This essay was originally posted on my otherwise defunct Dreamwidth on 17th October 2014.
I hate The Web of Fear. It's not the worst Doctor Who story I've watched on a structural level (The Celestial Toymaker can't be beaten here, though it's definitely one of the worst) or the one that has pissed me off the most (Day of the Moon, Angels Take Manhattan, Let's Kill Hitler) or the most racist (Tomb of the Cybermen can fuck off), but by god, I hate it. I hate it and I hate the fact that most Who fans take it seriously just because it was missing for years and has the Brigadier in it. I hate the fact that the fanbase consensus is that the slow-motion Mornington Crescent-em-up The Web of Fear is a classic and hate things like The Gunfighters and The Underwater Menace for being quirky and including singing.
(Classic Doctor Who fandom doesn't really seem to like the comedy stories as much as you'd expect. It does seem to be based around the idea that Doctor Who would be better if it was more like Star Trek, or even Star Wars. People love City of Death, all right, but at the time of broadcast people criticised it for being silly - and then the writer went on to become incredibly famous for creating a series of really funny books that everyone loves, so now it's considered genius. Of course, this is bollocks - there's no reason why good comedy is any lower than good horror - and it's especially cruel to judge comedy in a series where the most obvious appeal is that the main character is an eccentric who pulls googly-eyed faces and clowns around and defeats humourless racist robots by being funnier than everyone else in the room. Say what you like about NuWho fandom, but at least most of the Tennant-GIF-and-fez-brigade understand that jokes need to be there, and that it's good having fun.)
The first couple of episodes of The Web of Fear aren't really that much worse than anything, and even have at least two good scenes. There's a nicely obvious Strong Female Character bit where Miss Travers tells a sexist jerk asking her how she got her job, "When I was a little girl, I thought I would like to become a scientist. So I became a scientist", and an oddly warm part where a couple of UNIT soldiers speculate ignorantly about whether the London Underground-invading robot yeti shooting webs out of guns (yes, I know, more about this later) are sent by the Russians, lacking the knowledge, interest and power needed to ever get an answer. But then the third episode tosses in the Brigadier and then he needs to have the plot explained to him for the entire episode, and so nothing happens in it, and then we're far beyond the point of no return.
The Great Intelligence - one of those villains Doctor Who fandom fetishises because it looks a bit like something HP Lovecraft would create - claims it has no interest in revenge ("a very human emotion") and immediately explains to the Doctor that it's going to get revenge on him. I think this is deliberate - I think the Great Intelligence is a cosmic manchild, neither as powerful nor as inhuman as it pretends to be. The Great Intelligence can possess people but needs to construct machines in order to get anything done, and wants to steal the Doctor's brain out of what is probably just a wounded ego. It's the most insecure eldritch horror I think I've ever encountered. It delivers these threats to the Doctor through the possessed mouth of Professor Travers, an old ally of the Doctor from the story The Abominable Snowman and one of the most likeable characters in the story, and the writers flat out forget to have the Doctor appear at all upset about the fact that the Great Intelligence has hollowed out his friend's mind - he just reacts with Doctorish indignation, and some frowning and companion homoeroticism on account of those being his gimmicks in this incarnation.
Say what you like about Moffat, but at least he bothered to have the Doctor be properly upset about Walter Simeon's possession. The characterisation of the Great Intelligence is actually very consistent, and you should not listen to anyone saying otherwise.
I think I did mention the fact that the monsters in the story are London Underground-infesting robot Yeti with glowing eyes and handheld smoke pistols, ridiculous in clawlike hands, a child with a latex halloween glove and a spud gun. This smoke coalesces into spiderweb-like structures that block radio waves and control people's minds and do whatever they're supposed to at that point in the story. They are controlled by floating metal spheres, or by manipulating wooden carvings of Yeti which act as homing devices. If this sounds like a pile of completely random traits I'm pulling out of a stovepipe hat, that's exactly what it's like. And that is why The Web of Fear completely falls for me.
What is a Yeti? A miserable pile of spooky traits, shoved together with no rhyme or reason. The Yeti make no sense, and there is no context to them. The Yeti are not a metaphor.
