The Abominable Snowmen

Junkyard Advent Day 4: what built today’s snowman?

This is the second story in a season that makes repeated use of the format of monsters attacking a base of some kind.  Occasionally the Troughton era gets criticised pretty unimaginatively for this repetition, but most eras of Doctor Who have some kind of format they latch onto that provides a shortcut into an exciting or interesting story.  We have already had the Hartnell era, which had about a quarter of its episodes feature the Daleks, and about a third set in the past with no alien threat at all, so criticising the Troughton stories for being about 30% base-under-seige (and even that involves stretching the definition) seems a pretty weak gripe.  The Third Doctor faces loads of invasions of Earth; the Fourth Doctor era is full of horror inspirations, etc, etc.  These are not in themselves bad thing, as long as there is plenty of variety in the format.  And so far this season we have:

  1. A not-really-base-under-siege, with the monsters inside the base for the entire story (in fact, they built it).
  2. An interesting base (Tibetan monastery) being attacked by a fascinating and exciting monster (robot Yeti), with the real enemy already inside the base anyway.  By the time the Doctor arrives the battle has actually already been won, on the level of who controls the base.

Doesn’t seem much like repetition to me.  Then we have the vague reiteration of ice/snow/cold places, which is a loose theme of the first three stories of the season.  Unfortunately the British weather failed to co-operate, even on a Welsh mountain pass, which is a shame.  Just imagine how this story would have looked if it was really set in a snowbound mountainous location, with the Yeti trudging through the snow towards the monastery.  This bit of bad luck is probably the only reason that this is not more strongly remembered than The Web of Fear, or considered the stronger story.

The Abominable Snowmen strikes out in a new direction for Doctor Who, and throws together a combination of ideas that feels very new.  The non-Western culture is virtually unprecedented in Doctor Who up to this point, with the only previous example showing a negative view (The Aztecs).  Then we have cryptobiology combined with robotics.  Doctor Who will subsequently pull a similar trick with the Loch Ness Monster, but up to this point this is completely uncharted territory.  The series simply hasn’t done anything like cryptobiology before, and for the first attempt to be so inventive rather than just a simple encounter with real Yeti (although that’s thrown in anyway for the sake of a funny little twist) is remarkable.  It’s an out-there idea, but it is not as completely crazy as you might think.  As early as 1888 abominable snowmen or bigfoots were being posited as aliens, with a report in California of “crazy bears” being cast out of a “small moon” which ascended back into the sky.

I expect Mike will make a Lovecraftian comparison for this story because there is an obvious one to be made with the Great Old Ones and the Great Intelligence, and that’s probably not an accidental similarity.  Looking at Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s other work, we find the Boris Karloff film Curse of the Crimson Altar in 1968, which is based on The Dreams of Witch House by Lovecraft, so they were clearly knowledgable and interested in Lovecraft.  Lincoln took his interest in ideas like lost holy relics, monasteries and warrior monks and co-authored The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982.  The other authors (not Lincoln) of that book subsequently took legal action against Dan Brown for The Da Vinci Code and lost.  Notably Lincoln didn’t get involved as he considered that the idea itself was already borrowed, and as a script writer he was obviously going to be well aware of authors borrowing from other sources of inspiration – it’s all part of the game.  So perhaps there is a line of inspiration to be found that connects The Abominable Snowmen with The Da Vinci Code, if you want there to be.  Personally I think The Abominable Snowmen is the superior piece of work anyway.

The Great Intelligence would eventually get ret-conned in The Name of the Doctor, with a strong hint that this story happens after that one, when Simeon threw himself into the Doctor’s time scar.  The Yeti are therefore a repeat of the snowmen trick, rather than vice versa.  All very timey wimey, but for me this story has a much better original idea, with a formless, unexplained, all-powerful alien entity.  Ultimately, that is a far more frightening idea.

