The Abominable Snowmen

Written by:
Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln
Directed by: Gerald Blake
Starring: Patrick Troughton
Year: 1967
Video Availability (Episode Two Only): Try Amazon

Okay, it's time to start season five properly. Troughton's "monster season" and his most highly-regarded, while the first story can now find its way onto a shiny DVD disc the key theme underlying the season is that it's decimated. The Cybermen do reasonably well again in their second showing, with two of the six episodes from The Wheel In Space in the archives; The Ice Warriors even better with four. Fury From The Deep is lost altogether, save for a couple of clips, while both the Yeti stories (this and The Web of Fear) plus The Enemy of the World have just one episode apiece remaining. That's the other factor of season five, of course: apart from Tomb, all the stories are six-parters. Maybe that's why it's one of the last seasons I've got round to covering: while many of them are excellent, six episodes is not an optimum format for Doctor Who.

Anyway, enough blather. This is a beautiful little story, cleverly using only chanting monks for incidental themes, and opting for a more metaphysical element to the antagonist. In many ways this places it in the more ethereal style of Kinda, though it never got its own Snakedance to follow it. Instead, it was reworked into a less thoughtful action-adventure with Web. While this is the better story, Web gets more plaudits because the Yeti were infinitely cooler. Here they're silly cuddly teddy bears with child-bearing hips, not scary in the least. It's a sad condemnation because this has so many more levels to appreciate than just the lack of visceral thrills.

Much as I love The Mighty Trout and his crew, the lyrics they're spitting at the start of this track are a little of the self-conscious, forced humour variety. We get such end-of-the-pier laughs as the Doctor and his fur coat, plus some banter with the Doctor being afraid of Jamie using bagpipes. Victoria is a popular companion, but, apart from the fact that she's a half-witted screamer, she does seem to bring out the most complacent aspects of the Tardis crew. Probably got the nicest boobs this side of Peri, though.

Finally, on a note of trivia, the reconstruction I've used to watch this story isn't from Loose Cannon as usual, but from Change of Identity Productions.
* * * *

The sole surviving episode, and lovely it is too. It's rare to praise a Doctor Who story on its set, but there's an exceptional amount of depth and ambition with the monastery. Also rewarding is the extensive location work, all things that offset some of the lesser players amongst the monks and Watling's chronic overacting. Deborah, that is - her father Jack is quite good in his role as Professor Travers.

Okay, I'll probably be sick if I hear Jamie say "beastie" just one more time, and the scenes with the Yeti are ill-at-ease with the nature of the rest of the story, but David Spenser (Thonmi), Charles Morgan (Songsten) and Wolfe Morris (Padmasambhava) all play their roles with such conviction that it more than sells the final product. If you're watching this story for rampaging monster action then it's certain to disappoint… but watch it for a well-written script that genuinely fills its duration and you'll be amply rewarded.
* * * *

I hate reviewing stories like this as they're so engrossing that I get lost in them and forget to keep taking notes. Again, I could really do without the companions here - they're anathema to a story so steeped in atmosphere - but everything else is sublime. It's not relentlessly, obviously appealing - as a story type you'd probably be best classifying it as "gentle" - but repeat viewings reveal more of its charm each time. If this was made eight years later then Dudley Simpson's score would drown out the eerie majesty of Wolfe Morris's vocals, but here they're allowed to take centre stage. Tell you what, maybe you're just better off watching this one yourself and making your own mind up… as Justin Timberlake would say when selling his soul to a fastfood chain, I'm loving it.
* * * * ˝

As I'm being so reverential here I won't dwell on Jamie's assertion that the Doctor is giving him the willies at the start of the episode. Another good one, with the Yeti finally managing to be sold as a menace after three episodes, thanks to their interaction with Troughton.

There seems to be no level of consistency with the accent of the monks as a whole. While I've praised three of them, and Norman Jones (Khrisong) is equally as good, Raymond Llewellyn (Sapan) seems to think that because they're in Tibet (well, Wales…) he's got to put on a "Chinese" accent, while some of the others do indeed speak with that native va-leeeee bent. Still, in all, a strong and unusual story.
* * * *

Possession is a terrifying concept when done well, and Padmasambhava's power over others, as well as his own possession - trapped in life by the Great Intelligence for hundreds of years, yearning for his own release - is chilling. The dialogue helps, with Travers talking of "a shadow on my mind". And although "evil" is mentioned often this episode as a human interpretation of events, this is one of the rare occasions where Who represents an enemy in grey tones, rather than black and white. Admittedly, this isn't so rare at this juncture in the Troughton era, but from this point on it would be increasingly phased out as a narrative option.

There's much more to enjoy, too, such as the musings on the nature of destiny and astral existence. Padmasambhava's board of Yeti models possibly informed a similar notion in The Five Doctors, stylish wooden carvings being a far superior option to the tacky plastic models in the 80s story. (Talking of The Five Doctors, that story does of course feature Troughton against a Yeti cameo). Victoria lip-synching to Padmasambhava's words may have looked silly on screen, and the "Jamie gets inadvertently hypnotised" gag is appalling, but I'd just love the chance to find out, and see the story again.
* * * *

This is a mature, contemplative story, and the umbrella assumed title of "the monster season" does season five no favours at all. (Particularly as it contradicts stories like The Enemy of the World anyway). With such a title passed down through the years it creates the impression of a series of generic stories of one plot. Okay, that is a valid argument in some ways, but The Abominable Snowmen is so atypical of the rest of its peers that it is ill served by such a lazy generalisation.

The effects on Morris's voice are exceptional, and the way he switches back and forth from Padmasambhava the monk and his possessed alter ego is tremendous. This is a story so rich with its own characters and situations that they're able to hold the narrative without the Doctor - look at how little he appears in the first five minutes. However, when the Doctor does appear he begins to take control of events. Though discussion of the characterisation of the second Doctor is relevant here, and not just in the way Troughton usurps his RP leanings by saying "me" instead of "my". There's much hesitation in the Doctor with this story, and his language is more Earthy and regular. It's a notable downward shift in his intelligence level with this Haisman/Lincoln story, where the Doctor is an opportunist meddler rather than a masterplanner. The reason for this is probably to set up the Doctor's intellect as not being a match for that of the Intelligence ("Too small?"), yet as their second story and Yeti sequel would have him manipulating events far more actively, then we can assume that Derrick Sherwin had a far greater input into script-editing than Peter Bryant.

The conclusion, with it's Quantum Leap-like "Oh, we've just seen a real Yeti after all that!" schtick and self-serving "you never know, do you?" is beneath the series, a lazy coda to a largely first-rate story.
* * * *

Virtually a classic, this is an offbeat story for the series, particularly for the era in which it was made. The Abominable Snowmen discards melodrama and spectacle in favour of a leisurely-paced, music-free story of a disembodied astral presence; pace and atmosphere a refreshing alternative to a catch-all for the lowest common denominator.
* * * *