anne, played so perfectly by Tina Packer, is a great example of the series getting feminism right before it was even a huge issue (“When I was a little girl, I thought I’d like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist.”) Her character demonstrates that the show was more than capable of drawing strong women. Each soldier has a distinct personality, but my favorite (so to speak) is Driver Evans (Derek Pollitt), who has the sort of persona that emerges when a dozen people are locked in a room together, and everyone agrees on the one person to unanimously dislike. He’s a thoroughly cowardly, awful human being that fails to rise to any occasion, and Pollitt’s performance is a hoot.

Writers Haisman and Lincoln had a big falling out with the series over their Season Six script “The Dominators,” which is such a shame, as “The Web of Fear” appears to set up a third and perhaps final showdown between the Doctor and the Intelligence. Alas, we’d have to wait until Christmas of 2012 to see the entity return to our screens in “The Snowmen,” which never comes close to matching a serial like “Web” for fun and scares. Indeed, the highest praise I can offer “Web” is that it often feels like a Hammer production of some kind. Speaking of “The Snowmen,” I found this tidbit (along with the accompanying JPEG) while looking around for information on “Web.” I wonder what happened there? Were the leaked plans abandoned? If so, what a shame, because “The Snowmen” would’ve been ten times better if they’d actually brought back the Abominable Snowmen.

Normally, at this point there’d be a lengthy section of this review devoted to all the bonus features, but alas, this DVD is sadly bare bones, sans a trailer for “The Enemy of the World.” I’ve read numerous behind the scenes reasons as to why no extras were produced, but first and foremost the reason would be that it would have taken probably a year to produce those extras, and I’m sure it was felt that the sooner the DVDs were released, the better. As you no doubt know, these episodes were released all over the world on iTunes in November. In the U.K., “Enemy” followed on DVD later that month, while they held off on “Web” until February. Now we’re getting both of them. Maybe someday there will be special editions, but as I understand it there are certainly no current plans to do so, since the classic Who DVD range is winding down. Indeed, after “Enemy” next month, to the best of my knowledge the only title left to release is “The Underwater Menace,” which has been held up for various reasons that are entirely outside of my sphere of knowing, but hopefully we’ll get it some time this year.

Having made excuses for the BBC, now it’s my turn: As magical as it is to finally have these episodes, thought lost forever, it’s equally horrible for them to be accompanied by…nothing. Again, we’re used to a standard with these discs, and one can only say, “Well, at least we have the episodes!” for so long, before one wants a commentary track with Frazer and Debbie, or a documentary about the making of the serial, or a photo gallery, or production notes subtitles, or freakin’ Toby Hadoke, for chrissake! For most of us who’ve been partaking in the classic Who DVD experience for the past 13 years, these features have become as much a part of classic Who as the serials themselves. And it is nothing less than a tragedy that Episode Three was not recreated using proper animation, which is now the accepted standard. For a serial of this importance to be the one that we’re left with only a reconstructed episode of…just kills me. On the plus side, the episodes look magnificent – truly, they do - some of the best looking episodes of black and white Who I’ve ever seen. Here they’ve been given the VidFIRE treatment, which seems to be the only major difference between this disc and the iTunes versions.

As I wrote this article, I got a message from a friend who told me there’s some kind of internet flamewar going on involving megafan Ian Levine accusing Phillip Morris (the guy who found both “Enemy” and “Web”) of hoarding episodes, and that there are plenty more out there that are being sat on. So who knows? Maybe these two serials aren’t the end of the great missing episode find. Please, fates, before I die let my most wanted serial be found, because right now I’m declaring the last frames of Episode Six of “The Web of Fear” the most depressing Doctor Who in existence. As the serial winds down, it’s like a punch to the gut: