Wednesday, 16 October 2013

WHO REVIEW: The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear

And to think we got overexcited by the discovery of two orphaned episodes of monochrome Doctor Who last year. It's truly one of the great finds – two sixties serials, one complete, one very nearly, discovered in, of all places, Jos, Nigeria. All credit to Philip Morris for his diligence and, indeed, bravery, in travelling throughout Africa in search of archived television materials. This trip really paid off. While the rumours did get out of hand – absurd claims that all missing episodes had been found were doing the rounds – it is the greatest single find of lost Doctor Who material since the archive purges began. Tremendous work by the BBC in keeping their secret. I was particularly dubious about the whole thing; usually, the greater the claims, the less likely they are to be true. For these episodes to have been restored to broadcast standard and made ready for download so quickly is also worthy of praise. One small gripe: while I enthusiastically downloaded the serials from iTunes, they really should have been made freely available in the UK. We have paid for them once, after all.

While the recovery of any two serials would have been met with celebration, to get two such excellent entries in the series makes it a real treat. The Enemy of the World hasn't the greatest reputation, something best ascribed to the previous sole available episode, the third, being a rather slow, filler instalment. The soundtrack has always promised a rather good story, albeit one that really needed to be seen, not heard. Now, with the serial available in its entirety, it looks set to get a major reappraisal. The Web of Fear, which follows on directly from Enemy (indeed, it finishes the final seen, oddly cut short), is one of those stories that has long had a glowing reputation. This can go badly; when The Tomb of the Cybermen was discovered, it rather failed to live up to its reputation. Now, while Web isn't a stone-cold classic, it is a great example of the Troughton era, one of the best of the, admittedly overused, base-under-siege stories (or base-under-siege-by-a-monster-for-six-episodes, to give it the full description).

The Enemy of the World is an atypical story, particularly for the Troughton period. Slap-bang in the middle of the 'Monster Season,' it features no aliens, robots or soap suds, although it is not barren of science fictional elements. It's a near-future thriller – the very near future now – and the commonly applied description of Bondian isn't inappropriate. Set in the year 2017, The Enemy of the World is a political thriller combining espionage with some truly unlikely events and an outlandish villainous plan. While it fails to be as globe-trotting as a James Bond film – this is a sixties BBC budget, after all – it does take in Australia and Eastern Europe to give a feel of a feasible future world that has been divided up into international zones. It's tremendously action-packed, with helicopter escapes, gunfights and plenty of fisticuffs. A narrated soundtrack simply doesn't do it justice.

The most notable element of the serial is, of course, the villain, Salamander, played by Patrick Troughton. The Mexican megalomaniac is a sublime creation, a man of quite incredible ambition and utterly ruthless in his goals. It's Troughton's performance that makes him, of course. While the accent is broad, and the blacking up is a little unfortunate, Troughton excels at portraying four different character combinations. He's the Doctor, Salamander, the Doctor pretending to be Salamander, and, briefly, Salamander pretending to be the Doctor. Troughton creates very clever, subtle differences between the characters, to the point that, while the Doctor's impersonation of Salamander gradually improves, it is still distinct from Salamander himself. While the Doctor plays up his own morality in the face of the politicking, back-stabbing and murder, he doesn't shy away from using his likeness to the would-be dictator for his own advantage. In one seen, he rather callously allows Jamie and Victoria to believe he is Salamander, so that they will confirm their innocence in fear for their own safety. It's a good reminder that the occasionally fluffy second Doctor can be ruthlessly manipulative when he needs to be. “I'm the nicest possible person,” he says. Yeah, right.

