Saturday 28 October 2023


First broadcast Mar/Apr ’68
Written by Victor Pemberton
PLOT SPOILERS scream from the depths of this review

"It's down there, in the darkness, in the pipeline, waiting!"


Google-image this story, and see what you see. Admittedly, as we’re on another lost one, the options are limited to the surviving stills. But most hits are of that grotesque gurn (coming later) or the Doctor using a stethoscope on a piece of pipe (above). Both gloriously absurd, the sort of thing we love this show for. From them, I’d always imagined this would be at very least a good episode.

Alas not.

It's clearly another direct lift from Quatermass, though this time by a circuitous route. Hammer had intended ’X The Unknown’ (1956) as a sequel to their ’Quatermass Xperiment’ from the previous year. Ever-irascible, Nigel Kneale refused use of his character. But they just substituted a different name and used another ‘X’ in the title as the connecting element.

The threat this time was animate earth on the rampage. Which Victor Pemberton borrowed, tried to pitch it as a ’Who’ script, failed and so turned it into the radio drama ’The Slide’ (broadcast 1966). Through reasons unclear the rejection was then reconsidered, but with animate earth now used goods it was switched to sentient seaweed.

Now, seaweed and foam are not, at the end of the day, particularly blood-curdling things. In fact, when rooms start to fill with foam, your first response is to wonder if this is turning into an Ibiza-style party. 

But none of these are in themselves reasons to fail. In fact the show has already got away with worse. (David Whitaker apparently rejected it for the recycling, which is a little like the miner calling the steelworker red.) ’The Moonbase’ was barely any less generic but made use of its story type and, at least in its first half, generated a genuine air of menace and mystery. This is more like repeating something by rote, knowing you already know it. It’s not, by a strict definition, bad. It’s more flat, devoid of fizz.

Similarly ’X The Unknown’ had worked a whole lot better before the big bad was revealed to be not terribly big or bad, but did stir up an effective air of foreboding till then. With this, you spend a long time waiting for stuff to happen, then when it finally does it scarcely seems worth the wait.

Yes the stethoscope thing is brilliantly bonkers, but it’s gone within seconds. When the sinister Oak and Quill show up in the second episode things definitely perk up. (Helped by their scenes surviving. They were clipped out by Australian censors, and are now ironically all that remains.) Their menace is effective through being laced with comedy, and vice versa.

Quill’s open-wide gurn verges on cartoony. Yet this Guardian review of the animated reconstruction (which I’ve not seen) makes the interesting point that when he’s actually rendered as a cartoon the effect is diminished. It needs that uncanny valley.

But they don’t seem to have much in common with the other taken-over characters, who act more… well, taken over. And, as if there’s no way to resolve this, they get successively marginalised from later episodes and disappear before the end. Yet if they don’t make any sense, they do work – which kind of feels more important. And there’ll be more of that.

Against Vegetable Malevolence

The seaweed is forever taking over people, but only speaks at a couple of points. One of which is to insist: “The mind does not exist. It is tired. It is dead. It is obsolete. Only our new masters can offer us life. The body does not exist. Soon we shall all be one.”

Rather than standing for Those Darn Commies (like people are wont to claim), the weed does function as actual seaweed. Its a nature’s revenge story, stirred into retaliation at its abode being trespassed on by that intrusive oil drilling. And the point is how unlike us its vegetable malevolence is. Even with the Cybermen, becoming like them means becoming another iteration of them, another unit in the ranks. This is a step beyond that, we’ll all merge together in one vast undifferentiated blob. The earlier line “come over to us, come over to us” is perhaps repeated for both its literal and underlying meaning.

Now there’s an obvious objection here, which would run something like…

“Give up on this consciousness business. It’s no good, you know.”

“If you don’t have consciousness, how come you’re able to tell us to give up on it?”

“What? To advance the plot, fool!”

But then again, it does need conveying in some way and about the only means available back then was dialogue. In fact there should be more of it. “I have existed for millennia, you mayfly creatures must succumb to my enduring truth, soon all will be as it was before”… that sort of thing. Perhaps with several taken-over humans talking in unison. It would have been more involving than the endless “let’s do something”/”no let’s not” debates which take up most of the time.

Similarly, when the taken-over Maggie and Robson meet on the beach they speak more like… well, like they’re two people that the manifestations of one entity. Maggie walking into the waves makes no story sense. But it’s a good representation of de-evolution, a more sinister version of the Reggie Perrin opening.

