A man of learning stands before a museum exhibit warning of great evil behind its long dead frame. His cries go unheeded, mocked and dismissed.
He could easily be Peter Cushing.
Much is made of the reign of producer Philip Hinchcliff as Doctor Who’s ‘Hammer era’, or Barry Letts’ UNIT-dominated run as the most obviously influenced by Quatermass. Recently (mostly) recovered 1968 Second Doctor serial The Web Of Fear ticks both those boxes so effortlessly with its sophisticated tale of formless alien terrors prowling the London Underground and a dwindling band of soldiers and scientists trying to hold it at bay.
The set up is pure Quatermass And The Pit. There’s a professor, Travers (Jack Watling, IRL father of companion star Deborah), reprising his role from The Abominable Snowman (Incidentally, the Hammer film/BBC serial of the same name also being written by Quatermass’ Nigel Kneale, whose shadow hangs heavy over Web), a sceptical army officer, Captain Knight (Ralph Watson) with his gruff Northern second Staff Sgt Arnold (Jack Woolgar), and of course, a strange power that brings London to its knees.
The eery, whispering Great Intelligence; perhaps the first villain after the Meddling Monk and the Celestial Toymaker to acknowledge the wider cosmic significance of the Doctor (the eternally wonderful Patrick Troughton).
This is truly where your Cartmel Masterplan and long road to Trenzalore begins.
Shadows are long and motives ambiguous. The long-running subplot about a traitor on the team, luring the Yeti to them, is genuinely nerve-rattling, while the creeping ‘fungus’ (played semi-convincingly by foam pouring down model tunnels) that’s walling them in adds an element of the ‘base under the siege’ that the Troughton era excelled in.
There’s so much death and talk of death – covered in ethereal cobwebs, soldiers dropping like flies, screams in the dark – The Web Of Fear is chilling in a way that Doctor Who would struggle to match after the rise of mirthless fun-reaper Mary Whitehouse.
Sadly, Episode Three is still missing and cries out for the atmospheric animated recreation that The Moonbase and The Reign Of Terror recently received. Instead, we’re denied Brigadier – here a colonel – Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)’s first appearance in full as he brings a cool efficiency that borders on the slightly threatening. Even knowing his illustrious future, there’s something about his offhand manner and the suddenness of his arrival that forces you to consider whether he too could be the traitor.
Though it sags around Episode Four, so much about The Web Of Fear seems so powerful and mature, that it’s a class apart from much of what came before and after. It’s cinematic in a way that Doctor Who would rarely ever be and it seems incomprehensible that director Douglas Camfield didn’t rack up any Ealing chillers in his career, instead sticking with TV and giving us the similar dark and paranoid Doctor Who highs as Inferno, The Dalek’s Master Plan, The Invasion and, er, Terror Of The Zygons.
One wonders what he’d have been able to do with the likes of Silence In The Library or The Waters Of Mars. It’s a lovely thought.