Doctor Who’s fifth season will forever be remembered for the debut of two new sets of monsters – The Ice Warriors, who would show up in the next story, and the Yeti. “The Abominable Snowmen” was such a big hit with the viewing public that a sequel for later in the season was immediately commissioned, and whilst many don’t reckon this six-parter to be quite as good as it’s moody sequel, “The Web of Fear,” this story is still one of Troughton’s best and is a fantastic introduction to the Great Intelligence and their monstrous servants. Being the first story of fifth production block, this serial was afforded the luxury – still rare at this point in the series’ history – of a week’s location filming, which took place in Snowdonia, North Wales, at the start of September 1967. In the existing episode and the telesnaps from this story, the location footage looks superb on screen – the money really shows!
“There’s a great deal of difference between the Highlands and the Himalayas, Jamie”
“Aye. They’re bigger.”
The first few episodes of the serial are slow moving, but nevertheless compelling. The surviving second episode (available on the Lost in Time DVD) probably isn’t the best showcase for the story, as the episode is bogged down for long periods in the Detsen Monastery, but even so the slow build-up allows the audience time to really get to know the characters, and they are a particularly fascinating bunch! Travers, the explorer, is played by Jack Watling (Deborah Watling’s father) who brings a lot of weight to the role and Krisong (Norman Jones), is also especially memorable as the warrior monk who takes an instant dislike to the Doctor and his companions. The serial follows the tried-and-tested plot formula where the Doctor is initially suspected of wrongdoing and then eventually earns the trust of the people who initially suspect him, and although it has been done time after time throughout the series it never works better than it does here. To see the Doctor finally win over Travers, Krisong and the monks is wonderful to watch.
Unfortunately much of the story has little dialogue and is therefore difficult to enjoy on audio alone. Moreover, a lot of the gags are purely visual – for example, the Doctor and Victoria mistake the Doctor for a “hairy beastie” early on, as does Professor Travers, who initially thinks that the Doctor may have attacked him (when in fact it was a Yeti.) Fortunately, when listened to in synch with the telesnaps one can follow the story far easier – my DIY reconstruction just about does the job!
Jamie has a great story, even by his high standards, and is at the heart of most of the action. One of my strongest memories of the Terrance Dicks’ Target novelisation that I read years and years ago is the underlying humour in the story, and Jamie is at the centre of most of that too. Along with the Doctor, the pair of them have some immortal one-liners: “They came to get their ball back”; “Bung a rock at it”; need I go on? Victoria, however, demonstrates exactly why she has the reputation as the helpless ‘screaming young girl’ companion. She does strike out on her own for a large chunk of the story – in the fourth episode, for example, it is Victoria that discovers that the High Lama Padmasambhava is possessed by the Great Intelligence – but even so she spends far too much time running around and screaming for my liking!
The last half of the story is much more action packed than the beginning. The Yeti rampage through the Abbey; the Doctor confronts what is left of his old friend, Padmasambhava; and we are treated to an explosive ending that sees the Doctor immobilise the Yeti, but only at great cost. Songsten, Krisong, Padmasambhava, scores of monks… all lost. Despite the tremendous loss of life though, the story still manages to end with another lovely little moment of comedy, with Jamie declaring that he wants to go somewhere ‘warmer’ next time – blissfully unaware that he is on course for the second ice age! – and Travers discovering a real Yeti, a shy and timid creature!
‘The Abominable Snowmen’ is a story with which I am very familiar; it was one of the earliest novelisations that I read, and I re-read it several times, and later on it was one of the first and better quality bootleg audio recordings of missing stories that I obtained. Despite this, it is a story that I have never tired of, which is all the more impressive for a six-part story.
