Sunday, 2 February 2014

DVD Review: Doctor Who – The Web of Fear

This story used to be five-sixths missing... but now it's five-sixths complete. The Yeti are back.

Released by: BBC Worldwide
Release date: 24 February 2014

"Prepare for a great darkness to cloud your mind..."

This time last year, could anyone have predicted this? “Doctor Who: The Web of Fear. To select audio navigation, press enter now.” What strange parallel universe have we slipped into? But this is not a parallel universe. Nor is it a dream. This is real. The Web of Fear is back.

It’s a tragic fact that a significant amount of the 253 episodes of Doctor Who that were broadcast in the 1960s, starring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, no longer exist in the archives. Prior to October 2013, 106 of them were officially missing, thought to be lost forever. But miraculously, in October it was announced that Philip Morris (director of Television International Enterprises Archives) had located nine ‘missing’ episodes in a television relay station in the city of Jos, Nigeria. These comprised all five missing episodes of The Enemy of the World, and four of the five lost instalments of the story which immediately followed it: The Web of Fear. (For a more detailed explanation of why so many episodes of Doctor Who are missing, read my review of the DVD of Enemy.)

So, this is a six-part story which we were previously only able to watch the first episode of – and now we can watch almost all of it, apart from the third episode, which remains missing. But what made this discovery so thrilling (and nerve-wracking) was its precedent. I’m not talking purely in terms of recovered episodes, but in terms of recovered episodes that fandom really wanted to see. I would argue that the most direct precedent for the recovery of this story is The Tomb of the Cybermen, which was returned to the BBC from Hong Kong in 1992. Popular fan lore tells us that prior to that discovery, Tomb was a holy grail for many, but proved to be something of a let-down once the episodes finally resurfaced. (For the record, I don’t subscribe to this opinion, although in any case, the recovery happened before I was born!) Coming back to The Web of Fear, and we have another ‘holy grail’ – but would the tide of opinion turn against it?

Not really, no. The Web of Fear, while flawed, is brilliant.

Though to be honest, we already had a good idea that this would be the case, solely on the basis of the long-existing first episode – an episode which exhibits qualities that shine throughout the rest of the serial. The Web of Fear is a dark, eerie, claustrophobic story, doing what Doctor Who does best – taking a familiar, ordinary setting and making it absolutely terrifying.

The Web of Fear stars Patrick Troughton along with Frazer Hines as Jamie and Deborah Watling as Victoria, and is a sequel to The Abominable Snowmen just three stories previously. That serial introduced the Great Intelligence and its robotic servants, the Yeti, but sadly it is in exactly the same situation as Web was not too long ago: of its six episodes, only one (the second) survives. In Web, the Intelligence is back – and via the Yeti, it has invaded London and overtaken the Underground. It’s little wonder that this story proved to be iconic for a generation, and the sets (designed by David Myerscough-Jones) were apparently so realistic that the London Underground authorities complained to the BBC, believing that they had filmed on their property without permission. The Web of Fear also left a very strong impression on a young Mark Gatiss, who used the story as a source of inspiration for his recent Sherlock episode, The Empty Hearse.

This is a threat which has grave implications indeed, and it all plays out from the London Underground. The thing is… the story itself is fundamentally quite basic – perhaps, dare I say it, even run-of-the-mill. But it is made so great by the performances, music and direction. Funnily enough, one of the standout sequences actually occurs in Episode 1, in which Professor Travers (Jack Watling) unsuccessfully attempts to retrieve a 'dormant' Yeti from the private collection of Julius Silverstein (Frederick Schrecker). It almost feels as though we are watching a horror film for a few minutes, with an unbearable amount of tension generated almost purely through the actors, lighting and music. Also, watch out for a clever moment which actually weaves the redesign of the Yeti from their previous appearance into the narrative.