While Troughton gets both the lead and the villain role, it's Frazer Hines who gets the Bond part. Jamie Bond, if you will. He sweeps into action to foil a set-up assassination attempt in order to ingratiate himself with Salamander, in one of his most action-packed scenes. There's no doubt about it – Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling make a great team, with or without the Doctor, and they're gorgeous in their matching skirts. While Watling's Victoria does sink to the level of wailing damsel in distress on occasion, this is one of her best stories. Indeed, the largely trying third episode puts her at the centre of an infiltration mission with Jamie, and provides some great comedy moments with the unsung hero of this serial, Reg Lye as Griffin the Chef. Throughout, Jamie and Victoria are portrayed as a couple; not only does Jamie refer to her as his girlfriend as part of his cover story, but the actors play the parts as if they were together. Both this and the following story see Victoria's safety as Jamie's primary concern.

The Enemy of the World boasts a large cast, most of it very fine indeed. Much of the material goes to Bill Kerr as the untrustworthy Giles Kent, who gets some excellent, tense scenes with both of Troughton's characters. Mary Peach is essentially playing a Bond girl as Astrid, but is more than a match for the many male characters she is pitted against, and she holds much of the production together, making some of the most important discoveries to progress the plot. Of particular note is Carmen Munroe as Fariah, Salamander's food taster. Munroe gives a strong, dignified performance in what could have been a shallow role. Instead, writing and acting combine to give a rare example of a strong, black female in a show of this period – I believe Munroe is the first black actress to get a speaking role on the series.

Some of the actors will be familiar to fans of the seventies serials, including Milton Johns, who here plays a particularly nasty little sadist named Benik, and George Pravda, who's just as hard to decipher as Denes as he was as Spandrell (funny that they both came back to play Time Lord Castellans). One of the best characters is Bruce, the security chief played by Colin Douglas. His initially villainous role is subverted as his fair manner and desire for justice win out. It's a decent performance by Douglas, as Bruce pieces things together and comes over to our heroes' side.

As with any supervillain's plan, things get battier as they go along. The complete nuttiness of Salamander's plan becomes apparent as we get to see the cause of the conveniently timed earthquakes that threaten the world. A colony of people living beneath the surface of the Earth, believing Salamander's claims that the world has perished in nuclear war. It's mad, and it's just the sort of absurd twist the serials needs in the second half of the story to give it a kick and keep things interesting. It's a pity that Adam Verney's overly intense performance as underground dweller Colin threatens to derail the whole thing. This stuff needs to be played straight, but good grief, calm it down a bit. Still, once the sheer bizarreness of the coincidence of the Doctor's similarity to Salamander has worn off, things are in danger of becoming a little dull and predictable. After this, anything can happen, and events move forward with increased pace. Finally, of course, comes the final showdown, and the confrontation between the two Troughtons. While technical limitations mean that that the Doctor and Salamander only appear on screen together briefly, it's an astonishingly powerful moment, not least because the now desperate Salamander has breached the safety of the TARDIS itself. The normal rules of Doctor Who break down as the villain escapes from the story's conclusion and almost usurps the Doctor's position. It's a thrilling finale, albeit one that rather stops dead in its tracks once the time's up.

And so it leads into The Web of Fear, which begins with the Doctor being rather callous again as he shrugs of Salamander's ignoble (if deserved) fate. The time-travelling trio don't get long to recuperate though, for the TARDIS is soon swallowed up by a bizarre mass, leaving it suspended in space. Yes, this is the Web of Fear itself, which manifests throughout the serial variously as cobwebs, mist, huge plasticky bubbles, superimposed footage of flexing cells and the Troughton era's ubiquitous soap foam. This strange fungus is, seemingly, the physical manifestation of the Great Intelligence, that disembodied sentience that recently made an almost unrecognisable return to Doctor Who. The Web of Fear is the sequel to The Abominable Snowmen, and is frankly risible in its conception. The idea that an alien intelligence would use robotic yeti to attack the Earth was barmy enough when set in Tibet, but for it to revive the plan in order to attack London – via the Circle Line – is frankly ridiculous. Yet somehow it works, due in no small part to the appeal of the yeti creatures themselves. The Mk-II yeti used here are a little more streamlined that the extra-cuddly version from Tibet, but are still pretty cute in still images. In action though, it's another matter. It's not so much the look of the things as the noise they make, bellowing as they stomp down the tunnels. Combined with their prodigious size, the sheer loudness makes them alarming. The idea of being trapped underground with something like that is pretty unnerving.

