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Doctor Who: “The Web of Fear”

Recently, two long-lost classic Doctor Who serials from the Patrick Troughton era were rediscovered: “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear,” both from the program’s fifth season. I recently found “The Web of Fear” on DVD for cheap. I was much more curious about this one than I was about “The Enemy of the World,” which doesn’t look all that interesting or enjoyable to me. I also find myself unwilling to watch Patrick Troughton wear “brown face” while portraying Salamander, the Doctor’s villainous Mexican doppelgänger. (I’ve seen the pictures. The makeup is actually pretty subtle, but still. No.) But I was interested in “The Web of Fear,” so I took the opportunity to purchase the DVD.

“The Web of Fear” is actually a sequel to a serial from earlier that same season, “The Abominable Snowmen.” In that one, the Doctor (Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines), and Victoria (Deborah Watling) help Professor Travers (played by Deborah Watling’s real-life father, Jack Watling) defeat the Great Intelligence and its menacing robot Yetis. “The Web of Fear” takes place a little more than 30 years afterward. Travers has accidentally reactivated a robot Yeti in Julius Silverstein’s (Frederick Schrecker) private museum. This summons the Great Intelligence once more, who makes more Yetis and invades London in no time. The Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria materialize in the London underground, join forces with the army, and try to stop the Great Intelligence and the Yetis before all of England is destroyed.

Fans of recent Doctor Who might remember the Great Intelligence as played by the voice of Ian McKellan in the 2012 Christmas special “The Snowmen,” and by Richard E. Grant in person in the 2013 episodes “The Bells of St. John” and “The Name of the Doctor.” It’s all supposed to be the same character as in the Troughton serials, but I don’t even want to talk about it because it just reminds me what a disappointing mess this last season was, and how much I dislike what Doctor Who has become. Please, God, let the Capaldi era be better!

But I digress. Now I’m going to let you in on my dirty little secret, the one that probably makes me a terrible Whovian: I generally don’t like any Doctor Who serials from before the Tom Baker era. I find them bloated, tedious, and even quite boring. Yes, that includes many of the Jon Pertwee serials. Sacrilege, I know. But I find most of the William Hartnell serials unwatchable, the Patrick Troughton serials too lumbering and padded (even though I adore Troughton himself), and the Pertwee serials too formulaic. “The Web of Fear,” at six episodes, is definitely padded in the middle, but by keeping the action to a single location — the abandoned, creepy tunnels of the London underground — it manages to be a much tighter story than most of what came out of those early years (I’m looking at you, “The War Games”!) In fact, the whole thing has a great black-and-white Universal horror film feel to it, or maybe early Hammer Quatermass.

There are some standout moments. There’s a great exchange in the first episode that strikes me as an iconic Doctor moment, one of the many times Troughton laid important groundwork for the role and shaped it for every actor who followed him. After the TARDIS lands in the darkness of the abandoned underground, the Doctor says, “Shall we go out and have a look?” Victoria asks, “Is it safe?” To which the Doctor replies as he heads for the TARDIS door, “Oh, I shouldn’t think so for a moment.” There are also a few good scares, including a chilling moment when Professor Travers is possessed by the Great Intelligence. The scenes with the deadly fungus filling the train tunnels and breaking through walls are great. There’s even a wonderful moment of late 1960s women’s lib when a soldier asks Ann Travers, the professor’s scientist daughter, “What’s a girl like you doing in a job like this?” She replies, “Well, when I was a little girl I thought I’d like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist.”

Unfortunately, early Doctor Who wasn’t always so great when it came to its female characters (some might say current Doctor Who isn’t, either), and even in 1968 old habits die hard. Ann, the same woman who gives that killer brush-off above, tells Victoria mere minutes later to go make tea for everyone to take her mind off her worries about the Doctor, who might have been blown up by explosives in the tunnels. Say what now? Victoria actually does very little in this serial except scream, whine, and get kidnapped. Also problematic: Julius Silverstein is presented as such a Jewish stereotype that it’s actually jarring to see something so blatantly anti-Semitic in this day and age. The majority of his screen time is spent haggling about money. Luckily (?) he’s killed off about ten minutes into the first episode. I also have some questions about the Yetis themselves, such as why robots would need to carry guns to shoot the webbing everywhere when they could just as easily have been built to shoot it out of their arms, or why they would be programmed to roar like monsters when they’d be much more efficient as stealth weapons, but sometimes you gotta just go with what you’re given.