First of all, the setting is highly effective. The base-under-siege scenario occurs repeatedly during the Troughton era, but it is almost always used to great effect, and the Det-Sen monastery is one of the more memorable “bases” in question. The concept alone is novel, and it makes for a refreshing change to have story located on Earth in the twentieth century, but outside of England. Based on the surviving episode two, the location work is used well, with Wales doubling fairly convincingly for Tibet, albeit with slightly less snow than I might expect. The studio-bound interiors are even more impressive, and are very convincing, never really looking like sets at all. The Tibetan monks complete the picture, and are well characterised, with a range of different characters amongst them, which creates a feeling that this is a community, rather than merely a collection of stereotypes. Initially, the Monastery contrasts with the freezing and hostile wilderness outside to provide a seemingly safe haven from the marauding Yetis, but as the story progresses and it becomes clear that the real threat lurks within, it equally effectively becomes a far more sinister locale.
The Yetis themselves are amongst the most memorable monsters of the era. Episode two makes it obvious that they look rather cute, and the story has been criticized for this, but their innocuous appearance contrasts hauntingly with the threat that they actually pose; after all, grizzly bears look rather cute, but are no less dangerous for it. The story opens with the brutal slaying of Traver’s companion on the mountainside, and later the Yetis commit further killings swiftly and efficiently; at the beginning of episode two, Jamie and Victoria watch in horror as the trapped Yeti, not yet revealed to be a robot, thrashes free of the rock fall entombing it, galvanizing them into flight. Ultimately, the viewer is never allowed to forget that they are extremely dangerous. The control spheres also are memorable, and the effect of the beeping sphere rolling along in the monastery in search of a host Yeti is well executed. In spite of this, the Yetis are silent throughout the largely missing ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, which might signpost a story that is destined to failure as an audio story. The fact that it doesn’t is due to the nature of the real monster, the insidiously evil Great Intelligence. The success of the Intelligence is due partly to the scripting by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, who portray it as a truly malignant force, keeping Padmasambhava alive in a ghastly cadaverous state for three centuries, whilst he toils away to create the robot Yeti. The concept of the Intelligence, a disembodied, powerful entity that can usurp the human mind is a concept that is often effective, and the particularly malevolent nature of the Intelligence emphasizes this, as it begins to spread, cancerously, across the mountain in episode five. But for all that it is well scripted, the real reason for its success as an antagonist is Wolfe Morris, whose portrayal of both the ancient and exhausted Padmasambhava and the thing possessing him is hugely impressive. During the scenes in which Padmasambhava speaks with his normal voice and begs for an end to the Intelligence’s work, he sounds like the wise and kindly man in whose benevolence the monks believe and whom the Doctor befriended three hundred years previously; when the Intelligence speaks through him and his voice changes to a sibilant hiss, his voice positively drips with evil, and even more so when the voices are combined and the Intelligence speaks to Songsten in a cold, hard version of the old master’s voice. During the final battle as the Intelligence pits itself against the Doctor whilst simultaneously controlling the Yetis and halting Victoria in her tracks, it briefly seems undefeatable, making for a dramatic climax.
The Doctor is at his best here, with Troughton once more at the peak of his acting powers. The idea of having the story as a partial sequel to an untelevised adventure is effective. Prior adventures have been mentioned before, from Susan’s hints of visits to the French Revolution in ‘100,000 BC’, to the Doctor’s first meeting with the Toymaker, referred to in ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, but never before has the previous visit played such a role as it does here; it is not unusual for the Doctor to walk blithely into danger, but here he does so because he has visited Det-Sen before and expects a warm welcome. The change wrought upon the Monks by the Yeti attacks makes an obvious impression on him, and he seems to respond to the threat more personally than in most of his previous stories as a result. His is deeply concerned and worried when he learns what has been happening, and when he sets about uncovering the menace with the intention of defeating it, he seems to do so more intensely than before. Compare his attitude here with that in ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’; then, he quietly watched and waited, manipulating events to see what Kleig and Kaftan were up to and patiently anticipating the inevitable clash with the Cybermen, seemingly following his usual plan of fighting evil wherever he finds it. Here however, he adopts the task of helping the Monks with fierce determination, and when he finally learns that Padmasambhava is still alive and begins to deduce the true nature of the threat that he faces, he plans to fight the Intelligence with steely resolve. When he sends the Monks away and announces that he will defeat the Intelligence and they will be able to return soon, he allows little room for doubt; he will do what he promises. Unusually too, the final battle goes almost exactly as he intends it too; Jamie and Thomni destroy the control room and thus the Yeti, whilst he occupies the Intelligence and Victoria determinedly chants the Jewel of the Lotus prayer to prevent it from taking full control of her once more. There is no Dalek Factor or reviving Cybercontroller here; the Doctor and his companions head for the inner sanctum to destroy the Yeti and defeat the Intelligence, and that is exactly what they do.