The story gets its title from the mysterious ‘web’ substance which is working its way through the network of underground tube tunnels, and closing in on the army’s headquarters at Goodge Street station. Director Douglas Camfield makes excellent use of the web visually. This is where being able to properly watch The Web of Fear reveals so much. Whereas the story itself works reasonably well on audio, there’s a whole new psychological element to seeing the story. We can see the physical reactions of characters. We can see the web pulsating, as it is framed (slightly out-of-focus) in the foreground with characters in the background, the web oppressing them both figuratively and visually. It’s commendable how this story actually makes foam scary – the cliffhanger ending to Episode 2 is quite unnerving on first viewing, with the sound design undoubtedly contributing to the atmosphere.

But here’s what really makes this adventure so interesting to watch: the characters. Admittedly, the characters aren’t anywhere near as multi-layered as in the previous story, The Enemy of the World, but what works well here is that they all have suspicion cast upon them at some point or another, and they all react to the crisis in a distinct way. There’s one thing which will particularly intrigue first-time viewers – a traitor is amongst them. In a story which has such a tight-knit, co-operative team, it’s fascinating to watch the mystery of who is in league with the Intelligence unfold. I won’t spoil the surprise here, and I would urge you not to look up who it is if you have never seen the story. The revelation in Episode 6 is a superb piece of television.

Of course, there’s one man (besides our regular characters) who – although he might have been one of the prime suspects back in 1968 – we now know isn’t a bad guy. The Web of Fear is hugely notable for introducing the legendary character of Lethbridge-Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney. Whereas we would later recognise him as the Brigadier, Lethbridge-Stewart is a colonel here, and somewhat regrettably he makes his first appearance in Episode 3 – the only episode which remains lost. This Lethbridge-Stewart is a distinctly different character to the man we would later become familiar with – in later years, he very much became a stiff-upper-lip authority figure, but here the Colonel is simply a soldier who, frankly, is scared out of his wits. In hindsight, you can tell that the story is actively trying to pin suspicion onto Lethbridge-Stewart as being the Great Intelligence’s puppet – he arrives in somewhat mysterious circumstances, and it’s clear that the other characters don’t entirely trust him. But from today’s perspective, it goes without saying that Lethbridge-Stewart is serving as a decoy for the audience – the real traitor is somebody else entirely…

A defining moment for the Colonel comes as he leads a group of men above ground into Covent Garden, in an attempt to regain the TARDIS (which is inaccessibly stuck under the Covent Garden tube station). This scene alone is a reason why, if an episode had to remain missing, I’m so glad it wasn’t Episode 4. The ensuing battle between the soldiers and the Yeti is something which I never thought I would ever see (save for one or two tiny snatches of footage which survived). It’s gloriously directed by Camfield, and it’s up there among Doctor Who’s most gritty and intense action sequences. All the soldiers involved lose their lives apart from the Colonel, and Lethbridge-Stewart has a breakdown of sorts in the wake of the fight, with a perfect performance by Courtney.

Professor Travers is notable for entirely different reasons. He is portrayed by Jack Watling, the real-life father of Deborah Watling. Reprising his role as Travers from The Abominable Snowmen (albeit as a significantly older version of the character), Watling lights up every scene he is in. A hugely likeable character, Travers is clearly a brilliant intellect despite being a bit forgetful. Along with his daughter Anne (Tina Packer), Travers plays an important role in the fight against the Intelligence and the Yeti. There’s an ever-so-slightly comedic streak in places, particularly in some of the Professor’s early exchanges with the loathsome journalist Harold Chorley (Jon Rollason).