The real historical value of “The Web of Fear” for us Whovians is that it is the proto-UNIT story. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney; just a Colonel here in his first appearance) and UNIT (which hasn’t been formed yet, but will exist by the time he shows up again in the next season’s Cybermen-invade-London story “The Invasion”) became an integral part of Doctor Who from that point onward, especially in the Pertwee era. It’s very cool to see Lethbridge-Stewart’s first appearance in “The Web of Fear,” even if it occurs in the one episode of the serial that wasn’t recovered.

Yes, episode three of “The Web of Fear” is still missing. On the DVD, it’s reconstructed with still photographs and a complete audio recording. It’s tedious to sit through, but worth it for Lethbridge-Stewart’s debut. The DVD’s picture and sound are remarkably good. I didn’t know what to expect, but the episodes are crisp and clear enough to convince me that they look and sound the same as they did when they first aired. My only complaint is the DVD’s lack of special features, apart from a trailer for “The Enemy of the World.” A documentary on the episode’s discovery, restoration, and the reconstruction of episode three would have been welcome. Some reminiscences by surviving cast members like Hines and Watling would have been great, too. But I suppose just getting to finally see “The Web of Fear” more than forty years after it first aired is its own kind of special feature.

I think fans of classic Doctor Who will really enjoy seeing “The Web of Fear.” It’s available on DVD and various streaming platforms. Check it out.

The Iraq War: Part 86,954,239

They said Saddam Hussein worked with Al-Qaeda to coordinate 9/11. They were wrong.

They said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They were wrong.

They said we would be greeted as liberators. They were wrong.

They said the war would be over in a matter of weeks or months, not years. They were wrong.

They said the war would pay for itself in oil revenue. They were wrong.

They said PFC Jessica Lynch had been raped by her captors. They lied to us, knowingly.

They said the insurgency was in its death throes in 2005. They were wrong.

They said they were not torturing Iraqi prisoners. They lied to us, knowing.

They said extremists would flee the area, not congregate to it. They were wrong.

Someone remind me why we should be interested in their opinions again now?

The Scariest Part: Matthew Johnson Talks About IRREGULAR VERBS AND OTHER STORIES

Irregular Verbs by Matthew Johnson cover

Welcome to this week’s installment of The Scariest Part, a recurring feature in which authors, comic book writers, filmmakers, and game creators tell us what scares them in their latest works of horror, dark fantasy, dark science fiction, and suspense. (If you’d like to be featured on The Scariest Part, check out the guidelines here.)

My guest is Matthew Johnson, whose latest book is the short story collection Irregular Verbs and Other Stories. Here’s the publisher’s description:

keluarga: to move to a new village

lunak: to search for something without finding it

mencintai: to love for the last time

Meet a guilt-ridden nurse who atones for her sins by joining her zombified patients in exile; a lone soldier standing guard on a desolate Arctic island against an invasion that may be all in his mind; a folksinger who tries to unionize Hell; and a private eye who only takes your case after you die. Visit a resettlement centre for refugees from ancient Rome; a lost country recreated by its last citizen on the Internet; and a restaurant where the owner’s ghost lingers for one final party. Discover the inflationary effects of a dragon’s hoard, the secret connection between Mark Twain and Frankenstein, and the magic power of blackberry jam — all in this debut collection of strange, funny, and bittersweet tales.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Matthew Johnson:

When I first thought of doing a short story collection with CZP it seemed like a bit of an odd fit. After all, ChiZine is known mostly for dark fiction and horror, and my work tends more towards science fiction and fantasy; when I write horror it’s usually by accident — something that seems straightforward or even funny to me but which turns out to terrify other people. But the fact that the collection exists at all is because of a time when I scared myself: for me, in fact, the scariest part of Irregular Verbs was wondering whether I would ever write it.