And in offering an end to separation, a way to rejoin the all, the seaweed represents something at least partly attractive. We could be back where we belong, never confused or isolated again. All truly horrific things are also part enticing.

Interestingly, there are those who see this as another classic story. Some may simply want more ’Doctor Who’, and the more like more *’Doctor Who’* it is the better. But others may seize upon these few hints and suggestions and construct a whole story out of them, their minds overpainting all the generic features with something more colourful. A story which, had it just been served them, wouldn’t have been as involving as the one they felt invited to create.

This is always going to be the case to some degree, for watching or reading is never a purely passive act. But ’Doctor Who’ seems to invite it more than other things. Which is surely a large part of the reason why it came to have such a large fandom. We may even have a preference for an incomplete experience such as this, as it gives us gaps we can fill in as we choose.

And to say I can be sympathetic to this view would be an understatement. That’s exactly what I did over ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, at the very least. It’s what I tried to do here, though this time with more limited success. But there’s got to be some collaboration between you and the text, or you’re just daydreaming with the TV on. And this marks my limit.

Always a Base Chief, Always a Companion

As always, there’s the base chief who stubbornly distrusts the Doctor up to at least episode four. He’s been given other names, this time its Robson. At the same time, everything unique about this instance makes it worse. He’s worked his way up through the ranks and so has retained a shopkeeper’s shillings-and-pence brain, fixated upon production quotas. This leads him to thunderingly shout down the plummy voices of the boffins who try to talk more educated sense to him, the endlessly repeated set-piece arguments setting their different accents at odds. He seems so defensive as to be actively paranoid.

It’s not as extreme as the scheming Bragen in ‘Power of the Daleks’ but there’s a strong sense of power being placed in the wrong hands, inverting natural class hierarchies. There are those who will rightly raise the alarm when the show becomes racist, but show no concern over this sort of thing.

It’s true that time is put into Victoria’s send-off, rather than it just being tagged onto the end. And many celebrate this story for that. But assigning time isn’t the same thing as using it.

Companions tend to start well but degenerate into screamers, like Susan. Or some go the other way, starting out as tedious simperers then inexplicably gaining some gumption in their very last story, like Vicki. (Some don’t do either, like Dodo. Who should really have been called Don’tdon’t.)

Curiously, in her last story Victoria seems to go for both. She suddenly gains the ability to get out of locked rooms with a hairpin, but also perpetually blubs about all the danger like she’s only just noticed its there. Susan went off to get married, Vicki to have adventures with her new-found boyfriend. Victoria gets doled out substitute parents. Ho hum.

The weed being susceptible to her screaming is a good meta gag, even if it gets scant intra-story explanation. (It’s the “particular pattern of sound” is all we’re told. Is seaweed supposed to have ears?) God only knows whether this makes her more or less pro-active, but you can’t help but think for the weed to 
really be in trouble its weakness would have been whingeing.

Saturday 14 October 2023


First broadcast Feb/Mar 1968
Written by Mervyn Haisman + Henry Lincoln 
PLOT SPOILERS lie ahead, as likely as line delays! 

“It’s like a spider's web, ain't it?”
“Yes. And we're the flies, all right. But where is the spider?”

Yeti on the Circle Line

A mere three stories after ‘The Abominable Snowmen’… this is the fastest reappearance so far. Which takes us to a poser. As we’ve seen before, ’Doctor Who’ is often torn between the requirement of individual stories to do their own thing and the imperative to build up a rogue’s gallery of monsters. Repeat performances can lead to diminished returns. And yet the Yeti…

Their first appearance was, if not bad, not better than okay. While this, their second, is widely regarded as a classic. Despite retaining the original writers, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln. What can have caused this uptick in quality?

One answer is setting. Classic ’Who’ spends so much time hanging round the same few sets, getting those sets right is significant. And this is of course the one where they decided to take the Tube. Which makes a virtue out of the necessity for limited and confined spaces. And of then throwing everything into semi-darkness so you don’t see quite how limited and confined they are.

Even the one above-ground sequence in the fourth episode, though shot at least partially in the streets, is normally made up of close-cropped shots - rarely including any sky, keeping things claustrophobic. (Taking the Yeti out of the shadows, alas, works less well.)