Away from the story itself, you may be wondering how the missing Episode 3 is handled. As with all missing episodes of Doctor Who, an audio recording exists (recorded off-air by extraordinarily dedicated fans), so it’s a question of what to do about the missing video. Well, this DVD doesn’t follow the recent convention of using animation to fill the gap. Instead, a more traditional approach is used. Although the video is lost, numerous photos (known as ‘telesnaps’) were taken directly off-screen during the original transmission by John Cura, a man who made something of a career out of this, being officially engaged by the production team to take the photos as records of the episodes. So, this DVD uses the same ‘reconstruction’ that has been available on iTunes since October 2013 (produced by John Kelly with assistance from Paul Vanezis and Peter Crocker), marrying the soundtrack against not only these telesnaps, but also publicity photographs and screenshots from the five surviving episodes to tell the story. (It also ports a few seconds of moving footage across from the end of Episode 2, but not from the cliffhanger reprise at the start of Episode 4; perhaps because the footage didn’t directly correspond.)

While reconstructions of this nature have been produced unofficially by fans as far back as the 1980s, this is only the second time that an official release has used a full-length reconstruction of this kind, the other being the VHS release of The Tenth Planet in 2000 (although edited, cut-down photo reconstructions have occasionally featured on VHS and DVD). Is it disappointing that animation wasn’t used? To be honest, no. I am a fan of both animation and photographic reconstructions, and to me the presentation of Episode 3 is perfectly satisfactory in conveying the missing sixth of the story. Animation would have been great, but I’m not particularly bothered that it hasn't been used this time around. There are also some composited images, which take genuine photographic sources and modify them to suit the moment at hand – except for the shot of a Yeti carrying the Intelligence’s glass pyramid (which isn’t realised as well as it might have been), these are pretty well done, and sometimes barely even noticeable as being ‘fakes’. With zooms and pans to bring as much dynamic life to the still images as possible, this is a very enjoyable presentation of the missing episode (which, amazingly, only uses one text caption to describe visual action – testament to how well it tells the story) – and look out for a cheeky nod to director Douglas Camfield…

TRAILER: The Enemy of the World

This DVD has no extras, apart from an ‘Also Available’ trailer for the other recovered story, The Enemy of the World. This is a condensed version of the trailer that was released online in October 2013 to promote the iTunes release of the story. It’s a very nice trailer, although the cuts made to it mean that it doesn't work quite as well as the online version. Unfortunately, the technical quality of sections of the trailer is compromised, with video quality issues. This can be seen on the online version, but it is made more obvious here, as the shots in question are surrounded by pristine DVD-quality footage. I can only assume that a low-quality source was used for certain shots, for some reason…


To put it concisely, the technical quality of these episodes (and the restoration work carried out on them) is superlative.

Although a copy of Episode 1 has been held in the archives for many years, Philip Morris found another film print of that episode alongside the four missing episodes in Nigeria. Upon examination, it turned out that although the Nigerian print was in far worse physical condition, the underlying quality of the recording was actually better than the archived copy, with slightly superior definition and black detail. So, following intensive physical and digital clean-up, the opening episode on this DVD is sourced from the newly discovered film, resulting in a quality upgrade compared to the version of Episode 1 on 2004’s Lost in Time DVD collection.

Watching the recovered Episodes 2, 4, 5 and 6, it’s almost hard to believe that these film cans had been sitting untouched in less-than-ideal conditions for the past four decades. Restoration has been undertaken by the usual team, and the results are hugely impressive. The studio scenes (especially following VidFIRE processing to restore the original interlaced ‘video look’ to the film recordings) are rock solid and look amazing, with great definition. They aren’t without their flaws – the contrast doesn't seem quite as strong in the later episodes as the earlier ones, and there are a couple of spots of aliasing, which is probably inherent in the source material – but this is an overwhelmingly strong presentation of the VT studio scenes. The film sequences are more of a mixed bag, but only because of the old problem of ‘out of phase’ inserts, unfixable with current technology and resulting in double-imaging in places.

Sometimes, distracting noise flickers at the very top-left of the frame (only noticeable if you are watching without overscan, ie with no picture cut off by your television), but this is only a very minor nuisance. In some respects, this DVD actually looks better than the original transmission must have done; in places, the film recording of at least one episode was afflicted with diffuse white lines flickering across the image. This was a burnt-in fault from the (long since wiped) videotape that the film recording was made from, and would have been seen on television originally. But now they're gone.

