Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Railways on TV: The Web of Fear (Doctor Who)

This one has, of course, been chewed over at length on the Internet after the discovery of more fortuitously -preserved episodes in Nigeria in 2013.
Since this is a series of posts on railways as portrayed in cult TV, I feel it is easy to stretch the definition of rails to include the London underground, the location for much of this story. In fact I find the whole set-up of this adventure very interesting. London is apparently completely deserted apart from the characters necessary to the story. This is an interesting echo of the 'unreal' England depicted in later series of The Avengers, to the extent that I'm wondering whether this Who was partly an inspiration for the approach. In fact this Who almost exactly embodies the look, the feel, the characterisation of The Avengers; of course unless the BBC had actually discovered time travel at this point it is likely Doctor Who receiving the influence, unless both shows picked up on something in the zeitgeist of the time. The characters in this Who are no more real than John Steed - in fact they are colourful caricatures just as Steed is - and this Who uses the same successful technique that The Avengers used of never risking putting them next to real people and so having them exposed for what they are. The show uses another Avengers technique, of placing the action in the heart of real life in the UK,  in this case the London Underground, to provide a completely real context for the story. There are also echoes of Thingumajig, if I had to commit to only one Avengers this Who reminds me of. Ironically the reality/unreality dynamic of this show has rather been blown out of the water by the conclusion of scientific investigation (see below for the full irony of this) that the yeti is real and is nothing more nor less than a bear ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20150630-is-there-such-a-thing-as-a-yeti).
Apart from the Avengers-esque overtones of this adventure, there are lesser reflections of the sort of set-up found in Sapphire and Steel - perhaps the railways thing has prompted me to think that, since I've also been thinking about the Sapphire and Steel set in a railway station. Web of Fear makes an interesting comparison - the set for Web of Fear is notoriously small, so while Sapphire and Steel has fewer speaking parts, it is as if its enclosed environment is much more luxurious than that in Web of Fear. It embarrasses me to say it, but Web of Fear is definitely the better story over my beloved Sapphire and Steel adventure, which in comparison moves like an elderly debilitated snail.
Other than echoes of some of the odder Tv shows popular in the 1960s and 1970s Web of Fear perfectly embodies the reverent attitude to science which I see over and over in TV of the time. 'Science' is in many ways the be-all and end-all of the time (a consistent attitude in comparison to the attitudes towards religion I described in my last post about another Doctor Who adventure). Here 'doctor' is a title of esteem and automatically makes its holder a figure of authority. Science is depicted as the pursuit of truth par excellence - which of course is exactly what the pure pursuit of the empirical method is - even contrasted with the truth-twisting of the press. The fear of the dangers inherent in scientific experimentation, usually found mixed with the reverence to make an ambivalent feel, is here placed firmly into the fearful yeti. Of course the reason this power is at large is human error in failing to prevent the events of this episode happening, but that element is downplayed and the scientists remain figures of trust and authority.
The railway location highlights another function of railways which I foolishly overlooked when I considered the various functions of railways in stories, which is that the railways are the natural location to take over if you want to spread something. Tactically, the London Underground would be a natural place to take,  since you would control the capital in a matter of hours. I realise that up until now I have rather discounted the railways as a means of invasion, since I was paying more attention to them as a means of legitimate transport.
I like the Underground set used in this adventure enormously. I see that this is quite often characterised as the best Doctor Who adventure ever, and I think the effective use of relatively small sets, shot in creative ways, contributes to a great feeling of spaciousness. The danger of these sci-fi shows cast on small sets is that they can feel too much like plays, by which I mean the viewer gets the unavoidable impression of watching a performance. The Web of Fear feels much more as if it is a documentary, and certainly when I felt the need to venture out of bed just now I found I had to wait until the episode I was on had finished.
This adventure is open to criticism, however. I feel the multiple bloopers -reflections of the cameras and shadow of the boom, and so on - which you can find documented in detail elsewhere, remain natural in a medium still considered transitory and intended for viewing once. This release of course features the missing third episode with its surviving audio supported by screen caps. It is completely personal but I think I probably prefer the reconstruction to be by means of animation. That said, I prefer the screen caps approach to the way missing Avengers episodes are reconstructed on the DVDs, where a summary is voiced over surviving screen caps. Since the scripts survive for The Avengers I would still like to see the missing episodes reconstructed using the scripts and animation. I imagine that that approach would be prohibitively expensive though.
This is not a criticism really, but the effectiveness of the yeti falls flat on its face to eyes used to modern effects. O tempora, o mores, viewing vintage television necessarily involves a suspension of disbelief. This adventure also isn't spoiled (in my opinion) by the use of familiar faces who keep reappearing in different shows, since the only familiar face to me, is Jon Rollason, who is actually a welcome appearance here. All in all,  this Doctor Who has made me keen to see The Enemy of the World, the other second doctor adventure found in Nigeria.

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