With the benefit of hindsight, The Web of Fear is a landmark story. It's a major step in the development of the series from its whimsical origins with Hartnell's Doctor to the action adventure serials of Pertwee. At the time, of course, none of this would have been known, and none of the later recurring elements were designed to be returned to. Nonetheless, for a modern fan there is no way around it; this story is a milestone, for it introduces the character of Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, later better known as the Brigadier. Watching it now, it's interesting that Lethbridge-Stewart is a far cry from the reliable character we have come to love. He meets the Doctor off screen, in the still missing third episode, which is supremely frustrating. He is an outsider throughout, suddenly taking charge of the established army platoon who are battling the yeti, and is a figure of suspicion for much of the story. We don't know who is the Intelligence's agent within the group (and the eventual reveal makes little sense), but the chief suspect can no longer fool us because we know full well that he's a good guy and becomes the Doctor's most-trusted friend.

This isn't to denigrate Nicholas Courtney's performance in the slightest. He is perfect in this role, convincingly playing a severe, competent soldier vastly out of his depth. His catastrophic charge against the yeti leaves all of his men dead, and he is visibly in a state of shock following the horrific massacre. While the character we meet here is a far cry from the more likeable version who would return in The Invasion, let alone the one who would become the stalwart of the UNIT era, he is still just about recognisable through Courtney's performance. Indeed, the Brig's legendary unflappability might even stem from his formative experiences fighting alien menaces here.

This is all after-the-fact speculation, of course. For viewers at the time, Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart was just one character among many, and not the most important one by far. The big returning character here is Professor Edward Travers, played, as in The Abominable Snowmen, by Jack Watling (father of Deborah, playing Victoria). His performance as an older man is a little broad, but he does a good job of portraying a version of the same character with years more experience. Even better is Tina Packer as his daughter Anne. It's a shame she never returned to the series, for the younger Travers is a fantastic character. In a story that sometimes becomes frankly embarrassing in its clichéd characterisation – there's a comedy Welshman, a comedy journalist, a comedy grasping Jew – we once again have a strong, believably characterised woman who plays a major part in the story. There's a moment of slightly cringeworthy sexism when one of the soldiers tries to chat her up, and she shoots him down perfectly by not rising to the bate. It's a lot more sophisticated than the cod-feminism we got in the seventies serials.

There are some great moments in the story, such as a nice little aside in which two working class soldiers debate what the yeti things really are. Covering monsters from Tibet, alien invaders and robots, they unknowingly cover all the right answers at once. Jack Woolgar is excellent as Staff Sgt. Woolgar, the ordinary jobbing soldier who has to hold everything together in the face of monsters, deserting troops and sudden appearances by time travellers. It's a pity that the events of this story would keep him from coming back, too. One UNIT soldier did make his début here though: inside one of the yeti costumes is John Levene, later Sgt. Benton.

While it's almost as action-packed as the preceding serial, Web is far more repetitive. Seen in isolation, this isn't too much of a problem, especially if you watch it an episode at a time as originally intended. It must have been a little trying for those viewers who had sat through quite similar events in The Abominable Snowmen and The Ice Warriors just a few months before. Still, it remains tremendous fun, and the presence of the Doctor and his friends, fighting monsters in the brilliantly recreated London Underground sets, sends a shiver down the spine. What keeps both serials from becoming stale is Patrick Troughton. While he doesn't appear in every episode, he effortlessly dominates each of his scenes. It's difficult to qualify just what it is that makes Troughton so watchable. There's simple some quality to his performance that puts him head and shoulders above all those around him. Whether he's facing down the Intelligence, plotting his latest move as Salamander, or prating about on the beach in his long johns, Patrick Troughton is an absolute delight to watch. I'm overjoyed to have seen some more of him.

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