But there’s an extra element… At first, the travellers don’t know they’re in the Underground. And while of course we watch with hindsight, surely even contemporary viewers would have recognised it before them. Or at the very least Londoners would, at a time the Beeb was London-centric. And they were supposed to. The original plan, after all, had been to shoot on location.

So familiar names like ‘Holborn’ and Charing Cross’ have been taken over by this alien entity, it’s remorseless progress displayed on the regular Tube map. (Wyndham does something similar with above-ground place names in ‘Day Of the Triffids’.) This may be so widely seen as a classic story because it does such a classic ’Who’ thing - defamiliarise the familiar, turn it into something sinister.

And, whether the setting inspired, whether new script editor Derrick Sherwin had a hand in it, or whether it was just a case of second time lucky… Haisman and Lincoln also turn out a significantly better script this time round.

In the big scheme of things this may follow in the wake of ‘The War Machines’ in establishing the ‘aliens head for the Home Counties’ story type. But it’s eerily empty settings are actually a more similar experience to ‘Dalek Invasion Of Earth’. And like that story only more so, everything is stripped down for action, pressed into service. It feels less meandering, more compelling.

As is not unusual, very little makes sense. (If what the Great Intelligence wants is the Doctor, who go to so much trouble to take over the whole of London?) But pressing questions are constantly thrown at you, to snatch your attention from this.

As has happened before now, the Doctor couldn’t be in an episode because Troughton had gone on holiday. Normally, everyone else keeps talking and hopes you don’t notice. This time his absence is foregrounded. The first episode cliffhanger essentially tells you itself how he escapes, even if we were likely to conceive he might be killed off. But with everyone constantly talking about him, you cannot help but wonder where he is or what he’s up to.

Though the overriding question, who is the traitor, suffers from hindsight. We all now know it can’t be the main suspect, because it’s the Brigadier. (Here still a Colonel.) Which, unfortunately, it mostly seems to be set up for. The eventual reveal seems both arbitrary and guessable. The Staff Sergeant dies then gets better again, even when the Private who died with him doesn’t? Mmm.

(There are admittedly set-ups. When Driver Evans, the comedy Welshman, gives the Doctor a Yeti figure which brings their bigger brethren to your door, he says this is on the Staff Sergeant’s order. Yet how he steals the web sample from the tobacco tin remains a mystery. And the most useful takeover for the Intelligence would be one person the Doctor never seems to suspect, the scientist Anne Travers. That way he’d know the lab findings straight away, without waiting for them to be passed on to the military.)

All-Out For the Otherly

More than most of the Troughton era, this story is saturated in the Cold War era, marinaded in paranoia. In the tradition of spy movies, what the Great Intelligence is after is intelligence. Intelligence inside the Doctor’s head rather than encrypted onto microfilm, but still intelligence.

Then there’s the deliberately inconclusive ending, when the Doctor’s rather Doctorly and Jamie’s more action-packed solutions conflict - allowing the Intelligence to escape. This of course sets it up to come back and be bad another day. But that was never so foregrounded with either the Daleks or the Cybermen. The lack of triumphalism is striking, and does suggest the way the Cold War didn’t just mean war, but war without end. (Early publicity shots of Jon Pertwee involved Yeti, so sure were they of a third outing. As it happened, quarrels over the rights ensured they never came back.)

Yet at the same time, again more than most of the Troughton era, looking for exact Cold War analogies won’t get you all that far. The Cybermen, as we’ve already seen, were a bad fit for stand-on Reds. The Great intelligence would be an even worse one. For that matter, it doesn’t really lead to any kind of analogies. ’The Abominable Snowmen’, as we saw, led naturally to talk of psychology and Buddhism. This story is so tightly woven it seems impervious to that sort of thing. Analogies bounce off like bullets from a Yeti’s hide.

Instead… Yes the Yeti are back, but this is the story which goes all-out for the otherly, ’Doctor Who’ as (capitalised) Weird fiction, if ever there was. But that Weirdness is conveyed through reference to things to be found here but which still feel otherworldly, on the borderline between being tangible and nebulous – webs, fog, pulsing fungus. The Intelligence is described as “a formless, shapeless thing, floating about in space like a cloud of mist.” The last story was titled ’The Abominable Snowmen’. Whereas this time that non-stuff even takes over the name. And not content with that it reappears in the end credits.