For those who enjoy some review-ish stuff and general chit chat, here are some random thoughts about this story:

  • ‘After all this time…’ The Doctor has been to the monastery before and met Padmasambhava, in an unseen adventure. Although he often namedrops, it is very rare for the Doctor to talk about a previous encounter like this that we know nothing about. As Padmasambhava does not mention a change of appearance, the previous visit probably took place between The Power of the Daleks and The Highlanders, as Jamie has not been to the monastery before.
  • Jamie finds some bagpipes in the TARDIS, leading to a lovely little comedy moment between him and the Doctor. There is actually quite a bit of humour in this story, with Troughton getting all the best lines: ‘I think this is one of those instances where discretion is the better part of valour: Jamie has an idea.’
  • Victoria sneaks into the sanctum in Episode Three, which is picked up again for the unofficial spinoff story Downtime (Reeltime Pictures). Also in that story are Travers, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith.
  • The Yeti kill by sheer brute force, for example the chilling moment when Rinchen is crushed by the Buddha statue, pushed onto him by the Yeti.
  • The Doctor suggests that Travis might take home one of the deactivated Yeti, which leads on to events in The Web of Fear.
  • Episode Six of this story is one of the most brilliant episodes of Doctor Who ever produced. Wolfe Morris is amazing as Padmasambhava during the final conflict with the Doctor, veering between the triumphant laughter of the Great Intelligence and pitiable weakness of an old, worn out man. His final words are beautifully delivered: ‘at last… peace. Thank you Doctor.’ Patrick Troughton never disappoints in Doctor Who, but this episode is one of his greatest moments. What a shock it is to hear the Doctor screaming in agony. Then there are the visuals, sadly now only available in the form of telesnaps. Sylvia James did an amazing job of Padmasambhava’s makeup, all veins and wrinkles.
  • ‘Can you take us somewhere warmer next time?’ After trips to the ice tombs of Telos and the Himalayas, Jamie has had enough of the cold. He is going to be disappointed…   RP

The view from across the pond:

Christmas is getting closer.  C-21!

But first… bumbles.

In 1964, we were introduced to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and a lovable monster that Yukon Cornelius call “the Bumble”.  More colloquially referred to as the Abominable Snowman or Yeti.  This roaring monster was upset about a toothache but sadly, the Doctor didn’t encounter any with toothaches when he met them in the 1967 The Abominable Snowmen.  Instead these monsters were doing a bit of bellyaching!  To be fair, it would be more accurate to say, they had orbs in their bellies that the Great Intelligence used to control them.

Striking the proverbial “silver and gold” of Cornelius’s famous song, writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln tapped into something special.  These lumbering, hairy beasties roamed a small area around Tibet in 1935 where the Doctor, Victoria and Jamie become friends with Professor Travers.  They would make a return appearance again in 1975, this time in London, spreading a Web of Fear (1968).  One final cameo would place one on Gallifrey, in the Death Zone, during the 20th Anniversary special, The Five Doctors but whether that were an actual Yeti or one of the robotic monstrosities, we may never know.  Suffice to say, it would have been dangerous to have the Great Intelligence wandering the Panopticon halls while its minions roamed the Death Zone…

Alas, this 6 part story is largely missing but the part that exists is still marvelous.  Black and white always adds a sense of tension that color never pulled off the same way.  It was the limitation that made it work.  Having only the contrasting colors to work with, one could do more with shadow to create a mood that would often be lost in color.  But while the tension mounts and everything takes on an eerie tone, the Yeti themselves came across as little more than overstuffed plush toys.  Truthfully, they’re remarkably cuddly looking.

What does work incredibly well is the Great Intelligence.  This is where I will flash back to H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on horror again.  The idea of a disembodied voice and a never-seen enemy is very scary.  It works tremendously well and later inspired one of the New Adventure range of novels to imply that the Great Intelligence is related to Lovecraft’s mythos.  Whether we accept that or not, the Great Intelligence was far more terrifying before the Matt Smith era when Richard E. Grant took over the mantle.  Even Ian McKellan’s voice didn’t do justice to the original.  The slow, drawn out whisper of the original Great Intelligence coupled with the black and white gave it an epic feel and is probably what brought the Yeti back.

How does all this tie in with Christmas?  It doesn’t, yeti.  I mean, yet!

Let’s recap for a moment: the Yeti make two appearances during the Troughton Era.  When the singular one appears during The Five Doctors, it’s presumably not part of the Great Intelligence, so it may be a rogue Yeti, but everything we’ve learned about them is that they are passive creatures.  So their return during that story is atypical.  But when the Great Intelligence returns, it does so without the Yeti.  So while the episode title is about the dangerous Yeti, the real threat is not the otherwise peaceful “bumbles” but the far more frightening control force that is the Intelligence.  And he’ll be making Christmas difficult for Matt Smith’s Doctor soon enough!

So let this be a taste of what’s to come.  There’s a north wind coming, Doctor…  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Ice Warriors

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Art, Christmas, Doctor Who, Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Second Doctor, Television and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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