The Daleks are a metaphor for fascism and paranoia. They wall themselves off from a world they're frightened of and do not seek to understand and then scream threats and bigotry at it from behind an expressionless luminous screen, like you or someone you know is probably doing in a comment section right now. They are Nazis in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Communist agents in Power of the Daleks, dark alchemies and magic formed from the evil side of human nature in Evil of the Daleks, and Dalekmania-induced mascots in The Chase, but even if what they mean changes between stories their meaning is always there and it is always significant.
The Yeti, in their first story, did represent something. The Doctor defends a Buddhist monastery from suddenly violent native wildlife which turns out to be not native at all, but robots built to look like Yeti. An inorganic but somehow thinking being, metal spheres and glass, has already subverted the priest (a five hundred year old being of great wisdom and quasi-magical powers) and is using his religious influence to shield itself. In the climax, the giant pyramid mountains appear illuminated and glassy like the pyramid structure of the Intelligence, the land itself becoming the evil influence; and while the Doctor teaches the monks to go against the teachings which caused the toxicity to take hold, he also has the monks teach Victoria a prayer in order to help her resist its influence. In this world, the Yeti are technological encroachment on a traditional way of life, a creation of a deeper cultural corruption that prizes power more than spirituality.
But what are they in The Web of Fear? They're just there because... the Yeti are fun. They are just there to be monsters, gain a bunch of other arbitrary traits and mean nothing. There is nothing that would change in the plot if you replaced the Great Intelligence with WOTAN and the Yeti with the War Machines - in fact, that'd improve it, since the Machines are a product of the future promised by 1960s London. Or replaced the GI with the Animus and the Yeti with the Zarbi - this would also work better, since the Animus was at least established to manipulate the world around it with webs. (There was a First Doctor comic with Zarbi invading the London Underground, actually. The Zarbi walked on six bug legs instead of two obviously human ones, though, and the writer seemed to think that the First Doctor's gimmick of calling Ian slightly incorrect names was something he did all the time instead of when he was trying to annoy Ian.) A monster that means nothing is no monster, less than a monster. It makes the story less than a story, chokes understanding out of it. Like that stupid orange clam monster that Harry steps in around the late middle of Genesis of the Daleks for no reason other than to make the plot worse, the Yeti are an impediment to the story's own theme. I've watched a lot of bad Doctor Who but The Web of Fear is the first one that actually means nothing.
The litmus test for whether a monster means anything is to remove it from the story and look at what is left behind. Have a go, it's like a game. Take the Yeti from The Web of Fear and you're left with a story about the London Underground getting cunked up, something thoroughly nothing to do with the Yeti. But if you take the Daleks (and the clams, I suppose) out of Genesis of the Daleks what you're left with is a bunch of racist politicians who have already decided that terrible decisions must be made to determine their own survival, while the Doctor gets squeamish over whether to stop them in case his own view of how things should be is as megalomaniacal as theirs.
Nothing unexpected there, but then I tried doing it to The Macra Terror. People seem to see The Macra Terror as a generic runaround in a quirky setting with some fun Delia Derbyshire music, but take out the giant crab monsters hypnotising a holiday camp planet and what you get is - Ben, a young man, realises his apparently happy world is one where people have to work themselves to death in dehumanising jobs for no benefit to anybody, with the sole thing to look up to being the occasional week in Butlin's. He eventually comes to believe in this world until his countercultural friend reminds him what life is really about.
And suddenly, Gridlock makes sense - it's a fairly common opinion in Doctor Who fandom that the Macra should not have been used in Gridlock because their personalities are so different, much like how the new series ruined the Great Intelligence by bringing him back explicitly and openly obsessed with revenge instead of hiding it with a veneer of hipster irony. This has decent reasoning behind it - the Macra go from being hyperintelligent spacefarers to speechless animals, although they still share an interest in feeding on toxic gas. But, crucially, what the Macra represent is the same. The people in Gridlock are lovely, intelligent, creative and different individuals literally trapped on their commute to work all their lives, with only their decorated homes, chatting with their friends and singing hymns to keep them going. The fundamental horror in the lives of the colonists and the lives of the New New Yorkers is the same, and, so, so is the monster.
This is how watching bad television can teach you more than good television, at least if all you care about is crabs.