As with the video, the mono audio has been restored to a very high standard. Interestingly, for some of the later episodes, off-air audio recordings were used as the primary sound source rather than the optical soundtracks of the film recordings, because the former had advantages over the latter. To briefly mention the reconstructed Episode 3 – the audio is excellent quality, although the quality and resolution of the images varies significantly. The images sourced from high-resolution photographs tend to be more or less pin-sharp, and the screengrabs from other episodes are also high quality. Unfortunately, this does show up the lack of resolution in the authentic telesnaps, and it’s important to remember that these were originally photographed from a television screen (albeit with specially-adapted equipment) back in the sixties. This isn’t helped by the fact that digitally zooming and panning the telesnaps will inevitably diminish the resolution further. But the reconstruction is still very watchable – it is just necessary to make allowances for the varying image sources.

Of course, these episodes have previously been released on iTunes last autumn – but quality-wise, this DVD blows that previous online release out of the water. While the iTunes episodes are at a resolution of approximately 640x480, this DVD is at full PAL 720x576 resolution, with a bitrate several times higher than its iTunes counterpart. This results in the video being sharper, with far fewer blocky compression artefacts, and the DVD has been encoded from larger source files than the iTunes version. But the most significant difference between the iTunes and DVD release is that the latter has (as mentioned above) been VidFIREd, which doesn’t work on iTunes due to its incompatibility with interlaced video. As such, the iTunes version last year was mastered prior to VidFIRE being applied to the episodes, and so the DVD has a major advantage in this regard. I asked the Restoration Team’s Steve Roberts if any other work was done for the DVD (besides VidFIRE) that was absent from iTunes, and he informed me that a small amount of additional work may have been undertaken, but nothing that would make a major difference compared to iTunes. So overall, the DVD makes for a far better viewing experience than the iTunes downloads.

Presented below are a selection of comparison images between iTunes and the DVD (and, in the case of Episode 1, the 2004 Lost in Time DVD). These offer some idea of the superior resolution and compression that the DVD offers (notice that areas of film grain on the DVD were turned into nasty digital noise on iTunes, and the DVD has a little more picture area), but you can only fully appreciate the improvements after seeing the DVD in motion. The iTunes screenshots have been upscaled so that the vertical resolution matches that of the DVD, in order to provide an easier direct comparison between the two.

It is recommended that you open each image in its own tab and then flick between them to compare.

Lost in Time


2014 DVD

Lost in Time


2014 DVD












For my final thoughts on The Web of Fear, I’ll go back to what I was saying earlier about The Tomb of the Cybermen. That story was recovered before I was born, so while I’m fully aware of its context, and the fact that it used to be missing, for me it’s always been like any other existing story. Following Philip Morris’ fantastic Nigerian discovery, The Web of Fear (setting aside the missing Episode 3) and The Enemy of the World will be looked upon in exactly the same way by future generations. Let’s take a moment to think about how crazy that sounds: the Doctor Who fans of tomorrow will be able to pull these stories off the shelf without batting an eyelid. That shouldn’t even be possible, but it is. Hopefully, this isn't the last we’ve seen of missing Who being resurrected from the grave. Let's keep our fingers crossed that it’s a question of when, not if, another lost story will suddenly turn up on our shelves, thanks to the extraordinary determination of one man who has pretty much travelled the entire globe looking for these old film cans. It’s a shame that this DVD lacks any real bonus content (and this does have an effect on the score below), but let’s not forget that this is a DVD release of a story which we didn’t know existed this time last year.

It's nothing less than a miracle. The Web of Fear is back, ready to scare a whole new generation of commuters.

Main Feature – 7 out of 10
A/V Quality – 8 out of 10
Extras – 1 out of 10
Overall – 5 out of 10

Purchasing this title through either of the links above helps to support this website.

Thanks to BBC Worldwide
Find Telly Tech on Facebook and Twitter

No comments:

Post a Comment