Doctor Who: breaking down a key scene

The Yeti attack at Covent Garden in recently recovered Doctor Who episode, The Web Of Fear, is a masterwork. Here's why...

The Web Of Fear was commissioned after a positive response to The Abominable Snowmen by then Story Editor (soon-to-be Producer) Peter Bryant, with the intention that it would close out Doctor Who’s fifth season. Rewrites for Fury From The Deep resulted in it becoming the penultimate story (one of many variables that resulted in Nicholas Courtney playing the role of Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart). Previously available as an audio soundtrack narrated by Fraser Hines, the film of The Web Of Fear was returned to the BBC archives in 2013.

I first experienced The Web Of Fear as a Target Novelisation at some point in the Nineties (I can’t remember if it was in Uddingston Library – so many Targets, so many Asterix books – or my primary school’s bookshelves), and then more recently as an audiobook in a bundle with The Abominable Snowman. Even in audio format, The Web Of Fear still works well as a gripping and claustrophobic tale with several satisfying twists, but– and this is no slight to Fraser Hines’ reading– it’s nowhere near as good as seeing the adventure. There’s so much visual splendour: the London Underground sets that famously received a letter of complaint after officials believed the show had filmed on the real trainlines, the four hundred or so bits of business that Patrick Troughton’s face does in every scene, and the Australian censor-baiting horror set-pieces. The most striking of these is the Yeti attack at Covent Garden. Even though I first saw it aged 28 it seared itself into my brain, to the extent that I remember specifically the emotions of shock, awe and fear it induced.

It’s become something of an in-joke that UNIT are somewhat useless against any sort of invading force, be it a giant robot or Mike from The Young Ones, but here – before UNIT, but still in a reality where at least one soldier looked like Derek Ware – there’s nothing funny about their fight. In a deserted London they look for the TARDIS – left in Covent Garden – as a means of escape, only to be intercepted by a group of Yeti. Bullets have some effect on them – breaking with tradition before it even started – but explosives do the job. Then the group begin running out of ammo, and are surrounded. Only Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart escapes with his life.

Filmed on December 17th 1967 and January 14th 1968, the fight between soldiers and Yeti was done under pressure of a tight schedule. The lack of daylight hours meant director Douglas Camfield wasn’t able to complete the shots he wanted in December (the rest of the film sequences took place in Stage 3 at Ealing). The actual location is North of the market (made famous, of course, by its appearances in The War Machines and Invasion Of The Dinosaurs) around Shelton Street, with filming also taking place on Neal Street and Old Brewer’s Yard. Permission to use the yard (owned at the time by the grocers TJ Poupart, whose name simply isn’t funny) was most likely gained by Production Assistant Gareth Gwenlan, later to be BBC Head of Comedy and an insult in Red Dwarf.

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What makes this scene work so well is that you get a sense of the soldiers’ desperation in the face of a seemingly unstoppable opponent. That they do manage to destroy some of the Yeti robots (in redesigned costumes for this serial, to make them look less cuddly) but still succumb makes it worse: they’re clearly competent but out of their depth in a way that makes later UNIT-era fight scenes seem more like Golden Age comic knockabouts. Derek Ware and HAVOC staged some brutal fights in the Pertwee era (and also a fair few in the Hartnell era), but this is his best work. It unfolds like a horror film: the introduction of the threat, the attempt to fight it, the realisation that you can’t as the cast is whittled down.

Douglas Camfield is rightly lauded as one of the show’s great directors, famed for his military-precision and preparation. From what we know of his approach we can be sure that he’d have planned this meticulously. To film a seven minute action sequence on location in Central London involving men in monster costumes, gunfire, explosions and special effects – on the budget of Doctor Who – seems like a minor miracle (especially with the rapidly dwindling daylight, plus the distraction of Fraser Hines and a Yeti-encased John Levene doing a ballroom dance around Covent Garden).

In fact, with studio scenes interspersed between location segments, you can see that Camfield is enjoying the freedom of the space. The contrast in camera work is significant, with studio scenes largely static due to the limited space. On location whips and zooms rush towards the oncoming Yeti, following the soldier’s gaze, almost double-taking in shock. Multiple shots of the few Yeti costumes (six actors are credited as Yeti in the story) emerging from every conceivable nook and cranny give the impression of an unstoppable army that will keep on coming. There’s a quick cut to the locked gates being attacked from the outside, one of many ways the editing conveys the fight’s constant movement.

While the scene cuts back to the Doctor and Captain Knight, you can hear the gunshots in the background. Brian Hodgson added a roar to the Yeti to make them seem fiercer – a slowed-down and reverberated toilet flush, try it at home – but it seems so quiet compared to the din of the previous scenes. Lethbridge-Stewart shouts over the sound of gunfire, explosions and roars. The scene is backed with stock music. M. Slaven’s Space Adventure Parts 1-3 was most likely selected because of its track record in augmenting Doctor Who monsters slowly advancing towards people. More commonly associated with Cybermen (it was used in Tomb Of The Cybermen for the famous scenes of the waking Cybermen breaking free of their tombs), it was part of the ‘Classic Series Medley’ at the 2013 Doctor Who proms. Its rhythm is like stop-start footsteps, complimenting the Yeti’s inexorable movement, the ominous brass alerting more sluggish viewers that there’s reason to be wary.

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What sets this apart from other Doctor Who fight scenes is the length, and that it’s not any sort of grand last stand. It’s a desperate gambit, sure, but it’s to get to the TARDIS so that they might try to escape in it, rather than the final stage of a masterplan. We know it’s a brutal story, as we’ve seen soldiers die in valiant rearguard actions out of foolish bravery (attacking a Yeti) or bad luck (their friend attacks a Yeti, and then their gun jams), but this attempt to fight back just gets nearly everyone killed.

Yet it’s not the soldiers’ fault. They fight well against overwhelming numbers, toppling several Yeti with explosives in well-framed and edited shots (kudos to Film editors Philip Barnikel and Colin Hobson, and cameramen Alan Jonas and Jimmy Court). By keeping the frame compact and the cutting before the Yetis hit the ground it keeps the sense of movement and chaos going, while maintaining a steady pace that lets you follow the action. Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart is the focal point, when he cries out in warning to his soldiers but they fight on til the bitter end, you feel his pain as he returns to base and snaps at the Doctor. We understand. We know exactly what he’s been through.

That’s why it’s a great scene. It’s thrilling and horrific. And Lethbridge-Stewart feels every death.