Doctor Who – The Abominable Snowmen

Well this might be another base under siege story but at least the base location (a Tibetan monastery) is an unusual choice ….

For once, the Doctor hasn’t simply turned up somewhere out of the blue, he’s arrived for a reason (returning a precious holy relic to the Detsen Monastery). This sort of works, although it does raise a few questions – not least why 300 hundred years ago the monks entrusted their Ghanta to the Doctor (who presumably nipped off in the TARDIS pretty sharpish once the bandits started attacking). And since the Ghanta’s only a little thing, surely they could have found a safe place inside the monastery to hide it?

The Doctor’s child-like glee at, for once, having arrived where he intended is quite charming and the energetic way he causes havoc by rummaging through centuries worth of junk in order to find the Ghanta also raises a smile (although I’m glad he quickly settles down as too much of this hyperactive Doctor would have been a little wearying).

After the Doctor goes out to explore on his own, Jamie and Victoria are left cooling their heels. A subtle shift in their relationship has taken place since Tomb – in this first episode especially, Victoria is the pro-active one – keen to go exploring while Jamie is cautious and reluctant to disobey the Doctor’s instruction to remain inside the TARDIS.

I wonder if this was intended to slightly beef up Victoria’s role in the series (up until this point she’s been something of a limp lettuce) or maybe it simply demonstrates Jamie’s protective side (he might be keen to explore but doesn’t want to risk her life).

Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen was one of the first Target novelisations I bought, so Terrance Dicks’ adaptation of Haisman and Lincoln’s scripts remains the version closest to my heart. He didn’t make that many changes, although one occurs right at the start – in the book we immediately understand everything about Travers (the ridicule he faced at home for his insistence that the Yeti exist, etc) which is only revealed later in the first episode.

In the first episode Jack Watling plays Travers as a man teetering on the edge of madness. This might be because he’s seen his colleague murdered by the Yeti, but the fact he’s been searching the Himalayas for twenty years and has yet to track the Yeti down might also explain why he’s gone a little doolally.

Given that the script sharply pulls back on this from episode two onwards (from this point on Travers seems to be pretty well adjusted) it makes me wonder if it was Watling’s choice to go slightly over the top to begin with.

Apart from Jack Watling, the other notable guest performer is Norman Jones as Khrisong. Jones tended to play authority figures (Coronation Street, Travelling Man and Inspector Morse are just three series off the top of my head which saw him play policemen) and Khrisong fits neatly into this mould.

Khrisong is a Warrior Monk, pledged to protect the Detsen Monastery from the Yeti who recently have turned into violent killers. This is the point where the story starts to slightly unravel – we later learn that the Great Intelligence has been plotting for two hundred years (oh, and what’s taken them so long?) so why during the last few months, when their plans are nearly complete, have they decided to draw attention to themselves in this overt way?

The Abominable Snowmen is one of a handful of stories which lacks any incidental music (not even the odd snippet of stock music). Most of the time you don’t miss it, although perhaps the odd blast now and again might have made the Yeti seem a little more imposing. It’s certainly true that the Yeti Mk 1 don’t look that terrifying – the way they wobble in a pot-bellied way is something of a handicap.

Although the audience knows that Padmasambhava and the Abbot are controlling the Yeti, the Doctor is much slower on the uptake (for at least one episode the finger of suspicion points at Travers). This story beat would later be repeated during The Web of Fear, although then the audience would be kept in the dark as well.

When the Doctor and Jamie go off adventuring on the mountain during episode four, Victoria is (unsurprisingly) left behind. She proves to be more than a handful for poor Thomni, due to the way she decides to poke her nose into various places where she’s not allowed, such as the Inner Sanctum.

You can take this one of two ways – either it’s an example of her immaturity (failing to understand that the monastery has strict rules) or possibly (and less appealingly) it highlights the autocratic British Victorian attitude that there’s nowhere on the planet that’s off limits to them.

By this point in the story it’s fair to say that the plot is progressing at a leisurely pace, but at least the Troughton/Hines partnership continues to deliver rich dividends. The Doctor’s scientific plan for working out whether a stationary Yeti is deactivated (“bung a rock at it”) is priceless.

During the Doctor and Jamie’s absence from the monastery, Victoria suddenly attracts the suspicion of most of the monks (with the exception of Thomni and belatedly Khrisong). Quite why this happens is a slight mystery and I get the impression that Terrance Dicks felt so too, as he added a scene in the novelisation where an unwilling Victoria was forced to put the control sphere back in the Yeti. That certainly helps to explain why Rinchen suddenly labels her to be a “devil woman” ….

Although he’s heard throughout the serial, we don’t get a good look at Wolfe Morris as Padmasambhava until the end of part four. At first glance he looks rather ordinary – but when the telesnaps go in a little closer you can see just how caked in make-up Morris was. Maybe in motion this would have helped to sell the illusion of Padmasambhava’s great age or possibly it might have been very unconvincing – unless any of the missing episodes turn up we’re not going to know one way or the other.

But given that most of Morris’ performance is a vocal one, it’s easier to judge that. Although Padmasambhava does lapse into incomprehensibility from time to time, Morris is well able to constantly switch between the character’s two states (the benign countenance of the wise master and the evil malevolence of the Great Intelligence).

Neither of the Yeti stories conclude terribly effectively. In this one, the Doctor and his friends simply pop into the Inner Sanctum and smash all the equipment they can find (Padmasambhava and the Yeti offer token resistance, but you never feel that the objective is in doubt).

I’m also slightly disappointed by the Intelligence’s vague plans. They apparently want to either invade, consume or destroy the Earth (but we never learn any more than that). We’re still fairly close to the Hartnell era, where the invasion of Earth was a novelty rather than the series’ default setting. As the years roll on we’ll see the Invasion Earth plotline used again and again, so it seems churlish to criticise it here, but part of me does hanker for the wider variety of storylines from the First Doctor’s time.

Pluses towards the end of the story? Khrisong’s death (murdered by the Abbot who was under the control of the Intelligence) is one. Khrisong has made the journey from being the Doctor’s enemy to his uneasy ally, which gives his death a little extra impact. As does its sheer pointlessness – in story terms it doesn’t really advance the plot, although I suppose you could argue it focuses the Doctor’s attention on Padmasambhava.

Travers is rather sidelined in episode six (he’s sent to run up the mountain, achieve nothing and then run down again) but at least he’ll be given another six episodes soon.

Overall I’d say that this is a story rich in atmosphere but short on logic. Having said that, it’s easy to pick apart any Doctor Who story if you want to, so sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. And there’s plenty of plusses – not least the way Troughton keeps a tight grip on proceedings. I’ll give it 3.5 TARDISes out of 5 (an extra half point for the fact that the Target novel was such a seminal read).