Jamie and Victoria also benefit well from ‘The Abominable Snowmen’. Jamie is usual resourceful self, and bravely tackles the Yetis even when he knows that they are machines. It is his plan to capture a Yeti that allows the Doctor to examine one, even though it is largely luck that causes the control sphere to be dislodged, and along with Thomni he plays an important role during the climax. As in ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, Victoria too demonstrates her inquisitiveness and bravery, keen to follow the Yeti footprints in episode one despite Jamie’s misgivings, and eager to explore the Monastery later on. Whereas in the previous story however, she played a crucial role in rescuing her friends from the tombs of the Cybermen by alerting Hopper and Callum to their plight, here she repeatedly pays the price for becoming involved; she is terrified by the Yeti in the cave, and again by the reactivated Yeti in the Monastery, and when she sneaks into the inner sanctum she is hypnotized by the Intelligence and used as a pawn in its attempts to persuade the Doctor to leave. Whilst the Doctor is able to undo this, he makes it clear to Jamie that unless he is very careful she is in great danger of lasting damage. Overall, Victoria’s experiences here are the first sign that the novelty of traveling in the TARDIS is already beginning to wear off…
In addition to Wolfe Morris, the guest cast also performs well. Jack Watling’s gruff Travers is the most notable, initially mistrusting of the Doctor and so single minded in his quest to find the real Yetis that on first viewing he might seem destined to be meet an untimely end, as is often the case with Doctor Who’s more determined supporting characters (Lesterson springs to mind). He soon befriends the Doctor and his companions however, and proves to be a likeable character, ready to admit his previous mistakes, and brave enough to stay at the Monastery to help out despite having been frightened by the shapeless form of the Intelligence in the cave and despite being offered the chance to leave safely with the Monks. His integrity is also suitably rewarded, as he spots a real Yeti during the final scene on the mountain. The ever-reliable Norman Jones’ Khrisong is another character that initially distrusts the Doctor and is so ruthless in his determination to protect his fellow Monks that he almost seems to be a villain; like Travers, he redeems himself and places his trust in the Doctor, but unlike Travers he becomes a victim of the Intelligence, slain by the normally gentle Songsten. The Abbot is also well portrayed; most notable is his quiet assertion to the Doctor that wants to help him find the answers in episode five. Hypnotised and turned into a puppet, he commits acts of evil under the control of the Intelligence, but in that single line, as the Doctor breaks the shocked Abbot’s conditioning, we get a powerful indication that trapped inside is a good man desperate to be free of the monstrous force controlling him. Mention must also be made of Thomni; whilst Khrisong’s paranoia and fierce devotion to duty blinds him to the Doctor’s protestations of innocence in the first two episodes, it is Thomni who is prepared to listen and who finds the Ghanta hidden in the Doctor’s cell, thus convincing the Monks that the Doctor is a friend and securing his release. Later, his friendship with Victoria and the hints that he really rather likes her are quite touching, and his quiet determination to stay and help the Doctor to defend his home further distinguish the character.
In summary, ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ is another superb Troughton story. Despite being six episodes long, it never feels padded and the novel setting and eminently recognizable monsters make it stand out in a strong season.