Of the 97 missing episodes of Doctor Who, this is perhaps the most keenly felt because for a brief moment it wasn’t missing. It was found, but then lost again. At the time this made me unaccountably furious, to the extent that I’ve never actually seen The Web of Fear until now, stubbornly holding out until this one was handed over. But short of the winds blowing in another direction, it remains firmly in the clutches of some private collector, and me having a sulk about it won’t change that fact.
It’s Troughton’s first week off in a while, and Haisman and Lincoln use his absence to their advantage – his mysterious disappearance makes him a suspicious person of interest to Captain Knight and his men, none of whom knows exactly who or what is behind the Yeti attacks. This is made clear in an effective scene between soldiers Blake and Weams, who dismiss the idea that they’re ‘abominable snowmen’ for the more prosaic explanations of a foreign power’s robot army, or creatures from outer space
There’s something refreshing retro about this episode. Not only does it follow directly on from The Enemy of the World, like the old Hartnell stories, but the Doctor is back to his old ways of indignantly defending his control of the Ship, which then goes wrong and starts flashing a warning light, before something disturbing appears on the scanner. And when the TARDIS does land, in a deserted London, the crew promptly find a dead body and an ominous poster just like in The Dalek Invasion of Earth.
The conclusion to the story is largely perfunctory, which only adds to the sense that beyond giving Troughton the opportunity to play the Great Dictator, Whitaker didn’t really have much idea what to do with this. The introduction of the secret bunker filled with middle class people never gels with the rest of the less absurd plot elements; Giles Kent’s unmasking is a bit clumsy, and rather than providing any sort of satisfactory denouement, Whitaker just blows everything up.
The story is pretty clearly pitting those who countenance killing as a means to an end – Salamander, Benik, and Kent – against those who value life more highly: the Doctor, Bruce and Swann. An unlikely alliance between the Doctor and Bruce to expose Salamander starts to come together at the moment when Salamander’s own carefully-laid plans begin to fall apart because of his own over-confidence.
‘I can only die once,’ Fariah sneers having been shot in the back, just like Denes last week, by an over-zealous guard. Her last words consciously evoke the most recent Bond movie You Only Live Twice – which is incredibly appropriate given this episode finally reveals the secret of Salamander’s power over nature – hidden in a secret underground lair straight out of the Blofeld Handbook.
Although it’s a fairly connective middle episode, this continues to showcase both Whitaker’s talent for pithy dialogue and Letts’ good casting choices. In tandem, these give us Griff the lugubrious chef – a pretty minor role made interesting by Reg Lye’s world-weary performance. It also means Benik, a petty functionary in the scheme of things, stands in for Salamander’s whole approach: placing vindictive Little Hitlers in authority knowing that they will dance to his tune, while they revel in the power they hold. And when Salamander is unable to manipulate someone because, like Fedorin, they’re too basically decent, he assassinates them safe in the knowledge there are plenty of Beniks in the world to fill the vacancy.
‘Which side is good, which side is bad, and why should I interfere?’ asks the Doctor early in this episode. It’s a good question, and one that reflects the more ambiguous, adult tone of this story. In general, this feels like it has more in common with Whitaker’s The Crusade – where neither the Crusaders nor the Saracens were entirely sympathetic – than the more recent monster serials. It’s a shame, then, that within a few minutes of meeting him Salamander is established as a bad ‘un, threatening blackmail and assassination, and strutting round in his (presumably self-designed) uniform.
It’s still a thrill to be able to watch this episode, missing for 40-odd years. The story is full of notable first and lasts – Barry Letts’ first credit on the programme; the first episodes to be recorded in the new 625-line standard (which makes them look a lot sharper than the old 405-line recordings – this is the HD Planet of the Dead of the classic series). It’s also the last story to be produced by Innes Lloyd and overseen by Sydney Newman – the men who were instrumental in bringing in Troughton and helping him to shape his performance.
The point is laboured in the climax: ‘Wait, it says! Wait!’ screams Walters as the computer continues to stall for time. (Poor Walters: conscripted into Britannicus Base, driven to distraction by all the faffing around, and finally shot by both his own side and the Martians). Later, Varga cautions his warriors to wait for the power to increase before attempting take off. But the day is saved by those who, like the Doctor, believe, ‘We’ve got to take some action!’ Which in practice means watching Peter Barkworth and Wendy Gifford moaning piteously as the great and powerful computer spins round and round and Peter Sallis presses some buttons. At which point even Derek Martinus seems to throw in the towel.