Reflections on ‘The Web of Fear’ (1968): Where now for ‘Classic’ Doctor Who?

Posted by: Dr Ross Garner

Despite having been made available for digital download via iTunes since October of last year, this week marks the DVD release of the 1968 Doctor Who story ‘The Web of Fear’. Starring Patrick Troughton as the Time Lord’s second incarnation, as well as Frazier Hines and Deborah Watling as companion characters Jamie and Victoria, this is a significant event for both the programme’s fans and what has become known as ‘classic Doctor Who’ for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, the release of ‘The Web of Fear’ is important as it is the second of the two adventures that was ‘recovered’ in the run-up to last year’s Fiftieth Anniversary celebrations (the other being preceding story ‘The Enemy of the World’ (1968) which was released in November of last year). For those unaware of this context, during the 1970s, at a time when television in the UK was still very much devalued as an ephemeral cultural medium whose output was perceived as having little-to-no value (commercial or otherwise) beyond the first transmission of programming, the BBC disposed of a number of recordings of ‘popular’ series. This decision came about as a result of myriad factors that include internal policies within the Corporation and technological changes such as the introduction of colour television (an excellent overview of these issues has been compiled by Richard Molesworth (2010). The consequence of this decision was that, in a pre-VHS era when the commercial benefits of fan communities were not a concern for a public service-orientated broadcaster like the BBC, swathes of episodes of Doctor Who from the 1960s were wiped from the archive. At present there are still 97 episodes of the series, including seminal moments such as the first post-regeneration story (‘The Power of the Daleks’ (1967)) and stories mythologised as a result of recounted fan memories (e.g. ‘Fury from the Deep’ (1968)), that are missing. The DVD release of ‘The Web of Fear’ therefore represents the first opportunity to physically own both this revered story in its audio-visual form.

However, beyond simply being accessible for the first time since its initial transmission, ‘The Web of Fear’ is also significant as it has become enshrined in fan discourse (and beyond) as encapsulating what John Ellis (1982) would name the programme’s popular  ‘narrative image’ – this is the set of associations that immediately spring to mind when audiences think of a particular series. Third Doctor actor Jon Pertwee’s infamous characterisation that Doctor Who works best when you unexpectantly encounter ‘a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec’ is arguably drawn from the premise of ‘The Web of Fear’ since it features the aforementioned Abominable Snowmen stalking the shadowy tunnels of the London Underground. Although this characterisation is academically problematic in that it assumes some kind of ahistorical ‘essence’ to Doctor Who, it nevertheless grasps the programme’s ongoing ability to provide scares via rendering familiar day-to-day objects ‘uncanny’, whether this be shop window dummies suddenly becoming animated or, more recently, stone statues that have the power to launch you backwards in time.

The release of ‘The Web of Fear’ is also significant for the BBC, and BBC Worldwide especially, as it marks the penultimate release for the ‘classic’ DVD range. Aside from the release of ‘The Underwater Menace’ (1967) later this year, every other existing story from the programme’s original run between 1963 and 1989 is now commercially available and so an ongoing range that started in 1999, but established almost monthly releases from 2001 onwards, can be no more. This is problematic for the BBC as it potentially poses questions about how to develop and maintain the visibility of ‘classic’ Doctor Who. Doctor Who, in its entirety has been referred to as a ‘mega-brand’ for BBC Worldwide, and, although the ‘classic’ incarnation contributes nowhere near as much income as that derived from merchandise adorned with slogans and logos drawn from the current onscreen incarnation, it is nevertheless the case that the end of the DVD range comes at a point when greater attempts at integrating ‘classic’ and ‘new’ Doctor Who are taking place. For instance, whereas ‘classic’ Doctor Who used to be kept separate from ‘new’ Who on the BBC’s webpages, greater attempts have been made over the last twelve months to integrate the two as online episode guides draw the two incarnations of the series together. Although the official webpages for ‘classic’ seasons utilise old series logos, suggesting some attempt to semiotically reinforce the differences between ‘classic’ and ‘new’ Who, these still make both ‘past’ and ‘present’ visible alongside each other – as was the case with multiple aspects of the merchandising for the Fiftieth Anniversary.

So, the question that emerges is ‘where next for ‘classic’ Doctor Who?’. Without the ongoing potential for new releases of ‘official’ stories, and the inability to improve the image quality of videotape recordings for BluRay releases, it is difficult to see where ‘classic’ Who is heading. Yes, I expect there’ll be endless mugs and t-shirts, but unless more heroic narratives concerning the role of fan archivists such as that constructed around Philip Morris come about, ‘classic’ Who could well be heading for the kind of stasis that the TARDIS finds itself in at the start of this month’s DVD release.