Let me explain. There was a long period when, as a high school teacher with no kids, I had oodles of time to write. From September to June I was a teacher, not a writer, but for two months of the year I wrote full-time, eight hours or more a day at the keyboard. In just over five years of that schedule I wrote a lot of stuff, and some of it got a bit of attention: stories that got good reviews, or were included in Best Of collections, and even got translated into a few other languages.

Then, in the space of a few years, I left teaching and started a new job (the one I still have now.) Now I was working twelve months a year, facing a fearsome learning curve and — most importantly — doing work that I couldn’t compartmentalize off from my writing: designing lessons, creating educational computer games, and writing blogs, things that used the same part of my brain as writing fiction did.

And then my son Leo was born.

Don’t get me wrong: I love all my children more dearly than life itself. But Leo was not an easy baby. For the first five months of his life he was a colicky monster that could only be soothed by constant rocking and singing. For a long time, writing was completely off the table: I spent hours every night with Leo in my arms, sitting in an old rocking chair that had belonged to my wife’s grandfather. (He had been famous for his ability to calm babies, though by the time I knew him he only ever shared the chair with George, a reformed barn cat with demon eyes and needle-sharp claws.) What little energy I had left at the end of these nights was completely taken up by my day job, and as the months crawled by I began to wonder if I would ever write anything again.

Then, one night, something appeared in my mind that terrified me. The day before I had read Leo “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle,” and now I had a thought that wouldn’t let me go: what if all of those portal fantasies, all of those stories about boys and girls being taken off for adventures in strange worlds — what if those stories were traps? What if they were lures, designed to trick children into following elves and talking animals to a very different, much darker destiny? Now that I had a child of my own to protect, held tight in my arms, the idea scared me so much it wouldn’t let go.

I spent the night working out who was luring these children, why they were doing it and where they were taking them. By morning I had the outlines of a story, “Beyond the Fields You Know,” that begins like this:

The boy was called Calx. He did not remember his real name.

He was not sure how long he had been at the House. He did not know how long it had been since he had seen his parents; their names, too were long gone, scraped away by toil and hunger. But he remembered their faces, and his bedroom with the biplane wallpaper and the Elmo sheets — and he remembered the Gnome with the Silver Key.

In the end it took me about six months to write it, stealing time while on planes and in hotels during business trips, but that didn’t matter: what mattered was that I was still writing, was still a writer. That gave me the will to put together a collection of my work and shop it around, and finally find a home for it at ChiZine.

I still write a lot more slowly than I used to, and — like most writers — I’m still working to find time and energy to write. (I am, in fact, writing this in an airport.) But ever since that night, I don’t doubt anymore that I will keep writing, and some of my favourite stories in Irregular Verbs are the ones that I’ve written since my kids were born. Because of the way that story scared me, the way it forced me to write it and wouldn’t let me go, I’m not scared anymore.

Matthew Johnson: Website / Twitter

Irregular Verbs and Other Stories: Amazon / Barnes and Noble / Powells / ChiZine / Goodreads

Matthew Johnson has published stories in places such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Strange Horizons and has published one novel, Fall From Earth, from Bundoran Press. His work has been collected in several Year’s Best anthologies and has been translated into Danish, Czech and Russian. While not writing or engaged in full-contact parenting he works as the Director of Education for MediaSmarts, an internationally known non-profit source of digital and media literacy resources where he writes lessons and blogs, designs award-winning educational games and occasionally does pirate voices in both English and French.

Quoted In an Article About Ed Brubaker’s “Fatale”

Well, folks, it looks like my dream of seeing my name in the pages of Bloody Disgusting, one of the best horror media news sites around, has finally come true. My article “Hardboiled Horror” from Nightmare Magazine issue #19 is quoted in this editorial on Ed Brubaker’s comic “Fatale.”

“Fatale” sounds right up my alley. I can’t wait to check it out. In the meantime, if you’re interested in reading my entire “Hardboiled Horror” article, it’s still available for free online at the Nightmare Magazine site.

Also, happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there! I hope you like your new ties and/or grilling equipment!