The vanishing fungus sample, however awkward a part of the whodunnit, fits neatly into this, as if the stuff is inherently ungraspable. Compared to them the Ice Warriors and Cybermen are solid, material things. They may well beat you in a fight. But at least you’ll recognise what’s going on while it happens.

In fact the image which will most likely will stay with me isn’t a rearing Yeti in a dark tunnel, even if that’s where Google searches go. In fact it’s Jamie and the Colonel opening a door. They fear there might be Yeti lurking the other side, as happened earlier. Instead they come across the pulsing fungus. It doesn’t look like the next room has something strange in it, it looks like the door opens to strangeness itself, one reality system invading another. It’s not entering our reality to enact some plan against us, the mere act of it entering our reality is inherently destructive.

Writing about an ‘Outer Limits’ episode he doesn’t even like, Mark Holcomb hits on the term “clinical weirdness”. And much of ‘Web Of Fear’s atmosphere comes from the matter-of-fact military mindset being held up against the all-out weird.

Moving the action forward a few decades, formally speaking this follows on from ‘Tomb Of The Cybermen’. Yet because of this sheer otherly business, it’s perhaps more akin to ’Web Planet’, even if the style is less interpretative dance and more Expressionist sketch. Count the ways - all a plot to trap the Tardis/Doctor (delete as appropriate), drones mysteriously carrying out the will of an alien intelligence, whose voice we don’t hear for some while. Not to mention the re-use of webs!

The Troughton era has a reputation for being formulaic. And it’s true that foes recur more frequently than with Hartnell. But just as the Cybermen were reworked in order tell new stories about them, so here is the Great Intelligence.

Yetis On the Loo In Tooting Bec

Among many other things, this is the story which establishes the meta gag “all these tunnels look the same to me.” You could perhaps argue for a long time over whether this is iconic and so became an establishing story in the show’s history, or it was establishing so now feels iconic. So let’s not.

Let’s note instead it doesn’t start in the standard way, with the Tardis landing somewhere new and their crew finding their way about. They’re travellers, after all, not secret agents. Instead the Intelligence makes a grab for the Doctor. There’s nothing that automatically associates that with repeat foes. In fact, ’Web Planet’ used it for an entirely new adversary. And ‘Celestial Toymaker’ for a retconned one. But it was also used with the Daleks, in both ‘The Chase’ and ‘The Evil Of the Daleks’. And a rise in repeat foes made it more likely.

But it’s generally agreed that more was being established here than ‘rogues gallery on rota’. It was also a prototype for stories set on contemporary Earth.(Well, England. Well, London. Well, North London.) Which came into their own with the next Doctor. (Even if they made full use of colour, while this is in every inch a black-and-white story.)

And so we inevitably head to that well-known Jon Pertwee comment: “All the threats should come to Earth… There’s nothing more alarming than coming home and finding a Yeti sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec.” (And I would indeed be alarmed at that thought. My loo being in Tooting Bec, that’s going to get inconvenient.)

An idea which Wood and Miles, in their ’About Time’ guide, pillory as “the worst idea ever.” They make one valid point, that incongruity is primarily a visual motif and less a a story idea. (You see much of it in Surrealist art, for example.) But ’Who’ is often bog-standard plots set on repeat, enlivened by some iconic visuals.

And how do we respond when we get that? Firstly children often perceive ‘imagistically’, taking in a cascade of images, rather than try to follow involved plots. I for one, if looking at old TV shows or comics from my youth, often stumble on an image embedded but isolated in my brain, and think “oh, that’s where that came from.”

Further, memory is primarily visual and highly selective, more a still camera than a CCTV recorder. Where ’Doctor Who’ remained alive, before re-releases were even conceived of, was in people’s memories. The disappointment some feel when re-united with those classic stories may be that their association was only ever with a few images, but became misattributed to the surrounding three hours.

But more importantly, both sides in this debate suppose the link between creating incongruity and Earth-set stories. Which isn’t necessarily the case. What we need is the juxataposition of familiar and unfamiliar, which is quite distinct from saying that we’re English so can only relate to English settings. The important feature in the example above is that the ordinary-looking door opens from an ordinary-looking room. And for that to happen things don’t need to be set on Earth. The earlier story 'The Macra Terror’ worked in a very similar way, despite being set on an unspecified colony which was quite unlike everyday Earth.